Trinidad and Tobago Folklore
Our folklore is made up of stories passed on from one generation to another. As children when we misbehaved our parents threatened to call Papa Bois to come and take us away. That thought made us shudder and obviously we behaved our selves. In modern times it is now part of our Oral Traditions and they are popular characters in many of the local plays.
Our folklore is predominantly of African origin, flavoured with French and to a lesser degree, Spanish and English influences.
In keeping with well-recognised 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’.
‘Papa Bois’ is the most widely known of all our folklore characters. He is the old man of the forest and is known by many names, including ‘Maitre bois’ (master of the woods) and ‘Daddy Bouchon’ (hairy man). Papa Bois appears in many different forms, sometimes as a deer, 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, and the wanton destruction of the forest.
Sometimes he turns into a deer that would lead the men into the deep forest. 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, such as to marry ‘Mama Dlo’.If you should meet with Papa Bois be very polite. “Bon jour, vieux papa” or “Bon matin, maitre” should be your greeting. If he pauses to pass the time with you, stay cool and do not look at his feet.
‘La Diablesse’, the devil woman of Trinidad and Tobago folklore, 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. La Diablesse 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 who 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.
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, chemise with half sleeves and much embroidery and lace, ‘zepingue tremblant’ (trembling pins of gold), and all the finery of by-gone days.
If you feel you may encounter a La Diablesse on your way home, take off all your clothes, turn them inside out and put them on again, and this will surely protect you from a La Diablesse.
'Mama Dlo’, whose name is derived from the French ‘maman de l’eau’ which means ‘mother of the water’ is one of the lesser known personalities of Trinidad and Tobago folklore.A hideous creature, Mama Dlo’s lower half takes the form of an anaconda. She is sometimes thought to be the lover of Papa Bois. Hunters 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 or 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 slash 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. The old woman 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 in a mortar. Now, as a glowing ball of flame, she rises up through the roof, and with a shrill cry 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 is wrong, it burns like fire, it seems to shrink and slide away, “Skin, kin, kin, you na no me, you na no me”, she croons softly, pleading to the wrinkled thing. 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. If you wish to discover who is the Soucouyant in your village, empty 100 lbs 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.
'Duennes’ are spirits of children who died before they were baptized.
They are fated to roam the forests of Trinidad, practicing their wide repertoire of pranks, mostly on living children who are enticed away into the forest and are then left abandoned. Duennes are sexless, their feet are turned backwards 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 into the forest at dusk, never shout their names in open places, as the Duennes will take their names, call them and lure them away. A story is told of 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 by the time he reached the hospital, when he realised that the child was getting bigger and heavier. Suddenly the child said in a man’s voice, “You’d better take me back where 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 an owl flew out of the tree
The ‘Lagahoo’ or ‘Loup Garou’ is the shape-changer of Trinidad’s folklore.
An ability which is handed down in some old Creole families, this phenomenon is usually associated with an 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 for his power over nature. He can lay curses and extend protection; from him, charms and bush medicine are also readily available. At times the Ligahoo may take the form of a coffin being carried through the streets and the clank of chains is distinctly heard. A single man may bear it on his head, protected by a giant ‘phantome’. If by chance, the coffin and its gruesome attendant were to be used to facilitate the uninterrupted transportation of bush rum, this effect would virtually ensure its safe passage. 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 key hole at 12 midnight.
Source Newsday’s Millennium Special January 1, 2000 Pages 23, 24
Special thanks to Nalis