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.
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): https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sonnenbrandbaum1.jpg