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Obeah (sometimes spelled "Obi") is a term used in the West Indiesmarker 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 Surinamemarker, Jamaicamarker, Haitimarker, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobagomarker, Guyanamarker, Belizemarker, the Bahamasmarker, St. Vincent and the Grenadinesmarker, Barbadosmarker and many other Caribbeanmarker 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 Jamaicamarker, slaves from different areas of Africa were brought into contact, creating some conflicts between those who practiced varying African religions. Those of West African Ashantimarker 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 and former Dutch colony Surinamemarker. 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 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 The Bahamas

In Bahamianmarker Obeah myths and traditions, it deals with good magic or evil magic.It can influence individuals to "make steps" for their own demise, or simply allow the Obeahman to hold their destiny in his hands.Obeah in The Bahamas stems from African, Judeo-Christian, and European superstitious belifs.It contains elements such as Black Magic, White Magic, and Witchcraft.
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In the current day Bahamasmarker, Obeah practitioners have declined in the densly populated Urban centres of Nassaumarker and Freeportmarker, but remains strong in the rural settlements on the Out Islands

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 & Tobagomarker 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 Douen 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 saw 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

  • In the films Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and its sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the character of Tia Dalma is called an "Obeah woman" and has (among other skills) the power to restore life.
  • The famous calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow sings a song entitled "Obeah Wedding".
  • Bahamian singer Exuma recorded the song "Obeah Man", which was included on his eponymous debut album in 1970.
  • African American singer, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone took on the role of "Obeah Woman" in the song of the same name which she performed live on It is Finished (1974). She used this image of a powerful African witch, who "could hug the sun, kiss the moon and eat thunder" to manifest her rage concerning the situation of African-Americans at the time.
  • The film Meet Joe Black features a Guyanese woman who calls the title character an "obeah man" (translated as "evil spirit") until she has learned that he is in fact a personification of Death.
  • A chutney music duo Babla & Kanchan sang a song entitled "Obeah".
  • The character Christophine found in the novel The Wide Sargasso Sea practices Obeah.


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