Ten, Ten The Bible Ten : Obeah in the Bahamas
Dr. Timothy McCartney
Obeah is practised on an individual (or one-to-one) basis and, as previously explained, differs from remnants of African religious or cultic practises that are still evident in the Caribbean today (e.g. Shango, Santeria, Voodoo). However, basic methods of Obeah practise and the utilization of various components of "supernatural" powers, have much in common with the superstitious aspect of some of those African religions. (Comparisons will be given).
With the great influx of Haitian immigrants to the Bahamas, there has been a syncretisation of Obeah practises and voodoo beliefs, notwithstanding European superstitions. This chapter will describe actual Obeah practises, and give some examples of the methods utilised by the Bahamian practitioners of Obeah.
(I Fixing) *
* Fixing will be more fully explored in the section on Obeah & Medicine. Chapter V.
(a) Black Magic—Using the powers of the Devil or, commonly termed, "witchcraft". An Individual can gain power himself without any help from external sources, except reading special books and literally "selling one's soul to the Devil"!
The following books are mostly used in Bahamian Black Magic practice: Seven Steps to Power; Black Guard; Seven Keys to Power and Master Key.
Here is an example of Bahamian Black Magic for someone trespassing on a person's property:
From a comparative point of view, the following is a voodoo practice to protect a field from evil influences:
In Haiti, cock fighting is legal and a great tourist attraction. There is a Black Magic prayer to aid fighting cocks.37
NOTE: The most external sign of Bahamian property protection
is the bottle hanging in the trees. Many years ago, this was a common
sight throughout the Bahamas, but now is seen infrequently. One magnificent
example can be found by the parking lot of the City Market Maderia and
Rosetta Streets. The Obeah flag (black background with a red cross in
the form of the Roman numeral "X") is also placed for protection.
See such a flag on a field on Prince Charles Drive next to St. Augustine's
"Great Saint, King Gaspard, in the company of all other chiefs of ghosts, allow that by means of the great Belzebuth's weapon, my adversary be defeated. Amen!" Before going to the fight, it is necessary to light a candle in the name of Agrippa.
In Black Magic, not only is the Devil used, but all the "demons"
or "imps" can be called upon or those personalities from the
Bible who were against God or died as a result of defying God.
White Magic is, evidently, more powerful than Black Magic. For example, a combination of a fix and curse, by utilising Black Magic, can be clemd (cured) by White Magic.
If the individual who is cursed by White Magic goes to the curser and asks forgiveness, and the White Magic practitioner does not accept his apologies, then the curse will revert to the curser.
There are definite rules to follow before one can practise White Magic.*
(1) One has to carefully examine one's conscience and, preferably, be
converted to Christ (i.e. become a devout Christian).
The following is an example of how White Magic can be used to cure alcoholism, viz:
* These rules were obtained from a Cat Island Obeah practitioner.
In Haiti, a voodoo practise that resembles Obeah White Magic, for protection from guns, is cited: 38
"God of Heaven and of the Earth, immortal and invisible King, everything trembles at your name. May I, by myself, be not vanquished, but victor. Amen." Every Friday, as a charity, give the poor four cents.
An important observation about magic was made by John W. Vandercook 39 in 1927, after a visit to Surinam; he wrote:
"Magic is the great reality of the jungle. We northern races, when we think of magic, see a vaudeville performer with a pack of marked cards. Magic is trickery, sleight of hand, legerdemain. It is serio-comic foolery. Magic to us is the thinnest stuff in the world - the semblance of empty illusion. We must forget all that in the tropic forests. There, magic is the vital craft of survival. In a land where a locomotive turns to dust, where all the science of Europe is empty and will avail nothing, against the powers of the jungle, magic developed through a thousand, thousand years has taught the negro how to live, how to meet the terrors of the manifold deaths that lurk always amid the immutable silence of the trees. It is the most serious, most important thing in the black man's world…
Jungle magic is never for effect. It is purposeful, studied. When famines, pestilences and evils come upon the forest people, it is magic that wards them off. It deals with things – with medicines, potions and ideas—which, in the forest, are more real than steel and far more dangerous. Magic saves. Then it is White. Magic kills. Then it is Black. It is the science of the jungle.
