Ten, Ten The Bible Ten : Obeah in the Bahamas
Dr. Timothy McCartney
Stories, superstitions and beliefs abound in the Bahamas and like all countries where there is human habitation, the traditions and stories, either by word of mouth, passed on from generation to generation or written, make up the colourful expression of people everywhere. This chapter compiles some of the popular lore of the Bahamas and by no means covers the totality of the Bahamian experience. Many of these stories are found in other parts of the world although there may be many variations on the themes. This is not unusual because the 'lore' of Africa counted with the Euro-American influence portrays the acculturation of the many ethnic groups found in the islands.
Because of the change of life style of Bahamians, unless these stories are written down, they will soon be lost forever. In the 'old days', most families did not have television or radio, and they were self entertaining.
"As night set in there would be gradual change of positions with more adults joining in as the chillen fell into the background and slowly edged towards a step or fallen branch on which they sit while they defied sleep." 1
Many tales were told to me by my Paternal Grandmother either when we visited Eleuthera or when she would visit Nassau. My Mother also told many tales of the islands to me as she used to rock me to sleep—of course when the seven other children came I couldn't enjoy my private 'rocking' any more and had to content myself to lie on the bed, 'scared like hell' at the ghost stories that she vividly related.
"The ghost tales told to us as children would comprise the world's largest collection as these were told in conjunction with the etiological tales, all children. believed that ghosts, spirits, and chiccharneys existed, they were evil, and they got you if you were naughty. Nobody took chances by daring their parents or the ghosts. It never entered one's head to prove whether they existed or not because there was no hope of returning from wherever you were taken as a result of naughtiness. Life was simple but good to children of that era and no one wanted to go to any place of no return." 2
The boggaman * was often used to get us to do what our parents wanted us to do or "he'll catch you." Also 'Jack-mi-Lantern', with glowing eyes and teeth caused many a fright!
Various aspects of life therefore, will be explored, with the many tales, superstitions and beliefs surrounding them.
The Bahamian people believe in dreams, and are not hesitant to place an interpretation on their dream content. The most popular interpretations of Bahamian dreams are death,
1. Ford, Dorothy "New World Groups: Bahamians"
1971. Nassau Guardian, page 17.
marriage, forebodings of evil things or to win money especially in playing numbers or during the race track season when interpretation of numbers are important for winning. Dream manuals can be brought anywhere and people take their dreams very seriously.
Since one cannot dream without sleeping, there are also many superstitions about sleeping. For example, if a man finds himself suddenly and constantly sleeping during the day, and there is no sickness, his relatives and friends conclude that his wife and/or sweetheart is pregnant.
Dreams have influenced the history of the world. The Bible is rich with the influence of dreams. Joseph was called "The Dreamer". Jacob dreamed about a ladder going into Heaven. Joel II verse 28 claims that "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions."
Then, too, many dreams are found in literature. "A Mid Summer Night's Dream" by Shakespeare is well known in the Bahamas, and John Bunyan's dream that perpetuated "The Pilgrims' Progress" has been recognized as one of the world's great masterpieces.
Finally, dreams became part of the rehabilitative process in the exciting field of Psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud formulated the theory of dreams being the manifestation of the unconscious desires beliefs, etc., and play an important role in the technique of psychoanalysis where dreams symbolism aids in the interpretation and diagnosis of the individual's problem.
The following dream material are commonly used in the Bahamas:
CARDS. To dream about cards or one playing cards or
gambling signifies that he is in danger of losing his property. If he
can recognize who he is playing cards with then he is his enemy.
CAT. Dreams of cats, signify a thief. If a cat
has scratched him, then he will have sickness. For women to dream of cats
signifies a person of loose morals.
PAPER. This means a quarrel especially with husband
* Bahamian for being envious.
TWINS (OR MORE THAN TWO CHILDREN). To dream of
having twins or more than two children is a sign to a woman that she will
be pleasantly surprised by good news. Often it is from a former boyfriend
that she used to love very much.
* Opening an umbrella inside a house is a sign of bad
luck. Oftimes someone who lives in the house can die because of this.
WINGS. Dreaming about wings or flying means that the person wants to escape from responsibilities.
