mythologies of the carribean

Passed down through oral tradition from generation to generation, stories about mythical creatures are an important part of Caribbean culture. The characters in Caribbean tales vary from wise and kind to downright scary! Storytelling has always been a central part of West Indian culture, with many folk tales and stories passed down from generation to generation. For many of us, the skin crawling stories of jumbies, duppies and many different figures were told as we sat in circles with aunt and uncles, cousins, and grandparents. These tales are also a reflection of the diversity in the Caribbean, with many stemming from African, Indian, Spanish and English origins. These tales have also been a way for us to keep in touch with ancestral roots and keep our cultural traditions alive as we’ve immigrated to new places.

Caribbean Folklore Figures

Ananse

Ananse or Anansi, the spider, is a popular character from Caribbean stories and hails from West Africa where he was once a well known tricker. He is generally wise and cunning. As a keeper of stories he aspires to hoard as much knowledge as possible. Ananse was kidnapped and enslaved, to survive he became half-man, half-spider. Some Ananse stories inspired captives to to join together and resist their captors. In the Caribbean tales, he has often been portrayed as a con-man or tricky spider. Ananse stories also taught moral lessons and often ended with a proverb. Many have been published in children’s books, telling the tales of how Ananse came to possess the world’s stories, why he runs on the surface of water and more.

Anansi the Spider

Anansi stories are widely popular and came to Jamaica with the Ashanti people of West Africa. This trickster spider gets up to mischief and his stories have been told for generations to teach children lessons. Sometimes he’s the underdog, using his wits to outsmart larger, greedy foes—usually the tiger—and these tales end on a hopeful note. Sometimes Anansi is greedy and the stories end with a warning; like when he lost his hair trying to hide baked beans from his neighbors under his hat.

Anansi is a spider character originating from Ghana. He appears in many different ways and with different names across literature and oral stories in Africa and the Caribbean. As the keeper of all stories, he aspires to hoard all knowledge and wisdom. Anansi is generally a wise, cunning character. However, he is sometimes portrayed as a trickster. Brought to the Caribbean by African slaves, Anansi stories sometimes inspired captives to join together to resist their captors. The stories also had a moral function as well. They taught moral lessons, and often ended with a proverb. There are many, many stories about Anansi, and some have been published in children’s books. They include the tale of how Anansi came to possess all the stories in the world, how he got a bald head, and why he runs on the surface of water, among others.

Chickcharney

The legend of Chickcharney originated in the Bahamas and is about a mythical creature that resembles an owl, though far more frightening in it’s looks. The Chickcharney stands three feet tall, furry, and feathered with three fingers, three toes and beaming red eyes. It is said that if you come across the creature and treat it well, even give it a gift, the Chickcharney will give you good luck. Treat it poorly or make fun of it, and you’ll be cursed with bad luck and hard times. It’s advised that travelers wear brightly coloured clothing or have a colourful object to gift the Chickcharney. In some versions of the tale, treating a Chickcharney badly will result in one’s head spinning around to face their back.

The legend of the chickcharney originated in the Bahamas. This furry, feathered creature has the face of an owl, but it stands about 3 feet tall! If you come across a chickcharney and treat it well, perhaps by giving it a gift (like a brightly-colored object), it will bestow good luck on your life. However, if you mistreat it or make fun of it, you will get back luck. Some versions of the tale say that treating a chickcharney badly will make your head spin around to face your back. Interestingly, a 3-foot tall species of barn owl once lived on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. Scholars suggest that this bird, called Tyto pollens, may have been the source of these stories. It became extinct during the 16th century when the Andros forests were cut down.

La Diablesse

La Diablesse or Lajabless, is half woman, half demon as a result of a deal made with the devil. She is also a seductress who only shows herself on nights when there is a full moon. She appears very beautiful and can be found wearing a large straw hat and a colourful dress of greens, reds and yellows. It is said that her long dress hides her secret; a cow foot with a cloven hoof. This devilish women appears in stories from many Caribbean countries, including Trinidad & Tobago, Dominica, and St. Lucia. She appears beautiful from far away, but hides a horrible calf foot under her long dress. Her hideous face is covered by an enormous hat. She stands at the roadside and tries to entice travelers, especially men, into following her into the forest, where she then vanishes. Her victims wander hopelessly through the forest, never making their way back home. It is said that you can escape her spell only by turning your clothes inside out and walking home backwards.

