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The History of Obeah

the world history of obeahObeah is power. It is a belief. An African tradition. A human tradition. Obeah is Egyptian. Obeah is Ashanti. Obeah is Hebrew. Obeah is Jamaican. Many statements can describe Obeah but all will only touch upon small facets. They are the reflective faces of a diamond. We see only what is shown back if we gaze into one face. This is our own image. The Trinidadian sees Obeah as wholly Trinidadian, the Jamaican sees Obeah as a Jamaican phenomenon. My experience practicing Obeah, living amongst Obeah and studying Obeah will, I hope, allow me to give an introduction to the history — my story — of Obeah.

Obeah is not a phenomenon owned by a single culture. It is true that Obeah, linguistically, is Jamaican Patois. However, the practices and beliefs that make up modern Obeah have roots not only in the traditions of the Caribbean, but in the traditions of Africa, of Europe, India and even the North American continent. This is not an inclusive list. There are many High Scientists who incorporate work as far away as the Aborigines of Australia. The reason Obeah is called Science is because it has never been afraid to adopt and use any type of magic that works.

The Egyptian Roots of Obeah

"Arise, Dog of Evil, that I may instruct thee in thy present duties. Thou art imprisoned. Confess thou that it is so. Horus it is who has given this commandment. Let thy face be terrible as the storm-parted sky. Let thy jaws close pitilessly. Make sacrifice as the God Her-Shafi. Massacre as the Goddess Anata. May thy hair stand up like rods of fire. Be thou great as Horus and terrible as Set.

Equally to the South, to the North, to the West and to the East.

The whole land belongs unto thee. Nothing shall stop thee, whilst thou settest thy face in my defence: while thou settest thy face against savage beasts; while thou settest thy face to protect my paths, opposing thyself to the enemy.

I bestow upon thee the power of vanishing, of becoming noiseless and invisible. For thou art my guardian, courageous and terrible." (Evocation of the Dog of Evil, Papyrus Harris 501, 1600 BCE)

Tree in Africa

An Egyptian evocation used to summon the Dog of Evil, a spiritual guard dog. This spell was rediscovered in the mid 19th century when it was purchased by Anthony Charles Harris and later taken into the care of the British Museum. It was quickly found by Florence Farr, a British actress, producer and occultist. Farr revived this ritual in her work Egyptian Magick and began practicing it within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In the Occult Renaissance of the Victorian Era it quickly made its way around the world. Today it is practiced in Obeah exactly as it was in Ancient Egypt before.

Egyptian artifacts, relics and symbols have a high importance in Obeah. The most obvious are the pyramids. The Egyptian pyramids were, on the face, tombs for the Pharaohs. But they were much more than that. Egyptian pyramids were symbolic structures and functional magical artifacts. Pyramids controlled powerful spiritual currents that would impact magic worldwide.

Anubis Papyri

Pyramids symbolize the power of the Earth itself. They are the mound, the primordial hill, from which all life sprang. They are phallic in nature and emphasize a masculine power. The triangle of the side of pyramid is the alchemical fire. A pyramid inverted, to the Egyptians, was a symbol of the suns heavenly rays shining down upon mankind. Now it is a Yonic symbol. An inverted triangle; the alchemical symbol of water. The Egyptian pyramids guarded foundational concepts of magic, the occult and ultimately Obeah. These are the vital and opposing forces of fire and water, heaven and the earth, man and woman.

The esoteric principles hidden in Egyptian symbolism are the keys to unlocking Obeah. The Egyptian pyramids, however, provide more than just a key to esoteric knowledge. They are also objects that can be duplicated in any scale to cause spiritual effects. The pyramid, as a shape, has been proven to focus and direct energy. The pyramid has a wide range of supernatural effects. It can magnify the power of a spell, help astral travel and be used to summon (or banish) spirits. A pyramid can even heal the body. It can do things as basic as preserve food from spoiling or give you more energy. The Obeah Scientist above all others has preserved the secrets of the pyramids.

