Folklore can be defined as stories or beliefs of certain cultural groups that help keep culture alive throughout generations. These stories connect many cultures and can teach people valuable lessons. Oral stories are the oldest form of literature for children and have been the mainstay in explaining the ways of the world, life at home and abroad, and the genealogy of Caribbean life in this case. Without television or other distractors, the art of storytelling was the primary method of sharing information, often late into the night. Children learned the art of storytelling from their parents and elders, with the added embellishments to make the stories their own. While oral story forms are still widely available across the Caribbean, the written versions are rather recent, about the 1960s after many nations gained independence.
Whether it’s sharing stories around the dinner table or making an extravagant show of a well-known tale, storytelling is integral to Caribbean cultural identity. Stories carry lessons of cultural and social value, tell various chapters of shared history, and entertain through an immersive communal experience. Listeners may have often heard different variations of the same tale, but even still, the speaker is expected to play up their story through song, dance, and different forms of theatricality.
The following are traditional Caribbean folklore characters and stories included in this curriculum unit, although there are many more that can be added as the unit is taught. Across resources, the spelling of many characters’ names differs slightly, along with some nuances to their traits. This aligns perfectly with the tradition of oral storytelling - writing down what has been heard from a traveling storyteller.
Anansi The Spider-Man
Anansi is a spider man who originates from Ghana and is a popular character amongst folklore in Africa and the Caribbean. He is described as a keeper of knowledge and stories. He had six sons, each possessing a unique ability to add adventures to the Anansi stories. His stories often have a comedic flare and were meant to teach young children that actions have consequences. He is considered the “king of stories” who has a great depth of knowledge and wisdom but has no tolerance for boredom. The legacy of Anansi the Spider has been carried on throughout the years in a variety of different folktales. He is a notable figure in Caribbean Culture.
The Anansi stories are passed down from generation to generation and still have an honored status across the Caribbean islands and especially in Jamaica. Anansi or Anancy and Brer Anancy (Brother Anancy), as he is more frequently known in Jamaica known as both a cunning trickster and cultural hero who uses absurdity and humor to overcome situations involving those in authority as well as siblings, friends, or children. The Anansi stories have likely remained a staple of Jamaica because the Akan from Ghana were among the first Africans who arrived on the island, “thus the spider tales established a kind of historical priority over other West African folk heroes.” 1
Papa Bois & Mami Wata
Papa Bois originates from St. Lucia, Trinidad, and Tobago. Mami Wata, who is a figure in many different Caribbean islands, is a mermaid who protects the rivers in West Africa and Haiti. Papa Bois is an older man with a beard who, as the counterpart to Mami Wata, guards forests and land animals.
Mami Wata is a highly regarded spirit whose name means “Mother Water.” She has African-Atlantic origins, and she symbolizes the many sacred and spiritual qualities of water. Often considered a divine element, water represents the mysterious connection between life in the natural world and the spirits of the afterlife. As such, Mami Wata as a spiritual symbol carries many stories and meanings. She is both beautiful and fiercely protective, seductive and dangerous, and generous and vengeful. She often appears with the torso of a woman and the tail of a fish and is sometimes adorned with a snake.
Also known as “Maitre Bois” and “Daddy Bouchon,” Papa Bois is one of the many protectors of the forest. He mainly appears as an elderly man dressed in ragged clothes, but he also appears in the form of a deer. He represents hard work, strength, and dedication to the earth. He regards himself as the guardian of animals and trees. When hunters are in the area, Papa Bois will sound a cow’s horn as a warning to those who fall under his protection. He is passionate about his responsibility to the forest and does not tolerate the destruction of the land he oversees. Papa Bois is a noble being that teaches strength and integrity. 2
Bacoos originate from Guyana and Barbados. The word “Bacoo” means “little brother” or “short man,” which pretty much describes these creatures. They are small, bearded men who can appear in houses and have the ability to grant wishes, if treated well. They are said to be found in large rum bottles floating in the Caribbean Sea and are most active at night. They resemble leprechauns from Celtic mythology. They also have the fascinating power to shapeshift into other forms to trick their owners.
