Water Weed (Medilia gracilis)

Water weed (medilia gracilis) the star of this month’s post continues the theme of Jamaican plants being utilised to keep away unwanted spirits. In her listings of Jamaican flora, Martha Warren Beckwith wrote that water weed was a type of water marigold “commonly used at night when something seems to be abroad in the house”. It could be burned or mixed with rum and “kept in a bottle to rub the face and especially the back of the neck”.

Water weed was also employed to prevent the duppy of the deceased mooching around their former dwelling place if they had died in there. In such instances, Beckwith was told by her Jamaican informants that water weed should be burned “to run away the spirits”.

Unlike a number of Jamaican plants used to keep duppies at bay such as rosemary  and spirit weed , Beckwith reported that water weed didn’t have a strong odour. However, she speculated it may smell more pungent when burned.

 

Untitled

Next time….
The aquatic theme continues but this time we move away from plant life to investigate the mysterious River Mumma.

 

 

Sources
Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 22.

Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), p. 94.

Haunted house image by H.R. Sparkes

 

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Wangla (sesame indicum)

In her writings on Jamaican ethnobotany, Martha Warren Beckwith never gave the Latin name for wangla but according to the Natural History Museum of Jamaica’s plant names database it is sesamum indicum or sesame. In Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (1929), she noted that the plant was believed to have “Obeah powers” which aided in the detection of theft. If a person had stolen plants from another’s provision grounds and had left a footprint, the victim should:

 “take up the earth carefully in a leaf, measure it with a spoon, and put “four-thirds” as much wangla seed with it and put the whole lot into a pot upon the fire. Call the name of the person you think is the thief and if you are right, as many “bumps” will appear on his foot as there are seeds that “pop.””

 

An alternate method could be used if the thief’s identity was known. Any wangla planted in the provision ground should be hit whilst calling out the thief’s name. This too would bring out bumps on his or her leg. Simon Falconer, one of Beckwith’s informants, told her that the only way the thief could prevent this happening was to have previously eaten some wangla seed.

201px-Sesame_(PSF)

Thomas Banbury  also wrote of some very unpleasant effects that wangla could wreak on thieves. In Banbury’s account, if a thief walked along a road on which a mix of wangla, salt and pepper had be burned, then he or she would contract “Jamaica leprosy”.

 

Next time….
“Nature & Supernatural Nature” goes on its hols. But that doesn’t mean slouching on a sun lounger, slathered in factor 50 and sipping cocktails. Instead, we’re off to Warwickshire, England, to investigate why only bad people can grow parsley.

 

Sources
Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), pp. 128-129.
Rev. Thomas Banbury, Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island (Kingston: Mortimer Co. De Souza, 1894), p. 10. Cited in Beckwith, Black Roadways, p. 129.
Image credits: Pearson Scott Foresman https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASesame_(PSF).png

Gourds

Gourds have a number of connections with African-Jamaican spiritual practices: as musical instruments, as a form of oracle and as receptacles for charms. In Black Roadways (1929), Martha Warren Beckwith wrote of how the Myal men in the Cockpits area of Jamaica used rattles, called “shakeys” alongside bon, panay and gombay drums to accompany the Myal dance to summon the spirits of the dead. She described a shakey as consisting of  “a gourd fastened to the end of a stick and filled with the shot-like seed of the wild canna or with small stones. Such a rattle is often reported from Africa as an accompaniment of war or medicine dances”.

Writing on Jonkonnu festivities, Beckwith mentioned about the gourd rattle being used in the parade, along with other musical instruments such as the “African Gombay drum”, all of which had associations with the invocation of spirits.

african calabash rattles

 

 

Beckwith also cited the 17th century naturalist, Hans Sloane, who had observed how such rattles were:

”used as fetishes by the Indians of the Mosquito coast… The Indians adorned them with feathers and “planted” them among their houses. Such an object was called a maraca. After feeding for thirteen of fourteen days it would cause the roots to grow and would ‘answer’ questions”.

