“Obeah is notoriously difficult to define for those searching for a coherent system by this name. Obeah is, like witchcraft, a sorcerous art exercised by the one who possesses the ‘obi’ – or power. The Obeahman or woman inherits a particular power that aids effectively in enhancing the potency of their spellcraft, duppy-catching and sorcery.”
– From Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary, by Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold
It was Santa Muerte who lead me to Obeah, or rather lead me more deeply into the question of Obeah after I had touched on it earlier while researching the cultural influence of mail-order occultist L.W. de Laurence. In searching out the popular streams, occult ephemera, and urban materia magica that attend to La Nina Bonita’s contemporary public emergence I encountered a deeper understanding of Obeah, an Afro-Latin spirituality that shares with Her a similar confusion in terms of practice and public persona.
These are ghost spiritualities, names spoken in hushed tones, complicated by fear, adoration, respect, and care. To find and understand their devotions is not possible through texts and dispossessed investigation, one must seek their very heart, and in doing so accept the price of seeing beyond the social boundaries that hold us safely in our comfortably commodified identities.
Even when one approaches these practices first hand, their very nature bars outsiders from glimpsing their true meaning. Courting Mysteries, and ubiquitous in their assumption of everyday iconographic and symbolic tools, the kaliedescopic image of these traditions emerges as a veil through which the cynical or skeptical observer can’t see past. Obeah, popularized in songs by Captain Beefheart, Dr. John, Exuma, Mad Professor, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Bob Marley, Max Romeo and innumerable others, remains no less obscure for whatever may be gleaned from their interpretations, which are mostly those of musicians and cultural creatives and not necessarily practitioners (with the potential exception of Don Van Vliet, Tony McKay and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.)
The cultural divides between interested academics, curiosity seekers and suburban enthusiasts and the people who practice these communally centered, integral occult traditions also creates a serious block for communication and understanding. Amassing data, anecdotes and fluctuating facts merely serves to further obscure the source of central, active power that these practices work with.
The folks at VICE discovered this while attempting to cover the Obeah tradition back in 2011 with an embarrassing edition of “All the Wrong Places.” Driving around Jamaica looking for an Obeah practitioner in a Mini-Cooper, host Krishna Andavolu, and his “co-pilot” Natalia Sanchez, quickly find that no one will give them a straight answer or any useful information. Andavolu expresses surprise, saying that, “trying to find people to actually talk to us on camera about Obeah has been next to impossible…I think that’s because it’s something you don’t want to fuck with.” More I would say that they don’t feel the need to talk to clumsy tourists about, what on one hand, is a confidence tradition tied with everything from local blackmail to murder, and on the other is a secretive initiatory practice that has at times carried a legal death sentence for practitioners and has deep ties to African traditionalism, community governance and the Caribbean’s revolutionary history.
When they pull up to an occult supply shop in Kingston, Jamaica, which differs very little from many Botanicas and Afro-Latin religious supply stores in the United States, they are faced with a mundane array of what appear to be novelty goods, what the original De Laurence, Scott and Co. catalog described as “Materials Accessory to the Pursuit of Mystic Study.” Various petitionary candles, powders, oils, baths, sprays and amulets produce a colorful tapestry that the hosts giggle at and dismiss as just the outer effects of a complex and curious cultural con-game. The proprietors careful expression of disbelief in the products’ efficacy soothes their sense of doubt, and put up against the notoriety of Obeah practice, the store seems to be some sort of joke.
Attend to the Atmosphere
Yet, when you enter a store like this, if you attend carefully, the atmosphere reverberates with unspoken intentions and actions. Everything on sale here relates to the focus of will, and reading the labels on candles marked Authentic Domination, Command/Compel/Control, and Death to My Enemies, give some idea that these are often very raw human desires that are highlighted. These stores are central to the human drama of their communities, where emotions and ideals are actively evoked through ritual participation in the greater drama of the cosmos as dilleniated by the seemingly simple color associations, herbs, icons and such. There is an undeniable potency to this. It can be felt even on the most anachronistic objects found here, they manifest a new resonance and import when placed in proximity to more arcane ideations.
In traditions such as Obeah, and the devotions of Santa Muerte, there is no chance to encounter the actual image of the tradition without working with it in some way, and rare are the journalists or scholars who are willing to take the responsibility associated with this kind of work, and silent are the practitioners who have no reason for public scrutiny or understanding of their Mysteries. These are personal, local, and community based practices, which, despite the shock they illicit when they come to light in the commercial culture, have deep roots in the development and sustainability of the societies they exist within.