La Diablesse waits on lonely roads, luring unsuspecting men deep into the forest where they may fall over a cliff-top, drown in the sea, or be attacked by animals. Stories about her were often told to deter children from bad behaviour or warn young men against beautiful women with bad intentions. The legend of La Diablesse is thought to have been born in Martinique.

Mermaids Have Always Been Black

Mama D’Leau in the oral tradition was huge and hideous, fierce and unstoppable. She ruled the water, both river and sea alike, and reveled in upturning fishing boats by whipping her powerful anaconda tail and watching her victims drown in the blue. As a young feminist, I was delighted by the idea of such a powerful and free woman, the murder notwithstanding. In my story, I made her as beautiful and well coifed as any of my aunts, and just as fearsome as the stories — or again, any of the aunties. Mama D’Leau always existed in my imagination. I worried when my father swam out so far that I couldn’t see him, and worried again that the creature would capsize the boat he was hanging on to before he could swim back. In the stories, Mama D’Leau never cared whom she killed. It was sport. Though, same as any fisherman, I suppose. I don’t remember when I figured out that this was only a story.

Papa Bois and Mami Wata

Mami Wata is a well known mermaid-like spirit whose name means “Mother Water.” Mami Wata has a long fish tail and human torso, she is the protector of rivers and can be found sitting on rocks, combing her long tresses with a golden comb. She has West African origins and is highly regarded as a deity in some parts, considered a divine element, symbolizing the many sacred and spiritual qualities of water. Mami Wata is usually depicted with a snake around her neck. She abducts travelers and drags them into the depths of the water. When she returns them to land, they are usually wealthier and more attractive than before.

Papa Bois is known as the father of the forest. He is known by many names such as “Maître Bois” (master of the woods), father wood, and “Daddy Bouchon” (hairy man). Some stories say that he appears as a deer, a tree, or an old man in ragged clothes. He is very strong with cloven hooves like a deer, and has leaves growing out of his beard. Papa Bois protects all the animals and trees in the forest. In many tales, Papa Bois lures hunters deep into the forest and then leaves them lost. Others say he makes hunters pay the ultimate price of being married to Mama Glo for all eternity, trapped in the muddy depths of the river. If you cross paths with Papa Bois, be very polite and if he pauses to pass time, do not look at his feet.

Mami Wata and Papa Bois

Mami Wata is a mermaid-like creature, with a long fish tail and a human torso. As the protector of rivers, she sits on a rock and combs her hair with a golden comb. In some parts of West Africa and Haiti, she is a revered deity. Usually depicted with a snake around her neck, Mami Wata abducts travelers and drags them down into the water. Then she returns them to dry ground, usually wealthier and more attractive than they were before.

Papa Bois is a popular Caribbean folklore character in St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago. He is the counterpart to Mami Wata, guarding over the forests and animals. Sometimes he is depicted as an old man with deer feet and a beard made of leaves. In other stories, he is the husband of La Diablesse.

Lagahoo

Lagahoo is a shapeshifter; a man by day, and whatever form he wants to portray by night. In some cases a headless man or a dog. Lagahoo is mostly found in Trinidad or Haiti. He roams the night, often dragging a coffin of souls behind him by large chains wrapped around his waist. If he approaches you, you will see him ficking a whip. Lagahoo feeds on the liver and blood or any human or animal that crosses his path. Some stories claim him to be an obeah man who sold his soul to the devil for power. It is said 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 keyhole at midnight. The only known way to defeat Lagahoo is with holy water or holy oil.

Heartman

Prevalent in tales from Barbados, the heartman mercilessly carves out people’s hearts. Naughty children are usually his main culprits. In some versions, he gives the hearts over to the devil, in others, he steals them because he has no heart of his own. Also called the BlackHeart man, this evil character lures children into his black hearse using candy. 

 Rolling Cow/Calf

This frightening bovine is one of the strangest creatures in Caribbean folklore. The ghost of a cruel, wicked butcher, it appears in Jamaican stories as a giant cow that shoots fire from its nostrils and drags chains behind it. It rolls along the hills, terrorizing its victims and chasing them through the darkness. This creature is classified as a duppy in Caribbean folklore, which means spirit or ghost. There are many versions as to how to stop a rolling calf. One is to throw rice at it, which it may stop and count. Another is to whip it with the left hand. Also, it’s afraid of light, as duppies usually are. Interestingly, stories of the rolling calf emerged from rural areas of Jamaica that had few light sources. One theory as to where the character came from is that African slaves combined African superstitions with instances of travelers being frightened by wandering cows late at night on dark streets.

