Pigeon peas aka Gungu peas (cajanus cajan)

In a previous entry on Rosemary, I looked at how it was used to stop duppies from entering one’s house. This post takes a step back and looks at a legume which was utilised to prevent duppies from leaving their graves in the first place.

In Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life, Martha Warren Beckwith wrote that pigeon peas were planted on graves in the belief that “as the roots grow downward this will prevent the ghost from taking the opposite direction”

The peas were boiled before being planted in the west of Jamaica “as the peas cannot shoot out of the ground, so the ghost must remain in the ground.”

Beckwith’s informant, Simon Falconer, told the anthropologist of an alternative method whereby country people take three grains of peas, tie them up in a piece of new calico, and, going to the grave a couple of minutes before the time of day at which the man died, they dig a hole, bury the bundle, and say, “You ‘tan’ deh wid dis”’’.”

Another way of using peas at a burial was witnessed by Zora Neale Hurston. Dried corn and peas were thrown into a grave along with rum before the coffin was lowered in. Hurston doesn’t specify what kind of peas were used or what they and the corn were for. However, as rum had previously been poured into the grave “for the dead” I’m guessing they either were meant to provide food for the deceased’s duppy or to appease it.

What’s in a name?

Well, in this case possible confusion! When writing on the crops grown by small settlers, Beckwith identified pigeon peas as red kidney beans. In fact they are cajanus cajan, also known as Gungu/Gungo or Congo peas – a staple crop used for both food and fertiliser. Beckwith does mention Gungu/Congo peas but as something quite separate from pigeon peas.

She also used the spelling “pidgeon” whereas I have reverted to the more modern or uniform spelling of the word.

A Pigeon_pea_(Cajanus_cajan_(L_)_Huth);_branch_with_flowers_an_Wellcome_V0042649      B      Pigeon_pea_(Red_gram,_Thuvarai_in_Tamil)_02


Next time…

The spirit lore Beckwith collected about the calabash.



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. 76, 18.

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. 43.

Picture credits: A)  Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan), branch with flowers and pods, Coloured line engraving. 1686 -Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images,(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

B) pigeon peas by Nandhinikandhasamy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)



Duppies, shadows and souls

As these terms will be used on occasions throughout my blog, I thought a brief description of each may be useful. The idea that a person possesses more than one soul or spirit is common in a number of African-Jamaican folk religions. These spirits are:

The Soul

After death, the soul ascends to heaven or descends to hell. However, it is believed to remain on this earthly plane for some days after death. In the early twentieth century, Walter Jekyll, an Englishman who lived in Jamaica and made a collection of African-Jamaican folk stories, was told by his informants that people had two spirits. One of these spirits was:

“from God and the other not from God. The one from God is good, and the one not from God may be either good or bad. At death the God-given spirit flies up upon a tree, and goes to heaven on the third day. The other spirit remains on earth as Duppy. Its abiding place is the grave of the dead man, but it wanders about at night.”

The Shadow

Whilst the soul and the duppy exist after death, the shadow belongs to the living. It can be trapped and manipulated by those who wish to harm its owner. Barry Chevannes described the shadow as an extension of a person’s self or personality. If the shadow is separated from the self it may lead to madness.

Some writers on Caribbean religions class the shadow and the duppy as one and the same. Mervyn Alleyne and Arvilla Payne-Jackson note that in modern Jamaica, “shadow” has largely fallen out of use. Prior to this, soul/shadow/duppy were at times used interchangeably by commentators on African-Jamaican folk religions. For example, in Jekyll’s Jamaica Song and Story (1907) both the duppy and the soul are referred to as “shadows”: “During sleep, these spirits [the duppy and the soul] leave the body and go to other people’s houses in search of food. Being shadows themselves, they feed on the shadow of food and on the smell of food….”

The Duppy

Appearance – As well as maintaining an interest in earthly matters such as eating, many duppies looked exactly as they had done in life with the exception that they floated about a couple of feet above the ground. Alternately, they appeared clothed in the white garments that were commonly used to dress a corpse (Beckwith mentions white flannel suits for men and white muslin dresses for women), with their heads bound up in cloth.

