The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

Douens and other folklore

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One of the best explanations of folklore can be found in Alan Dunde’s brief essay “What is Folklore?”  He argues that folklore is constantly being created and recreated to suit new situations.

In her article in The Guardian  Angelo Bissessarsingh,  shares how stories of the douen and other characters brought to the islands by the Ibo, Dahomey and Yoruba nations combined with the legends of Dracula, that came to the Caribbean with the French planters, to create a rich local folklore that has been handed down through generations:

The douen, like other characters of local folklore, is almost a direct transfer of the stories of West Africa, from whence hundreds of thousands of hapless captives from the Ibo, Dahomey and Yoruba nations were transported to the West Indies as slaves for the sugar barons. From the Ashanti coast they brought the tradition of the griot (storyteller) and around their fires outside their huts in bondage, the timtim grew and flourished. Brer Anansi, the tricky spiderman and his loveable antics found root in the Caribbean soil alongside other folk spirits of a decidedly more sinister nature. Lost somewhere in our mythical past, the European vampire—Nosferatu, like Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula—came to these islands with the French planters and copulated with the inyanga (witches) of West Africa, who came from the Rada strongholds deep in the Belmont valley, and thus the soucouyant was born.

In nearly every village of rural T&T there is a timtim of an aged crone who lived alone in a remote hut (very much like the witches of European origin) and when night fell, shed her skin, which was placed in a wooden mortar, while she burst into a ball of flame and flew off to suck the blood of the living. To banish the soucouyant would mean finding her mortar and rubbing salt and pepper in the skin so that she would not be able to put it on again, sending her into shrieks of “Skin, skin, you nah know me?” In our haste to pursue what we term development, we have lost our ancestral spirits and the art of the timtim. Nevertheless, if you journey deep into the countryside, you will find the belief in the supernatural alive and well. In the Irois Forest they tell of douens that have been seen. Many a hunter will weave a story of having been led astray by the kindly woodman, Papa Bois. I myself have wandered alone in these high woods and have never managed to shake the feeling of being closely watched at every step.

A friend jokingly said that electric lights have banished the douen, Papa Bois and la diablesse, but if you go into the primal woodland where silence closes in on one like prison walls, you will soon realise that the belief in the denizens of the forest cannot be easily forgotten. Folklore characters live deep in the indelible subconscious of our people. From the artistic expressions of LeRoy Clarke’s Douendom to yarns told around a dim kerosene lamp on a dark night, we explore the surreal realm of what lies just outside the pale of reality. These are the stories handed down through generations like cherished heirlooms wherein the echoes of Africa emerge with flitting, shadowy figures in the indigo blue of the Caribbean twilight.


Author: Daniela

I was born in Croatia, at that time Yugoslavia. My family moved to the US when I was very young, but I still treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," my grandmother shopping early every morning, at the open air market, to buy the freshest vegetables for the day's meals, and the traditions that were the underpinnings of our society. Someone once noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world; one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

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