Origins of the Soucouyant Tale

Posted by Giselle Anatol on December 11, 2009 in Guest Blog, Prof Giselle Anatol tagged with

There are many different ideas about the origins of the folk figure and the name. 

The word “soucouyant” is sometimes said to be a French or patois/creole derivation of the English verb “to suck.”

Trinidadian folklore collector Gérard Besson cites folklorist Ursula Raymond, who argued that the term comes from the French words for "suspicion"—soupçon/soupçonner/soupçonneux (i.e. suspecting of a person of being a witch). 

Trinidadian linguist Maureen Warner-Lewis traces the name back to the Fula/Soninke words sukunyadyo [male] and sukunya [female], both of which mean “[hu]man-eating witch.”

And in her glossary to I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986), Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé proposes that the word soukougnan literally means “bloodsucker,” and comes from the African Tukulör people, who use it to identify a spirit that attacks humans and consumes their blood.

Warner-Lewis links the actual creature to the African obayfo, a vampiric from the Akan tradition that transforms into a fiery ball after shedding its skin.  Dudley Wright, collector of vampire myths, also records stories of a night-flying obayifo that discards its body, emits a phosphorescent light, and sucks the blood of children.  Neither of these creatures is limited to existence among women, however.  I am curious as to what happens when the tale crosses the Atlantic (most likely during the slave trade) to make the figure take on solely female form.

Works Cited:

Besson, Gérard. Folklore and Legends of Trinidad & Tobago. Port of Spain, Trinidad: Paria Publishing Company Ltd, 1989.

Condé, Maryse. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. Trans. Richard Philcox. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.

Warner-Lewis, Maureen. Guinea’s Other Suns: The African Dynamic in Trinidad Culture. Dover, MA: The Majority Press, 1991.

Wright, Dudley. The Book of Vampires. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

 

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