Ten, Ten The Bible Ten : Obeah in the Bahamas
Dr. Timothy McCartney
"It was a scorching day in September 1952. It seemed unusually hotter than every other day of the year in the small settlement on one of the remotest of the Bahamian chain. The rain that had fallen only minutes previously did nothing to cool the atmosphere.
There was no human life in sight except two middle-aged women who bitterly engaged in exchanging words. One was claiming that the other was "sweet-hearting" her husband. The other was not denying it but countered the remark by saying that if the first had what it took, her husband would have no need to keep sweethearts.
At that point, the more vocal of the two, a small plump woman of about 50, shot back: "Okay you are going to get what you asked for. Between this day and tomorrow, you ger sleep under the cotton tree."
The neighbours, who listened from behind tightly-closed doors and windows,
heard the expression before and knew exactly what was in store for Miss
May. They knew Miss Lile's reputation. In the small settlement she was
known as the 'Obeah Woman,' nobody "fooled
If somebody was going to sleep under the cotton tree, somebody was going to sleep under the cotton tree.
Miss Lile turned and headed for her small house across the street from Miss May's. Once in the door she turned around to the startled face of her neighbour and shouted, angrily, "that's right, you just as well go inside your house and put your burying gown on."
The local constable and the commissioner had heard about the argument and were suspicious, so they watched Miss May's house during the night. They neither saw anybody enter or leave the small house which she occupied alone since her children had moved to Nassau.
That morning Miss May's fowls did not crow as usual and her potcake dog remained silent on the clap-board step. Inside the small dwelling Miss May was stretched out dead with eyes and mouth wide open.
A son in Nassau was advised of the occurrence and flew to the island, insisting on taking the body to Nassau for an autopsy, which, needless to say, proved that no foul play was suspected. The cause of death was not known, so Miss May's body was put on the mail boat and shipped back to the settlement for burial under the cotton tree.
Miss Lile had threatened Miss May the evening before, but she had not moved out of her house, no foul play was suspected. Miss Lile never said she was responsible for the deceased's passing. But neighbours were convinced that Miss Lile's ju-ju was working.
Very few people ever got the opportunity to visit Miss Lile's house, not even her close family, for even they feared her.
When she finally passed on to the other world and relatives were compelled to go inside the small dwelling, thousands of small bottles and packets were discovered containing various soils, seeds and herbs. She died a terrible death it was said. She was standing. She was so
heavy that it took six men to place her in a lying position. It was said that even the casket refused to close." 1
This is one of the many incidents of Bahamian life that has been attributed to Obeah. Obeah relates to the' supernatural, but is not indigenous to the Bahamas. Throughout the Caribbean, especially the English speaking Caribbean, Obeah, and other practises that resemble Obeah, are found. To cite a few: Haiti has its "Voodoo", Trinidad and Cuba, "Shango", Cuba, "Santeria". In fact, wherever African slaves were transported and settled, African religious beliefs, healings and superstitions were taken and are still in evidence today. It is interesting, also, to note that black Americans and, even some American whites (especially in the Southern States), have similar beliefs that are found in the Caribbean. Many "unexplained" mysteries, supernatural happenings and illnesses are ascribed to the influence of being "belted", "fixed", "hagged", "obeahed" or "placed under a spell".
Bahamian Obeah is the phenomenon of the supernatural. It renders evil or good; makes dreams come true; influences individuals either for their demise or holding them in one's power. It can cause one to become rich or it can make one poor. It can cause an illness, either physical or mental or can cure any physical or mental problems. It can cause death! It is a type of spiritualism, surrounded by many tales of unexplained phenomena, and surrounded with superstitions that evolve into a plethoria of articles (fetishes), bush medicines, signs and specific directions as to what one may do.
Obeah, then, in the present context, appears to be the bastard child of primarily African religion and superstition, Judeo-Christian beliefs and European superstitions. There are also elements of black magic, white magic, satanism (with its demons), and witchcraft. From a comparative point of view, in Jamaica, "Obeah is the belief that spirits and other supernatural agents are used often to work harm to the living, or may be called off from such mischief. And it is used often to dispel evil spirits and to injure enemies."
One can also assume that Obeah probably originated from an African religion that had elaborate ceremony with "priests", "supernatural powers", "saints", etc., but Obeah, in its present day form, is not a cult or religion. There are no priests, collective rituals, gods or saints. It does not resemble the type of ceremony that is found in Voodoo (in Haiti), Shango (in Cuba and Trinidad), or other types of African religion that can still be found in parts of South America with large populations of peoples of African origin and descent.
