Saturday Snippet: the superstition of Obeah


I was researching some details for a planned book when I stumbled upon mention of Obeah, a superstitious belief system in the Bahamas and the West Indies.  It grew out of African belief systems brought to that part of the world by slaves imported from the Dark Continent.  I recognized the similarity with African traditional religions at once;  after all, I grew up in the midst of the latter, and saw them at work for many years.

Wikipedia defines Obeah as follows:

Obeah is a system of spiritual healing and justice-making practices developed among enslaved West Africans in the West Indies. Obeah is difficult to define, as it is not a single, unified set of practices; the word “Obeah” was historically not often used to describe one’s own practices. Diana Paton has contended that what constitutes Obeah in Jamaica has been constructed by white society, particularly law enforcement. Accordingly, different Afro-Caribbean communities use their own terminology to describe the practice, such as “spell casting”, among the Jamaican Windward Maroons. Obeah is similar to other African diaspora religions such as Palo, Haitian Vodou, SanterĂ­a, and Hoodoo in that it includes communication with ancestors and spirits and healing rituals. Nevertheless, it differs from religions like Vodou and Santeria in that there is no explicit canon of gods or deities that is worshipped, and the practice is generally an individual action rather than part of a collective ceremony or offering.

There’s more at the link.

One of the definitive studies of the “religion” is Dr. Timothy McCartney’s 1976 book “Ten, Ten the Bible Ten:  Obeah in the Bahamas”.

It’s long out of print, and today is almost impossible to find through used book services.  Fortunately, a copy has been preserved online.

For today’s snippet, here’s an excerpt from Chapter 2 describing Obeah’s beliefs in broad outline.

It was a scorching day in September 1952. It seemed unusually hotter than every other day of the year in the small settlement on one of the remotest of the Bahamian chain. The rain that had fallen only minutes previously did nothing to cool the atmosphere.

There was no human life in sight except two middle-aged women who bitterly engaged in exchanging words. One was claiming that the other was “sweet-hearting” her husband. The other was not denying it but countered the remark by saying that if the first had what it took, her husband would have no need to keep sweethearts.

At that point, the more vocal of the two, a small plump woman of about 50, shot back: “Okay you are going to get what you asked for. Between this day and tomorrow, you ger sleep under the cotton tree.”

The neighbours, who listened from behind tightly-closed doors and windows, heard the expression before and knew exactly what was in store for Miss May. They knew Miss Lile’s reputation. In the small settlement she was known as the ‘Obeah Woman,’ nobody “fooled ’round’ with her.” Whether for good or well, she was respected.

If somebody was going to sleep under the cotton tree, somebody was going to sleep under the cotton tree.

Miss Lile turned and headed for her small house across the street from Miss May’s. Once in the door she turned around to the startled face of her neighbour and shouted, angrily, “that’s right, you just as well go inside your house and put your burying gown on.”

The local constable and the commissioner had heard about the argument and were suspicious, so they watched Miss May’s house during the night. They neither saw anybody enter or leave the small house which she occupied alone since her children had moved to Nassau.

That morning Miss May’s fowls did not crow as usual and her potcake dog remained silent on the clap-board step. Inside the small dwelling Miss May was stretched out dead with eyes and mouth wide open.

A son in Nassau was advised of the occurrence and flew to the island, insisting on taking the body to Nassau for an autopsy, which, needless to say, proved that no foul play was suspected. The cause of death was not known, so Miss May’s body was put on the mail boat and shipped back to the settlement for burial under the cotton tree.

Miss Lile had threatened Miss May the evening before, but she had not moved out of her house, no foul play was suspected. Miss Lile never said she was responsible for the deceased’s passing. But neighbours were convinced that Miss Lile’s ju-ju was working.

Very few people ever got the opportunity to visit Miss Lile’s house, not even her close family, for even they feared her.

When she finally passed on to the other world and relatives were compelled to go inside the small dwelling, thousands of small bottles and packets were discovered containing various soils, seeds and herbs. She died a terrible death it was said. She was standing. She was so heavy that it took six men to place her in a lying position. It was said that even the casket refused to close.”

