USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘witchcraft’
Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative

Annie Palmer of Rose Hall

Background

Informant: R.R. – 19 year old Jamaican female, currently in her first year of college

Context

R.R. is originally from Jamaica and came to the US when she was 15 to study at a Boarding School in upstate New York. When prompted about any folklore she knew that was specific to Jamaica, she immediately began telling me about the ghost of the “White Witch,” Annie Palmer. She mentioned that it’s a very popular story among Jamaicans, but mostly because the story is used as a tourist attraction. I have transcribed R.R.‘s telling of the legend below.

Main Piece

R.R: “Annie Palmer was the White Witch of Rose Hall. It’s a Jamaican ghost story. The history behind her is true but the people who raised her taught her voodoo, some shit went down and they think she still haunts the house. Apparently she did white and black magic and was super crazy. She used to sacrifice animals and use slaves too. She would take the male slaves and have sex with them, but also physically beat them and take their blood. She even killed her husband who owned the house and took all of his money. But then this black slave wizard, Takoo then murdered her with witchcraft and now her spirit haunts the house forever.”

Z.R: “And where did you first hear the story of Annie Palmer?”

R.R: “Just growing up as a kid, it’s a tourist attraction. They do tours there and tell the story.”

Thoughts

This piece represents an example of folklore that has arisen and developed from material that was originally canonized through literature. While a widely told and known story in Jamaica, it was found that many aspects of the tale were actually lifted from 1929 novel, The White Witch of Rosehall, written by Herbet G de Lisser. The property of Whitehall and the folklore behind it serves as a major tourist attraction, and therefore benefits from the creation and belief of the folklore that is derived from the original novel. This is related to our class discussions about the nature of cultural tourism and that there are often times when aspects of a culture are elaborated or even exaggerated for the benefit of the tourism industry. It is interesting that a website that functions to give information about popular tourist sites in Jamaica actually notes that the folk legend itself is not based on real events. Other similar versions of this story appear in New Orleans folklore regarding witches, specifically white witches that were the mistresses of a plantation or manor. The most famous was Madam LaLaurie who apparently also took male slaves as lovers and tortured them, bathing in their blood and other monstrous acts. Perhaps the emergence of the legend of Annie Palmer from literature represents a kind of cultural commentary on the nature of slave owners, specifically white, female slave owners and their cultural impact during the time.

Magic
Narrative

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Myth

The informant is my friend (referred to as EP) who is from Brooklyn, New York, but lives in Spain for the summer. Her father is from Spain and her mother is from Puerto Rico. Every year when she goes to Spain she lives on her family ranch that is outside of a town called Porto. She is discussing one of her favorite movies and a movie that is highly regarded in Spain, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” and a conspiracy theory that was developed in Spain about the movie.

 

EP: “So in the movie, it’s all these women who are crazy and obsessed with all these men and they are having all these problems and throughout the whole movie gazpacho is a theme and ultimately the main character tries to kill a bunch of men with drug-laced gazpacho. The theory that a bunch of people came up with is that all the women are actually witches and the gazpacho kind of resembles one of their potions. It’s kind of a myth I guess but it’s like they are practicing witchcraft and making spells that kill men.”

 

This is so fascinating to me because after viewing “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” I know that this is one of the world’s most campy films. It is often used among scholars as the example for describing the style of camp in films.  Witchcraft is a type of folklore that is already highly gendered and what I have noticed is nearly all witch movies are extremely campy.  Females who are somehow outside of the box society creates for them, often become categorized as witches. Campiness is the style of nearly all films centered around witches and this is due to the fact that camp perfectly captures the inherent sexism and absurdity of the idea that powerful females are witches. Camp is able to employ qualities of duality and idiosyncrasies that are open to a double interpretation. There is a certain language that camp uses and it allows patriarchal code and codes of oppression to be debunked. To understand camp, the viewer must have some outside knowledge of the pre-existing codes of oppression. So, therefore, in witch movies camp is heavily employed and shows women as extravagant and over the top characters. So the fact that many people in Spain believe “women on the verge,” the trademark movie for camp, is actually about witches makes a lot of sense and shows how people in Spain (and in society) perceive women portrayed a certain way as “witches.”

 

 

Magic
Myths

Tokolosh

Main piece:

There is a little tiny elf-fairy called Tokolosh. It’s evil. its part of African witchcraft. In Zimbabwe, witchcraft is voodoo but it’s also Nigerian so it’s an African thing.

