Notes on the Supernatural Beliefs and Practices associated with Obeah in Jamaica

Obeah, also known as obi, obayi, obia or obea, is an Afro-Caribbean supernatural religious belief system introduced by enslaved Africans on the plantations of Belize, Jamaica, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, Guyana and Barbados in the early years of the 17th century. Obeah is also known by its alternate names of guzzum, science, black magic and witchcraft.

According to historians, Obeah is traced to the Igbo, Ashanti and Twi speaking group from the Gold Coast of West Africa.  However, Obeah shares some similarities in belief, rituals and practices to other African-derived, syncretic religions such as Myalism, Kumina, Santeria, Vodun, and Revival.

 The word obia is used in Igbo traditions and customs and refers to an oracle known as Obia. In Jamaican folk custom, Obi is the name of the kola nut; known as bizzy, used by a small African ethnic group the Ettu/Nago in their religious practices and customs. Who profess Yoruba, Nigerian ancestry, living in the communities of Pell River, Cauldwell and Kendall, Hanover which includes a play performed at weddings, dinner feasts, and the death ceremonies of ‘nine night’ and ‘forty night’.

Obeah may be used to do harm or good, or to reverse the effects of evil spells. In Jamaica, practitioners are called ‘obeahman’, ‘obeahwoman’, ‘do-good man’, ‘bush doctor’, ‘balm man’, ‘four eyed man’, among other names.

Depending on the nature of the cause, recommendations after consultation with an obeahman or woman will vary; the recommendation for the ‘treatment’ or ‘cure’ by the obeahman or obeahwoman may mention a bath; with the blood of an animal, or a bush, or to wear specific paraphernalia items such as earrings, a necklace, watch or guard rings. Jewellery such as earrings, rings, necklaces and watches are stuffed or ‘loaded’ with powder and other substances, to protect their wearers and ward off evil forces and for good luck.

Obeah ‘workers’ are consulted for a variety of reasons: for greed, lust, envy, revenge, deceit or to manifest hatred towards others; to ensure success in a court case, promotion at work, to ‘look-up’ the cause of sickness, to ‘read-up’ the future, or even to acquire an American visa.  Those who are practitioners are believed to possess great power and can beckon evil spirits to set them to “work” toward the undoing of others. Conversely, Obeah ‘workers’ reputedly have the ability to remove, (‘turn back’ or cast ‘off’) forces of evil that have been ‘set’ by another Obeah man or Woman.

The techniques applied in ‘healing’ vary and include flogging, Bible reading, application of herbs, prayer, the singing of hymns, anointing of oil, and writing on the ground (Simpson). Some of these techniques are used when summoning spirits, when seeking personal protection, or in removing curses. Paraphernalia used in these rituals consist of human bones, clothing, finger nails, footprints, blood, rum, grave dust, candles, human hair and skulls. Other items such as “oils” are used in Obeah practices and are surprisingly easy to access at some drug stores.

Legend has it that the practice of Obeah can be traced to Nanny of the Maroons, and many stories relate how she used her powers when battling with the British army (Hart).  There are also reports that the practice of Obeah was observed during the Tacky Revolt in St Mary in 1760. Records indicate that rebels were advised by an Obeah worker. (Ivor Morrish). Obeah rituals were also recorded during the Baptist War of 1831 and the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 (Payne-Jackson and Alleyne).

Legislation to ban the practice of Obeah was enacted under the Victorian Acts of 1840, 1857 and in 1898, when the Obeah Act was revised. This Legislation aimed to secure easier convictions of persons who are found guilty of engaging in the practice of Obeah.  A parliamentary debate on this bill was held in November 2012 to consider “an amendment to the Obeah Act”. Nonetheless, the practice currently remains illegal in Jamaica.

A well-known calypso song, performed by the famous Grenadian- Trinidadian calypsonian, The Mighty Sparrow, included a reference to the practice of Obeah.  Below are the lyrics of his song.

  Obeah Wedding

You making yourself a pappy show Melda
You making yourself a bloody clown
Up and down the country looking for Obeah
And you perspiration smell so strong
Girl you only wasting time
Obeah wedding bells don’t chime
And you can’t trap me
With necromancy

Melda oh, you making wedding plans
Carrying me name to Obeah man
All you do can’t get through
I still ain’t goin’ marry to you
.

 

References:

Alleyne, Mervyn C. Roots of Jamaican Culture. London: Pluto Press, 1988.

Barrett, Leonard, E. The Sun and the Drum. Kingston: Sangster’s, 1976.

Braithwaite, Edward. The Development of Creole Society 1770-1820. London:  Oxford

University Press, 1971.

Hart, Richard. Slaves Who Abolished Slavery: Blacks in Rebellion. Kingston: University of the

West Indies, 2002.

Morrish, Ivor. Obeah, Christ and Rastaman: Jamaica and its Religion. Cambridge: James Clarke

& Co, 1982.

Senior, Olive. Encyclopaedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew, Jamaica: Twin Guinep

Publishers Ltd. 2003.

Simpson, George, Easton. Black Religions in the New World. New York: Columbia University

Press, 1978.

Payne-Jackson, Arvilla Payne-Jackson. Jamaica Folk Medicine: a Source of Healing. Kingston:

University of the West Indies Press, 2004.

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