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St John USVI Culture: Jumbie Tree

Jumbie Tree

Of all the beautiful and majestic trees found in the forests of the tropical Americas, the species most likely to escape the woodsman's axe or the developers' bulldozer is the tree we on St. John call the kapok. The reason for this is that nobody wants to be the one responsible for having it cut down.

It is commonly believed that ghosts, spirits, jumbies and duppies exist within the kapok. Felling the tree would render these spirits homeless. Then out of anger or revenge they might bring illness, bad luck or death to the being that had the audacity to destroy their sacred dwelling.

It has been said that pirates used to bury their treasures under the branches of the kapok in order to discourage opportunists from stealing their ill-gotten gains. Those who dug the hole, be they slaves, captives, or simply dispensable crewmen, would then be buried alive with the treasure, their souls standing an eternal vigil over the booty.

Spirits may also find their way to the kapok tree by being victims of black magic. Through evil spells cast by Obeahmen, the souls of the living may be snatched from their bodies and condemned to dwell within the kapok for eternity, secured to the tree by a large nail driven deeply into the trunk. The spiritless body of victim will either take ill and die, or go hopelessly insane.

The kapok, which is also known as silk cotton tree, ceiba, jumbie tree, Devil tree and God tree can reach heights of over 150 feet. Supporting this impressive giant are tall buttresses which can extend out over 30 feet from the main trunk forming a complex maze of eerie cave-like spaces. Myths concerning supernatural beings that live within the buttresses add to the aura of mysticism surrounding the tree.

On the islands of the Lesser Antilles there is the tale of the Lajabless who during the day hides in the folds of the kapok buttresses. At night it wanders the roads and sometimes enters the villages. The Lajabless appears to be a beautiful young woman. She wears a large floppy hat and a long flowing skirt. The hat serves to hide a death's head skull and the long dress, which is slit on one side to reveal a sensual and perfect feminine leg, conceals another leg ending in a cloven hoof, the mark of the devil. Men mesmerized by her seductiveness are led to the top of a cliff, whereupon the Lajabless removes her hat, revealing the grinning skull and then with a blow delivered by the hoofed foot, the man is sent flying over the precipice to his death.

Among the Mayans in southern Mexico there is a myth of the Xtabay Woman, who also hides by day among the buttresses. At night she appears as a beautiful woman combing her long hair with cactus spines. In this guise, she seduces young men to make love with her. Once within her passionate embrace, the man will fall into a deep, hypnotic sleep. When he awakes, he will find himself gravely wounded. What he thought was a beautiful woman, is really a horrible spiny cactus. The wounds received are likely to fester and result in a fever that is very often fatal.

Notwithstanding all the tales of evil spirits, the kapok is not an evil tree. On the contrary, it is considered sacred by many of the indigenous peoples of America, such as the Taino and the Mayans who believe it to be the tree of life whose roots extend to the underworld and whose branches hold up the heavens. On the island of Puerto Rico, whose people proudly recognize their Taino origins, the ceiba has been declared the national tree.

kapok tree
Kapok Tree on Reef Bay Trail

In Africa the kapok is also held in high regard. It is depicted on the national coat of arms of the Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea where it also appears on the flag.

On St. John, the kapok is not only protected by spirits, but also by the National Park, which has pledged to maintain the natural environment. The best known, and one of the most beautiful kapok trees on the island, can be found on the Reef Bay Trail and is one of the highlights of the weekly guided hike.