Welcome to our Jamaica Folklore Section

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 greates 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.


The River Mumma (The River Maiden or Mistress)

  • River Mumma
    River Mumma
  • The River Mumma Golden Table
    The River Mumma Golden Table

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 "Roaring Calf)

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.

Louise Bennett’s poem “Rollin Calf” aptly captures the story surrounding it and the fear it engenders.


Rollin' Calf


Me deh pon has’e 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?


T’ree 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 y’eye 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 y’eye a-jump him mighta

Dead long before me ketch.


The Ol' Higue

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.

The 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.

The Cotton Tree

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.


The idea of duppies inhabiting the cotton tree is a remnant of the English invasion of Jamaica. Legend has it that when the English invaded Jamaica in 1655, the fleeing Spanish buried their treasures and a cotton tree marks the site of these troves. It is believed that the Spanish used a slave to dig the hole for the treasure and when this task was completed he was killed. Therefore the place was silenced forever and his ghost was set to guard the treasure. If anyone tries to dig the spot for treasures, the ghost would cause the treasure to sink deeper, unless that person has the secret password. In addition some misfortune would fall on the person.


Incumbent with the idea of the cotton tree representing a habitation for the dead, it is believed that communication with the dead/spirits is possible. Obeah and myal are two Jamaican traditions that associate with spirits and therefore make use of the cotton tree in different ways. It is said that obeah men use the cotton tree to cast an evil spell on a person; by driving a nail into the tree and calling upon an evil spirit to cast the person’s soul from their body and dwell in the cotton tree. In this case the cotton tree is used for ‘soul catching’. Myal on the other hand uses the cotton tree to free the ‘soul’. In myal tradition believers sprinkle rum, play drums and shakers and dance at and around the cotton tree.


Owing to the cotton tree’s association with duppies one has to take great precautions when handling a cotton tree. If a canoe is being dugout from it the cutter must know the ritual for this task, so that harm does not befall him. 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.

Bredda Anansi

Anansi is one of the most important gods of West African lore. He is a trickster and a culture hero, who acts on behalf of Nyame (his father, the sky god) and brings rain to stop fires and performing other duties for him. His mother is Asase Ya. There are several mentions of Anansi's children. According to some myths his wife is known as Miss Anansi or Mistress Anansi but most commonly as Aso. Eventually, Anansi was replaced by a chameleon. He is depicted in numerous forms: a spider, a human, or combinations thereof.

The Anansi legends are believed to have originated in the Ashanti tribe. They later spread to other Akan groups and then to the West Indies, Suriname, and the Netherlands Antilles. On Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire he is known as Nanzi, and his wife as Shi Maria.

Anansi stories are known as Anansesem to the Ashanti and Anansi-Tori in Suriname.

In some beliefs, Anansi created the sun, stars and the moon, as well as teaching mankind the skills involved in agriculture. Another story tells of how Anansi tried to hoard all of the world's wisdom in a calabash. In the end he realizes the futility of trying to keep all the wisdom to himself, and released it.

Most cultures that have Anansi folktales also have the story of how Anansi became King of All Stories, not just his own. In the original Ashanti version of this story, Anansi approaches Nyame, the Sky God, with the request that he be named King of All Stories. Nyame then tells Anansi that if he can catch The Jaguar With Teeth Like Daggers, The Hornets Who Sting Like Fire, and The Fairy Whom Men Never See, he will be King of Stories. Anansi agrees, despite Nyame's doubt that he can do it. Anansi then tricks the jaguar, who intends to eat him, into playing a game that allows Anansi to tie him up. He tricks the hornets by pretending that it is raining, and telling them to hide in a calabash. He tricks the fairy with the gum/tar baby trick told below. He then takes them to Nyame and becomes King of All Stories. Other versions of this story involve Anansi getting Snake for Lion/Tiger.


The only time Anansi himself was tricked when he tried to fight a tar baby after trying to steal food, but became stuck to it instead. The "tar-baby" tale appears in a variety of ethnic African folklore contexts. It is best known from the Brer Rabbit version, found in the Uncle Remus stories. These were derived from African-American folktales in the Southern United States. Ultimately this version was adapted and used in the 1946 live-action/animated Walt Disney movie Song of the South.