The way of an enemy is never direct. The mysterious ways of jungle death are the only ways down which death comes. Sometimes a bush negro, out of jealousy, anger, or fear, wishes another dead. So he sets his fetishes against his enemy, invokes the "Winti' of the bush to set upon and destroy him. It is dangerous business, for the murderer knows that in time he will, himself, be almost inevitably destroyed. But there are stronger passions even than fear. The spirits of evil are set in action. The one against whom they are working learns of his mortal danger. He attempts propitiation, seeks to make his protective fetishes stronger than the destructive fetishes of his enemy. But almost surely, sooner or later, he dies, and his family knows that he has been murdered. That is the forest way."
The majority of Obeah practitioners in the Bahamas utilise the method of White Magic for "fixing."
(11) Cutting the Cards
* NOTE: What a pity that this has not been found to be
effective. because we would be able to get rid of the alcoholic unit at
Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre (the local mental hospital)
There is a distinction between ordinary "playing cards" that are mostly used by the general population and another type of cards, "tarot cards," that are used by the more sophisticated Bahamian Obeah practitioner. The ordinary "playing cards" number fifty-two, the "tarot cards" number twenty-one, and are used solely for purposes of divination. There is another card in the tarot card deck, the "fool", which becomes a very powerful and dominant card when one is foretelling the future, as the indication supported by the "fool" is certain to be active, and therefore, must influence, or even suppress, all other indications.
"Associated with a good card, the Fool is strong enough to carry you through much evil; times may prove troublous, but you will pull clear before long. On the other hand, if the Fool is attached to a bad card, any sign of good fortune, thrown by the other cards, will not be strong enough to save you from the threatened trouble, though they may modify it to some extent. 40
Spades denote loss, privation of any sort, things in their ultimate issues. The suit is capable of many inflexions, however, and, like the Diamonds, shines only by the reflected light of the accompanying cards. Hence, a run of Spades has no light in it at all, and is sinister and ominous in the extreme. The position of the cards, The Four Aces,, the seven answers, dealing the cards by sevens or fifteens, the great figure of fate, etc., are some of the methods used in cartomancy. The use of playing cards, or tarot cards in Obeah practise is the infiltration of European superstitious practise, as it is the popular belief that cards were invented in order to amuse King Charles VI of France, at a time when he was mentally unstable. It is a fact, however, that cards were used in the Eastern world in very ancient days. Cards may have been a game originally, but as known by the gypsies and Eastern occultists, they were only used for the purposes of divination or fortune telling.
The essential feature in cutting the cards, or Cartomancy, is that the person whose future is to be read must, in some way, influence matters when he "cuts" the cards. This gives the Obeah person, who shuffles them, the ability to read and foretell by this personal contact. In the normal playing cards, the value of the four suits is, briefly, as follows: 41
Diamonds denote life in general, and, for this reason, are largely dominated
by the accompanying cards.
( III) Clairvoyance
40. SEPHARIAL, "The Art of Card Fortune Telling".
W. Foulsham & Co. Ltd.. London 1958. Pg. 11.
A common Bahamian practise of clairvoyance is used, as an example, to detect a thief: If you suspect someone of stealing, although there is no positive proof, then the following method can be used:
The following story was told to me by a pastor of a local religious
faith who spent his
One day, one of the brothers missed a very valuable watch from his home
The family situation deteriorated and, in desperation, she decided to give the voodoo priest a try.
My friend, the pastor, accompanied his grandmother to the voodoo priest,
whom he described as being "crafty looking" and living in a
small dilapidated house with rooms filled with bottles of various liquids,
bones of some types and bits and pieces of "all kinds of junk"!