 

In addition to being employed as percussion instruments and oracles, gourds were also used as receptacles for Obeah practitioners’ charms. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Banbury  detailed the items such charms could contain. These included “pieces of broken bottles, cats’ or serpents’ teeth, nails, and bones, pins, needles, vials, pieces of cloth, &c”. The Obeah person would then recite an incantation over the charm. It was now ready to be buried in the yard or path of the intended victim. If the person stepped on it, the charm was believed to transfer its power to their body.

 

Next time….
The Obeah powers of Wangla are under the spotlight

 

Sources
Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), p. 148, pp. 212-213.
Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 12.
Rev. Thomas Banbury, Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island (Kingston: Mortimer Co. De Souza, 1894), p. 6, 7.
Image credits: picture by Tmwatha – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFashion_Calabash.jpg
N.B. Unfortunately Beckwith doesn’t give the Latin name of the type of gourd which she is referring to. This makes finding an image of a specific plant difficult as there are a large number of species of gourd. Therefore I’ve used an image of some African gourd rattles which I think may have been made on similar lines to the Jamaican ones.

Broom-weed (Malvastrum coromandelianum)

This month’s plant is spiritual only in the sense that God and two saints are invoked in its usage. In “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith wrote of how broom-weed was used by rural Jamaicans to catch thieves.

Mrs Peart, the wife of one of her informants, told Beckwith that to find a thief, you must: “take two pieces of the plant [broom-weed], dip them in lye-water* reciting ‘By St. Peter, by St. Paul, By the living God of all’”. The pieces of broom-weed should be placed either side of the suspect’s neck. The plant will then wind itself around the neck of the guilty party and choke him or her.

A turn of the century collection of African-Jamaican folklore described this technique as “the broom-weed gallows”.
malvastrum_coromandelianum_1461771973

I’m guessing that the inclusion of Saints Peter and Paul in the recitation used alongside the broom-weed has British origins. In Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History (2007), Owen Davies cites the example of a British nineteenth-century charm which included the names of the same two saints:
“By Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
God is the maker of us all;
What he gave to me I give to thee,
And that is nought to nobody.”

Giving “nought to nobody” implies that this rhyme was used to prevent theft. Peter and Paul’s names are to be found amongst a list of saints used in Anglo-Saxon charms to detect missing goods and livestock so maybe the 19th century charm is an abbreviated version of these much older ones?

I haven’t been able to found out why Peter and Paul were called upon for this purpose. Peter is believed to be the patron saint of locksmiths so that may be the reason. However Paul’s patronage is mainly for occupations involving writing so there doesn’t seem any obvious link there.

St Peter                                                                                      St Paul

256px-tondo_st_peter_mnma_cl23759                                        castell_coch_stained_glass_panel_1

* lye is a chemical used in soaps and detergents. Household cleaning products were sometimes used in Caribbean folk practices. For example, in his book on Obeah in nineteenth century Grenada, Sir Henry Hesketh Bell wrote of an Obeah man who had hung bottles containing laundry blue mixed with sea water off trees in to prevent petty larceny.from a garden.

Next time
We’re back to preventing unwanted attention from duppies.

 

Sources

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 13.
Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar. 25, 1904), p. 92.
Example from The Times, 30 March, 1850 cited in Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History (London and New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), p. 154.
Lea Olsen, The Inscription of Charms in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Oral Tradition, Vol. 14, no. 2 (1999), p. 409.
Henry Hesketh J. Bell, Obeah: Witchcraft in the West Indies (reprint, Westport: Negro Universities Press, 1970 of 1889 edn, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1889), p. 4.

picture: broom-weed: Dinesh Valke https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File3AMalvastrum_coromandelianum_(1461771973).jpg
picture: St Peter: Jastrow https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File3ATondo_St_Peter_MNMA_Cl23759.jpg
picture: St Paul: Hchc2009 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File3ACastell_Coch_stained_glass_panel_1.JPG

 

On the naming of Jamaican plants: no. 1

It’s a year since Nature and Supernatural Nature hit the internet so after a slice of birthday cake, a sip of rum and a blowing-out of candles, on to this month’s post. This entry focuses on Martha Warren Beckwith’s take on how Jamaican plants got their names

 Beckwith wrote: “Most of the local plant-names here collected are evidently English – some applied by the whites, like ‘Rosemary’, others are used to name a plant to which they bear a fancied resemblance, as in the case of ‘Dandelion’, or ‘Batchelor’s-button’… Color, or leaf-shape, or seed-pod suggest the analogy for ‘Milk-tea’, ‘Bat-wing’, ‘Rattleweed’.”

