A ghost or restless spirit is known as a ‘Duppy’ in Jamaica, or a Jumbie in many smaller Caribbean islands.
Traditionally, a good duppy is usually a deceased family member or friend who ‘dreams you’ – meaning they appear in your dreams and give you advice or information. Bad duppies on the other hand can be harmful or malevolent and can be set on you by someone who doesn’t like you, through a supernatural practice called Obeah, that dates back to the days of slavery.
Many duppy stories originate from the transatlantic slave trade in the 1600s, with the most popular stories featuring the Rolling Calf, a huge, wicked calf-like creature that rolled along the road blocking the way and chasing night-time travellers; and the Ol’Hige, a witch who sheds her skin and flies by night, taking the form of an owl. She harms people by sucking their breath while they’re sleeping and was especially dangerous to babies.
Here’s a very short duppy story
Once a man was travelling in a dray packed with sugar. The molasses off the sugar was trailing underneath the dray. Two duppies came up and was sucking the molasses, an’ say, “After the molasses so sweet, how is the sugar?” The drayman happened to hear it, wheeled his whip in the air an’ give the duppy a good lick. The Duppies ran off, crying, “Me dead one time, me dead one time, me can’t dead two time!”
Duppies are everywhere
Duppies feature in all kinds of places, from books and songs to Caribbean sayings and even PlayStation games, with some games having characters known as duppies.
They appear in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel ‘Live and Let Die’, which mentions them and the Rolling Calf in the chapter ‘The Undertaker’s Wind’. Bob Marley’s song ‘Duppy Conqueror’ in 1971, which saw Marley as the conqueror and the duppy anyone draining his energy. Plus Tony Matterhorn’s song ‘Dancehall Duppy’ in 2011.
There are lots of Caribbean sayings and phrases featuring duppies, including:
‘duppy know who fi frighten’ – which means bullies know who to pick on and how to exploit the weak; and ‘I couldn’t sleep last night at all duppies ride me whole night and brek up my rest’ – the sensation that you’ve been woken from sleep and want to move but it feels as if someone is holding you down and you can’t open your eyes. You want to scream, but no sounds comes. ‘Duppy riding you’ is a frightening experience!
In the Caribbean, toadstools are known as Duppy or Jumbie umbrellas, and you can hear people complain when these unwelcome plants appear in their gardens ‘Duppy umbrella spring up all in the front of the house’. Similarly, parents and adults would often use duppies to discourage children from staying out late by saying things like ‘Careful how you walking back home, duppies gwine be out this time a night’.
It’s said you know when a duppy is present, because it feels as if your head is growing larger, or there’s an unexplained heat affecting your body. Eating salt will help you to ‘run’ i.e. chase away a duppy, as they hate salt. You can also run a duppy by wearing your clothes inside out, or shame them by cursing or exposing your private parts!
This article was first published in Breeze Magazine, November 2020.