He and his mother were ushered into a very small room and they sat on
the floor and the grandmother related what had happened. The voodoo priest
then got a large saucepan, took down a bottle with same clear liquid,
and poured it into the saucepan. He then stood up, went to a comer of
the room and started mumbling and chanting in a language that my friend
could not understand. He soon, dramatically, returned to where he and
his grandmother were sitting, and asked them to look into the saucepan.
To my friend's and his grandmother's horror, they saw
Needless to say, a thorough search of this man's home found the
watch and he was t
My pastor friend, who is a man of great intelligence, with the highest integrity, insists that this story not only is true, but since that time, it was the common practise of this voodoo priest to assist the police with their investigations!
(IV) Calling the Spirit or Necromancy
The Obeah practitioner may be mediumistic, in that they are the mediators between the real and the spirit world. "Calling the Spirit" is a ritualistic form of Obeah practise to either obtain knowledge that can be utilised for good or evil. The Obeah practitioner that has the power to manipulate a spirit, can send a spirit to possess a person (e.g. possession) or haunt (hag) a house or property.
From time immemorial, man has tried to find means of communicating with the dead and the spirit world. Necromancy, the art of "calling the dead," is universal and goes back to earliest antiquity.
Obeah practitioners often support their claim by relating the Biblical story of Saul, who, through the intermediary of a pythoness (medium-witch), conjured up the spirit of Samuel, who foretold that King Saul would soon die.
Belief in the spirit world and ancestor worship are strong components of African belief, and although there is no evidence in Bahamian literature which suggests that Bahamian slaves ever practised any ancestral cultic worship, the belief in ghosts or spirits was, and still is, widespread among the population.
MacLachlan Bell 42 made there observations: "Some of the black inhabitants along the coast of Andros are very fearsome about venturing inland in the stretch of black country behind Coakley Town. They believe that 'spirits' of harmful intent abide in that feared territory. Therefore, outside of their huts, you will find, tied to trees, a variety of bottles and pans containing charms to ward off evil beings."
The common word in the Bahamas for any form of ghost (or spirit) is "sperrid." Sperrids can be found anywhere, but in Bahamian tradition, they like to reside in the very large silk cotton trees that abound in the Bahamas. This belief, no doubt, came directly from Africa, and appears to be the survival of some form of animism, as many African tribes venerate the cotton tree. Although there is no evidence of Bahamian negroes ever worshipping the silk cotton tree, it was and still is feared as the habitation of sperrids.
Bahamian sperrids get up to all kinds of mischief—they haunt houses, hag people, influence human habits (good or evil) or scare the hell out of you!
Bahamian sperrids appear to wander around "willy nilly," but only the Obeah practitioner can "call," "control" and utilise the sperrids to effectuate good deeds or evil deeds.
This is a direct remnant of the Bahamian's African Heritage and the maintenance of African belief. African peoples are aware of a Mystical Power in the universe. This power is ultimately from God, but in practice it is inherent in, or comes from or through physical objects and spiritual beings. That means that the universe is not 'static' or 'dead', it is a dynamic, "living" and powerful universe.
Access to this Mystical Power is hierarchical in the sense that God
has the most and absolute control over it; the spirits and the living
dead have portions of it; and some human beings know how to tap, manipulate
and use some of it. Each community experiences this force or power as
useful and therefore acceptable, neutral or harmful and therefore evil.
On the credit side, Mystical Power is employed for curative, protective,
productive and preventive purposes; for this reason, Africans wear, carry
or keep charms, amulets and a variety of other objects, on their bodies,
in their possession , homesteads and fields. Medicine men and diviners
are the main dealers in the use, manufacture and distributor of these
articles of 'medicine' or power. On
42. BELL, Major H. MacLachlan. "Isles of June. U.S.A..
1934. Pg. 147.
cause misfortunes and make life uncomfortable. The witches, wizards, sorcerers, evil magicians and people with an evil eye, are those who employ this power for anti-social and harmful activities.