Who are duppies? – As the duppy made up part of a person’s essence, anyone had the potential to become a duppy but this process seems to have been automatic in the case of babies who died before baptism. Duppies can also appear in animal form. Those recorded by Beckwith included duck ants, cats, dogs, goats, pigs, cows and horses. Alleyne and Payne-Jackson note that the gender of duppies can be identified by their smell. Female duppies smell of bananas and male duppies of jack fruit or rum.

Duppy behaviour – Although some duppies could be malevolent, not all duppy behaviour was negative. Jekyll noted how “[a] good Duppy will watch over and protect the living”. However, “good duppies” are a rarity in descriptions of their behaviour during the time that Beckwith was researching. Many of the instances of duppies and the customs surrounding them recorded by Beckwith and other folklorists and anthropologists writing in the early twentieth century are concerned with ways to deal with “bad” duppies. For example, one of Beckwith’s contemporaries, the American anthropologist Joseph John Williams, collected a number of accounts of poltergeist or other ghostly activity which was attributed to duppies. These included the disembodied arms which were witnessed striking a dying woman by a priest who had arrived to administer her the last rites. A school near a mission station in the Dry Harbour Mountains was bombarded with stones thrown by unseen hands and doors opened and shut of their own accord at another mission house in All Saints.

There are a number of explanations as to why many duppies behave badly. Zora Neale Hurston attributed duppies’ sinister or mischievous behaviour to the idea that when the duppy leaves the body at the time of death, the heart and brain of the deceased are no longer able to restrain its actions and it will occupy itself with malevolence. Another reason was that the duppy was unhappy about the way their funeral and other death rituals had performed. Unresolved grudges or the deceased being owed money which had not been paid were also common explanations for hauntings or other duppy-derived misfortune. Other malevolent duppies were those who had been evil or unpleasant people in their earthly lives or had been captured and manipulated by Obeah practitioners to cause harm.

George Eaton Simpson, writing in the 1950s, noted how Obeah men and women weren’t the only ones who may wish to utilise the services of a duppy. Simpson was told by his informants that if a duppy had been “dismissed” properly at its funeral or Nine Night it would not return. However, sometimes the duppy’s living relatives would not dismiss the spirit as “they may want to recall it for special assignments later on.”


Next time…  We’re heading back to the plant world with a look at Pidgeon Peas – one of the plants that can help prevent a duppy rising from his or her grave in the first place.



Walter Jekyll (collected by and ed.), Jamaica Song and Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Dancing Tunes and Ring Tunes (reprint, with new introductory essays by Philip Sherlock, Louise Bennett, and Rex Nettleford, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1966, of 1907 edn, London: David Nutt), pp. 175-176, 147.

Barry Chevannes, Rastafari, Roots and Ideology (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994), p. 27.

Arvilla Payne-Jackson and Mervyn C. Alleyne, Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing (Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2004), pp. 71-72, 136.

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. 70, 89, 90, 58, 123, 100.

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. 43-44.

Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), pp. 17, 9, 7.

George Eaton Simpson Religious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad, Jamaica and Haiti (3rd edn, enlarged, Rio Piedras: Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, 1980), p. 166.




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.

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.



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’.


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



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.



Bamboo (bambusa vulgaris)

This month’s featured plant is Bamboo (bambusa vulgaris).


Beckwith wrote that duppies lived ‘in the roots of… bamboo thickets and feed upon bamboo root.’

In her earlier work on Jamaican proverbs, Martha had noted that a particularly fearsome type of duppy, the rolling calf, was reputed to lurk in ‘bamboo thickets’ as well as in ‘the roots of silk cotton trees, and empty sugar houses.’

Uses in housing

As an aside, Bamboo didn’t just provide housing for duppies. Jamaicans also used it as a building material for their abodes.

Beckwith described the house of one of her informants, Wilfred Bonito as being ‘built out of seasoned bamboo cut when it was partly ripe and would harden, not rot, with age. He set up a frame and tied the poles firmly together… then wattled the sides closely with strips of bamboo and plastered the whole, outside and in, with a mixture of red earth and wood ashes, smoothing it neatly and whitewashing the surface.’

Next time

More on the habitats of duppies….



Picture credit: Bamboo in the rainforest of Dominica W.I.By © Hans Hillewaert /, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6288711

Beckwith, Martha Warren, 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; 8.