The interaction with the Obeah man or woman and society is on a one-to-one basis. An Obeah practitioner may "chant" or "sing" or go into a trance to give an impression or for some effect, as an example, to obtain some "power", but there are no meetings, dancing, drum playing or singing. Although some ministers of religion may practise Obeah in the form of white magic, there are no "ministers" or "priests" of Obeah. "Theoretically, most revivalist leaders are religious leaders who are not involved in the practice of Obeah, and Obeah men and women are, supposedly, evil persons who practise magic without having church groups. Nevertheless, the temptation for revivalist leaders to try their hand at Obeah is strong because of the request made by followers, and, of course, there is a profit."
1. "The Obeah Woman". Bahamian Artifacts in
the Nassau Guardian Weekend Magazine, Saturday. May 13,1973. Page 6. (Written
by P. Anthony White).
Then too, the actual term to describe people who practise Obeah may differ from country to country. Generally, they are known as Obeah Man or Obeah Woman. In Trinidad, for example, they are either Obeah Man or Wanga Man. In Jamaica, they are either the Obeah Man or Myal Man*-. In the Bahamas, they are either Obeah Man or Bush Man, or Bush Doctor. In Georgia (U.S.A.), they are called a Root Man or Root Healer**, in Louisiana, they are the "Conjure Doctor" or "Voodoo Man", in Grenada, either "Obeah Man" or "The Scientist." Since there appears to be general confusion with "occult" terminology, it would be useful, at this stage, to briefly define and describe only those terms that are found in some aspects of Obeah practices:
This term refers to the practice of witchcraft. Anyone who can summon invisible powers to help in casting spells or performing feats of magic are said to be practising witchcraft. The Biblical term (the Old Testament) "Kashaph" is often translated, sorcerer, sorcery and sorceries. The terms "witch" and "sorcerer" are often used with the same connotation. The term "necromancer" is used only for the individual who communicates with the dead and was not used in the Bible as a sorcerer. The spiritualist calls a necromancer "a medium", which actually means the same thing. Witchcraft has undergone changes throughout history. In Biblical times, witches were "benefactors" of society or could have been described as the worker of magic (enchanter); the incantation-using sorcerer (witch, proper); the snake-handling hypnotist (the charmer) or the physically gifted person who appeared to possess what we would commonly term extra sensory perception (E.S.P.), (the wizard).
However, in the Middle Ages, a witch (often female) was considered a person who sold her soul to the devil and had sexual relations with demons in exchange for magical powers. It has been estimated, by some authors, that more than nine million suspected witches (females) were put to death under the slightest provocation; and, more recently, in the early historical development of America, thousands of women were burned at the stake as witches.
Today, witches are neither looked upon with too much suspicion nor are they, generally, accepted by the general society. There appears to be many modern day attitudes, viz.:
"Witchcraft, today, emulates that of the pre-Christian era in many
respects. Its practitioners often engage into covens, a group of six male
and six female witches, with a high priest or
priestess. They meet monthly, at the time of the full moon, and on eight other festivals called Sabbats throughout the year" 4 The New York Times describes the Halloween Sabbat at the home of Raymond Buckland, an Englishman, with a Ph. D in anthropology:
"First, the witches remove their clothes and bathe in salt water to purify themselves. Then, still nude (sky-clad, as they call it) they descend to the basement and step inside a nine-foot circle that is drawn about them with a 400-year-old sword by Mrs. Buckland, the high priestess, who is known in the craft as Lady Rowen. A bewitching ambience is provided by music from a tape recorder and incense burned in a brass censor. Once inside the circle, the witches sing, chant, dance with broomsticks in commemoration of an ancient fertility rite, drink tea and wine,and listen to the high priestess read from the Book of Shadows.
The ceremony ends after Lady Rowen, dressed in only a silver crown, bracelet, necklace and green leather garter belt, takes a horned helmet and places it on the head of her husband, the high priest, who is known as Rosat. This signifies that power has been transformed from the high priestess, who reigns during the six months of summer, to the high priest, who rules during the six winter months." To my own knowledge, and at the time of writing, there is only one reported 'coven' in the Bahamas.
From time immemorial, all societies have had individuals who performed magic. The Egyptians were adept at magic. The Bible reports them changing rods into serpents and turning water into blood. Other nations , of ancient antiquity revealed that many individuals, especially their "wise men" or "priests", accomplished many unusual feats.
