6 Caribbean Folklore Figures You Need to Know
Witten by: Tiara Jade Chutkhan
Storytelling has always been a central part of West Indian culture, with many folk tales and stories passed down from generation to generation. For many of us, the skin crawling stories of jumbies, duppies and many different figures were told as we sat in circles with aunt and uncles, cousins, and grandparents. These tales are also a reflection of the diversity in the Caribbean, with many stemming from African, Indian, Spanish and English origins. These tales have also been a way for us to keep in touch with ancestral roots and keep our cultural traditions alive as we’ve immigrated to new places.
The names of some Caribbean folklore figures differ across the islands, such as Papa Bois, also known as “Maître Bois” or “Daddy Bouchon.” But many of the key characters and plots remain the same. This is partially due to the fact that many Africans brought to the Caribbean to work as slaves, and Indians brought to work as indentured labourers, came from different regions. Bringing with them different dialects, versions of folklore, and traditions.
These tales have remained just as important as they were in the past, a reminder of where we come from and the beauty of West Indian culture.
Ananse or Anansi, the spider, is a popular character from Caribbean stories and hails from West Africa where he was once a well known tricker. He is generally wise and cunning. As a keeper of stories he aspires to hoard as much knowledge as possible. Ananse was kidnapped and enslaved, to survive he became half-man, half-spider. Some Ananse stories inspired captives to to join together and resist their captors. In the Caribbean tales, he has often been portrayed as a con-man or tricky spider. Ananse stories also taught moral lessons and often ended with a proverb. Many have been published in children’s books, telling the tales of how Ananse came to possess the world's stories, why he runs on the surface of water and more.
The legend of Chickcharney originated in the Bahamas and is about a mythical creature that resembles an owl, though far more frightening in it’s looks. The Chickcharney stands three feet tall, furry, and feathered with three fingers, three toes and beaming red eyes. It is said that if you come across the creature and treat it well, even give it a gift, the Chickcharney will give you good luck. Treat it poorly or make fun of it, and you’ll be cursed with bad luck and hard times. It’s advised that travelers wear brightly coloured clothing or have a colourful object to gift the Chickcharney. In some versions of the tale, treating a Chickcharney badly will result in one's head spinning around to face their back.
La Diablesse or Lajabless, is half woman, half demon as a result of a deal made with the devil. She is also a seductress who only shows herself on nights when there is a full moon. She appears very beautiful and can be found wearing a large straw hat and a colourful dress of greens, reds and yellows. It is said that her long dress hides her secret; a cow foot with a cloven hoof. La Diablesse waits on lonely roads, luring unsuspecting men deep into the forest where they may fall over a cliff-top, drown in the sea, or be attacked by animals. Stories about her were often told to deter children from bad behaviour or warn young men against beautiful women with bad intentions. The legend of La Diablesse is thought to have been born in Martinique.
Papa Bois and Mami Wata
Mami Wata is a well known mermaid-like spirit whose name means “Mother Water.” Mami Wata has a long fish tail and human torso, she is the protector of rivers and can be found sitting on rocks, combing her long tresses with a golden comb. She has West African origins and is highly regarded as a deity in some parts, considered a divine element, symbolizing the many sacred and spiritual qualities of water. Mami Wata is usually depicted with a snake around her neck. She abducts travelers and drags them into the depths of the water. When she returns them to land, they are usually wealthier and more attractive than before.
Papa Bois is known as the father of the forest. He is known by many names such as “Maître Bois” (master of the woods), father wood, and “Daddy Bouchon” (hairy man). Some stories say that he appears as a deer, a tree, or an old man in ragged clothes. He is very strong with cloven hooves like a deer, and has leaves growing out of his beard. Papa Bois protects all the animals and trees in the forest. In many tales, Papa Bois lures hunters deep into the forest and then leaves them lost. Others say he makes hunters pay the ultimate price of being married to Mama Glo for all eternity, trapped in the muddy depths of the river. If you cross paths with Papa Bois, be very polite and if he pauses to pass time, do not look at his feet.
Lagahoo is a shapeshifter; a man by day, and whatever form he wants to portray by night. In some cases a headless man or a dog. Lagahoo is mostly found in Trinidad or Haiti. He roams the night, often dragging a coffin of souls behind him by large chains wrapped around his waist. If he approaches you, you will see him ficking a whip. Lagahoo feeds on the liver and blood or any human or animal that crosses his path. Some stories claim him to be an obeah man who sold his soul to the devil for power. It is said that if you want to see Lagahoo without being seen, you have to take the ‘yampee’ from a dog's eye, put it in your eye and peep through a keyhole at midnight. The only known way to defeat Lagahoo is with holy water or holy oil.
Each of these tales are rich with cultural influence, while also being fun to share and bone chilling during the spookiest time of year. Has anyone in your family had encounters with these figures? What version of their stories do you know? Will you be passing any of these folk tales down to your children?
1. “7 Captivating Characters from Caribbean Folklore.” Keycaribe Magazine, 20 June 2019, https://magazine.keycaribe.com/lifestyle/7-captivating-characters-from-caribbean-folklore/.
2. “Caribbean Folklore – Folktales.” RIVER, 21 June 2021, https://river-stories.com/caribbean-folklore-folktales-fables-ananse/.
3. Koking, Natalie. “Exploring Caribbean Folklore.” Exploring Caribbean Folklore, 17 Sept. 2019, https://cincyplay.com/blog-single-post/cinncinati-blog/2019/09/17/exploring-caribbean-folklore.