Fri | Sep 30, 2022

Tony Deyal | In high spirits

Published:Friday | July 7, 2017 | 12:00 AM

From the moment I learnt that dew did not fall but formed, and wearing a hat in the night was no insurance against a severe head cold from all that malignant precipitation, I tended to look askance at all the other warnings.

Not surprisingly, one Good Friday, I went into the sea and did not turn into a fish. Worse, to the total consternation of my Aunty Moon, I once opened an umbrella in the house and she, in the hope that I would be severely punished for my being 'harden' and bringing bad luck on the family, duly reported the news, with some relish, to my father when he returned from work that evening.

I remember one of my aunts being forced to drink a lot of milk when she was pregnant and putting it in her morning 'tea' - which could be any of Red Rose, coffee, cocoa, Milo or Ovaltine. It was not a matter of protein or calcium, vitamins or potassium; it was all about complexion. The baby would be born, not dark-skinned like the mother or father, but with a 'fair' complexion that would make him or her get the best available jobs and maybe even work in the bank.

There is a story about the dark-skinned woman who did give birth to such a baby, and when her dark-skinned husband protested vehemently, she explained, "Is the milk of magnesia I had to drink every day." Her irate husband asked, "So how come the baby eyes blue?" "That is because of the Magnesia bottle," she replied.

What I did not get over as quickly was the talk about ghosts, evil spirits and things that did not just go bump in the night, but made it scary and even dangerous. It is an experience that all Caribbean children have in common. In Jamaica, there are duppies like bush. According to one source (Transition Sunshine - Jamaica), "Duppies are said to live in the roots of cotton trees, bamboo thickets, or in abandoned buildings. They eat bamboo roots, fig leaves and the fruit of a vine called the 'duppy pumpkin'.

"Although generally believed to be harmful (especially when used by an obeahman), there are good and bad duppies. Duppies can take on the shape of humans or animals and are also able to change themselves into different forms. They can talk, laugh, sing, cook, smoke, ride horses and generally do anything a human can. When they do ride, however, they are said to use the animal's tail as a bridle."

In Barbados, one particular creature stands out. The blog Origins of the Universe speaks about the 'Heartman', who carves people's hearts out (especially those of the ever popular disobedient children in folkloric stories) and gives them to the devil. Some claim he has no heart of his own, and this is why he takes people's hearts.

Guyana, with its mix of cultures, has the Old Higue (or Hag), who lives on the edge of the villages in the day and becomes a ball of fire at night, flying through the air and seeking out tender, juicy babies to suck, but will settle on feeding on any prey. In Trinidad, this character is called a 'soucouyant' and is joined by a cast of characters and creatures that scared the faeces out of many of us, especially those of us who lived in the rural areas and had no indoor plumbing for a long time.

There was the 'La Diablesse', with her 'cow foot', a pretty woman who lured susceptible men to their doom, and the most feared of all, especially by those shift workers who had to ride along dark roads through the fearsome, encroaching forests, the 'Phantom'. Even when we travelled by car late in the night, someone inevitably brought up the possibility of being squeezed between the Phantom's gigantic legs and we broke the speed limit until we saw the light of the village.




I used to think that we in the Caribbean were the most superstitious of folk anywhere because of our ancestry and our rural roots. However, the ties that bind us are nowhere near the superstitions that bind the Thais. The BBC in its, News from Elsewhere, dug up a ghost story from Thailand about a malevolent female ghost who so spooked the villagers in Eastern Thailand that the Royal Thai Police Force were called on to undertake a ghost-busting mission in a village in the Amnat Charoen province. The ghost, known locally as 'phi pob', was accused of killing four cows and causing four border police officers to fall ill. Village leaders wanted the police presence to strengthen civilian morale, prevent, panic, and boost residents' confidence in living their daily lives.

While this is similar to a Nigerian story explaining the arrest of a goat because it was a car thief who had used witchcraft to change shape, the phi pob is believed to have the ability to possess humans and wreak havoc on an entire village. Every year, many rural communities report phi pob hauntings.

In 2016, three individuals reportedly possessed by a phi pob forced family members and neighbours to strip naked at knifepoint. However, phi pob is only one of at least 20 other spirits that inhabit Thailand. The baddest is the Phi Kra-sue, which takes the form of a beautiful woman who mesmerises her prey and wears long flowing dresses (like the La Diablesse) to hide the fact that she has no lower body, just a mass of internal organs and intestines suspended from her head.

The one who seems easiest to get along with, especially if you are not wearing shoes, is Phi Poang Khang, who takes the shape of a black monkey, likes to hang out near salt licks in the jungle, and sucks the big toes of people sleeping there. While South-East Asia is a supposed haven for paedophiles, this spirit is the only known podophile.

- Tony Deyal was last seen wishing that the Phi Kee spirit was around in his youth. He is the one you must consult when waking from a bad dream and then going to the toilet. By asking the spirit to allow your excrement to go peacefully, you offset bad luck.