A Personal Account
Anthropologist and psychologist, Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold has a new work, Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary, published by Hadean Press, in which he details his experience and understanding of this diverse, secretive and powerful Caribbean tradition. For Frisvold, initiated into a obeah lineage from Trinadad, “obeah is a sorcerous cult, a personal and unique art rooted in spirit pacts and spirit trafficking – as such it is difficult to explain it’s tenets in a uniform way. It is difficult to explain because sorcery tends to be highly pragmatic in its orientation, and thus is centered on one’s merging and induction to a spirit patron or patrons that support the sorcerous power and teach the sorcerer in the virtues of that power.” He goes on further to say that “Obeah takes its power from the woods and sees trees and bushes as arcane spirits….at the core of the tradition is found obiya or sasa, a natural power that can facilitate transformation. The obiya is just this, a power given – an amoral power that transforms.” For some, the curios and “materials accessory to the pursuit of mystical study,” supplied by occult stores, like the one the VICE crew visited in Kingston, provide the symbolic link for that transformation, for others, closer to the forests and the natural source of power, this tradition takes a much more visceral dimension.
Magic in Mass Production
Unwittingly, when they casually laugh at the outward mundanity of much of the store’s goods, the VICE crew are admitting that the world of mass consumption and alienation from nature that they are emissaries of, and which supports their ironic detachment, is unable to hold, for them, the deep sense of spiritual power that exists in their idea of what Obeah might be. Items created by the same technological processes that produce their sunglasses, or the Mini-Cooper their sponsors provided, can’t hold the source of mystery for them that they feel they are seeking, having heard so many stories surrounding dark and occult secrets. The scholar Diana Paton notes a similar irony in an essay found in Obeah and Other Powers – The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing (Duke University Press, 2012.) Discussing the career of policeman turned ethnologist and 19th century world’s fair exhibitor, Herbert T. Thomas, Paton states that:
“Thomas noted the ‘superior quality’ of the African material in comparison with the ‘useless rubbish and filth used by the obeahmen of Jamaica.’ This illustrated, he claimed, ‘how the cult of obeah worship has deteriorated on the soil of Jamaica.’ His designation of the Jamaican objects as inferior appears, ironically, to be a response to their incorporation of the “modern” manufactured materials acquired through the international trade that the (1891 Jamaica International) Exhibition hoped to promote, such as the mirror, playing cards, and glass marble. The Jamaican use of found and acquired objects for ritual purposes, when contrasted to the artisanal working of animal and vegetable materials attributed to the Mende, allowed the latter to be presented as superior even while the “tribe” was subject to imperial conquest.
In a sense, Thomas’s presentation of the African material was a spatialized version of the approach taken by contemporary representations (including at exhibitions) of India, which presented the country as having degenerated from a better past. The solution was not to return to that past but to eradicate it.”
Yet this seemingly innocent material, a marble, a mirror, some playing cards, in the hands of an Obeahman or woman become a focal point for universal power, so tradition says, that can be used to restore heath and enrich the community, or destroy the very root of vitality in a person or society. What is missing in the cold reception to the simplicity of these items is the sight and spiritual maturity to actually see their place in a much greater web of influence and cosmology, where, when activated by intention and proper use, they become tools to access invisible worlds that are far beyond the skeptics’ grasp for no other reason that it takes an initial movement of faith to see them. So it is that the faux sophistication of the intelligensia is shown to be mute in the face of the penetrating vision of those they label as superstitious and irrational, which is able to transmute common household items into objects of spiritual reference no different in potency than the iconographic marvels of the Gothic cathedrals.
Dr. Dianne Diakite, an associate professor of Religion and African American Studies at Emory University, supports the understanding of obeah as a neutral power, which can harm or heal reliant on the intention of the practitioner. However, she adds weight to this neutrality by mentioning that, “one of the intentions for the enslaved community was to utilize Obeah as an aggressive force for weaponry and warfare against the colonial establishment, and we see Obeah at the root of every slave revolt in Jamaica in the 18th century all the way through the Sam Sharp revolt of 1831 which involved 60 thousand enslaved Africans on the island.”
