The Jamaican Duppy

The word duppy is African in origin and has two meanings in Jamaican spirit lore. The first meaning refers to a soul, which may manifest in either human form or animal form. The second evolves from the first and references a supernatural race of mischievous little people—a duppy-folk akin to fairy-folk.

The subject of this post is the first type of duppy, that of a soul.

Duppy Spirit Lore

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Jamaican Spirit Lore

Jamaican folklore presupposes a person has two souls. One is good, originating with God. The other is secular. When someone dies, the good soul soars to heaven to answer for earthly sins. The other remains coffin-bound for three days, after which its shadow emerges and its duppy is born.

If the duppy manifests in human form, it will often resemble the body it abandoned. If animalistic, it might appear in the guise of a snake, a lizard, a horse, you name it—but not, I think, a lamb or a donkey.

These manifestations aren’t ghostly apparitions or demonic possessions; they have substance. But even so, a duppy can disappear into the shadows at will.

There’s the good duppy, and then there’s the evil . . .

A well-intentioned duppy might stick around to sit with the children or guard the family valuables.

A malevolent duppy is the one to elude. A whiff of its hot breath has power to kill, and it can do irreparable damage to one’s finances, health, property, or love life. A dead husband’s duppy, for example, might return to reclaim his conjugal rights, causing the widow to become barren well before her time, or worse, to bear dead babies.

As it’s impossible to know whether you’ll wind up with a good one or an evil one, it’s best to silence a duppy from the start. Thanks to the aforementioned three day grace period, mourners have an opportunity to plant the duppy down before it has a chance to cause trouble.

Plant the duppy down!

A properly planted duppy is unable to leave its coffin. These methods have had success in the past:

1) Throw a shovelful of parched peas into the grave. If the peas don’t grow, the duppy can’t escape.
2) Plant a shrub upside down in the grave, roots out.
3) Place a cotton tree limb on the coffin.

Granted, planting a duppy down isn’t possible if the duppy’s already roaming. Still, one has a number of options to outwit it.

Outwitting a pursuing duppy:

1. Stay in the shadows at night, out of moonlight.
2. Climb a tree.
3. Buy time by “cutting ten,” that is, making the sign of the cross ten times in the dirt with a knife. A duppy can’t count past nine–nor does it care much for crosses.
4. Cast peas, rice, or sand before a pursuing duppy. Same concept as in #3. The duppy must count the grains, thereby granting its victim precious time to escape.
5. Shout these words from an unknown tongue: “Ig no ring ya no bar ditos doranti placitus.”
6. If the duppy’s inside a dwelling, expel it by burning cow dung mixed with hoof and horn.
7. Brew tea with magical herbs.
8. Wash yourself with the same water used to cleanse a dead person. (If you bathe later, all bets are off).

And if all else fails . . .

Employ an obeah man as a duppy catcher.

Real or imagined, a malevolent, vengeful duppy can wreak havoc with one’s senses. Why take chances?

 

In Voices Echo, an undercurrent of duppies and obeah black magic undermines Rhiannon Ross’ confidence when she joins her elderly husband in 18th-century Jamaica. It quickly causes the twenty-year-old heroine to lose her fearless edge.

Whether she believed in duppies or not, Rhiannon did come to recognize the healing power of rituals.

Rituals have the power to banish the haunting memories that hold us captive.

Torchlight flickered over the silent dark faces of those gathered in the graveyard, and Rhiannon drew in a long, ragged breath, catching the scent of freshly turned dirt. Sliding from her horse, she clutched her amulet and crossed to the open grave.

Grave---RCraning forward, she watched Maisie sprinkle something over the coffin and suddenly recalled Quaminah’s words, surprised to find she no longer found them foolish: “Them didn’t plant his duppy down, missus . . . that’s why him plague you so.”

Perhaps, but he’d plague her no longer. With a few whispered words, Rhiannon persuaded Maisie to hand her the shovel. Ignoring the surprised murmur that rustled amongst the slaves, she rammed it into the piled dirt. Her movements clumsy, three-quarters of her load spilled before she tilted it over the grave. A clap of laughter broke off as abruptly as it’d begun.

Her belly now lodged in her chest, Rhiannon swallowed. Swiping her palms down her nightclothes and soiling her white wrap, she shoved her braid over her shoulder, gripped the shovel, and tried again. This was her battle, and she’d be the one to end it.

Bibliography

Leach, MacEdward. “Jamaican Duppy Lore.” The Journal of American Folklore Vol 74, No. 293 (Jul.-Sept., 1961): 207-215, Courtesy of JSTOR; stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/537633

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