Jamaican Folklore

Welcome to our Jamaican Folklore Page

Here we feature some great Jamaican Folklore. These are more commonly known today as 'Urban Myths' but they are stories that have become part and parcel of Jamaican life. They are stories about myths you would hear about when you were a child in Jamaica - these would be recited usually by the elderly guaranteed to make sure that after you heard them - you would not want to go to sleep. Everybody knows that we are among the greatest story tellers in the world and this page will take you back, way back to the stories about 'The River Mumma', 'The Rollin Calf', 'The Ol' Higue' and many more. Sit back, read, be informed, be entertained but most of all reminisce about the good old days.

River Mumma

(The River Maiden or Mistress)

The figure of the River (river usually pronounced as 'Ribba') Mumma or River Maiden is similar to and likely to have risen from the story of the mermaid. She is also one of the dominant figures in Jamaica’s folklore and is regarded with much fear and sacredness.

 

According to legend, she lives at the fountainhead of large water sources in Jamaica and is usually seen sitting on top a rock, combing her long black tresses with a golden comb. Her appearances are usually made at mid-day, however, she disappears if she observes anyone approaching. Conversely, if an intruder sees her first and their eyes meet, terrible things will happen to the intruder.

 

In times gone by people would go to the rivers at stated times to sing , dance myal and bring food for the River Mumma. In addition, the fish of the rivers she inhabits were regarded as her children and should not be touched for fear of suffering as a consequence. It was also believed that if a River Mumma was caught the river would dry up. 

Though some question the connection of the round golden table with the River Mumma story they are usually told with reference to each other. It is believed that wherever the River Mumma resides, if the fountain was deep and blue a golden table would be found. At midday, the table appeared at the surface of the water, however, as soon as it was disturbed it quickly sunk.

The story is told of an attempt on a sugar estate to retrieve the golden table, using oxens and chains to pull it out. However, after it was hitched, it drew the oxen embracing several yokes to the bottom of the river with it. The golden table is believed to have been deposited by the Spaniards who were fleeing the island when the English invaded in 1655.

The Rollin' Calf 

(Also known as the 'RoarinCalf')

One of the most frightening and fearful of Jamaican duppies, is the Rollin' Calf (Roaring Calf).

 

The Rollin' Calf is described as having red blazing eyes and taking the form of various animals such as dog, hog, goat, horse, bull or the most dangerous being the cat. It is also said to have the power to grow in size from small animals (cats or dogs) to large animals (horse or bull) whilst also appearing as a headless goat, black, white or spotted. They usually have a piece of chain attached to their necks, whose rattle is said to be heard by persons.

 

 

It is believed that Rollin' Calves are devil spirits in the form of animals who roam at nights and settle at the root of cotton trees, bamboos and caves as duppies during the day; visible only to those who can see spirits. Historically, the Rollin' calf emerges at nights mainly during crop time on sugar estates because of its fondness for molasses.

The Rollin' Calf can appear to be seen lying in the road, blocking the person's path. One way to get rid of the Rollin' Calf is to flog him with the left hand; it is said to be afraid of a tarred whip. Others also claim that the Rollin' Calf is fearful of the moon. The dreaded Rollin' Calf has brewed fear in the minds of many who claim to have seen it as well as those who have heard stories of its sightings. It represents an important aspect of Jamaica's folklore that has been incorporated into songs and poems.

 

The Ol' Higue 

(Also known as the Ol' Suck)

This creature is believed to be a witch or sorceress, who enjoys human and preys especially on infants.
 
Also referred to in days gone by as Old Suck, Ol' Higue preys whilst people are sleeping; flying in the form of an owl, shedding her skin and sucking their breath. It is also believed that the Ol' Higue figure contributed to the retention of keeping ninth nights in Jamaica when a baby was born: ensuring that mother and infant will not be troubled by Ol' Higue in the future.
 
She is also present in West Africa among the Yoruba and other societies in the Diaspora.

Rollin' Calf

A poem by Louise Bennett

'Me deh pon haste me kean tap now,

For Tahta John a-dead,

De oda nite one rolllin-calf

Lick him eena him head.

 

 

It is a long story me chile,

Me really kean tap now.

Yuh musa hear sey Tahta los'

Him black an wite bull cow?

 

 

Tree nite an day him sarch fe it,

Couldn' fine it noan tall,

Soh tell nite-afore-las' him sey

 

Him hear one cow a-bawl.

 

Him meck fe Figgins' open-lan;

Doah him an dem noh gree,

An see de bull dah-lie dung under-

Neat' one gwangu tree.

 

 

Him teck a rope an tie de bull,

An dem him bruck a stick

An him layba de po' cow back, me

 

Tan a-yard an hear de lick.

 

Him start fe lead i home, but wen

Him tun roun fe goh call,

Him see de sinting two yeye dem

A roll like tunda-ball

 

Him goh fe halla, but same time

Him feel a funny pain,

An wen him look eena him han,

De rope tun eena chain

 

Massa, him fling i wey an run,

Him hear de sinting laugh,

It wasn' fe him cow at all,

It was a rollin' calf!