The Hebrew Roots of Obeah

African Hebrews

Hebrew magic, specifically the Kabbalah, also Qabalah, has taken a branched road that would re-converge in modern Obeah. The first road went forth from Egypt into the area of the Hebrew Kingdoms. It wound back through Arabia to East Africa — Kush — what is now modern Ethiopia. Today the home of the Ark of the Covenant, the lineage of the great Scientist King Solomon and resting place of Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Beta Israel Hebrews.

The First Hebrew Path to Obeah
Kabbalah Tree of Life

This is the road that we see in the Obeah classic The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. This road developed the traditions of summoning spirits based on the Hebrew incantations learned by Moses in Egypt. They are the tried and true occult secrets used by King Solomon. It is the synthesis of Egyptian and Hebrew magic, with a heavy emphasis on the latter, that lead to the development of a practical Kabbalah for casting spells. This is the Kabbalah of Obeah used today.

The Holy Bible tells us of King Solomon's relationship with the Queen of Sheba, Empress of Ethiopia. The Kebra Nagast describes in detail King Solomon's use of magic to control demons and how he shared his magical knowledge with the Ethiopian dynasty. Prominent among these are the Ethiopian Magic Scrolls used to control and expel demons. The experienced Scientist will know how to employ these to great success.

The influence of the Hebrew Kabbalah did not hit a dead end in Ethiopia. There is historical and archaeological evidence to indicate that Hebrew Kabbalah spread throughout portions of the African continent. For example, the central magical illustration of the Kabbalah, the Tree of Life, overlaps perfectly with many indigenous African pantheons and systems of worship. However, this should not be interpreted as an attempt to overshadow any indigenous African traditions. Indigenous African magic is, in and of itself, complete, whole, unique and extremely powerful.

The Second Hebrew Path to Obeah

Golen Dawn HexagramHebrew mysticism and magic also moved West into Rome. It spread quickly throughout Europe as the practical side to European theology. In many cases the practice of Hebrew Kabbalah was banned outright as witchcraft. In others it was tolerated. The end result was Christian, Jewish and hybrid forms of Kabbalah. Many traditions were preserved. Others were combined with European “low” folk magic. Ultimately it developed into an extremely detailed Western Occult Tradition. This Occult Tradition drew on the spiritual practices of India, Egypt, Hermeticism in Greece and the Kabbalah of the Jewish diaspora. Prominent occultists such as Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Eliphas Levi and Aleister Crowley would herald from this sphere of occultism. A time would soon come when European occultists would have an influence on the African magical traditions of slaves in the New World.

The West African Roots of Obeah

Obeah in West Africa

We have spoken of Obeah in unexpected settings — ancient Israel, Ethiopia, Rome and Egypt. Obeah is an eclectic religious practice, but it is also an African religious practice. It is the African roots of Obeah that distinguish it from simply being Egyptian magic, Ethiopian magic or Western Occultism. And to understand the African roots of Obeah it is essential to understand the Ashanti people.

The Ashanti are a group of Akan ethnicity that formed the powerful Ashanti state, Asanteman. Asanteman was in West Africa, the Gold Coast, what is today comprised mainly of by the country Ghana. The neighbors of the Ashanti were the Dahomey and Fon groups, the ethnic keepers of Vodou in Africa and the Haitian diaspora. Ashanti religious belief was similar in many ways to the neighboring Vodou of the Dahomey. The Ashanti believed in a supreme deity, Onyame, as well as a pantheon of sub-spirits, or abosom.

The Ashanti distinguished between two types of magic. The first is the use of natural herbs to curse physical ailments. This was a form of bush medicine and was often very effective. Many Ashanti remedies are being rediscovered today by Western scientists to successfully treat disease. The second type of magic was strictly spiritual. This was Obeah. The Obayifo man worked with supernatural causes, bringing about supernatural effects and healing the harm done by witchcraft.

This is the first time we see the linguistic root of Obeah, the entomology Oba-yifo, witch, in the Ashanti Twi language. The Obayifo were individuals believed to have special access to powers and secret knowledge. Two important distinctions between the Obayifo and the ordinary individual are the special pacts the Obayifo has with a set of two spirits. Every Obayifo has contact with two spirits, one an evil spirit and the other a neutral spirit. Both spirits must be recognized, harmonized and controlled to keep the Obayifo healthy.

