Obeah History

Obeah History

Obeah holds an extensive range of secret beliefs and practices involving the invocation and mastery of supernatural forces, usually for treating illness, bringing good fortune, protecting against harm, and avenging wrongs. Although Obeah was sometimes used to harm others, Europeans during the slave period distorted its positive role in the lives of many enslaved persons. In post-emancipation times, colonial officials, local white elites, and their ideological allies exaggerated the antisocial dimensions of Obeah, minimizing or ignoring its positive functions. This negative interpretation became so deeply ingrained, that many West Indians accept it to varying degrees today. However, the positive attributes of Obeah are still acknowledged in some parts of the Caribbean.

Obeah adds to the richness of the Jamaican history. Its practice was brought to the Caribbean by the West African priest and priestess from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. It is said that the priest and priestess, fearing extinction (by their slave masters) of the magical culture which they brought with them from Nigeria and West Africa if their office of the priesthood was known, changed the name of their practiced religion to Obeah or Obi and became known as Obeah men and Obeah.

Obeah adds to the richness of the Jamaican history. Its practice was brought to the Caribbean by the West African priest and priestess from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. It is said that the priest and priestess, fearing extinction (by their slave masters) of the magical culture which they brought with them from Nigeria and West Africa if their office of the priesthood was known, changed the name of their practiced religion to Obeah or Obi and became known as Obeah men and Obeah.

Obeah relies on the supernatural power of God, the Loas of the African ancestors, and other master spirits. Although one would associate its practice with religion, Obeah is not a religion, but a culture of secret beliefs and practice of supernatural magic. Originally, on the seventeenth-century slave plantations of the British Caribbean, these beliefs and practices drew on several common and broadly related African modalities or belief systems, including sacred traditions and medical knowledge of plant and roots. Modified over the years by the New World environment, including its plant and animal life; European practices, beliefs and material culture and the social conditions and community tensions that existed under slavery.

Although the specific beliefs and practices embraced by this term varied from place to place, Obeah everywhere shared at least two fundamental characteristics: (1) its practice involved the manipulation and control of supernatural forces, usually through the use of material objects and recitation of spells; and (2) it was primarily concerned with divination (e.g., foretelling, finding lost or stolen goods, ascertaining the cause of illness], healing and bringing good fortune, and protection from harm – although it was sometimes used malevolently to harm others.

The practice of Obeah usually involved specialists, often skilled in the use of plant medicines, the practitioners could be men or women. With wider societal disapproval or prohibitive laws that existed for much of the colonial period. Obi men and women practiced their magical art in secrete.

The word Obeah has several meanings, the most common being “medicine, remedy, or healing power.” For the Ndyuka Maroons of Suriname, the term Obeah refers to “a supernatural force with healing and protecting magic power”. Virtually all other reliable sources on the Surinamese Maroons, including the Saramaka, agree with this definition of Obeah as a positive form of power that plays an important role in everyday life.

Ndyuka and Saramaka, oral historians say that it has always been so: that they and their ancestors have always known Obeah as a socially beneficial force. Eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Dutch colonial archival sources lend them support. One of the remarkable things about these documentary sources is that the word Obeah, as used in the documents, rarely if ever denotes malevolent sorcery meant to inflict harm.

Is Obeah an “overpowering and extremely evil” form of “sorcery and witchcraft,” as described by the Encyclopedia Britannica describes? Is it “a kind of pretended sorcery or witchcraft,” so defined until very recently by the Oxford Dictionary, or is it a kind of “healing and protecting magic power?” The “truth,” perhaps, lies somewhere in between and must be sought in the complex and convoluted history of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean and how these have shaped both thought and language in the region. We contend that in many, if not most, parts of the Caribbean the supernatural spiritual force (or forces) that the Obeah practitioner attempted to control or guide was essentially neutral, but was largely directed toward what the slave community defined as socially beneficial goals. The force could even be directed against slave masters, which, from the perspective of many enslaved persons, was a beneficial goal. True, Obeah could also have negative or antisocial dimensions. However, the entirely negative view of Obeah promulgated by whites during the period of slavery in the British Caribbean – a view no doubt influenced by the fact that it was sometimes directed against them – has distorted understandings of the social role that obeah played in the lives of many enslaved West Indians and their descendants in post-emancipation times.

