Rollin’ Calf (part 1): “a very bad duppy indeed”

Time for some Halloween spookiness. This month’s post features a duppy  which Martha Beckwith described as an “especially dangerous duppy”. According to Beckwith, the Rollin’ Calves live in:

“the roots of cottonwood trees and in clumps of bamboo but also in caves and deserted houses.”

They leave these abodes at night to “follow sugar wains because of their love of molasses, or to break into cattle pens.”

Beckwith was told that, as well as Obeah practitioners,

“[m]urderers and butchers and I know not how many other reprobates become Rolling-calves when they die.”

Folklorist MacEdward Leach also noted that butchers were likely to become Calves after death, especially those who “give short weight”.

cropped calf

Beckwith described the Calf as looking like a black and white goat with blazing red eyes. Its back feet are those of a goat whilst the front pair consist of one human foot and one horse’s hoof. It has a collar round its neck with a chain attached which drags along the ground. Writing in the early twentieth century, Frank Cundall  quoted an informant who said that Satan gave the Calf the chain to warn people of its approach.

When it came to the other forms that the Rolling Calf may take, Beckwith cited Thomas Banbury. According to Banbury Rollin’ Calves may appear as a:

 “cat, dog, hog, goat, horse or bull, but the most dangerous is the brindled cat [see picture below], and… it [the Calf] has the power to grow from the size of a cat or dog to that of a horse or bull.”

millie - cropped

Unwary travellers are most likely to encounter Rollin’ Calves at night. MacEdward Leach noted how Calves will try to kill their victims by breathing their “hot breath” on them.

As to the Calf’s name. Martha Beckwith believed that rollin’ meant roaming. However Leach said she had got this wrong. In his view, rollin’ means roaring.

Next time… How to prevent a Rollin’ Calf breathing its hot breath on you. Then back to things arboreal with more on the Tree of Good and Evil.


Sources (in order of first appearances in text)

Title quote from Black Roadways, p. 100.

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. 100-101.

MacEdward Leach, “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”, Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde = Archives suisses des traditions populaires, vol. 59, (1963), pp. 59-81, p. 69.

Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar. 25, 1904), pp. 87-94, p. 91.

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), in Black Roadways, p. 100.

Image credits: Rollin’ Calf illustration by abookofcreatures (© A Book Of Creatures) –

Photograph of brindled cat by Simon Noel. Brindled cat posed by Millie.






The God Wood Tree (Bursera simaruba)

AKA Birch Gum, Red Birch, West Indian Birch, Turpentine Tree, Incense Tree and Gumbo Limbo.

I first came across the plant featured in this month’s post in Tell My Horse (1938), Zora Neale Hurston’s account of her travels in Jamaica and Haiti. Whilst visiting the Maroon town of Accompong, Hurston was introduced to someone she described as their “chief medicine man”. He took Hurston to visit the God Wood tree which she wrote was so-called because it was “the first tree that ever was made. It is the original tree of good and evil.”

The medicine man (Hurston doesn’t name him) then performed a ritual to stop his enemies from attacking him. In Hurston’s words:

 “He took a strong nail and a hammer with him and drove a nail into the tree up to the head with three strokes, dropped the hammer and walked away rapidly without looking back.”

Unfortunately, the reader is left wondering if his methods were effective or not as all Hurston wrote of the outcome was that she was sent to bring his hammer back!

However, as Hurston went on to recount other successful examples of the medicine man’s healing techniques and manipulation of the natural world, maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the efficacy of his tree ritual.

god wood tree



Who was the medicine man?

As Hurston’s account indicates, the medicine man had powers beyond the role of a doctor treating physical ailments. James White, another Maroon medicine man with similar powers was one of the American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith’s informants.  I mentioned in the earlier post on “How to Remove Lizards If They Become Stuck In Your Arm”  that White not only had   “reputation for knowledge of herb medicines” but also “of songs to raise the dead”.

The powers Beckwith and Hurston ascribed to the medicine men they encountered fit very much with those of Maroon fete-man described by the anthropologist Kenneth Bilby in his book, True-Born Maroons. To quote Bilby the fete-man is ‘a Kromanti ritual specialist and healer’ and a “spiritual warrior” with an expert knowledge of the local flora or “weeds”. The fete-man would lead Kromanti Play, a ceremony which involved dancing, drumming and possession by the spirits. In his role as a “spiritual warrior”, he would manipulate spirits to fight those manipulated by another spirit worker”. Therefore I’m guessing both White and Hurston’s anonymous medicine man were fete-men – although I’m not sure which term Maroons themselves (i.e. fete-man, medicine man, or both?) would have used in the era when both women were doing their Jamaican fieldwork.

Next time…. after a Halloween interlude (warning – may contain duppy lore), I’ll be further investigating the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.



Sources (in order of appearance in the text)

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. 25, 27, 29-30.

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. 4, 49.

Kenneth M. Bilby, True-Born Maroons (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), pp. 289, 111.

Image credits: photograph of Busera simaruba by Louise Wolff (darina):

Physic Nut (Jatropha curcas)

This month’s post looks at the links between the Physic Nut tree (Jatropha curcas) and Christ’s crucifixion. However, I’m starting on a more prosaic note. In “Jamaican Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith  wrote that Physic Nut was “Used generally as a purgative”. As well as being an emetic, according to the Plants for the Future website, Physic Nut has many other healing properties. Here are just a few of them:

 “The leaves … can be used to treat a wide range of medicinal conditions such as coughs, convulsions, jaundice, fevers, rheumatic pains, guinea worm sores, wounds and cuts, sores, etc. The seeds can be used as a purgative but only in small doses. Oil obtained from the seeds are used in the treatment of skin diseases and rheumatic pains. It also stimulates hair growth. The root bark is used for sores, dysentery, and jaundice.”

Plants for a Future also warn that all parts of the plant are poisonous.



Aside from its medicinal properties, the Physic Nut has strong associations in the Caribbean with Christ’s crucifixion. For example, in the book Bush Doctor which lists examples of the lore surrounding Caribbean plants, Sylvester Ayre calls the tree the Crucifixion Tree, stating that: “according to believers the red blood-like substance that oozes from the tree when cut at Easter, symbolizes the blood Christ shed on the cross, which was reputedly made of physic wood”.

When doing her Caribbean research in the early 1920s, Martha Beckwith was told of the Physic Nut tree’s propensity to bleed on Good Friday at 12 noon and one of her Pukkumerian informants who had tried this herself, said to Beckwith that the substance oozing from the wood “ really was blood’”.


Next time…. I’ll be looking at the folklore surrounding a few other trees whose wood was believed to have been used for Christ’s Cross.


Sources (in order of appearance in post)

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. 24.

“Plants for a Future”

Sylvester Ayre, Bush Doctor: Jamaica and the Caribbean’s Almost Forgotten Folklore and Remedies (Kingston, Jamaica: LMH Publishing Limited, 2002), p. 10.

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. 40.

Image credits: Photograph of West African Jatropha curcas by R.K. Henning at