Astro-Caribbean: Caribbean Folklore


Last weekend, I attended the Bankra Caribbean Festival produced by Braata Productions and Andrew Clarke. One of the draws of the festival was looking at the cultural exhibit of puppets made in the image of popular Caribbean folklore characters, including the Soucouyant. Mama D’Leau, the Douens (Dwens), the Moko Jumbie, Papa Bois, and Anancy (Anansi). The slideshow is below with the artwork and the descriptions are after:

Descriptions of each:

Papa Bois (Eastern Caribbean): Papa Bois is the protector of the forest and the animals in it. He is a wise old man who changes in form and shape, often into a deer or a manicou (opossum). Papa Bois punishes those who abuse the forest or animals, and is sometimes said to be the lover or husband of Mama D’Leau. St. Lucia-born Nobel Prize Laureate Derek Walcott uses Papa Bois as a main character and antagonist in his famous theatrical folk fable, “Ti-Jean & His Brothers.”

Dwens (Douennes in Trinidad & Tobago, Douens): These faceless creatures with backwards feet are said to be the spirits of children who died before being baptized. Douennes can be heard playing or sometimes crying in the woods, luring children to play with them. Then, they catch and eat them. They listen for the names of children so they can call them into the dark, so you mustn’t call a child’s name out loud, and let the Douennes hear it! Some theorize the stories and warnings of Dwens formed around a time when slave catchers would lure children into woods to steal them and sell them into slavery.

Rolling Calf (Jamaica): The spirits of people (often butchers), who were wicked and dishonest during their lifetimes, if you meet a rolling calf along a road at night, it will block your way and chase travelers. It has blazing red eyes and drags a chain behind it. To escape a rolling calf: 1) give it objects for it to count, 2) get to a a crossroads before it, 3) open a penknife and stick it in the ground & 4) rolling calves are afraid of being beat with a tarred whip held in the left hand.

Mama D’Leau (Mama Dlo): The snake woman, Mama D’Leau, is the protector and healer of the river and its animals. She brushes her golden hair until she is angry, when all of her hair becomes living snakes in addition to her anaconda body. Men who abuse the river or nature in general are taken by Mama Dlo as one of her husbands for the rest of their lifetimes and also their next lifetime. It is sometimes said that mama Dlo and Papa Bois are lovers or married.

Moko Jumbie (Trinidad and Tobago): Moko Jumbies are stilt walkers or dancers that frequent parades and festivals. The name is said to be a hybrid merging of the West African term ‘Moko” meaning god from Nigerian and Congolese heritage and the Caribbean name for spirits of ghosts, “Jumbie.” It is believed the Moko arrived in Trinidad by “walking across the Atlantic Ocean from the west coast of Africa, laden with many, many centuries of experience, and in spite of all inhuman attacks and encounters, yet still walks tall, tall, tall.”

La Diablesse: La Diablesse can be spotted by her clothes from a bygone time. She wears long skirts, puffed sleeves and a large hat with a veil to cover her corpse-like face and burning red eyes. She uses her long skirts to hide the fact that one of her legs ends in a cow’s hoof, and walks along the edge of the road so her hoof isn’t heard hitting the ground. La Diablesse goes into town or waits on little-traveled roads for promiscuous men, who follow her deep into the woods. When she disappears, these fools wander until they fall, usually near a river or ravine, where they die.

Soucouyant (from Trinidad and Tobago, La Lechusa in Dominican Republic): The Old Hag or Higue (Guyana) Soucouyant leaves her skin behind in a mortar as she flies away in many forms — a fireball or any kind of animal — and spends the night sucking the blood from victims or casting spells to turn them into animals too. She can enter through any keyhole or crack in your home, and if she takes too much blood her victim may die or become an old hag just like her. She must return to her skin and put it back on before the light of day reaches her again. The way to defeat Soucouyant include: 1) surrounding your house with uncooked rice or dumping loads of rice at an intersection at the center of town…she will be compelled to count every grain of rice before she can move on, and won’t be able to finish before sunrise. 2) Finding her skin and salting it: it will shrink and she will not be able to replace it with anything else.

Anancy (Anansi in Ghana and Trinidad & Tobago, Annancy or Anancy in Jamaica, Grenanda, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, etc., Ba Ananci in Suriname, and Aunt Nancy in South Carolina): The West African Trickster Deity — the wise spider who appears in many forms: human, spider in human clothes, spider with human face, or human with traditional spider features. There are countless stories featuring Anansi from West Africa and the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, where the cunning spider outsmarts pretentious people around him. These stories can be traced to the Ashanti people from present-day Ghana. The Anancy Tales are similar to Brer Rabbit tales from African-Americans in the US SOuth, and Juan Bobo stories in Puerto Rico.

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