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TypeTraditional, syncretic (in the Caribbean)
FounderAkan people
Separated fromMyal
AbsorbedAshanti, Odinani, Igbo, Yoruba religion, Christianity (occasionally)
Other name(s)Obayi, Obeya, Obia, Bayi

Obeah, or Obayi, is an ancestrally inherited tradition of Akan witches of Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Togo and their descendants in the African diaspora of the Caribbean. Inheritors of the tradition are referred to as "obayifo" (Akan/Ghana-region spiritual practitioners) and its priests as "bayi komfo" and "bonsam komfo", which translates to "obeah priest/priestess".[1]

According to historians, Obeah (sometimes also spelled Obi, Obeya, or Obia)[2][3] is a system of[4][5][6] spiritual healing and justice-making[7] practices brought over by enslaved West Africans to the West Indies.[8][9] Obeah is said to be difficult to define, as it is believed by some to not be a single, unified set of practices, since the word "Obeah" was historically not often used to describe one's own practices.[10]

Obeah is the justice-seeking arm of the Akan religion, and, in its original, traditional form (as opposed to its Caribbean form), is similar to other African diaspora religions such as Palo, Haitian Vodou, Santería, and Hoodoo in that it includes communication with ancestors and spirits and healing rituals. Nevertheless, Caribbean obeah 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. Traditional obeah, however, does have a specified set of deities, namely the Abosom and the Abonsam.[1] [11] According to some early colonial accounts, Obeah differed from Myal in that Obeah was viewed as nefarious while Myal was a more positive influence.[12]

Variants of Obeah are practiced in the Caribbean nations of the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Turks and Caicos Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, [13] and the Virgin Islands,[14] as well as by the Igbo people of Nigeria.[15][16][17] In some cases, aspects of these folk religions have survived through syncretism with Christian symbolism and practice introduced by Europeans.


In parts of the Caribbean where Obeah developed, enslaved people were taken from a variety of African nations with differing spiritual practices and religions. It is from these arrivals and their spiritualisms that the Caribbean form of Obeah originates. The origins of the word "Obeah" have been contested in the academic community for nearly a century; there is not a widely accepted consensus on what region or language the word derives from, and there are politics behind every hypothesis. Orlando Patterson promoted an Akan-Twi etymology, suggesting that the word came from communities in the Gold Coast. [18]

In British colonial communities, aside from referring to the set of spiritual practices, “Obeah” also came to refer to a physical object, such as a talisman or charm, that was used for evil magical purposes. The item was referred to as an Obeah-item (e.g. an 'obeah ring' or an 'obeah-stick', translated as: ring used for witchcraft or stick used for witchcraft respectively).[19] Obeah incorporated various beliefs from the religions of later migrants to the colonies where it was present. Obeah also influenced other religions in the Caribbean, e.g. Christianity, which incorporated some Obeah beliefs.[14]

Akan origin hypothesis[edit]

Patterson and other proponents of the Akan-Twi hypothesis argued that the word was derived from obayifo, a word associated with malevolent magic by Ashanti priests which means a person who possesses "witch power".[1] [20][21] Kwasi Konadu suggested a somewhat updated version of this etymology, suggesting that bayi, the neutral force used by the obayifo, is the source material – a word with a slightly less negative connotation.[22]

The first time in Jamaican history the term "obeah" was used in the colonial literature was in reference to Nanny of the Maroons, an Akan woman, considered the ancestor of the Windward Maroon community and celebrated for her role in winning the First Maroon War and securing a land treaty in 1740. Nanny was described as an old 'witch' and a 'Hagg' by English soldier Philip Thicknesse in his memoirs.[23][24][25] Obeah has also received a great deal of attention for its role in Tacky's Rebellion (also an Akan), the 1760 conflict that spurred the passage of the first Jamaican anti-Obeah law.[26] The term "Myal" was first recorded by Edward Long in 1774 when describing a ritual dance done by Jamaican slaves. At first the practices of Obeah and Myal were not considered different. Over time "Myal-men" involved in spirit affairs involved themselves with Jamaican Native Baptist churches, bringing Myal rituals into the churches. Over time these Myal influenced churches began preaching the importance of baptisms and the eradication of Obeah, thus formally separating the two traditions.[27]

