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Obeah 101

Spirits, oils, altars and blood sacrifices

DEBON L PANTON

Sunday, July 07, 2019

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Quite recently I was speaking with a friend on one of the social media platforms and this brother wanted to find out what exactly is this Obeah and why we were taught that it was evil. Being a born Jamaican, he has been hearing about it all his life, but knew next to nothing in terms of specifics about it. Apparently, based on what I normally post on social media, he thought that I may know a little about it, or maybe he simply wanted to get me entangled in the discourse, so he asked me about it.

In my response, I spoke about how it came into being and the etymology of the word and why we were taught that it is evil. I told him that Obeah is not a religion, but instead it is a 'catch-all term' used in reference to any ritual from a wide cross section of spiritual traditions, which are regarded as evil. Initially, in Jamaica on the plantations, it referred to any belief, any spiritual tradition of Africans and their descendants that were not in line with Christian ideology. I told him also that the meaning of the word changes with the geographic location as there are places in the Caribbean in which Obeah is thought to be good and beneficial. I told him also that the meaning and usage of the word continues to change as is the case with other aspects of our culture.

Obeah is also not only connected to Africa as there are significant influences from the Indian subcontinent, ancient Egyptian beliefs, the Orient and the Tainos. It is directly connected to how the Jamaican culture came into being as historical records will indicate that people from these other cultures were here as well.

My friend seemed genuinely intrigued, but there was a kind of hesitance, trepidation if you will, almost as though he was afraid of knowing too much about this. However, what absolutely stunned him was when I told him that in a number of these rituals, the Bible is also read and, further, that it was normally the spirits with whom the 'diviner' is communicating who actually chooses the passages that are to be read. The diviner is the one who some would refer to as the Obeah man or Obeah woman. He would have been even more dumbfounded had I told him that in some traditions the spirits have the very same biblical names of the angels with whom he is familiar. In fact, in some of the traditions, these spirits are also categorised as angels.

He then inquired about how it is that people communicate with spirits. In very general terms, this normally commences whenever a client visits a diviner for some kind of 'work' to be done. Depending on the tradition being followed, communication requires the performance of a ritual. Across the traditions, the format of rituals normally starts with an invocation. Then there is a negotiation, followed by an appeasement, and finally a verification. The invocation may be a chant, prayer or song, and may be in English, Latin, Hindustani or any language from which the particular spiritual tradition may have originated. The blowing or sprinkling of rum and drumming are also done in some traditions as an invitation to the spirits. Then, after they arrive, the negotiation phase begins. This is where the diviner informs the particular spirits of what is required of them. This could be as simple as asking what lays ahead for the client, or as significant as removing or reversing spiritual blockages placed in front of the client by others. During the negotiation, the spirits will indicate what payment is required in order for them to do whatever the diviner is asking of them. This is where the appeasement comes in, and it, too, varies according to the spirits being communicated with, the nature of the required work, and the tradition being followed. This can be mint balls, fresh fruits, more alcohol, the offering of blood sacrifice, or the provision of 'milk and honey' to state just a few.

In all situations this requires an altar on which to place the appeasement for it to be accepted. In the end there is need to verify whether the appeasement was accepted. The verification process also varies according to the tradition being followed. In some traditions coconut flesh is used, in others it is the coconut shell, and still there are many others. If, for example, three chickens are required by the spirits in order for them to do whatever is being asked of them by the diviner, after the first chicken is offered, if the verification is done the answer will be 'no'. Only after the third chicken is offered will a 'yes' be received. Many rituals require the usage of a number of oils, other liquids, powders, candles, and the drawing of spiritual diagrams on the floor, etc, according to the tradition being followed.

Oils, other liquids and candles

All across Africa various oils are used in ritual works; however, the most common ones are palm oil and to some extent shea oil. There are also other oils made by melting the fat of various animals and a plethora of herbal medicines which may be infused with animal parts, bones, and/or insects. Normally the spirit gives the diviner instructions as to the ingredients and how much of each is required, in making these liquids. This may also include animal ashes, the ashes of herbs or fresh herbs as the case may be. However, in Jamaica nowadays there is olive oil and a multiplicity of other coloured and very highly fragranced oils, powders, and incenses all of which are quite unlike anything from Africa. Additionally, there is also the usage of kananga water, Florida water cologne, rose water, and numerous others which are not from Africa. Alcohol is also very lavishly used, and this can be Wincarnis wine, Red Label Wine, Stones Green Ginger Wine, Red Stripe Beer, Heineken Beer, Old Tom's Gin, Wray & Nephew White Rum, and vodka. There is also a wide variety of candles of various colours and thicknesses used during ritual work. The colours of the candles tend to represent the same thing, although there may be variations even within the same spiritual tradition.

What is an altar?

There are many definitions available; however, here is one which, in this researcher's view, captures the real essence and purpose: “A flat surface used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity or spirit.” They are not necessarily tables, and are all across the world, some are dedicated to the ancestors and others to various deities depending on the spiritual traditions of the people involved.

All altars are in some way connected to some kind of spiritual/religious tradition. Without getting too deeply into it, depending on the tradition being followed, the process of constructing an altar is a very deeply spiritual one which requires highly specialised skills. In some traditions there is also the business of properly 'seating' the altar, which has to be done by a very senior spiritual healer.

What is blood sacrifice?

Essentially, a blood sacrifice is the process of killing an animal on-site at the altar and providing its blood as an offering for appeasement purposes. This normally involves either entirely cutting off the head of the animal or slitting its throat, then spilling its blood. If the animal's head is to be completely cut off it must be done with a single swing of the machete, axe, or whichever instrument is being used. The animal's blood may be spilled on an altar, in a container, or in any other manner as may be required by the particular ritual. In cases where the head is removed, it may then be placed on the altar as part of the ritual.

Depending on the ritual, there may be the need to sacrifice multiple animals simultaneously. Also dependent on the ritual and the tradition being followed the animal carcass may be prepared and consumed after the ritual. The actual step-by-step activity of the ritual will obviously vary with the spiritual tradition being followed by the diviner. In Jamaica, pigs, goats, rabbits, yard fowls (not broiler chicks), live fish, and pigeons are frequently offered as sacrifices, depending on the tradition being followed.

Blood sacrifices are very complex rituals in which attention to details is very important or significant harm may result if they are not done properly. As a consequence, no specific instructions on how to do any such ritual have been provided by the researcher.

The above is not provided in an attempt to foster belief in any particular religion or spiritual tradition; instead, it is provided merely for information purposes. Each person is free to choose to believe in whichever religion or spiritual tradition appeals to them. Bear in mind also that as at the time of writing, practices regarded as Obeah are still illegal in Jamaica.


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