“Other names derive from the disease which they cure, such as ‘Fever-grass’, ‘Worm-weed’, ‘Snake-weed’, or ‘Consumption-weed’.”

She noted how plants with ‘duppy’ or ‘spirit’ in their name were used to ward of unwelcome entities (see duppy-pumpkin).

Some flora was named by what Beckwith described as a ”riddling form” known as “Cromanty talk”. These plants include See-me-contract and Dead-and-wake. Other plant names had more obvious links to Africa, for example, Guinea-weed. African names for children born on particular days of the week (see below) can been found in plants such as Juba-bush and Quaco-bush.

 

Beckwith’s list of African day names

Day                   male              female

Sunday            Quashe            Quasheba

Monday           Cudjo               Juba

Tuesday           Cubena            Benaba

Wednesday     Quaco              Cooba

Thursday         Quao               Abba

Friday              Cuffee             Fee-ba

Saturday         Quamin           Mimba

 

Next time….

I look at the criminal-catching properties of Broom-weed.


 

Sources

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), pp. 6-7

list of African days names in Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), p. 59

 

Bat-wing (Passiflora sexflora juss.)

128px-bat_shadow_black_svg           128px-bat_shadow_black_svg     128px-bat_shadow_black_svg

Bat-wing (aka passion flower, duck-foot, or goat-foot) is a vine with smallish ornate flowers.

Its spiritual connections are very tenuous as so far as I’m aware it doesn’t have any! Its place in Jamaican plant lore seems solely in its healing capacity. However, I’m featuring it in the blog for two reasons. Firstly, in “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith noted that bat-wing “is sometimes identified with ‘Duppy pumpkin’”. As I mentioned in a previous post, duppies were believed to feed on duppy pumpkin or play with its fruits.  Secondly, as it’s October, I wanted a plant with a Hallowe’en connection and despite several readings of Beckwith’s plant lists I haven’t found a Pharaoh’s Mummy vine or Aged Crone on Broomstick gourd….

passiflora_sexflora_the_goats_foot_passion_flower__11256878685

In its role as a healing plant Beckwith wrote that bat-wing was used to help cure colds or fever. Like duppy pumpkin it was believed help to alleviate a cricked neck. Bat-wing was also used to heal sores or “a lame foot” by squishing the plant to a pulp in a mortar and applying the resulting paste to the affected area.

 

Next time….

Martha Beckwith’s take on how Jamaican plants got their names.

 

128px-bat_shadow_black_svg

 


Sources

Bat image: By “Myself” (Image:Bat_shadow.svg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photograph of passion flower: By Dick Culbert from Gibsons, B.C., Canada [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, p. 11, in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928).

 

 

Duppies, shadows and souls

As these terms will be used on occasions throughout my blog, I thought a brief description of each may be useful. The idea that a person possesses more than one soul or spirit is common in a number of African-Jamaican folk religions. These spirits are:

The Soul

After death, the soul ascends to heaven or descends to hell. However, it is believed to remain on this earthly plane for some days after death. In the early twentieth century, Walter Jekyll, an Englishman who lived in Jamaica and made a collection of African-Jamaican folk stories, was told by his informants that people had two spirits. One of these spirits was:

“from God and the other not from God. The one from God is good, and the one not from God may be either good or bad. At death the God-given spirit flies up upon a tree, and goes to heaven on the third day. The other spirit remains on earth as Duppy. Its abiding place is the grave of the dead man, but it wanders about at night.”

