Trinidad’s folklore actually took root here from the 1780s with the arrival of enslaved Africans and the French-speaking planters who were themselves a mixture of both white, black and mixed-race people.
They hailed from the French islands, Grenada, St. Lucia, Dominica, Martinique, Guadeloupe, with some even as far away as Haiti. Our folklore expresses an element of syncretism that joined West African religious beliefs with Catholicism against the dominant French culture of Trinidad in those long time days. All the characters have French names.
They are essentially of African origin. The picture presented is full of colour and decorated with a wealth of detail, all in keeping with well-recognised West African traditions.
As such, the island's folklore, its many supernatural figures, possesses characteristics that are similar to those of West African deities. Indeed, it is difficult to draw a dividing line between the strictly religious elements and what may be described as "legendary traditions”.
These myths and legends, as they are now known, were originally teaching stories that warned, for instance, against the wanton destruction of the forest, as in the case of Papa Bois.
Papa Bois is remembered as the old man of the forest and is known by many names, including "Maître Bois" and "Daddy Bouchon". He may be associated with Papa Legba who serves as the guardian of the Poto Mitan—the centre of power and support in the home.
Papa Bois appears in different forms, sometimes as a deer or in old ragged clothes, sometimes hairy and though very old, extremely strong and muscular, with cloven hoofs and leaves growing out of his beard. As the guardian of the animals and the custodian of the trees, he is known to sound a cow's horn to warn his friends of the approach of hunters. He doesn’t tolerate killing for killing’s sake, or the wanton destruction of the forest.
There are many stories of Papa Bois appearing to hunters. Sometimes he turns into a deer that would lead the men into the deep forest and then he would suddenly resume his true shape, to issue a stern warning and then to vanish, leaving the hunters lost or perhaps compelling them to pay a fine of some sort.
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.
The La Diablesse is the spirit of women who have been wronged by bad men. She never haunts women. She is the dark side of Erzulie or Ezili, the Haitian/West African spirit of love, dancing, luxury, beauty, jewelry and flowers.
The La Diablesse is sometimes personified as an old crone who steps forth with her cloven hoof from behind a tree on a lonely road, the sound of chains mingling with the rustle of her petticoat.
Sometimes she appears as a tall, handsome Creole woman who, with swinging gait and erect stature, passes through a cane or cocoa field at noon and catches the eye of a man. He then proceeds to follow her, and, never being able to catch up with her—her feet hardly touch the ground— finds himself lost, bewildered, far from home and he is never himself again, having lost his shadow.
She may have a bag of bones, graveyard dirt and shells; she may cast a spell and be perceived as young and desirable, her rich perfume blending with the smell of damp and decaying things. Although she may appear young, she will be dressed in the ancient costume of these islands: a brilliant madras turban in which “zepingue tremblant” (trembling pins of gold) catch the dim moonlight, a low chemise with half sleeves and much embroidery and lace, and all the finery of the by-gone days.
She is the nemesis of the horner man, the womaniser, the wife beater. What she can do for you is give you something far worse than tabanka.
"Mama Dlo" or "Mama Glo" is a water spirit, perhaps reminiscent of Yemanjá, a water goddess from the Yoruba tradition. She warns against vanity. “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
Her name is derived from the French "maman de l' eau" which means "mother of the water". A hideous creature, her lower half takes the form of an anaconda. She is sometimes thought to be the lover of Papa Bois, and old hunters tell stories of coming upon them in the high woods. They also tell of hearing a loud cracking sound, which is said to be the sound made by her tail as she snaps it on the surface of a mountain pool or a still lagoon.
Mortal men who commit crimes against the forest, like burning down trees, indiscriminately putting animals to death or fouling the rivers, could find themselves married to her for life, both this one and the one to follow.
Sometimes she takes the form of a beautiful woman “singing silent songs on still afternoons, sitting at the water's edge in the sunlight, lingering for a golden moment, a flash of green—gone.” If you were to meet Mama Dlo in the forest and wish to escape her, take off your left shoe, turn it upside down and immediately leave the scene, walking backwards until you reach home.
The Soucouyant: “A ball of flame, along she came flying without a wind,” was how the Soucouyant of Saut d'Eau island was described.
She is the old woman who lives alone at the end of the village road, seldom seen, her house always closed up as she sleeps away the day. As evening draws near, she stirs and sheds her old and wrinkled skin, which she deposits into a mortar that she hides carefully away. Now, as a glowing ball of flame, she rises up through the roof and with a shrill cry that sets the village dogs howling, she flies through the night in search of a victim, and she would suck his life-blood from him clean.
