Excerpt from Tell My Horse
The Rooster’s Nest
Jamaica, British West Indies, has something else besides its mountains of majesty and its quick, green valleys. Jamaica has its moments when the land, as in St. Mary’s, thrusts out its sensuous bosom to the sea. Jamaica has its “bush.” That is, the island has more usable plants for medicinal and edible purposes than any other spot on earth. Jamaica has its Norman W. Manley, that brilliant young barrister who looks like the younger Pitt in yellow skin, and who can do as much with a jury as Darrow or Liebowitz ever did. The island has its craze among the peasants known as Pocomania, which looks as if it might be translated into “a little crazy.” But Brother Levi says it means “something out of nothing.” It is important to a great number of people in Jamaica, so perhaps we ought to peep in on it a while.
The two greatest leaders of the cult in Jamaica are Mother Saul, who is the most regal woman since Sheba went to see Solomon, and Brother Levi, who is a scrontous-looking man himself.
Brother Levi said that this cult all started in a joke but worked on into something important. It was “dry” Pocomania when it began. Then it got “spirit” in it and “wet.” What with the music and the barbaric rituals, I became interested and took up around the place. I witnessed a wonderful ceremony with candles. I asked Brother Levi why this ceremony and he said, “We hold candle march after Joseph. Joseph came from cave where Christ was born in the manger with a candle. He was walking before Mary and her baby. You know Christ was not born in the manger. Mary and Joseph were too afraid for that. He Was born in a cave and He never came out until He was six months old. The three wise men see the star but they can’t find Him because He is hid in cave. When they can’t find Him after six months, they make a magic ceremony and the angel come tell Joseph the men wanted to see Him. That day was called ‘Christ must day’ because it means ‘Christ must find today,’ so we have Christmas day, but the majority of people are ignorant. They think Him born that day.”
I went to the various “tables” set in Pocomania, which boils down to a mixture of African obeah and Christianity enlivened by very beautiful singing. I went to a “Sun Dial” – that is a ceremony around the clock (24 hours long). The place was decorated from the gate in, with braided palm fronds and quacca bush. Inside the temple, the wall behind the altar was papered with newspapers.
There, the ceremony was in the open air. A long table covered with white. Under this table, on the ground, lighted candles to attract the spirits. There was a mysterious bottle which guaranteed “the spirit come.” The Shepherd entered followed by the Sword Boy, carrying a wooden sword. After him came the Symbol Boy with a cross, chanting. Then came the Unter Boy with a supple jack, a switch very much like a rattan cane in his hand. During the ceremony he flogged those who were “not in spirit” that is, those who sat still. They are said to “cramp” the others who are in spirit. The Governess followed the Unter Boy. She has charge of all the women, but otherwise she functions something like the Mambo of Haiti. She aids the Shepherd and generally fires the meeting by leading the songs and whipping up the crowd. There followed then the Shepherd Boy who is the “armor-bearer” to the Shepherd.
Their ceremony is exciting at times with singing, marching, baptisms at sacred pools in the yard. Miraculous “cures” (Mother Saul actually sat down upon a screaming Chinese boy to cure him of insanity); and the dancing about the tables with that tremendous exhalation of the breath to set the rhythm. That is the most characteristic thing of the whole ceremony. That dancing about the lighted candle pattern on the ground and that way of making a rhythmic instrument and of the breathing apparatus – such is Pocomania, but what I have discussed certainly is not all of it.
These “Balm yards” are deep in the lives of the Jamaican peasants. A Balm Yard is a place where they give baths, and the people who operate these yards are to their followers both doctor and priest. Sometimes he or she diagnoses a case as a natural ailment, and a bath or series of baths in infusions of secret plants is prescribed. More often the diagnosis is that the patient has been “hurt” by a duppy, and the bath is given to drive the spirit off. The Balm Yard with a reputation is never lacking for business. These anonymous rulers of the common people have decreed certain rules and regulations for events in life that are rigidly adhered to. For instance the customs about birth and death. The childbed and the person of the newborn baby must be protected from the dead by marks made with bluing. When it is moved from this room, the open Bible must precede it to keep off the duppies, and so on.
Tables are usually set because something for which a ceremony has been performed is accomplished. The grateful recipient of favor from the gods then sets a table of thanksgiving. No one except the heads of the Balm Yard and the supplicants are told what it is for. Most of the country products are served with plenty of raw rum. The first and most important thing is a small piece of bread in a small glass of water as a symbol of plenty.
And then Jamaica has its social viewpoints and stratifications which influence so seriously its economic direction.
The above is excerpted from “Tell My Horse” by Zora Neale Hurston. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022