Spirit possession in Afro-Jamaican religions and the Kromanti play


According to traditional religious beliefs in many parts of the world, the behaviour of a devotee during trance in a religious ceremony is due to his being possessed by a god, a dead ancestor, or some other spirit. Such beliefs were brought from parts of West Africa to the New World where they still have a prominent place in traditional African religions.


Possession trance is generally interpreted as the taking over of the body and its functions by a spiritual entity and trance as some type of soul absence. During trance an alternation of consciousness occurs which brings physiological and psychological changes in the individual. In addition to possession trance, the hallucinatory or visionary trance in which a spirit reveals a message does not invade and take over the personality of the believer. These changes may affect sensory impressions, memory functions and concepts in identity. Spirit possession does not always involve full dissociation. Possessed persons may experience profound states of unconsciousness or may only be partially unconscious.

The literature on spirit possession reveals that certain features are associated with possession throughout quite different cultures, these include: firstly, induction of the state is frequently achieved through dancing to music that features a pronounced and rapid beat. Secondly, induction frequently occurs during a period of starvation or a period of over-breathing. Thirdly, the onset of possession is marked by a brief period of inhibition or collapse. Fourthly, in the neophyte, collapse may be followed by a period of hyperactivity; once experience is acquired a controlled deity- specific behaviour pattern emerges. Finally, during the state of possession there is frequently a fine tremor of head and limbs; sometimes grosser, convulsive jerks occur. A diminution of sensory acuity may also be evident.

Myal or spirit possession is an aspect of the African-Jamaican belief system and ritual behaviour that has played a significant role in Jamaican religious development. The term Myal is still used as descriptive of ancestral possession within Kumina, Revivalism and the Kromanti dance of the Maroons, and has borne great significance in Jamaica’s cultural profile.

Possession by spirits is central to      Revival worshippers. According to Simpson, spirit possession is defined by the Revivalist as a condition which develops in an individual when a spirit enters a living body and controls the body to suit its needs (“Religious cults of the Caribbean” 166-167).

The phenomena is said to positively influence the possessed person’s way of life

Spirit possession-Revivalism


after the spirit has departed. For the Revivalists, possession satisfies two purposes; to invite the Holy Spirit or other spirits to use his or her body to teach; and to satisfy the desire of ancestors and other spirits to return to the world for enjoyment by using their body.

            Additionally, in Revivalism, water is the element which transfers the spirit to the individual. Persons may experience spirit possession in two ways. The spirit comes down in the booth through the centre pole into the water, then into the ground, from there to the feet of the person, up the legs, to the spine and from spine to the head. The other transfer is described as a dove entering into the dancing booth, down the centre pole into the water, then into the mouth of the individual.

For the Zion Revivalists, spirit possession occurs during church services or by ‘concentrating’ in private. The spirit can be invoked by spinning a follower around, striking a devotee with a rod, ‘divine concentration’ and ‘labouring in the spirit’. Dancing counter clockwise around a revival table, altar or seal is called ‘trumping’. The dance and singing produces dizziness in some persons which facilitates the initiation of spirit possession.

When possession takes place, the individual may shout, spin, crawl or roll on the ground. Persons who are possessed for the first time may remain on the ground for days, even weeks, regaining consciousness occasionally and have to be cared for by ritual assistance. When the spirit releases the individual they resume their routine duties and also prepare an ‘uplifting’ or ‘rising’ table.

According to Morrish, the Kimbundu word, Kumina, means “to see in a sort of clairvoyant way through possession, possibly by ancestor spirit” (59). Kumina is a ceremony performed with prayer and dances to protect persons in times of birth, betrothal, wake and burial, which are periods fraught with danger when the human spirit might be invaded and can be destroyed by evil spirits. Once ancestral

spirits, gods and guardians are invoked, they

Spirit possession-Kumina


possess the worshippers and also protect them from dangers surrounding them.

