10 Jamaican Myths & Legends Parents Use To Scare Children

Jamaicans often turn to very creative ways of parenting. We are, by nature, a strongwilled set and this begins in childhood. While we have a stronger respect for power distance than many other cultures, we don’t necessarily obey authority, even when we respect that it’s there and why it’s there.

Consequently, parents often turn to fear to rein us in. In some cases, this can mean corporal punishment. Spare the rod and spoil the child is a common saying among parents and grandparents in Jamaica. However, after a few spankings, Jamaican children are nowhere near as disciplined by corporal punishment as parents like to believe.

So, the smart ones resort to much better legends and myths. Over the years, so many of us heard the same scary admonitions as children that it stuck with us. Here are the top 10 that Jamaicans volunteered in response to this thread:

1. You’ll Go Mad

The most common tale Jamaicans shared was that if we didn’t properly dispose of our hair after grooming, we risked madness. This would happen if a bird then found the hair and used it to build a nest. I primarily heard this repeated by girls and women when growing up, but one guy shared his own version as well.

drankro or jankro is Patois for John Crow. Also known as the turkey vulture or carrion crow, this is a large scanvenger bird on the island. As a fun fact, if someone refers to someone else as a jankro, it’s a serious insult. That said, some Jamaicans do refer to their loved ones as dutty jankro, after not seeing them for some time. It is usually meant and understood as a type of affection, but it’s a fine line to walk.

Potential Parenting Purpose: Black or kinky hair sheds quite a bit after combing and can leave a bit of a mess if you arent vigilant about cleaning up. This encouraged children not to leave hair lying about after cutting, washing, detangling or styling.

2. Duppies Will Take Your Voice

Another story you hear often is that if you speak too loudly at night, a duppy will steal your voice. I asked what happened if a duppy stole my voice, as a child, and got two different answers. One person said, the duppy would be able to impersonate me and use my voice as bait to lure other family members to harm. The other theory was that I would lose my own voice.

In Jamaica, a duppy is the equivalent of a ghost. For the most part, we view duppies as malicious or mischievous spirits who are never up to any good. A lot of the warnings we received as children centered on duppies harming us in one way or another. This is one of the most common examples.

Potential Parenting Purpose: Jamaicans are the social butterflies of the West Indies. We are also loud, whether we are happy or angry, because we are very … let’s say: expressive. This makes for some rather rambunctious children. So, convincing us that we might lose our voices to duppies if we don’t quiet down around bed time serves an obvious purpose.

3. Duppies Will Enter the Home

It is not uncommon for children and adults to come in and out of the home during the nighttime, especially in the older days, when bathrooms were separate from the main home. Upon re-entering the home after dark, children (and adults) were encouraged to walk into the home backwards to prevent duppies from coming in after them. Some parents also recommended announcing who you were before entering the home.

Potential Parenting Purpose: In the cities and closeby suburbs, it was not unheard of for gunmen to ambush people on their way into their homes. This was especially common during election seasons. Walking in backwards reduces the likelihood of someone catching you by surprise. The need to announce your presence also reduces the likelihood of children and teens leaving and then trying to sneak in after dark. I think I didn’t hear this one personally because I grew up in very safe, rural communities.

4. The Rolling Calf Will Kill You

Most of what I know about the Rolling Calf, I heard from my mother, who received warnings about it from her mother. This spirit is a level above your average duppy. It tends to roam the streets at ungodly hours of the night, usually around midnight and later. When it’s coming, you won’t see it, but you will hear it dragging its chains behind it.

My mother says she has heard one, once before, when she stayed out too late. However, that could have been to scare me.

Only one person mentioned the Rolling Calf, which was surprising to me. I think it’s because this one is a bit before our time. Rolling Calf stories were more common in the 1980s and earlier, when streets were not as well lit and people generally did not stay out very late.

Potential Parenting Purpose: This was another great way to discourage children โ€” and cheating spouses โ€” from prowling the streets at night. After all, people who encounter a Rolling Calf generally do not live to explain why they were out so late and who they were with: better to just stay home!

5. A Duppy Will Poke You in the Eye

I don’t remember being told this one, but many people relate warnings from their parents not to look outside at night. Parents warned that the duppy would either poke you in the eye for doing so or box you (slap you in the face) and then you would go dumb. In Jamaican folklore, a box from a duppy can lead to seizures or madness, so these are other risks to consider.

Note that jook mi yiy means “poke me in the eye” and lick means “hit”.

Potential Parenting Purpose: Nighttime is generally the domain of adults in a home. Once the children go to bed, adults can finally engage in activities that children have no business in. Depending on the chosen activities, children peeking outside the windows at night could prove disastrous to maintaining confidentiality. For people in crime-ridden areas, there was also the risk of the child witnessing a crime and becoming a target.

6. A Duppy Will Step In Your Head

This is the more violent of two stories. Both share one warning in common: we shouldn’t sit in doorways, especially after 6 PM. If we do so anyway, a duppy might step in our heads out of pure spite. The less violent version is that the duppy will jump over our heads and stunt our growth. Some parents also extended this to standing in the middle of other dangerous areas.

In the second example above, ago is how we indicate future tense in Patois. So, ago step means, “will step”. This is ironic, considering that the English version of “ago” speaks to the past.

Potential Parenting Purpose: Children tend to congregate in the most inconvenient locations of a home. It is not uncommon for us to sit in doorways or near them and then leave our toys on the floor when called to dinner. Before you know it, we have forgotten about them and never put them away. This warning helps keep doorways clear and reduces tripping hazards in the home.

