The Power and Influence of the Obeah Man and Folk Healing in Jamaican Culture
April 25, 2002
Reggae Term Paper
It's late in the 17h century and the Europeans are craving more sugar for their English tea and French coffee. Several islands are “discovered” in the Caribbean, which appear to have a sugar surplus as well as low occupancy. Now there was tons of sugar but no one to cut down the plants except for Africans rounded up and squeezed into a ship headed towards their new home. Standing shoulder to shoulder with practically no room to breathe, the slaves were hardly thinking about the new diseases they were about to encounter let alone the musical instruments left at home. The only discussions aboard the ship were most likely limited to shouts of defiance or lamentations to gods or ancestors. Once arrived, the Africans strived to rebuild the culture, music, and religion that had been stripped from their lives. Making instruments such as drums and fifes, there was a feeling that the drumming and dancing would institute a feeling of pride and hope in what seemed to be hopeless times. Music became a form of revolt from the hardship and plantation owners did not want to be bothered with the thought of rebellion and therefore banned the drum as well as allowing slaves to meet others from another plantation. Music wasn’t the only revolt; healing practices that coincided with religious practices were also a part of this revolution. This revolution was to retain their African heritage without fully conforming to their white masters’ ideals.
Funerals eventually became the only time at which slaves could meet, which was frequent due to the harsh environment. These funerals were rituals, which involved music, especially drumming. However, funerals weren’t the only musical outlets allowed, other folk religious ceremonies were also practiced. The Myal cult was the first of these folk religions shortly followed by Kumina, Pukumina, Convince, and Zion Revivalist. Each of these folk religions plays a role in the belief systems of Jamaicans and has also played a role in the evolution of early reggae music. Rather than focusing on the religions separately and wholly, I focus on one common characteristic that still exists today in Jamaica as well as all over the West Indies and even in various spots in the southern United States- healing practices and the practitioners. From the Jonkonnu (John Canoe) dance of the Myal to the ancestral trances of Kumina to the Rastafarian nyabingi circles, the drum is present. It is hard to study Jamaican folklore without running into themes of folk medicine and music; therefore, this essay will attempt explain the connection between the two with a focus on their practitioners (i.e. Obeah men and women, root doctor, herbalist, and healer). Jamaican folk medicine and music are traditions that have been retained despite the attempts made to quash their African heritage. Both are still apparent in Jamaican culture today and should be studied and practiced in order to be able to pass on cultural traditions from one generation to the next. Not only that, but the Afro-Caribbean culture is incredibly rich and fascinating and it is amazing that throughout all the oppression and continued oppression that tradition carries on.
Imagine traveling back in time and being dropped off in the middle of a plantation in Jamaica during the late 1700s and one of the slaves has been found, murdered. There are several suspicions, but no one knows for sure who the guilty party is. All of a sudden, the drums are being pounded and a man and woman are swaying back and forth, but not touching one another. The beat picks up and the dancing progresses to convulsions and the woman appears possessed. Pretty soon she passes out the man brings her into a cottage. Clueless and confused you ask around and discover that the woman was the wife of the victim and the ceremony was held in order to discover the guilty party. The man she was dancing with was the Obeah or medicine man and he has set upon her a spirit or “duppy” who will reveal the murderer. The crowd is now positive that the murderer was the woman’s lover who wanted her for him. This ritual is part of the Kumina ceremonies. Kumina is from the Twi akom, to be possessed, and ana, an ancestor (Barrett 25). The possession crisis in Kumina is known as myal, that stage of Kumina when the spirit of an ancestor actually takes control of the dancer’s body, at which time the dancer loses control of speech and faculties and is actually the ancestor (Barrett 25). Myal, although stated in Barrett is a part of Kumina, became a cult on it’s own before it was outlawed. Both Garth White in Reggae International and Martha Warren Beckwith in Black Roadways cite myal as related to Kumina but it’s own entity. What appears to be the main difference between myal and Kumina is the presence of Jonkonnu or John Canoe dancers. The myal leader would dance about the plantation rejoicing a good crop or asking for a successful one. He would do this with a mask on, which became part of the Jonkonnu masquerades. Every masquerade needs music and of course drums, usually gombay, and drummers were provided. A myal man