Eggs pt 2: In Myal

Previously I looked at the use of bird’s eggs in Jamaican Obeah . This month’s post focuses on how they were used in the Myal faith to counteract one of Obeah’s more sinister practices.

There was a belief that an Obeah practitioner could cause illness or death by stealing a person’s shadow – an entity akin to a spirit but belonging to the living. The shadow would then be nailed it to a cotton tree where it would remain trapped.

In the 19th century, Thomas Banbury, African-Jamaican clergyman and folklore collector, commented that:

It is believed that after the shadow of anyone is taken he is never healthy; and if it be not caught, he must pine away until he dies. (Banbury, p. 23).

To counteract this, Myalists would parade to a cotton tree and walk around it, singing and dancing in order to heal a sick person whose condition did not respond to other remedies. The tree would be pelted with eggs and dead fowl in an attempt to persuade the duppies which inhabited the tree to release the patient’s trapped shadow the eggs and poultry being an offering to the spirits. A white bowl filled with water would be held up to the tree to catch the shadow. Once caught, a lid would quickly be put on the bowl. The shadow would be restored to its ‘owner’ by dipping a cloth in the water and wrapping it about the patient’s head (Beckwith, pp. 144-45).

Cotton_Tree_on_Spanish_Town_Road,_Jamaica,_ca.1875-ca.1940_(imp-cswc-GB-237-CSWC47-LS11-017)

Banbury also gives an alternate account whereby the patient accompanied the Myalists to the tree to witness the ritual (Banbury, p. 23). He also noted that the singing and dancing would become more vigorous as the duppies’ grip on the shadow loosened and that the Myalists would be paid six dollars for such a cure (Ibid., p. 23).

Next time… I move away from Jamaica to look at some Hawaiian tress which connect to the spirit world

Sources

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).

Image credits:Cotton Tree on Spanish Town Road, Jamaica” by unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cotton_Tree_on_Spanish_Town_Road,_Jamaica,_ca.1875-ca.1940_(imp-cswc-GB-237-CSWC47-LS11-017).jpg> (13 May 2022).

Eggs in Obeah

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).

blog - eggs 003

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.

Sources

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

Love-weed (Cuscuta ..?)

As we’re not long past St Valentine’s Day, I’m looking at Love-weed, a plant connected in African-Jamaican plant lore to matters of the heart. Love-weed has many alternate names including Love-bush, Dodder, Hell Weed and Devil’s Guts – my favourite is Wizard’s Net. It belongs to the Cuscuta family of parasitic plants which in turn is part of the wider genus of Convolvulaceae. Cuscuta survive by wrapping themselves around other plants which they then impale with haustoria, root-like structures which absorb nutrients from the host plant.

Flore_médicale_des_Antilles,_ou,_Traité_des_plantes_usuelles_(Pl._150)_(8203084006)

The lore I’m focussing on comes principally from Martha Warren Beckwith’s collection of African-Jamaican ethnobotany in the 1920s. Beckwith didn’t mention which variety of Love-weed she was referring to beyond calling it Cuscuta. She was told by her African-Jamaican interviewees, Wilfred Bonito and James White, that if you are in love with someone who can’t stand you, you should rub Love-weed on your body, particular focussing on the back of your neck. The next time you see that person you should clap your hands and, holding your palms upwards, recite “By Saint Peter, James & Paul”. The object of your affection’s mind will be changed (Beckwith, (a), p. 21).

Golden_Dodder_(Cuscuta_campestris)_(46618486901)

Beckwith also cited an example of Love-weed lore from a collection of African-Jamaican folklore from trainee teachers at Mico College, Jamaica:

“If a branch of a certain yellow weed [which Beckwith believed to be love-weed] grows when thrown upon a bush, it shows that the person whose mind you are seeking is getting to love you more and more” (Beckwith, (b), p. 65).

Frederic Cassidy and Robert Le Page give another example of Love-weed’s use which again exploits the parasitic nature of the plant:

“Folklore has it that one will succeed in love it a piece one puts on another plant grows…” (Cassidy & Le Page, p. 282).

A botanical multi- tasker

If Love-weed is mashed up with Death-weed (Solanum nigrum), Dead-weed (Erigeron canadensis), laundry blue “asafoetida, vinegar, a little fine salt”, and put in a bottle you should then “Rub it… over your body if you think there is a duppy (spirit) about” (Beckwith, (a), p. 16).

Next time… I look at how eggs have been used in Obeah practice

Sources

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Notes on Jamaican 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). (a)

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). (b)

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

Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, p. 456, cited in Beckwith, Black Roadways, (1929).

“Haustorium” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haustorium#In_plants> (accessed 20.2.22).

Image credits: J. Descourtilz & M.E. Descourtilz via Wikimedia Commons

Golden dodder by Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons