AskDefine | Define obeah

Dictionary Definition

obeah n : a religious belief of African origin involving witchcraft and sorcery; practiced in parts of the West Indies and tropical Americas [syn: obi]

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English

Etymology

Alternative spellings

Noun

  1. A form of folk magic or witchcraft originating in Africa and practiced in the West Indies

Extensive Definition

Obeah (sometimes spelled "Obi") is a term used in the West Indies 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 Suriname, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Belize, the Bahamas, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados and many other Caribbean 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 associated with the Spiritual Baptist church—and the word Obeah, although not the practice of Obeah.
In Jamaica, slaves from different areas of Africa were brought into contact, creating some conflicts between those who practiced varying African religions. Those of West African Ashanti 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.
Obeah is found primarily in English speaking former British colonies. 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 and Dutch colonies. All of these practices have a blend of African and European myths and beliefs regarding spiritual and mystical unknowns.
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-hystreria 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 Virgin Islands

One aspect of Obeah with which many visitors to the Virgin Islands are familiar (although they may not fully comprehend it) is the Mocko-Jumbie, or stilt dancer.
In the Virgin Islands 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 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 the Virgin Islands 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 http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/obi/toc.html. 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 has seen less actual Obeah in practice, yet it still appears quite often in fiction and drama. Furthermore, Obeah is a healing power in Vampire The Masquerade, predominantly providing healing powers, but it also provides martial power. Unburnable is a Caribbean novel that offers an exploration of the influence of African religions and syncretic Catholicism, and a central character is reputed to be an Obeah woman.
The character of the former slave Christophine in Caribbean writer Jean Rhys's novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a practitioner of Obeah.
An Obeah woman is a sort of matchmaker in Earl Lovelace's novel Salt.
Ma Kilman in Derek Walcott's epic poem Omeros is a healer and uses Obeah.
In the novels and memoirs of Jamaica Kincaid there are several passages that mention Obeah.

Obeah in popular culture

The famous calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow sings a song entitled "Obeah Wedding."
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.
Bahamian singer Exuma recorded the song "Obeah Man", which was included on his eponymous debut album in 1970.
In the Pirates of the Caribbean movies the character of Tia Dalma is referred to as an Obeah woman and has (among other skills) the powers to restore life.

See also

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