Area of Obeah Practice by Ethnic Group

A failure in the Obeah man, or Obayifo, to stay disciplined could result in the malevolent spirit taking control of his soul and mind. The results can be mild or drastic. The Ashanti believed this to cause bad behaviors, weakness, even romantic failure and health issues. A person could become violently possessed by his evil spirit and require an exorcism or cleansing from another Obayifo. The Obeah man was an individual in the Ashanti community who was seen as necessary for his abilities but potentially dangerous due to his dual spirits.

The Ashanti Obayifo were experts at making pacts with spirits. A specific spirit that the Obayifo alone were able to work with was the Sasabonsam. This was a very evil spirit and a staple of Obeah among the Ashanti. Not only could the Sasabonsam deliver unseen curses and hexes, but it could also manifest in physical form. European colonists and traders were terrified of entering Asanteman forests alone — the Sasabonsam would be summoned by the Obayifo to snatch intruders into the trees. Similar stories exist today in the bush, or jungle, in Jamaica. The Scientist has not stopped working with Sasabonsam to this very day.

The Zulu are oft regarded as the best examples of African military might, but the Ashanti had a military that was twice as large as the Zulu at their peak. The Ashanti equipped their military with firearms and were the only African army to completely defeat the British in warfare. Obeah was indispensable to Ashanti warriors in battle. Obeah was said to protect a man even from bullets. However, this did not stop the slave trade. Many Ashanti were destined to be captured and displaced.

In slavery the mixture of the Akan of Ashanti, the Fon of Benin and the Dahomey would create a melting pot of religious tradition. The Vodou of the Fon might be combined with the workings of the Obayifo. When examining Obeah today the Ashanti influences are still very prominent. So are other African traditions from the slave trade; Vodou, the fetishism of the Kingdom of Kongo and even Hinduism and Sikhism from Indian slaves.

The European Occult Renaissance and its Influence on Obeah

freemasonry in obeah

It was not only the African population that brought occult secrets to the New World. While the Ashanti arrived with their Obayifo, European settlers arrived with the Kabbalah. They brought old occult secrets that had been kept alive in Secret Societies. The New World opened up opportunities for men seeking power and their dreams. Many occultists were involved in the slave trade and many Europeans who were not involved in the slave trade ventured to the colonies in search of arcane powers from Africa.

Baphomet Obeah

A few of the more fortunate slaves were actually freed on account of being popular Obeah practitioners in a community or on a plantation. This happened most frequently in Portuguese colonies such as Brazil or Barbados. It was more rare in a Spanish or English colony like Jamaica. From a practical point of view, freeing an Obeah man helped to ensure the plantation owner that the Obeah man would not attempt to do any black magic or cause a rebellion. Yet there is a spiritual aspect as well. We see from the diaries of many plantation owners and European settlers in the Caribbean that they were quite interested in gaining the favor of Obeah men and learning their secrets.

Slavery was not abolished in one fell swoop and, with the exception of Haiti, most Caribbean colonies as well as the American colonies had free black men, freed slaves, indentured servants of various ethnicity and predominately black slaves. Among free black men a gap developed between the literate and the illiterate. A similar gap existed among the European settlers. Not everybody, or even a majority, was literate. And literacy — advanced literacy — was required to read and understand European occult texts. Similarly, literacy was required to transcribe and record the oral traditions of the Obeah man. It was between the literate African slaves and freed men as well as the literate European settlers that a new mixture of European and African traditions emerged. This would become the New Obeah.

Literacy and Obeah

Coptic Bible

A small portion of slaves arriving in the New World were previously Kings or Priests. They had not been captured directly by white slave traders. They had been defeated by neighboring kingdoms after prolonged military campaigns. Others, particularly Priests, were deposed from their positions due to internal politics. Slavery was an easy way to get an influential Priest or royal claimant out of the way. European slave traders usually knew of a special status slave and acted accordingly. Royal slaves were the keepers of official histories, cultural policies, diplomatic secrets, and spiritual powers. Other slaves recognized their authority even above the plantation masters. Slave owners knew that to mistreat a royal slave was to ask for a rebellion. In fact, many royal slaves did lead slave rebellions, such as the famous Nanny in of the Maroons. Others were given a European education and worked closely with slave masters on the plantation. Able to read, write and converse in English allowed the Obeah man — the former Ashanti Obayifo — to study European occult texts and share African beliefs at will.

