The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 5/Folk-lore from Boddam-Whetham's Roraima and British Guiana


Extracted from J. Boddam-Whetham's "Roraima and British Guiana," by Mabel Peacock.

IT is the fashion in many parts of the West Indies for sheep to accompany horses. They say it is healthy for sheep to live in the stables with horses, and they get so attached to one another that, out-of-doors, the former will not leave the latter as long as they can keep up with them.—(.P 31.) [Compare the preceding extract with the English custom of keeping goats in stables, and among flocks of sheep.]

"A fishing boat sailed by, in which was an enormous Jew-fish, at which the 'Admiral' pulled a very long face, and explained to us that, whenever a Jew-fish was caught, some one of high position in St. Thomas (in the West Indies) was sure to die, or perhaps was already dead. Strangely enough, next morning we noticed that all the flags were at half-mast, and heard that news had just arrived of the death in England of the head of one of the chief firms in the island."—(P. 34.)

"The yellow flowers of the 'cedar bush' sprinkle the mountain-side (in St. Thomas), and a species of bitter aloe is common; from the latter an old black woman of the town makes a decoction which is positively declared to be a certain cure for lung disease. The fleshy leaves contain a jelly-like pulp; this, after being extracted, is washed seven times in pure water, and beaten up with eggs and milk. To effect a cure, seven wine-glasses of it must be drunk. In Mexico I have frequently seen the same medicine used, and have heard wonderful stories of its power, but there the number seven is not included in the recipe."—(P. 37.)

"Morne Rouge (in Martinique) is one of the localities which the negroes say is at certain seasons visited by the celebrated Dominican friar, Père Labat, who arrived in Martinique in 1693. He is said to appear in the guise of a lambent flame."—(P. 65.)

"After the Warimambo (Guiana), we came almost immediately on some very steep rapids . . . . . . Here one of the crew nearly lost his life, as he was swept off his feet by the strong current, and only just caught the rope in time to save himself from being carried over a dangerous eddy . . . . . . He attributed his safety to the strictness with which the Indians had observed the proper respect due to a trogon that had flown over our heads in the morning; they have a superstition that, if on setting out on a journey they should turn their backs to this species of birds, ill-luck will surely follow."—(P. 146.)

"Of game birds we bagged a paui, curasow, and two maroudis, a species of wild turkey. The Indians say that the maroudi obtained its bare red throat by swallowing a fire-stick which it mistook for a glow-worm."— (P. 160.)

"A small accourie (Dastyprocta agouti) was the only four-footed creature we got. This little rodent figures prominently in Indian mythology. One of the legends runs thus: The inhabitants of the sky once peeped through a hole that they had been told not to approach, and on looking down saw another world. They therefore cut down long bush-ropes and let themselves down. After wandering about they became frightened and began to ascend the ladder, but an old lady of too ample proportions stuck in the hole, and, during the fighting and scrambling that ensued, the rope broke and many had to remain on earth. Then as they had no provisions they become very lean, but noticing that the accourie was always plump they set the woodpecker to watch its feeding-ground. But the woodpecker betrayed himself by his tapping. Then the alligator was told to watch, and he found out, but came back and told a lie, so they cut out his tongue.[1] Then the rat was sent off, but he never returned and the people starved. They wandered off and left a little child behind, and when they returned after a long time, having lived on berries, they found the child alive and well, and surrounded by indian corn-cobs that the accourie had fed it with. Then the child followed the accourie after its next visit and discovered the maize-field, and the people were saved. In gratitude they kill and eat the delicate little animal whenever they have the opportunity.

"In their tradition of the Deluge, maize takes the place of the olive-branch. They say that only one man was saved in his canoe, and when he sent out a rat to discover land, it brought back a head of Indian corn. The Caribs, in their account of the Creation, say that the Great Spirit sat on a mora-tree, and picking off pieces of the bark threw them into the stream, and they became different animals. Then the Great Spirit Makanaima made a large mould, and out of this fresh, clean clay, the white man stepped. After it got a little dirty the Indian was formed, and the Spirit being called away on business for a long period the mould became black and unclean, and out of it walked the negro. All the Indian tribes of Guiana .... rank themselves far higher than the negro race, and the Caribs consider themselves the first of the tribes, calling themselves 'the' people, and their language 'the' language."—(Pp. 171, 172.)

