Thursday, July 26, 2012

Creature of the Month - Duppies by Dr. Bob Curran

As darkness steals slowly over the islands of the West Indies, there are strange stirrings amongst the lonely canebrakes and in the shadowy buttress-roots of the silk-cotton trees and as the moon comes up, peculiar shapes scurry along the dirt roads between the isolated rural settlements of the countryside. It is well to keep ones doors and windows locked and to light the lamp and think of good and Christian things for this is the hour of the duppies, the supernatural spirits of the islands who stalk the islands when the lights begin to fail – spirits and beings which torment human kind. And even if the doors are locked and bolted, duppies might still get in to torment good Christian people in their homes. Duppies permeate West Indian folklore, particularly that of Jamaica, and those who travel aboard on the tropical nights would do well to be afraid of them. 

What exactly is a duppy? The origin of the word is uncertain, although it is widely used in the patois of Jamaica. However it is generally thought that it comes from the Northwest African tradition and that it was brought to the West Indies by slaves who worked on the sugar plantations. It is strongly connected to obeah which started out as a slave religion – sometimes a mixture of Christianity and older pagan religions. Some say the creature is created by an “unfortunate soul” – in obeah belief, a person has two souls, and when a person dies, one is taken to Heaven to be judged by God, the other lingers around the community for a specified time. It is this latter soul, some believe that generates the idea of the duppy.

What form then does a duppy take? No two accounts can agree. For some they are the unquiet spirits of the dead who haunt the lonely roads and canefields after dark, entering the houses of their relatives as they see fit. Those within the house can “dream them” <that is, they appear to them in dreams> and in this form, they can either be benevolent or malignant. For example, a “good duppy” can either give advice or impart wisdom whilst a “bad duppy” can cause nightmares or illness. In some cases, an evil duppy can cause physical harm. These are not the only form of duppy however for it is believed that a duppy can also be a creature which lurks in the undergrowth waiting to terrorize any who pass by. They do this by following the individual at a distance, making strange and unsettling noises and making a person feel odd, sometimes as if his body or head is growing,. In some cases the duppy will magically cause blindness.

Duppies need not necessarily be ghosts. They can be created by obeah men and women <island witches> for some specific purpose. However, while creating the duppy is one thing, controlling it is another matter. It takes an extremely strong conjure worker to control the being – once created, many duppies are independently minded.

There is not even any real agreement as to what a duppy looks like or what its actual powers might be. It is thought, however, that the creature can take a number of forms. One of the most common is that of the Rolling <or Rollin’> Calf.

Although this entity is described as a Calf, it might also appear as a dog, a bird or a goat. The main form, however, seems to be that of a small but bulky bull-like animal, usually black in colour but with red, slitted eyes. From its nose hangs what appears to be a length of chain which clanks on the ground whenever it moves. This is sometimes the sound that the island traveller hears when he or she walks along the lonely Jamaican roads after dark – the steady clink-clink of the chain on the ground – signifying that the rolling calf is abroad.  The thing can inspire terror in even the stoutest of hearts and may even bring on a fatal seizure and there is little escape from it. The thing to do is to walk swiftly on until one reaches a crossroads and then to stick the metal blasé of an open penknife with a white handle into the ground. The duppy will then disappear, but may return again on some future occasion .Another trick is to throw beans or peas on the road behind the individual as it is believed that the duppy would then have to stop to count these – duppies were considered to be fastidious creatures – thus giving its victim time to escape.

On occasion, the Rolling Calf will lie down on the road <sometimes even invisibly> and will create problems for those who wish to pass there. It will stop cars, carts and even people on foot and will not allow them to pass. No matter where they go, the Rolling Calf obstructs their way, sometimes growing in size in order to do so. Obeah men <local witch-doctors> can sometimes dismiss Rolling Calves but not always and even when they do, the creature might still return.

The Rolling Calf is, of course, not the only celebrated duppy which threatens and torments islanders in Jamaica. There is also Ol’ Hige. There is some debate as to what Hige actually is – some say that it is a huge black man in a stovepipe hat and burning eyes, others that it is a witch who sheds her skin at night and assumed the form of a great owl in which guise she roams the country late at night. She will mainly attack sleeping babies and the elderly, destroying them by sucking their breath as they sleep. The shedding of her skin, however, leaves her vulnerable and if it can be located, it must be filled with salt and pepper which makes it impossible for Hige to put it back on. Without her skin she can be easily killed, according to island folklore. A protection against her attentions is to place an open Bible at the end of one’s bed or on the edge of a crib. Either that or a hot chilli pepper <perhaps a Scotch Bonnet> which will also certainly drive her away. The concept of Ol’ Hige is not confined to Jamaican folklore but appears in tales throughout the isles particularly in Trinidad where she is known as “Sukuyan”

In some parts of Jamaica, Ol’ Hige is known as Mama Caliba. She travels the island in the form of a bird or a great bat, roosting on the cribs of new-born babies or sleeping individuals and drawing their breath or their sweat as they sleep. The Mama usually goes about as a dark shadow and wherever this falls, vegetation rots, milk sours and bread goes moldy. People suddenly fall weak at her passing and if she passes more than once they can sometimes die. She can, however, be driven away using certain obeah charms but there is always a possibility that she may return again.

Apparently closely linked to Mama Caliba, is the River Mumma which is some kind of cross between a water creature and a witch. She will appear at certain river crossings and is the guardian of certain springs on the island. She is said to appear in various guises – sometimes as an old woman or as a young girl who will try to lure passers-by into the river or the swamp which she guards. She is said to have a soft siren call which is almost hypnotic and which no traveller can resist. Once she draws them into the water, she transforms into a hideous creature – somewhere between an octopus and an alligator – leaping upon them and drowning them. There is no escape from her clutches.

During the slave period in Jamaica, sacrifices were made to the River Mumma in times of drought or to ensure a safe crossing of a river. It was even forbidden to eat fish from the river since these were her children and devouring them would draw down her wrath. It is extremely possible that Mama Caliba or the River Mumma were native spirits or folkloric creatures in African tradition which have transferred themselves to the West Indies.

The notion of a duppy as a cross between a supernatural spirit and some form of monster is known all across the West Indies and every sort of misfortune, whether it is individual or communal, is blamed upon them. On islands other than Jamaica such as Trinidad and Barbados, they are known as jumbies but have similar characteristics. In some areas, it is believed that they can speak <although they are usually silent> and when they do it is in a high-pitched affected voice. In order to get rid of them, it is believed that individuals should either eat salt or have salt around them since this in anathema to duppies.

But are duppies a spirit or an actual creature?  It is hard to know since they seem to embrace elements of both. Perhaps they are a form of supposedly supernatural being which has animalistic traits. However, it would take a brave person to walk alone between the lonely cane breaks in order to find out!

Dr. Bob Curran was born in a remote area of County Down, Northern Ireland, but left to travel and work in the United States., France, Italy, Mexico, North Africa, Spain, Holland, and parts of Eastern Europe. This has given him insight into the cultures and beliefs of people around the world. Living again in Northern Ireland, he holds several university degrees and acts as a consultant to such bodies as the Office of First, Deputy First Minister, and Tourism Ireland Ltd. He is author of many popular books on folklore such as Vampires; Werewolves; Man-Made Monsters; Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms; World's Creepiest Places; and his newest release A Haunted Mind. He can be found musing on

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