Hand Symbol of the High Priest

Just as white slave owners had previously sought interest in gaining African spiritual powers, a new class of freed black men sought information in the occult secrets of Europe. Literacy was on the rise in the colonies. At the same time the practice of witchcraft in any form had been made illegal in Great Britain, the American colonies and English colonies. There were no occult bookstores openly advertising their wares. On islands such as Jamaica laws against possessing magical texts remained in effect until the 1990s. Nonetheless, the historical records of Jamaica have recorded hundreds of court cases involving men and women, black and white, for practicing Obeah. Psychic Phenomenon of Jamaica in the Free Occult Resources section records many examples of these. Black men, slave and free, caught practicing from European grimoires such as The Red Dragon. White men caught participating in Ashanti and Vodou initiations. A spiritual convergence was beginning to take place despite the oppression, racism and degrading quality of life slavery had brought to the New World.

Oppression and Adaptive Dynamics of Obeah

Mountains of the Maroons in Jamaica

The stolen men and women who arrived in the New World — Brazil to Haiti, Jamaica to Louisiana — brought their unique traditions and were placed in harsh conditions under hostile rulers. Confrontations broke out between slaves and slave masters over Obeah. Obeah was recognized as a unifying force among black slaves and a threat to security. The idea that the Scientist could kill the plantation owner in his sleep or incite a slave rebellion was enough to crack down on anything perceived as witchcraft.

The Ashanti tradition of Myalism was caught up in the crackdown on Obeah. Myalism, essentially the white magic of the Akan, was practiced both as an organized religion and a form of decentralized magic. While the Obeah man has his roots in the Obayifo, the Myal man had his roots in the Ashanti Okomofo. The Okomofo had the dual roles of carrying out traditional Ashanti holiday services and reversing harm done by the Obayifo.

Cracking down on Obeah and Myalism meant that the Okomofo no longer had any ceremonial duties that could be performed in public. His job was relegated to undoing what the Obayifo had done. Within a very short period of time, the Myal man and the Obeah man converged. The dominant practice simply became known as Obeah and Myalism as a distinct religious tradition became obscure.

But trying to root out witches did not stop Obeah. Instead it forced two new adaptive dynamics. These were secrecy and eclecticism. Secrecy was necessary to avoid being punished for practicing Obeah. The punishment could be capital, it could be corporal or it could be financial. There was a genuine risk in practicing Obeah. The eclecticism was forced because access to information was hindered. No longer could African traditions be spread to an entire community in the open. Rather, the secrets of Obeah would be guarded by trusted individuals within the African communities. Many of these men and women would become freed persons. They would also engage in esoteric discourses and exchanges of information with Europeans, as noted above.

Obeah After Emancipation

The British Crown ended slavery in 1834. A form of slavery persisted in the guise of indentured servitude. Jamaica was independent in 1962. Trinidad followed a similar course. Laws are still on the books in Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, and other island countries against witchcraft and specifically Obeah. Obeah has retained a stigma from colonization that Vodou in Haiti, for example, was able to leave behind. Nonetheless, Obeah has never stopped being an active and potent force in the Caribbean.

Vodou and Independence in Haiti

Vodou, Obeah and Independence

Haiti was the only Caribbean colony to effectively overthrow the colonial government, France, and claim independence. As a result, Vodou has been practiced openly and proudly in Haiti while other African traditions, such as Obeah, have been keep in the shadows in the Jamaica and Trinidad. Interestingly, it was a Vodou ritual that sparked the initial slave revolt that ultimately gave Haiti its independence in 1804, over 150 years earlier than Jamaica and Trinidad.