There are also good luck dreams, and bad luck dreams (many of these have already been mentioned) and many love dreams. Some Good Luck Dreams are dreams about abdomen (stomach), adultery, advice, adding machines, accordion (or concertina), anchor, angels, apples, the month of April, asparagus, babies, bananas, bathing, beating, bees, books, butter, butterflies, cars, candy, carrots, castle, cattle, celery, cemetery, cheques, children, Christmas, chocolate, clock, clouds, coins, concert, copper, cotton, coughing, crowd, crying, &, dancing, deafness, dew ('draft'), dirt, disappointment, dishes, diving, doctor, donkey, dress, driving, drugstore (pharmacy), drums, drawer, earrings, eating, eggs, election, elephant, elevator, emerald, entertainment, escape, eyes, face, failure, family, fan, farm, fat, feathers, fence, fight, fire, flags, friends, frogs, fruit, gale (storm), games, garlic, gloves, goats, golf, grapes, grass, guitar, guineps, herds, harvest, hat, home, hominy (grits), hymns, ice cream, incense, itch, jewels, jockey, jumping, kettle, kick, kissing, kite, knife, knitting, lace, ladder, lamps, love, lard, leaves, legs, license, light, linen, lobster, manure, matches, milk, mangoes, moon, mosquitoes, mustard, napkins, next, newspapers, nuts, oars, onions, oranges, orchestra, organ, pain, parents, paint, plums (hog plums or scarlet plums), pearls (especially conch pearls), peas, pencil, pepper (especially goat pepper), perfume, piano, picnic, pigeon, pills, pipe, play, postage stamp, purse, quarrel, rainbow, rake, rat, ring, rosary, roses, sadness, sailing, sausage, saw, scald, school, sea, sheep, shirt, shy, soup, spear, spider, stamps, starch, sugar, sunrise and sunset, soursop, sugar apple, swimming, table, tangerine, tears, tent, thimble, thread, tobacco, tomatoes, tamarind, toys, trees, trunk, uniforms, vase, village, virgin, voyage, wages, waist, warts, weeping, well, wreath, wine, yacht, yolk (of an egg.)
Some Bad Luck Dreams are dreams about abandonment, accounts, acid, aches, airplane, altar, ankle, ants, apes, arch, archbishops, arm, arrest, aunt, axe, baby, back, bag, baldness, ball, baptism, barroom, baseball, bathing, bats, beans, bread, bed, beer, beggar, belly, bench, betting, birth, biscuits, bishops, bite, bleeding, blotting, bones, boom, brandy, breasts, breath, bridge, broom, burglar, buying, cabbage, camera, candy, cards, cars, castor oil, cemetery, chair, chalk, chase, christening, church, cigar, coffin, corkscrew, cradle, cripple, crossroads, curtains, cut, cymbals, dagger, debt, dentist, desk, dessert, detective, dictionary, digging, disease, disguise, dominoes, drums, drunkenness, dummy, dwarf, dying, eating, echo, eclipse, election, elevator, execution, fainting, falling, father, feet, fever, fingernails, fire engine, fish net, fits, golf, groceries, guns, hammer, handcuffs, hat, hatchet, hate, hearse, horns, hospital, hurricane, hypocrisy, idol, incest, indigestion, infant, injury, ink, insects, intestines, invalid, iron, itch, jam, jelly, jewellery, judge, June, joy, keyhole, kitchen, knitting, knocking, lamp, lard, laundry, lawsuit, lawyer, leather, lettuce, lice, limes, liquor (or liqueur), lumber, luxury, lying, macaroni, magician, magistrate, map, market, mat, measles, medicine, mice, minister, morgue, mother-in-law, mud, murder, museum, nagging, neighbour, newspaper, noise, nose, nutmegs, olives, omelet, organ, owl, pail, paint, parsley, peas, peppermint, pigpen, pills, pot, powder, procession, pudding, pulpit, pushing, puzzle, quilt, raccoon, raisins, rape, razor, ribbons, ringworm, rubber, running, rust, sand, shaving, sieve, sapodilla, skull, smallpox, sneezing, soap, sodawater, soda, biscuits, sponge, spots, stammering, seaweed, shark (Jaws!), steak, switch, syringe, tailor, tapeworm, taxicab, thatched roof, thumb, toast, trousers, turtle, twine, uncle, undressed, varnish, vomit, wedding, writing, wasp, yawning.
It is useful to note that an individual dreams every night, whether it is remembered or not. There has been a lot of research done with regard to dreaming and dream researchers can now accurately map dream trips, tell when we dream, how often, why some dreams are remembered and why many are forgotten.
To the Bahamian, dreams take on an almost religious aura, and even the most sophisticated Bahamian still feels uneasy if he dreams something that is supposed to be a bad omen.