Soucouyant

Of all the scary creatures from Caribbean folklore, this one may be the most bizarre. The soucouyant is a cross between a witch, a vampire, and a shapeshifter. By day, she’s an elderly woman who lives down the street. By night, she sheds her skin and buries it. Then she flies away into the night, appearing as a ball of fire that can slip through keyholes and under doors. Once she finds a victim, she sucks its blood through its arms and legs and wears its skin as if its a new cloak.

The only way to defeat her is to find her buried skin and rub salt into it so that it is too painful for her to wear in the morning. There are many versions and variations of the soucouyant character in Caribbean countries. It appears in Dominica, St. Lucian, Trinidadian, and Guadeloupean folklore. It is known as Lougarou in Haiti, and as Hag in the Bahamas. In addition, stories about it have been told in Grenada, Jamaica, Suriname, Guyana, and other Caribbean countries.

Pontarof

Thevet tells of a West Indian fish called the Tebuch, Thébuch, or Pontarof, which means “robber fish” or “evil fish”. A pontarof is the size of a porpoise or bigger, but not as long. Its round head is human in appearance except for the ears, which are four fingers longer than human ears. They are permanently extended from the head. The fins of the pontarof are the largest fins Thevet had seen. The pontarof earned its name from its cruel behavior. A pontarof will wait in the water until a child enters the river to bathe, whereupon the fish immediately seizes them. It doesn’t eat the child, but toys with them like a cat with a mouse, wrapping its fins around them, tossing them into the air, holding them with its tail… Eventually this grisly game drowns the child, and the pontarof bores and releases it. For this reason, the natives of the land despise pontarofs and will hunt and kill them wherever they are seen. Pontarof meat is not eaten. De Montfort believed the pontarof to be some kind of octopus. It seems more likely that it was a manta ray. The human-like face, “ears”, and huge fins are all reminiscent of mantas, which have long had a bad reputation.

Lusca

Off the shores of Andros Island in the Bahamas are the blue holes. These are deep submarine caves that appear as dark “holes” in the sea. Local lore claims that they are bottomless, and while it may be safe to sail over them, diving is perilous. The Lusca embodies the terror of these dark places and personifies their dangerous currents. The blue holes are littered with the skeletons of its victims and the wreckage of boats and outboard motors. A lusca is a gigantic octopus or cuttlefish, sometimes said to be half octopus and half dragon. It is also known as a “giant scuttle”, where “scuttle” is the Bahamian term for octopus, and “Him of the Hands”, although it is unclear whether those are actual hands or merely a reference to cephalopod arms. This mythical creature is half shark, half octopus. Said to lurk in the blue holes of the Bahamas, the lusca is just as scary as it sounds. It grabs swimmers with its tentacles and drags them down into the abyss. In some versions of the lusca stories, the creature is half octopus, half woman, and it entangles victims in its long hair. The lusca has been linked to many sightings of sea monsters over the years. For example, blubbery remains of a giant creature washed up on a Florida shore in 1896, and some suggested it could be a real-life lusca. Dubbed the St. Augustine monster, the remains were later found to be those of a giant whale.

Those arms can reach up to 75 feet (roughly 23 meters) long. They are dangerous because they can grab a boat or a fisherman from one end and anchor themselves to the bottom on the other; if they cannot make fast to the seafloor, they cannot pull their prey down. The lusca shoots its “hands” out of the water to snatch anyone or anything that comes too close to a blue hole. A lusca can stop a two-master dead in the water, coiling its tentacles around the rudder while its “hands” reach up and feel around the deck. The moment the tentacles contact a human, they immediately pull the unfortunate sailor into the water. George J. Benjamin and Jacques-Yves Cousteau were both warned of the dangers of the lusca, but failed to find any trace of the giant octopus. In fact, Benjamin succeeded in retrieving an outboard motor supposedly lost to a lusca, much to the bemusement of the motor’s proprietor. Wood and Gennaro identify the St. Augustine blob, found on a Florida beach, as being the same animal as the lusca. As the blob was found to be a mass of connective tissue from a large vertebrate, probably a whale, this is unlikely.

