I recently gave a talk where I spoke a little about the practice of Obeah
Obeah is Jamaican witchcraft. I say Jamaican because that is where my family is from, my grandparents came to England in the 1950’s, sending for their son, my father later on. However the truth is that Obeah is more correctly Caribbean witchcraft; it is practised in Trinidad, Martinique and other islands in the Caribbean, each one with their own tweaks and minor differences, adapted to their own localised needs and availability of herbs and plants.
Obeah arrived in the Caribbean via the slave trade, transported from West Africa. The slaves brought with them their own beliefs and gods, their religion and magic, the only things they had left. Seeing how the slavers would often separate kinsfolk and tribes, it is quite likely that Obeah started as different parts of different tribes religious and magical practices, merged together in what must have been a very strange and frightening time.
The slaves used Obeah to protect themselves from hard and brutal masters, plantation owners and overseers. In turn, the slave owners became wary of Obeah, fearful even, and it was made illegal to practice in Jamaica. It is still illegal to this day, though there have been efforts to overturn this outdated law, though they have yet to be successful. However as I write this, there are fresh efforts to legalise Obeah. Let’s hope this time it is successful.
Many a revolt was spurred on and encouraged by the Obeah man or woman. They gave the slaves protection, and perhaps most importantly, hope. The most famous revolt leader was an Obeah woman known as Nanny of the Maroons. She led her people to freedom in the eighteenth century, and the Maroons were the first slaves to have fought and earned their freedom from the British. Even now there is a community of Maroons who live in the mountain areas of Jamaica, descendants of Nanny and her people. Today Nanny of the Maroons is a Jamaican national hero.
In times past, perhaps owing to the turbulent history of Jamaica, Obeah was considered dark magic, much akin to the concept of black magic familiar to us in Europe and America. The Obeah woman was someone to be feared and respected, the dark witch. The counterpart to this dark magic was myal, with practitioners of this ‘white magic’ known as the Myal man or woman. Myal is similar to Haitian Vodoun, what with drumming and dancing and ecstatic worship of deity.
Nowadays though, these distinctions between Obeah and Myal have become blurred with almost any magical practise referred to as Obeah. The world is very rarely black and white, instead modern life is many different shades of grey, and witchcraft practises, Obeah included have adapted as we, the practitioners of these various crafts, have needed.
So what do Obeah men and women do? Despite the negative associations, healing work is a major part of an Obeah man or womans everyday work, especially in remote areas where there isn’t always a doctor available, or the money for one. Herbs and plants play an integral role in healing and other work, malevolent as well as benevolent, and spells are uttered to the plants during harvesting and preparation. A good Obeah woman will know all of the plants that grow in her domain, where to find them, their uses, medicinal and spiritual.
The Obeah man or woman can be petitioned for works of revenge, lust love, all of the things central to human nature, however, it is the client and not the Obeah practitioner who should face any negative consequences of their request, especially if what they want is undeserved, or if they are wanting a baneful working against another.
Rituals are conducted in what is called the balm yard, typically a building or location used specifically for rituals and magic work. Jamaicanpatwah.com define the balm yard as ‘’the place where healing rituals are practised using Obeah or other forms of dark magic.’’ This definition highlights the often contradictory view in which Obeah is held in Jamaica. Dark magic and healing very rarely go together, however Jamaica is a highly religious Christian country, and so anything other than Christianity, even helpful or ‘white’ magic, is viewed with suspicion. Yet those same people will secretly steal away to visit the Obeah woman, petition her for her help when needed.
Perhaps their suspicion is linked to the occult side of Obeah, as the occult is often feared by those who do not understand it. The works of Lauron William De Laurence are much cited and widely read by those with an interest in Obeah. De Laurence owned a mail order company that sold occult texts and items, and his works on hypnotism and mesmerism, indeed any of his texts, are considered important in modern Obeah study, and provide practical applications useful for any tradition or practise.
Whilst Obeah is more common in the rural areas of Jamaica, it is not uncommon for supplies to come from towns and cities, as well as from nature. Many pharmacy stores will have Obeah supplies such as candles, even Go Away Sprays and other types of washes and paraphernalia, perhaps testament to the general acceptance of Obeah, though many Jamaicans would deny using or consulting Obeah if asked.
Like witches the world over, the Obeah practitioner is often viewed with both fear and awe, a part of the community, but separate from it as well. Despite the negativity in which we are often viewed, us witches are always there, ready to help when our help is needed. When there is no one else to turn to, the Obeah woman will be there waiting.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!
You can follow Emma on Facebook.