Whooping Boy

As it’s Halloweentide this month’s post features Whooping Boy, a spirit who has the reputation of being one of Jamaica’s most malignant duppies (Beckwith, p. 98).

Whooping Boy as his name suggests, makes a whooping sound and is often seen riding another duppy, Three-foot Horse. He may also be witnessed dancing on twigs in dense woodland where he is reputed to be at his most “dangerous” (Cundall, p. 91). He has been described as having long hair and red eyes and is most likely to be encountered on a moonlit night (Leach, p. 71).

During her Jamaican fieldwork in the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston was told that Whooping Boy was the ghost of a “penner” or cow herd, and only appeared in August. Then he can be heard “penning” phantom cows. Real cows are frightened of the sound of his whip cracking (Hurston, TMH, p. 25).

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Writing in the early 1960s, folklorist MacEdward Leach noted that tales of Whooping Boy had become rare and the only one he had been able to obtain was from the Accompong Maroons where Whooping Boy is described as riding Three-legged Horse at night, whooping and cracking his whip. Children were kept in after dark if Whooping Boy was believed to be roaming. Unlike Hurston’s account, in this tale he always appears just before Christmas (Leach, p. 71).

 

Next time… a look at the use of roses in Jamaican Revival divinatory practices.

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).

Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (reprint, with anew foreword by Ishmael Reed, New York: Harper & Row, 1990, of orig. edn, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincourt Inc., 1938).

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

Image credits: photograph by H.R. Sparkes

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Cats in Obeah

In this month’s post I’m looking at the role Cats (Felis Catus) played in Jamaican Obeah practice. An early reference to the idea that Cats (or parts of Cats) possessed certain powers appears in a comment by the 18th century English planter and historian Edward Long. He noted how enslaved Africans would wear wild Cats’ teeth* and eat their flesh as they thought such practices would facilitate a long life. Long attributed this to the old belief that a Cat has nine lives (Long, p. 420).

*Long doesn’t specify what species the wild Cats he is referring to and, as yet, I haven’t been able to find out.

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One of the most terrifying duppies, the Rollin’ Calf  at times appears as a Cat. The Calf was also believed to manifest as a dog, pig, goat, horse or bull but it was considered to be at its most dangerous in the form of a tabby Cat (Banbury, cited in Beckwith, p. 100). African-Jamaican folklore collector Thomas Banbury, noted that Cats and snakes were the animals most commonly “set” by an Obeah practitioner to cause illness or misfortune (Banbury, p.15).

Setting Obeah could involve the placing of a foreign body under a person’s skin. Such Items included:

“pieces of glass bottles, nails, pins, needles, the teeth of Cats, serpents, bits of bones, shells, small vials, lizards, spiders and other small insects.” (Ibid., p. 14. My italics).

In Obeah charms

As well as being used to set Obeah, parts of a dead Cat appear in a number of Obeah charms. For instance, Cats’ teeth were used to deter theft. To this effect they, along with feathers, pieces of red fabric, egg shells and fish bones were placed over the doors of houses. (Long, p. 420).

The teeth of Cats are present in charms used for more sinister purposes. Another planter, Bryan Edwards, wrote of an elderly African woman, believed to be an Obeah practitioner, who in the 1770s was found to be keeping a number of clay balls in pot. The clay balls were of various sizes with some being wrapped in twine or having hair, glass beads, feathers and rags stuck to them. Others had Cats’ teeth, claws or “the upper sections of Cats’ skulls” embedded. (Beckwith, p. 110).

This mention of the upper part of a Cat’s skull being utilised struck a chord with me as it resonates with a Hoodoo charm from the southern states of America collected by Zora Neale Hurston which was used to grant wishes. To make the charm, skin from the forehead of a black Cat must be wrapped once in silk thread, then wrapped again with a dollar bill, placed in a silk bag and occasionally anointed with fine perfume. The charm should be carried in a wallet or purse (Hurston, p. 392).

***

By the 1920s, the links between Cats and Obeah practice seems to have faded. Researching African-Jamaican folk cultures in the 1920s, the American anthropologist, Martha Warren Beckwith found that while in the past Cats had been associated with Obeah, “today puss has fewer enemies” (Beckwith, p. 110). She was also told by Mrs Peart, one of her African-Jamaican interviewees, that “’a black Cat is the greatest luck in the house’” (Ibid., p. 119).

Next time… It’s back to duppy lore with tales of Whooping Boy.

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).

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

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 (reprint, with a new introduction by George Metcalf, London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd, 1970, of orig. edn, London: T. Lowndes, 1774, 3 vols, vol II).

Image credits: Obeah Cat by H.R. Sparkes. Model – Millie

 

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).