Obeah (sometimes spelled Obi, Obeah, Obeya, or Obia) is a system of spiritual and healing practices developed among enslaved West Africans in the West Indies. Obeah is difficult to define, as it is not a single, unified set of practices; the word "Obeah" was historically not often used to describe one's own practices. Diana Paton has contended that what constitutes Obeah in Jamaica has been constructed by white society, particularly law enforcement. Accordingly, different Afro-Caribbean communities use their own terminology to describe the practice, such as "science", among the Jamaican Windward Maroons. Obeah is similar to other Afro-American religions such as Palo, Haitian Vodou, Santería, and Hoodoo in that it includes communication with ancestors and spirits and healing rituals. Nevertheless, it differs from religions like Vodou and Santeria in that there is no explicit canon of gods or deities that is worshipped, and the practice is generally an individual action rather than part of a collective ceremony or offering. It differs from Myal in that Myal focuses more on the connection of humans and spirits. By some early colonial authorities they differed in that Obeah was viewed as nefarious while Myal was a more positive influence.
Variants of Obeah are practiced in the Bahamas and in the Caribbean nations of Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St.Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Virgin Islands, as well as by the Igbo people of Nigeria. In some cases, aspects of these folk religions have survived through syncretism with Christian symbolism and practice introduced by European colonials and slave owners.
|Origin||18th century |
|Absorbed||Ashanti, Odinani, Christianity (occasionally)|
In parts of the Caribbean where Obeah developed, slaves were taken from a variety of African nations with differing spiritual practices and religions. It is from these arrivals and their spiritualisms that Obeah originates. The origins of the word "Obeah" have been contested in the academic community for nearly a century; there is not a widely accepted consensus on what region or language the word derives from, and there is a politics to every hypothesis. Orlando Patterson promoted an Akan-Twi etymology, suggesting that the word came from Gold Coast communities. He and other proponents of the Akan-Twi hypothesis argued that the word was derived from obayifo, a word associated with malevolent magic by Ashanti priests. (Akan: witchcraft). Kwasi Konadu suggested a somewhat updated version of this etymology, suggesting that bayi, the neutral force used by the obayifo, is the source material – a word with a slightly less negative connotation.
The first time in Jamaican history the term "obeah" was used in the colonial literature was in reference to Nanny of the Maroons an Akan woman, considered the ancestor of the Windward Maroon community and celebrated for her role in defeating the British and securing a land treaty in 1739, as an old 'witch' and a 'Hagg'. Obeah has also received a great deal of attention for its role in Tacky’s Rebellion (also an Akan), the 1760 conflict that spurred the passage of the first Jamaican anti-Obeah law. The term "Myal" was first recorded by Edward Long in 1774 when describing a ritual dance done by Jamaican slaves. At first the practices of Obeah and Myal were not considered different. Over time "Myal-men" involved in spirit affairs involved themselves with Jamaican Native Baptist churches, bringing Myal rituals into the churches. Over time these Myal influenced chrurches began preaching the importance of baptisms and the eradication of Obeah, thus formally separating the two traditions.
Despite its associations with a number of Akan slaves and rebellions, the origin of Obeah has been criticised by several writers who hold that an Igbo origin is more likely. According to W. E. B. Du Bois Institute database, he traces Obeah to the Dibia or Obia (Igbo: doctoring) traditions of the Igbo people. Specialists in Obia (also spelled Obea) were known as Ndi Obia (Igbo: Obia people) and practised the same activities as the Obeah men and women of the Caribbean like predicting the future and manufacturing charms. Among the Igbo there were oracles known as Obiạ which were said to be able to talk. Parts of the Caribbean where Obeah was most active imported a large number of its slaves from the Igbo-dominated Bight of Biafra. This interpretation is also favored by Kenneth Bilby, arguing that “dibia’ connotes a neutral “master of knowledge and wisdom.”
In another hypothesis, the Efik language is the root of Obeah where the word obeah comes from the Efik ubio meaning 'a bad omen'. Melville Herskovits endorsed a different Efik origin, arguing that obeah was a corruption of an Efik word for “doctor.”
In colonial British communities, aside from referring to the set of spiritual practices, “Obeah” also came to refer to a physical object, such as a talisman or charm, that was used for evil magical purposes. The item was referred to as an Obeah-item (e.g. an 'obeah ring' or an 'obeah-stick', translated as: ring used for witchcraft or stick used for witchcraft respectively). Obeah incorporated various beliefs from the religions of later migrants to the colonies where it was present. Obeah also influenced other religions in the Caribbean, e.g. Christianity, which incorporated some Obeah beliefs.