Other aspects of Bahamian beliefs and interpretations are found under the following:
(a) Pregnancy and Birth
When a woman is pregnant many things indicate this:
If the woman has a child and the child bends forward and looks between his legs, then a baby is on the way—the pregnant woman suddenly "craves" unusual things, e.g. somethings like tamarinds, guineps or gooseberries; gritty things like sand, chalk, limestone, charcoal, etc—if a lizard jumps on a woman and doesn't run off, she is pregnant—when a woman's mouth begins to have an unusual amount of saliva and she begins to spit often are good signs. When a woman is pregnant, and she knows that there are certain people that don't like her, she should be careful that they don't cross the baby on her stomach. If she feels that someone has crossed her or is working obeah on her during pregnancy, she must get some bird pepper and cask rum, mix the two together and drink it. She should also use this mixture and rub it on her stomach after each bath.
While pregnant, a woman must be careful not to look at ugly things (e.g. warts, hunchbacks, etc.) or else the child will come out like what she has seen. She should by all means touch beautiful things, especially "good" (long, straight) hair (implications of negative values!)
If a young girl gets pregnant for a married man and his wife threatens to "cross" the baby and so either stop its birth or cause the baby to become deformed:.
The effects of this mixture are twofold:
To tell the sex of the baby is to look at the pregnant woman's stomach. A nice rounded stomach, fairly high up toward the chest is a sure indication of a boy. If the stomach is pointed (sharp) and is way down towards the cervix, then it is supposed to be a girl. No matter how her stomach is shaped, if she walks over a vine (pumpkin or watermelon) the baby will be healthy. "If you want to know if your first child will be a boy or girl, you can try one of the practices of Mangrove Cay, Andros. It has worked for many people living there so try it! First you write down your name and your wife's name, e.g.
if your Christian name ends with an s or your surname, you add an s. e.g.
you now pair the letters of your names with the first people in the Bible, Adam and Eve
A = Adam, E = Eve
this ends in 'A', therefore it is a boy. If the pairing or matching ends in A the child is a boy, E the child is a girl” 3
There is also taboo with children conceived by brother and sister or first cousin marriages. Children born of these unions are bound to go crazy (mentally ill) or go blind. After a child is born, it is customary to bury the navel string in the parents' yard so that the children will always have a strong home base. Bahamian women who have babies in hospital request that they be given the 'naval string' so that they can bury it in their yard when they leave the hospital. When the baby has been weaned, for a woman to suppress lactation, she should squeeze milk from the breast with a container, and bum it on a fire. The milk will dry from the breast and the breast will shrink. When the woman wants to ensure that she is healthy and to test for sugar in the urine, she should urinate outside in the yard and leave it overnight. If ants are around her urine the next day, then she has sugar in the urine.
When a woman is pregnant and suspects that she will have a dangerous confinement or a premature delivery, she may consult an obeah practitioner for advice. One common obeah practice as told to me by one of my obeah consultants is the following:
3. WHYLLY, H.C. "Superstitions of the Bahamas" San Salvador Teachers' College July 1972. Ministry of Education and Culture, Nassau, Bahamas).
The prayer that the obeah practitioner will say is as follows:
To determine the number and the sex of children, a woman may have, —take a threaded needle and rub it up and down on the clenched outer palm of hand, then open hand and hold needle in centre of palm. If the needle moves in a circle, it is a girl, if it moves in a crosswide position or up and down, it's a boy. Do this until the needle stops, then you'll know the number and the sex of children. *
Probably the most common way to determine how many children a woman is a capable of having is to look at the left hand clenched and look at the number of lines running down the side from the little finger.
The number of moles on a woman's face will indicate her potential for
A restless child or a "crybaby" child can be calmed if an open Bible turned to Psalm XXVIII is placed on the bed under a pillow. If a black string were tied around a baby's waist, it would protect them from sperrids. If a child is 'plagued with worms,' pick some shepherds' needle, boil and steep it, then them give about 1/4 of a glass of this mixture to drink. This will get rid of the worms.
I can remember a cure that my Grandmother used for pains in the stomach. She used to lay me flat on my back, then smoke a pipe and take some spittle and put around the navel and blow the pipe's smoke around the navel while rubbing the stomach slowly. I swear, this used to work for me every time. When I had a high fever one time, she bathed me in stale pee, then warmed some lard in rum, then rubbed me down with this mixture. It broke the fever even though I was smelling like a urinal!
When a baby (or young child) has the hiccups, spit on a wet brown piece of paper, then place it on the forehead of the child.
If a child is having problems teething, get a piece of a cock's (rooster's) comb, rub it around the child's gums, then give it back to the cock to eat, the pain will soon disappear.
