Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

With the old Celtic and modern Pagan festival of Beltane, celebrated on or around May 1, looming, for this month’s post I’m leaving Caribbean ethnobotany temporarily to examine the spirit lore which surrounds Vervain AKA Verbena Officinalis.

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Vervain is a tall herb with tiny purple flowers which grow on the end of long stems.

Its associations with the sacred can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. There it was called “Tears of Isis” in remembrance of the tears the goddess shed over her dead husband Osiris. In Persia priests carried the herb in ceremonies of to worship the sun (Baker, p. 154).

In ancient Rome Vervain was considered to be one of the “Holy Herbs”, a category of plants which also included laurel, olive and myrtle (Watts: p. 401). It seems to have had a particular connection with the god Jupiter as altars dedicated to him were swept with sprigs of Vervain or sprinkled with Vervain water.

Moving to the Christian era legend has it that Vervain was used to staunch the bleeding wounds of the crucified Christ. Margaret Baker notes that because of this a belief arose that the sign of the Cross should be made whenever Vervain is picked (Baker, p. 154).

Its sacred background has meant that Vervain has often been used to protect against supernatural evil. For example, the Romans hung it in their houses as a guard against malevolent spirits. It has subsequently been used to ward off witches and the Evil Eye. Drinking Vervain tea was believed to provide protection from fairy spells (Watts, p. 402).

As well as repelling entities, Vervain could help you see them. Donald Watts writes of the belief that anointing the eyes with a mixture of Vervain, St John’s wort and dill enabled a person to see spirits or gain second sight (Ibid., p. 402).

Watts also cites an old Irish belief that Vervain was one of seven herbs “that nothing natural or supernatural could injure.” As well as Vervain these included St John’s wort, speedwell, eyebright, mallow, yarrow, and self-help (Ibid., p. 402). As yet I have not been able to discover why these herbs are injury-proof.

 

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Vervain and witch lore

Although Vervain was reputed to protect folk from witches, it was also utilised by witches. As mentioned in my previous post on Belladonna, Vervain was one of the ingredients used in the British version of ‘witches’ flying ointment’, a cream smeared on the body which gave the sensation of flying. Again in ointment form, Vervain could also be used to render witches invisible (Watts, p. 403).

 

Next time…  how Sweet Basil can indicate if a duppy has entered your home.

 

Sources

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008).

D.C. Watts, Dictionary of Plant Lore (Amsterdam and London: Elsevier Academic Press 2007).

Image credits: Vervain by Konrad Lackerbeck – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eisenkraut_Passau_JPG

Witches from Wellcome images – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_History_of_Witches_and_Wizards,_1720_Wellcome_L0026615.jpg

 

 

 

 

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Death Rituals: To the Graveyard

Much of the African-Jamaican plant lore I’ve featured so far on Nature and Supernatural Nature has been concerned with duppies, either examining the methods used to prevent them from bothering the living or the techniques by which they could be manipulated to do one’s bidding. In this post I’m going to look at some Jamaican death rituals, collected in the early to mid-twentieth century, which took place before the funeral and were aimed at stopping the dead from rising in the first place.

As much of the focus of this blog is concerned with the writings of American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith, here is some of the lore which she recorded on the matter:

When making the grave clothes the thread should not be knotted in case the ghost returns. Unfortunately, Beckwith doesn’t explain why knotted thread may cause a revenant. All buttons should be cut off the burial clothing which must be “sewn or pinned together” (again, Beckwith doesn’t say why). If a man was buried in a suit, then all pockets had to be sewn up in case he returned with them full of stones to throw at the living.

All the deceased’s friends and family had to come to bid the dead farewell but they needed to be careful not to let their tears fall upon the corpse. If this occurred then the ghost would return to haunt the weeping mourner.

It was important for close relatives or those who performed the final tasks relating to the preparation of the corpse and its burial to take precautions. A bereaved partner should draw a cross in white chalk upon a square of black fabric and wear this as a “’guard’ for the next four or five months. The carpenter who made the coffin should carry his ruler or a piece of chalk. If he forgot, he could be harmed by the duppy.

On the day of the funeral, the body must leave the house via the front door. If it left by the back door, the duppy could return to haunt the house.

Once on its journey to the graveyard, if passers-by saw the coffin, they should remove their hats otherwise they risked seeing the ghost of the deceased. Breaking off a twig from a tree or shrub would stop the ghost from following them.

At the cemetery, the body must be laid in its grave facing sunrise. Beckwith was told by Wilfred Bonito, one of her African-Jamaican interviewees, that if it faced the west, the person was not totally dead (Beckwith, pp. 70-72, 74-75).

