Storytelling and Folk Culture – Aspects of Jamaica’s Intangible Cultural Heritage


Jamaica’s intangible cultural heritage (ICH) refers to our ancestral inheritance which cannot be touched. Our ancestral inheritance is important to us as a nation as it not only makes our life fun and more meaningful, but also helps to define us as a nation.


Storytelling and folk culture are important aspects of our ICH. Though they may be regarded as two separate aspects, they are closely related.


Storytelling and Folk Culture

Storytelling is deeply rooted in our African ancestral heritage. This was an important activity in Africa long before the beginning of slavery, and continued to play an important role in the lives of the enslaved Africans during and after slavery. This is due to the fact that storytelling was not only used for recreation (fun), but also as a tool for passing on important information from one generation to the next. As the enslaved Africans were not allowed to learn to read and write, this was one of the main ways in which information was passed on.


Popular Jamaican stories include those told of ‘duppies’ and the common folk hero Anansi. Though some may think of duppies, or ghosts (as they are sometimes called), as superstitious nonsense, some of the religious practices in Jamaica that have African roots are based heavily on the spirit world. Two examples are Kumina and Revivalism. Stories of duppies, therefore, are not regarded by everyone as nonsense.


While stories about duppies may scare us, many of us love a good Anansi story which portrays a little creature which always outsmarts larger animals. These stories, too, are not just for fun, but have a deeper meaning; they teach us that size and muscle is not everything and that being smart is more important.


Other forms of folk culture include games, folk music, proverbs and riddles. These too were used for recreation by the enslaved, especially brainteasers such as riddles, and games such as ring-games. Recreational activities played an important role in the lives of the enslaved as this was the main avenue through which they were able to forget, for a short time, the harsh conditions under which they lived. Folk songs included both leisure and work songs. While folk songs used for leisure cheered up the spirits of the enslaved during non-work periods, work songs were sung while working as it took their minds off the tasks, thus making the work seems easier.


Proverbs, like stories, were also used to pass on information, give advice and warn persons in an indirect way. An example of this is the proverb: “Nuh wait till drum beat before yuh grine yuh axe!” This translates in Standard English to: “Do not wait until the drum beats before you grind your axe”. This simply means that you should be prepared for all eventualities/possibilities.


Stories and folk culture were therefore and are still able to:

  • Provide fun and recreation
  • Pass on information
  • Invoke fear
  • Warn or give advice
  • Make tasks seems easier


Today, when we think of Jamaica’s storytelling and folk culture, some of the most popular names that come to mind are the Hon. Louise Bennett Coverley (late), Amina Blackwood-Meeks and Joan Andrea Hutchinson.                                                        


The Hon. Louise Bennett Coverley

Amina Blackwood-Meeks

Joan Andrea Hutchinson



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