Bob Marley fans might recognize the word duppy from the great Wailers’ song Duppy Conqueror, although the lyrics reveal little of the meaning behind the term. Multiple sources online claim its etymology to be West African, but none give any details (I’ve since found out locally that the word comes from Bube, a language spoken on the tiny island of Bioko, in the Gulf of Guinea). Its cultural references are however strongly associated with religious cults found elsewhere among the West African diaspora (Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, for example). Simply put, a duppy is a malicious spirit that can be summoned from the grave by ritual to do the caller’s bidding. The ceremony is performed by an obeah man, who will throw down coins and place a glass of rum on the grave. The duppy will then rise up and follow the command of the obeah man. This usually involves a vindictive haunting of a victim, identified by some physical clue, such as some of the victim’s hair or a piece of clothing.
One of the stranger manifestations is the Three-leg Horse Duppy ridden by the Whistling Cowboy and whose breath is said to be fatal. In her book Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston, the Three-leg Horse appears around Christmas but only from one to four in the morning. He wanders the roads and chases travellers. The only way to escape, according to Hurston, is to run under a fence. Some believe that the Three-leg Horse is only harmful to women and will dance in the road with any man he meets. In short, it’s voodoo, halitosis and misogyny.
This legend came back to me when I passed this ornament in a nearby garden.
Of course, the heavy winds and rains of successive hurricanes have taken their toll on the poor beast, leaving him with only one good leg and three rusty stumps.
Don’t be fooled by the cute Santa hat, however, for as Jamaicans say, duppy know who fi frighten an who fi tell good night.