While they may seem like amusing companions to have, the legend of the Bacoos can take an extremely frightening turn. If they are treated with disrespect, they will no longer act as wish-granting companions. Instead, they will torture you until you do whatever it asks, and they will continue to live in a home until the owner of that residence is dead. “So, how do you treat a Bacoo well?” you may ask. Well, you must feed them bananas and milk daily and prevent them from causing chaos. The legend of Bacoos teaches us to be careful what we wish for and to always treat others respectfully.3
One of the most common parts of Caribbean folklore is the jumbie, which means ghost or spirit. They’re generally considered malevolent spirits that wreak havoc on humans, whether it’s an everyday irritation or a significant, life-changing event. However, some believe that not all jumbies are evil in nature and may in fact contain important meaning for whomever they’re haunting. Like the ghosts of North American ideology, jumbies represent the souls and spirits that are stuck between the worlds of the living and the dead. Various superstitions are followed to deflect or ward off jumbies.
A jumbie is a collection of entities and not just one specific one. The name and deeds of the jumbie depend entirely on where in the Caribbean it came from. Different cultures have different concepts of jumbies. The various kinds of jumbies found in Guyanese folklore reflect Guyana’s complex history and rich ethnic mosaic, drawing on African, Amerindian, East Indian, Dutch and English mythologies. Some of the stories from various parts of the Caribbean are similar, but the names are different.4
Looking for a Jumbie is reminiscent of the classics Going on a Bear Hunt and Where the Wild Things Are, but also completely unique. The language flows and rolls and the use of repetition make it an extra fun re-read for kids. In addition to being a great storytime book, the author's note at the beginning help set the stage and can make for a launching point to begin learning about Caribbean folk tales.
The main character, Naya, knows that the night is perfect for searching for something scary, but with some new companions, she won’t have to search alone. As Naya’s mother puts her to bed, indoor and outdoor animals are exactly where they need to be. As the full moon and stars twinkle above, Naya has already decided she’s going on an adventure. She’s going to find a jumbie—a creature of Caribbean folklore—an especially scary one. Naya’s path out from her warm, pink home into the lush, green outdoors. Over the course of her journey, Naya comes across some striking creatures that could be jumbies, but they’re not quite scary enough. In fact, every creature she meets tonight is so friendly it joins her in her search for a scary jumbie. By the journey’s end, her team is as vibrant and diverse as the stories and legends in which jumbies are traditionally found. Naya returns home eventually after introducing a whole cast of folk characters from the Douen to Mama D’Leau.
Lit’mahn is a tiny fellow who is magical and mischievous. He is introduced to us in The Girl Who Spun Gold, Virginia Hamilton’s West Indian retelling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin. It is the tale of a “lovely girl” named Quashiba who spins plain thread into gold. Big King, the young ruler of the land, rides by one day, meets Quashiba and her mama and becomes interested in her unique skill, as well as her beauty. He immediately thinks of the riches he could have. He decides to marry her on the condition that in one’s year time she will need to weave for him three rooms full of golden things. Quashiba, thinking he will soon forget his request, marries Big King and begins a life of luxury. One year later, Big King keeps his promise and locks Quashiba away, threatening to keep her “cooped up forever and a year” if she does not weave the gold things he desires. As Quashiba is crying, Lit’mahn appears. He offers to make the golden things but she will need to guess the whole name by the end of the third day. If she cannot, he will make her “tiny, just like me” and carry “her off to live in my shade.” Two days pass and she is unable to discover his name. That evening she eats supper with Big King and he tells a story about seeing a “funny little mahn” dancing and singing a song. The creature’s name is Lit’mahn Bittyun. As Quashiba correctly guesses his name, Lit’mahn becomes so angry, that he pops into a million bitty flecks of gold.
This rendition of the story is told in the West Indian dialect, Patois. The rhythm of the language creates the sense of reciting the story. The character of Lit’mahn is an archetypal model of the obeah or Vodou person found in African and Caribbean folklore. Obeah is the term used to identify magic, sorcery, and religious practices from West African cultures and folk religions on the islands. The names and customs appear to come from African standards to the Caribbean story. “Big” is used to signify status in a village. Lit’mahn (Little man) is also indicative of the creature’s status – he does not even live in a house but rather in a “big hole in the ground.” The foods described throughout the story are widely eaten and enjoyed throughout the Caribbean.