Mbiti, an African Anglican Priest continues "a good number of people spend large amounts of wealth to obtain access to this power. Expert users spend years to acquire their knowledge and skill some of which is obviously secret and unknown to outsiders, such experts have their own 'science' in dealing with this mystery of the universe. There are reports of fantastic experiences and phenomena attributed to this Mystical Power; and some of them defy both repetition and explanation by means of modem science. The subject of Mystical Power, magic, sorcery or witchcraft, with all the beliefs that accompany it, has other dimensions besides the religious. There are social, psychological and economic aspects which add to the complexity of discussing and, understanding this subject."
"Calling the Spirit" has ritual aspects and is the most expensive practise of the Obeah person and can be very dangerous, especially in causing mental illness. This practise has been described to me by a Cat Island Obeah man. The following is a summary of this:
(1) Limitation to this ritual is only three persons.
(3) Individuals must arrive at the cemetery at eleven o'clock so the
ceremony can begin precisely at twelve midnight.
In Haiti, there is a "culte des morts," a cult of the dead,
that practises neither human
certain dwell in the bodies of the dead, when either eaten, or parts of the dead body rubbed on living bodies or objects, special qualities like courage, immunity (as in eating the heart) or protection from bullets (as in rubbing the brains on a rifle), will be imparted. Many methods are used to "call the spirit" in Haiti, but a formula was found on the body of a Haitian general, Benoit Batraville, on May 9, 1920 that gave the following instructions 43 for calling up spirits: "Having at a crossroads at midnight on a Friday, get a candle made of honey wax, or tallow, and swallow's liver, which you will light on that comer in the name of Belzebuth, saying 'Belzebuth, I am calling you to me in order that you may acquaint me with (such and such a thing) this very moment!' You will then fire one shot, the gun to be loaded with incense and dirt, putting the dirt on top of the counter load. Fire to the east saying: 'Upon the thunder's rumbling, may all kings of the earth kneel down. May Puer, Agrippa, Berke, Astaroth, spare me. Amen!'
To call up the actual dead person: 'Go to a cemetery on a Friday night at midnight. Go to a man's grave, taking along with you a white candle, one leaf of wild acacia, and a fully loaded gun. On arrival you will make this appeal: 'Exurgent mortui et acmo vennient. I require of you dead that you come to me.' After saying these words you will hear a stormy noise; do not take fright, and then fire one shot. The dead will appear to you. You must not run away, but walk backwards three steps, saying three times these words: "I besprinkle you with incense and myrrh such as perfumed Astaroth's tomb.'
To send the dead back after it has been called, pick up a handful of cemetery dirt which should be thrown to the four comers of the grave, saying, 'Go back from where you came, from dirt you were created, to dirt you may return. Amen!' "
Bahamians are afraid, generally, of sperrids and, especially cemeteries and especially at nights. A rather amusing, but tragic, tale comes from the island of Exuma:
Two men were at a bar bragging about bravery. One said to the other,
"Bet you $5 you won't go in the graveyard after midnight."
After midnight, the man went to the graveyard and started nailing down the piece of wood. The other man was curious, so he quietly sneaked under a tamarind tree to watch his friend and see what was happening. In the meantime, the man in the graveyard, heard a noise and noticed something under the tamarind tree, at the same time not really noticing how he was nailing the wood to the stone. The man was finished his nailing, and still keeping his eye on the shadow under the tamarind tree, he got up to leave, and not realising that he had nailed his shirt to the grave, he was immediately jerked back.
"Oh, Lord, sperrid got me—oh, Lord, sperrid got me!"
With that, he got such a fright that he suffered a massive heart attack and died on the spot.