7. Your Fingers Will Fall Off

To be fair, I never heard this from parents. I heard this from fellow children. Most people who report this story also share a similar source. In any case, the story goes that if you point at a grave and neglect to bite all 10 of your fingers, your fingers will fall off. I was one of those children who challenged things like these, so I remember pointing at graves and chasing the neighbourhood children with my hands held out in front of me.

Potential Parenting Purpose: Pointing at someone or other people’s things was considered extremely offensive when I was growing up. I think the reason is that it can come off as accusatory or that you are eyeing other people’s things. Parents would always slap you on the hand if you were caught pointing. Pointing in people’s faces when in close proximity might also earn you a box from that person.

8. Rats Will Eat Your Gums & Teeth

Our version of the American Tooth Fairy is a lot less fairytale-like. Instead of putting teeth under the pillow and getting money, we’re supposed to throw the tooth on the roof and do a specific chant. There were two potential risks if you failed to do this. The scarier one is that the rat might come back to get the rest of your teeth and gums. The second is that you won’t get a new tooth to replace the old one.

I don’t remember the exact words to the chant I was taught, but it was something like:

Rat-a-tat! Rat-a-tat! Give me a new teeth!

If you’ve been following my Jamaican posts for a while (or you are Jamaican), you might remember that teeth is one of several words that are permanently plural in Patois. If you would like to know more about this, check out this article:

10 WORDS THAT ARE
PERMANENTLY PLURAL
IN JAMAICAN PATOIS

Potential Parenting Purpose: I’m not sure what parents had in mind when they came up with this one, but I would guess finances had something to do with it. In poorer households, it probably wasn’t feasible to give children money or gifts every time they lost a tooth.

9. Wrigleys Will Tie Up Your Tripe

Children are notorious for accidentally swallowing things. One of those things is wrigleys (gum). In Jamaica, we were told that if we swallowed it, it would tie up our tripe (intestines).

Note that Jamaica is one of those cultures that call some common items by the first or most common brand that provided it back in the day. Wrigleys is a good example of this. However, most people just say gum now. I haven’t heard anyone call gum wrigleys in years.

Potential Parenting Purpose: When children swallow gum, it can pose a much greater risk than when it happens to adults. Small children, especially, can choke on gum. There is also a potential economic factor, as well as the need to protect young teeth from cavities. If you think accidentally swallowing the gum might tie up your tripe, you could feel less inclined to ask your parents to buy it.

10. A Fly Will Pitch On Your Tongue

Sucking on your tongue is a habit many children struggle with. Parents used to scare them out of it by telling them that one day, a fly would pitch on their tongues, defecate, and they would not be able to pull the tongue back into their mouths.

Potential Parenting Purpose: Sucking on the tongue creates a lot of problems for children as they get older. In Jamaica, many people believe it creates a “heavy” tongue, which contributes to a lisp. People who suck on their tongues also tend to have a dental problem known as open bite. It can even cause the teeth and the mouth to jut outward because of the continual pressure of the tongue. Dental problems can also contribute to lisps.

BONUS: Honourable Mentions

Above, I listed just 10 of the most common answers I got. There are dozens of others on the thread. Feel free to check them out. I’ve added a few extras below.

ยฆ

I don’t think Jamaican parents are alone in coming up with stories to get children to behave. Even so, I will venture to say we are probably among the most creative. What scary stories, myths and legends did your parents share with you as a child that you now realise was just to keep you in line?

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24 thoughts on “10 Jamaican Myths & Legends Parents Use To Scare Children

  1. I grew up in a Chinese household, and I’ve gotten the Chinese equivalent of myths and legends from my parents to discipline me as a kid. Really funny when I think back on it, but when I was young, I totally believed in what my parents said haha. We’re one in the same!

    1. The Chinese are a big part of our culture in Jamaica. Maybe they are also partly to blame for this. ๐Ÿ˜‚

  2. These are some really interesting ones. It’s not difficult to see how folk tales and folk lore develop out of such stories.

    A few from the UK:
    – If you pick your nose your eyes will fall out
    – If you don’t change out of wet clothes you’ll catch pneumonia
    – If you pick dandelions you’ll wet the bed

    And of course, there’s always the threat “if you don’t behave, we’ll tell Father Christmas”. Germany has an anti- Father Christmas called Krampus who takes away all the bad kids on Christmas Eve.

    1. That last one is hilarious. Dandelions and bed wetting?? How did they make that connection? ๐Ÿ˜‚

      1. I think the plant’s sap has some diuretic properties, but you have to eat a lot of it for it to have any impact on your bladder. I’ve known some people put the leaves in a salad with no ill effects. I think it’s just indicative of how some people don’t understand that it’s often the dose that makes the poison.

      2. LoL I was wondering if it was supposed to keep little boys out of grandma’s garden. I really wouldn’t expect them to think a child would eat a flower, randomly. ๐Ÿ˜‚

    1. Hahahaha, it was only scary if you were misbehaving. I was only ever convinced duppies were outside while living in Portland, Jamaica. It was a very quiet and sleepy beach parish and some very strange things happened there. ๐Ÿ˜‚

    1. They’re still being passed down with each generation, so I doubt they’ll ever disappear. But then….the rolling calf one did start to fade into oblivion! Maybe we should write a book. ๐Ÿค”

    1. I’ve heard that one too, but I’m not sure where I heard it as a child. Could have been from overseas family members. ๐Ÿ˜‚

  3. This was pretty kool, I love it ๐Ÿ’ช๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ฒโค๏ธ

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