The Mystical Kapok

Mack Little
3 min readNov 30, 2022

I couldn’t help but feature this beguiling tree in my upcoming novel.

The opening for my novel Shelter in a Hostile World draws from ancient belief systems found in West Africa. It centers around the kapok tree, otherwise known as the silk cotton tree or jumbie tree. It is native to the Caribbean, Central and South America, and West Africa. The Kapok can grow to an astonishing height of 240 feet. The trunk measures up to 10 feet in diameter. A flourish of broad horizontal branches crowns this majestic tree. Considering its awe-inspiring majesty, no wonder African cultures and the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean have imbued the kapok with mystical qualities. However, the tree provides practical benefits as well.

A Nefarious Tree to Africans

African mysticism is integral to my novel and the Kapok tree, according to their traditions, harbors spirits and duppies. The idea of spirits inhabiting the tree grew from a dark history. The enslaved were often hung from the branches of the kapok, and their spirits made a home in the roots. They came to think of the tree as a symbol of the devil and as a portal to the underworld. To chop a kapok down meant releasing angry and or evil spirits.

Also, according to superstition, the kapok tree harbors duppies, the manifestations (in human or animal form) of the souls of the dead or malevolent supernatural beings. For that reason, the tree should not be planted too close to the house because the duppies who live in them will “throw heat” on the people as they come and go. The harm done by duppies requires medicinal cures (including “balm baths”) from local healers who serve as both “doctor and priest.”

A Sacred tree to the Indigenous of the Caribbean

The Tainos, the principal inhabitants of most of what is now Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and the northern Lesser Antilles, believed spirits of the dead, called opías dwelled in the trees. The opías came out at night to eat the guayabe fruit. By day they served as guardians. Likely this was an association with tropical bats who make their homes in the kapok tree and partake of the guayabe fruit at night.

The Arawaks, a group of indigenous peoples of northern South America and of the Caribbean, believed the kapok walked at night. It is not so farfetched when one sees the enormous root system that extends up to 50 feet up the trunk and continues underground for about 154 feet.

In Mayan mythology, the kapok tree is the symbol of the universe. It is the route of communication between the three levels of the earth. The roots extend to the underworld. The trunk is the middle world where humans live, and its canopy symbolizes the upper world and heaven.

Practical uses

The seed fibers of the kapok resemble silk and cotton, and at one point, it was used to fill life jackets, and it is still used to stuff mattresses and cushions.

The seeds can be pressed for oil. When tea is made from bark, it can be used as a diuretic and or aphrodisiac. It is added to the hallucinogenic drink Ayahuasca by some Amazonian tribes.

At one time, the Tainos cut the tree down and hollowed out the trunk to make canoes though the wood was not preferred. It is susceptible to rot.

Conclusion

When I stumbled across this magnificent tree in my research for my novel, I felt as inspired as my ancestors, though with not so much dread. I let my imagination run wild and wove the kapok into my story. And here I can share with you some elaboration on this fascinating tidbit.

Shelter in a Hostile World will be released in July 2023.

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Mack Little

Mack Little was born in Conyers, GA and studied Intern'l Politics in Seville, Spain, and lived in Germany. Currently she lives and writes in Houston, Texas.