Rolling-calf

Rolling Calf

A duppy is a type of ghost or spirit native to Jamaica. While described as the souls of dead people, duppies have much in common with Old World shapeshifters and roadside tricksters. They may be found in bamboo thickets and cottonwood groves, and feed on bamboo, “duppy pumpkin”, and strangler figs. Duppies appear from seven in the evening till five in the morning, and sometimes at noon. Duppy activities range from simple mischief to arson, beating, burning, poisoning, and stoning, but they are powerless against twins and those born with a caul. A left-handed crack with a tarred whip and the burning of certain herbs keep them away. Some of the more dangerous duppies include Three-foot Horse, whose breath is poison and which can outrun anything, but which cannot attack those in the shadow of trees. Then there is Whooping-Boy who rides Three-foot Horse while whooping loudly. Long-bubby Susan has pendulous breasts that reach the ground, and which she throws over her shoulders. Old Hige, the witch, is fond of abducting children, but can be confounded by rice thrown on the doorstep – the duppy cannot count above three, but is compelled to count the grains anyway. Then there is Rolling-calf, one of the worst and most feared duppies.

These are evil spirits or ghosts that appear in much of Caribbean folklore. In same countries, they are called “duppies”, and in others, “jumbies”. In any case, they are always malevolent, and may be the spirits of the dead. Some say that you can tell there is a duppy nearby when you feel sudden, unexplained heat or disorientation. “Rolling” in this context means “roaming”, as in “rolling through town”. It is a shapeshifter that can appear in a number of guises. The best known is that of a hornless goat, black or white or spotted, with a corresponding caprine stench. One of its front legs is human, the other is that of a horse, and the two hind legs are those of a goat. Its tail curls over its back. Its eyes are red and glow like blazing fires. Flames come from its nostrils. There is a collar on its neck, with a chain that drags on the ground and rattles ominously. The rolling-calf can also appear as a cat, dog, pig, goat, bull, or horse, with the brindled-cat form being particularly dangerous. It can be as small as a cat, or as big as a bull. A rolling-calf is the soul of a particularly wicked person. Butchers and murderers return as rolling-calves, as do Obeah men; the latter can also set rolling-calves on people. Rolling-calves are found in bamboo and cottonwood as well as caves and abandoned houses, coming out on moonless nights in search of sugar (they are fond of molasses) and breaking into cattle pens. Rolling-calves can wreak all sorts of evil and blow “bad breath” on their victims, but they can be warded off in a number of ways. Flogging them with a tarred whip always helps, as does sticking an open knife into the ground. Even more useful is the fact that rolling-calves are terrified of the moon to a comical extent. But whatever method is used to escape a rolling-calf’s clutches, you would be well-advised to leave the premises at once. The rolling-calf will return with a vengeance.

Yuanat

Yuanat

The Yuanat is a type of serpent reported by Thevet from the island of Hispaniola, or Cuba. It lives in trees, on land, and in the water, making it fish, fowl, and land beast. This greatly terrifying creature is about the size of a rabbit and is frightful to behold. It has the tail of a lizard, and four weak bird’s legs, with the forelegs longer than the hindlegs and long claws on each toe. Its teeth are sharp. It has a spine running down its back like the fin of a fish. Underneath its throat there is a colorful flap of skin reaching down to its belly, its varied hues making it hard to tell which color is dominant. It can swim well, and is completely mute. Despite its horrifying appearance, the yuanat tastes excellent, and its flesh is more highly prized than that of rabbits. It is also so gentle and harmless that the natives would keep a yuanat on a leash for ten or twelve days before eating it, and it would never attempt to harm them. However, Thevet notes that yuanat meat is harmful to those who have had the pox, as it causes the disease to return in full force.

Bocarin

Bocarin

Thevet’s visit to the island of Hispaniola turned up a number of unusual and exotic creatures, one of which is a grass-eating fish known as the Bocarin or Manati. Found in both rivers and the ocean, the bocarin looks primarily like a full wineskin tapering from the navel to the end of the tail. This corpulent monster is 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, and has grey skin with sparse hair. It has two legs at its shoulders, which it uses to swim with, and round, four-toed elephant’s feet with prominent nails. Its head is like that of an ox, except with a smaller face, much smaller eyes, and a much larger and fleshier chin. Females bocarins give birth to live young, and suckle them from teats much like whales do. Thevet deemed it to be the most deformed and grotesque fish he had ever seen in that part of the world, but for all its ugliness it did have its uses. Its flesh tasted more like veal than like fish, and was fine to eat. Its skin was used to make shoes, its fat was used in leather-making and as ointment. Stones known as enar-onacpy in a bocarin’s head, ground into powder and taken with white wine, were remedies against kidney and bladder stones. A Spaniard swore to Thevet that a bocarin had been kept for 20 or 30 years in a pond, and eventually became so tame that it would let people scratch its back and ride on it. But Thevet saw that as absurd, as who could imagine a fish being tamed in such a way, let alone a monstrously ugly one like the bocarin?