Seaga Struggle Jamaica

The most salient examples are Obeah in politics. Almost every politician — from Barbados to Granada to Trinidad to Jamaica — has been accused of using Obeah to win or to stop his or her opponent from winning an election. It is not uncommon in the Caribbean to see men and women waiting to vote with amulets to help support their candidate. This is an accusation almost wholly denied by most candidates, with the exception of a few cases.

The former Prime Minster of Jamaica, Edward Seaga, has been accused of practicing Obeah many times in the past. It is true that he has held a revival at Jamaica House, the home of the Prime Minister. And he wrote, regarding Revivalism, Pukkumina and Kumina, the spiritual cousins of Obeah; “They believe in spirits, especially their dead ancestors, and free intercourse with the spirit world. Revivalism will continue to survive in Jamaica because it satisfies the needs of a good portion of society. Like all other religious movements, it provides guidance and assists people in religious as well as secular matters.”

The opposition and also former Prime Minster of Jamaica Michael Manley, has also been accused of using Obeah. In 1969 Michael Manley visited Ethiopia and returned with a walking stick that he referred to as the Rod of Correction. Many people noted that such rods were used in Obeah rituals. Exuma, notable musician and Obeah man, was also invited by Manley to play in Jamaica under his patronage at the National Arena.

A Selection of Songs About Obeah from the Caribbean with Lyrics

Visit ObeahSpells on YouTube for Full Length Songs and Cultural Info on Obeah

In Trinidad, the late Prime Minister Eric Williams was also accused repeatedly of visiting Scientists to win his campaigns. It was the historian and biographer Dr. Selwyn Ryan who called him out on frequenting with Obeah practitioners. The famous Calypso artist Chalkdust accused Eric Williams of the same thing in the song Goat Mouth Doc about the Scientist of the same name:

"Obeahman Harribance called me

And said to me, “Look here, young man

Watch yuh tail with that man Deafy

Because yuh tickling him and yuh lying too

Getting way with murder

But if that man put his mouth on you

Well, boy, dog eat yuh supper


Keep out, Chalkie, keep out

Eric Williams have goat mout’"

Contemporary Obeah and De Laurence

De Laurence Catalog

In Jamaica L.W. De Laurence, or simply 'De Laurence' is a household name in Obeah circles. Few who have sought the counsel of the Obeah man or woman have not seen one of his books or heard a mention of his name. De Laurence, or Lauron William de Laurence, was an American occultist who complied old grimoires and treaties for publication and mass production. De Laurence was one of the major factors, aside from direct contact, inspiring the incorporation of Western Occult traditions with the traditionally Afriacn Obeah of the Ashanti or the Vodou of the Fon.

Many of the publications of De Laurence were outlawed by the Jamaican government, as well as other Caribbean nations. Many are still on the books as being, technically, illegal. Nonetheless, they can still be found easily among those who practice or dabble. But few handle the works with no regard to care or respect.

There are many stories in Jamaica regarding De Larence and his works; particularly account of a more negative nature. It has been widely rumored that in some cases the books themselves have changed their own words on the text, demanding that the reader put the book down. In others, men and women report having stones thrown at them from unseen forces, perhaps ghosts or duppies. In the worst case scenarios there have been some who are said to have gone insane after studying the writings of De Laurence.

The main works of De Laurence are in the public domain and I have made those most salient in the scope of Obeah available on the Free Obeah Resources section. You will likely not have any issues from reading them, but as with all occult texts the proper precautions should be taken. Although De Laurence is a contemporary influence to Obeah, his works and writings are essentially the older traditions and grimoires for working and making deals with powerful spirits.

Final Thoughts

We have gone from Ancient Egypt to Eric Williams. But Obeah does not stop there. It is a global force. A worldwide tradition. This is just scratching the surface. Obeah calls out to those for whom it is destined. If you been curious about Obeah there is a reason for this. You are looking for something. You may be looking for a solution to something in your life. You may be seeking a more intimate knowledge of Obeah and how to apply it in your life. Or you could be the curious researcher who simply wants to know — just what is that? This is a safe place for all types. I hope that you find something valuable to you here.

—Ebenezer White