The Bahamian believes that to protect oneself from a sperrid, all one has to say is "Ten, Ten the Bible Ten;" and if one wants to actually see a sperrid, one has only to remove some 'bibby' *
43. SEABROOK, W. B. op. cit. Pgs. 308-309.
from a dog's eye and put it into their eyes and they will have the gift of seeing sperrid. Horses also see sperrids, so their 'bibby' will help you also.
(V) Palmistry or Chiromancy
This method is by reading the palm of the hand to tell the future.
Having been practised by the nations of classical antiquity, chiromancy was quickly developed by the gypsies into a tribal specialty for themselves. "Interpretations .were often corroborated by the predictions of astrology. By the 17th century, the 'general scheme' of the hand was duly established. Since the character is expressed through movement, it was natural that the hand, the most supple organ, came to be considered as capable of expressing the character of the individual. "44
The Bahamian Obeah practitioner evidently copied this from his European counterpart, as this practise is not indigenous to Africa, although it is now also practised there.
The fact that chiromancy is quick, and without any embellishments, is the least expensive service that the Obeah practitioner has to offer, and seemingly, less threatening to the individual.
(VI) Working Witch
This term is based on the tradition that an individual can buy or hire a witch to do its bidding.
Working Witch is an older term for "working obeah" and was used mostly in the Island of Cat Island.
Anyone could buy or hire a witch, but it was very expensive.
Some Cat Islanders would go to South America to work and save their money. They would return home, then go to Haiti (presumably the only island where one could obtain a witch) to get their witch.
Some of these witches were shaped round like a ball, with numerous legs—and looked like a sea egg (sea urchin). Many 'eyes' were alleged to be placed on each leg, with a wide mouth in the centre. These eyes could see anything and look through anything.
These witches only live on and eat eggs, but they have to be dark eggs.
The most popular witches, however, were animals like the snake, rat and rabbit.
A snake witch was extremely expensive, so much so that the owner of a snake witch would "will" or "sell" it to another person. The 'snake-witch' was a short, thick snake and was always distinguishable with a ribbon around the neck. This snake could swim for long distances, get on a ship or plane to "fix" people in distant lands if need be. It also had the power to go “inside” people—eating their insides so that eventually the 'fixed individual' would have a high fever, start to have convulsions (fits) then waste away and die.
Many pregnant women who became fixed with a snake would lose their babies, or the snake would go inside them, eat the foetus and then nine months after would be born in place of the baby.
44. BESSY, Maurice, "A Pictorial History of Magic
and the Supernatural." Spring Book. London 1964. Pg. 55.
There are very many obeah stories that attest to women being pregnant and then giving birth to snakes. Many reputable people, and Bahamian midwives would 'swear-on-the-Bible' that they have seen snakes come out of women.
Rat witches were also notorious for the havoc that they waged on agricultural fields and barns.
Rabbit witches usually were 'hired' for good deeds or to obtain wealth.
Today in the Bahamas, the old timers still threaten to 'work witch on ya.'
(VII) Bush Medicine.
The widespread use of bushes, herbs and barks extends back into the pre-history of the entire world. Many medicines and remedies that are now used in medicine and pharmacy had their counterparts thousands of years ago. However, today, most drugs are synthetic and are made in the laboratory. Medicine from the earth, or bush medicine, is still a very important part of Bahamian life and is utilised by all ethnic types. Most Bahamian herbalists have nothing to do with Obeah and use local bushes and barks strictly for preventative and healing purposes, sexual potency and longevity. Poultices and salves are used, also other food products such as lard, olive oil, kerosene, salt pork, onion, garlic, etc. and they provide an exciting supplement to local remedies.
With this present research, the majority of Obeah individuals use bush medicine as part of their practice; in fact, the more effective practitioners rely very heavily on their knowledge of this art.
