Obeah and Myal
Obeah is perhaps the oldest of all Afro-Creole religions in the Caribbean. Its name is derived from the Ashanti words Obay-ifo or Obeye, meaning wizard or witch. The Ashantis or Koromantyn Africans were from the gold coast, and because they were generally thought to be disposed to rebellion and witchcraft, the Spanish and French avoided importing them as slaves. Thus, the practice of Obeah is confined to the British West Indies, with variations in Guadeloupe and Martinique. According to Margarite Fernandez-Omos and Lizbeth Paravisini-Gerbert, Obeah “is not a religion so much as a system of beliefs rooted in Creole notions of spirituality, which acknowledges the existence and power of the supernatural world” (131). Furthermore, Obeah incorporates two basic categories of practice: spells, both good and evil, and healing practices based on the use of elements in the natural world. Obeah often provided a comfort to displaced Africans in that they could rely on one of their own for healing and protection. However, British accounts of Obeah during the colonial period figure it as menacing to white plantation owners, and its practice was outlawed in many of the British colonies. Obeah, then, is mainly a client-practitioner relationship, with the afflicted subject seeking out the aid of the Obeah man or woman on an individual basis.
Beliefs and Practices
Obeah practices demonstrate many of the aspects of Afro-Caribbean religiosity such as veneration of the ancestors, spirit possession, animal sacrifice, and divination, but it does not have a complex system of organized liturgy and ritual. Practitioners of Obeah are known as Obeah man or woman and are believed to be born with the gift of special powers that are passed down from generation to generation, or else undergo a miraculous conversion that endows them with the powers of Obeah. Once the gift of Obeah has been identified, the person usually spends time as an apprentice of a practiced Obeah man or woman in order to learn the tricks of the trade. An Obeah practitioner is usually sought out by someone wishing to make a change in his or her life, and the success of the Obeah man or woman is “directly related to the reputation he has established as an herbalist, his skills as a listener, and his ability to achieve expected results” (Fernandez-Omos and Paravisini-Gerbert 140).
Since Obeah was outlawed for so long as a practice in the British West Indies, its practice is on an individual basis and lacks though “an Obeah practitioner may chant or sing or go into a trance in the treatment of an individual client,” the practice “bears no resemblance to the complex rituals of possession and summoning of the spirits through music and dance characteristic of other African-derived Creole practices” (Fernandez-Omos and Paravisini-Gerbert 136). The client may seek out the Obeah practitioner for spells or charms that aid romantic relationships, or for practices as varied as escape from legal trouble or luck in gambling. The Obeah man or woman consults with a client and then recommends a solution for his or her problem. For example, “Baths, massages, or healing prescriptions can be applied to physical maladies, while pouches or bottles made of various substances—herbs, earth, animal, or human body matter (hair, nail clippings, blood, and other bodily fluids), articles of clothing (placed in strategic places or worn about the body—are recommended for other problems (Fernandez-Omos and Paravisini-Gerbert 136-7). Thus, the primary social function of an Obeah man or woman is that of healer.
In this capacity as healer, Obeah men and women are often called upon to provide protection from any number of the spirits that inhabit the living world. Fetishes, for example, are inanimate objects that are supposed to have special powers and are carried for protection or are intended to be revered. They are often made of parts of the human body or parts of an animal body, objects of clothing, and dirt, with hair being a particularly powerful material for a fetish. Fetishes and other protection materials are used to ward off duppies, or the shadows of men and women who are left behind. Duppies are not the soul of a person, which passes into the afterlife, but are instead the shadow that can inhabit specific locations. In order to protect against duppies, the Obeah man prescribes many rituals so that the duppy will not cause evil or mischief. For example, “to prevent the return of a duppy, red peas or banana suckers were planted at the grave of the deceased person” (Moore and Johnson 42). Similarly, the Obeah practitioner may be called upon to protect a person from Old Higue (Hige), an old woman-figure who sheds her skin and sucks the breath from babies, who subsequently die. Old Hige could be destroyed if someone burned or damaged her skin so that she could not return to it. As Moore and Johnson assert, the Obeah man protected one from Old Hige, who also provided a reason for the tragedies that occur in the every day life of the men and women of the Caribbean (35).