The term 'Obeah' is first found in documents from the early 18th century, as in its connection to Nanny of the Maroons. Colonial sources referred to the spiritual powers attributed to her in a number of derogatory ways, ranging from referring to her as “the rebel’s old obeah woman” to characterizing her as “unsexed” and more bloodthirsty than Maroon men. Maroon oral traditions discuss her feats of science in rich detail. She is said to have used her obeah powers to kill British soldiers in Nanny’s Pot, a boiling pot without a flame below it that soldiers would lean into and fall in, to quickly grow food for her starving forces, and to catch British bullets and either fire them back or attack the soldiers with a machete.
Discussion of Obeah became even more frequent when it was made illegal in Jamaica after Tacky's War. During the rebellion, Tacky is said to have consulted an Obeahman who prepared for his forces a substance that would protect them from British bullets, which boosted their confidence in executing the rebellion.
In 1787 a letter to an English newspaper referred to "Obiu-women" interpreting the wishes of the dead at the funeral of a murdered slave in Jamaica: a footnote explained the term as meaning "Wise-women". The practice of obeah with regards to healing led to the Jamaican 18th and 19th century traditions of "doctresses", such as Sarah Adams, Cubah Cornwallis and Mary Seacole and her mother. These doctresses practised the use of hygiene and the applications of herbs decades before they were adopted by European doctors and nurses.
A continuing source of white anxiety related to Obeah was the belief that practitioners were skilled in using poisons, as mentioned in Matthew Lewis's Journal of a West India Proprietor. Many white Jamaicans accused women of such poisonings; one case Lewis discussed was that of a young woman named Minetta who was brought to trial for attempting to poison her master. Lewis and others often characterized the women they accused of poisonings as being manipulated by Obeahmen, who they contended actually provided the women with the materials for poisonings. The laws forbidding Obeah reflected this fear: an anti-Obeah law passed in Barbados in 1818 specifically forbade the possession of "any poison, or any noxious or destructive substance". A doctor who examined the medicine chest of an Obeah man arrested in Jamaica in 1866 identified white arsenic as one of the powders in it, but could not identify the others. The unnamed correspondent reporting this affirmed "The Jamaica herbal is an extensive one, and comprises some highly poisonous juices, of which the Obeah men have a perfect knowledge."
During the mid 19th century the appearance of a comet in the sky became the focal point of an outbreak of religious fanatical millennialism among the Myal men of Jamaica. Spiritualism was at that time sweeping the English-speaking nations as well, and it readily appealed to those in the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, as spirit contact, especially with the dead, is an essential part of many African religions.
During the conflict between Myal and Obeah, the Myal men positioned themselves as the "good" opponents to "evil" Obeah. They claimed that Obeah men stole people's shadows, and they set themselves up as the helpers of those who wished to have their shadows restored. Myal men contacted spirits in order to expose the evil works they ascribed to the Obeah men, and led public parades which resulted in crowd-hysteria that engendered violent antagonism against Obeah men. The public "discovery" of buried Obeah charms, presumed to be of evil intent, led on more than one occasion to violence against the rival Obeah practitioners. Such conflicts between supposedly “good” and “evil” spiritual work could sometimes be found within plantation communities. In one 1821 case brought before court in Berbice, an enslaved woman named Madalon allegedly died as a result of being accused of malevolent obeah that caused the drivers at Op Hoop Van Beter plantation to fall ill. The man implicated in her death, a spiritual worker named Willem, conducted an illegal Minje Mama dance to divine the source of the Obeah, and after she was chosen as the suspect, she was tortured to death.
Laws were passed that limited both Obeah and Myal traditions.
Trinidad and Tobago, Obeah includes the unique practice of the Moko-Jumbie, or stilt dancer. Moko was a common word for Ibibio slaves. In the Trinidad and Tobago Obeah tradition. A Douen is a child who has died before being baptized, and is said to be forced to forever walk the earth at night in English-speaking regions of the Caribbean. Jewelry is made from deadly toxic red and black seeds called jumbies, jumbie eyes or jumbie beads (seeds of Abrus precatorius containing the AB toxin abrin) in the Caribbean and South America. By contrast, the moko-jumbie of Trinidad and Tobago is brightly colored, dances in the daylight, and is very much alive. The moko-jumbie also represents the flip side of spiritual darkness, as stilt-dancing is most popular around holy days and Carnival.