The Shadow

Whilst the soul and the duppy exist after death, the shadow belongs to the living. It can be trapped and manipulated by those who wish to harm its owner. Barry Chevannes described the shadow as an extension of a person’s self or personality. If the shadow is separated from the self it may lead to madness.

Some writers on Caribbean religions class the shadow and the duppy as one and the same. Mervyn Alleyne and Arvilla Payne-Jackson note that in modern Jamaica, “shadow” has largely fallen out of use. Prior to this, soul/shadow/duppy were at times used interchangeably by commentators on African-Jamaican folk religions. For example, in Jekyll’s Jamaica Song and Story (1907) both the duppy and the soul are referred to as “shadows”: “During sleep, these spirits [the duppy and the soul] leave the body and go to other people’s houses in search of food. Being shadows themselves, they feed on the shadow of food and on the smell of food….”

The Duppy

Appearance – As well as maintaining an interest in earthly matters such as eating, many duppies looked exactly as they had done in life with the exception that they floated about a couple of feet above the ground. Alternately, they appeared clothed in the white garments that were commonly used to dress a corpse (Beckwith mentions white flannel suits for men and white muslin dresses for women), with their heads bound up in cloth.

Who are duppies? – As the duppy made up part of a person’s essence, anyone had the potential to become a duppy but this process seems to have been automatic in the case of babies who died before baptism. Duppies can also appear in animal form. Those recorded by Beckwith included duck ants, cats, dogs, goats, pigs, cows and horses. Alleyne and Payne-Jackson note that the gender of duppies can be identified by their smell. Female duppies smell of bananas and male duppies of jack fruit or rum.

Duppy behaviour – Although some duppies could be malevolent, not all duppy behaviour was negative. Jekyll noted how “[a] good Duppy will watch over and protect the living”. However, “good duppies” are a rarity in descriptions of their behaviour during the time that Beckwith was researching. Many of the instances of duppies and the customs surrounding them recorded by Beckwith and other folklorists and anthropologists writing in the early twentieth century are concerned with ways to deal with “bad” duppies. For example, one of Beckwith’s contemporaries, the American anthropologist Joseph John Williams, collected a number of accounts of poltergeist or other ghostly activity which was attributed to duppies. These included the disembodied arms which were witnessed striking a dying woman by a priest who had arrived to administer her the last rites. A school near a mission station in the Dry Harbour Mountains was bombarded with stones thrown by unseen hands and doors opened and shut of their own accord at another mission house in All Saints.

There are a number of explanations as to why many duppies behave badly. Zora Neale Hurston attributed duppies’ sinister or mischievous behaviour to the idea that when the duppy leaves the body at the time of death, the heart and brain of the deceased are no longer able to restrain its actions and it will occupy itself with malevolence. Another reason was that the duppy was unhappy about the way their funeral and other death rituals had performed. Unresolved grudges or the deceased being owed money which had not been paid were also common explanations for hauntings or other duppy-derived misfortune. Other malevolent duppies were those who had been evil or unpleasant people in their earthly lives or had been captured and manipulated by Obeah practitioners to cause harm.

George Eaton Simpson, writing in the 1950s, noted how Obeah men and women weren’t the only ones who may wish to utilise the services of a duppy. Simpson was told by his informants that if a duppy had been “dismissed” properly at its funeral or Nine Night it would not return. However, sometimes the duppy’s living relatives would not dismiss the spirit as “they may want to recall it for special assignments later on.”

 

Next time…  We’re heading back to the plant world with a look at Pidgeon Peas – one of the plants that can help prevent a duppy rising from his or her grave in the first place.

 

Sources

Walter Jekyll (collected by and ed.), Jamaica Song and Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Dancing Tunes and Ring Tunes (reprint, with new introductory essays by Philip Sherlock, Louise Bennett, and Rex Nettleford, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1966, of 1907 edn, London: David Nutt), pp. 175-176, 147.

Barry Chevannes, Rastafari, Roots and Ideology (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994), p. 27.

