Folklore in T&T and many parts of the Caribbean is inspired by the influences of the West African and French Creole peoples who came or were brought to the islands centuries ago. Many of their spiritual beliefs and practices were incorporated into the legends and stories we know today. Some characters in our folklore may even be versions of deities that were worshipped by ancient tribes. There may have also been a fusion of ideas with the Amerindians and the Europeans that resulted in even more intricate mythologies. Today stories of encounters with strange folks are not as prevalent as they were when electricity was scarce and there were more areas dominated by “bush”. But that does not mean this rich collection of characters have been maligned or forgotten. They still inhabit our collective consciousness and maybe our forests.
Papa Bois, also called Maître Bois, is the protector of the forest, the keeper of the trees, and the master of the animals. He is a well-known figure in the folklores of Trinidad, St Lucia, and Grenada and the husband of Mama D’Leau.
He is depicted as an African man with at least one leg ending in a cloven hoof, a beard made of leaves, two short horns protruding from atop his head, and is impressively muscular for his seemingly advanced age. Cementing his hybrid-like qualities, his body is covered with hair from head to hoof and he can run faster than forest creatures.
Hunters know to listen for the sound of a horn, which Papa Bois uses to warn the animals of their presence. They also know that if a wayward deer tries to lure you deep into the forest, never follow because it is most likely Papa Bois (transformed into the deer) trying to get you lost.
For the most part though, he is a benign presence who does no harm lest his domain is threatened. If you happen to encounter him anywhere, do not be afraid. Just like any fatherly figure, he expects politeness and courtesy. So bow respectfully and say “Bon jour, vieux Papa” (Good day, old father) and be on your way.
If you never encountered a strange child who tried to lure you into the forest when you were a child, then you were probably baptised or christened at a young age. Good for you.
Douens are the spirits of young children who died before being baptised or christened. As a result, they roam around communities and befriend other little children who have never undergone those particular Christian ritual ceremonies as well with the intent to kidnap them.
Perhaps because young minds are more open, the doomed youngsters apparently disregard the douen’s nudity and unquestioningly play with their new friend. Maybe the douen’s characteristic wide-brimmed hat makes the otherwise naked child seem more trustworthy, but who can remember how youths think.
Little kids aren’t bothered by the absence of clothing, but surely their friend’s wrong-sided feet might be a clue that something is amiss. Alas, no. Douens are aware that children are unobservant and can be taken advantage of by otherworldly beings. They are also, like lyrebirds, prodigious mimickers of sounds. They imitate parents’ voices to lure the child off into the wild, never to be seen or heard from again.
So make sure and prepare your heathen offspring for their inevitable encounter with this creature.
Translated as “female devil,” La Diablesse is the devil woman, a seductress, and a temptres to male travellers. She is recognised for her beauty and as a symbol of demonic lust. The story of La Diablesse is well known to all who cherish traditional stories. With her voluminous skirts and womanly figure, La Diablesse appears along lonely paths, visible to men who would digress from their courses to accommodate a pretty face.
She appears on the nights when the full moon is the only light that pierces the darkness and she waits on those removed byways where a man is likely to pass. According to 19th-century traveller and writer Lafcadio Hearn, “Mostly, she haunts the mountain roads, winding from plantation to plantation, from hamlet to hamlet. But close to the great towns she sometimes walks: she has been seen at mid-day upon the highway which overlooks the Cemetery of the Anchorage, behind the cathedral of St Pierre.”
Like her husband Papa Bois, Mama D’leau is associated with nature, specifically rivers and river dwellers. Just like La Diablesse, she is deceptively beautiful until exposed as a monster. For Mama D’leau, the transformation occurs when she is angered. She becomes a monster with a scaly upper body and snake-like appendages, including her snake-strand hair which she untangles with a golden comb.
Tales of bloodsuckers preying in the night go back throughout almost all of human history. From vampires to incubi and succubi, most cultures have detailed folklores about mysterious creatures draining one’s life essence while they sleep.
A soucouyant is a version of a succubi, a female blood-sucking demon. In Caribbean and Creole mythos she is known by the variant names: soucriant, loogaroo or lougarou, Ole-Higue or Ole Haig, and Asema.
Most stories tell of a wizened old woman who typically lives by herself. In this form she is generally unassuming though still subject to speculation, as there are many tells that could give away her true identity.
At night, she sheds her restrictive outer skin and becomes a ball of fire. She can then travel through the village and enter homes through even the smallest of apertures, like a keyhole or a cracked window. Once inside, she carefully extracts blood from the homes’ sleeping occupants. Her preference is for the blood of babies and small children but anyone can be targeted.
Once her jaunt is over she goes back home, making sure to get there by sunrise as she cannot risk being seen in her true form. Soucouyants are agents of the devil and each has a jar that is supposed to be filled up in order to be released from their contracts. However, the devil is an unfair boss, regularly lessening the amount of collected blood in the jar, thus ensnaring the soucouyant in a cycle of always needing to collect more.
It is said that soucouyants in their human forms are practitioners of obeah and can be relied on for spiritual guidance in those matters.
There are many ways of “outing” an old woman who might be a soucouyant. A popular method is to scatter rice grains somewhere along her path. If she stoops to gather every single one of them, then you can be sure she’s basically a furnace. Another effective stunt is to place a broom or a mop upside down (with the handle on the floor) by your doorway. A soucouyant cannot enter the home if this is set up and you can tell by their reluctance to step further into the house.
Placing salt by all entry points is also a great way to deter a soucouyant from getting inside.
The Silk Cotton Tree
You might wonder how a tree can be a folklore character. But for many centuries, the majestic towering canopy of the silk cotton tree (also known as the ceiba, kapok, or jumbie tree), has held a fantastical place in the lore of some Caribbean cultures.
The first peoples on Trinidad, the Amerindians, believed that the tree was a dwelling place for spirits and revered it accordingly. Later, when the Africans were brought to the island, they also bestowed a healthy respect upon the tree, even refusing to cut it down for timber. This refusal to uproot the silk cotton is still a persistent blight on matters such as town planning in the Caribbean. Engineers and other workers will simply refuse to remove the tree, even when it interferes with their carefully constructed plans!
Disturbing the malevolent spirits inside instills a great fear in many who grew up hearing stories about the tree’s vengeance. According to the lore, if you have the audacity to chop down or cut away any part of a silk cotton tree you will be struck dead. Immediately. No second chances, no leniency, just death. Instantly.
Apart from this terrifying prospect, it is wise to give the tree a wide berth anyway. Other folklore characters are its cohorts, like the La Diablesse who lures men to it in the forests before killing them. Clearly the spirits inside just want to be left alone. Everyone likes their privacy, right?