Origins of Folklore in Trinidad and Tobago
Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents or older cousins would take much delight in telling the younger ones stories. The “jumbie” or invisible, superstitious, mischievous evil spirits that roam both day and night and Anansi or the spider folklore storyteller, these were usually hair-raising, heart-pumping tales of scary creatures and terrifying encounters with the supernatural and other make-believe mythological characters. Predominantly of African origin, with French / Patois, Spanish, English and Indian influences.
Folklore validates several aspects of customs and validates its rituals and foundations. It also offers rationalisations when foundations and principles are questioned. Folklore acts as a controlling aspect and can tell the history of a people, along with dangers and how to avert them. They are ugly and fearsome. Many of the supernatural folklore characters are identical with those of African deities. It is exceedingly complicated to draw a line between the stern religious elements and what may be described as traditions. Nevertheless in the African tradition, stories were meant to instill values in the children.
Trinis are well known for their unique knack for storytelling and there is an abundance of mythical folklore and folktales that have been handed down over the years, all routed in the islands’ rich culture.
Lies or excuses are often referred to as “Nanci stories” after Anansi).
In Trinidad, the popular folklore characters or “jumbies” are as follows:
La Diablesse or Lajables, the Devil Woman, roams at night.
She has eyes like burning coals and a face resembling that of a corpse, but
hides it under a beautiful wide-brimmed hat and a veil over her face. She is
dressed exquisitely in a blouse with puffy sleeves and long, petticoated,
skirts. She has one cloven foot, which she tries to hide under her long skirts.
She turns up at village dances, where she is immediately disliked by the women
present, but she utterly charms the men and then asks one of them to take her
home. He follows her, totally under her spell. She leads him deep into the woods
and then suddenly she disappears. Unable to find his way home, the poor fellow
stumbles around in the dark wood until he either falls into a ravine or a river
to his death or gets attacked by wild hogs.
The soucouyant or soucriant, derived from the French verb sucer
– to suck is not also found in Dominican and Guadeloupean folklore, and also
known as Ole-Higue or Loogaroo in other Caribbean folklore,
is a creature equivalent of a vampire that lives by day as
an old woman at the end of the village. By night, however, she strips off her
wrinkled skin, puts it in a mortar and flies in the shape of a
through the darkness, looking for a victim. Still in the shape of a fireball,
the soucouyant enters the home of her victim through the keyhole or any crack or
crevice. Soucouyants suck the blood of people from their arms, legs and other
soft parts while they sleep. If the soucouyant draws out too much blood from her
victim, it is believed that the victim will die and become a soucouyant herself,
or else perish entirely, leaving her killer to assume her skin. The soucouyant
practices witchcraft, voodoo, and black magic. Soucouyants trade the blood of
their victims for evil powers with Bazil the demon who resides in the silk
cotton tree. To expose a
soucouyant, one should heap rice around the house or at the village cross roads
as the creature will be obligated to gather every grain, grain by grain (an
almost imposible task to do before dawn) thus being caught in the
order to destroy the soucouyant, coarse salt must be placed in the mortar
containing the soucouyant's skin. She then cannot put the skin back on and will
Old people talk: If you wish to discover who the Soucouyant in your village is empty one hundred poundss of rice at the village crossroads where she will be compelled to pick them up, one grain at a time - that is how you'll know the Soucouyant.
In Trinidad, if somebody walks around with a "hicky" (soukie) on his neck, he may get remarks from his friends like: " Eh, Eh, Soucoyant suck yuh or wha ?”
Douen (pronounced Dwen) are considered to be the ‘lost souls’ of children that were not baptised or christened before death. It is said that they are destined to wander the earth eternally while practicing their collection of pranks. Neither male nor female, douens live in the forest, swamps and rivers in Trinidad and Tobago. Their manifestation is that of a naked child never growing more than two or three feet in height. They wear a large floppy straw hat and have an entirely undistinguished face with the exception of a small mouth. The one characteristic that allows them to be recognised as douens are their feet, which are turned backwards with the heel facing forward. Douens roam the land in the pursuit of children that are not yet baptised, or christened in anticipation of luring them away deep into the woods until they are lost. They charm the children when the moon is full and have a mesmerising whooping sound. Children who play with a douen may consider them to be a regular child while the douen slowly but surely leads the child farther and farther away from the protection of home. Some children may be found the next morning or not found at all. Douens also have been known to come to people’s houses crying and whimpering for the love of a mother. They feed off cultivated gardens and seem to have a bizarre fondness for water crabs. Often thought to be evil spirits and malevolent modest creature’s douens do have a good natured side. They have been known to be of assistance to Papa Bois in the forest when an animal is trapped and injured by imitating animal calls to throw hunters off track. To avert the douens from calling your children into the forest it is said that you should never call a child’s name in open places for the douens will then in turn call the child’s name to attract them away into the forest never to return. There have been actual reports of douen encounters from children in rural areas of Trinidad such as Piparo, Penal and Barrakpore.
