Obeah: Jamaica’s Folk Religion
Most of us have some, if often misguided, familiarity with Haitian Voodoo. Obeah is Jamaica’s equivalent. The practice is often referred to as a religion, but it is difficult to define. It has no formal deities, and even in Jamaica, there is no strict consensus outlining exactly what the term encapsulates. Broadly, however, Obeah can be described as a system of mystical healing practices based on the use of ceremonial rituals and natural remedies. To some, Obeah is also associated with communication between its practitioners and a spirit world, and to others, it is feared for having a perceived potential to induce evil as well as good. Variants of Obeah are practiced across the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and by the Igbo people of Nigeria.
The Practice of Obeah
Obeah was first developed by in Jamaica African slaves and derives from a confluence of old West African shamanic teachings and practices. Its fluidity and emphasis on individual action, has meant that Obeah has remained adaptable and has also come to be influenced by, and incorporate aspects of Western mystical traditions.
‘Obeah man’ or ‘Obeah women’ are the terms used to refer to an Obeah practitioner. According to those that believe in this Jamaican folk religion, only a certain minority of people are born with the ability to develop and harness its powers. Occasionally it is also possible for some among those that were born without the ability to miraculously acquire it. In order to become a practitioner, those who have been identified as having the ability, should they choose to, can apprentice under an existing practitioner who will then gradually impart their knowledge of the practice. Once initiated, a practitioner establishes their reputation by using their voodoo powers to help those who come to them to seek their assistance for healing or other matters.
The History of Obeah
The first recorded references to Obeah appear in the accounts of a Maroon (escaped slave) rebellion that rose during the early 18th century against Jamaica’s then colonial government. The rebellion was led by Nanny of the Maroons, described by the accounts as an ‘Obeah woman’. Nanny was said to have had supernatural powers and is now considered one of Jamaica’s seven national heroes. Her image features on Jamaica’s $500 banknote.
A law banning Obeah was enacted in 1760 following a subsequent rebellion called the Tacky rebellion. Jamaica’s government discovered that some of the rebels fighting in this rebellion believed that through the help of Obeah they had acquired special powers of strength and invulnerability. The practice was then banned on the grounds of what was perceived as its subversive potential to encourage uprisings. Despite the ban, Obeah remained popular among Jamaica’s slave population. For many, the belief that Obeah could, and did benefit them both spiritually and physically persisted largely undiminished. Obeah also became an important part of the slaves’ distinct cultural identity and a symbol of defiance to their overlords. The law did however effectively drive the practice underground, where it has remained ever since.
The Practice of Obeah Today
Today Jamaica is home to many faiths, but Christianity is by far its most widely practiced, and the country remains a place where the church exerts a powerful influence over almost all aspects of daily life. For this reason, it is understandable that the now centuries old law prohibiting Obeah, a practice that could be construed as magic, is still in force. In practice, however, decades have passed since anyone has been legally sentenced for an Obeah-related convection and the island is witnessing growing calls for the practice to be decriminalized.
That being said, today, Obeah maintains only a shadow of its former popularity.
In Jamaica’s cities, where over half of the country’s population now live, the practice has all but died out, or at least largely faded from sight. In and around big urban centers the practice has become something of a semi-taboo. Those in the cites that do still practice Obeah or else believe in its powers and seek the help of its practitioners are often unwilling to openly admit they that they do. In the countryside, it’s a different story. There, Obeah continues to thrive. Plenty of Obeah men and women are still there to be found out in Jamaica’s smaller rural towns and villages, and their services remain in high demand.
Today, those paying a visit to their local Obeah man or woman often make the journey seeking help for personal matters, whether that be with their romantic relationships, luck for an upcoming exam, treatment for an ailment—all manner of everyday issues. After the client has explained their problem, the Obeah man or woman will then prescribe a remedy. Remedies come in various forms. For the treatment of physical problems, typical prescriptions include massages, baths, and healing potions and balms. Non-physical problems are often treated with pouches or bottles that contain substances such as plants, earth, pieces of clothing, animal parts, and human hair, nails, and bodily fluids.
In spite of Obeah’s waning popularity among Jamaica’s urban population, the cities are where many practitioners and believers go to buy their remedial ingredients. So if you are an expat living in Jamaica and you have had your curiosity aroused during a visit to a chemist by the sight of a local pulling out a shopping list of mysterious ingredients from some unseen place of concealment, or from having noticed a pack of ‘ward off evil candles’ tucked away in a discreet corner of a shelf, you now know that there may be a place where Obeah men and women come to buy their wares.
So if you are an expat living in Jamaica, or you are thinking of moving there, and you happen to have your curiosity aroused during a visit to the chemist by the sight of a local pulling out a shopping list of mysterious ingredients from some unseen place of concealment, or by a pack of ‘ward off evil candles’ tucked away in a discreet corner of a shelf, you now have a better idea of what lies behind these odd sights—you may be a place where Obeah men and women come to buy their wares.
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