Today, the word "magic" implies the individual who uses "sleight of hand" to make things appear or disappear, who can saw a person in half or produce animals out of a top hat. In spite of the natural explanation of some of these magical phenomena, there are many unusual things that happen that cannot be explained, by science or any method known to man, at this time.
Without going into the many amazing things that have happened and historically written about, only the type of magical phenomena attributed to Obeah will be eventually mentioned.
Professor Diepgen defines magic as being "every activity which aims at influencing either the super-sensible or the sensible world, which cannot be classed either as a cultic activity or as a technical operation". 5 Professor Diepgen gives three classes of magic:
(a) White Magic (or "religious magic" as it is sometimes called: )
The utilization of Bible texts and special forms of prayer, prayer objects (e.g. handkerchiefs, cloths, etc.) for healing or obtaining some desired effect, either to the individual or to someone else. White magic is utilised by many Obeah people for protection, defence, healing, fertility or to "fix" somebody. White magic uses, in its magic form, the names of the Trinity, whole psalms, Bible phrases and other religious symbols.
Merrill Unger, in his book, "Demons in the World Today", describes white magic: "In Biblical faith, trust is placed solely in the Lord Jesus . In white magic, it is deflected to someone else (the human agent) or to something else (one's own faith). In the Biblical prayer of faith, the
4. DeHAAN. Richard W. "Satan. Satanism and Witchcraft."
Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1972. Pgs. 97-98.
praying person subjects himself to the "Will of God".
In white magic, the help of God is demanded under the assumption that
exercising such power is in accordance with God's will. In white magic,
the Christian markings are mere decorations that camouflage the magical
b) Black Magic
This type of magic is usually applied to the type where the help of the devil, demons or spirits are utilised. Judeo-Christian believers attribute black magic to being "evil" and "selling the soul to Satan (or the Devil)". For many civilizations, demons were nothing more than the souls of criminals, new-born babies or women who died in childbirth, or even men who died in duels, that is to say, of anyone who died a death disapproved of by the prejudiced moral outlook of certain societies and periods. There is a barely visible transition from the man condemned by human laws to the damned man in the world after death, and from him to the demon while, in the end, all these are merged together. As a result, one theme recurs, with few variations, over every continent. " 7
It should also be noted that "oriental" demons were not necessarily bad or responsible for evil deeds. Whether they were good or evil they were first and foremost superhuman beings, in the same style as the spirits or "genies" of ancient Greece." 8
Black magic usually is used for persecution spells, vengeance spells, defence and some healing spells. The casting of spells (as popularly depicted, for example, in the "sticking of pins in dolls"), is extensively utilised by the Obeah individual. Being "fixed" means that a spell (usually evil) has been placed on the individual.
In the Bible, Jesus Christ, himself, cast out demons and there is a clear distinction between normal physical illnesses that were cured by the laying of hands or anointing with oil, and those cases of possession which were cured by the word of command, although these latter cases often showed the symptoms of ordinary diseases, such as dumbness or blindness (Matthew 9:32, 33; 12:22).
"The chief characteristic of demon possession appears to have been the control of the body of the possessed in an abnormal way against what was believed to be the will of the person." 9 Black magic, as a specific form of witchcraft, has its own literature. The 6th and 7th Books of Moses are the primary source and it alleges that Moses, himself, is the author. It makes this solemn assertion: "To whatever person possesses this Book at any given time, Lucifer makes promise to carry out his commands, but only as long as he possesses this Book." Demons have always been associated with black magic and many people link demons with "possession", even though the phenomenon of possession is found in both Christian, non-Christian, cultic and religious practices.
c) Neutral Magic
These are phenomena that are "mysterious" and that cannot be explained by science, but which take place without reference to either religion, God or the Devil. The field of Parap-
6. UNGER. Merrill F. (Dr.). "Demons in the World
Today", Tyndale House Publishers. 1971. Pg. 86.
sychology is the exploration of this phenomena and it is scientifically evident that many strange phenomena take place. A few examples are:
Professor J. B. Rhine, originally of Duke University, has been a leader in para-psychological research. He indicates that some people are able to perceive facts through a so-called "sixth sense", and that others have the ability to transfer their thoughts without using the usual methods of communication.