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Death rites performed by working-class Jamaicans living in West Kingston and recorded by anthropologist, George Eaton Simpson also stressed the importance of preventing the duppy of the deceased from harming the living. After the corpse was washed, its chin was tied up to hold the jaws together. Following this the eyes were closed to prevent the dead from looking back at someone which could cause the imminent death of the viewed. Other precautions included cutting the pockets off clothing so that the duppy could not fill them full of stones to throw at the living. To prevent a dead child from coming back to bother the other children in the family, each living child was passed three times over the coffin.

The corpse was watched carefully whilst awaiting burial to make sure that no one obtained any of its bodily fluids with which to practice evil magic.

After the coffin was removed, the room had to be swept as that symbolized sweeping out the spirit of the dead person (Simpson, pp. 376-377). For nine nights after the death a glass of water and a lit lamp were left in the room where the person had died. If the deceased was a leader or a healer unsalted rice, along with rum or wine, may be left in the room on the ninth night after death (Ibid., p. 377).

 

Next time…. it will be my International Women’s Day post. This year I’ll be featuring the British designer and collector of folk art, Enid Marx

 

 

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).

George Eaton Simpson, “Jamaican Revivalist Cults”, Social and Economic Studies, vol. 5, no. 4 (December 1956).

Image credits: tomb photo by H.R. Sparkes

The Darker Side of Rice Lore

A couple of posts ago, I looked at some of the folklore surrounding Rice (Oryza in Jamaica. In this post I’m going to be examining the darker side of that lore.

It turns out that as well as protecting you from duppies, Rice can also be used to get them to do your bidding. This could be through your own endeavours or via the services of an Obeah practitioner.

In Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life, Martha Warren Beckwith included the instructions she was told about how to get a duppy to work for you:

Accompanied by a member of your family, visit a cemetery at night, taking with you Rice, rum and an egg. Mash the egg and place it on your chosen grave along with the Rice and rum. The duppy of the grave’s occupant will rise up to consume the egg (Beckwith doesn’t mention what happens to the other items) which is the payment for his or her services (Beckwith, p. 136).

A slightly different version of duppy-raising was given by Mercilla Hopkins from Brownstown, one of Beckwith’s African-Jamaican interviewees. In this case only boiled Rice was given to the duppy accompanied by a special song. Once the duppy had risen from its grave to eat the Rice, it could then be caught in a bottle (Beckwith, “Some Religious Cults of Jamaica”, p. 37).

As duppies were also believed to live among the roots of cotton trees, the offering of Rice was sometimes placed there instead. In the account given by American folklorist MacEdward Leach, Rice, rum and graveyard earth are utilised but he made no mention of trapping the duppy. Instead, you have to return to the tree the following night and tell the duppy your wishes. It will then obey you (Leach, p. 76).    

A duppy will work harder for you if given its favourite foods. According to anthropologist George Eaton Simpson, these included unsalted Rice, coffee, rum, sugar and rote – a flat fried wheat dumpling (Simpson, p. 391).

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Like 3, 6 was one of the numbers that duppies were unable to count beyond. Scatter 5 or more grains of rice and they would stop following you in an attempt to count them

Once an offering has been received by a duppy it cannot refuse to serve you. However, there are some exceptions. In “Religious Change Among the Accompong Maroons”, Barbara Kopytoff notes that “the Old People”, spirits of Maroons who were around at the time of the treaties with the British in the 18th century, are not easily manipulated. This is because they are among the most powerful of the Maroon ancestor spirits and therefore act either independently or only when they want to (Kopytoff, p. 475).

Rice could also be used in a particularly sinister ritual to cause injury to an enemy. Writing In the 1950s, Simpson detailed how an Obeah practitioner and other participants would go to a crossroads. There, prayers would be said, burial hymns sung, and the 71st, 35th and 109th Psalms read. The enemy’s name, written on a piece of paper was then put into a drum. The drum rhythm used in funeral marches was played while the name was shouted. When the group returned home, Rice would be eaten and rum drunk. Following this, red, blue and black candles were burned for a number of days until death or injury occurred (Ibid., p. 394).

 

 Next time…. a look at rituals which may stop the dead from rising in the first place

 

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).

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Some Religious Cults in Jamaica”, The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 3, no. 1 (Jan. 1923), pp. 32-45.

Barbara K. Kopytoff, “Religious Change among the Jamaican Maroons: The Ascendance of the Christian God within a Traditional Cosmology”, Journal of Social History, vol. 20, no. 3 (Spring, 1987), pp. 463-484.

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

George Eaton Simpson, “Jamaican Revivalist Cults”, Social and Economic Studies, vol. 5, no. 4 (December 1956).

Image credits: 6 Rice by H.R. Sparkes