"Bahamian Obeah"

Zorah Neale Hurston


This fragmentary description of hoodoo practices in the Bahamas is included here for comparative purposes. It was gathered on the island of New Providence, the island that is most under the influence of White civilization. Obeah there is very drastically suppressed by law, and is therefore difficult to know. A study of the outer islands would give much more material.

In the Bahamas, conjure is called by its West African name - obeah. The Bahamas look to Hayti as the mother of obeah, but Cat Island of the Bahamas is not without its fame.

The great one of Cat Island is Aunt Dangie Deveaux (pronounced Andangie Dewoe). She is said to have been able to boil a pot over a sail needle. She could throw her demijohn into the sea and send it straight to Nassau, a distance of more than ninety miles, have it filled and returned


exactly to the spot where she threw it in. She sent a coconut shell with a letter in it to the East End, (extreme eastern point of New Providence, the island on which Nassau, the capital, is situated).

On Cat Island, as in Hayti, the most powerful obeah people fly on Tuesday and Friday nights. They have fire in their tails when flying—like a ball of fire. Now and then you see the lights fly into each other. They are doing business then. Many of the merchants, butchers, etc., go flying to get more luck and prosperity. The next day, as you see them about their businesses, you'd never think they had been flying the night before to meet the obeah to get power.

The Zines.

The Zines correspond roughly to our spiritualists. At a session held for my benefit, the Zine threw water into the four corners of the house, a one-room affair, then lit a candle in the center of the room. It began at twelve noon. He talked to the candle and sang a song about a ship on the sea—a sort of tom-tom rhythm to the clap of his hands as he sang. When he was possessed. He ate glass, crockery and chewed a piece of wood. When he was fully possessed, he spoke. When he awakes he knows nothing of what went on. He is able to call at will the spirit he works with.


The Bahamian hag is the witch and vampire. Hags suck the blood out of babies. They abuse sleepers—sometimes kill them. They come to your bedside and tell you bad things. When you wake up, you think you had a bad dream. They send you to do evil. When they go hagging they slip out of their skins and fold them up. Then they can change to anything. But if salt and pepper is put in the skins while the hags are absent, they shrink and cannot be worn again. Then the hags die.

Human Sacrifice.

The idea of human sacrifice is widespread in the Bahamas. Suppose a merchant goes to an obeah for prosperity, or a politician for more power. The obeah performs the service. Perhaps the merchant is told to set a vessel on the floor in a certain room with a gold coin in it. He is told that somehow the vessel will always be full of gold. He finds it so and returns to the obeah to find out what he owes him.

He is told: “We want a cow without horns.” It means a human being is wanted for the sacrifice. It must be a loved one, either a relative or or a close friend. The method of presenting the victim is to approach him or her anywhere and lay your hand upon him and say: Don’t you want to go with me?” You have marked the victim and the spirits will see the mark. You have no more to do with the matter. The obeah will take him when he wills.


This sacrifice must be renewed every year on the same date. When no more dear ones are available, then you will be taken.

There is a story of a business man who made the sacrifice of friends and relatives for several years on Christmas, but one Christmas he got drunk and forgot to send the sacrifice, and the obeah took him. He died.

The sacrifice may be made in more ways than one. You may give the life of the victim, or his sanity, or his usefulness.

There is a story of one man who gave one son for prosperity, but when the next year came around he gave the sanity only of another because he couldn't bear to give him altogether.

The Use of the Human Body in Obeah.

Important organs of the dead body are used in obeah. No doubt with the watchful British government at hand these occurrences are rare. But I am told that occasionally babies are dug up and the organ desired is removed. On Cat Island a case of this kind has happened in the last few years. The body was not mutilated because the grave robbery was discovered too soon. The dance-song tells the story very accurately:

On a Thursday morning
Uncle Duck was going to Tea Bay.
He heard a rolling in the graveyard,
It sound to him like an evil.
Then he say, "Oh my! Johnny dig up Say-Dot
And he hide it in de wild pine,
Johnny dig up Say-Dot,
He hide it in de wild pine."

