Obeah: Who Were The Feared Shadow Killers Of Jamaica?

MessageToEagle.com – It is said that some hundred years ago, people on Jamaica believed the powers of so-called “Shadow Killers”.

These were witches, wizards who spread terror by practicing black magic. Is there any truth behind these stories or are we simply dealing with superstition? Do some modern people really still believe in the power of spells and black magic?

Are there any interesting historical accounts and ancient history facts that can help us shed more light on the mysterious “Shadow Killers”? Why is the practice of Obeah forbidden?

Who Are The Obeah – Shadow Killers?

The so-called “Shadow Killers” were men and women who became known as Obeah.

The term ‘obeah’ is first encountered in documents from the early 18th century and the history of Obeah is similar to that of Voodoo in Haiti and Santeria in Latin America. African slaves brought spiritual practices to the Caribbean that included folk healing and belief in magic.

Obeah: Who Were The Feared Shadow Killers Of Jamaica?
Obeah is still practised. Image credit: Roger Hutchings / Alamy

It is from these arrivals and their spiritualisms that Obeah originates. Obeah is perhaps the oldest of all Afro-Creole religions in the Caribbean.  Its name is derived from the Ashanti words Obay-ifo or Obeye, meaning wizard or witch.

According to Margarite Fernandez-Omos and Lizbeth Paravisini-Gerbert, authors of the book Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo, Obeah “is not a religion so much as a system of beliefs rooted in Creole notions of spirituality, which acknowledges the existence and power of the supernatural world.”

Why Is Practicing Obeah Illegal?

Jamaica is a highly religious country. Christianity dominates nearly every aspect of life and according to the Church the practice of Obeah is associated with evil. Until recently, the practice of Obeah was punishable by flogging or imprisonment, among other penalties.

But how did the Obeah became known as “Shadow Killers”?

Obeah: Who Were The Feared Shadow Killers Of Jamaica?
An Obeah man. Image credit: Jamaican Patwah

Stories tell that Obeah men and women used to practice black magic in secret. They undertook assignments on behalf of others to deliberately hurt another person. What made many people especially afraid of the Obeah, were the rumors that they could kill people by capturing their shadow.

These rumors are most likely the result of a conflict between Myal and Obeah.

Myal is a variation of Obeah that is practiced in Jamaica.

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The Myal men positioned themselves as the “good” opponents to “evil” Obeah. They claimed that Obeah men stole people’s shadows, and they set themselves up as the helpers of those who wished to have their shadows restore. After 1760, it became punishable by death for slaves to practice Obeah in Jamaica, and the rest of the British colonies followed suit.

The story can be traced to the Tacky Rebellion’s in 1760, when a man named Tacky led a revolt by Koromantyn slaves.

It was said that he gave the slaves a “magical preparation that was supposed to render them invulnerable to the weapons of the authorities.”

The passage of the law was meant to safeguard against the practice of Obeah, which the colonizers though could possibly lead to further revolts.

In court documents from 1760 it is written that Obeah practitioners blood, feathers, teeth from dogs and alligators, broken bottles, snakes, roosters, soil, eggs and eggshells for evil magical purposes.

Obeah: Who Were The Feared Shadow Killers Of Jamaica?
it is said that Obeah practitioners used blood, feathers, teeth from dogs and alligators, broken bottles, snakes, roosters, soil, eggs and eggshells for evil magical purposes.

In 1824, there were about 150 Obeah men and women throughout Jamaica, but the numbers have not been officially confirmed.

Obeah men and women were feared, but also popular, at least to some extent and they played an important role in the lives of slaves who had no human rights. Slaves who had been mistreated turned to an Obeah to seek justice and revenge.

Obeah was considered bad magic, but for many people, it seemed to empower them to shape their own existence by manipulating the spirits, both benevolent and malevolent.

It should be added that most people on Jamaica, both free as well as slaves distanced themselves from the Obeah people.

Practicing Obeah resulted in expulsion of the social community. The situation was different on other islands such as for example Barbados and Leeward Islands where Obeah were admired and held a high status.

Practice of Obeah is forbidden on Jamaica, but there are still those who refuse to give up their beliefs in the power of magic. Although few people believe in Obeah in the cities, there are some modern Obeah men and women who say they can help with all manner of things, from curing illness to removing curses.

Over the years the popularity of Obeah has waned and finding Obeah men and women to reveal what they do is rare.

People, who use Obeahs’ services, rarely want to talk openly about it and it looks as if the old Obeah traditions are slowly fading away.

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