of the cockpits, noted by Beckwith, told her that in order to summon the duppy two types of drums had to be present. A big drum called bon or panya played with sticks and the gombay played with the fingers were the drums used at the ceremonies. Early masks were usually the head of an ox or horse and eventually became the houseboat. The masks were worn during the holidays, especially Christmas. The plantation owners allowed this to continue because it was entertaining until it was realized that it had become political. These “meetings” with the myal leader were places where slaves could gather to discuss issues freely as well as unify various tribal groups within the plantation. The leaders also happened to be the medicine man for the groups who was able to invoke enthusiasm and pass out a multitude of herbal concoctions or ‘potions’ that were thought to create excitement and hope despite their current condition. According to Garth White, the cult soon went underground “because the planters realized the danger of such a unifying dance, ritual and religion” (Davis 28). The death sentence was the punishment stated for anyone continuing to practice this ceremony as of 1774. Beckwith on the other hand mentions that new masks ere being created around 1769, but perhaps that were for the specific Christmas holiday, which the slaves were able to celebrate. During that time it was not just the Jonkonnu dancer, but other actors both male and female accompanied him. Up until the early 19th century, when the three-day Christmas festival was held, different groups of girls and boys were wonder about town performing for money in order to hold the grand feast. Groups were designated by color and competition was high. These smaller ceremonies led up to the final Jonkonnu dance which involved drunken women accompanying the main Jonkonnu dancer as they served him aniseed water in time with the gombay drum. These ceremonies faded after emancipation, but the stories of the ceremonies still exist in song. In some districts the dance is considered directly related to the Obeah man. Before the houseboat was created for the headpiece goat’s meat was boiled without salt and with plenty of rum. Other feasts were held while building this headpiece in order to “catch the spirit of the dead.” Finally, several weeks after the ceremony the houseboat is destroyed for “as long as it stays in the house the spirit will follow it” (Beckwith 151).
The Jonkonnu and Kumina ceremonies are related musically and spiritually, but it is Kumina as well as Pukumina that has outlasted the myal traditions. Both spirit religions involve the work of an Obeah man or healer although Kumina is more African than the middle of the road Pukumina. If there were a continuum of these spirit religions it would start with the Afro-Caribbean Kumina and Convince followed by Pukumina and then the more Christian Zion Revival. Most Jamaicans are Christian, yet the connection and use of spirit religions healing methods still exists because of the relationship with nature and their ancestors. Another reason could be that most country people do not trust a white doctor or city doctor, lack of money, lack of transportation or religious affiliation. Internationally, these healing practitioners could be compared to the houngan (voodoo priest), docteur-feuille (leaf doctor), accoucheuse (midwife), docteur zo (bone setter), and docteur sangsue (blood letter through the use of ventouses or anelid worms) of the Haitian peasantry (Laguerre 55). The voodoo priest may also act as a folk psychiatrist such as the ones found in Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Afro-Brazilian spiritualists. Michel Laguerre developed the following general categories of practitioners of the Caribbean as well as the southern United States study in his book Afro-Caribbean Folk Medicine. (1) Curers, which are those who practice without magic or religious, cures and is not involved with a cult, they could be generalists or specialists such as a midwife or bonesetter. (2) Faith healers whose purposes are spirit related and only good, the herbal remedy used is found through dreams, possession, or direct revelation from God. They also act as folk psychiatrists. (3) The magical doctors who include those who use the spirit world for good or evil (Laguerre 55). Examples of each type consequently are midwives and herbalists, Mammy Forbes and her daughter Mother Rita, and the Obeah man.
Of those three categories, the magical doctors like the Obeah man are the least respected and only illegal practice. As of 1999, a group of Rastafarians was trying to reverse all laws against the Obeah practice (Pragg). The Obeah Law of Jamaica from colonial days and was still in effect as of 1976 reads:
Section 2. ‘A person practising Obeah’ means any person who to any effect any fraudulent or un lawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person, uses, or pretends to use an occult means, or pretends to possess any supernatural power or knowledge; and, ‘Instrument of Obeah’ means anything used, or intended to be used by a person and pretended by that person to be possessed of any occult or supernatural power (Barrett 74).
