“Myth is the twilight speech on an old man to a boy. The speech of an elder in the twilight of his life is not his history, but a legacy; he speaks, not to describe matter, but to demonstrate meaning.”
Thus wrote Maya Deren in her excellent book “Voodoo Gods”. An old man speaks of his past for the purpose of the future. His purpose selects his memories. As Deren wrote:
“He remembers that which has been, according to what could and should be. From the material circumstances of his experience he plots, in retrospect the adventure for the mind which is the myth.”
It is with this in mind that I approached a fascinating collection of stories written in the mid-19th century by a visitor. Here is one:
“Christmas morning! yet the trees are green, and butterflies are fluttering in the air. As I ride along the winding path, returning from a refreshing dip in the sea, I can hardly realize that this is winter! that on the other side of the Atlantic it is miserably cold, perhaps snow on the ground, and probably most people indoors, shivering round a fire; while here - a lovely, cool, spice-laden breeze is wafted down from the mountains yonder - the sun shines down out of a bright blue sky, and humming-birds of gorgeous colouring flit over the scented black sage bushes.
The path, now and then shaded with clumps of feathery bamboo or bushy tufted gru-gru palms, skirts a hillside covered with waving sugar-canes, while in the distance, I can see the deep blue ocean, stretching away till sea and sky melt in a haze.
My companion, a genial French Roman Catholic priest, rides a few paces ahead, his bathing towel slung round his neck, and in his mouth a never missing cigarette. An “Obeah bottle” hanging to a mango-tree draws my attention to the subject which interests me so much, and riding up, I ask my companion what he can tell me about the superstitions of the country.
“Ah, my dear fellow, I can’t remember half I hear and notice on these ever-present superstitions of the people, but I assure you that it is one of the greatest obstacles I meet with in my work among the parishioners; these foolish but so deeply rooted beliefs of their in the power of Obeah and witchcraft meet me at every turn, and after talking for hours, and trying to prove to them how ridiculous and senseless all these ideas are, I only obtain a seeming acquiescence, and make no lasting impression.
I have tried everything to combat the baneful influence, and endeavoured to make them ashamed of their ignorance and credulity, but with precious little effect. I have even adopted the Japanese custom of punishing a whole street for the misdeeds of one criminal living in it, by refusing the sacraments for a time to a whole family, if a member of it be known to be dabbling in Obeah - all to small purpose.
This reminds me that, only the other day, I was riding to see a sick person living on the other side of the parish, when I happened to pass a small wooden house, before which a number of people were congregated, all talking together and evidently much excited in their minds about something inexplicable. On asking what was the matter, I was told that the owner of the house was lying dead, and that he was an Obeah man who had lived quite alone in the place for many years, and that there was consequently no one willing to undertake the job of looking after the corpse and burying it.
In fact, no one would go inside the hut at all, as it was affirmed that this his Satanic Majesty was there in person looking after the body of the Obeah man, which now undoubtedly belonged to him.
To allay their alarm, I got off my horse, and with the assistance of a couple of men broke open the door and entered the hut. Lying on a wooden stretcher was the body of the unfortunate individual, whose death must have occurred a good many hours before, and the body was in urgent need of burial, so after scolding the people for their cowardice I prevailed on them to see about a coffin and other details as quickly as possible. It was, however, only in evident fear and trembling that any of them would enter the room, and the slightest noise would make them start and look towards the door, in the expectation of seeing le diable en personne coming to claim is property.
The dirty little room was littered with the Obeah man’s stock in trade. A number of vials containing some sort of unholy liquor were lying ready to be handed over to some foolish negro in exchange for their weight in silver. In every corner were found the implements of his trade, rags, feathers, bones of cats, parrots’ beaks, dogs’ teeth, broken bottles, grave dirt, rum, and egg-shells. Examining further, we found under the bed a large conarie or earthen jar, containing an immense number of round balls of earth or clay f various dimensions, large and small, whitened on the outside and fearfully and wonderfully compounded. Some seemed to contain hair and rags and were strongly bound round with twine,; others were made with skulls of cats, stuck round with human of dogs’ teeth and glass beads, there were also a lot of egg-shells and numbers of little bags filled with a farrago of rubbish.
In a little tin canister I found the most valuable of the sorcerer’s stock, namely, seven bones belonging to a rattlesnake’s tail - these I have known sell for five dollars each, so highly valued are they as amulets or charms - in the same box was about a yard of rope, no doubt intended to be old for hangman's cord, which is highly prized by the negroes, the owner of a piece being supposed to be able to defy bad luck.
Rummaging further, I puled out from under the thatch of the roof an old preserved-salmon tin, the contents of which showed how profitable was the trade of the Obeah man. It was stuffed full of five-dollar bank-notes, besides a number of handsome twenty-dollar gold pieces, the whole amounting to a considerable sum, which I confess I felt very reluctant to seal up and hand over to the Government, the Obeah man not being known to have heirs. I then ordered the people to gather up all the rubbish, which was soon kindled and blazing away merrily in front of the hut, to the evident satisfaction of the bystanders, who could hardly be persuaded to handle the mysterious tools of Obeah.
The man, I heard, had a great reputation for sorcery, and I was assured that even persons who would never be suspected of encouraging witchcraft had been known to come from a distance to consult him or purchase some love-spell.
The secret of their reputation and frequent success in finding out robberies, which is also a part of their profession, is most likely due to a good memory and a system of cross-questioning all those who come to consult them, and it is also very probable that they possess a knowledge of numerous tricks and deceits handed down to them by their African progenitors, with which they astonish even educated persons and perform wonders which would almost convert one to a belief in magic.”