Devouring Gourd: Is this Bantu lore an entirely made-up story, or are there really pumpkins that can grow to devour entire villages? Well, if instruments and chairs can come alive like the Tsukumogami in Japanese lore, then you might want to keep this in mind next time you carve your Jack O' Lantern. TAP TO GET PODCAST
Halloween: The perfect time to drink all the pumpkin spice lattes, dress up in your favorite costumes, and eat all the pumpkin and ghoul-shaped desserts. But don’t let this holiday fool you. While you’re enjoying all the treats, the gourds may have a few tricks up their sleeves.
Tales of carnivorous, man-eating plants have been found throughout our history. Some of these tales come in the form of entertainment. Many of you are familiar with the 1986 horror-musical-comedy Little Shop of Horrors, starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Bill Murray, and Steve Martin. If you’re unfamiliar with this particular movie, it’s basically about a singing Venus fly trap with a penchant for human blood, a demented dentist boyfriend, and a nerdy hero saving the damsel in distress. Yeah, it pretty much sums up all of the 80s for you.
Other accounts of man-eating plants are brought to us through scholarly works popularized in the 1880s. In Phil Robinson’s 1881 Under the Punkah Tree, the story follows Peregrine Oriel, the author’s uncle and a great traveler, who nearly escaped a “man-sucking tree” while on a long journey through Central Africa, where three native men accompanied him.
According to the story, one day, while wandering through a fern forest, all four men were out trying to catch some venison for dinner.
After walking a few feet deep, Peregrine notices a solitary tree growing in the middle of the clearing. Fascinated by its peculiar nature, Peregrine was entranced by its beauty as he watched this strange tree about 50 feet away, a family of deer wandered by. Suddenly remembering why he was here, he slowly got out, his hunting rifle fired towards a fawn. However, seemingly wounding the creature, the bullet was the least of its worries.
Just as it tried taking off with its family, the fawn was suddenly in the grasp of this peculiar tree. As Peregrine describes, it seemed like the branches swept the fawn off its feet and pulled it under its branches. Horrified at what he saw, Peregrine covered his eyes, saying to himself, “It’s only my imagination” repeatedly. After a few moments, he slowly removed his hand from his face, only to see the tree standing still and the fawn on its feet slowly walking past it.
Perplexed, Peregrine laid down his rifle and walked closer to the tree. That’s when he spotted one of the men accompanying him, Otona, trying to sneak up on the fawn. But, once again, the tree branches seemed to lunge out forward, only this time, the tree swept the fawn and the young man under it.
According to Peregrine, “The tree was convulsed with motion, leaned forward, swept its thick-foliaged boughs to the ground, and enveloped from my sight the pursuer and the pursued: I was within a hundred yards, and the cry of Otona from the midst of the tree came to me in all the clearness of its agony. There was then one stifled, strangling scream, and except for the agitation of the leaves where they had closed upon the boy, there was not a sign of life.
I stood there, changed from all semblance of a human being. Not all the terrors of earth could have made me take my eye from the awful plant or my foot off the ground. The tree was quivering through every branch, muttering for blood, and helpless with rooted feet, yearning with every branch toward me. Each separate leaf is agitated and hungry. The tree before me seemed to have become a live beast.”
While this story may sound bizarre and unlikely, it isn’t the only one of its kind.
Another tale in 1888, with the same title as the previous story, The Man-Eating Tree, follows a scientist named Karl Leche who encounters a plant with a base like a pineapple, though this isn’t your average tropical fruit.
According to the story, this strange fruit had “8 long leaves, fat and spiky like an agave’s, and size white tendrils that moved languorously in the air. When a woman is sent to drink from the sweet liquid pooled at the plate’s top, the tendrils grab here, the leaves close in, and a mix of plant fluid and blood seeps down the trunk”.
You know, previously, I would have said pineapple was one of my favorite fruits. But after hearing this story, I’m not sure how I feel when scientists now say that pineapple is the only fruit that eats you back. I don’t think I’ll ever look at this fruit the same way again.
Whether it’s fictional blood-thirsty singing Venus fly traps, scholarly stories of strange trees that engulf both humans and deer alike, or the most outlandish tales of vicious fruit attacks, there is one thing we can be sure of some of the most deadly flora can be found in our backyard.
A pinch of Water Hemlock. A drop of Deadly Nightshade. A dash of White Snakeroot. A little bit of Castor Bean, mix in a little Oleander and Rosary Pea. Oh, and don’t forget to add a splash of Tobacco.
No, we’re not making some special Halloween potion stirred in a witch’s cauldron. But with names like these, it’s not too far off to assume something deadly is afoot. Each of these plants can harbor the most deadly poisons known to man.
Water Hemlock? Oh, it’s just deemed as “the most violently toxic plant in North America.” No biggie. Deadly Nightshade? Oh, it causes a little bit of “paralysis in the involuntary muscles of the body, including the heart.”
The scariest part? You might have some of these in your backyard. Perhaps you may even have walked past these plants without a second thought.
