Spirit Weed (Eryngium foetidum, L.)

 

As Halloween is looming (🎃 🎃 🎃), I thought I’d look at spirit weed (Eryngium foetidum, L.), another plant from Martha Warren Beckwith’s “Jamaican Ethnobotany” (1928) which has properties believed to keep evil entities at bay. Beckwith wrote that “[b]ecause of its pungent odor” spirit weed is universally employed like ‘Rosemary’ and ‘See-me-contract’ to ‘drive away duppies’”.

Zora Neale Hurston, who was investigating Jamaican folk life in the 1930s, was told that if you drank tea made from a branch of spirit weed, “duppies can’t touch you. You can walk into a room where all kinds of evil and duppies are and be perfectly safe.”

However, spirit weed can potentially do more than act as a means to stop bothersome duppies. In their dictionary of Jamaican Herbs and Medicinal Plants, L. Mike Henry and K. Sean Harris mention a different supernatural power attributed to the plant – its ability to “make the person who chews the root invisible”. They note how Jamaican Maroons used spirit weed-induced invisibility as a weapon in their conflicts with the British during the 17th and early 18th centuries. British soldiers reported that that it seemed as if “the trees were fighting them, because they could see the leaves moving and hear the rustling but could see no one.” Whilst I remain open-minded as to whether spirit weed can or could actually induce invisibility, the Maroons were extremely skilled in the art of camouflage, utilising leaves and branches and other forms of foliage to blend into the landscape. Therefore, they may have appeared “invisible” to the British soldiers simply through the effectiveness of their disguise.

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As with a few of the plants listed by Martha Beckwith there is some dispute about the alternate names for spirit weed. Beckwith said that it was also known as parrot weed. However, in the Dictionary of Jamaican English Cassidy and Le Page say that this was a mistake on Beckwith’s part. The “Common Names” database of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (http://nhmj-ioj.org.jm/ioj_wp/botany/common-name/ gives the common name for spirit weed as “fit weed” or “fit bush”.

An early twentieth century article on Jamaican plants used in folk medicine by Morris Steggarda, contemporaneous with Beckwith’s research, also has “fit weed” as another name for spirit weed and modern botanists G.F. Asprey and Phyllis Thornton categorise it as such in their article “The Medicinal Powers of Jamaican Plants”. They go on to describe how:

 “A decoction of the plant is used for colds and fits in children. The plant is rubbed on the body for fainting fits and convulsions. Since it is said to have magical properties in connection with protection from duppies (ghosts) this may explain its use in convulsions, fainting and hysteria for which it has long been employed in Jamaica”.

 

Next time….
Another plant used to keep away spirits of the dead – water weed

 

 

Sources
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. 27.
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.
L. Mike Henry and K. Sean Harris, The LMH Official Dictionary of Jamaican Herbs and Medicinal Plants and Their Uses (Kingston: Jamaica, LMH Publishing Limited, 2002), pp. 53-54.
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. 94.
F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., University of the West Indies Press: Barbados, 2002), p. 340.
Morris Steggarda, “Plants of Jamaica Used by Natives for Medicinal Purposes”, American Anthropologist, New Series, vol. 31, no. 3 (Jul – Sept., 1929), pp. 431-434, p. 32.
G.F. Asprey and Phyllis Thornton, “Medicinal Plants of Jamaica”, West Indian Medical Journal, vol. 2, no. 4 and vol. 3, no. 1 accessed via http://www.herbalstudies.net.
Image credits: Eryngium foetidum L, by Dinesh Valke https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEryngium_foetidum_L._(6674360625).jpg

 

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Addendum: Broom-weed (Malvastrum coromandelianum)

Since my last post I’ve come across an example of broom-weed being used in theft detection charms by North American Conjure practitioners. In her essay “Hoodoo in America” (1931), the American novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston noted that:

“To catch a thief: hang three sprigs of broomweed about the neck of the suspect and recite Psalm 50:18, and if he is the guilty one it will choke him to death”.

Psalm 50, verse 18 concerns God condemning those who recite the commandments and talk of their faith whilst also being “the friend of every thief” they see.

hurston-zora-neale-loc

Hurston didn’t give the Latin names of the plants the Hoodoo and Conjure practitioners used. As there are a number of species called “broom-weed” I can’t be sure if it is the malvastrum coromanelianum of the Jamaican ritual. However, the employment of broom-weed in Hoodoo demonstrates that it was employed in anti-theft techniques in different parts of the New World.

Did the idea/technique travel from North America to the Caribbean or vice versa?

One obvious difference between the North American and the Jamaican versions of the broom-weed anti-theft charm are the words recited. As seen in my previous post, in Jamaica a rhyme invoking St Peter and Saint Paul is used. In the USA, a psalm.

Saint Paul is not mentioned at all in Hurston’s collection of Hoodoo remedies. However St Peter is included in a couple of the charms though these are aimed at increasing success and prosperity rather than the detection/prevention of theft (see “Hoodoo in America”, pp. 338 and 413).

Next time…

How wormweed can prevent unwanted attention from duppies.

 

Sources

Zora Neale Hurston, “Hoodoo in America”, The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 44, no. 174 (Oct-Dec, 1931), p. 324.

Good News Bible: Today’s English Version (London: Collins/Fontana, 1976), p. 565.

Image credits

From U.S. Library of Congress, author unknown: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Hurston-Zora-Neale-LOC.jpg