"As we ascended the river from Teboco, we had noticed on some distant hills a remarkable rocky peak which is called 'the Caribisce' from the legend stating that it is an Indian hunter who was turned into stone for daring to ascend the mountain. To-day from our camp we saw in the direction from which we had come, east, another curious peak rising like a gigantic thimble from a flat table-mountain. The name of this is Sororieng, i.e. Swallow's Nest, and it is an object of much dread to the superstitious Indians."—(P. 177.)

"Above all other localities, an Indian is fond of an open, sandy beach whereon to pass the night There in the open, away from the dark, shadowy forest, he feels secure from the stealthy approach of the dreaded 'kanaima' (the 'kanaima' is a secret murderer who performs his work generally by poison); the magic rattle of the 'peaiman' (the 'peaiman' is the sorcerer and doctor of the tribe) has less terror for him when unaccompanied by the weird rustling of the waving branches; and there even the wild hooting of the 'didi' (the 'didi' is supposed to be a wild man of the woods, possessed of immense strength and covered with hair) is bereft of that intensity with which it pierces the gloomy depths of the surrounding woodland. It is strange that the superstitious fear of these Indians, who are bred and born in the forest and hills, should be chiefly based on natural forms and sounds. Certain rocks they will never point at with a finger, although your attention may be drawn to them by an inclination of the head. Some rocks they will not even look at, and others again they beat with green boughs. Common bird-cries become spirit-voices. Any place difficult of access, or little known, is invariably tenanted by huge snakes or horrible four-footed animals. Otters are transformed into mermaids, and water-tigers inhabit the deep pools and caves of their rivers."—(P. 182.)

"Two of our Acawais would not eat the delicious pacu, although they did not refuse the ray, or the electric fish. In North America, too, the Comanche Indians will not eat fish that have scales, but are fond of those that have none. The different tribes of Guiana have various ideas regarding what food is fit and what is unfit to be eaten. For instance the Caribs will not touch large fish, nor will they eat pork. The Macusi consider the flesh of cattle unclean, but do not object to that of peccary and wild boar. The "Warraees think roast dog a great delicacy, therein resembling the Cheyennes of North America."— (P. 184.)

"After crossing the river, the first part of our journey was to ascend the slopes of the Seroun mountains . . . The narrow trail wound in and out, and up and down, and over and under enormous masses of conglomerate rock, whose smooth and shapely sides, rising perpendicularly for sixty or seventy feet, were crowned by grasses and ferns. Under some of these were flowers and green branches that had been offered to the rock-spirits by the superstitious natives."—(P. 190.)

"The campanero (Procnias carunculata, bell-bird) is pure white, strange colour for a tropical bird, and from its forehead extends a long tube which it can inflate at pleasure, and which is covered with small white, downy feathers . . . . . . Our Indians, and others that we met, did not object to shoot one occasionally, but in Brazil the campanero is greatly dreaded, as its call is believed to be the cry of a soul, condemned to perpetual torments."—(P. 192.)

"As the captain did not arrive at the appointed time with the woodskins, we amused ourselves with some amateur hair-cutting, which so delighted the natives that many of them insisted on being shorn of their long black tresses. These they carefully gathered, and after wrapping them in leaves buried in some retired part of the forest, so that no kanaima should get hold of them and exercise his incantations to the destruction of the late owner."—(P. 204.)

"Before it was dark we heard the sound of a horn blown lustily from the river, and soon a woodskin appeared containing a man, woman, and child. It turned out that they lived near Roraima, and having heard from Captain David that we wanted a guide had hastened after us. The man's name was Abraham, He declined to camp with us, but preferred going farther on, as he said that close by was the cave of a celebrated 'water-māmā,' near whom it was dangerous to sleep.

"The Indians firmly believe in the reality of these mermaids, or 'water-māmās' as they are called in Dutch-Creole; and where they are supposed to have their caves or nests there great danger awaits the traveller. Some are related to be extremely beautiful and possessing long golden hair, like the Lorelei, and whoever casts his eye on them is seized with madness, jumps into the deep water, and never returns. Others are hideous, snakes being twined about them, and with their long white talons they drag boats under the water and devour their occupants. On the Orinoco and Amazon similar creatures are supposed to exist, but these are capable of drawing their prey into their mouths at a distance of a hundred yards. In order to avoid such a calamity, the natives always blow a horn before entering a creek or lagoon in which one of these monsters may be living; if it happens to be there, it will immediately answer the horn and thus give warning to the intruder."—(P. 211.)