Igbo origin hypothesis[edit]

Despite its associations with a number of Akan slaves and rebellions, the origin of Obeah has been criticised by several writers who hold that an Igbo origin is more likely.[28] According to W. E. B. Du Bois Institute database,[29] he traces Obeah to the Dibia or Obia (Igbo: doctoring)[30] traditions of the Igbo people.[31][32] Specialists in Obia (also spelled Obea) were known as Ndi Obia (Igbo: Obia people) and practised the same activities as the Obeah men and women of the Caribbean like predicting the future and manufacturing charms.[8][33] Among the Igbo there were oracles known as Obiạ which were said to be able to talk.[34] Parts of the Caribbean where Obeah was most active imported a large number of its slaves from the Igbo-dominated Bight of Biafra.[29] This interpretation is also favored by Kenneth Bilby, arguing that “dibia’ connotes a neutral “master of knowledge and wisdom.”[35]

Efik origin hypothesis[edit]

In another hypothesis, the Efik language is the root of Obeah where the word obeah comes from the Efik ubio meaning 'a bad omen'.[36] Melville Herskovits endorsed a different Efik origin, arguing that obeah was a corruption of an Efik word for “doctor” or the corruption of the Bahumono word for "native doctor".[35]



Image of a 19th-century illustration of an obeah figure of a seated figure confiscated from a black man named Alexander Ellis
Illustration of an Obeah figure confiscated from a black man named Alexander Ellis on his arrest in suspicion of practicing as an 'obeah-man' in Morant Bay, Jamaica in 1887.[37]

The earliest known mention of Obeah comes from Barbados in 1710 from letters written by Thomas Walduck. He writes in part, that an Obia Negro can torment another by sending uncountable pains in different parts of their Body, lameness, madness, loss of speech, lose the use of all their limbs without any pain.[38]

The term 'Obeah' is first found in documents from the early 18th century, as in its connection to Nanny of the Maroons. Colonial sources referred to the spiritual powers attributed to her in a number of derogatory ways, ranging from referring to her as “the rebel’s old obeah woman”[39] to characterizing her as “unsexed” and more bloodthirsty than Maroon men.[40] Maroon oral traditions discuss her feats of science in rich detail. She is said to have used her obeah powers to kill British soldiers in Nanny's Pot, a boiling pot without a flame below it that soldiers would lean into and fall in,[41] to quickly grow food for her starving forces,[42] and to catch British bullets and either fire them back or attack the soldiers with a machete.[43]

The Jamaican Assembly passed a number of draconian laws to regulate the slaves in the aftermath of Tacky's War, including the banning of obeah.[44][45] During the rebellion, Tacky is said to have consulted an Obeahman who prepared for his forces a substance that would make them immune to bullets, which boosted their confidence in executing the rebellion.[46][47]

In 1787, a letter written to The Times referred to "Obiu-women" interpreting the wishes of the dead at the funeral of a murdered slave in Jamaica: a footnote explained the term as meaning "Wise-women".[48] The practice of obeah with regards to healing led to the Jamaican 18th and 19th century traditions of "doctresses", such as Grace Donne (who nursed her lover, Simon Taylor (sugar planter)), Sarah Adams, Cubah Cornwallis, Mary Seacole, and Mrs Grant (who was the mother of Mary Seacole). These doctresses practised the use of hygiene and the applications of herbs decades before they were adopted by European doctors and nurses.[49][50]


A continuing source of anxiety related to Obeah was the belief that practitioners were skilled in using poisons, as mentioned in Matthew Lewis's Journal of a West India Proprietor. Many Jamaicans accused women of such poisonings; one case Lewis discussed was that of a young woman named Minetta who was brought to trial for attempting to poison her master.[51] Lewis and others often characterized the women they accused of poisonings as being manipulated by Obeahmen, who they contended actually provided the women with the materials for poisonings.[52] The laws forbidding Obeah reflected this fear: an anti-Obeah law passed in Barbados in 1818 specifically forbade the possession of "any poison, or any noxious or destructive substance".[53] A doctor who examined the medicine chest of an Obeah man arrested in Jamaica in 1866 identified white arsenic as one of the powders in it, but could not identify the others. The unnamed correspondent reporting this affirmed "The Jamaica herbal is an extensive one, and comprises some highly poisonous juices, of which the Obeah men have a perfect knowledge."[54]

