The obeah men who are paid to make spells believe that obeah itself is neutral—it’s simply power. If someone asks him to make a spell against somebody else in order to hurt him and cause him pain, the power becomes evil. If someone asks him to make a spell so that his sick child will live, the power becomes good because it will result in good. Among the Maya—perhaps in an overlap stemming from their own ancient, oral traditions of witchcraft and sorcery—obeah is almost always used for evil.
To elaborate on the example I used last time, if a Maya man wants somebody else’s wife, he pays an obeah man make a spell against the husband. Creating an effigy of the intended victim is often the first step. The straw doll studded with strategically-placed nails in my “Text-Free Tuesday” photograph is Jamaican, although Maya obeah men sometimes create similar spells. (I was told that to make such a spell, the obeah man needed some of his victim’s hair and nail clippings—presumably so the power knew which man to target.) A “spell” includes what the obeah man says—the specific words he uses—the rituals he follows, and physical objects, such as oils, powders, and herbs that grow wild in the bush. Forty-plus years ago, when I lived among the Maya, the “spell” also consisted of objects the obeah man carried around with him in a small pouch—presumably to stay in touch with the power he had invoked. In the case of the wife’s lover, the pouch would contain hair and nail clippings from the husband, along with objects that had worked for the obeah man in the past. Black candles—made from the wax of stingless bees found in the rainforest—were necessary when the obeah man held a ritual. Egg shells were part of nearly every recorded description of a “spell.” (Chickens, by the way, are an Old World bird. The ancient Maya kept turkeys.)
But first and foremost, an obeah man knows the bush. He knows that this plant will stun fish so they rise to the surface of the water and can be scooped into a net—and its leaves will do the same to a human. This other plant will make a man hallucinate, or lose his mind. These tree leaves will make him break out in a painful, paralyzing rash. If the person paying for the spell really wants his victim gone—for good—and the plant spells don’t work, an obeah man will either poison the victim or see to it that he eats ground glass with his food.
The Maya have plenty of stories about what obeah can and cannot do, and a surprising number incorporate Roman Catholic beliefs. A stone tied with threads taken from an alter cloth, for example, will never get hot enough to burn the threads. Obeah can steal a person’s soul. (This sounds more like a Jamaican belief than traditional Belizean obeah, although the Maya believe if someone is badly frightened—enough to go into shock—he has “lost” his soul. A healer or curandero—not an obeah man—can restore it.) If someone is suspected of being a obeah man or witch, villages will tie a string across his/her doorway at night. If it’s broken in the morning, he/she changed shape and left home, up to no good. Ceiba (SAY-bah) trees were sacred to the ancient Maya because while rooted in the earth, they touch the sky, where they attract the attention of the gods. But—another nod to Catholicism—burning incense does the same thing.
Wanting something we can’t have seems to be part of being human—so is the desire to believe in some outside power that’s stronger than we are. To cajole that power to intervene on our behalf is one of the many beliefs that religion and magic have in common.