The Lagahoo or La Gahoo from the French loup-garou meaning werewolf is a mythical shape-shifting monster, said to often take the form of a centaur. It is cousin to the French loup-garou and the Germanic werewolf, yet not restricted to the form of a wolf. It seems like a normal human by day, but this creature takes on the form of a man with no head, who roams the night with a wooden coffin on his neck. On top of the coffin are three lighted candles and the long loose end of a heavy iron chain, noosed around his waist, trails behind him. Often, it is seen with chains around its neck, which change size. One appendage is said to be turned backwards. It can shape-shift into various animals, including horses, pigs or goats and is also thought to be a blood sucker which is less than particular about its food source, making do with such animals as cows and goats. To kill the La Gahoo one must beat the creature with a stick which has been anointed with holy water and holy oil for nine days. While beating the demon, it changes into other beasts such as a snarling dog, a wild bull and thunderous waves of water and finally will disappear into a mist.
Old people talk: If you want to see a lugarhoo 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 key hole at midnight.
Papa Bois (otherwise known as "Maître Bois," meaning master of the woods or "Daddy Bouchon" meaning hairy man), a French patois word for "father wood" or "father of the forest" is a popular fictional folklore character of Trinidad and Tobago. Often called the "keeper of the forest", he is thought of as the protector of the forests and their flora and fauna.
His appearance is thought to be that of a short, old man of African descent with cloven hooves (or at least his left leg ends in a large hoof) and a beard of leaves, who, despite his age sports strong muscles and can run faster than a deer. His body is completely covered with hair like that of a donkey and small horns sprout from his forehead, he is known to carry a hollowed-out bull's horn which he uses to warn the animals of hunters' approach. He is also known to have the power of metamorphosis and is commonly thought to transform himself into a deer, luring hunters deep into the forest and getting them lost. Much like his female counterpart, Mama Dlo.
It is believed that if one meets Papa Bois, one must be polite and refrain from staring at his hooves, and say a polite greeting to him. For example, "Bon jour, vieux Papa" meaning, "Good day, old father."
Glow or "Mama Dlo" or "Mama Dglo" whose name is derived from the French "maman
de l' eau" meaning mother of the water is one of the lesser known personalities
of Trinidad and Tobago folklore. A half woman, half snake with long flowing hair
which she combs constantly. Her upper torso is a naked, beautiful woman, the
lower part coils into a large form of an anaconda snake that is hidden beneath
the water. 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 -
Silk Cotton trees
Silk Cotton trees are regarded with a kind of awed reverence and fear. These are huge trees. It is reported to be very difficult to be able to find someone who will cut down a silk cotton tree as they are said to be the home of spirits and duppies. To cut it down is to free them to roam the earth. The Castle of the Devil is a huge silk cotton tree growing deep in the forest in which Bazil the demon of death was imprisoned by a carpenter. The carpenter tricked the devil into entering the tree in which he carved seven rooms, one above the other, into the trunk. Folklore claims that Bazil still resides in that tree.
Tobago has its own jumbies
Gang Gang Sara.
The legend of Gang Gang Sara, the African witch of Golden Lane, has its origins in the latter half of the 18th century. On a stormy night she was blown from her home in Africa across the sea to Tobago and landed quite safely at the village of Les Coteaux. From there she journeyed to Golden Lane in search of her family who had long ago been transported there. She lived to a great age and is remembered for her wisdom and kindness. She became the loving wife of Tom, whom legend says she had known as a child in her native Africa. She lived to a great age and is remembered for her wisdom and kindness. After her Tom had died, wishing to return to her native land, she climbed a great silk cotton tree and tried to fly, not knowing that she had lost the art of flight as a result of having eaten salt. To this day the names of Tom and Sara can be seen inscribed upon the head stones of their graves where they have lain side by side for close upon two hundred years.
Fairymaids are said to be beautiful with long lush hair and one tiny foot in the shape of a deer's hoof, she may use her power to "turn" a man's head. She may steal his shadow and leave him quite demented. In which case, accompanied by friends and family and with the help of a "workman", he must go to the river and address the water pleading for the restoration of his lost shadow. This done, he must leave the water's edge and not look back. Fairymaids may be found in caves behind waterfalls or beneath certain bridges where the river runs deep and swift. In days gone by, they were seen near certain water wheels. To discontinue a relationship with a fairy queen, offerings of two pairs of shoes must be made. The first must be burnt on the beach, the fairymaid will then rise out of the water and ask if she is to be paid for past services. The answer must be "nothing but this pair of shoes". The second must then be thrown into the waves.
ALL IN ALL MAKES A CHANGE FROM BOGEYMEN AND ELVES