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 "spell casting", 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.
|Origin||18th century |
|Absorbed||Ashanti, Odinani, Igbo, Christianity (occasionally)|
|Other name(s)||The Black Arts|
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.
|Part of the series on|
Igbo religion and spirituality
|Legendary creatures and concepts|
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 Grace Donne, who nursed her lover, Simon Taylor (sugar planter), 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.
Obeah in Trinidad and Tobago
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.
Obeah in the Bahamas Currently, the Bahamian Penal Code (Chapter 84: Sections 232-234) allows for up to 3 months of incarceration for practicing obeah. Interestingly, suspicion of possessing an instrument of obeah (vials, blood, bone, images) while in a courtroom, can result in immediate search without warrant and a fine where such item is found.
Obeah in literature
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.
- Williams, Joseph John S.J.. Voodoos and Obeahs: Phases of West Indian Witchcraft (1932). Publisher: Lincoln MacVeagh, Dial Press, Inc., New York. Chapter "Origin of Obeah."
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- Maarit Forde and Diana Paton, "Introduction", in Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing, ed. Diana Paton and Maarit Forde (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 10.
- Diana Paton, "The Trials of Inspector Thomas: Policing and Ethnography in Jamaica," in Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing, ed. Diana Paton and Maarit Forde (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 173–74.
- Jenny Sharpe, Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archeology of Black Women's Lives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 3.
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- British Parliament, "An Act to remedy the evils arising from irregular assemblies of Slaves, and to prevent their possessing arms and ammunition, and going from place to place without tickets, and for preventing the practice of obeah, and to restrain overseers from leaving the estates under their care on certain days, and to oblige all free negroes, mulattoes or Indians, to register their names in the vestry-books of the respective parishes of this Island, and to carry about them the certificate, and wear the badge of their freedom; and to prevent any captain, master or supercargo of any vessel bringing back Slaves transported off this Island," in CO 139/21, The National Archives, UK.
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- Kenneth M. Bilby, True Born Maroons (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), 253.
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- Danielle N. Boaz, “‘Instruments of Obeah:’ The Significance of Ritual Objects in the Jamaican Legal System, 1760 to the Present,” in Materialities of Ritual in the Black Atlantic, ed. Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula Sanders (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 145.
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- Christer Petley, White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 88-9.
- Matthew G. Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor, 1815-1817, Edited with an introduction by Mona Wilson (London: G. Routledge & Sons Ltd., 1929), 149-150.
- Sasha Turner Bryson, “The Art of Power: Poison and Obeah Accusations and the Struggle for Dominance and Survival in Jamaica’s Slave Society,” Caribbean Studies 41, no. 2 (2013): 63.
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- Randy M. Browne, “The ‘Bad Business’ of Obeah: Power, Authority, and the Politics of Slave Culture in the British Caribbean,” William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 3 (2011): 451.
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- In 1818 The Times reported the passing of an act by the House of Assembly in Barbados against the practice of Obeah, which carried the penalty of death or transportation for those convicted. "Colonial Intelligence." Times [London, England] 5 Dec. 1818: 2. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 7 June 2012.
- Described as a 'curly-headed Creole', possibly intended to be mixed-race. F. Marryat, Poor Jack, Chapter XLI.
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