Sorta like a cross between voodoo, Shango and Santeria with some good old fashioned shamanism thrown in, Obeah is a folk religion found mainly in Jamaica and is used to unleash some mean juju.
A little history
Widely believed to have it origins in the Ashanti tribes of Africa and imported to the Caribbean as a result of the slave trade, practitioners of Obeah believe that it can be used for good or evil purposes. It does this through a variety of ways, mainly through communication with the spirits and through the use of potions and poisons.
The practice of Obeah reached its heyday during the slave rebellions in Jamaica.
The “Obeah man” was viewed in a mixture of respect, fear, and authority in the slave community. It was thought that he could make someone invincible, raise the dead, cure any disease, protect one from the consequences of a crime they might have committed and cause harm to anyone he wished. The power came mostly from his knowledge of herbs and other indigenous plant life. Considering that the Europeans who inhabited Jamaica at the time were fond of the practice of bloodletting to cure the ills of the day, it comes as no surprise that the slaves turned to the “Obeah man” in their times of need.
Besides the religious aspects associated with Obeah, the practice also had some political clout. The Obeah man was able to recruit slaves to rebel against the white plantation owners. He would then administer an oath that basically swore the rebels to secrecy and anyone in violation of the oath would be subject to a slow and painful death. He also told the slaves that they would be invulnerable to the white mans weapons and although they might appear to be dead as a result of a confrontation, the Obeah man could raise them up any time he wanted. A British plantation owner by the name of Edward Long described the ritual in these words.
“Their priests, or obeiah-man, are their chief oracles in all weighty affairs, whether of peace, war, or the pursuit of revenge. When assembled for the purposes of conspiracy, the obeiah-man, after various ceremonies, draws a little blood from every one present; this is mixed in a bowl with gunpowder and grave dirt; the fetish or oath is administered by which they solemnly pledge themselves to inviolable secrecy, fidelity to their chiefs, and to wage perpetual war against their enemies; as a ratification of their sincerity, each person takes a cup of the mixture, and this finishes the solemn rite. Few or none of them have ever been known to violate this oath, or to desist from the full execution of it, even although several years may intervene."
As a result, several laws were enacted in Jamaica for the purpose of discouraging the practice of Obeah. Besides banning the gathering of slaves, the law also stated that “"if there shall be found in the possession of any slave any poisonous drugs, pounded glass, parrot’s beaks, dog’s teeth, alligator’s teeth, or other materials notoriously used in the practice of Obeah or witchcraft, such slave upon conviction, shall be liable to suffer transportation from the island.” Effectively that meant that you were being deported.
Beside open rebellion, the Obeah man also encouraged his followers to engage in a subtler, but no less deadly, form of resistance. Poisoning. Needless to say that as the instances of poisoning of plantation owners rose, so did the severity of the punishment. Another law stated…
”Whereas slaves have of late attempted to destroy several people, as well white as black, by poison…the said slave or slaves, together with their accessories, as well before as after the fact, being slaves, and convicted thereof…shall be adjudged guilty of murder, as if the party or parties that took or shall take the same had died; and shall be condemned to suffer death, by hanging, burning, or such other way or means as to the said Justices and freeholders shall seem most convenient."
Modern Day Obeah
Throughout the years, many laws were enacted in Jamaica that caused the practice of Obeah to go underground. Today it is mostly confined to the bush and the ceremonies are held in secret. Recently, a movement by the Rastafarian community has sought to have all laws currently on the books in Jamaica banning Obeah repealed and the practice allowed to continue.