In this post I’m going to be looking at birds’ eggs in 19th and early 20th century Jamaican Obeah. Eggs have a long history of use in Obeah. They appear as one of the items associated with the practice in an act of 1760 which criminalised Obeah. Along with natural materials such as feathers, skulls, horns, hooves, shells, dried plants, seeds, human hair and finger nail parings, eggs were found in the bundles or bottles made by Obeah men and women. By the late 19th century such charms included synthetic ingredients such as laundry whitener. The bundles or bottles would be either buried or placed near the person that Obeah was to be worked on.
A list of contents used in Obeah charms in the 1820s, included:
“earth garnered from a grave, human blood, a piece of wood fashioned in the shape of a coffin, the feathers of the carrion-crow, a snake’s or alligator’s tooth, pieces of egg shell…” (Stewart: p. 277)
Nearly a century later, eggs also appear in the British travel writer, Bessie Pullen-Burry’s list of the contents to be found in an Obeah bottle:
“turkey’s or cocks’ feathers… with an accompaniment of parrots’ beaks, drops of blood, coffin nails, and empty egg shells.” (Pullen-Burry, p. 135).
Eggs were utilised in other forms of Obeah practice such as in this ritual performed to obtain land cited by American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith. The person who desired the land had to get a candle and an egg from an Obeah practitioner. He or she then had to go to the edge of the land they wished to possess and break the egg. The original owner of the land would not be able to go beyond the point where the egg has been broken. If obtaining the land wasn’t enough, lighting the candle would cause the original owner to die (Beckwith, p. 136).
An egg smashed on a grave was part of the procedure used by Obeah practitioners to get a duppy to work for them (see my post on Rice for more information this procedure).
Because of their employment by Obeah practitioners eggs were, in the opinion of the African-Jamaican clergyman and folklore collector Thomas Banbury, “much dreaded” as they were “considered an embodiment of obeah”. Banbury went on to note that because of the egg’s connection to Obeah practice, “few people” would have the courage to steal birds’ eggs and if they saw one lying in the road they would go out of their way to avoid it (Banbury, p. 11).
To date, I have only found a few examples where the particular type of bird’s egg is specified. These are the eggs of the sensay fowl and the Gi’-me-me-bit or nighthawk. Beckwith was told by her African-Jamaican interviewees that if you break a Gi’-me-me-bit’s egg, it would bring misfortune and that Obeah practitioners knew how to crack such eggs to cause sores to break out all over a person’s body (Beckwith, p. 121). Beckwith also mentioned a number of other birds associated with Obeah: the rain bird, blue dove, whitebelly, ground dove and potoo. It is highly likely that the eggs of these birds were utilised by practitioners (Ibid., p. 120).
Eggs in a protective capacity
There are some instances where commentators on Jamaican folk religions have mentioned the use of eggs for protective purposes. An early example comes from the 18th century, when the English planter and historian Edward Long wrote that egg shells were included in the charms placed above doors of houses to deter thieves (Long; p. 420). Obeah charms containing eggs were also used to prevent the theft of crops. Writing on Obeah in nineteenth century Grenada, Sir Henry Hesketh Bell a Briton who worked on the island, noted that Obeah bottles containing egg shells would be hung by planters from fruit trees or placed in fields of crops to prevent petty larceny (Bell, p. 4).
Next time… I’ll be further exploring the use of birds’ eggs in a protective capacity my next post which looks at how birds’ eggs were employed in the Myal faith.
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)
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).
Henry Hesketh J. Bell, Obeah: Witchcraft in the West Indies (reprint, Westport: Negro Universities Press, 1970 of 1889 edn, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1889).
Edward Long, The History of Jamaica or General survey of Ancient and Modern State of that Island: With Reflections on its Situations, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws and Government (with a new introduction by George Metcalf, London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd, 1970, reprint of orig. edn, London: T. Lowndes, 1774, 3 vols, vol II).
Bessie Pullen Burry, Jamaica As It Is, 1903 (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903).
John Stewart, A View of the Past and Present State of the Island of Jamaica; with Remarks on the Moral and Physical Condition of the Slaves, and on the Abolition of Slavery in the Colonies (reprint, New York: Greenwood Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1823).
Image credits: photograph by H.R. Sparkes