Arvilla Payne-Jackson and Mervyn C. Alleyne, Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing (Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2004), pp. 71-72, 136.

Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), pp. 70, 89, 90, 58, 123, 100.

Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (reprint, with a new foreword by Ishmael Reed, New York: Harper & Row, 1990, of orig. edn, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincourt Inc., 1938), pp. 43-44.

Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), pp. 17, 9, 7.

George Eaton Simpson Religious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad, Jamaica and Haiti (3rd edn, enlarged, Rio Piedras: Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, 1980), p. 166.

 

 

 

The use of cotton trees in African-Jamaican folk religions

As mentioned in previous posts the cotton tree had the reputation for both being the abode of spirits and as a sacred plant. These two strands came together in the use of cotton trees in Myal spiritual practices. In Black Roadways, Martha Warren Beckwith based some of her description of Myal on an account written by an African-Jamaican clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Banbury in the late nineteenth century. Here Banbury described how Myalists (or Mialists as he called them) caught shadows which been trapped by duppies in the cotton trees:

We now give an account of the shadow-catching. This is invariably done at night… The person suspected of having lost his shadow was taken to the cotton tree where it was spell bound, or to which it was “nailed”, as the people expressed it. The mialmen were accompanied thither by a large concourse of people. The victim was dressed in white, with a white kerchief about his head. Eggs and fowls were taken along with cooked food to the cotton tree. The mialmen paraded up and down before the tree, with white cloths over their shoulders; and all the people joining in the chorus. Alternatively the cotton tree was pelted with eggs, and the necks of fowls rung off, and their bodies cast at it. This was done to propitiate the “deaths,” or “duppies” that had the shadow enthralled at the trees, the song and dancing proceeded more vigorously as the shadow began to make signs of leaving the tree. A white basin, with water to receive it, was held up; after they had sung, yelled and danced to their hearts’ content, they all of a sudden caught up the person, and ran home, with him, affirming that the shadow was caught, covered up in a basin. Upon reaching home a cloth was wet in the water, and applied to the head of the patient and the shadow was said to be restored. This is the process of shadow-catching… Many shadows were caught in this way on the sugar estates, and pens in St. James, Hanover, Westmoreland, &c.’

A more basic method to summon duppies was for Myalists to ‘form a circle about the tree and each one beat the earth with a stone in rhythm to a song’.

 

Beckwith also gathered information about the use of cotton trees in Myal religion from contemporary African-Jamaicans. One of her informants, a Maroon Myal man named James White, said that only those cotton trees which had been planted on top of a grave had a significance in Myal: ‘Such trees [were] called “worship cotton trees” and may well be regarded as tombs of the dead.’

Another informant, George Parkes, described how, ‘when a Myal Man sets a duppy, he goes alone to a cottonwood with an offering of rice, chicken, and rum, and cuts marks on the tree with his machete or pocketknife in the shape of circles of crosses which he alone can interpret; then he beats one stone upon another and sings “in an unknown tongue”.’

Parkes’s information is interesting as he describes the Myal person as working alone. Many depictions of Myal from the 18th century onwards tend to stress its communal nature – as illustrated by the example of shadow-catching described by Banbury above. However, Myal as a solitary practice also took place in early twentieth century Jamaica, as Elmira Barrows, a former Myalist, also told Beckwith that some Myal leaders worked alone at cotton trees, dancing, singing and drumming around the tree in order to dislodge spirits.

Barrows gave Beckwith an account of how these methods were used by a Myalman from St. Mary named Fifee Bogle. A duppie called Bomshee had been plaguing a young woman. Fifee Bogle stood drumming and singing under the cotton tree which contained Bomshee: ‘Then Bomshee came down from the tree. Bogle caught him.’ And the young woman was freed from her tormenter.

 

Next time…

I’ll be temporarily abandoning Beckwith’s plant odyssey and head back to the world of spirits to look at duppies, shadows and souls.

