Ruth Landes & The City of Women

For International Women’s Day this post celebrates another American Boasian-trained anthropologist who researched in the field of African-American and African-Caribbean belief systems in the early- to mid- 20th century.

Ruth Landes (1908-1991) undertook research into Candomblé in Bahia, Brazil, between 1938 and 1939. Candomblé is one of a number of religions which originated amongst enslaved Africans in Brazil that combine elements of African and Roman Catholic spirituality. It is a possession religion whereby adepts are possessed by spirits, the orixás.

Landes’ experiences are detailed in her book, The City of Women, first published in 1947. Here, she recorded accounts of visiting Candomblé places of worship, participating in ceremonies and interviewing members of the faith.


blog pics 002

At the time Landes was conducting her fieldwork, there were possibly as many as 150 Candomblé meeting places (terreiros) in Bahia, each with its own religious leader, pantheon of spirits and spirit mediums (filhas de santo). Most of the Bahian terreiros were led by women and the filhas de santo were also mainly female.

Ruth Landes paid special attention to women’s participation within Candomblé. This stance led to criticism from one reviewer, the renowned anthropologist Melville Herskovits, who argued that she had neglected the importance of men’s roles in the faith and put too much emphasis on homosexuality amongst some of its male priests.

He also disagreed with Landes’ view on the origins of Candomblé. In her introduction to the 1994 edition of The City of Women, Sally Cole argues that Herskovits, as an Africanist, felt that Landes underplayed the African elements of Candomblé. In Landes’ opinion, although Candomblé had African influences, rather than being a survival of an African religion in the New World, it was “new living Brazilian religion” which had developed out of a set of particular circumstances and mix of cultures in Bahia.

Much like Zora Neale Hurston Landes used the technique of mixing ethnography with autobiography in her writing. This too drew criticism from contemporary reviewers. As Kamala Visweswaran points out, because of this mixing of styles both women’s works were “dismissed for not being ‘proper ethnography”.

The idea, in the early 20th century, of an anthropologist considering their own background in relation to the people they were studying was unusual at the time. Nowadays, anthropologists, especially those working in the postcolonial and feminist arena, acknowledge how forward thinking Landes’ work was, not only through her use of autobiography to situate herself (a white, Jewish woman) in the text but also in her emphasis on “race and gender”.


In many ways, Ruth Landes’ concluding statement in The City of Women sums up the book and additionally provides an apt thought for this International Women’s Day. When discussing with Brazilian friends what she’d tell those back in the USA about her experiences in Bahia, she replied, “I’ll tell them about the women. I think they make Brazil great”.


Next time… I investigate the Devil’s Backbone (in the ethnobotanical rather than the chiropractic sense).


Sources (in order of appearance in text)

Ruth Landes, The City of Women (with an introduction by Sally Cole, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994, reprint of orig. edn, New York: Macmillan, 1947), pp. ix –xxv, 148.

Kamala Visweswaran, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography (Minneapolis & London: University of Minneapolis Press, 1994), p. 7.

Image credits: picture of the cover of The City of Women by H.R. Sparkes

Portrait of Ruth Landes – author unknown –



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.



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.