Marcus Garvey, one of the most powerful social figures in Jamaican history, studied the same “mind science” material that, under the filter of Obeah, becomes ‘high science,’ or the ability to tap into the raw power of intention and will at a universal level. Encountered in the guise of popular occult curios and pulp press editions, these same tools become an innocuous blind behind which the fire of revolutionary intention, the organic flux of nature seeking equilibrium, boils awaiting release.
In a similar light we find Walmart selling t-shirts with grim reaper imagery that, in Mexico, is used on devotional shirts for Santa Muerte. An image holding the potential to be an icon of what is commonly called a Satanic narco-cult in the popular press is for sale at one of America’s leading resale distributors. Yet its potency is latent without the activation of the name, Santa Muerte. Once She is called, with belief, then the t-shirt becomes something more.
Ghost spiritualities, summoned by a name, requiring work to activate, but once activated they take on a life of their own, their names become something that can only be whispered with meaning, loudly speaking them shows a lack of understanding and marks out the speaker as unknowing, outside the tradition. Mysteries which can be entered, which change the atmosphere of an area, whose symbols stand hidden in plain sight, mocked, looked over, and yet with the right intention capable of setting fire to civilization.
“When I was introduced to Obeah I was also introduced to the ‘Kabalistic banquette.’ The banquette is similar to the banguette we find set for Bawon Samedi and the Ghuede on All-Hallows or the commemoration of the Might Dead found in some strains of Traditional Craft…A master of ceremonies is appointed and given a lash and a sword. On the table is also present a cop of Waite’s ‘The Book of Black Magic’, Lemegeton, The Grimoire of Honorius or Grimorium Verum – although Waite’s book, like de Laurence’s The Great Book of Magical Art, are the most frequent magical books present at the banquette table.”
– From Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary, by Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold
How many copies of A.E. Waite’s Book of Black Magic lie unexamined in Goodwill and Salvation Army stores across the U.S. Yet, again, as Frisvold points out in his recent publication, under the influence of obeah this book becomes a nigromantic gate which opens the possibility of spirit communication and trance work. L.W. de Laurence makes an even more astonishing transformation under the auspices of Obeah, from forgotten mail-order mystic to a beloved Adept of the Devil himself, capable of granting knowledge and power.
The Power of a Word
When understood, the word Obeah itself is a gate to this manifestation of natural power, which historically has been seen by the forces of control as corrosive to their social ideals. In an article for The Journal of Caribbean History, Obeah: Healing and Protection, Kenneth M. Bilby and Jerome S. Handler point out that, “indeed, the term obeah has come to be endowed with a malevolent/malign social power – much like the ‘bad words’which can lead to legal sanctions if publicly uttered in Jamaica or other West Indian societies.” Considering this, it is not surprising that the stumbling VICE media team was unable to make headway asking everyone they ran into for an Obeahman.
Their status as tourists, with media backing, and the fact that, it appears from their footage, they did most of their investigating in the daytime, allowed their quest to end without any unfortunate consequences. The same kind of stumbling naivete from someone without the many social protections the VICE team had could end up in a very bad place wandering through the most chaotic and uncontrolled parts of town looking for sorcerers. Yet it was with an unspoken acknowledgement of this that they stayed on well trod paths and kept most rocks unturned.
Hidden in Opposition
“The path of (Obeah) is not for everyone. It holds a certain allure in its promise of power, but possessing the obiya comes with a price and this price is related to the knowledge of death…Possession of the ‘knowledge of death’ tends to impair – at least for some time until it balances out – one’s happiness. Consequently a large part of Obeahmen and women have chosen lives as recluses, while others have chosen a more active trade as sorcerers-for-hire.”
– From Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary, by Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold
The sense of eradicating the potent history that underpins a tradition like Obeah is aided by the potential dangers in researching it beyond the safe confines of daylight society, yet this is also what aids the secrecy which empowers these ghost spiritualities. By blindly touching the edge of what Obeah means the merely curious can ignore how close they come to touching the potent existential ‘knowledge of death,’ which Frisvold identifies at the heart of the cult in the experiences he details in his work. This knowledge is what allowed Obeah to become so central to revolutionary groups through out Caribbean history, as it goes far beyond simple understanding of herbs, poisons, and psychology.
Obeah remains hidden in opposition, as the cartoon like popular image of the practice allows it to exist unseen by those unable to read between the lines. As a cult with spirit congress so close to it’s central practice, the memories of past and present become living experiences. When those memories are centuries of struggle, slavery, poverty, colonial imperialism, and the slow battle to maintain cultural integrity the tradition can take on darker aspects that scholars and journalists remain uncomfortable touching on. It also becomes impossible to consider integration with the powers of oppression and their representatives. It is here that the Obeah becomes a doorway though which repressed communities reassert their natural right, through the cultivation and connection to the central fire of the cosmos and the very secrets of ‘death’ itself.
