That Old Black Magic

When I lived in Belize (okay, in 1963 it was British Honduras), the practice of obeah, or black magic, was considered a criminal offense.  A Creole man convicted of making obeah was sentenced to three years in prison shortly before we arrived.  While we lived among the Maya in Rio Blanco we  never saw any obeah rituals—if we did, we didn’t recognize them—but some people told us privately that they had seen them.  Obeah seldom came up in casual conversation, especially not when sac li gwink—Kekchi for “white people”—were present.

Men from near Santa Cruz clearing bush.  Many edible and medicinal plants grow in the rain forest.  But some can kill you.

Men from near Santa Cruz clearing bush. Many edible and medicinal plants grow in the rain forest. But some can kill you.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

Although the Maya used many rituals associated with obeah, they had their own tradition of sorcery.  In Kekchi, an obeah man is called an ak’tul.  The practice and probably the name of “obeah” came from the West African slaves the British imported to their colonies throughout the Caribbean.  According to a man I talked to in Jamaica, an herbalist, they still practice obeah there, too.  In Belize—which has a much more heterogeneous population than Jamaica—it spread from the Creoles to the Maya and other ethnic groups throughout the country.  After our return to the States, I wrote a paper about the origins of obeah for an anthropology class.

According to my research, obeah most likely arrived in the New World with the Ashanti, from the West Coast of Africa.  The British preferred them because the men were big and powerful.  Each slave-owning European country preferred a specific group—the slaves that the French imported to Haiti brought with them some of the practice of voodoo, or vodou.  The slaves in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands—Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba—came from Yoruba, and they brought the beginnings of Santería with them.  What the British apparently didn’t know is that in Africa, the Ashanti were warriors.  Nearly every slave insurrection on British-owned soil was led by the Ashanti.

If you look up obeah in Wikipedia, you’ll find that some researchers now think that another West African group introduced obeah into the Caribbean.  (If you Google it, you’ll find that most historians agree that the practice originated with the Ashanti.)  The Ashanti got my vote then and still do today, because the British owned only one colony in South America—British Guiana, now known as Guyana, on the northern coast.  Guess which slaves the British used there?  Right—the Ashanti.  Guess what kind of black magic they practiced?  Right again—obeah.

In addition to print sources for my research paper, I “interviewed” Father John Paul Cull by mail, the Jesuit priest who had hired me to teach in Rio Blanco.  He admitted that in several cases he had been asked to perform exorcisms for the Maya who claimed that an obeah man (sometimes they’re women, but rarely among the Maya) had put a spell on him.  Let’s say a man wants another man’s wife, and she wants him.  He can get his wish several ways, but they all involve paying an obeah man—let’s call him the “sorcerer.”  Let’s say the “sorcerer” makes sure the husband eats a certain herb in his breakfast—one that will knock him out for several hours, so he doesn’t see or hear anything that goes on in his house.  But let’s say the situation is more serious, and the first man—the love-struck one who paid the “sorcerer”—wants to keep the second man’s wife.  So he pays the obeah man a lot more money to get rid of the clueless husband.  A lot of natural poisons grow in the rainforest, and if the husband is suspicious and refuses to eat his wife’s cooking, there’s always ground glass.  Who knows why the husband drops dead in his milpa one day?   Nobody asks.  They just bury him.

What better source than a priest to recognize and counter evil?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s