John Crow Beads and Obeah in Jamaica


The Jamaica Gleaner has been publishing some extracts from articles that appeared in the Jamaica Journal, calling attention to the richness and variety of the contents of that venerable publication. The latest installment is from an article by John Rushford on the vine Jamaicans call John Crow Bead and its links to the Christmas dancing called Jonkonnu and the vulture called John Crow—all of which are related in the article to the practice of Obeah because of their relationship to the world of spirits and spirit possession. The beads are often used to make jewelry in Jamaica.

It shows that John Canoe, who is the chief dancer of a troupe of dancers, is the spirit person or obeahman (variously described as a witch doctor, magician, jumbie-man or sorcerer) and both the John Crow and the John Crow Bead are associated with death and with materials used in the practice of obeah.

In the Caribbean, the common names for Abrus precatorious point to its association with the spirit world and suggests that John as one of the generic terms in its compound common names is an expression of this association. The link is made by the fact that in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean, the plant is known as Jumbie Bead, and in some places, as, for example, the Virgin Islands, it is also called Devil Bead (Williams (jumbi, jumby, jumbee, jumbay, jamby) or zombie are just different terms for spirits. These terms are more widely used in the eastern Caribbean than in Jamaica (Cassidy 1971, Beckwith 1929).

In Jamaica, spirits are most frequently identified as ‘duppies’. They are largely of human origin, being spirits of the dead. Usually considered more harmful than good, they interact with the living and in dong so directly affect the routine of daily life. They love the night, especially when perfumed by the aromatic basil (Ocimum basilicum L.) and the strong sweet smell of the night blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum). They “feed upon bamboo root, ‘fig’ leaves and the gourd-like fruit of a vine called ‘duppy pumpkin'” (Beckwith 1929 p 89) and live at the root of cotton trees (Ceiba pentandra), in burial grounds and old abandoned buildings, and in dark places such as caves, mangrove swamps, bamboo thickets and forests.

You can find the Gleaner’s article at the link below. It is from Rashford’s “Plants, Spirits and the Meaning of ‘John’ in Jamaica from  Vol. 17 No. 2 of the Jamaica Journal.

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Photo by Dinesh Valke at

2 thoughts on “John Crow Beads and Obeah in Jamaica

  1. I found these beads in a pod on a vine had grown on a tree. I was born in cuba and we had them growing in our land. I never knew that they were called the devil beads.
    All I knew that they are poison beads and my mother told me that the oil that they leave on your skin is poison and that the slave use to, use them to poising the white people meals when they didn’t like them and no one knew how they die until years later.

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