Ten, Ten The Bible Ten : Obeah in the Bahamas

Dr. Timothy McCartney
Nassau: Timpaul Publishing (1976)

Chapter II


The origin of Obeah, and the word itself, has never been attempted by an author, writing about the Bahamas, although some physical "obeah-signs" and some of the superstitions have been found in the literature. Without exception, authors agree that Obeah was practised by Bahamians of African descent and some of these have been briefly described. Guidelines, therefore, must be taken from writers who have observed, more intimately, Obeah practise in the other Caribbean islands in order for us to better understand the development of Obeah in the Bahamas.

The etymology of Obeah is still undergoing controversy because the actual word "Obeah" is not found in present day Africa, although there are words sounding like it and describing "witchcraft" or other types of occultic activity. The first attempt to understand the word was, by Reginald Scott 17 in 1584, who believed that "of the Hebrew word ob, what it signifieth, where it is found: of Pythonicus called Ventriloquae, who they be and what their practises are; experience and examples thereof shewed. This word, ob is translated Python or Pythonicus spiritus; sometimes though improperly magus…but ob signifieth most properly a bottle, and is used in this place because the Pythonists spoke hollow, as in the bottom of their bellies; whereby they are aptly in Latin called Ventrilique…There are such as take upon them to give oracles, etc…

It would appear that Scott believed that the word was Egyptian and that it was part of Egyptian Serpent worship. As a result, later researchers claimed that Obeah had this derivation.

A "Report of the Lords of the Committee of the Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations" in London, 1789, Part 111, Questions 22-26, tried to precise Obeah. This report stated: "The term Obeah, Obiah or Obia (for it is variously written), we conceive to be the adjective and the obe or obi the noun substantive; and that by the words Obiah men and women are meant those who practise Obi." The report continued: "A serpent, in the Egyptian language, was called 'Ob' or ' Aub.' Obion is still the Emtian name for seruent - Moses, in the name of God, forbids the Israelites even to enquire of the demon Ob, which is translated in our Bible 'charmer' or wizard, divinator and sortiligus.The woman at Endor is called Oub or Ob, translated pythorissa, and Oubsios was the name of the basilisk or royal serpent, emblem of the sun, and an ancient oracular diety of Africa. This derivation which applies to one particular sect, the remnant probably of a very celebrated religious order in remote ages, has now become, in Jamaica, the general term to denote those Africans who, in the island, practise witchcraft or sorcery."

In 1932, Joseph Williams, a Jesuit priest, wrote a comprehensive book called "Voodoos and Obeahs" and he originally concurred with the preceding origin of the word. Later on, however, in 1935, in a paper called "Hebrewism of West Africa", he concluded that "the word 'ob' did not originate with the Egyptians but may be traced back to the Canaanites from whom the Egyptians, as well as the Hebrews, derive it and if there is any value at all in this suggested derivation, it would be at most the indication of an Hebraic influence on the parent stock of the Ashanti from whom West Indian Obeah is directly derived."

17. SCOTT. Reginald. "The Discoverie of Witchcraft", London. 1665, Book VII. Pg.71, Chapter 1.


Powles, 18 a circuit justice, writing about the Bahamas, reported that "the people here are very superstitious and what is called 'Obeahism' is very common among them. I have never been able to find out exactly what the 'Obeah-men' are supposed to do, further than that they are species of African magicians, who, for a trifling consideration, will bewitch your enemies and charm your fields, so that any one stealing from them will be punished by supernatural agency without the intervention of the policeman or the magistrate."

Shattuck 19 observed that "at some of the islands we found hanging to various fruit trees, fantastically draped bottles and sticks, which, we were informed, were charms to frighten away thieves and evil spirits. It is believed by the negroes that if anyone but the rightful owners, should eat the fruit from a tree on which this spell has been placed, he will swell up and burst."

Typical obeah flag pictured on a field on Prince Charles Drive at the entrance of St.-
Augustine's Monastery. Colours of the flag are a red cross on a black background.