While many of these plants seem harmless and can look tasty from afar, one can never be too careful. It’s kind of like those gourds hanging out on your front porch. Our featured cryptid of the week may have you think twice about carving another Jack O’ Lantern face.
While many of our previous cryptid stories revolve around hairy beasts like Sasquatch or underwater creatures like the Ogogpogo, perhaps the strangest cryptid we’ve covered so far has been the personified instruments that come to life when we’re not looking, like the Tsukumogami. But we’ve yet to encounter a cryptid made out of food – Until we came across the Devouring Gourd.
According to Bantu Folklore, Gourds and Pumpkins have the potential to grow into giant, devouring creatures, quickly swallowing people and animals” whole. There are even stories in Swahili that “suggest these gourds may have been the reincarnation of Ogres or wicked magicians.” Honestly, what could be a spookier cryptid than a man-eating gourd?
So, in honor of this special Halloween episode, here is the tale of the Devouring Gourd
The two young brothers were as thick as thieves – in more ways than one. Being twin brothers, of course, they were each other’s built-in best friends. Having three older sisters, they knew they had to stick together. But what they also stuck to was their thievery and skilled silver tongues. In fact, making up stories was their favorite pastime – In fact, They were always trying to outdo the other on who could tell the biggest fib and get away with it. Ever since they could speak, they were always trying to swindle their neighbors in the Usambara village.
Many a time, they would swindle fruit from local vendors, with one boy staging the scene by asking for advice or directions while the other one would sneakily steal an apple or cucumber from the vendor’s cart. They were also really good at entertaining the locals as they shared Indiana-Jones-like stories of near-death escapes in exchange for tip money. And, since they had three older sisters, the brothers often blamed them for their shortcomings to avoid getting into trouble. And it worked – at least for a little while.
Eventually, the other villagers caught on to their deception, and so did their parents. Mean, you can only blame others for your mistakes, swindle locals for dimes, and steal produce from hardworking neighbors for so long before you get caught. However, just as they were good at lying, cheating, and stealing, they were equally good at getting out of their punishment.
While the repercussions were always the same – no outside play for a week, extra chores around the house, and no special dessert after dinner – their father always let them off the hook after about a day or so because, let’s face it, “boys will be boys.” But as the young brothers soon learned, you can only “cry wolf,” er, “cry gourd,” for so long.
It had been a month since the boys had told their last lie. The last time they got in trouble, their mother and father both agreed to ground them for not only a couple of days but two whole weeks. Double the chores. No outside play. And worst of all, no dessert. This had been their longest and worst punishment yet. When the two weeks were up, both boys vowed never to lie, cheat, or steal again, both swearing an oath to their family and the local villagers. No more stealing fruit, outlandish folktales, and no more blaming their older sisters – They would be on their best behavior if it was the last thing they did.
One day, after school let out for the evening, the two young brothers were out walking past a nearby field on the way home. Their trek home was always the same. Walk past the apple tree farm, trek through a section of woods, and up a winding dirt road. All in all, it was about a 45-minute walk from school. But the boys had walked this path every day for a year, and nothing peculiar ever happened. As they waved at the local apple farmer, they continued their journey, sharing their favorite parts of the school day. Like what they ate for lunch, their least favorite subject, and the piles of homework they definitely did not want to finish.
Because they had been so engrossed in their conversation, neither of the boys had been paying any attention to where they were going or how long they had been out. They knew these woods pretty well. But something felt off. They should have been through the woods by now. Once they realized it was beginning to get dark, they knew their mother would be worried, and they didn’t want to give her a reason for grounding them again. As they began picking up the pace, one of the boys noticed a significant, yellow, oddly-shaped figure protruding out of one of the bushes.
Interested in what this weird thing was sticking out of the ground, they tried getting a closer look. After a few steps closer, they realized it wasn’t a strange figure but a rather large gourd growing out of the ground. While it was abnormally large, they didn’t think anything of it. “Oh, it’s just a gourd,” one of the boys said, but as they knelt to get a better view, to their surprise, the Gourd responded. “If you pluck me, I’ll pluck you!” Not only were they terrified at its size, but its apparent ability to talk made them run as fast as their legs could carry them back into their village home.
Once they finally caught their breath, they knew they had to tell someone. And as much as they didn’t want to take their chances with their mother and father not believing them and risking getting grounded again, they also knew what they saw and heard was true. Though, try as they might, pleading with their parents to see for themselves, they wouldn’t budge. Both mother and father warned the boys what would happen if they kept on with their latest “lie” and wouldn’t be made fools in believing the far-fetched story.
After they glanced at each other, they finally hung their heads in defeat and walked to their bedroom. “What should we do?” Asked one of the boys. “I’m not sure. We know what we saw. We know what we heard. But nobody will believe us unless we take them to the spot where it was lying”, said the other.
