Definitions

obeah

obia

or obeah

In West African folklore, a gigantic animal that steals into villages by night to kidnap girls on behalf of witches. In some Caribbean cultures the word is used to refer to overpowering and extremely evil forms of witchcraft and sorcery. Bewitched objects, buried with the intent of causing harm, are sometimes called obia. A person who uses the power of obia is called an obiama or obiaman.

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Obeah (sometimes spelled "Obi") is a term used in the West Indies to refer to folk magic, sorcery, and religious practices derived from Central African and West African origins. Obeah can either be a form of 'dark' magic or 'good' magic. As such, Obeah is similar to Palo, Voodoo, Santeria, rootwork, and hoodoo. Obeah is practiced in Suriname, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Belize, the Bahamas, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados and many other Caribbean countries.

Obeah is associated with both benign and malign magic, charms, luck, and with mysticism in general. In some Caribbean nations Obeah refers to African diasporic folk religions; in other areas, Christians may include elements of Obeah in their religion. Obeah is often associated with the Spiritual Baptist church.

Origins

In Jamaica, slaves from different areas of Africa were brought into contact, creating some conflicts between those who practiced varying African religions. Those of West African Ashanti descent, who called their priests "Myal men" (also spelled Mial men), used the Ashanti term "Obi" or "Obeah" -- meaning "sorcery" -- to describe the practices of slaves of Central African descent. Thus those who worked in a Congo form of folk religion were called "Obeah men" or "sorcerers." Obeah also came to mean any physical object, such as a talisman or charm, that was used for evil magical purposes. However, despite its fearsome reputation, Obeah, like any other form of folk religion and folk magic, contains many traditions for healing, helping, and bringing about luck in love and money.

Distribution

Obeah is found primarily in English speaking former British colonies. It is a blend of West African traditional practices and rituals with the beliefs (primarily Christian) that were taught to the African slaves by their European captors.

Obeah bears some similarity to Voodoo which is found in former French colonies and Santeria which is found in former Spanish and Dutch colonies. All of these practices have a blend of African and European myths and beliefs regarding spiritual and mystical unknowns.

History

During the mid 19th century the appearance of a comet in the sky became the focal point of an outbreak of religious fanaticism and Christian millennarianism among the Myal men of Jamaica. Spiritualism was at that time sweeping the English-speaking nations as well, and it readily appealed to those in the Afro-Carbbean diaspora, as spirit contact, especially with the dead, is an essential part of many African religions.

During the conflict between Myal and Obeah, the Myal men positioned themselves as the "good" opponents to "evil" Obeah. They claimed that Obeah men stole people's shadows, and they set themselves up as the helpers of those who wished to have their shadows restored. Myal men contacted spirits in order to expose the evil works they ascribed to the Obeah men, and led public parades which resulted in crowd-hysteria that engendered violent antagonism against Obeah men. The public "discovery" of buried Obeah charms, presumed to be of evil intent, led on more than one occasion to violence against the rival Obeah men.

Laws were passed that limited both Obeah and Myal traditions, but due to the outrages perpetrated by the mobs of Myalists, the British government of Jamaica sent many Myal men to prison, and this, along with the failure of their millennialist Christian prophesies, resulted in a lessening influence for Myalism, while Obeah remained a vital form of folk magic in Jamaica. By the early 20th century, Myalism was considered a thing of the past, and Obeah dominated.

Obeah in Trinidad and Tobago

One aspect of Obeah with which many visitors to Trinidad & Tobago are familiar (although they may not fully comprehend it) is the Mocko-Jumbie, or stilt dancer.

In the Trinidad & Tobago Obeah tradition, a Jumbie is an evil or lost spirit, related to the Kongo word Nzumbi, which led to the sensationalistic Zombies of Hollywood. Jumbie however, retains more of the word's original meaning. It is sometimes associated with a child who has died before being baptized, such a child is called a Douens and is said to be forced to forever walk the earth at night, and is easily identified by its backward-facing feet. The connection between the Jumbie and death is extended into botany: Abrus precatorius, a species of tropical legume bears deadly toxic red and black seeds called Jumbies in English-speaking regions of the Caribbean. By contrast, the Mocko-Jumbie of Trinidad & Tobago is brightly colored, dances in the daylight, and is very much alive. The Mocko-Jumbie also represents the flip-side of spiritual darkness, as stilt-dancing is most popular around holy days and Carnival.

Obeah in creative writing

Although 18th-century literature mentions Obeah often, one of the earliest references to Obeah in fiction can be found in 1800, in William Earle's novel Obi; or, The History of Three-Finger'd Jack, a narrative inspired by true events that was also reinterpreted in several dramatic versions on the London stage in 1800 and following. One of the next major books about Obeah was Hamel, the Obeah Man (1827). Several early plantation novels also include Obeah plots.

The 20th century has seen less actual Obeah in practice, yet it still appears quite often in fiction and drama. The following is only a partial list:

Obeah in popular culture

Notes

See also

External links

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