 

Him jump Bra Caleb wire fence,

Him faint as him ketch home,

An since him come back to himself

Him dis a-twis an foam.

 

Mek kean tap, is a obeah man

Dem sen' me fe goh ketch,

Me feel me yeye a-jump him mighta

Dead long before me ketch.

The Cotton Tree

The Duppy

Jakalantan

Spirituality and the cotton tree are not only connected in Jamaica but in Africa and other Caribbean territories. In Jamaica this huge, enormously buttressed tree is believed to be the dwelling place of spirits of the dead, particularly, its roots and branches. Simply put, the cotton tree is the home of duppies.
 
The cotton tree is also associated with particular spirits such as, 'Ol' Higue', where it is said that she hangs her skin and the 'Rollin Calf' is said to inhabit its roots during the days when it is not roaming.
It is said, if a cotton tree is be cut down, a libation of rum (chickens and corns in some cases) must be poured and the cutters deeply imbibe, this serves to appease the spirits and ensure the safety of the cutters and users of the felled tree.

DUPPY

Duppies are restless spirits of the dead that are believed to haunt the living. Though there are good and bad spirits, the "duppy" is seen as malevolent because the good spirits cannot be seen. The good spirit is sometimes referred to as ancestral spirits, who are believed to be dead family members who still take an interest in the life of family members.
 
Contrary to the good spirit, the "duppy" is seen as the unnamed, unhappy, and restless dead human who is capable of doing harm. The "duppy" can linger around or be summoned by an obeah-man or woman from the graveyard to do harm in exchange for payment of food or drink, especially rum. "Duppies" are said to live at the roots of cotton trees and bamboo thickets, from where they emerge in the nights or at midday.

According to legend, one can tell if a "duppy" is around if certain signs are observed, such as:

 

  • If a dog whines or howls at night.

  • A spider web across the face, especially at night.

 

It is also supposed that certain precautions must be taken to ward off or to avoid trouble with a "duppy". When throwing out water at night care must be taken to warn the "duppies" before throwing the water. Stones must not be thrown at noon or nights and one should never sit at the threshold of a door as a "duppy" will walk over and injure you.

 

Methods of getting rid of "duppies" range from cursing or calling "Jesus Christ", to nailing a horseshoe to the house.

Jamaican folklore contains a significant amount of "duppy" stories in various forms. Jamaican sayings and proverbs also contain references to "duppies"; 'Bull buck and duppy conqueror' and "Duppy know who fi frighten an who fi tell good night" are two such examples.

'Jakalantan' or Jack O' Lantern originated in 17th-century Britain, where it was used to refer to a man with a lantern or to a night watchman.

In the Caribbean, it refers to a mysterious light that appears and leads the unsuspecting away, never to return. There are many iterations of this story, but we like this one!

The Legend of Annie Palmer

(The White Witch of Rose Hall)

Annie Palmer (née Patterson), dubbed the White Witch of Rose Hall by the slaves, was a female plantation owner of the most vicious sort. Annie was born in England in 1802 to an English mother and Irish father. The family moved to Haiti when Annie was ten. Her parents died from yellow fever a year later and her nanny, a voodoo priestess, raised and nurtured her in the black arts. After her nanny’s death, Annie moved to Jamaica in search of a wealthy husband; she might have been 17 or 18 at the time. She met and cast a spell on the owner of Rose Hall Estate, John Palmer, to trap him in marriage. Thus, she became the second mistress of the vast and prominent plantation that was once, and still is by many, regarded as the finest Great House on the island.

If there was ever happiness in their marriage, it was not widely publicized because shortly after they had settled down to the business of married life, Annie poisoned her husband for control of the plantation. Not long after, Annie married again, this time to another English planter who she eventually stabbed to death. Not one to be lonely for long, Annie married a third time, and tiring once more of this husband, she strangled him with the help of one of her many slave lovers, Takoo.

She ruled her plantation with an iron fist, and as a result of her voodoo practices, she was feared by all. She whipped, tortured and put to death anyone who disobeyed her orders and was said to have refurbished the basement of the house to support her predilection for savagery. Annie was also known to murder the infants of her slaves so that she could harvest their bones for black magic.

Annie’s life came to an end when the aforementioned slave lover, Takoo, murdered her in retaliation for the death of one of his relatives. Annie had set her sights on another male, and reportedly fell in love with him. He did not return the sentiment. He was in love with another woman, Takoo’s granddaughter whom Annie killed in jealousy. Takoo who was also a practitioner of voodoo, with a combination of black magic and physical force, strangled Annie in her sleep. In another version of the story, it was Takoo’s son-in-law and not his granddaughter’s that Annie was in love with and killed because he did not return her feelings.

Even in death, the slaves feared that she would use her powers from beyond the grave to attack them in her anger. She was buried in a tomb behind the house and a voodoo ritual performed to keep her locked in. Notwithstanding this, the ritual was not completed, and Annie’s spirit was free to roam the plantation, and still does to this very day.

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