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Obeah (sometimes spelled Obi, Obea or Obia) is a term used in the West Indies to refer to folk magic, sorcery, and religious practices derived from West African, and specifically Igbo origin.[1] Obeah is similar to other African derived religions including Palo, Voodoo, Santeria, rootwork, and most of all hoodoo. Obeah is practiced in Suriname, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, Guyana, Barbados, Belize and other Caribbean countries.[2]

Obeah is associated with both benign and malignant magic, charms, luck, and with mysticism in general. In some Caribbean nations, Obeah refers to folk religions of the African diaspora. In some cases, aspects of these folk religions have survived through synthesis with Christian symbolism and practice introduced by European colonials and slave owners. Casual observation may conclude that Christian symbolism is incorporated into Obeah worship, but in fact may represent clandestine worship and religious protest.


In parts of the Caribbean where Obeah existed slaves were taken from a variety of African nations with differing spiritual practices and religions, it is from these arrivals and their spiritualisms that Obeah originates. The theory of origin that is most accepted and is supported by the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute database[3] traces obeah to the dibia or obia (Template:Lang-ig)[4] traditions of the Igbo people.[5][6] Specialists in Obia (also spelled Obea) were known as Ndi Obia (Template:Lang-ig) and practised the same activities as the obeah men and women of the Caribbean like predicting the future and manufacturing charms.[1][7] Among the Igbo there were oracles known as ọbiạ which were said to be able to talk.[8] Parts of the Caribbean where Obeah was most active imported a large amount of its slaves from the Igbo dominated Bight of Biafra.[3]

In another theory, the Efik language is the root of obeah where the word obeah comes from the Efik ubio meaning 'a bad omen'.[9] The last theory of the origin of Obeah lies with the Ashanti who called their priests practices Obayifo (Template:Lang-ak).[10] There is also evidence of Akan names among Obeah men of the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries.[3] The Akan origin of Obeah has been criticised by several writers with an Igbo origin thought to be more likely.[11] However, in colonies where Bight of Biafra slaves were less represented and Akan were plenty (Suriname and Guyana) Obeah is thought to be more of a mixture of Akan beliefs.[3]

Obeah came to mean any physical object, such as a talisman or charm, that was used for evil magical purposes.[12] Obeah incorporated various beliefs from the religions of later migrants to the colonies it was present. Hinduism became one of these religions when Hindu-Indian indentured servants started arriving in the Caribbean. Obeah also influenced other religions in the Caribbean, e.g. Christianity which incorporated some Obeah beliefs.[2]


During the mid 19th century the appearance of a comet[which?] in the sky became the focal point of an outbreak of religious fanatical 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-Caribbean 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"[says who?] 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[which?], but due to the outrages perpetrated by the mobs of Myalists, the British government of Jamaica sent many Myal men to prison[when?], 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 Trinidad and Tobago

One aspect of Obeah which is familiar to Trinidad & Tobago, though not all other nations where Obeah is practiced, is the Moko-Jumbie, or stilt dancer. Moko was a common word for Ibibio slaves. In the Trinidad & Tobago 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, Jumbie Eyes and Jumbie Beads in English-speaking regions of the Caribbean. By contrast, the Moko-Jumbie of Trinidad & Tobago is brightly colored, dances in the daylight, and is very much alive. The Moko-Jumbie also represents the flip-side of spiritual darkness, as stilt-dancing is most popular around holy days and Carnival.

Obeah in literature

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.[13] 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 open practice, yet it still appears quite often in fiction and drama. The following is only a partial list:

  • The former slave, Christophine, in Jean Rhys's novel Wide Sargasso Sea 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 who uses Obeah.
  • In the novels and memoirs of Jamaica Kincaid there are several passages that mention Obeah.
  • Zora Neale Hurston researched and wrote widely on the subject, including essays, drama, and the novel Jonah's Gourd Vine.
  • There are frequent references to Obeah in The Suffrage of Elvira written by V S Naipaul
  • A central character in Unburnable is reputed to be an Obeah woman.
  • The protagonist of the novel Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson is an Obeah-woman in training, learning from her grandmother. She uses her abilities to defeat an evil Obeah-man and his duppy.
  • Obeah is heavily referenced in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's novel Cemetery Dance.
  • The female lead Solitaire in the James Bond novel and film Live and Let Die. is said to have "the power of the Obeah."
  • Several characters in the book "The Book of Night Women" by Marlon James are said to practice Obeah, and it is a focal point at a number of points in the novel.