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

When informant was in Grade 10 or 11, she heard about Tokolosh after an action conference at a missions school. The christian speaker was talking about african wifchcraft to get rid of, which included Tokolosh.

As a foreigner living in Zimbabwe, she don’t know what the full story is and when she asked others to explain it, she didn’t understand.

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

Typically, it’s a part of African voodoo and witchcraft so the story would be shared with those in Africa who believe or practice voodoo. In this case, it was told in opposition of it through christians trying to bring faith into Africa. It seems like it is passed through word of mouth even to kids because the informant asked friends at school about it. It’s not a part of formal education.

Personal Analysis:

Witchcraft seems to be more integrated into African culture than in America. The tokolosh seems to be taken seriously if christians are working towards getting rid of it.

general

Witchcraft: Sitting Pretty

Text:

“My mom always told me that I shouldn’t sit with my legs against the wall. Back in the day witches sat like that, so people would think that I was a witch…. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because they were thought to be able to walk on walls.”

Background:

My informant told me that in a lot of Africa, a lot of families were of tribal and animistic religions. There were “really dark tribal things” going on and people would report really weird things like people turning into cats, a lot of kidnappings, and people turning their friends into witches for uses in witchcraft. She felt uncomfortable when she first heard her mom tell her that. She told me that a lot of things in Nigerian culture was stigmatized. Certain ways that you sleep were bad too. For example, sleeping on your side kept you from being robbed. She feels that a lot of it goes back to village culture, before Nigeria was urbanized.

Context:

My informant heard it from her mom when she was young.

Personal Thoughts:

I think this is a great example of folklore showing certain fears that a community has. From what my informant said, it seems like witches were powerful figures back in Nigeria history, but they were seen in a negative light which explains why the informant’s mom didn’t want her to be associated with witches.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Theater Occupational Superstition: Macbeth (Version I)

Interview Extraction

Informant:”Now the interesting thing about a lot of old stories is- and this is actually something we mentioned in class, how there are often two or three explanations that might not even relate to one another for many of the old stories or traditions.  The Macbeth legend that I know, there are two- no, three variations of the Macbeth legend.  One is the story that the incantations used are actual witch’s incantations so therefore if you believe in witchcraft you do not want to evoke them.  The second one on Macbeth is that, Macbeth being an old ‘war horse’ and an audience favorite, was frequently the play that would replace a show that wasn’t doing well.  So if you heard someone talking about Macbeth, you didn’t like it because it meant that the play you are doing might be closing early, and be replaced by a revival of Macbeth.  I kind of like that legend the best.”

Analysis:

The Macbeth superstition is among the most common superstitions that people working in theater follow.  The legend of Macbeth is that it is bad luck to say ‘Macbeth’ in the theater.  To prevent unlucky things from happening such as the set falling over, people are encouraged to say ‘The Scottish Play’.  If you do make the mistake of saying ‘Macbeth’, you have to cut the curse by performing some kind of protection ritual.  This ritual changes based on who you talk to due to the fact that it is such widespread legend and many people have different ideas about the curse.  The first time I heard about the legend was in Boston when I broke the rule of not saying ‘Macbeth’ in the theater, and the people I was with made me run around the theater three times to cure the curse.  The next time I heard about ‘The Scottish Play’ legend was in Los Angeles, where the cure for the curse was to spin around three times and spit over your shoulder.  It is hard to say if the cure changes based on your location because people in theater often travel for work, so the ideas on the legend would be mixed.  There are many different origin stories behind the legend of Macbeth, and the stories my informant mentions are only some possibilities.

I am familiar with the legend that Shakespeare might have used real witch’s incantations in his play, but I am not sure if this is true.  It depends on your beliefs about witchcraft.  I think the reason why this particular legend is so popular is because witchcraft and magic hold such a high place of fascination in our imaginations, and believing in them is fun.  People are attracted to theater because it is about the magic of storytelling.  Therefore when people in theater participate in these kind of belief systems, they are doing so because it is an extension of working in an occupation that is full of play.  Theater is like magic in the fantastical sense, we rely on illusions to invoke a spectacular idea in the imaginations of the audience.

I was not familiar with the idea that perhaps Macbeth has transformed into a superstition based on the idea that it is a show that frequently replaces unsuccessful productions.  It is very possible that this legend is the true reason behind why the play has become part of theater lore.  This is because Macbeth is a very popular production and you can always find it being performed during a production season, so I can easily see it replacing a show that didn’t prove to be popular.  If this is true, then Macbeth probably evolved into a superstition of bad luck because it has it’s origins in bad luck.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.

[geolocation]