Obeah–Belizean Black Magic

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.

If bullets are used in the spell, it's a good bet that the victim will die of a mysterious gunshot wound.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

If bullets are used in the spell, it’s a good bet that the victim will die of a mysterious gunshot wound. (Photo by Joan Fry)

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.

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8 responses

  1. I love magic i need to learn more i have no money an about a spell love potion marrid an with my wife for 7years. she has lost the sexual part she had for me so any one could help that would be great

    • Christy, I wish I could help you. Any magic will work on your wife as long as she knows you’re doing it, and you both believe it will work. What you need is a curandero (a healer who’s male) or a curandera (a female healer). You want white (good) magic, not the kind that will kill somebody. All curanderos work with good magic and know a lot about native plants–seeds, roots, leaves, etc. Using a combination of native plants and spells, they can bring your wife back to your bed. These obeah healers can be found throughout the Caribbean, so the best way to hire one without a long, expensive plane trip is to go to an area where there are a lot of Belizeans or Jamaicans and ask for help. I wish you every success.

  2. Some of the above information is not easily or openly shared even among the Mayas. I guess you are lucky. But I agree, magical power (such as LOVE) is dynamic and exciting until abused.

    • I lived in Belize a long time ago, in a small Maya village in Toledo District. Most of what I write about obeah comes from what the Maya told me, a little from personal experience, and the rest from research I did for a cultural anthropology class when I moved back to the States. You’re right, even then the Maya were reluctant to talk about it–in fact I think it was illegal. If you’d like to know more, read my book, How to Cook a Tapir: A Memoir of Belize . An obeah man and a curandero are usually different people. I suggested to Christy that he find a curandero as they are more likely to work with, and cure, people with problems. An obeah man can work either white (good) magic, or black (bad) magic, but most prefer the dark side. The Maya even have a specific name for an obeah practitioner in their own language, not Spanish. Obeah is also practiced among the Creoles in Belize. Thanks for wrting, Muyal.

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