In Kumina there are both private and public ceremonies. The invocation of ancestral spirits is the focal aspects of these ceremonies. Most Myal possessions are by ancestral spirits. A member of the Kumina cult that has experienced possession by a god and who dances to the god or spirit is called a ‘dancing zombie’. In Kumina, Myal is the possession of a dancing zombie who dances to one god at a time. During Kumina ceremonies, the two drums (Kbandu and Playing Cyas) play a vital role in invoking spirits. The rhythm of the drums changes throughout the night because the spirits respond to different music. Bailo songs are sung in Jamaican Creole, while the dancers move around the musicians; this is the preliminary stage of invoking the spirits. Songs are then sung in the Kikongo language of the African ancestors, who then join the dancing by possessing the living body.  When the spirits are willing, they enter the dancing booth to the centre pole, down the centre pole into the ground, then into the open end of the drum to the head of the drum. They are then hailed by the drummer, master of ceremony and the singer. After being hailed, the spirit travels from the drum, back to the ground and into the feet of the person selected to be possessed. From feet to hips, the spirit crawls. From the hips to the spine it rides on the shoulders, and when the spirit pleases, it lodges in the individual’s head. After the individual has given full control to the spirit, he or she becomes the physical embodiment of the god or ancestral spirit. The dancer will move uncontrollably or sometimes be thrown to the ground while possessed.

The second phase of the Myal ‘sees’ the spirit dancing outside the possessed body which makes the person appear to be dancing with someone.  Methods used to release a possessed individual shows that spirit has to re-enter the body before leaving the same path as it had entered. Seldom, a certain spirit may possess the dancer too long or become violent, which will endanger the dancer’s health. The Kumina leader will persuade the spirit to leave by “spraying a mouthful of rum to appease the spirit or change the drum’s rhythm.” After the possessed individual is released, he or she may feel refreshed and relaxed although the dance was strenuous.

Not all possessions are from ceremonies or spiritual gatherings. Spirits, such as duppies, sky or earthbound gods, are difficult to identify because they do not dance. These spirits come at their whim or are directed by an obeah man who is paid to do so. It is noted that dancing, drumming, singing and the offering of sacrifice are all used to invoke spirit possession in both religious ceremonies. The term for spirit possession in general among the Maroons is Myal. No Kromanti dance can achieve its purpose without one or more of its participants becoming possessed by the spirit of the ancestors. It is common, especially early in the ceremony, for a number of persons to experience possession by ‘stray’ or wandering spirits that happened to be passing the dance-ground and is attracted to the scene by music. Possession by such spirits will normally last for a relatively short time, since they have no special duty to perform at the Play, but will have only come to enjoy themselves.

In contrast, possession of the fete-man (the ritual specialist in the Kromanti dance) by his pakit (an ancestral Maroon spirit which has devoted itself to a particular fete-man) is extremely serious and must be treated with great caution, for it is potentially violent. By-standing participants who are not possessed must stay clear of the possessed fete-man, and should not approach hisspace unless called forward by him. Possessed Kromanti dancers have quick and unpredictable tempers, and the slightest incident may arouse their anger. A favourite object of the Maroon spirits is the afana, or machete, and should a possessing spirit be given the slightest cause for anger it will instantly get a hold of the weapon and wave it in a series of threatening gestures.

Possession is usually brought on by music and dancing, although some fete-men also commonly experience spontaneous possession in the absence of external stimuli. In the context of the Kromanti play there are several explicit signs which warn onlookers of the onset of possession. The person going into Myal begins to execute a very distinctive erratic dance motion, a sort of jerky, spinning movement in which one leg is crossed over the other in a rapid backward kick. His legs begin to quiver rhythmically; as he bounds back and forth in this circular motion, his eyes are directed upward in a blank stare. This continues for some time, and as the state of possession stabilizes, the individual, still in motion, expells a succession of piercing screams. In a matter of time, the spirits will ‘cool down’ but before this occurs it is dangerous to approach the person in possession.

In order to ‘clear’ the possessed individual, a particular object chosen by the spirit must be held by the kwatamassa (quartermaster) or someone else. The object can be anything, from a wooden stick or glass bottle to a piece of chalk, and is passed over and around the individual in series of motions while he reclines on his hands and feet. When the possessed person becomes lucid, he claims that he remembers nothing that took place during the period of possession.



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