Jamaica is known for having more churches per square mile than any other country in the world.
So, the thought of voodoo practices occurring in the island seems rather contradictory. Don’t you think?
For those who don’t know, voodoo is defined as “a black religious cult practised in the Caribbean and the southern US, combining elements of Roman Catholic ritual with traditional African magical and religious rites, and characterized by sorcery and spirit possession” (Oxford Dictionaries).
Voodoo dolls, spirit possession, spells, rituals and potion are voodoo trademarks that can paralyses almost anyone with fear.
When debates about voodoo in the Caribbean arise, Haiti is the first country that usually comes to mind. In truth, voodoo is the most practiced religion in that country and has had a significant impact on the country’s culture.
However, Jamaica is no better. Rituals pertaining to witchcraft and sorcery has also been a part of Jamaica’s history and has managed to retain some relevance. The only difference is that we in Jamaica don’t refer to these acts as “voodoo”, instead, we refer to it as “obeah”.
The belief. The History.
Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage defines the word “obeah” as a Jamaican term used to represent “witchcraft, evil magic or sorcery by which supernatural power is invoked to achieve personal protection or the destruction of enemies”.
It is not surprising that obeah originated from the mother land, Africa. After all, our culture is deeply rooted in the remnants of the enslaved Africans.
Throughout history, our African ancestors utilized their obeah competences against their British oppressors. A peak in history would reveal that most slave rebellions were led by those proficient in the art.
For instance, obeah was said to play a role in the Tacky Rebellion that occurred St. Mary. The Africans slaves used a powder that supposedly held magical powers, protecting them against the Europeans weapons. Claims were also made that an Obeanman could not be killed.
All these claims were admonished when an obeahman was captured, killed and hung at a prominent place for all to see. This dampened the spirits of rebels causing many to return to the plantation. Slaves also utilized their knowledge of herbs and poisons to kill several plantation owners.
Nanny of the Maroons, notable Jamaican figure and National Heroine, has also been cited as an “Obeahwoman”.
Ask the experts
Who are these individuals who are well-verse in obeah?
Here in Jamaica, we refer to obeah practitioners as “Obeahman” and “Obeahwomen”. These individuals have been noted to request compensation for their services. During the time of slavery they requested items such as food, money or shelter as a form of compensation. Even today the same approach remains constant. This has led to the rise of many imposters and phony obeahman.
Why do people use it?
Obeah has been believed to be an avid problem-solver when one wants a quick fix or when all other options have been exhausted.
The purpose for seeking a spiritual solution are endless and diverse.
Business men use obeah for success in business and fortune.
Insecure lovers use obeah to become irresistible to their significant other.
Those caught up with the law use obeah to aid in their legal disputes.
Parents use obeah as a means to secure academic success for their children.
Employees use obeah as a means for promotions or to demote their co-workers.
People even use it to vanquish their enemies. A visit to an Obeahman will likely to involve execution of a “reading” (telling the client what is the root cause to his aliment) and even bathing the client in a bathe of herbs or even blood.
He may also instruct the client to use oils on their skins or read a particular Bible verse. He may be even restrict the client from bathing or eating for a specified duration of time. The funny things is… people actually do these stuff.
In addition, it is said that he or she may also request physical item such as photographs and clothing to carry his work.
Basically, the concept surrounding obeah is significantly negative. People who are “obeahed” are usually overwhelmed with fear and those who practice the act generally keep it on a hush-hush basis.
According to older folks, if you are obeahed, you must seek assistance from a “stronger” obeahman in order to counteract the spell placed on you.
The things you don’t hear about
While obeah is usually associated with negative and evil acts, it is also cited to have some healing properties. Many individuals seek the advice of their local Obeahman as a last resort in order to garner remedies for various diseases and illness.
Is it for real?
If you were to ask a Jamaican about his/her thoughts on obeah, you’re likely to get varying answers depending on the person’s exposure, experience and economic status.
Some bluntly believe that it’s superstition. Some believe that it exists and don’t practice it. While others wholeheartedly believe its powers and thoroughly practice it (though they might never admit it).
People always label St. Thomas as the “Obeah Parish”. However, obeah has been said to be practiced in other parishes such as rural St. Mary and corporate Kingston.
Whether or not it is actually real, I honestly cannot determine that aspect. But, in the words of Susan Gate, “Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist”.
By the way…. Obeah is illegal
Yes, believe it or not. The Obeah Law (1898) labels it as a criminal activity and prohibits individuals from the practice.
The law states: “Every person practising Obeah shall be liable to imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding twelve months, and in addition thereto, or in lieu thereof, to whipping.”
However, in 2012 the Government passed a legislation that will remove flogging as a method of punish. But, they have been cries from many to decriminalize obeah practice entirely.
The law also makes obeah synonymous with myalism. “Myalism” is basically anti-obeah. It’s an African practice that involves warding off evil and healing.
Has Obeah been misjudged?
People often fear what they don’t understand. This is the general voice echoed by obeah advocates. Many believe that the retention of the Obeah Law is a symbol of slavery oppression and suppression of the African culture. In addition, it is believed this was one of the many tactics used by slave owners to eradicating the African culture.
Scouting through the internet lead me to various testimonies on the mystical powers of obeah. However, one that caught my attention was a testimonial from an Indian who stated: “When I use Obeah I have no fear of any Indian magic at all because I know how powerful Obeah is”.
Whether or not these stories of obeah (or voodoo) are accurate or fabricated, the truth remains that the obeah is an element in the Jamaican culture that has managed to survive slavery and the law.
Obeah Stories. (n.d.). Retrieved from Obeah Rituals: http://www.obeahrituals.com/obeah-history.html&grqid=wod4PZQ7&s=1&hl=en-JM
Oxford Dictionaries. (n.d.). Voodoo. Retrieved from Oxford Dictionaries: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/voodoo&hl=en-JM
Real Jamaica Vacations. (n.d.). Jamaican Traditions Obeah in the 21st Century. Retrieved from Real Jamaica Vacations: https://www.real-jamaica-vacations.com/jamaican-traditions-obeah.html&grqid=TZO4WrtK&s=1&hl=en-JM
Religion and Resistance. (n.d.). Retrieved from Scholar Library: https://scholar.library.miami.edu/slaves/Religion/religion.html&hl=en-JM
Tacky War. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacky%2527s_War&hl=en-JM
The Obeah Law, 1898 (Jamaica). (n.d.). Retrieved from Obeah histories.: https://obeahhistories.org/1898-jamaica-law/&grqid=O6VONEzz&s=1&hl=en-JM
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