Caribbean Folklore – Folktales

FOLKTALES

nounfolktale (plural folktales)
1. A tale or story that is part of the oral tradition of a people or a place. https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/folktale
2. A characteristically anonymous, timeless, and placeless tale circulated orally among a people. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/folktale

 

 

CARIBBEAN FOLKTALES

 

isaiah and rhona

 

Caribbean Folktales, or ‘Crick Crack Stories’ (Creighton. A., Stabroek News, 2009) are the essence of Caribbean culture. The stories may not be shared as they once were, but they are bound up in the breath and cadence of the islands, understood implicitly by those from there, the subtext to all that there is.

Traditionally, Rhythmically, a ‘Crick Crack’ storytelling holds to  the African root. A griot (the Compere) and a chorus (the audience) who participate in the telling with questions and comments that colour and shape the ‘tory.  Many of the characters originate from west African culture, but the stories also hold true to European , East Indian and Taino folk traditions.  The Lajabless for example is clearly a refection of ‘Ciguapa’ the Taino’s ‘beautiful woman beast with long hair and cow’s feet’ (Untold Origins Exhibition, Cuming Museum, 2004 – 2005.)

Of course chorus participation today is not as it was, but it is there in the way Caribbeans speak, listen, watch. And a traditional Caribbean folktale, everyone knows, still begins with the Compere announcing his story by shouting “Crick!” to which the chorus response is always, “Crack!”.

 

And so, with the “Crick-Crack” completed, the story unfolds.

 

 

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Caribbean Folk Characters 

 

Ananse 

Ananse is the best known character of Caribbean stories, and in the Caribbean he is a spider. Ananse hails from West Africa where he was once the trickster god. But he is no longer a god. Kidnap, enslavement and hunger reformed Ananse and to survive he became half-man, half-spider. In Caribbean tales he is either a lazy con-man or a tricky spider.  The consummate survivor, he uses stories, wit, tricks, lies and wiles to ensure that he always gets the most out of  the least.

Devious, Ananse may be, shameless, yes, irresponsible, definitely, but always admired for his ability to land on his feet, to survive his lowly and powerless position, to make opportunity out of chance. Across the islands, if a story is a lie or a tall-tale then, ‘Is a’nanse story,’ people say, dismissively.

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Papa Bwa

Papa Bwa is the father of the forest. An African/French hybrid he is called by many names, including “Maître Bois” (master of the woods), father wood, and “Daddy Bouchon” (hairy man). Hunters’ stories say that he is sometimes a deer, sometimes a tree, sometimes an old man in ragged clothes. Always very old, he is also always very strong , with cloven hoofs, like a deer, and leaves growing out of his beard. He is the protector of the animals and the guardian of the trees.

pap bwa
Papa Bwa: Mvanwy (2000)

In many stories Papa Bwa lures hunters deep into the bush and then leaves them lost. Or some say, he makes a ruthless hunter pay the fine of being married to Mama Glo for all eternity – trapped forever, in the muddy depths of the river.

ADVICE: ‘If you should meet with Papa Bois, be very polite. – Bon jour, vieux Papa – or – Bon Matin, Maître – should be your greeting. If he pauses to pass the time with you, stay cool, and do not look at his feet.’  (islandmix.com, empressdududalin, 2005)

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Dwens

Dwens (douens) are the lost souls of children who died very young or were still-born. Hoop-hoop-hoop, hoop-hoop. They are thought to be of West African Ibo, origin.  Small children doomed to roam the earth forever, living in forests, swa

old photo dwen
A found photo of a dwen.  Of unknown origin, it has been dated –  1937

mps and near rivers.  They are usually naked, though they wear big, broad-brimmed hats that hide the fact that, except for a small mouth, they have no face.

If you see a lost child in the forest you know they’re a dwen by their awkward gait and backwards feet – the heels facing front.  The old people say that you must never shout a child’s name in open spaces because the dwens will learn the name and call to the child, stealing them away into the forest. Sometimes, late at night dwens venture into villages crying and whimpering outside of windows. Hoop-hoop-hoop, hoop-hoop.

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Mama Glo

Mam Glo is the mother of the river with the long, long, long hair and golden comb. She probably originates from the African Orisha goddess, Oshun.  Instead of legs Mama Glo has the beautiful tail of a fish or some say a snake.  It is believed that she is Papa Bwa’s lover, and with him guards the forest, its rivers and its streams. If anyone is found destroying or disrespecting the forest, they could find themselves drawn into the river and drowned, or worse, married to Mama Glo for eternity.

mama d'glo
Mama Glo: Mvanwy (2000)

In the quiet of the forest, the river is a mirror, reflecting the trees and the sky, and for a moment a beautiful face shimmers under the surface, and then, in a ripple, is gone. Country folk talk of the cracking sound from deep in the bush – her tail, slapping a still, mountain pool.  You might come upon her, sitting on a rock at the edge of the river, combing her long, long hair, silently singing as the sun. Your footsteps alert her and in a blink, she is not there.