Walking home on a humid Jamaican night you feel as though someone or something is following you and you walk faster. All of a sudden you feel as though the air has suddenly become like someone’s hot breathe against your moist neck and you know a duppy is present. Finally reaching home you notice an owl perched above your shack and shock seizes your body as you recognize the shadowy outline of a cane attached to the body of the Obeah man. Your first move is to grab whatever payment was most abundant in your home in order to learn who had set a duppy on you; the Obeah man can always be bribed unless he is the one seeking revenge rather than acting as a middleman. Nervous, you grab the latest batch of mangoes and ackee fruit to trade for the obeah’s secret, but he has already disappeared. Seeking him out was dangerous and how was there to know how much time you had left.
That story was a creative description of how I imagine the Obeah business after doing plenty of research and pictures as well as the scenes with the Obeah man in Country Man. The Obeah man in the film is what inspired this paper and after much reading the film did a good job creating an accurate depiction. The African influence is obvious as the idea of the Obeah or medicine men are present in African as well as African-American literature. Authors such as Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri and Toni Morrison use the character of the healer as well as the people’s connection to the supernatural in their novels. I bring up these examples to show that the Obeah man still exists in contemporary Afro-Caribbean cultures as well as African and African-American.
There are many contradictions regarding the Obeah man due to the mysterious and dangerous culture surrounding the practice. For example, most not all believe that in order to become an Obeah man one must have killed a child. In fact, when there is a child death it is often assumed that Obeah is at work. There are other ways of becoming an Obeah man as well as other types of healers like herbalists or bonesetters. No one strict set of rules distinguishes whether or not one is a healer. It is believed that the seventh child in a family is more likely to be connected to the supernatural along with the natural world. Others may have been born with a mark called a caul they are also expected to be a healer because of a greater, stronger connection to the ancestors. Most practitioners learned how to use herbs for cures through family tradition or by an apprenticeship. Those who begin by curing their family of minor ailments may start to grow a reputation amongst the community and other members will stop by looking for help. This most often happened within plantations especially when the slaves had just arrived from Africa; rather than see the plantation doctor, the slaves trusted those in their own community first. Knowledge of roots and herbs brought over from Africa remained for most of the same plants grow in the tropical climate of Jamaica. Some medications were adjusted for obvious reasons. Apprentices work along side the medicine man and when they have developed their own technique or be responsible enough with the knowledge, the apprentice may take their own clients or when the teacher has become too old take his clients too. Other ways of becoming a healer is to convince oneself and the community that you are powerful, teach oneself, be the seventh son or be born with a veil. Not all practitioners are educated or competent; in fact the Obeah man is singled out as uncivilized and uneducated. Healers work either full or part time, use advertisements or just word of mouth, some use religious rituals, cure in public or private, specialize or generalize, disguise themselves, are cult leaders, and some bear native traditions while others mix traditional with magic. The Obeah practices go against the established religion and are frowned upon. The Obeah man has this reputation because of his power to commit good and evil and most often evil pays better.
Looking around the small room there are jars filled with herbs, oils, animal bits, hair, and teeth. Dim light and flickering candles give the room a trancelike aura. He sits behind the table that’s cluttered with feathers, eggs, and vials of blood. In a turban with a mirror fixed upon it and glasses darker than his skin hiding his mischievous eyes, his bacra or bag hangs around his neck. His cane is held firmly with his knurled hand as if loosing the cane would take away his powers. Peering down upon the scene, his animal spirit knows his plans and keeps it to himself. Upon entering the room chills run down your spine as you place your offerings on the table. You suspect your neighbor has been stealing from your crop and perhaps the Obeah will reveal the truth and the guilty party will be punished. Since you were able to provide a lucrative offer, the Obeah man hands you a pouch of animal hair and teeth along with some oil. The pouch is to buried at your neighbor’s lawn as soon as possible and the oil to be drizzled upon it. If the directions are not followed there will be deathly consequences, but if followed correctly the criminal will be revealed.