Although 18th-century literature mentions Obeah often, one of the earliest references to Obeah in fiction can be found in 1800, in William Earle's novel Obi; or, The History of Three-Finger'd Jack, a narrative inspired by true events that was also reinterpreted in several dramatic versions on the London stage in 1800 and following. One of the next major books about Obeah was Hamel, the Obeah Man (1827). Several early plantation novels also include Obeah plots. In Marryat's novel Poor Jack (1840) a rich young plantation-owner ridicules superstitions held by English sailors but himself believes in Obeah.
The 20th century saw less actual Obeah in open practice, but it still continued to make frequent appearances in literature. The following is only a partial list:
Afro-Bahamians are an ethnicity originating in The Bahamas of predominantly African descent. They are descendants of various African ethnic groups, many associated with the Empires of Ghana, Songhai and Mali, the various Fula Kingdoms, the Oyo Empire, and the Kingdom of Kongo to name a few. According to the 2010 Census, 92.7% of The Bahamas' population identifies as African or African mixed with European.Cubah Cornwallis
Cubah Cornwallis (died 1848) (often spelled Coubah, Couba, Cooba or Cuba) was a nurse or "doctoress" and Obeah woman who lived in the colony of Jamaica during the late 18th and 19th Century.Culture of Belize
The Belizean culture is a mix of influences and people from Kriol, Maya, East Indian, Garinagu (also known as Garifuna), Mestizo (a mixture of Spanish and Native Americans), Mennonites who are of German descent, with a blend of many other cultures from Chinese to Lebanese. It is a unique blend that emerged through the country's long and occasionally violent history.Courtesy is important to most Belizeans. It is not uncommon for Belizeans to greet each other on the street even if they have never seen each other before, or for acquaintances to spend minutes at a time chatting, oblivious to what is happening around them. Another aspect of the culture is the idea of the mystical healing and Obeah. However, there is still talk of evil shaman practices like putting "Obeah" on certain houses. This is known to be done by burying a bottle with the 'evil' under a tree close by the house.Exuma (musician)
Macfarlane Gregory Anthony Mackey (18 February 1942 – 15 January 1997), known professionally as Tony McKay and Exuma, was a Bahamian musician, artist, playwright and author best known for his almost unclassifiable music, a strong mixture of carnival, junkanoo, calypso, reggae, African music and folk music. His lyrics were deeply immersed in the West African and Jamaican tradition of Obeah, a system of spiritual and healing practices developed among enslaved West Africans in the West Indies, practiced by many on the islands of The Bahamas.In a 1970 interview, McKay, as Exuma said the "'electrical part' of his being 'came from beyond Mars; down to Earth on a lightning bolt'". He described his music as "all music that has ever been written and all music not yet written. It's feeling, emotion, the sound of man, the sound of day creatures, night creatures and electrical forces".Ismith Khan
Mohamed Ismith Khan (16 March 1925 – 24 April 2002), better known as Ismith Khan, was a Trinidad and Tobago-born American author and educator. He is best known for his novel The Jumbie Bird, a semi-autobiographical work which blends Indian and Afro-Caribbean mythology and experience to explore the creation of a new Indo-Caribbean identity.Jamaican Maroon religion
The traditional Jamaican Maroon religion otherwise known as Kumfu was developed by a mixing of West and Central African religious practices in Maroon communities. While the traditional religion of the Maroons was absorbed by Christianity due to conversions in Maroon communities, many old practices continued on. Some have speculated that Jamaican Maroon religion helped the development of Kumina and Convince. The religious Kromanti dance is still practiced today but not always with the full religious connotation as in the past.Kromanti dance
Kromanti dance or Kromanti play (capitalised to Kromanti Dance or Kromanti Play) is a Jamaican Maroon religious ceremony practiced by Jamaican Maroons. It is rooted in traditional African music and religious practices, especially those of the Akan people of Ghana. The name Kromanti (or Coromantee) derives from Kormantin (or Cormantin ) where a historical slave fort in the coast of Ghana was located. Many slaves shipped to Jamaica during the Atlantic Slave trade originated from present–day Ghana in West Africa.The pure form of Kromanti dance is not one of those contemporary dances of Jamaica, neither is it a Jamaican party or hall dance, but a sacred dance based on the tenets of traditional African religious practices. Although the dance has influenced some aspects of Jamaican culture, and is still practiced today, the religious aspects of the dance are no longer performed as in the past—due to Jamaican Maroons' conversion to Christianity. Despite its modern twist, it is still concerned with solving problems of day-to-day life, such as illnesses resulting from spirit possessions, infidelity, and any other life problems. The Maroons viewed Kromanti dance as a form of metaphorical warfare, a protection on a spiritual level rather than a physical one.Myal
Myal is an Afro-Jamaican spirituality. Irt developed via the creolization of African religions during the slave era in Jamaica. It incorporates ritualistic magic, spiritual possession and dancing. Unlike Obeah, its practices focus more on the connection of spirits with humans. Over time, Myal began to meld with Christian practices and created the religious tradition known as Revivalism. Today, the term "myal" is commonly used to describe the state of possession by a spirit.Nanny of the Maroons
Queen Nanny or Nanny (c. 1686 – c. 1755), a Jamaica National Hero, was an 18th-century leader of the Jamaican Maroons. Much of what is known about her comes from oral history, as little textual evidence exists. She was born into the Asante people in what is today Ghana, and escaped from slavery after being transported to Jamaica.
