Silk Cotton Trees have featured in spiritual beliefs all across the Caribbean for centuries. To the Maya and Aztecs, it was seen as a sacred tree that connects the world with the heavens and the underworld. The Taino and Kalinago used the ceiba tree in canoe making, but also believed that the tree was home to spirits that would become angered if disturbed. To the Dogon in Africa, there was a preference for using the wood of this tree for their sacred masks; Masks that were often used in funeral rituals.
In pre-Columbian times, this tree was associated with spirituality and death on both sides of the Atlantic. After the Columbian exchange, it played a role in almost all of the non-Christian spiritual belief systems in the Caribbean. It has continued to occupy this role into the modern period, and even today, the silk cotton tree or ceiba tree is seen as a magical tree in several parts of the Caribbean.
Silk Cotton Trees in Jamaica and Guyana
In Jamaica and Guyana, the stories associated with the silk cotton tree are similar to elsewhere in the region. They tell of spirits living within the trunk, or bad luck befalling an individual who cuts branches from the tree or steals offerings left by its buttressed roots. There is one story however, that seems unique to Jamaica and Guyana and not found elsewhere in the Caribbean. This is a legend about pirates using a slave to bury a treasure beneath the silk cotton tree and then hanging him from the tree. This was done to prevent the slave from revealing the location of the buried gold to anyone else, and also so that his soul haunts the tree and scares off any treasure hunters. In Jamaica, the pirates are said to be Spanish, but in Guyana the story says that they were Dutch.
Between the lanes of a dual carriageway road in East Coast Demerara there is a well known silk cotton tree. According to local lore, workers refused to cut down this tree out of fear as everyone who attempted to do so ended up dying suddenly, so the highway ended up being built around the tree. Even today, the tree is blamed for the many accidents that occur along that stretch of road. Apparitions are said to emanate from the tree, forcing drivers to swerve suddenly in order to avoid hitting them, and ultimately wrecking their vehicles.
Silk Cotton Trees in Cuba
In Santería, the shade of the Ceiba tree is said to attract spirits and strengthen spells. Evidence of spell casting can often be found at the roots of such trees. Additionally, the bark is used in malevolent spells, while the leaves are used in healing spells and love potions. Members of the Abakuá secret society supposedly sacrifice goats under the ceiba tree, and practitioners of Palo Monte must sleep under the tree for seven nights during initiation. The two main tenets of Palo Monte are the belief in the power of ancestors, and the veneration of nature, so spots where this tree grows are always seen as sacred sites since it’s a part of nature and a home for ancestors.
According to legend, the founding of Havana is linked to a mass being celebrated, and cabildo being held under the shade of a silk cotton tree in 1519. That particular tree has since died, but there is another silk cotton tree in the Cuban capital with historical significance. This is the tree that President Gerardo Machado and leaders from across America transplanted into the center of El Parque de la Fraternidad Americana near the Capitol building in 1928.
Art historian Joseph Hartman says that “the tree functioned as a multivocal sign intended to create an imagined community for multiple audiences in the Cuban Republic.” Essentially, the Machado administration sought to unify Cubans by planting a tree important to Amerindians and Africans in a European style park setting and in close proximity to the neoclassical Capitol building. Hartman also shared the opinions of some Palo Monte practitioners who believe that the planting of the ceiba was part of an occult ritual responsible for the lack of tranquility in Cuba to this day. This claim is backed up by the presence of a noted Palo Monte priest of the era at the planting ceremony.
Silk Cotton Trees in Trinidad and Tobago
A popular Trinbagonian folk tale is that of a carpenter who trapped a devil within the trunk of a silk cotton tree. The story goes that a devil called Bazil was roaming the countryside and causing catastrophe. A cunning carpenter came up with a plan to trap Bazill by building seven rooms into the trunk of a large tree, convincing the devil to go inside, and then locking him in there. When a silk cotton tree falls in rural Trinidad, it is a time of heightened fear as there is concern that the fallen tree was Bazil’s former prison and that he is now free once more.
The group that most sees the spiritual significance of the silk cotton tree are members of the Orisha faith. For them, the tree is seen as a place with the ability to connect several planes of existence that also serves as the home of the gods. Certain deities have a stronger association with the tree; for example, some myths say that Obatala created a magical key from the bark, while other myths link it more closely with Iroko or Chango.
The tree also has significance to Spiritual Baptists and some Hindus. This is due to a certain amount of syncretism between these religions where Hindu deities, Orisha gods, and Christian saints are often seen as manifestations of the same entity, and sacred sites are shared between practitioners of all three religions. The Hindu deities typically seen this way include Kali and Bhairava; subaltern gods that prefer to dwell in forests and haunted places, so the silk cotton tree manages to serve a dual role in the veneration of these gods. Although rare, there are Hindus who subscribe to Aghori practices in Trinidad, and they often meditate under silk cotton trees in secret locations.
In 1870, traveller Charles Kingsley described the fear that the former slaves had about cutting down the silk cotton tree, saying that “the Negro is shy of felling the ceiba. It is a magic tree, haunted by spirits.” The trees observed by Kingsley in Port of Spain would have been those that survived being cut down by Trinidad’s second British governor Sir Thomas Picton. Picton greatly feared the possibility of the Spanish retaking the island, and the potential of slave revolts. As a precaution against the latter, he severely punished anyone suspected of practicing Obeah and ordered the destruction of silk cotton trees as they were a potential place for anti-Plantocracy organizing efforts.
Places notorious for Obeah and occult practices are also noted for their ancient silk cotton trees. One such place is Moruga on the south coast of Trinidad. Historian Bridget Breteron wrote of Warao people from the Orinoco journeying to Moruga every year in the late 1800s. They would trek to San Fernando to sell hunting dogs, parrots and hammocks, but before departing they would do a small ceremony at a ceiba tree near the seashore. After the coastline eroded and the tree washed away, they stopped coming and the details of that ritual are now lost. Moruga was also once home to Trinidad’s most famous spiritualists, Papa Neza and Mother Cornhusk. Even today, it is a place where the occasional supernatural event makes national newspapers. Most recently, this was a mass hysteria incident involving several students at a high school in the area. A particular tree on a hill in Moruga is reputed to be the entrance to the underworld, and silk cotton trees in that part of the island are notorious for the many occult items that could be found near their roots, including black candles and even dried blood.
Another place known for silk cotton trees and Obeah is the area of Lex Coteaux and Golden Lane in Tobago. The most famous silk cotton tree in Tobago was the one associated with Gang Gang Sarah in Golden Lane. Sarah was supposedly a witch who flew to the island from West Africa. In Tobago, she served as a midwife and medicine woman and even got married. After the death of her husband, she desired to return home, but when she attempted to fly from a tall silk cotton tree she fell to her death. She had lost her powers of flight because she ate salt while in Tobago. An actual grave exists for Sarah and her husband near to the tree that she attempted to take flight from. Historian Rita Permberton suggests that there is some truth to this myth based on how well grounded this story is in the oral tradition of the island.
Arguably, the many silk cotton stories are all well grounded in oral tradition, and within them all is either a kernel of truth, a moral, or both.