I am not sure how to tell whether or not your neighbor was stealing from you, but I could imagine that that could be a reason for one to visit the Obeah man. Those who do visit go at night so as not to get caught using these illegal services. One has to be cautious when consulting an Obeah man because there is a chance that he is a fraud. Some Obeah men use flashy scientific instruments to lure customers to his practice while others rely on traditional practices to bring in business. There are several items that are typically involved with the Obeah practice such as eggs, animals, herbs, oils, and personal duppies. To begin with, the egg is considered the embodiment of Obeah. Even Christians tremble at the sight of an egg that seems as though it might have been set for him (Beckwith 120). Some say that if a child steals eggs then he or she will be a thief for life and that dreams of eggs mean luck and perhaps even money. Eggs of evil birds such as the egg of Gi’-me-me-bit, the Cuban nighthawk, if broken causes trouble. The Obeah man alone can use this egg to put Obeah on another, for he alone knows how to break it so as to bring out sores all over the other’s body (Beckwith 121). It’s interesting that an egg can possess so much power over a human. An egg might be an item that the Obeah man holds in his bacra. His satchel is usually filled with various items that are used for specific magic purposes. There is usually a theme to the contents depending on what the Obeah man is into, his fetish. Perhaps he likes to use hair because hair of the victim is highly potent. It is supposed to enter the body and to be of a nature to tangle the spirit and so make a man helpless (Beckwith 115). Aside from those random items let’s not forget that the Obeah man is usually a skilled herbalist too and plants are important to him just as they are for other practitioners. Plant life is alive with spirit power. All the herbs used to “drive duppy” are so used because of the relation believed to exist between them and the activities of human life. Plants are also the form in which supernatural influences appear to man. Each plant used has it’s own purpose for good and evil. When plants are used for a cure sometimes they are renamed according to whoever discovered it. Cottonwood trees are closely related to the Obeah practice.
Animals are just as and even more important to the Obeah man than plants. Animals are more likely to carry the spirit or duppy. To clarify, a duppy is the cloud of smoke that can be seen rising out of the grave three days after the person’s death. The spirit of the deceased believes that he/she is still alive and has not yet crossed over. Duppies are able to do everything that they once did while they were living and often return to their daily routines. They can eat, drink, smoke, talk, laugh, and have sex. Because duppies may take various forms either human or animal, one must be wary when the cow starts lowing or a bird has that evil glimmer in their eyes. Lowing cows are rather dangerous because supposedly it means that the cow knows the secrets of the duppy and some cut the tongues of cows out of fear. Obeah men tend to use animal spirits as well as other duppy forms to carry out their deeds. Usually he has a few that are his personal assistants to whom he pays in rum or other items like food. A great example of animal spirit is that of the Obeah man in Country Man. Both the Obeah man and countryman have animal spirits, but the evil spirit eventually kills the good. Animals, like plants, are another connection to nature.
Duppies are a major part of the Obeah practice because that is his livelihood, to “set a duppy” upon a victim. There are many rules regarding duppies that enable one to be safe in the presence of one. Some of the rules are as follows: do not kill a green lizard that lives in a graveyard, for it is a duppy and will hurt you; do not throw water outside at night, without first giving warning to the spirits; to see duppies, take the water that falls from a dog’s eyes and wipe it on your own eye; whenever you come upon a spot and feel a sudden burst of warm air, it is a sign that a duppy is present; and, if a duppy is in the house, burn rosemary bush, cow dung, and the horn of an animal, and the duppy will leave (so would anyone else) (Barrett 43). There are obviously both male and female duppies, but it is usually the males who cause the most mischief. Often times duppies return to their lovers in hope of getting some one more time. Women are warned to sleep on their stomachs because sleeping on your back gives the duppy easier access. Sometimes it is believed that if a woman has not had intercourse and has become pregnant that a duppy is the culprit. There are two types of these pregnancies “witchcraft baby” refers to a pregnancy resulting from this sort of premeditated rape; “false belly” is a more generic term that includes “bellies” brought on by duppies of their own accord (Sobo 275). These pregnancies never result in real children but often times it is said that if an egg is left in the woman by the duppy the result may be a monster baby. People told of froglike creatures, member less torsos, and children resembling monkeys or even a cow head (Sobo 275). Most often when the birth arrives it is so similar to real one that they think it is real until only clots of “cold” “sinew” and “bad” gas of air comes out. The idea of the “false belly” may be one used in order to explain the swelling of a stomach due to gastrointestinal problems. Regardless of the validity of the pregnancy it is the belief that duppies are at work that fascinates me. In fact, it is the whole practice of Obeah that is so interesting that is why I have spent so much time discussing it. The Obeah man still exists today and it is important to note that despite Babylon’s need to snuff out folk practices like this one that it has become a form of rebellion that continues to this day. Retention of this magical and herbal knowledge is important because it continues tradition that originated in Africa.
