Atlantic World Folktale Connections

By Dr. Deborah Atwood, NMB Curator

History | October 19, 2020

Reading time: 6 minutes

In preparation for my previous post on ghost hunting and storytelling, I immersed myself in Bermudian folktales to learn more about the different stories that are part of our storytelling traditions. Mrs. Florenz Webbe Maxwell’s collection of Bermudian folktales, The Spirit Baby & other Bermudian Folktales, proved to be an outstanding guide on this journey and set me on another path of discovery. What Atlantic World connections can be found in our folktales?

Folktales are stories that are passed down from generation to generation and with each new storyteller a new twist can be added. They offer a wonderful way to explore cross-cultural connections and illustrate a way in which diverse groups throughout the Atlantic World interacted with one another via storytelling. As we have explored in a previous article by Bermudian historian Dr. Clarence Maxwell, Bermuda is part of a much larger Atlantic World and our history and traditions are tied with the cultures and people around the Atlantic littoral. Our folktales are embedded into this Atlantic World web and many of these connections can be seen in our stories identified by Mrs. Maxwell.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we can learn a lot from our folktales and in the spirit of Halloween, I am going to expand on Mrs. Maxwell’s brilliant work and explore two of our Bermudian folktales alongside their Atlantic World cousins.

Red Head an’ Bleddy Bones

Cultures around the world have monsters embedded in their folklore, which are meant to scare children who misbehave. Baba Yaga (Russia), H’awaouahoua (Algeria), Namahage (Japan), El Hombre del Saco (Latin America), Abu Rigl Maslukha (Egypt), and in Bermuda we had Red Head an’ Bleddy Bones.

“31 Mythical Creatures Used to Scare Children From Around the World”, graphic created by Playground Equipment. Full graphic here

Described as a frightening skeleton covered in blood with a skull covered in rotting flesh, Red Head an’ Bleddy Bones primarily prowls at night and is only visible to its intended victims.

“There were no eyes in the sockets but blood oozed from the caverns like pools of dark, red tears.”

It only appears in places where children are not disciplined and comes out at night to hunt down troublesome, rude, and disobedient children, capturing them and dragging them back to its dark horrible den.

The original story takes place in Autumn and follows an old woman, Auntie Witch, who lived in a cottage near Shinbone Alley in St. George’s. Her neighbours believed she could see ghosts and she was regularly rounded up by the witch hunters and thrown into the Ducking Stool. She was also regularly terrorized by the children in the neighbourhood.

One day, rumours spread around the island that Red Head an’ Bleddy Bones was on the hunt, and the entire island was terrified. Bermudian parents and their children didn’t dare leave their houses after sunset, and they begged Auntie Witch to help kill the demon.

“The only evidence that Red Head an’ Bleddy Bones had visited the island were the large, bloody footprints in several of the parishes.”

After a terrifying chase through the dark, winding streets of St. George’s Auntie Witch successfully defeats Red Head an’ Bleddy Bones by luring it into the ocean where it is unable to swim and eventually drowns. 

This folktale is part of a family of folktales with cousins in the UK and the USA. The English version originates in Lancashire and Yorkshire with the earliest record of Bloody Bones appearing in 1548.

Rawhead and Bloody Bones
Steals naughty children from their homes,
Takes them to his dirty den,
And they are never seen again.

It lurks in dark places like basements, attics, under staircases, in cupboards and, unlike Bermuda’s monstrous kidnapper who found its demise in the watery depths, the English version also hides in ponds and deep pools of water lying in wait to grab a naughty child and drag them to the deep dark depths.

For you Harry Potter fans, if this sounds familiar, that’s because Bloody Bones is also part of the folktale family connected with the Grindylow, which was a smaller water creature that also terrorised small children and was immortalised on screen when Harry and his fellow TriWizard Tournament competitors were attacked by a swarm of Grindylows during the second task of the tournament. 

The tale of Red Head an’ Bloodybones eventually made its way to North America where it was reimagined as Raw Head and Bloody Bones and has become a popular folktale in the South. Interestingly, one American version sees the monster reimagined as a pig belonging to a “conjure woman” called Old Betty. Raw Head is killed by a hunter and later resurrected by Old Betty, and becomes a vengeful entity bent on tracking down its murderer.

There are numerous versions of this tale throughout the US. Some are connected to the Gullah Geechee cultural traditions found in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and the Sea Islands. There are also versions connected with the people who lived in the Ozarks and Appalachians, and some of these stories have been updated referencing sightings of the monster in the twentieth century.

Counting Out the People

Anyone who has passed the cemetery at night knows that creepy feeling that maybe, just maybe, the souls of the dead are waiting just beyond the gates. But what if one night as you were walking by you heard God and the Devil divvying up souls in the graveyard?

That’s the premise for our next local folktale “Counting out the People”, which features on pages 21 and 22 of Mrs. Maxwell’s book. The story is set in Pembroke during a torrential downpour when two local fishermen decided to take shelter from the deluge in a graveyard. While sheltering, they count the day’s catch:

“One for you”

“One for me”

Someone walking past the graveyard overhears this exchange and immediately runs home to his Mother declaring:

“God and the d-d-devil are d-d-down in P-Pembroke g-g-graveyard s-s-sharing out the d-d-dead.”

No one believes him and he drags his brother down to the graveyard to prove his story. As they make their way to the graveyard the fishermen have finished their count and one realises they’ve missed two fish they left by the gate. As the brothers reach the gate of the graveyard, they overhear one voice exclaim:

“Oh I forgot. What about those two by the gate?”

That does it, the brothers are convinced, God and the Devil are in Pembroke dividing up souls!

This story, as Maxwell outlines, is connected with an African folktale called “The Talking Skull”. When Africans were forcibly transported via the transatlantic slave trade to the US they brought knowledge and many of their cultural traditions with them, including their folktales. “The Talking Skull” has been shared and reworked into different versions throughout the US, and the telling of these stories passed on those traditions and knowledge to the next generation.

Historic Hudson Valley has suggested that stories like this one may have been passed on to the younger generations within enslaved communities, and “were fables, communicating important advice, instruction, and survival skills to those who heard them”. Check out this wonderful retelling of the story performed by storyteller April Armstrong, courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

As folktales are told and shared, each new storyteller changes the story, adding cultural elements familiar to them. Each new version of the story adds to the folktale family tree and gives a little bit of insight into the cultures that told these scary stories, and the web of connections that can be found across the Atlantic World.

“Bermuda Folktales have made their journey as oral tales from person to person and from generation to generation. In the printing of these folktales, the curse of extinction has now been lifted.”

— Florenz Webbe Maxwell

Mrs. Maxwell’s determination to record the few folktales we have has created a permanent record that we can pass on to future generations. When we share these stories, we are not only passing them on to the next generation but also connecting with the generations that came before us and tapping into a much wider web that links cultures and people throughout the Atlantic World. So as it’s Halloween, I encourage you to pick your favorite story, gather around the table, and share it with your friends and loved ones.

If you would like to read these two Bermudian stories (and many more) in full, Mrs. Maxwell’s book can be found in the Bermuda National Library, Bermuda Bookstore, and Brown & Co Bookmart.

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