Beckwith, Martha Warren, “Jamaica Proverbs”, Beckwith, Martha Warren, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 14.




20th December: St Thomas’s Eve

I mentioned in my previous entry on Jamaican Rosemary that December 20th was a time in Britain and other parts of northern Europe when spirits were believed to roam the earthly realm. In the Christian calendar it is the eve of the day dedicated to the apostle, St Thomas, who has his own associations with the spirit world (see below).

So this month’s blog post is slightly off topic as it outlines some of the spirit lore associated with December 20th and St Thomas’s Eve. I say “off topic” as a) Martha Beckwith doesn’t mention lore surrounding this date and b) I haven’t been able to find out (as yet) if similar beliefs are held in Jamaica. However, having just broken my New Year’s resolution to cut down on sugar by consuming the best part of a pack of jelly beans, I’m feeling rebellious. So here we go….

In Britain, there was a tradition that from December 20thuntil Christmas Eve, ghosts could walk the earth. That spirits were active at this time also appears in European folklore. In a book of Christmas traditions Clement Miles recorded that St Thomas himself would appear in some Bohemian cemeteries at midnight in a chariot of fire. All the men named Thomas who were buried in the churchyards would rise from their graves and accompany the saint to the churchyard cross, which glowed red with “supernatural radiance”. There St. Thomas would kneel and pray. Then he would bless the risen corpses before vanishing beneath the cross and each of his namesakes would return to their respective graves.

Was the idea of the ghosts rising from their graves to greet St Thomas the origins of the notion that this period before Christmas was a time when spirits were more likely to wander the earth? Or did that belief exist before the story of St Thomas’s nocturnal visits to graveyards. Unfortunately I have no date for either belief. Miles was recording European folklore in the early 20th century but the examples he was given may have older provenance.

Another theory as to why St Thomas’s Eve may be a time for ghostly visitations is that in the northern hemisphere the winter solstice usually falls around the 21st/22nd December. This means that the days are at their shortest and darkest. Therefore the general gloom and early nightfall could have led to an increased nervousness about wandering spirits – ghostly activity often being reported as occurring after dark.


To make this post a teensy bit less tenuous, there is a connection between the use of Jamaican Rosemary to prevent unwanted visitations and purification rituals practised in northern Europe in the run up to Christmas:

Just as burning Jamaican rosemary was believed to cleanse a house of spirts, the purifying effects of smoke were also used in parts of Austria on St. Thomas’s Eve. Smoke from burning incense, along with holy water, was used to sanctify houses and farm-buildings.


St Thomas stained glass



Picture credit: stained glass of St Thomas probing the risen Christ’s wounds in St Walpurga’s church, Alsace by Ralph Hamman, 2015 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.)

All European folklore examples from Clement Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition (London: T.F. Unwin, 1912), p. 225.


Next time

More about duppies: their abodes and what they like to eat…

Rosemary (Croton Linearis Jacq.)

I thought this topic would suitable for December as the 20th of the month is, according to British folk lore, a time when the veil between the material and the spirit worlds is permeable. With that in mind, here’s a little something from Martha Beckwith’s Jamaican plant lore which may help keep unwanted visitors (of a spiritual nature) at bay.

Beckwith wrote that:

Rosemary, sometimes mixed with cow dung, was burned in a house to drive away duppies ‘or sprigs of it are rubbed over the body or scattered about the house for the same purpose.’

She was told by her informants that ‘”White people also use it”’.

Beckwith attributed the use of Rosemary to protect a person from malign influences was attributable to the plant’s strong smell as other plants with a pungent odour were used for similar purposes in Jamaica.

In British plant lore rosemary also can protect from spiritual and physical ills. For example, Margaret Baker notes that in parts of Devon people believed that planting a rosemary bush near a house would cleanse the house of evil and could keep witches out. Drinking from a spoon made from rosemary was supposed to protect one from poison.

In Britain there are Christian spiritual associations with rosemary – associations which may have travelled to Jamaica and played a part in its usage to repel malevolent forces. The plant’s blue flowers were once believed to have been white until, during the flight into Egypt, the Virgin Mary placed the infant Jesus’s clothes on a rosemary bush to dry. An alternate version holds that she lay her cloak upon it. In British plant lore, rosemary is believed to flower at midnight on Christmas Eve.