When a child has sores or gets chicken pox, the leaves of the white elder or the sage bush is boiled. The child when bathed in this mixture will soon have the sores dried up.
It is not good to tickle a child too much because it would grow up with a stammer.
If a child's hair is cut too soon his speech will never be clear and he will suffer from this impediment all his
* We have played this game many times and one Sunday
with three women, the results were consistent and accurate.
life. And if the child is experiencing difficulty in walking, the Mother can carry the baby to the seashore, dig two holes in the sand, place the baby's feet into the two holes and start to walk away. The baby will follow and have no more problems walking.
Bahamian children's superstitions are many and revolve mainly around punishment, sperrids and death, e.g.
The roles of Bahamian males and females are still clearly defined, although because of education, more exposure and the need for Bahamian manpower, roles, (especially the females) are slowly becoming neutralized. Beliefs and superstitions with regard to male-female relationships naturally resolve around sexuality, love and marriage.
* Children in school are usually sent to the headmaster for punishment and this is called 'going to the line.
Most obeah practitioners claim that the majority of referred problems are the type of male-female relationships especially in keeping one's partner, placing evil on a rival, sexual potency and protecting one's interests.
The following sections will explain some of the more common superstitions:
(a) Love, Sex and Marriage
The love vine that is found in abundance in the Bahamas can indicate whether the love that you have for a person is genuine. Take the roots and a piece of this vine, plant it and place it on another tree. It will continue to grow healthy as a parasite on this tree if your love is strong. If it dies or is "stunted" in growth, your love is false.
Bahamian mothers warn their sons from eating and drinking from everybody especially from the home of a woman that has available daughters. Bahamian mothers may brew a special drink for their sons to give them life long protection. They can also wear their underclothes on the wrong side; put herbs in their hatbands or if salt is put in your shoes, no one can put anything down for you, so if you walk on it, you'll be protected.
For a girl to 'catch' a young man, she can take a bath during her period, then take the dirty water and make a pot of peas and rice. If the boyfriend eats this, he is 'caught' for life.
An extremely obnoxious superstition is for a girl to take her sanitary pads, 'soak them in some warm water, then take the water for use in preparing food for her boyfriend. If he eats this, then he is 'caught' for life.
There is a story of the grandmother of a family of beautiful girls. Any time she saw a young man that she thought 'just right' for one of her grand daughters, she would invite the young man to her home and invite him to sit down in a special chair. Once he did this, he couldn't help but marry the girl.*
One way of finding out about the character of a young woman is to watch
certain things that may happen to her, e.g.
There are also certain things that individuals must not do if they want
to get married, e.g.
Virility and potency are extremely important to Bahamian males and females. Our food (e.g. conch) and drink (e.g. buckfast tonic wine and carnation cream) enhance this virility.
*Two of the husbands of these girls "swear" that this happened to them. A cousin d mine, however, was invited to do so, but the he never sat down and was the only one that 'got away'!
Bahamians are also very sensitive about being "roached" and there are many ways to keep one's spouse happy and prevent "roaching".
To keep a man, (a) after intercourse, take some of his sperm, put it on a piece of meat (preferably salt pork), and give this to a lady dog (bitch) in heat to eat. The man will always be true to the woman. (b) Measure a man's waist with a string; take this same string and measure the man's penis; tie a knot at the length of the man's penis. The woman must keep this string in her possession and the man will never go with another woman.
The woman is fixed and no matter how much she may want to go with another man, her vagina would never accept another man. It is "locked" to everybody except her husband who has "fixed" her.
If a man leaves his girlfriend, she can have someone fix him by getting a ball of thread and 'set' it and bury it. This will make the man sick until she digs it up. If it remains in the earth for a long time, the man may die.
For Bahamian males to ensure that a woman's love will grow for him,
A practice that young Bahamians utilize to tell whether someone loves you is to scratch a match and hold it up straight. Call your love's name. If the match burns down to your hand your love and lover's love, is strong and true.
* This is done with 12 needles and other methods that unfortunately was not revealed to me.
To get your spouse (husband or wife) from their sweetheart:
The spouse is bound to come back, never to stray again.
If a wife is having problems with her husband and a foreign woman (e.g. watergate) + she can banish her from the island for good.
When the woman is visiting just before she is returning (one will have
to find this out)
If a man wants to keep out of a woman's power when he gives her a picture of him, he should always clip off one end. No matter what she may do to fix him, he is protected.
If a married woman is constantly itching between her toes for no apparent reason, a new sweetheart will enter her life.
