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 draws on elements of African religion and also reinterprets and "Africanizes" Christian practices. In some regions of the Caribbean, elements of Indigenous and south Indian religions have been incorporated into the practice as well.

Sitting at the intersection of politics and spirituality, obeah has been described as the "magical art of resistance" because it gave its practitioners and those that sought its aid a sense of empowerment in the face of oppression. Despite the constraints and violence of colonial rule, many obeah practitioners assumed positions of power within their communities and were respected and revered, by both their communities and European colonists who feared the power of obeah.

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

The first path falls within the realm 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 oneself and others. Colonists recognized this path as threatening to their control of enslaved peoples, given that this supernatural power was often wielded in the name of retaliation for violence against enslaved Africans. This shift of power and fear is integral to understanding obeah as a means of resistance.

The second (related) path of obeah concerns medical authority and involves the knowledge and use of certain plants and animal products to heal illnesses, albeit in a manner not given credence by European colonials. This set of knowledge practices was likely influenced by Indigenous Caribbeans, who had a deep knowledge of the medicinal nature of the flora and fauna of the Caribbean. This aspect of obeah was generally seen as less threatening than its supernatural force, 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 among European writers.

The Spirit of Obeah [Image by Kelly Hawes]