Obeah, also known as Obi, Obeya or Obia is a group of spiritual and healing practices used by the West African people of the West Indies, particularly those of Jamaica. It was developed by the enslaved peoples brought to the West Indies when slavery was in its prime and the word, Obeah, has been argued by some to be a white word used to describe the practices. It is similar to Palo, Vodou, Santeria and Hoodoo as it has elements of ancestor communication and healing rituals, however it does not have gods or deities that it worships and the practice of Obeah tends to be very individual rather than communal. Because of the wide variety of tribal practices and individual beliefs, there is no uniform concept of what constitutes Obeah among practitioners. The word first appeared in early 18th century papers in connection to the Maroons.
History of Obeah and Magic
Obeah’s history includes periods of time where the use of the magic was outlawed and this has also led to the lack of liturgy or uniformity in the religion. While now people may apprentice to someone who has shown skill in Obeah, they will have their own reputation to build and rely upon once their skills have been worked on. Their primary function in their society is that of a healer, most often providing physical healing through massage or baths, and spiritual healing through pouches and bottles worn around the body to ward off evil and disease. The ability to make fetishes is a critical skill as they have to be able to discern what to include in the fetish that will protect the person.
Obeah as a Religion
Like many of the Christianized African religions, Obeah was a necessary tool in helping keep the enslaved African peoples connected to the religion and beliefs of their people and tribes back home. Obeah, just like Palo, Vodou, Santeria and Hoodoo, gave them a way to keep connected to their ancestors while affecting some level of assimilation with their white, European, Christian slave owners. This was particularly important when Obeah was outlawed following the Tacky Rebellion – having made these necessary emotional and spiritual connections, these people were able to maintain a connection to their own religion through the religion of their oppressors.
Myal is another religion closely associated with Obeah, though it has more of a community influence than Obeah. In Myal, the priests are leaders amongst their community with the ability to lead and command influence among decision makers. Furthermore, the ritual possession practiced in Myal is much more uniform and practiced similarly between people rather than the more individual chants, dance and trances practiced by those who use Obeah. Furthermore, while Obeah focuses its attention on warding away spirits, Myal focuses on recovering lost souls. In fact, many consider Myal to be ‘white’ magic and Obeah to be ‘black’ magic, but this is a complete misunderstanding of Obeah – both have their focus on healing, it was just easier to absorb Myal into the Euro-Christian way of life than it was to enfold Obeah as Obeah was a focus of many uprisings.