While this strange, talking Gourd was too weird to be accurate, they also knew that with every fiber of their being, their encounter was real and something was wrong. They couldn’t shake this dreadful feeling that something terrible was about to happen. But how could they convince their parents when they’ve told one too many stories before? As they walked back and forth, trying to figure out their next steps, all three of their orders sisters insisted that they show them the large Gourd.
As the boys exchanged looks, unsure if this was a good idea, one of them spoke up and said, “Okay, we’ll take you. But if it is still there, you have to convince Mom and Dad to take a look for themselves. They won’t believe us otherwise.” “Deal,” all three sisters said in unison. And that was the plan.
That very next day after school, both boys and their older sisters walked past the apple farmer and into the woodline. Seemingly, everything was going according to plan. After what seemed like an eternity, they found where the large Gourd sat. None of the older sisters could believe their eyes. This was indeed the largest Gourd they had ever seen. And the boys couldn’t believe their eyes either. But not because they had never seen it before, as this was the very Gourd they had seen yesterday, but because the Gourd was now even bigger than, now nearing the height of the boys.
One of the boys exclaimed, “Look at how big that Gourd is getting! He’s even bigger than when we stumbled upon it yesterday!” But as extraordinarily large as the Gourd was, it didn’t make a sound. So the boy repeated what he thought was the magical phrase from the day before, but the Gourd sat still. Although the older sisters saw how big the Gourd was, they felt betrayed.
This talking Gourd wasn’t so talkative after all. Sitting mute like most other gourds do, both sisters quickly ran back home and told their parents that their brothers had been caught lying again. Yes, they took them to see a large gourd, but so what? It couldn’t talk. This was just another one of their tall tales. Again, warning them a second time about what happens when they tell lies, their father threatened that if they were caught again, they would be grounded for an entire month!
Devastated, the boys had no idea what to do. They couldn’t fathom why the Gourd refused to speak in front of their sisters. But what had been more concerning was how big the Gourd had gotten overnight. And its words from that first encounter, “If you pluck me, I’ll pluck you,” sent shivers down their spines.
What did this cryptic message mean? How had it grown double in size? And where did this Gourd even come from? Was this punishment for all the lies they had told in the past? Desperate for their parents to believe them, all these questions and more kept both boys up and wide awake all night. But little did they know these questions would be the least of their worries.
As the entire village slept throughout the night, the Gourd had been steadily growing more. While it had doubled in size the night before, since it had not been plucked, it only continued to grow. Since the Gourd hadn’t said a word in the presence of their sisters, the boys decided to try and ignore their encounter. They both agreed to keep walking their usual trek home and not to stop for any reason whatsoever. However, left unbothered, the large Gourd only continued to grow over the next few days. And grow and grow it did.
About a week after the boy’s encounter, the Gourd had eventually grown to the size of a large house. Moreover, it somehow uprooted itself from its vines and rolled its way through the Usamba village. Once there, the Gourd found where the boys had been sleeping and swallowed them up whole, alongside their parents, older sisters, and everyone else in the village. Satisfied with having consumed everyone within reach, it continued to roll itself away into a nearby lake.
But that’s not entirely the end of the story. According to this Bantu legend, one woman had survived the Gourd’s rampage. Somehow, awoken by such a frightening sight, seeing the Gourd devour her entire village, the young woman and her unborn child slipped out the back door, ran towards the woods, and hid there until morning. The next day, she walked back to see everything in ruin. Houses were ripped in half, crops trampled, and not a single soul was left. But she didn’t give up. Once her son was born, they lived together in the ruins of the village.
Several years later, when the young boy was old enough to hunt alone, he asked about what happened to his father. Finally, after holding in the story for all these long years, she told her son the truth. She told him about the Devouring Gourd and how it took out the entire village in one night. She pointed to the nearby lake and said, “Your father was swallowed by a gourd, which is now living in the lake.” Her son, having learned the truth about his father, decided he would avenge his father and slay that devouring Gourd once and for all.
The following day, grabbing his boy and several arrows, he walked towards the water’s edge and saw the Gourd’s ears sticking out of the water. He began taunting the vegetable, saying, “Gourd, come out. Gourd, come out and face me.”
Annoyed at the young boy’s confidence and enraged that the boy had survived all these years, the Gourd hauled itself out of the lake. But on guard, the boy was ready to avenge his father and the village he never knew. Firing arrow after arrow and the Gourd barely missing, the young boy looked down and saw his final, 10th arrow. He knew that if this weren’t successful, he’d let his father and mother down. He also knew the Gourd would be once again victorious in devouring him. As he shot his last arrow, flying at top speed, it had worked. The Gourd let out a deep roar and finally died.
Wanting to be sure the Gourd could never devour another soul again, the young boy got out his hunting knife and cut a large slit down the middle. As he finally pulled out the knife, somehow, miraculously, all the villagers were released unharmed, including his father. The young boy was deemed a hero and was praised until his last dying breath decades later.
Whether you believe in these tales or not, one thing is certain: some flora are not to be messed with, less you, too, find the most dreadful fate. Happy Halloween!
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