Our source is from one of the earliest Jamaican sources on Obeah, and one of the most detailed of the eighteenth century. From this document, we learn that the powers known by that name among enslaved persons, though they could be associated with fear and intimidation, had a clearly positive side. We are told, for instance, that enslaved persons may “revere” (and therefore “consult”) the Obeah man or woman. We learn, furthermore, that they put great faith in his or her divinatory capabilities (or “oracles”), which they consult “upon all occasions”. What they desired from the Obeah man was not just vengeance against enemies or punishment of thieves – objectives that are perhaps not wholly “evil” or morally indefensible, after all – but “the cure of disorders,” “the conciliation of favors,” and “the prediction of future events.”

Clearly, the use of spiritual or magical powers for purposes such as these constitutes something other than malevolent sorcery. “Obeah practices included not only the preparation of phials and spells which were designed to protect the possessor and his property or to inflict harm on his enemies,” but also the treatment of disease and the ability to foresee events. In fact, quite pointedly, an agent for St Kitts in 1788 testified to a parliamentary committee that slaves used obeah “. ..for the protection of their persons and provision grounds, hogs, poultry, etc…” Obeah practitioners, the agent observed, “from their skill in simples, and the virtues of plants, they sometimes operate extraordinary cures in diseases which have baffled the skill of medical practitioners and more especially in foul sores and ulcer.”

Guyanese scholar, Kean Gibson gives one of the most detailed examinations of Obeah among non-Maroon peoples. Basing her findings on field research Gibson describes the types of Obeah practitioners in present-day Guyana. Some “do ‘dirty work’ . . . [and] can be enlisted to harm one’s enemies” or even cause death. Nonetheless, Gibson clearly gives the impression that practitioners who do “good work” are more commonly sought. Such practitioners, she writes, are “employed to bring about success in romantic relationships,” and “may also solve problems of confusion in a home, e.g., quarrels between family members.” They can be “enlisted to have court cases dismissed or end in victory,” “to make a client wealthy,” and can function as “fortune tellers,” involved in the divination of the cause of illness. Some practitioners are also “bush doctors.” Utilizing home-made remedies to “heal physical and spiritual ailments.” One can also consult a practitioner “to be strengthened (protected) against evil which may be sent by someone”. “It is said,” Gibson reports, “that many students at the University of Guyana protect themselves against evil forces sent by their fellow students to make them fail their examination.

In conclusion of this very brief excerpt of the history of Obeah: this cultural and social magic carries high powers that makes it the strongest magical powers with control and respect of powerful magical deities, gods and African ancestral spirits and demons. Its powers can be used for both good and evil.

An Obeah man or Obeah woman is entrusted with the secrets of this magic that cannot be crossed, or exposed — they are sworn to secrecy by the higher realm under which they practice — which other magical or occult forces cannot gain access to. Anyone that enlist the practice of a real Obeah man or woman, can be assured that most uphold the highest level of integrity with their magical powers to complete your need or request.

Obeah is a magical occult and should not be confused with witchcraft or any other form of sorcery. Its powers lie far above that of other African magical powers such as Voodoo, Santeria, Palo, Hoodoo, Ifa, etc.

One must be careful when selecting the service of an Obeah man or woman, so as not the fall prey to an impostor. There are persons who operate as so-called “Obeah” man or woman but are in fact not trained or accepted into Obeah by the gods and master spirits that must give the Obeah man or woman permission to practice with the acceptance and protection of the master spirits and ancestral gods themselves. These people impose the art of Obeah and are simple magicians or herbal healers. The Obeah man or woman can be differentiated by their work to do and undo that of any other magical power. Most spiritual magicians work with the same deities, however, the spirits and demons — malignant or not are subjected to the authority of the Obeah man or woman.

Partial Credit: Obeah: Healing and Protection in West Indian Slave Life