During the mid 19th century the appearance of a comet in the sky became the focal point of an outbreak of religious fanatical millennialism 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.[55] 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" of buried Obeah charms, presumed to be of evil intent, led on more than one occasion to violence against the rival Obeah practitioners. Such conflicts between supposedly “good” and “evil” spiritual work could sometimes be found within plantation communities. In one 1821 case brought before court in Berbice, an enslaved woman named Madalon allegedly died as a result of being accused of malevolent obeah that caused the drivers at Op Hoop Van Beter plantation to fall ill.[56] The man implicated in her death, a spiritual worker named Willem, conducted an illegal Minje Mama dance to divine the source of the Obeah, and after she was chosen as the suspect, she was tortured to death.[57]

Laws were passed that limited both Obeah and Myal traditions.[58]


Trinidad and Tobago[edit]

Trinidad and Tobago Obeah includes the unique practice of the Moko-Jumbie, or stilt dancer. Moko was a common word for Ibibio slaves.[citation needed] In the Trinidad and Tobago Obeah tradition, a Douen is a child who has died before being baptized and is said to be forced to walk the earth at night forever in English-speaking regions of the Caribbean. Jewelry is made from deadly toxic red and black seeds called jumbies, jumbie eyes or jumbie beads (seeds of Abrus precatorius) in the Caribbean and South America.

In contrast, the moko-jumbie of Trinidad and 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 the Bahamas[edit]

Currently, the Bahamian Penal Code (Chapter 84: Sections 232–234) allows for up to 3 months of incarceration for practicing obeah. Interestingly, suspicion of possessing an instrument of obeah (vials, blood, bone, images) in a courtroom can result in immediate search without warrant and a fine if such an item is found.

Obeah laws in Trinidad are like Jamaica for making Obeah a crime

Trinidad from  had fewer cases of people practicing Obeah than Jamaica. In Trinidad, there was discrimination of what was a religion practice or what was considered Obeah. The reason was the cultural differences of the blacks and East Indian races living in Trinidad and Tobago .[59] The laws pertaining to obeah was derived from the common law system, which governed many islands in the Caribbean like Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.[60][61]

In Trinidad, 13 percent of East Indian people were accused of practicing obeah. In Jamaica, there was a lower population of East Indian people, and only 4 percent of the population were accused of obeah.[citation needed] In Jamaica and Trinidad, the belief exists that East Indian descendants practiced obeah because of their spiritual and religious practice of Hinduism. In Trinidad and Tobago, those convicted of practicing obeah would serve six months as a maximum punishment. Minimum punishments included fines or lashes. The lashes were beatings received from whips, and the number received would be reported in documents.