This is one of the many incidents of Bahamian life that has been attributed to Obeah. Obeah relates to the’ supernatural, but is not indigenous to the Bahamas. Throughout the Caribbean, especially the English speaking Caribbean, Obeah, and other practices that resemble Obeah, are found. To cite a few: Haiti has its “Voodoo”, Trinidad and Cuba, “Shango”, Cuba, “Santeria”. In fact, wherever African slaves were transported and settled, African religious beliefs, healings and superstitions were taken and are still in evidence today. It is interesting, also, to note that black Americans and, even some American whites (especially in the Southern States), have similar beliefs that are found in the Caribbean. Many “unexplained” mysteries, supernatural happenings and illnesses are ascribed to the influence of being “belted”, “fixed”, “hagged”, “obeahed” or “placed under a spell”.

Bahamian Obeah is the phenomenon of the supernatural. It renders evil or good; makes dreams come true; influences individuals either for their demise or holding them in one’s power. It can cause one to become rich or it can make one poor. It can cause an illness, either physical or mental or can cure any physical or mental problems. It can cause death! It is a type of spiritualism, surrounded by many tales of unexplained phenomena, and surrounded with superstitions that evolve into a plethoria of articles (fetishes), bush medicines, signs and specific directions as to what one may do.

Obeah, then, in the present context, appears to be the bastard child of primarily African religion and superstition, Judeo-Christian beliefs and European superstitions. There are also elements of black magic, white magic, satanism (with its demons), and witchcraft. From a comparative point of view, in Jamaica, “Obeah is the belief that spirits and other supernatural agents are used often to work harm to the living, or may be called off from such mischief. And it is used often to dispel evil spirits and to injure enemies.”

One can also assume that Obeah probably originated from an African religion that had elaborate ceremony with “priests”, “supernatural powers”, “saints”, etc., but Obeah, in its present day form, is not a cult or religion. There are no priests, collective rituals, gods or saints. It does not resemble the type of ceremony that is found in Voodoo (in Haiti), Shango (in Cuba and Trinidad), or other types of African religion that can still be found in parts of South America with large populations of peoples of African origin and descent.

The interaction with the Obeah man or woman and society is on a one-to-one basis. An Obeah practitioner may “chant” or “sing” or go into a trance to give an impression or for some effect, as an example, to obtain some “power”, but there are no meetings, dancing, drum playing or singing. Although some ministers of religion may practise Obeah in the form of white magic, there are no “ministers” or “priests” of Obeah. “Theoretically, most revivalist leaders are religious leaders who are not involved in the practice of Obeah, and Obeah men and women are, supposedly, evil persons who practise magic without having church groups. Nevertheless, the temptation for revivalist leaders to try their hand at Obeah is strong because of the request made by followers, and, of course, there is a profit.”

Then too, the actual term to describe people who practise Obeah may differ from country to country. Generally, they are known as Obeah Man or Obeah Woman. In Trinidad, for example, they are either Obeah Man or Wanga Man. In Jamaica, they are either the Obeah Man or Myal Man. In the Bahamas, they are either Obeah Man or Bush Man, or Bush Doctor. In Georgia (U.S.A.), they are called a Root Man or Root Healer, in Louisiana, they are the “Conjure Doctor” or “Voodoo Man”, in Grenada, either “Obeah Man” or “The Scientist.”

There’s much more at the link.

The book makes interesting reading for all those interested in primitive superstitions, particularly of African origin.  In the United States, those who know the beliefs and rituals of Louisiana Voodoo will find much material in common.  It also sheds some light on more modern iterations of those superstitions, such as SanterĂ­a.  Generally, it’s a useful resource for writers who need background material on primitive societies, and how their belief systems arose out of, and became rooted in and influenced, popular culture.



  1. A buddy of mine was a contractor in Ivory Coast. OK, a helicopter mechanic on a WHO contract combating onchocerciasis (river blindness), but still a contractor. One day he wanted to do something nice for one of the locals he'd befriended. He handed the guy his lucky rabbit's foot keychain, which the fellow immediately dropped and ran off screaming. The fellow didn't show up again 'til three days later after the village headman had arranged for my buddy to pay a goat and three chickens to the juju man to remove the 'curse'.

  2. Thriller writer Nick Stone's three "Max Mingus" novels feature some genuinely scary and frightening scenes centered around voodoo practices. I resolved never to dabble in voodoo and never to go near it, not even as a tourist.

  3. It's hard not to giggle when you see someone who believes the moon doesn't exist criticize a flat-earther. Every time a christian looks down on "primitive superstitions," thinking people have a hard time containing their laughter.

    How can you not realize, clear as day, that your mythology is exactly as silly and obviously made up?

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