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.
  • In the action thriller Marked for Death, obeah plays a major role in the plot.
  • Captain Beefheart composed and recorded a song called "Obeah Man" in 1966, but it went unreleased until included in the 1999 box set "Grow Fins: Rarities 1965–1982". He also used the phrase "obi-man" in the song "Golden Birdies" on his album Clear Spot.
  • The famous Grenadian-Trinidadian 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 Jamaican 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".
  • Obeah is a Salubri clan discipline in White Wolf's Role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade.
  • Obeah is the religion listed on a computer screen of a 13-year-old girl, Alisa Beldon, identified as a latent telepath in the Babylon 5 episode "Legacies" (Season 1, Episode 17).
  • Obeah, and specifically Obeah Man, has been suggested as a root for the name Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, although it may derive from the Japanese for a kimono belt - the Obi.
  • In the television series version of Da Kink in My Hair hairstylist Starr chants to give herself strength which suspiciously sound like spells to some of the Caribbean clients of the West Indian hair salon. When styling church-going Sister Corrine the woman exclaims "Don't bother bring dat obia business to me...get this voodoo witchcraft woman 'way from me head!" illustrating the contrasts between acceptance and disdain for obeah in the Caribbean.
  • In episode 2 of the 1974-1975 television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, entitled "Zombie," a grandmother, identified as "Mamalois" (the feminine version of "papaloi", an Obeah priest[14]), seeks revenge for her grandson's death by turning him into a zombie to do her bidding.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Eltis, David; Richardson, David (1997). Routes to slavery: direction, ethnicity, and mortality in the transatlantic slave trade. Routledge. p. 88. ISBN 0-714-64820-5. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Incayawar, Mario; Wintrob, Ronald; Bouchard, Lise; Bartocci, Goffredo (2009). Psychiatrists and Traditional Healers: Unwitting Partners in Global Mental Health. John Wiley and Sons. p. 222. ISBN 0-470-51683-6. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Rucker, Walter C. (2006). The river flows on: Black resistance, culture, and identity formation in early America. LSU Press. p. 40. ISBN 0-807-13109-1. 
  4. Eltis, David; Richardson, David (1997). Routes to slavery: direction, ethnicity, and mortality in the transatlantic slave trade. Routledge. p. 74. ISBN 0-714-64820-5. 
  5. Template:Cite dictionary
  6. Chambers, Douglas B. (2009). Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 14, 36. ISBN 1-604-73246-6. 
  7. Fighting for honor: the history of African martial art traditions in the Atlantic world. Univ of South Carolina Press. 2008. p. 58. ISBN 1-570-03718-3. 
  8. McCall, John Christensen (2000). Dancing histories: heuristic ethnography with the Ohafia Igbo. University of Michigan Press. p. 148. ISBN 0-472-11070-5. 
  9. Metcalf, Allan A. (1999). The world in so many words: a country-by-country tour of words that have shaped our language. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 78. ISBN 0-395-95920-9. 
  10. Chambers, Douglas B. (2009). Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 263. ISBN 1-604-73246-6. 
  11. Konadu, Kwasi (2010). The Akan Diaspora in the Americas. Oxford University Press US. p. 140. ISBN 0-195-39064-4. 
  12. Delbourgo, James. Gardens of life and death. bottom: British Society for the History of Science. p. 3. Retrieved 07-06-2010. 
  13. Obi
  14. Lewis Spence, An Encyclopaedia of Occultism, Kosimo 2006/University Books 1920, p. 315

See also

  • Hoodoo, African American folk magic similar in practices to Obeah
  • List of magical terms and traditions
  • Obeah and Wanga - the phrase "Obeah and Wanga" as interpreted in Thelema
  • West African Vodun - West African religion, an antecedent of Haitian Vodou

External links

Template:Religion in Jamaica