Aloés

Aloes

The Aloés is a large fish from the Caribbean around Hispaniola, reported by Thevet. It looked like a goose in general shape, with the top of its skull in the shape of a bon-chrétien (Williams) pear. It had four underslung fins, a fish-like tail, and no scales on its plump body. Several could be observed swimming alongside the boats, along with shoals of fish, and they looked remarkably like geese diving in and out of the waves.

Bacoo

Bacoo are tiny, bearded men that take up residence in houses and can grant wishes. Tales about them are popular in Guyana and Barbados. Legend has it that if you treat a bacoo well, it will do your bidding. However, if you treat it poorly, it will torment you until you whatever it asks. They live up in the rafters or ceilings of a house and won’t leave until the owner of a house passes away. In Guyana, these impish spirits are said to pelt houses with stones, or move objects around inside houses. Bacoo are sometimes blamed for strange incidents.

CREATURES OF CARIBBEAN FOLKLORE

Chupacabra

Perhaps the most famous of Caribbean folklore, the chupacabra’s appearance is debated, but one thing is agreed upon: it’s a vampire for livestock. It’s been blamed for mysterious deaths of sheep, and especially goats, and is sometimes said to look like a scaly dog with long spines on its back. The legend originated with farmers in Puerto Rico, but has spread throughout Mexico and the American Southwest.  

Creatures of Caribbean Folklore

La Ciguapa

One of the most common Dominican legends, “la ciguapa” is said to be a beautiful, terrifying creature that looks like a woman with long dark hair that roams mountains and forests, like the Cotubanamá National Park not far from La Ramona. Only coming out at night, la ciguapa sometimes sneaks into villages to steal food, an unlucky sign, but she’s better known for luring away wandering men who are never seen again! Not spooky enough? Her feet face backwards, making it harder to track her down or see her coming!

Creatures of Caribbean Folklore

Baron Samedi

Haitian Vodou has some fascinating folklore and Baron Samedi is a well-known and powerful spirit also popular in Louisiana voodoo. As the spirit of the dead, it’s believed nobody can pass on without his greeting, so he’s also seen as a healer who can refuse a sick person’s soul. Baron Samedi is said to resemble a skeleton sporting a frayed top hat and suit with dark glasses, and he’s always drinking rum, smoking cigars, and telling dirty jokes. It’s no wonder this outrageous vodou figure gained popularity in TV, video games, and movies, like the James Bond film Live and Let Die.

Loa

Loa (also spelled Lwa or L’wha) are the spirits of Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo. They are also referred to as Mystères and the Invisibles, in which are intermediaries between Bondye (French: Bon Dieu, meaning “good God”)—the Supreme Creator, who is distant from the world—and humanity. Unlike saints or angels however, they are not simply prayed to, they are served. They are each distinct beings with their own personal likes and dislikes, distinct sacred rhythms, songs, dances, ritual symbols, and special modes of service. Contrary to popular belief, the loa are not deities in and of themselves; they are intermediaries for, and dependent on, a distant Bondye.

Loa is a term for voodoo spirits who serve the distant and unknowable Supreme Creator, Bondye. Loa are the spirits of Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo. They are also referred to as “mystères” and “the invisibles” and are intermediaries between Bondye (from French Bon Dieu, meaning “good God”)—the Supreme Creator, who is distant from the world—and humanity. Unlike saints or angels, however, they are not simply prayed to, they are served. They are each distinct beings with their own personal likes and dislikes, distinct sacred rhythms, songs, dances, ritual symbols, and special modes of service. Contrary to popular belief, the loa are not deities in and of themselves; they are intermediaries for, and dependent on, a distant Bondye.

Yocahu is the leading god to the Taino people. He is also one of the twins that Atabey had and is the god of the sea. The way he would lead the people was to keep watch over them from the sky. He is also considered a god of fertility due to its origin and he was associated with the tainos main crop called cassava (cassava is a root, very yummy) It is said that farmers would take a statue of Yocahu and bury it under the soil, close or in the center of the fields in hope of getting good crops. The statue was called a cemi or zemi.

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