Although 19th-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.[62] One of the next major books about Obeah was Hamel, the Obeah Man (1827). Several early plantation novels also include Obeah plots. In Marryat's novel Poor Jack (1840) a rich young plantation-owner[63] ridicules superstitions held by English sailors but himself believes in Obeah. The 20th century saw less actual Obeah in open practice, but it still continued to make frequent appearances in literature well into the 21st century, for example, in Leone Ross’s 2021 novel Popisho.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Obeah Roots
  2. ^ Williams, Joseph John S.J. Voodoos and Obeahs: Phases of West Indian Witchcraft (1932). Publisher: Lincoln MacVeagh, Dial Press, Inc., New York. Chapter "Origin of Obeah."
  3. ^ Deane, John Bathurst, The Worship of the Serpent (1883), p.163.
  4. ^ Heffernan, Andrew. "Obeah, Christianity, and Jamaica". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. ^ "Obeah (religious cult) – Memidex dictionary/thesaurus". www.memidex.com. Retrieved 2017-02-25.
  6. ^ "The Igbo People – Origins & History". www.faculty.ucr.edu. Retrieved 2017-06-21.
  7. ^ https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/E/bo50271449.html J. Brent Crosson, Experiments with Power: Obeah and the Remaking of Religion in Trinidad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020)
  8. ^ a b Eltis, David; Richardson, David (1997). Routes to slavery: direction, ethnicity, and mortality in the transatlantic slave trade. Routledge. p. 88. ISBN 0-7146-4820-5.
  9. ^ Payne-Jackson, Arvilla (2004). Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing. University of the West Indies Press. ISBN 9766401233.
  10. ^ Maarit Forde and Diana Paton, "Introduction", in Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing, ed. Diana Paton and Maarit Forde (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 10.
  11. ^ Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gilbert, "Introduction", in Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria, Obeah and the Caribbean (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 6.
  12. ^ Paul Easterling, "The Ifa’ Diaspora: The Art of Syncretism, Part 5 – Obeah and Myal" in [1] (Afrometrics.org, 2017), 173-74.
  13. ^ https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/E/bo50271449.html J. Brent Crosson, Experiments with Power: Obeah and the Remaking of Religion in Trinidad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020)
  14. ^ a b 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 978-0-470-51683-6.
  15. ^ Ph.D, Patrick Iroegbu. "Igbo Medicine and Culture: The Concept of Dibia and Dibia Representations in Igbo Society of Nigeria - ChatAfrik". Retrieved 2017-10-04.
  16. ^ "Dibia | Odinani: The Sacred Arts & Sciences of the Igbo People". igbocybershrine.com. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
  17. ^ System, Independent Computer. "Igbo medicine". umunumo.com. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
  18. ^ Diana Paton, The Cultural Politics of Obeah: Religion, Colonialism, and Modernity in the Caribbean World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 28.
  19. ^ Delbourgo, James (2010). "Gardens of life and death". British Journal for the History of Science. British Society for the History of Science. 43 (1): 113–118. doi:10.1017/S0007087410000245. PMID 28974289. S2CID 15256414. Retrieved 2010-07-06.
  20. ^ Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, Obeah: Magical Art of Resistance. In Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 231.
  21. ^ Chambers, Douglas B. (2009). Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 263. ISBN 978-1-60473-246-7.
  22. ^ Paton, Cultural Politics, 28.
  23. ^ Long, Edward (1774). "The History of Jamaica Or, A General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of that Island: With Reflexions on Its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government" (google). 2 (3/4): 445–475. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  24. ^ Mendez, Serafin; Cueto, Gail; Deynes, Neysa Rodríguez (2003). Notable Caribbeans and Caribbean Americans: A Biographical Dictionary. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0313314438.
  25. ^ Philip Thicknesse, Memoirs and anecdotes of Philip Thicknesse, late lieutenant governor of Land Guard Fort, and unfortunately father to George Touchet, Baron Audley (Dublin: Graisberry and Campbell, 1790), 77.
  26. ^ Jamaican Assembly, "An Act to remedy the evils arising from irregular assemblies of Slaves, and to prevent their possessing arms and ammunition, and going from place to place without tickets, and for preventing the practice of obeah, and to restrain overseers from leaving the estates under their care on certain days, and to oblige all free negroes, mulattoes or Indians, to register their names in the vestry-books of the respective parishes of this Island, and to carry about them the certificate, and wear the badge of their freedom; and to prevent any captain, master or supercargo of any vessel bringing back Slaves transported off this Island," in CO 139/21, The National Archives.