Major MacLachlan Bell, 20 trying to explain Bahamian Obeah, believed that the word "denotes sorcery, fetichism." Bell wrote "Obeah, the magic exercised by reputed witch doctors, is their inheritance from both jungle and moslem influence." He continued, "the forefathers of the present generation of black people were usually in terror of 'Ju-Ju', and the death sentences, which priests of the cult could pronounce among the isolated groups of people on the scattered islands of the Bahamian chain. This voodoo belief lingers still and finds practitioners." Bell, like so many other writers, got Obeah and Voodoo mixed up. Ellis, 21 as far back as 1891, tried to clarify this distinction: "That the term Vodu should survive in Haiti and Luisiana and not in the British West Indian Islands, will surprise no one who is acquainted with the history of the slave trade. The Tshi (original spelling Twi) speaking people (the Ashanti and kindred tribes),

18. POWLES, L.B.. "The Land of the Pink Pearl: Life in the Bahamas." Sampson Low - Marston & Co., Ltd., Fleet Street London, E.C. Pg. 238, 1888.
19. SHATTUCK, C. B., "' The Bahama Islands",Geog. Soc.of Baltimore- MacMillan, N.Y. 1905, p. 415.
20. BELL, Major H. MacLachlan, "Isles of June", USA., 1934.
21. ELLIS, A. B., "On Vodu Worship", Popular Science Monthly Vol. XXXVIII, Pg. 651, 1891.


called Coromanties, in the slave dealers' jargon, and who were exported from the European fort on the Gold Coast, were not admitted into French and Spanish colonies on account of their dispositions to rebel and, consequently, they found their way into the British colonies, the only market open to them; while the French and Spanish colonies drew their chief supply from the Ewe speaking slaves, exported from Whydah and Badogy."

The most plausible origin of the word "Obeah" is the theory put forward by Orlando Patterson. 22 "The closely related Twi word 'Obeye' (which, in pronounciation, is far closer to the Jamaican word), seems more convincing, especially in view of the fact that 'Obeye' has far greater currency among West Indian peoples. The medicine men, for example, use Obeye to describe the 'won'-like entity within witches. The fact that the word Obeah is derived from West African witchcraft and not sorcery should also be borne in mind."

People of all races and cultures distinguish between religion, medicine and superstition. The first Europeans to visit Africa never made this distinction and lumped any African practise as being "superstitious," "heathen," "primitive," "infidel," etc. No doubt, later, during the height of slavery, African practises were repressed, not understood and looked upon as being "inferior." Even today, one is constantly reminded by whites and blacks that the European "liberated" the African from his primitive existence. "In the face of incontrovertible evidence, a growing -number of scientists are beginning to conclude—however reluctantly—that while Caucasiod man was living a relatively primitive existence, his dark-skinned counterpart in Africa was already solving mathematical problems…building temples and homes of brick, growing crops, raising cattle, mining metals and fashioning them into useful objects such as weapons, utensils, tools, ornaments, and objects of art. Moreover, Africa's excavated ruins of palaces, fortresses and temples tell us that, during this early period, Africans organised social communities, their cities, states and finally empires with complex political structures, laws and religious institutions." 23 As a matter of interest, Robinson comments, in a recent editorial of The Message Magazine: 24 "More recently, when John H. Speke entered Uganda, East Africa, February 1862, he could hardly believe his eyes! He saw evidences of prevailing prosperity and progress. He went to a palace of the Kabakas where he saw the great reception hall, with its richly and elaborately decorated supporting beams. The Kababas sat cross-legged upon an unbelievably beautiful leopard pelt. Speke saw the surrounding countryside had been skillfully cultivated. There were broad fields of maize, sugarcane and tobacco. The rivers had been spanned by log bridges, demonstrating a knowledge of engineering. There was an abundance of big game roaming the forests and plains. Vegetables were grown in the well-kept gardens. There were beans, potatoes and casava. Two rainy seasons and the warm climate afforded bumper crops. The court of Kabakas was governed by the strictest ceremonies. The subjects approached the king upon their knees, with they eyes turned toward the ground, in respect and humility. The king was a powerful personality both politically and socially. These people had a well-trained army and a powerful fleet of canoes which sailed the waters of Victoria Nyanza. H.M. Stanley reported that the army had 150,000 soldiers. The army, then, was well trained, well disciplined and well organised. The navy, too, had its 'admiral' and lesser officers. This amazing kingdom, in the heart of Africa, was a picture of utter astonishment to the Europeans, who, up to that time, believed that they alone had the highest degree of social and political development. To their surprise, these Africans were not barbarous savages running