When your ears are ringing, it means that your lover is talking about
When couples are married, if their wedding day is very rainy, then the couple will never be happy.
If a bride sees the groom on the wedding day before they reach the church, it is a sign that the marriage will not prosper.
If the bride tears her stocking on her wedding day she will have bad luck with her marriage.
It is bad luck for a bride (virgin or not) to wear black. Bad luck will follow her.
For a man or a woman to maintain a happy married life, and prevent either of them from straying, cross a knife and fork and place under the mattress. He or she will not stray.
(b) Illness and Death
As previously mentioned, being fixed is indicated by many physical and mental ailments.
The most common physical sign of obeah fixing is the swelling of parts of the body, usually the stomach or the limbs, especially the legs. There are many ways to fix a person to swell.
* Local term for American women
Here are a few told to me by a Cat Island obeah person.
- get the stem of a tree that grows in the person's yard.
Now two things can happen:
A very common superstition about hurting a man sexually is for the woman to suck a copper during sexual intercourse. Eventually the man's penis will begin to rotten away.
A woman can also take the measurement of a man's sexual organ while he is asleep and have it fixed and buried. The man-will never be able to "raise" (achieve an erection) again if he has sex with someone' else. Equally, a woman can take the measurement of a man's waist and carry it with her everywhere she goes, and the man will never stop following her.
Perhaps the most dangerous way of fixing a person is to do it through
his yard (property).
'Now if you want to kill the whole family.
It should be noted that everything the family will eat will turn to sand, and an autopsy of these "fixed" victims will reveal their whole system full of sand.
There are many ways of protection from being fixed.
If you feel that someone has "fixed" you and you have an unusual
ache or swelling and don't know who fixed you.
Another simple form of getting "cleared" is to wear 3 links of chain around your neck or waist. This can protect or put out any obeah man's candle.
If a part of the body is affected by fixing and it really hurts and doesn't respond to traditional medication, wash the affected part in sea water when the tide is ebbing for three days. That should effectuate a cure. One has to be very careful with this "cure", because if the affected part is washed in a flood tide, you will get the same ailment again "what goes up (or rise) must come down".
If you suspect that your house has been fixed. You can know this by a strange odour in the house or noises especially at night:
Mix all these things together and scatter over the roof of the house and in the four comers of the house. Take out the sixpence from the mixture and place or bury it in your walkway. No more house problems!
Much lore surrounds death—the signs of death, if someone has had a "good" or "bad" death and protection from sperrids.
Some common signs of death are:
There is great activity, custom and ceremony surrounding death and funerals in the Bahamas. Some of these traditions have already been described. Some common beliefs with regard to the dead body itself are:
When a person just dies, relatives can talk to the dead body and ask for favours. Some of these requests are - giving them numbers (for gambling purposes) to play; removing sickness, asking for a sign of good luck; rubbing the hands over certain parts of the body to protect one's self from sickness to that particular part, etc.
There is a strong belief that some people have the gifts of catching the spirit of a dying person and utilizing this spirit to work for them. The person remains alone with the dying person and has a special bottle of quicksilver. When the dying person exhales, the bottle is held near the nostrils
and when moisture is seen inside the bottle, it is quickly corked (or the cap is screwed on). The person who keeps the bottle is said to own the dying person's spirit.
Other beliefs are:
There are literally thousands of ghost (or sperrid) stories, and only a few will be cited here.
The Bahamian sperrid physically conforms to the images of those found in other parts of the world. They look like white sheets draped over a body, and either float, fly, or walk. They make noise and may or may not be seen. They like to live in attics, the upper floor of houses or in haunted (or hagged) houses. The favourite Bahamian abode is the silk cotton tree. Some sperrids go into different forms and have a predilection for animals, especially pigs, snakes, or goats. Sperrids do not necessarily appear in white; they can appear in black and infrequently in grotesque physical shapes, e.g., dressed in black with fire coming out of the eyes, or dressed in white with nothing else than a big mouth with long teeth and no eyes, ears or nose. Sperrids tend to be sometimes ignorant. They can't count to ten, i.e., they count up to nine, but always skip ten.
They can move very quickly (travel faster than the concorde jet!) go through locked doors, solid partitions and walk on the water. To protect one's self from sperrids: —
Whenever a hen crows twice, it is an indication that a sperrid is around; the preceding precautions should be taken.
To make doubly sure, that you are fully protected, always remember to stick a match in your hair, keep in your memory the 23rd Psalm and of course speak "Ten, Ten the Bible Ten".