The Origins and Evolution of Obeah in Jamaica
A Journey of Resistance and Adaptation
Obeah is a complex religious belief and practice that combine divination and medicine based on the supernatural. Obeah has its roots in the spiritual practices of West Africa, brought to Jamaica by enslaved Africans during the years of transatlantic slave trade. Its practice during slavery served as a vital connection for the enslaved people to their ancestral traditions in the midst of brutal conditions and forced religious conversion.
Today, the practice of Obeah has evolved. While Jamaica has its roots predominantly in Christianity, Obeah has persisted as a syncretic belief system, blending elements of religion, African spirituality, indigenous beliefs and other external influences from America.
Traditional Uses of Obeah in Jamaica
Obeah was practiced in secrecy during the era of slavery, primarily because it was viewed as a form of resistance by colonial authorities. Enslaved Africans employed Obeah for various purposes:
- Healing: Obeah practitioners were known for their healing abilities, using herbs, charms, and rituals to cure ailments. This made them valued within their communities.
- Protection: Obeah was also used for protection, both physical and spiritual, against harm and malevolent forces.
- Divination: Obeah practitioners practiced divination to seek guidance and insight into various aspects of life, such as relationships, career, and family matters.
Obeah represented a means of empowerment and spiritual sustenance for enslaved people, and it played a significant role in preserving their cultural identity and resilience in the face of adversity.
Origins and Evolution of Obeah in Jamaica
Obeah has its origins in the spiritual traditions of West Africa. The earliest speculated places of origin were the Akan, in the modern day region of Ghana. Most recent studies have concluded that Obeah originated from among the Igbo of the Bight of Biafra in Nigeria. Enslaved Africans brought their religious beliefs and practices to Jamaica during the brutal transatlantic slave trade. During slavery, it was practiced in secret due to its association with rebellion and resistance. It represented a form of empowerment and defiance against the harsh realities of slavery.
Influences of Hoodoo
Hoodoo is a traditional folk magic and spiritual practice primarily found in the southern regions of the United States. It blends elements of African, Indigenous American, and European folk traditions and typically involves the use of herbs, roots, candles charms for healing, protection and conjure work.
As travel between Jamaica and the United States became more common during the 20th century, a significant cultural exchange developed between African American and Jamaican communities. This facilitated the cross-pollination of spiritual practices. New rituals, charms, and tools from Hoodoo expanded the repertoire of Jamaican Obeah practitioners, allowing Obeah to become more versatile and effective in addressing various spiritual and personal concerns.
As Hoodoo influenced Obeah, it also led to shifts in spiritual beliefs and interpretations. The incorporation of Hoodoo practices would have also likely altered how Obeah practitioners perceive certain spiritual entities, and the efficacy of particular rituals.
The "New" Obeah
William Lauron DeLaurence, an American author and publisher is known for his works on occult and esoteric topics. His publications, and similar ones by others, were considered subversive during the years of slavery. These publications were discouraged or banned to prevent the dissemination of ideas that could potentially incite rebellion or undermine the status quo.
As their horizons broadened through travel, so did Jamaica's exposure of these types of publications. In addition to influences of Hoodoo, publications by William Lauron DeLaurence significantly influenced the development of a new type of obeah in Jamaica. The magic practiced in DeLaurence's books expanded the realms of Jamaica's traditional Obeah practices, which later became known as "Science" especially in Kingston. This kind of magic utilizes crystal balls, fortune-telling cards, oils, powders and spells. Initially the rural parts of Jamaica continued their practice in traditional obeah, employing indigenous materials but as time progressed the influences of the "new Obeah" began to spread to rural parts.
In the book, "William Lauron DeLaurence and Jamaican Folk Religion", by W. F. Elkins, Elkins postulates that the Beings from DeLaurence's publications came to be important spirits in the religious cults known as Pocomania, Revival Zion and Cumina. Books by DeLaurence was banned in Jamaica, when the country gained its Independence in 1962.
1915 Obeah Court Case in Kingston, Jamaica
In 1915, the Jamaican authorities decided to take legal action against an Obeah practitioner who was found in possession of several of these books and other items of Obeah. The following excerpt from the November 30, 1915, provides a summary of the items that were found during a raid on the accused premises.
Joseph Paddy, the central figure in yesterday's obeah case, impresses one as a 20th century obeahman, so well equipped is he, not only with the customary paraphanalias -- grave dirt, feathers, human bones etc, but his complete library which contains among other works "The Devil's Legacy" "Sixth and Seventh book of Moses" and "Mysteries of Magic" by A. E. Waite. These articles too numerous to name, were among the stock-in-trade taken from his home in Smith's Village on the occasion of the raid by Detective Walters and others.
The laws at that time classified DeLaurence's magic books as instruments of Obeah and any possession of it, or any sort of obeah equipment, carried a punishment of a flogging and up to a year imprisonment. In the 1915 case against Joseph Paddy, he escaped the flogging but received 12 months in prison.
Table of Arrests and prosecutions for obeah and related offences, reported in the Daily Gleaner 1890–1939
|Practising obeah and additional charge||29|
|Consulting an obeah man/woman||50|
|Vagrancy (obeah related)||38|
|Larceny (obeah related)||24|
|Possession of obeah materials||21|
|Obtaining money by false pretences (obeah related)||9|
|Practising medicine without a licence (obeah related)||17|
Source: Obeah in the courts, 1890–1939, Diana Paton
The Legal Journey of Obeah in Jamaica
The history of Obeah's legality in Jamaica is complex and filled with contradictions. At times, Obeah was criminalized due to its association with resistance to slavery and perceived threats to colonial authority. In the early 19th century, a series of Obeah suppression laws were enacted to control its practice. Those found guilty of practicing Obeah could face severe punishments, including flogging and imprisonment.
There has a gradual shift in the 20th century towards decriminalization in many Caribbean islands but not in Jamaica. Per the US Department of State 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Jamaica. It states:
A colonial era law criminalizing Obeah and Myalism remains in effect. Potential punishment for practicing Obeah and Myalism includes imprisonment of up to 12 months. The government, however, does not enforce this law.This marked a significant legal shift, recognizing the need to respect cultural diversity and freedom of religion. Today, Obeah is still practiced in Jamaica but it still faces societal stigma.
1898 Obeah Law [JAMAICA—LAW 5, 2nd June, 1898]
- Jamaica Gleaner
- The Cultural Politics of Obeah, Diana Paron - Cambridge University Press
- William Lauron DeLaurence and Jamaican Folk Religion, W. F. Elkins
- West Bohemian Historical Review VI: Tracing the African Origins of Obeah (Obia): Some Conjectures and Inferences from the History of Benin Kingdom
- The Laws of Jamaica, 1898