22. PATTERSON, 0. "The Sociology of Slavery", Grenada Publishing, 3 Upper Jans. St., London, W.R. 4BP, 1973. pp. 185-6.
23. "Ebony Pictorial History of Black America," Vol. 1 Pg. 10.
24. ROBINSON, W. R., "Black History" (Editorial), The Message Magazine, September, 1974. Vol. 40 No. 6.


naked in the center of Africa!" To better understand Obeah, therefore, it is important to distinguish between these three entities of religion, medicine and superstition. Patterson explains: 25 "The main features of West African religion are the beliefs in a supreme being too remote to be active in the affairs of man; the worship of a pantheon of gods which are usually non-human spirits associated with natural forces; ancestor worship and the belief in and use of charms and fetishes. Revolving around these various areas of beliefs are large numbers of cults. Medicine in West African means anything which possesses a 'power', or 'breath of life' and is the abode of a spiritual being or 'won.' 26 A won is normally neutral and can be employed for either evil or good 'as long as the proper ceremonies are performed.' 27 On this basis, the Ga, like other West African peoples, make a distinction between the good medicine-man (wontfe) who uses a combination of good medicine and ordinary herbs for good purposes only; and the bad medicine man (wontfulo) who is 'exclusively engaged in killing and harming and is employed by people who wish to hurt others'. 28 Herskovits 29 observed that among the Dahomans, the "one cardinal tenet in the theory of the Gbo is that good and bad magic are merely reflections of two aspects of the same principle."

"Witchcraft, on the other hand, has nothing to do with either bad medicine-men or the tangible embodiment of their medicines. Witchcraft is defined by Field as 'a bad medicine directed destructively against other people, but its distinctive feature is that there is no palpable apparatus connected with it, no rites, ceremonies, incantations or invocations that the witch has to perform.' 30 From the plethoria of literature on witchcraft with regard to psychological and sociological studies, and the findings of anthropologists in Africa, there is a remarkable uniformity of witchcraft beliefs in the entire African continent, south of the Sahara. *

In the Bahamas, the clearly defined categories of supernatural practises which one finds in Africa, are not found. It is also significant that many Obeah men and women possess all the attributes of religion, superstition and medicine. As previously theorized, it would appear that the majority of Bahamian negroes were Yorubas, even though there has never been any evidence of gods, saints or ceremonies of Yoruba beliefs which can be found in other Caribbean islands, with large Yoruba-descent populations.

With regard to witchcraft, (popularly defined as "Obeah"), however, and medicine, Bahamian practitioners appear to follow the traditions of Yoruba beliefs. The Yorubas describe Ju-Ju (Obeah) and medicine under similar origins and experience. Ajisafe describes such customs: 31 "There are three ways of learning Ju Ju and medicine:

(1) From an expert practitioner.
(2) Through a vision or dreams

25. PATTERSON. O., Pg. 183-4 op. cit.
26. FIELD, M. J.. "Religion and Medicines of the Ga People". She tells us that most Ga medicine practises come from their neighbours, especially the Dahomeans. She also quotes Taylor's remark that 'every tribe believes its' barbaric neighbours to be more deeply steeped in darkly wonderful magic than itself'. Pg. 124-5.
21. Ibid (as quoted by Patterson op. cit. Pg. 183).
28. Ibid.
29. HERSKOVITES. M. J. "Dahomey ", Vol. 2. Pg. 285.
30. FIELD. M. J., op. cit. Pg. 128.
* It should also be noted that there were many anti-witchcraft movements among African tribes, e.g. Audrey Richards "A Modem Movement of Witch-finders", Africa (1935). Pgs. 44861 and H. Debrunner's "Witchcraft in Ghana. A Study on the Belief in Destructive Witches and its Effect on the Akan Tnibe" (Accra: Presbyterian Book Dept. 2nd Ed. 1967, and M.G. Mamick "Another Modem Anti-Witchcraft Movement in East Central Africa" Africa 20 (1950) 100-12. Myalism in Jamaica was a form of anti-witchcraft and anti-sorcery.
31. AJISAFE, A.K., "The Laws and Customs of the Yoruba People", Lagos, Kash and Klare, 1946, Pp. 42-43.


(3) From a whirlwind called aja.

When a man wishes to be instructed in the art of making ju ju or medicine he submits himself as apprentice learner to an expert practitioner and becomes his servant. But in 99 cases out of every 100 the master has not given free, honest and unselfish tuition to the apprentice. Hence, most of the native medicines nowadays are ineffective and spurious. Knowledge of the prescription of good medicine has disappeared with their master. Had the natives been more liberal-minded we should have found and seen that native remedies for curing disease show skill of no mean order. When a man has proved that a medical man is an adept or specialist in certain disease, he may secure and obtain the prescription from the specialist (should he feel inclined to give it to him) by paying whatever the specialist demands."