You’ve been taken ill and have been told that Mammy Forbes is the healer to seek. Gathering your strength along with some personal items you find your way to Blake’s Pen Healing Center. As you make your way over the slight incline, the entrance is a four-cornered concrete floor with flags at each corner and a cross in the center. The four poles represent the four corners of the world and you are directed to take a seat in the center with the other believers and patients. Before you get settled, you must circle the square in a counter-clockwise direction. Nearby there are the healer’s home with consulting rooms. A chapel, kitchen, bathrooms, and a dry fountain are also on the grounds and all are involved in the healing ceremonies. Among the ritual equipment are three drums and several colored banners with scripture written on them; there are also flags that have become ragged from the coastal breeze. You are dressed in blue because you are a new convert and have been fasting in preparation. Drums are being played as everyone claps, dances, and sings, but the tone changes to serious as the songs of the Church of England are sung. An herbal bath is prepared for you and you are cleansed as the 23rd Psalm is recited. Afterwards you are taken to Mammy Forbes and before you even enter the consulting room she knows that you have had constant headaches and cramps. She chooses the cure of herbs and a prescription, more or less, is given to you. It has been two months and your symptoms have not returned, you are now a true believer. (Barrett 55-58)
Mammy Forbes (Rozanne) was no longer with us when Barrett conducted his research, but her daughter was in control, Mother Rita. ‘Mother’ or ‘Mammy’ is both a religious title and a term of affection. Rita inherited the practice when her mother died, but it had always been known that Rita would be the on to carry on the tradition. She is a healer through dreams and has learned the proper herbs and remedies from her mother. At the time of Mammy Forbes’ death, Rita had had a dream revealing the death of her mother as well as her take over of the practice. Rita also experienced several true dreams and visions throughout her childhood as well as possession by a spirit while at school. Imagine sitting in class and suddenly becoming possessed by a spirit, crazy. Rozanne had learned of these cures from her African slave mother, but she had been a member of the Anglican Church and did not always use her knowledge until she was called. When Revival cults had appeared in 1860, Mammy Forbes became a part of the Pukumina faith. Mammy Forbes was a healer from 1871 until her death in 1929. Although this healing deals with folk spirit religion, both women are well respected by the government as well as the townspeople. Unlike Obeah, Mother Rita is encouraged to continue the tradition of the balm yard. One difference since Mammy Forbes passed is how the healer recognizes the symptoms. Mammy would look at a person’s tongue while Mother Rita needs only to look at the person and take a moment to visualize the ailments. Believers come by foot, donkey, or bus and travel up to 70 miles in order to be cured. The fountain mentioned in the creative description is really there, however, it is dry. When Mammy Forbes had first started healing she had a dream which told her to go to where the balm yard is now and dig a hole in the center of the camp, 10 feet square and 5 feet deep, from which a healing fountain would rise (Barrett 54). The hole is still there, but the water has yet to arrive. Often times those who deal with witchcraft seek out Mother Rita, but there is nothing she can do for evil spirits. This center is similar to those all over the Caribbean and those who seek their help most likely have grown up with this way of healing. Healing at the balm yard appears to be for the more religious, but not a follower of an established religion. Those who prefer the Obeah practices are shunned from entering the balm yard and frowned upon for their immorality. Mammy Forbes and Mother Rita are examples of faith healers, those who incorporate religion into their ceremonies.