In the story, Sugar Cane: A Caribbean Rapunzel the princess is “strong and sweet,” like the sugar cane she was named after, and she also proves to be brave, educated, musical, and kind. The story opens: “Come, sit on the balcony and look out over the sea. I have a story to tell you. … The waves are always beginning a story that never comes to an end. You can hear them when they touch the shore, saying, Once…, Once…, Once…”
A young fisherman’s wife expecting a child. She craves sugar cane. Her craving won’t be satisfied with sweet pineapple, star fruit, custard apples, or coconut, so her husband sets out for the part of the island where sugar cane grows. On his long walk to get sugar cane, he comes across a mysterious gated house with a huge garden. He knocks on the door to ask for sugar cane, but when no one answers, he takes some and leaves. It’s not long before his wife craves sugar cane again. He jokes that they will have to name the baby Sugar Cane if she is a girl.
But when he goes to the garden again to seek sugar cane, he is caught by Madame Fate, a masked sorceress. The fisherman offers to pay, and Madame Fate agrees. “You will pay for what you have taken,” agreed Madame Fate. “You will pay a high price. You have taken sugar cane from me, and I will take Sugar Cane from you.” The sorceress seemed to already know the baby’s name.
On the child’s first birthday, Madame Fate takes her away from her loving parents and locks her in a tower on the other side of the island. Sugar Cane grows up left alone for months at a time by Madame Fate, who returns from her travels to visit and calls out, “You live in a tower without a stair, Sugar Cane, Sugar Cane, let down your hair.”
Madame Fate climbs the ladder of her hair to visit. Most of the time, though, Sugar Cane lives with her pet monkey Callaloo, and she has lessons from spirit teachers whom Madame Fate conjured from the dead, ranging from an African griot who teaches her storytelling to an Arabian philosopher who teaches her math. She also learns music from spirit teachers, including singing, piano, and guitar.
Meanwhile, a handsome young man on the island has won music contests for the past three years at carnival time and is called the King of Song, or just “King.” Music brings Sugar Cane and King together. One night he is out in his boat, dreaming up a new song. He hears her voice across the water and sees her face wavering in the water. After noticing her tower, he watches the sorceress use her special rhyme to ask Sugar Cane to let down her hair and later decides to try it for himself. After meeting her at the window and introducing himself, he asks if he can come into the tower. Their friendship blossoms as they play music together and he brings sweet treats for her pet monkey. At one point, Sugar Cane’s ancient Egyptian drawing teacher notices that she’s sketching a handsome face, and smiles. She starts weaving a ladder from her hair so she can escape the tower and see the island, and he starts bringing her beautiful jewels to pin in her hair.
Madame Fate discovers Sugar Cane’s secret romance when she finds a beautiful jewel butterfly pin in her hair, but the butterfly magically flies away. And after Madame Fate cruelly chops off her hair, Sugar Cane and Callaloo climb down the ladder, with only a few jewels and candies that Callaloo has in his paw. Madame Fate whips up a storm in the ocean, but Sugar Cane is rescued by another of King’s jewels – a golden wave that magically carries them to safety.
Sugar Cane and King find each other again in the town, reunited when she makes a guitar and the magical jewel butterfly lands on the strings of her guitar. King comes up the hill and they play their song together. The happy ending is complete with a wedding. At the wedding, Sugar Cane also is reunited with her parents when they recognize a coral necklace they gave her as a baby.
“Then there was dancing such as this island had never seen. What did they dance? They danced the rumba, the bolero, the samba, and the mambo. They danced salsa and merengue and the limbo. They danced zouk, calypso, sucu-sucu, and the cha-cha. Some of the people who went to that wedding are still dancing.”
In Haiti, if someone is going to tell a story, they’ll say "Krik?" If the people listening wants to hear the story, they’ll respond, "Krak!" It’s a way for a storyteller to get the audience ready, similar to, "Come gather round…" in English, but it makes the audience more active.5