Historical documents refer to her as the "rebels' old 'obeah' woman." Following some armed confrontations, colonial officials reached a settlement for peace. They legally granted "Nanny and the people now residing with her and their heirs ... a certain parcel of Land containing five hundred acres in the parish of Portland ...". Nanny Town was founded on this land but was destroyed during the First Maroon War in 1734. Another Maroon town was founded by survivors and later known as Moore Town.Nine nights
Nine-Nights, also known as Dead Yard, is a funerary tradition practiced in the Caribbean (primarily Belize, Grenada, Dominica, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, Haiti and the Dominican Republic). It is an extended wake that lasts for several days, with roots in African religious tradition. During this time, friends and family come together to the home of the deceased. They share their condolences and memories while singing hymns and eating food together.
In the old days, the nights were calm and reserved for the most part - but that tradition has changed with the times. Today, these gatherings resemble parties much more than they resemble wakes (though this is not true for all “nine-nights”).Obeah!
Obeah! is a 1935 American horror film directed by F. Herrick Herrick and starring Jean Brooks and Phillips Lord. In the United Kingdom, the film was released under the title The Mystery Ship. It is believed to be a lost film.Obeah (horse)
Obeah (1965–1993) was an American Thoroughbred racehorse for whom the Obeah Stakes at Delaware Park Racetrack is named.Obeah Stakes
The Obeah Stakes is an American Thoroughbred horse race run annually in mid June at Delaware Park Racetrack in Stanton, Delaware. Formerly a Grade III event open to horses age three and older, it is contested on dirt at a distance of a mile and an eighth (9 furlongs).
The race is named in honor of Jane du Pont Lunger's filly, Obeah, winner of the Delaware Handicap in 1969 and 1970.Obeah and Wanga
The terms Obeah and Wanga are African diasporic words that occur in The Book of the Law (the sacred text of Thelema, written by English author and occultist Aleister Crowley in 1904):
Also the mantras and spells; the obeah and the wanga; the work of the wand and the work of the sword; these he shall learn and teach. (AL I:37).Obeah is a folk religion and folk magic found among those of African descent in the West Indies. It is derived from West African Igbo sources and has a close North American parallel in African American conjure or hoodoo.
A wanga (sometimes spelled oanga or wanger) is a magical charm packet found in the folk magic practices of Haiti, and as such it is connected to the West African religion of Vodun, which in turn derives from the Fon people of what is now Benin.
In his Commentaries, Crowley explains:
The obeah is the magick of the Secret Light with special reference to acts; the wanga is the verbal or mental correspondence of the same. [...] The "obeah" being the acts, and the "wanga" the words, proper to Magick, the two cover the whole world of external expression.It is possible that Crowley was not referring to literal Jamaica Obeah practices or to actual wanga.
He goes on to say:
Magick is the management of all we say and do, so that the effect is to change that part of our environment which dissatisfies us, until it does so no longer. We "remould it nearer to the heart's desire."Magick ceremonies proper are merely organized and concentrated attempts to impose our Will on certain parts of the Cosmos. They are only particular cases of the general law.But all we say and do, however casually, adds up to more, far more, than our most strenuous Operations. "Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves." Your daily drippings fill a bigger bucket than your geysers of magical effort. [...]Obia (folklore)
An obia or obeah is a monster in West African folklore.