An Obeah Doctor.

A preliminary ceremony was held in a secluded woody ravine to to see if Simeon would see me. I had had to provide the properties: one rooster, six large candles, six small yellow wax candles, one quart white WI
one perfectly new earthen bowl, some good perfume, a picture of St. Antoine.
The rooster was blindfolded in the center surrounded by the candles in a large circle. The picture of St. Antoine was placed before the rooster. Water was sprinkled all around. I was required to kneel about one hundred feet to the left of the priest while he performed a rite to see if I would be accepted. I heard footsteps while the ceremony was going but saw no one. The next day I received word that Simeon would see me at ten o'clock.
At the appointed hour I am admitted to the little house. Soon the shutter of the small window is closed. Simeon, the obeah, squats on the floor. An assistant takes a glass of holy water and goes to the four


corners of the room and flicks a bit into the corner with a quick motion. He sprinkles the window to seal it against adverse spirits. At the door he sprinkles some at the edge on the door-knob side and at the crack of the hinge side. The bad ones are completely shut out.

The sacred articles are placed before the silent and motionless Simeon. First a large candle. Then the glass of sand sealed with candle grease, just as a housewife would seal jelly with paraffin. Then a small nub of a candle and lastly a small silver bell.

The candles ar lighted by the assistant who then withdraws into a corner of the room. Everything is very still for a minute or two. Then Samuel [sic] picks up the bell and rings it insistently for a moment and sets it down. He does this this three times, then waits a few minutes in motionless silence.

The bell is rung to call the spirits and we wait the answer. The rude altar is set and the great ones are invited to attend to give Simeon leave to teach me the wisdom they have taught him.

After a while he feels the presence. He picks up the stub of a candle and the glass of sand. He whirls the glass about and peers through it with the help of the candle. He circles the glass with the candle there times. Finally he turns to me.

“You want to know?”
“Yes, I have come a long way to learn."
“Well, first you must get dirt in glass like this."
“But how shall I get it ?"
Take money in your pocket. Go at twelve at night to a graveyard. Go to the first grave you reach. Take seven cents in your hand; say your prayers. Throw the seven cents to seven sides and say, 'Spirit, I come to work.”
“The spirit says, 'What do you want? Must I come to you or you come to me?”
“You say, ‘No, I come to you.' (It would be too awful and terrifying if the spirit left the grave and came to you.)
t”Spirit say, “What you want?’
“I want some dirt that I may work for others.'
“The spirit say, ‘All right, it cost you seven cents.'
“Then you throw the money and go in the cemetery. Next day, go again and put seven cents in a grave. Take some dirt from the head of the grave, some from the foot, some from the left side and some from the right side. Put in a plain glass and seal it with grease from a prepared candle. Use this always—look through it by circling it with the lighted candle in the other hand, and you will see what the spirits wish.

“When you go into the cemetery take a bottle of wine and a bottle of rum. Throw some of both to the east seven times. When you are through your work in there, wash your face and hands with rum and walk out. But never look back or you will stay there forever."


