Obeah – A Caribbean term with at least two distinct uses: It can label an accusation of malevolent sorcery, but it can also refer to practices that have evolved from the interaction of indigenous-, African-, European-, and Asian-derived religious traditions. Reference to “Obeahman” or “Obeahwoman” usually indicates dislike and distrust of those accused of malevolence and inappropriate engagement with spirits. It can even be used to allege that, through mastery of spirits, someone controls the dead and makes them serve evil interests. Practitioners themselves may speak only of “going to a man” or “going to a woman” for them to “work.” However, they may define Obeah as doing either “dirty work” or “good work” (although some are said to do “everything”). This parallels the ambiguity of shamanic work elsewhere, as practitioners utilize their knowledge and relationships with other-than-human persons who act as helpers or allies to offer protection and advice, especially on how to gain one’s desires or to injure enemies and prevent them harming clients, perhaps by causing illness. Alongside various ceremonial practices, herbalism is significant. The term itself is a Creolized form of the Ashanti term Obayifo (“witch”) or obeye (“beings that inhabit witches”). Obeah practitioners were among the leaders of rebellions against slavery and provided some means of asserting agency among oppressed groups. Ceremonies, especially those that included drumming, were therefore outlawed in various places. Practitioners of Obeah can be members of Christian, Hindu, and other congregations at the same time. Similarly, Obeah practice often contradicts the stereotype that it is the preserve of impoverished descendents of slaves—rather, it has adherents in all social and ethnic strata of society. It is of the essence that Obeah and similar Caribbean traditions are Creole and popular traditions.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007