It is described as being a massive animal that witches send into villages to kidnap young girls and wear their skin for a coat.
It is also the common term in the Bay Islands of Honduras for a witch, or the spell that is cast by the witch. This is most likely a traditional Garifuna word.
An obiama or obiaman is one who uses the power of obia.
Edwards's History of the British Colonies in the West Indies, published in 1793, reports the best account of obeah in Jamaica. The term Obeah or Obia has become a popular term in Jamaica used to describe Africans on the island that practice witchcraft. It is considered to be a practice of supernatural craft, learned through connection with the devil, that allows a person to kill or as a way to receive wealth, power, or revenge on one’s enemies. From testimony of all Africans on the island, it is said that the possessors of Obi have always been natives of Africa, having brought the arts with them to Jamaica, where it was universally practiced in a few large estates. Africans or Creoles respect, consult, and fear the Obeah folklore; they hold faith to these prophecies and call upon them to cure disorders, obtain revenge, help with favors, punish thieves or adulterers, and predict future events.Pericoma Okoye
Chief Pericoma Mezuo Okoye was a Nigerian singer, songwriter and traditionist. His first name 'Pericoma' could alternatively be spelled as 'Pericomo' 'Perry-Coma' and 'Perry-Koma'. He was predominantly known throughout the Igboland for his style of music and strong belief and practice of the traditional religion of the Igbo people, named Obeah.Religion in Guyana
Christianity and Hinduism are the dominant religions in Guyana. According to the 2012 census, approximately 63 percent of the population is Christian. The major groupings compose:
Pentecostal, 22.8% of the national population, increasing from 17% in 2002
Anglican, 5.2%, decreasing from 7%, and
Seventh-day Adventist, 5.4%, increasing from 5% in 2002
Roman Catholicism, 7.1%, decreasing from 8,1%
other Christian groups, 20.8%, increasing from 17.9%.According to the 2012 census, approximately 25 percent are Hindu, 7 percent are Muslim (mostly Sunni with Shia and Ahmadiyya minorities), and 1 percent practice other beliefs, including the Rastafari movement, Buddhism, and the Baha'i Faith. More than 3 percent of the population do not profess any religion. Between 1991 and 2012, Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism and Mainline Protestant churches all saw significant decline as the national population grew by 3%. This is in contrast to Pentecostalism, which more than doubled, and less-established Christian groups, which nearly quadrupled in the same period.
The country is ethnically diverse, reflecting East Indian, African, Chinese, and European ancestry, as well as a significant indigenous population. Members of all ethnic groups are well represented in all religious groups, with two exceptions: most Hindus are Indo-Guyanese, and nearly all Rastafarians are Afro-Guyanese. Foreign missionaries from many religious groups are present.Christianity's status as Guyana's dominant system of values is a consequence of colonial history. To the European planters, colonial administrators, and missionaries, the profession of Christian beliefs and observance of Christian practices were prerequisites to social acceptance. Even though the planters discouraged the teaching of their religion to the slaves, Christianity eventually became as much the religion of the Africans as of the Europeans. Indeed, after abolition, Christian institutions played an even more important role in the lives of the former slaves than in the lives of the masters. By the time the East Indians and other indentured groups arrived in Guyana, a new syncretic Afro-Guyanese culture in which Christianity played an important part had already been established. Only since the mid-20th century, with the growth of the Indo-Guyanese population and the efforts of their ethnic and religious organizations, have Muslim and Hindu values and institutions been recognized as having equal status with those of Guyana's Christians.Religion in The Bahamas
Religion in the Bahamas is dominated by various Christian denominations and reflects the country's diversity. Since the English colonization, most Bahamians adhere to diverse Protestant denominations with Anglicanism, Baptist churches, Pentecostalism, Adventism and Methodism being at the forefront. There is no state religion in the Bahamas, and there is generally free practice of religious beliefs.Women in Guyana
Women in Guyana are South American women who live in or come from Guyana. In general, Guyanese women play significant roles in modern-day Guyanese society as house-workers, farmers, market vendors, teachers, nurses, civil servants, and clerks. A few women of Guyana have become senior position holders in the Government of Guyana; there had even been one Guyanese who took the role as the President of Guyana. Education-wise, women in Guyana have outperformed male Guyanese in regional examinations. There are currently more women in Guyana who attend education in universities.Many Guyanese women living in urban areas of Guyana have taken roles as breadwinners for their families, particularly in working-class families.In religion, obeah women participate as religious leaders in folk religion.