But she doesn’t like to be seen and will punish anyone who disturbs her. So the old people advise; if you meet Mama Glo unexpectedly, take off your left shoe, turn it upside down and walk  away backwards, as quickly as you can.

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Lajabless 

Lajabless or La Diablesse (she devil) is an old crone. She is also a seductress, who only shows herself on the night of a full moon. She wears the traditional Dominican dress – full white petticoats topped with a colourful skirt of greens, reds and yellows, a white bodice, probably laced,  a  shawl around her shoulders, matching colourful headscarf, hanging gold ear-rings and often a broad hat.

Lajabless waits on lonely roads, appearing as a young and beautiful woman, in the moonlight. She lures unsuspecting men deep into the forest. But her full white petticoats hide her secret; the cloven hoof.  Some  stories have her leading the man over a cliff-top to be swallowed up by the sea.  Others have her lead him to the seashore where a wave engulfs and drowns him.

A blend of French, Taino and African folklore, it is thought that Lajabless was born in Martinique and travelled throughout the Caribbean on French ships.

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Soucouya

Soucouya:  Soucouyantˌ suːkuːˈjɒ̃/  noun  1. (in Caribbean folklore) a malignant witch believed to shed her skin by night and suck the blood of her victims. (en.oxforddictionaries.com)

Soucouya is a shapeshifter.  Also known as Ole Higue , by day she is an old woman, a recluse who lives on the edge of the town or village.  At night, she sheds her skin, and flies, as a ball of fire across the sky. She is reminiscent of The Adze, an organ eating vampire from Ghana and Togo, that appears as a firefly, but if captured reverts to human form.

soucouya 23In Caribbean villages, people talk of seeing a flame swooping round trees or darting up a lane. She can slip easily through key-holes, under doors or past the crack of an unlatched window. Then she finds her victim and sucks their blood as they sleep – from their arms, legs, stomach, back, anywhere that is soft or meaty. She can return, night after night until, covered in bruises, hollow-eyed and ashen, the victim becomes a soucouya themselves, or dies, leaving their skin behind for her to assume.

In some islands they say that a soucouya trades the victims’ blood with a demon that lives in the silk cotton tree.  All agree that when she sheds her skin, she hides it in a mortar that she secrets away. It is difficult to say who is a soucouya, but there is one way to expose her. Heap rice in the middle of the road, because she is compelled to stop and collect every grain, one grain at a time. When dawn breaks, she will still be bound to her task and irrefutably revealed. But to destroy her, you have to find the hidden mortar or calabash where she hides her skin and pour some coarse salt into it.  When she sheds her skin and stashes it inside, the skin burns up and the soucouya perishes.

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Lagahoo

Lagahoo is the sound of chains rattling down the road at the dead of night. The sound of a cat crying in the darkness, or a pig squealing from the distant bush. He is mostly in Trinidad or Haiti. He’s a shapeshifter; man by day, whatever form he wants by night – some say a headless man or dog. He roams the night dragging a coffin of souls behind him by large chains wrapped round his waist. Atop the coffin are three lighted candles that flicker in the gloom. As he approaches you will see him flicking the whip-like cluster of sticks in his hand. Lagahoo feeds on the blood or liver of any animal or man that crosses his path. Some stories claim that he is an obeah man who sold his soul to the devil for power.

lagahoo man 2
Lagahoo: Myvanwy (2000)

Lagahoo is a blend of the European werewolf (Lou-garou) and the African Bowakazi or Ilimu that attacks livestock and can change form day or night.  Lagahoo can make himself as small as a bush rat or as large as a giant dog.

 

Old people say, that if you want to see Lagahoo without being seen, you have to take the ‘yampee’ from a dog’s eye, put it in your eye and peep through a key-hole at midnight.  It is very difficult to defeat Lagahoo. The only known way is with holy water or holy oil. You must capture Lagahoo and beat him for nine days with a long stick that is anointed with the holy water/oil. After nine days of beating, while Lagahoo changes into all the animals he’s ever shifted into, he will vanish into the early morning mist.

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Jumbie

 

To signal the end of the story, the Compere concludes his tale.  

‘Wire bend, story end’