Ajisafe continues his description by stating that "When a man dreams of being told that such and such roots and leaves are a cure for such and such disease, he takes the prescription as a special gift and instruction from the genii. Such prescriptions are strictly kept as precious treasures and are seldom imparted. They are very efficacious. ".+

Ajisafe continues, "It is said that the whirlwind aja used to carry men away with it into the bush for one year or more. During this period the man thus carried away is fed and taught the art of making ju ju and prescriptions of various kinds by a supernatural being. When the man is discharged, he finds himself in his quarters without knowing where he has been and how he managed to get back to his quarters. Such a man is held in awe and respected, and is given a high title among the Olosanins (juju men), but such a case is very rare."

Let us now summarize the following essential factors and look at the development of Obeah in the Bahamas:

(1) The word itself, is of African origin and, essentially, a type of bad medicine, in the African sense of the word, but also has certain elements of witchcraft.

(2) Obeah practitioners were uniquely Africans, and, later, people of African descent. It is believed that in the Bahamas, those Africans, who were freed on arrival in the Bahamas, who were never in slavery, and were never exposed to the influence of Christianity, were the principal carriers and practitioners of these beliefs.

(3) Obeah, which originated in Africa and may have had roots in some African religion or cult, developed into an individual practise. It was essentially a type of sorcery which largely involved harming others at the request of clients by the use of charms, shadow catching, and poisons. The Obeah professional performed Obeah practises and was paid by his clients.

(4) Many European superstitions and practises (e.g. white magic), were incorporated into Obeah. Eventually, healing, and utilizing bush medicines, were practised.

Moslem beliefs and superstitions were also incorporated * into Obeah beliefs.

So as to avoid confusion between Obeah and Voodoo, a brief description about Voodoo will be given.

Voodoo is an authentic religion of the people of Haiti, although remnants of Voodoo are found in Brazil, Cuba and the Southern U.S.A. Even though the state religion in Haiti is

+NOTE: One can see similarities in the training of Bahamian Obeah practitioners as described in chapter III.
* NOTE: in 1802, Rev. D. L. Rose,an Anglican missionary, recorded that many of the Negroes of Exuma, presumably Mandingoes, were "followers of Mahomet".


Roman Catholicism, the Haitian people (the peasant especially), though practising Catholicism has not renounced the Gods of his ancestors and still appeals to them for spiritual comfort and protection from evil. Voodoo is a Dahomian word meaning God or Spirit.

Alfred Metraux, the famous Swiss ethnologist who lived in Haiti and has studied and written scientific papers and a book on Haiti, defines Voodoo as "A set of beliefs and practises of African origin, intimately mingled with Catholic practices and constituting the religion of most of the peasantry of Haiti."

Voodoo has borrowed many of the elements of its liturgy from Christianity. Today, it offers a ritual derived from this syncretism, this fusion of African and Christian beliefs, which under distinct names associate God, the Virgin Mary and the Saints with the Gods of the Voodoo deities.

"The Voodoo doctrine manifests itself in rites, offerings and sacrifices, and in a sacerdotal hierarchy derived from the different tribes which were deported to San Domingo. Haitian Voodooism has its origins in religions practiced in Dahomey and Nigeria, and to a somewhat lesser extent in ritual practices in the Congo, Angola, Senegal and Guinea. We find the same organisation of the clergy, the same supernatural world, and the same ritual. The priest is a "houngan" or "mambo" and the servants of the divinity are "hounsis".

There are groups of spirits, appointed by God and some of them hierarchized, called Loas. These divinities are honoured in ceremonies of service, obligation or duty.

The dance is very important in the Voodoo religion and the drum has become the symbol of Voodooism. Its songs are hymns composed in honour of the divinities and are of many forms. These hymns are sung while the believers dance often to pulsating rhythms. The main symbols employed in Voodoo ceremonies are called "ve've" '. They are drawn by hand to the ground with ashes, flour or oatmeal. The Voodoo temple is called a Houmfort. It contains flags in the natural colours, drums, a few pictures of Catholic Saints and certain ve've' symbols.


Return to Table of Contents