Myal is a variation of Obeah that is practiced in Jamaica. Its similarities include: skills in herbalism, healing aspects, preparation of fetishes, and other objects for influencing behaviors, assuring protection, and reaching one’s goals. However, Myal has a much more complex set of community rituals than Obeah, which often involve singing, drumming, calling to spirits, and possession. Also, myal men, as opposed to obeah men, are leaders with adherents and the possibility of achieving a possession trance in Myal is more closely related to Haitian Vodou that allows for a more direct connection with the spirit world.
Myalism, because of the influence of African and Catholic practices, may “bridge the apparent gulf between Obeah on the one hand and Santería and Vodoun on the other” (Fernandez-Omos and Paravisini-Gerbert 144). The dance in Myal is one of the most important community practices and links practitioners to the pantheon of West African gods. As Fernandez-Omos and Paravisini-Gerbert assert, “The ritual of the Myal dance, a hypnotic dancing in circles under the leader’s direction, involved as well a mesmerizing opening for the entrance of the spirit in the body of the initiate, providing a bridge between the spirit possession characteristic of Afro-Creole practices and the filling with the Holy Spirit found in some variants of New World Christianity” (145). Myal dances were often aimed at recovering spirits trapped by duppies, and marijuana and other hallucinatory drugs were used to enhance and enable the trance state. Because Myal is often considered to be “good” magic in opposition to Obeah’s “bad magic” because Myal is associated with healing practice, ecstatic worship, and spirit possession, it was more susceptible to being absorbed by Christian evangelicals in the 19th century, and in fact myal men clung to Christianity during the Revivalist period in Jamaica because it distanced them from Obeah and Obeah men, and in many cases, the Holy Spirit replaced the pantheon of West African gods.
Politics of the Movement
After 1760, it became punishable by death for slaves to practice Obeah in Jamaica, and the rest of the British colonies followed suit. This push to illegalize Obeah was due to the Tacky Rebellion1 in 1760, when a man named Tacky led a revolt by Koromantyn slaves. It was said that he gave the slaves a “magical preparation that was supposed to render them invulnerable to the weapons of the authorities” (Bisnauth 83). The passage of the law was meant to safeguard against the practice of Obeah, which the colonizers though could possibly lead to further revolts. However, this was detrimental to the African belief system because any practice of faith was likely to be called “obeah” by the authorities, and so many of the African traditions at this point were lost or taken underground (thus the individual nature of Obeah practice). The potential for revolt and retaliations against the colonizers was never far from the minds of the British, and for the African people, “Obeah might have been bad magic, but for many people, it seemed to empower them to shape their own existence by manipulating the spirits, both benevolent and malevolent” (Moore and Johnson 46).
As stated above, myalism gave way to a creolized form of Christianity during the revivalist period, as revivalists “believe in the effectiveness of obeah, but while the revivalist shepherd may practice healing and provide charms against diseases and ghosts (duppies), he cannot be described as Obeah man…In a real sense, the shepherd is like the Akan okomfo; he is a priest, not an obeah-man” (Bisnauth 96). Most importantly, however, Obeah and Myal gave Africans access to a spirituality that connected them with the past and with the spirit world, since from the African point of view “the processes of life were involved in a perpetual conflict with those of death” (Bisnauth 96). This is most important for the slave whose life is often dominated by death, and to feel that one can affect and control the natural world in opposition to the Christian beliefs of the masters is greatly empowering to the practitioners of Obeah. As Moore and Johnson assert, the most fundamental importance of Obeah is that “the preservation of their Afro-Creole belief system further served to confirm their intention to determine for themselves what was culturally appropriate and what was not. It was a positive assertion of cultural self-determination in the face of hostile pressure from above” (46).
1 Nanny of the Maroons is also a legendary rebellious practitioner of Obeah. She is a very famous figure in Jamaican folklore and history for leading bands of runaway slaves in retaliation against white masters and she supposedly offered them protection through the use of Obeah. See also my discussion of Nanny in No Telephone to Heaven on the Literature Page.
Bisnauth, D.A. History of Religions in the Caribbean. Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc. 1996.
Fernandez-Omos Margarite and Lizbeth Paravisini-Gerbert. Creole Religions in the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería
to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press. 2003.
Moore, Brain L. and Michele A Johnson. Neither Led nor Driven: Contesting British Cultural Imperialism in Jamaica, 1865-1920. Kingston: University of West Indies Press. 2004.