These revival groups still use the drum for their songs and dances, which accompany the ceremonies. Obeah seems to be the only practice that does not involve the drum. According to White, drums are central to the practice of Kumina (Davis 29). They are the mechanism of control that prepares a ceremonial person physiologically and psychologically. The usual “family” consists of the bandu- two lower pitched drums providing basic rhythm- and ‘playing cas’ on which the more complicated and specific spirit rhythms are played (Davis 29). These drums are used to conjure the spirit, just as in the early dances of the myal. Singers are also present, usually a male and female or “King/Captain” and “Queen.” Dancers stand erect as they propel their arms and eventually the whole body is involved. A spirit usually flows through the ground and upward through the drum where the drummer and Queen acknowledge it. The spirit then goes back through the ground and then winds it’s way up through the body of the one to be possessed. You can tell when a person is possessed by the dance moves and the drum rhythms that it responds to. Kumina ceremonies such as this one are performed at funerals, memorials, births, marriages and other celebrations. Convince and Gombay are two cults similar to that of Kumina. Convince uses handclapping only whereas Gombay uses the drum. Both are Christian, but are big supporters of the Obeah practice unlike that of Kumina or Pukumina. Before Christianity and paganism were completely separate, but since most of Jamaica has become Christian the Bible is read at most ancestral ceremonies. Pukumina and Zion Revivalist are similar to one another, but Pukumina is more African than Christian. Both employ rhythmic groaning- known as “trumping”or “labouring”- and spiritual dancing to achieve possession (Davis 29). These cults also use “cimballing” which is vocal and led by the person who is possessed. Eventually, Burru came about. The depression of Kingston inspired this style of drumming and song, which recalls the social activities of the underclass. Burru drummers are traced back to those who drummed alongside the slaves who worked with the rhythm. Burru drummers of the ghetto became the myal descendants of the urban areas. They are similar to the Rastafarian basic family of drums. These musicians would sing songs about current events and gossip of the surrounding area. This drumming derived from the Kumina ceremonies eventually turned into mento. Jonkonnu is cited in Reggae International as the great great grandparent of reggae. This is because of the use of drums, flute, and fife. The Jonkonnu rhythms became a part of mento, which soon turned into ska, then rocksteady, and so on to the final result of reggae. That was a brief history of the drums present in folk religions, which influenced and eventually led to the beginnings of reggae.
Jamaican folk medicine and religion are hard to understand without acknowledging the history of the people. Without knowing the history and their roots in Africa, these ceremonies would appear to be unimaginable. However, we do know where the people are from and what it was like back in their homeland. Ancestors are an extremely important part of African history and the slaves brought that belief with them to the islands and continued to believe despite Babylon’s influence. Religion seemed to be the only freedom allowed to the slaves even though most practices were outlawed for fear of revolt, these traditions have survived. It is not just in Jamaica that these beliefs have carried on throughout history, but all over the world. The magnitude of folk religion and healing has reached everywhere, including the United States. Midwives are a good example of a practice that is still used today all over the world. Natural healing has become trendy and to think that knowledge of healing herbs could have been lost. The ceremonies and beliefs that still exist make the Jamaican culture stronger in resisting Babylon. Some may laugh at the idea of the Obeah man, but for others he is a serious force not to be reckoned with. I wrote this paper with the intention of elaborating on the character of the Obeah man and the importance of healing within a culture. While researching the folk medicine and religion, the music of the ceremonies was also involved seeing as it was central to the spirit possession. The drum is the most important part of reggae as well as these ceremonies and it is fantastic to see how this instrument has been around for centuries and still is. In conclusion, all faiths Christian and pagan are an important part of any culture and in particular the Jamaican culture. I hope that I have achieved my goal because I thoroughly enjoyed doing the research and learning so much about such a fantastic culture.
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Sobo, Elisa Janine. One Blood the Jamaican Body. Albany; State University of New
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