Idiosyncrasies and the Scholarly Vacuum
In Frisvold’s work he presents what he admits is an idiosyncratic vision of Obeah, based on the understanding he has through the initiation of an Obeahman from Trinidad who initially tried to persuade him to accept the lighter Caribbean tradition of the Spiritual Baptists. As with his other works on African Diaspora Traditions, Frisvold has stepped forward in the midst of a scholarly vacuum to provide his personal insights into practices which have been, and continue to remain, shrouded.
For perspective, although a scholarly examination, Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing, never gives a proper description of what Obeah is, or how it is practiced. Eleven academics writing on the topic, and not one article discusses the actual practical existence of the cult. This obfuscation is found in all the material dealing with Obeah, and this is one of the most powerful recommendations of Frisvold’s work, wherein we find an outline of the tradition as he was given it.
Since Obeah is practiced by individuals and small groups across the Caribbean and even in parts of South and Central America, and has no formal or systematic doctrines, even this glimpse into one facet of the practice does nothing to bring light to the secrets that the tradition holds. This is not a critique, but rather a celebration, as all too often scholarly inquiry can act like a cold, dead hand covering the light it seeks to reveal. What Frisvold has provided is a small crack through which we can see some of the deeper currents flowing through this mysterious practice which has supported revolutionaries, confidence artists, community leaders, healers and Scientists for centuries.
Power in Diversity
The traditions surrounding Santa Muerte have a similar diversity, dependent as they are on the communal response to shrines, personal encounters with La Madrina and the influence of local spiritual leaders. It is in these kinds of fluid spiritualities, symbolic and amorphous names placed on the cultivation of potent existential forces, that we find answers to what separates the wheat from the chaff in religious experience, and get some hint as to where the real modus operandi lies behind all faith practices. Here there is a greater sense that experience, guided by the cultivation of wisdom through the application of traditional knowledge, provides the true key to spiritual renewal and growth, rather than the rote repetition of doctrines, dogmas and dead ritual.
“Lord of Darkness, King of Light
Come, come here on this stormy night.
There is no star in the sky
I see fire in the dead man’s eye
Touch me, touch me, fix my hand
Let me see what’s in the sand
Man is boy, and boy is man
There ain’t no boss there ain’t no man”
– From the song Mama Loi, Papa Loi by Exuma
Orthodox and official concerns over these traditions is based on this potent connection to the ‘source,’ that fire at the center of existence, which is cultivated, corralled and carefully administered through mainstream religion and politics, and presents a great challenge to controlling powers when it falls into the hands of society’s dispossessed, or those who seek to stand outside the margins of the status quo. Yet this very fire is what enlivens life, providing immediacy and motion to the play of cosmic forces. The disappointment of the VICE media crew is wrapped in the realization that the society they live in, support, represent and create is incapable of holding the wonder and mystery they associate with meaning and power. Without those who, like the Obeah practitioners or Santa Muerte devotees, are willing to pursue the spirit beyond the judgement of the static forces of control we are left with the deadening, blind technocracy that threatens to destroy everything which provides any worth to this existence, cutting off all paths to that sacred union which all true traditions profess.
While the mighty minds of technology and business spin their web of influence over the world, seeking some illusory extension of physical life, material wealth or enhanced human abilities, and while self satisfied artists and journalists continue to create narratives to support them, somewhere in a darkened room a candle is lit, a prayer is spoken, the dead are raised, and the integral fire of existence is invoked to bring health and vitality to the true heirs of immortality. Obeah is not feared because of its practices, whatever they may be where it finds a home, it is feared because, when spoken knowingly, it implies a self mastery and understanding of existence itself that can challenge the ruling powers, and the laws they create, with impunity.
Invisible even when out in the open, the spirit goes where it will, war or peace are solely in the heart’s intention, and in the end everyone face the consequences of which path they chose to walk while journeying through this veil of shadows. Something tells me that those who have found the deeper Mysteries of Obeah won’t be the ones to realize that they were unhappy in their decision.
David Metcalfe is an independent researcher, writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, the online journal of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, and The Daily Grail. He writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Modern Mythology, Disinfo.com, The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. His writing has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011), Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.