The caveat here is that in British rosemary is Rosmarinus officinalis whereas Jamaican rosemary is Croton linearis Jacq., a type of euphorbia. However, as both plants are similar in appearance, British settlers in Jamaica may have named Croton linearis Jacq. after a plant theory were familiar with. Therefore, it may not be impossible that the British spiritual associations with Rosmarinus officinalis were also applied to the Jamaican rosemary?



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.

Martha Warren Beckwith,, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), pp. 26, 27.

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), pp. 132-133.



Duppy Pumpkins

As it’s only a month away from Hallowe’en, I thought that something pumpkin-related would be appropriate for this month’s entry. So here’s Martha Beckwith’s notes on the Duppy Pumpkin:

Beckwith provides two instances of the duppy pumpkin’s association with the spirit world and magical beliefs. Firstly, in Black Roadways, she noted that duppies were believed to feed upon its “gourd-like fruit”.

In “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, the duppy pumpkin is listed as a cure for a stiff neck. The cure it seems is more in the realm of sympathetic magic, of like attracting like, than of a traditional herbal remedy (i.e. the plant being used in a bath or poultice or being consumed).

The person with the stiff neck was instructed to the wind the pumpkin vine around his or her neck. If anyone asked why the vine was wrapped around their neck, the sufferer should break off one of the pumpkin’s pods and throw them at the questioner who would then develop a stiff neck themselves. Beckwith presumed that this method transferred the neck problem from the first sufferer to the other person.

Slightly different duppie pumpkin beliefs were noted by the American folklorist, MacEdward Leach in “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”. He mentions that duppies also liked to play with duppie pumpkins and that planting them brought the grower good luck. He doesn’t mention which of plants he is referring to. In Cassidy and Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English any plant pumpkin-related in appearance was given the name “duppy pumpkin”.

However, Beckwith is fairly specific about the type of plant that she referred to. Her duppy pumpkin is a type of Cayaponia, a member of the Curcubitaceae family which includes gourds, pumpkins, cumbers, and squashes. Beckwith doesn’t expand on the full Latin name and there are a number of different varieties of Cayaponia in the Caribbean.

The Common Names database of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica http://nhmj-ioj.org.jm/ioj_wp/botany/common-name/ has a number of plants which have the common name of “duppy pumpkin” . However, the only one which is a Cayaponia is Cayaponia racemose so could this be Beckwith’s duppy pumpkin?

entry #2 - duppy pumpkin


Next time – as we approach St Thomas’s Eve, 20th December, a time when the veil between this world and the spirit world thins, something which may keep unwanted ethereal visitors at bay…


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), p. 89.

Martha Warren Beckwith,  with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 16.

F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., University of the West Indies Press: Barbados, 2002).

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

Introduction: Martha Warren Beckwith and Jamaican plant lore

The focus of this blog is the Jamaican plant lore, especially that which was associated with the spirit world, recorded by the American anthropologist and folklorist Martha Warren Beckwith in the 1920s. The idea arose out of my PhD thesis, “Shadow Worlds and “Superstitions”: An Analysis of Martha Warren Beckwith’s writings on Jamaican Folk Religion, 1919-1929”. I have a fascination with the folklore surrounding plants and during my research into Beckwith and her contemporaries’ writings on Jamaican folk religions I became aware of not only how flora was utilised in Jamaican folk medicine but also that some plants had strong associations with the spirit realm and religious practises.

Some background… In 1919, Martha Beckwith visited Jamaica for the first time, making 3 subsequent visits. Her aim was to investigate the folk life of the African-Jamaican peasantry. As part of her fieldwork, Beckwith made a list of plants used for healing and protection. “Healing” here encompasses not only curing physiological illnesses but also methods of preventing duppies or other malevolent spirits causing physical or psychological harm. Beckwith’s list of Jamaican plants formed part of an article, “Notes on Jamaica Ethnobotany” (1927) but other plant lore can be found in Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life (1929), the book which was the culmination of Beckwith’s Jamaican research.

Coming up in future posts… a useful tip for those nervous about unexpected “visitors” on Halloween (and I don’t mean Trick or Treaters), how to ensure that the dead and buried stay dead and buried, and just who is living in that clump of bamboo?