WEATHER-MAGIC IN THE WEST INDIES
“The soul of some people is such that they can stop the rain and command the winds and the storms.” –from De magia by Giordano Bruno (written circa 1588).
“But the men marvelled, saying, ‘What manner of man is this that even the winds and sea obey him!'” -Matthew 8:27.
From the earliest ages, magicians were thought to be the go-to “professionals” for effective—albeit somewhat antinomian—meddling in the forces of nature. They were seen as surgeons of the mind and body so to speak, rainmakers (in the old and new sense of the word) who employed secret techniques to obtain demonstrable results. In short, their business was interference, and the annals of history are chock-full of anecdotal testaments to their apparently wondrous powers.
One of these powers was the ability to craftily perform weather-magic. Evidences of the magical domination of meteorological forces by wise men and women constitute some of the most well-known stories of Antiquity. The lightning rites of Roman king Numa Pompilius, the death-dealing thaumaturgy of Biblical prophets Moses and Elijah, the tempest-raising arts of Julian the Chaldean theurgist; these are but a taste of the weather-magic lore which has come down to us from the ancients. In the Middle Ages, due to the supremacy of Christian propaganda, weather-magic took on a more malignant quality, but its masters were no less astonishing.
There were the cloud-busting Tempestarii of Magonia (affably called “Hail-Men” by Charles Godfrey Leland in his book Etruscan Roman Remains in the Popular Tradition), the dragon-riding Solomonari of Romania, and, of course, the crop-destroying witch-folk of every locality. In the popular imagination, these groups represented a very real threat to society, mainly because pre-Modern economies were based principally on agriculture. This meant that livelihood was intricately bound up with the day-to-day variations of the climate. Even so, the rise and spread of industrialism and mercantilism did not extinguish these beliefs. The New World, like the Old World, fostered its own magicians and its own tales of miraculous phenomena.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a number of prodigies concering African sorcery were reported in the West Indies. Of course, a vast majority of the accounts are coloured with racialist suppositions about the prevalence of “diabolism” and “fanaticism” in Afro-Caribbean culture. Fuelled by superstition and classism, this kind of stereotyping was, according to various scholars (such as Lara Putnam), comparable to the hysteric stories of blood libel which were used to marginalise and persecute Jews for centuries. Within this context however, a few legends about African magic did emerge which were more mythological in nature, resembling the sort of narratives one would find in The Golden Legend or perhaps The Odyssey.
One of the sources for this lore was Jean-Baptiste Labat, a Dominican missionary, naturalist, and diarist who settled in Martinique in the late seventeenth century. Labat was hardly an unbiased writer by today’s standards. He, like his fellow slave-owning peers was unapologetically self-righteous, and had no reservations about inflicting corporeal punishment on those who engaged in what he believed to be “heathenish” practices. Nevertheless, his fastidious and credulous nature in recording his experiences, makes him a most intriguing figure, and without a doubt, one of the first propagators, as it were, of a Caribbean mythos of the “fantastic”.
For example, in his multiple-volume work Nouveau voyage aux isles de l’Amérique (1722), Labat relates a curious example of a seemingly supernatural case of rainmaking. During a severe drought, Labat recruits a friend’s servant (a young boy from Africa’s Gold Coast) to assist him in saving his garden. The confident pluviculturist rustles up three oranges and lays them on the ground. After prostrating himself before them, he takes three small branches from the tree and lays them against the oranges while repeating a spell.
He concludes the ceremony by taking one of the branches in his hand and pointing it—like a wand—at a nearby cloud. Instantly, the cloud bursts and rain falls exclusively in Labat’s garden. When pressed for answers to the origin of his magic, the boy (whom Labat later names “Amable au Bapteme”) claims that he was taught by other captives on the transatlantic voyage from Guinea to Martinique.
In another story, Labat relates the testimony of the inventor, navigator, and aristocrat Jean-Baptiste, Count of Gennes. In 1696, one of the count’s ships in his commanding squadron fell under the enchantment of a woman while en route to the Caribbean from the Senegalese slave port at Fort Gorée . Labat states that the woman was “adept in the diabolical sciences” and that she effectively kept the ship in a kind of limbo, preventing it from staying on course. It’s unclear whether this was through a confounding charm on the ship itself, the crew, or the ocean, but in any case, Labat writes that the sorceress was whipped relentlessly for her meddling, mainly by the ship’s surgeon.
After calmly enduring the ordeal, the woman curses the doctor, and declares that she will eat his heart. Unsurprisingly, he perishes not long after her imprecation. An autopsy later reveals the enervated state of his entrails. The captain then sets up a parley with the woman and eventually agrees to release her and her inner circle. But the sorceress, ostensibly for the fun of it, offers one more spectacle. She tells the captain that she will devour the core of his melon without touching it. The captain agrees to the request and locks up his melon d’eau in a safe. Later, he finds that the only thing that remains of the melon are the rinds. As soon as he returns the woman and her assistants to their home, the ship is released from its invisible enchainment and resets its course for the West Indies.
This amazing story clearly baffled Labat who appears to have taken it literally. Apocryphal or not, the tale has a tricksy, Anansi-like quality to it. Conceivably, if the story is true, the woman’s magic could be attributed to clever legerdemain, suggestion, and perhaps (as demonstrated by the surgeon’s rapid demise) some veneficia. But even if poisoning were not involved, the enchantress did, after all, eat the hearts of the crew in the sense that she stirred up and maintained a localised, collective hysteria. All her actions allowed her to gain empire over their minds. Hence, the words of the famous ex-priest and occultist Eliphas Levi (quoted by Arthur Edward Waite in Levi’s Transcendental Magic):
“To invoke blindest passions, which are also illimitable in their scope, and bring them into slavish subjection, is to create omnipotence.”
In the nineteenth century, another European author named Hesketh Bell took up Labat’s “mantle” of sorts, and furnished the Caribbean mythos with further magical or psychical narratives. Like Labat’s works, Bell’s infamous Obeah: Witchcraft in the West Indies is full of prejudicial hyperbole. Much of the text is devoted to rumours of the supposed diablerie and criminality of Obeah practitioners. A few times however, Bell touches on weather-magic tales. One of these tales (which appears in issue #6 of Godfrey’s Almanack) involves a cataclysmic storm which was unleashed in 1780 by the spirit of a Jamaican bandit-chief named Plato shortly after his death. Plato, like the sea-sorceress in Labat’s tale also seems to have had knowledge of the so-called “evil eye” and perhaps other subtle arts. At his sentencing, he threatens his executioner with death, and soon the poor man deteriorates under the influence of his vampiric tormentor.
Bell also describes the local legend of a girl from St Lucia who had the power to involuntarily bring rain wherever she went. The catch though, was that the rain could only appear indoors. Although Bell, treating the tale as a kind of joke, does not look for an explanation, one author (writing in volume 13 of The Theosophist) theorises that the girl’s condition was caused by a supervising medium or a long-lost connection to Atlanteans.
What are we to make of this legendarium? Undoubtedly, as has been the case with other magical tales from around the world, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Bell and Labat were outsiders who happened to record a fraction of what were most likely deep-rooted traditions of wonderworking. Even today, certain families of rainmakers across the African continent maintain their craft and keep their “trade secrets” under close guard. Elements of these traditions were transmitted across the ocean during the Atlantic Slave Trade alongside various West African mystical systems. Oral storytelling and cultural exchange clearly played a significant role in their proliferation, and, we can be sure, will continue to play a part in their survival. To meddle, to amalgamate, to syncretise, to transform—this is the history of magic.