Many writers of the Bahamian scene, have taken great pains to describe some of these herbalists. * Northcroft 45 observed that "Many wild plants have medicinal properties, some valuable for export and others known only tn the bush doctor or Obeah man." He went on to describe the "Manchineal" as the "chief of the poisonous trees that grow in these parts. Eating crabs who have fed on its leaves generally have fatal results. It takes the skin off animals who rub against it, or when heated, lie under it. Its milky juice, dropped on the skin, bums like the poisoned shirt of 'Nessus'. It is said to furnish the poison used in the mysterious bottles of the Obeah man."
All herbs have qualities which link them with certain values. The Obeah person believes that plants absorb the cosmic properties of the sun, moon and planets and whether they are taken internally, used as a poultice or worn as a fetish or amulet, they convey to you the desired results. The occult magic of bush medicine is almost unlimited and is supposed to give the individual excellent physical, mental and emotional health which can be acquired in no other way. The rose, for example, is the international flower of love. The petals of the rose may be steeped and tea made, sachets made, or it may be pressed in a book dealing with love.
The most comprehensive book on bush medicine + in the Bahamas has been written by the well-known Bahamian "Roving Gardener," Mrs. Leslie Higgs. The foreword to this book was written by a respected Bahamian physician, Dr. Paul Poad. Bush medicine and native healers are accepted methods and practise also in the other West Indian islands. Bell 46 describes bush medicine and Obeah in the West Indies:
"The darker and more dangerous side of Obeah is that portion under cover of which poison is used to a fearful extent; and the dangerous and often fatal effects of many a magic draughts are simply set down by the superstitious black, to the working of the spells of Obeah, and never to the more simple effects of the scores of poisonous herbs growing in every pasture and which may have formed the ingredients of the Obeah mixture. Owing to the defective state of the laws relating to declaration of deaths and inquests, it is to be feared that very many deaths occur from poisoning , which are set down to a cold or other simple malady."
The original Obeah practitioner was such an expert herbalist, that this aspect was part of the rationale for laws against Obeah practise. Bell 47 continues:
"Fifty or sixty years ago, the practise of Obeah, being the cause of so much loss of slave property by poisoning, it was found necessary to enact the most stringent laws for its repression, and an important ordinance was passed in all the West Indian colonies imposing heavy penalties on any person found guilty of dealing in Obeah. Unfortunately, through the knowledge possessed by some of the old negroes of numerous poisonous bushes and plants,
More detail with regard to bush medicine will be given when the psycho-social aspect of Obeah with reference to medicine is discussed in Chapter V.
45.NORTHCROFT, G.J.H., "Sketches of Summerland",
Nassau Guardian Publication, 1900, pages 161 and 165.
unknown to medicine, but found in every tropical wood, it is to be feared that numerous deaths might still be traced to the agency of these Obeah men. The secret and insidious manner in which this crime is generally perpetrated makes detection exceedingly difficult."
From a comparative point of view, voodoo superstition and bush medicine is used in Haiti, for example, Do relieve a woman from child birth pains: 48
"Make a tea of the following mixture: dirt from the four corners of the house and the following leaves: Pains cutter, called Verbena, Abra Homa, called Elm Wood. Write the woman's baptismal name and her usual name on a parchment, or ordinary paper, the ashes of which must be nixed with the tea. This being done, before giving her the tea, go to the rear of the house and, facing the east, call her three time; there will be no reply to the first and second calls, but there must be a reply to the third. Soon afterward, give her the mixture. She will certainly be relieved. If the child is a boy, name him Emmanuel, if a girl, name her Anna."
One of the most famous Bahamian concoctions that males rely on, is the following bush tonic for virility.
(1) Gather the following from the bush:
(2) If any one of these bushes cannot be readily obtained, one can substitute
either "old man" or "old woman."
Many of my friends swear that after drinking this tonic they had more "lead in their pencil" than at any time in their life. If this, in fact, "works" (and who am I to dispute an individual's virility,) then the Bahamas could cultivate a whole new "export" item!
48. SEABROOK. N.B., op. cit.