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.

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Cotton trees: the African connection

It is possible that cotton trees (ceiba) came to be associated with African-Jamaican spiritual beliefs because of the significance of the tree in West African religions. Robert Voeks notes how today it “remains one of Africa’s most sacred species”. In the Caribbean the earliest Africans would have seen the tree growing there and continued to venerate it.

In parts of Africa the cotton tree was regarded as the abode of spirits. The Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley commented how the Twi peoples of Ghana believed that Sasabonsam and duppies lived in cotton trees. Forest travellers could tell if a tree was inhabited by Sasabonsam because it had red earth around its roots. Red seems to be a colour associated with Sasabonsam as the creature/spirit was covered in long red hair. I think I need to look into what significance red as a colour has amongst African peoples i.e. does it have any specific connections with the spirit world?

A slightly different take on how the cotton tree found in the Caribbean came to have links with the spirit world appears in Cassidy and Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English. They believe that such associations arose because of similarities with the Akata tree which was held sacred in Ashanti religion. They don’t provide a Latin name for the Akata. However, I think it belongs to the Bombax genus, possibly Bombax buenopozense which is native to Ghana. This tree has associations with the spirit world in the form of being the abode of spirits and used as a shrine to ancestors.

 

Sources

Robert Voeks, “African Medicine and Magic in the Americas”, Geographical Review, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Jan., 1993), p. 73.

Mary Kingsley, Kingsley, Mary, Travels in West Africa (reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 2003, of orig. edn, London & New York: Macmillan, 1897), p. 509.

F.G. Cassidy & R.B. Le Page, Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd edition, Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2002), p. 124.

James Fairhead, Svend E. Holsoe and Melissa Leach, African-American Exploration in West Africa: Four Nineteenth Century Diaries (Bloomingdale and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), p 313.

 

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.