Simeon's teachings follow :
I. To fix a bottle: Six cents of guinea peppers, three cents of garlic, twelve cents of asafoetida, twenty-five cents of quicksilver, one-half-pint of Jamaica rum. Drink it. It will keep off all evil and make you vomit up all poisons, snakes and spiders, etc.
2. To guard your bed: Spread out salt all over your mattress before you put on the sheet, and no one will be able to harm your bed.
3. To guard your person:
a) Carry a little bag of garlic and brimstone on the person and it will safeguard you.
b) Put bluestone in your bath.
4. To break up a home: Scatter guinea peppers in the rooms.
5. To prevent anyone's harming you: Get up early in the morning and walk barefoot out of your house backwards into the road. Never look back. Pick up your tracks and walk forward into your house again and stop the tracks with sugar and rum and drink water, and no one can hurt you.
6. To cause another to sleep deeply: If the pad worn on the head to make loads easy to carry is placed under the pillow of a sleeper it will keep him asleep as long as you wish. You may walk about the room and be as noisy as you wish, but he will never wake until the cotta is removed
7. To prevent a person's return: When a person you do not to return is embarking, pick up his track and throw it into the sea behind him and he can never return.
8. To cause disease in your lover: If your husband or lover has been untrue and you wish to hurt him, suck a copper cent while you have intercourse with him and he will have syphilis that cannot be cured.
9. To catch a thief: Hang three sprigs of broomweed about the neck of the suspect and recite Psalm 50: 18, and if he is the guilty one it will choke him to death.
10. To kill an enemy: Set your altar table with black and white candles. Put a mirror in the center and a white basin of water and a sharp knife or dagger. Read the scripture "Plead my cause, O God, with them that strive against me. Fight against them that fight against me. Then the looking glass will show you your enemy, known or unknown.
When he appears, chop the water with the blade and it turns to blood in the basin. In two or three hours the enemy is dead.
11. To protect your fields from thieves: Get a bottle of special water from the obeah and tie it up a tree in the field, and anyone who steals from the garden will die.
12. To dismiss an evil spirit:
a) Get a white cock, cut off his head and catch the blood in a white bowl that has never been used before. Cook the fowl with rice and set a feast and invite the dead there to come to it. Have white candles burning in the four corners of the room. Set the bowl of blood in the west corner


beside the candle. Have a basin of pure water in the center of the room. When all is quite ready, call the spirit and dismiss him after he has eaten all he wants of the fowl and drunk as much as he wishes of the blood and water. Never dismiss a spirit' on an empty stomach.
b) Set the feast and invite him. Sometimes he comes in the form of a wind or a fly. Catch him in a bottle and take him out in a boat and dump him overboard.
13. To bind a lover to a place:
a) This for a girl: Let him look into a mirror but don't you look into it. Take it home. Smash it and bury it under the front steps and wet the spot with water. He cannot leave the place.
b) This is for a boy: Take three locks of her hair, throw one over your head, put one in your bosom, and one in the back of your watch. Then do the same thing with a mirror that the girl does and she is tied. You can’t undo this.
14. To swell the feet. Sprinkle graveyard dirt at the front gate of an enemy and when he walks in it, it will swell his feet.
15. Gambler's Luck: Put your cards or dice in the graveyard for nine days and ask the spirit to bless them. When you play with them, you can’t lose.
16. To kill: When the person wishes you to kill for them, they must bring you a young fowl that has never laid an egg, a large new candle, a pack of pins with different colored heads, and nine assorted candles. This must be passed into your sacred room before the person enters so that you may have the spirit bless them.
Dress the nine candles with rum and stick nine various colored pins in each, and dress the large candle in blood from the one who wants the work done. The fowl is set before the altar with its head under its wing. The person getting the work done sits opposite you. Read the scripture, Job 14:18--22. Let the client call the name of the victim seven times very fast as you light the candle, and dismiss the spirit of the victim from the flesh. "John Jones, you are gone forever from the flesh and bones and the places and people that know you. Amen." Send the person for whom you are working away. Tell him when he gets home to ask just as if he has been out of town for a while, "What has happened since I have been away ?" They will answer, "Sad news, John Jones is killed." The casualty will happen while you are going from his house to yours. The fee for this is five dollars.
17. There must be feasts for the spirits, for some once a month, for some every three months. Use plenty of perfume at these feasts.
18. Folk beliefs:
a) If you throw a black cat into the sea it will cause a great wind to rise.
b) If you throw a cooking pot into the sea it will cause a great wind to rise.


c) If you throw a louse into the sail it will cause a wind to rise.
d) If anybody looks into the pot where candy is being cooked the sugar will granulate.
e) If you put down an article with the left hand you will forget where you put it.
f) Only a barefoot track is good to work obeah with.
g) In getting graveyard dust, always get it from the grave of a friend otherwise it may do you great harm.