Dr. Kurt E. Koch illustrates this fact with many accounts of his book.He writes for example, "an unusual and very pronounced form of telepathy was reported to me at an interview in Switzerland. The wife of a Christian worker lived in a suburb of a large town. A Christian friend of hers often used to do her shopping for her in town, without asking her beforehand what she needed. Every time, she was surprised how he brought all the food and other things which she had thought of while busy in her kitchen. This man and this woman both have mediumistic gifts. They gave other evidence of extra-sensory abilities." 11
Tischner defines clairvoyance as the extra-sensory perception of objective facts, of which no one has knowledge, without use of any of the known senses.
+NOTE: The June. 1974 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine
(Pg. 172). tells the story of Uri Gefler, the Israeli "Superpsychic".
Uri is supposed to have correctly guessed the orientation of a die concealed
In a metal box eight times in a row, beating odds of a million to one;
deflected a laboratory balance placed under a bell jar by passing his
hand over the jar and bent silverware with his mind.
The individual that is clairvoyant can see ghosts (sperrids, spirits, duppies), sometimes symbols and sometimes they can predict an event either 100 % accurate or, maybe, a large or small amount of error. There are many people who may "possess" clairvoyant ability without realising that it is clairvoyant phenomena; while others not only recognise it, but actually make it a profession. It is interesting to note that when a ghost of a living person is seen (in the Bahamas, many times before death or during sickness), the original of the ghost is commonly unaware of the actions of the people to whom the ghost appears. He is active in his own surroundings, and is not aware of travelling in any astral body. There may be cases, however, in which an individual, in a light trance, or in sleep, may become aware of travelling somewhere, seeing some person and has been seen by that person. Literature abounds with books and incidents of clairvoyance. A very famous incident is recorded in "Proceedings of the S.P.R. Vol. VII No. 41": A Mr. Wilmot, crossing the Atlantic, shared a cabin with a friend. One night, he dreamed that his wife came into the cabin in her night dress, hesitated on seeing that he was not alone, but then moved in and kissed him. On waking, he was rebuked by his friend who told him that, while lying awake, he had seen a lady come in and kiss him. When Mr. Wilmot arrived home from his trip, his wife asked him whether he had seen her "a week ago Tuesday". She told him that she was worried about him and thought about him so much that, during the night, she imagined that she travelled across the sea, came to a ship and went into a cabin. Then she saw a man staring at her with her husband also there, but asleep. She went over to her husband and kissed him. This lady also described, in accurate detail, the cabin, which was of an unusual design.
The most famous clairvoyants are also astrologers or "witches." Time Magazine's issue of March 21, 1969 is devoted to "Astrology and the New Cult of the Occult." Time reports that "Show business everywhere is dabbling in astrology and more or less related arts." Seeress Sybil Leeks' "Diary of a Witch" is already in its second printing, though her alleged witchcraft seems mainly a device to distinguish her from such colleagues in the prophecy business as the redoubtable Jeanne Dixon and British Seer Maurice Woodruff, who does his predicting on a syndicated T.V. show hosted by Robert Q. Lewis. To lend a little magic to public entertainments, Los Angeles enjoys the services of an official County Witch—a title conferred by the County Supervisor on Mrs. Louise Huebner, a thirtyish "third generation astrologer and sixth generation witch! "
With clairvoyance comes other phenomena that should be cited:
(a) Divination is "the art of soothsaying in it's widest sense, i.e. the unveiling of hidden things in the past, present and future."13 Dr. Koch makes a clear distinction between divination and clairvoyance. "The retrospective and predictive visions of the clairvoyant are spontaneous experiences, which come over the seer without any preparation or mental volition on his part. The diviner, on the other hand, makes use of certain omens and means —arrows, (the Babylonians and Persians), livers, goblets (the Egyptians), extracts (the Greeks and Romans), runic letters (the Germans) rock crystals, snow crystals, marbles, mirror, cards and palm lines (the enlightened Europeans) hazel twigs, pendulums, etc.,— achieve his prophecy.
Divination is widely used by Bahamian Obeah individuals and the types of materials utilised will be described in a later chapter. The most popular idea of someone telling the future is the picture of a gypsy in a tent, gazing into a crystal ball or the gypsy reading the palm of the hand or cutting the cards.
13. KOCH. Kurt E. (Dr.) Ibid. Pg. 79.
(c) Fetishism - the Latin word "factitius" means magical or effective, but the Portuguese word "feitico," or charm, describes, more fully, what a fetish really is. A fetish is an inanimate object which is supposed to have special powers and is carried as a protection or revered.