As the blessed day dawns, she makes a beeline through the forest for her home, finds the mortar with her wretched skin and proceeds to put it on. But something's wrong, it burns like fire, it seems to shrink and slide away! "Skin, kin, kin, you na no me, you na no me," she sings, crooning softly, pleading to the wrinkled, dreadful thing. "You na no me, old skin." Then, with horror, she realises the dreadful thing that has been done: the village boys and men have filled her skin with coarse salt and pepper and will soon come and get her, with a drum of boiling tar, the priest and his silver cross, the church bells—and then, the end.
This is a witch story. One has to be very careful about witch stories, because women often outlive their husbands and end up owning house and land. It is easy to suspect that the old woman who lives alone is a Soucouyant, so that what she has could be taken from her. Soucouyant comes from the French word soupçon, which means suspicion.
"Duennes" are spirits of children who died before they were baptised and as such, they are fated to roam the by-ways of Trinidad, practicing their wide repertoire of pranks on living children who are enticed away only to return later on as if nothing ever happened. Duennes are depicted as sexless, their feet are turned backwards, demonstrating that they come from the other side, and they have no faces (although they do have small round mouths). On their rather large heads they wear huge mushroom-shaped straw hats.
To prevent the Duennes from calling your children, never shout their names in open places, as the Duennes will take their names, call them and lure them away.
The child, however, is not affected in any way by the Duenn. It is the mother, the father, the child’s guardian who is haunted by the Duenn. Imagine you come home and you can’t find your child. You become hysterical. That is the Duenn. It is inside your head.
Here is a story of a Jumbie. A man called Lastique, who was riding home one night, as he passed the big silk cotton tree at the corner of Belmont Circular Road and the Savannah, he heard a baby crying, so he stopped and picked it up, thinking he would take it home for the night and carry it to the orphanage in the morning. Cycling along, he was reduced to a state of absolute terror as by the time he reached by Jerningham Avenue, he realised that the child was getting bigger and heavier. Suddenly, just outside the hospital, the child said in a man's voice, "You'd better take me back were you found me," which the terrified Lastique did at once. As he drew nearer the tree, the 'child' shrank steadily back to its original size and was deposited, once more, a bawling baby at the foot of the giant tree. The moon, a silent witness, hid its face in a cloud as a chill wind blew and a jumbie bird flew out of the tree.
The "Ligahoo" or "Loup Garou" is the shape changer of Trinidad's folklore. He has his origins in the Obeahman, the poisoner on the estate from slavery days. The master is cruel. The ox falls to its knees in the field, there is fire in the mountain, the mistress’s back is raised with fiery welts every time he beats the old woman who is in charge of the chamber pots. A fellow slave can no longer live in this misery, he gives her what she needs to “go home.”
With emancipation, he is the old magic-dealing man of a district who is both feared and respected, not only for his facility to change his form to that of a vicious animal, but also because he has power over nature. From him, charms and bush medicine are also readily available for a price.
At times, the apparition may take the form of a coffin being carried through the streets. A man, naked, greased from head to toe, carries it on his head. He is protected by a giant "phantome". The coffin and its gruesome attendant were once used to facilitate the uninterrupted transportation of Bush Rum; this effect would virtually ensure its safe passage.
At another time, the "Ligahoo" becomes the Science Man. He reads from the Teetalbay and other forbidden books; he can make a deal with the devil for you. In exchange for your soul, you would become famous, go viral and become rich beyond your wildest dreams. But one night you will wake up and the devil will be sitting on your belly. He has come for your soul. Today he is the drug dealer, the gang recruiter.
If you want to see a Ligahoo and not be seen by it, take some yampee from the corner of a dog's eye, put it in your eye and peep out of a keyhole at 12 midnight.
It is said that those powers are handed down in some old families from one generation to the next, and that is why there are so many Ligahoos among us.
monkey break he back
for a piece of pomerac
that’s the way the wire bends
and the way the story ends.
Our folklore is predominantly of African origin, flavoured with French and to a lesser degree, Spanish and English influences. In keeping with well-recognized African traits, the picture is full of colour and decorated with a wealth of detail. Religious or semi-religious cults of African origin have undoubtedly contributed much to the Island's folklore; many of the supernatural folklore figures possess characteristics which are identical with those of African deities. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to draw a dividing line between the strictly religious elements and what may be described as "legendary traditions".