 

Sources

Rev. Thomas Banbury, Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island (Kingston: Mortimer Co. De Souza, 1894), p. 23.

Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), pp. 145-48.

Cotton trees (ceiba)

 

In last month’s post I looked at how bamboo was used as the haunt of duppies and this month I continue the theme of duppy habitats with Martha Warren Beckwith’s take on the mighty Cotton tree (sometimes called the silk-cotton or cottonwood tree; Latin = ceiba).

 

Beckwith wrote that:

In Jamaica the cotton tree ‘may attain 150 feet in height, the trunk sometimes rising 80 feet without branching. Curious branch-like roots support its base.’

Duppies, a type of spirit, live in the ‘great chambers’ created by these cotton tree roots, emerging between ‘seven in the evening to five in the morning and at twelve o’clock at midday…’

African-Jamaicans feared ‘any cottonwood and will not cut it without a propitiatory offering of rum… The cult of the dead is strongly imposed upon the worship of the cottonwood, and the animistic idea of a tree spirit is less defined than that of a ghost of the dead harbouring in its branches. Cotton trees in graveyards are particularly feared, and mice or lizards that live in their branches are regarded as duppies of the dead.’

Other folklorists and anthropologists writing in the late post-emancipation era (1880- 1938) commented on the link between duppies and cotton trees. At the end of the nineteenth century, Alice Spinner wrote that cotton trees were left alone as they were believed to be ‘chosen haunt of duppies’. Fallen branches were not used as fuel because of the fear there may be duppies in them.

Links between cotton trees and duppies continued into the twentieth century. In the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston was told that cotton trees should not be planted too near a house for fear that duppies would inhabit the trees and ‘’”throw heat” on the people as they come and go about the house’.

 cotton-tree-my-pic

Origins of these beliefs

What prompted the link between cotton trees and duppies? Beckwith, keen to take a scientific approach to folklore, looked for a rational explanation, wondering if ‘the fact that the yellow snake in Jamaica… sleeps in hollows of fig and cotton trees is perhaps one reason for the fear of … the duppy-haunted precincts of the cotton tree.’

Alice Spinner and some other researchers of Jamaican folklore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, associated the beliefs with trace memories of trees as a source of religious worship. She wrote: ‘Strictly speaking, however, I imagine that these cotton-tree spirits, although confounded with “duppies”, belong to the order of ancient tree-deities,… It is evidently one of the old imported African beliefs, and one that, since it has saved so many noble trees, we may be grateful for.’

Also in the nineteenth century, Thomas Banbury likened African-Jamaican lore concerning cotton trees to the Druidic worship of the oak tree in Britain. ‘It is still held in veneration by the blacks, and some fears still entertained of it. So great was the veneration and dread entertained of the cotton tree, that it was a difficult matter to get one cut down, the negroes believing that if they did so, the “deaths” which took up their abode at its roots would injure them. The cotton trees were believed to have the power of transporting themselves at nights, and holding conference at a rendezvous with one another.’

Moving into the twentieth century, one of Beckwith’s contemporaries, the American anthropologist, Joseph John Williams pondered if duppies actually derived their name from the Ashanti word for particularly large tree roots.

He also wondered if African-Jamaican attitudes towards the cotton tree as home of duppies related to the belief in some parts of West Africa that Sasabonsam, a large human-like, ogre-ish creature covered in long red hair, was believed to live in cotton trees.

Next time…

More on African connections

 

Sources

Martha Warren Beckwith, Jamaica Proverbs (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1970, of orig. edn, New York: Publications of the Folk-lore Foundation, 1925), p. 27.

Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), pp. 89, 122, 145.

Rev. Thomas Banbury, Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island (Kingston: Mortimer Co. De Souza, 1894), p. 19.

Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (reprint, with a new foreword by Ishmael Reed, New York: Harper & Row, 1990, of orig. edn, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincourt Inc., 1938), p. 25.

Alice Spinner, A Reluctant Evangelist and Other Stories (London & New York: Edward Arnold, 1896), pp. 317, 324.

Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), pp. 61, 156.