What is Obeah?

“Obeah is power. It is a belief. An African tradition. A human tradition. Obeah is Egyptian. Obeah is Ashanti. Obeah is Hebrew. Obeah is Jamaican. Many statements can describe Obeah but all will only touch upon small facets. They are the reflective faces of a diamond. We see only what is shown back if we gaze into one face.”
—Ebenezer Morgan White

Obeah is a religious practice based on a combination of multiple religions—a creolization of religions, so to speak. It reinterprets and "Africanizes" Christian scriptures, while utilizing elements from native African religions. In some regions of the Caribbean there are elements of Indigenous and south Indian religions
incorporated into the practice as well.

Sitting at the intersection of politics and spirituality, Obeah is considered the "magical art of resistance" for it allowed its practitioners and those that sought its aid, a sense of empowerment. Despite the constraints and violence of colonial rule, many of the practitioners were put into positions of power within their communities and were respected, and revered, by both their communities and the colonizers that feared the powers of Obeah.

Obeah is often understood to follow two, interrelated, paths in its practice:

The first path of Obeah is within the realms of the 'supernatural'— it involves the art of casting spells, the warding off of evil, the conjuring of luck and wealth, and the protection of one’s self and others. The colonizers recognized this path as more threatening, as it had the potential to harm them in retaliation for how they had been treating the slaves. This shift of power and fear is integral to understanding Obeah as a means of resistance.

The second path of Obeah concerns the medicinal properties of certain plants and animal products that could heal illnesses but were still considered outside of what at the time was considered ‘conventional’ medicine by the colonizers. This path was likely to have been influenced by the Indigenous peoples, who already had a knowledge of the medicinal nature of flora and fauna of the Caribbean landscape. It was generally seen as less threatening, but as evident in the Narrative of Hercules from A Voyage To the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S Christophers and Jamaica by Hans Sloane, it was the subject of mockery and ridicule.

The Spirit of Obeah [Image by Kelly Hawes]