"A very old lady with long white hair received us, and began to moan and beat her breast wildly. We asked what she was doing, and discovered that she was relating the difficulties of the path to Roraima. . . . . . . Already our superstitious carriers had lent too ready an ear to the terrors of Roraima as depicted by the son, and now the mother seemed disposed to add her store of legends and tales of witchcraft for general information Before we left she made the entire party blow three times on her back for good luck, but whether the luck was for her or for us we never found out."—(P. 217.)

"In the evening a party of Indians arrived. . . . . . . Like other Indians we had met and questioned, these people beat their breast and uttered various cries when they told us of the mountains to be crossed, and added their testimony to the spirits of Roraima."—(P. 221.)

"Horn-blowing was a very useful accomplishment of our guide, as it kept us straight and frightened away the various evil spirits, from a water-māmā to a wood-demon."—(P. 224.)

"We commenced with a short but very steep ascent, and after following a wretched path came to a mountain called Marikamura. Then we had a climb which, in length, far surpassed that of the previous day. . . . . . . About half-way up we met an unpleasant-looking Indian who informed us that he was a great 'peaiman,' and the spirit which he possessed ordered us not to go to Roraima. The mountain, he said, was guarded by an enormous 'camoodi,' which could entwine a hundred people in its folds. He himself had once approached its den, and had seen demons running about as numerous as quails."~(P. 22-5.)

"A wet evening made us retire early to our hammocks, and soon after a few shrill cries were heard issuing from the forest, and presently with hair streaming wildly and shaking a rattle the old sorcerer, whom we had met on the mountain, passed hurriedly along the road to Roraima. He looked neither to the right nor left, and quickly disappeared in the gloom."—(P. 226.)

"No wonder . . . . . . that such a spirit-dreading race should regard the weird and mysterious mountain (Roraima) with an awe which might almost be called reverential, were it not entirely inspired by fear. They (the Indians) believe that the magic circle which encompasses their 'red-rocked night mountain,' cannot be approached without danger, that he who enters it will never return, and that the demon-guarded sanctuary on the summit will never be gazed on bymortal eyes."—(P. 229.)

"Near where we had halted, we found the 'peaiman' looking very disconsolate under the shelter of leaves. For a consideration, he offered to charm away the evil spirits that would beset us, and declared that without his assistance we should be unable to cross the river that we saw below us. Not desiring his society, we declined his aid."—(P. 230.)

"Our Indians were rejoiced to see us back again, as they had not expected that the mountain-demons would allow us to return."—(P. 244.)

"Indians never eat eggs or poultry, and only keep hens as pets."—(P. 250.)

"I had been anxious to visit the emerald mines of Muzo, not only for the sake of seeing the mines themselves, but in order to obtain some specimens of the rare 'Morpho Cyprio.' Afterwards at Panama, I saw two of these wonderful butterflies, and was not astonished at the belief of the miners of Muzo that the splendid insects feed on the emeralds, and so obtain their brilliant hue."—(P. 311.)

"The natives of Panama have an odd legend, which accounts for the absence of feathers on the head and neck of these birds (turkey-buzzards, Cathartes aura), gallinazos, as they call them. It is said that after the Deluge, Noah, when opening the door of the ark, thought it well to give a word of advice to the released animals. 'My children,' said he, 'when you see a man coming towards you and stooping down, go away from him; he is getting a stone to throw at you.' 'Very good,' said the gallinazo, 'but what if he has one already in his pocket?' Noah was taken aback at this, but finally decided that in future the gallinazo should be born bald in token of its remarkable sagacity."—(P. 334.)

  1. The Indians to the present day do not recognise in the alligator that shapeless fleshy mass, which is incapable of extension, as a tongue. Herodotus, too, who was a keen observer of the crocodile, repeats the idea that it is tongueless and for that reason was regarded by the Egyptians as an emblem of mystery.