Fetishism is not merely a manifestation of ancient or primitive religions, nor are those individuals who have a "fetish" or "charm" believers of pagan magic. Fetishism is a modern day phenomenon, as is exhibited by the rabbit foot, horseshoes, four-leaved clovers, for good luck or black cats, and the number thirteen for bad luck. Parts of the body or animal like hair, feathers, fingernail clippings or objects of clothing, underclothes, handkerchiefs, socks or stockings, are extensively used in Obeah, The most potent fetish, though, in Obeah, is cemetery (graveyard) dirt (earth) that can play any role the Obeah person wishes to utilise it for.
IV. Spook Phenomena.
In Bahamian language, a spook is a "sperrid," "spirit"
or "ghost," ("duppy" in Jamaica). The sperrid can
be "called" by an Obeah person "calling the spirit"*
and can be used for
A subjective spook experience can usually be explained by psychological theories. For example, Professor Bender of the University of Freiburg reported, at a convention of the Evangelical Academy in Tutzing, in 1950, the following case: A student, for a long time, observed a man pursuing her. The observation could not be made by other people. The pursuer would, repeatedly, say to the girl, "Take your life!" This visual and auditory "phantom" ceased to appear after the girl had been counselled by a psychiatrist. This subjective spook was the projection to the outside of a persecution complex, i.e., a subjective process which was experienced as an objective happening by way of the "outward curve." Most hallucinations can be explained this way.14
An objective spook can be either found in a particular location (e.g. haunted houses) can appear spontaneously or over long periods of time (e.g. apparitions at a certain spot like under the old cotton trees, or the noises, moaning sounds or heavy steps that come from various locations ).
Jung-Stilling reports on a haunted house which, for 300 years, was continually troubled by a nocturnal ghost. During the night, heavy steps were heard on the upper floor, as if someone was carrying a sack. A form also appeared several times, wearing a monk's cowl. l5
Bahamian folklore is replete with ghost stories and this phenomenon will be explored in the "Tale of Sammy Swain" in the section on "Obeah and Folklore."
* NOTE: This method utilised by those Obeah individuals
with years of experience is the most difficult and the most frightening
of experiences. It is also the most costly.
To state that Bahamians are superstitious is probably an understatement as is evidenced by a "tongue-in-cheek" article in the April 13, 1973 issued of the Guardian, "Beware! It's Black Friday" was the front page headline. The article goes on to say: "Today is the day. Yes, the day when superstitious Bahamians will stumble out of bed only to trip on the fist concrete object nearby. It is the day when many will tremble at even the thought of driving their car out of the driveway. And what about work at school? The worst will happen, surely. Ladders, black cats and all suspicious-looking persons will be scrupulously avoided. Careful drivers and cautious pedestrians will pervade the day. And many will fall victims to what is sociologically termed the "self-fulfilling prophecy"—a modus operandi which states that if we believe something is going to happen, strong enough, it will, indeed, happen. And please, no jokes on helpless, unsuspecting victims. They believe it was going to happen, anyway, whatever they believed was going to happen, Yes, today is for mad men only and the only thing you have to lose is your mind. It's Friday, April 13th –Black Friday!"
As recently as November 4, 1974, the leader headline appearing in The Tribune was "Two Groups Seek to Exorcise Sin Here"! The article reported: 16 ‘Moved by the Spirit two groups of women descended on Rawson Square today to exorcise sin from the nation. Leading the first group of thirteen, all dressed in white, was the black-garbed Dr. H. W. Brown, loudly preaching reproach on the Government. The second contingent, under the direction of "Mother" Lena Emily Tucker, threatened death to straw vendors who did not cease their Obeah practises."
There was also a picture of the crowd gathering around a straw vendor who had become hysterical, jumping around babbling unintelligible words, which believers refer to as "speaking in tongues."
Not only are these events happening, but the Obeah men and women are having an economic boom! Bush baths have, (at the time of writing) increased in price from $100 to $150-$200, and consultation fees have increased from $15-$20 to $35 up to $80. Even though the peak years appeared to be in 1973-1974, and the heightened interest appears to be less evident, at the time of writing, Obeah has become stabilized and, in the author's opinion, especially since the wide press and radio coverage of a speech given by the author on this subject to the Bahamas Historical Society in January, 1975, an accepted Bahamian practise. There are many enquiries for speeches and lectures on Obeah and the author is, at present, being consulted with more "Obeah-type" problems.
16. The Tribune. November 4, 1974, Pg. 1.