  27. ^ Payne-Jackson, Arvilla; Alleyne, Mervyn C.; Alleyne, Mervyn C. (2004). Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source Of Healing. ISBN 9789766401238. Retrieved 2019-02-21.
  28. ^ Konadu, Kwasi (2010). The Akan Diaspora in the Americas. Oxford University Press US. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-19-539064-3.
  29. ^ a b Rucker, Walter C. (2006). The river flows on: Black resistance, culture, and identity formation in early America. LSU Press. p. 40. ISBN 0-8071-3109-1.
  30. ^ Eltis, David; Richardson, David (1997). Routes to slavery: direction, ethnicity, and mortality in the transatlantic slave trade. Routledge. p. 74. ISBN 0-7146-4820-5.
  31. ^ "Obeah". Merriam Webster. Retrieved 2010-06-03.
  32. ^ Chambers, Douglas B. (2009). Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 14, 36. ISBN 978-1-60473-246-7.
  33. ^ Thomas, M.; Desch-Obi, J. (2008). Fighting for honor: the history of African martial art traditions in the Atlantic world. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-1-57003-718-4.
  34. ^ McCall, John Christensen (2000). Dancing histories: heuristic ethnography with the Ohafia Igbo. University of Michigan Press. p. 148. ISBN 0-472-11070-5.
  35. ^ a b Paton, Cultural Politics, 29.
  36. ^ 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.
  37. ^ Folklore. Vol. IV. Folklore Society of Great Britain. 1893. pp. 211–212.
  39. ^ Sharpe, 3.
  40. ^ Herbert T. Thomas, Untrodden Jamaica (Kingston, Jamaica: A.W. Gardner, 1890), 36.
  41. ^ Sharpe, 7.
  42. ^ Kenneth M. Bilby, True Born Maroons (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), 253.
  43. ^ Bilby, 211.
  44. ^ Craton, Michael. Testing the Chains. Cornell University Press, 1982, p. 139.
  45. ^ Vincent Brown, Tacky's Revolt, p. 213.
  46. ^ Jones, James Athearn (1831), Haverill, or memoirs of an officer in the army of Wolfe (J.J & Harper), p. 199. ISBN 978-1-1595-9493-0
  47. ^ Danielle N. Boaz, “‘Instruments of Obeah:’ The Significance of Ritual Objects in the Jamaican Legal System, 1760 to the Present,” in Materialities of Ritual in the Black Atlantic, ed. Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula Sanders (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 145.
  48. ^ BECARA, i. e. White Man. "To the Editor of the Universal Register." Times [London, England] 23 Nov. 1787: 1. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 7 June 2012.
  49. ^ "Mary Seacole, Creole Doctress, Nurse and Healer". 2018-10-21.
  50. ^ Christer Petley, White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 88-9.
  51. ^ Matthew G. Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor, 1815-1817, Edited with an introduction by Mona Wilson (London: G. Routledge & Sons Ltd., 1929), 149-150.
  52. ^ Sasha Turner Bryson, “The Art of Power: Poison and Obeah Accusations and the Struggle for Dominance and Survival in Jamaica’s Slave Society,” Caribbean Studies 41, no. 2 (2013): 63.
  53. ^ "Colonial Intelligence." Times [London, England]. 5 Dec. 1818: 2. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 7 June 2012.
  54. ^ OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT. "The Outbreak In Jamaica." Times [London, England] 2 Apr. 1866: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 11 June 2012
  55. ^ "The Obeah men are hired to revenge some man's wrong, while Myal men profess to undo the work of Obeah men and to cure those subject to Obeah alarms." OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT. "The Outbreak In Jamaica." Times [London, England] 2 Apr. 1866: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 7 June 2012.
  56. ^ Randy M. Browne, “The ‘Bad Business’ of Obeah: Power, Authority, and the Politics of Slave Culture in the British Caribbean,” William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 3 (2011): 451.
  57. ^ Browne, 469-73.
  58. ^ In 1818 The Times reported the passing of an act by the House of Assembly in Barbados against the practice of Obeah, which carried the penalty of death or transportation for those convicted. "Colonial Intelligence." Times [London, England] 5 Dec. 1818: 2. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 7 June 2012.
  59. ^ Rocklin, Alexander (2015). "Obeah and the Politics of Religion's Making and Unmaking in Colonial Trinidad". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 83 (3): 697–721. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfv022. ISSN 0002-7189.
  60. ^ "Witchcraft, Witchdoctors and Empire: The Proscription and Prosecution of African Spiritual Practices in British Atlantic Colonies, 1760-1960s".
  61. ^ Paton, Diana (August 2015). "Obeah in the courts, 1890–1939". The Cultural Politics of Obeah. The Cultural Politics of Obeah: Religion, Colonialism and Modernity in the Caribbean World. pp. 158–207. doi:10.1017/cbo9781139198417.006. ISBN 9781139198417. Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  62. ^ Obi
  63. ^ Described as a 'curly-headed Creole', possibly intended to be mixed-race. F. Marryat, Poor Jack, Chapter XLI.

External links[edit]