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I’ve posted four new videos on how to read the bones using Sheloya’s Hoodoo Bones system:
Sheloya shows and talks about various nkisi used in Vodun and diaspora systems.
At the Orisha Online Altar, I’ve made a list of Orishas and Lwa. In this article, I will focus on Allies of Obeah and Hoodoo. Even though Hoodoo was in the past considered more “Baptist” and less deity dependent, lately there has been more of a merging between Hoodoo and Obeah in North America. So I don’t think it wise to view them as so far apart. Another thing to note about this list is that some of these are Spirits from Native American belief systems who have been brought in by people of mixed culture or ancestry.
Ancestors – In diaspora systems, one may venerate their own ancestors as well as others’ and notable people they admire. Marie Laveau is a common appearance on many Hoodoo, Voudou, and even some Obeah practitioners’ altars. If they were very powerful in their earthly life, some of their identity may be retained aside of the collective Ancestors (Egungun). So they can be called upon for help or advice.
Animal Spirits – Every animal including man, has a Spirit who is in charge of them. This being represents the both the ideal and the baser side of a particular creature. One of the key features of Obeah is that it addresses evolutionary chains, the connection between animals. For instance, humans and chimpanzees share connection to the Papa Ape, and all vertebrates share a connection to the Papa Snake. This is one reason for keeping various animal parts around. A rippling in a jar or twitch of a preserved paw can give us information about what is going on around us and even tell us whether or not someone is telling the truth.
Sometimes animal Spirits will take on a human or semi human form or speak with a human voice in order to relate to mankind, give a person a message, or perhaps for general mischief. There are stories of these encounters in just about every culture.
Archangels – The Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Refael among others, are often called upon in root work. This is a “Baptist” tradition because non Catholics did not generally name Orishas after the Saints, but also comes from the influence of works such as the Key of Solomon and the Book of Abramelin.
Black Angels, Blood Angels, Jumpers – The restless Spirits of children who were killed due to the horrors of slavery. They can be angry and take out their anger on people for many generations because they are frustrated and afraid to go back to the Ancestors because it would mean being reborn into this world. Sometimes they will be almost convinced, and then as a trial or to be purposefully cruel, inhabit the body of a child when a woman is pregnant, and then leave, causing her to miscarry repeatedly. Because they did not go to the Ancestors, they are still angry and carry that pain. To stop the repeated miscarriages and stillbirths, the ghost child must be convinced to go to the Ancestors or that the parents will make sure nothing happens to them that happened before. Often when they do finally settle down, the child is born extremely intelligent, but with some disability to mark them as a special child of Obatala. Related to Abiku in Africa, the souls of children who died before the age of 12.
Bone Spirits – Closely related to the main animal Spirits, these are the spirits of individual animals whose bones or other parts one is using for divination or other mystical purposes. Though many are uncareful about this, it is important to gain the consent of the animal as an individual or to appease its Papa and/or Mama Spirit before using its parts. Someone at the priestly level doing their own harvesting would be expected to gain consent from the individual and appease the Parent Spirit. A layperson would just need to be sure to appease the Parent Spirit since they are less sensitive and probably not actually using the parts except as clothing, food, ornamentation, or good luck charms. If one has not appeased the Parent Spirit, a good luck charm can be a bad luck charm. Another important thing to note is that at some point, the bones or other parts may wish to be lain to rest. They should be given a proper burial or cremation and dispersal.
Brigitte, Miss Brigid, Mama Brigitte – Basically Maman Brigitte. She is the nice older White lady in stories who helps slaves escape or brings food to the poor or teaches Black people to read and otherwise support themselves and then magically disappears. She looks very frail, but has super strength and the power to make glamours to hide people. When nothing else can be done, she waves her hand and attackers die from the draft it creates. She is very benevolent but very powerful.
Death or Mr. Bones – Everyone who walks the “path of bones” in earnest has met Death. All that lives has an appointment with him. Although some may view dealing with Death as the creepy side of Obeah, they should remember that many of the good things in life are because of Death.
If you have clean water it is because the germs in it were killed. Plants and many other living creatures died to make the soil fertile for your food to grow. If you eat meat then obviously some animals died for that. If you’re a vegetarian, your vegetables were grown on Death. Petroleum is long dead animals and plants. So your computer on which you are reading this right now is made of Death and metal. Death is necessary for there to be life.
Devil – Basically how Eshu the Trickster combined with Eshu of Tragedy is perceived in the west. Depending on who you ask, it could instead refer to Balzvuv (Beelzebub) who is a negative entity that every mystic should beware because he convinces people to do harm for “good” reasons that are not really good. A misanthropic or greedy person could enlist his aid in getting people to follow him to their destruction.
Diggers – These are beings said to live in the first foot or so of the ground. In some ways they resemble Gnomes, but may be a bit more cruel in their mischief. There are stories of them braiding or tangling people and animals’ hair in the night. They may do this to protect them from harmful Spirits or humans who cannot resist a knot, and must untie it before they can continue with whatever bad deeds they had planned. So even though they may cause some mischief, only bad people hate the Diggers.
John, Jonny – A name for Eshu. Stories are often told of a clever slave (Eshu the Trickster in disguise) who always outwits his master.
Jumbie or Duppy - A Carribean term for ghosts or spirits of ancestors, or for demons, depending who you ask.
King Snake, Grand Snake, Li Grand Zombi – A name for Damballah, especially as the King of Snakes. He is able to strike enemies from a long distance because he is in all of the sky. He is often called upon to grant wishes or to gain justice when someone flees from punishment.
Mama Raccoon – Similar to Oba, she is the guardian of marriage, female fidelity, and protective motherhood. Some symbols used for her are alternating stripes of black, pink, and gray, or a diagonal grid to symbolize a secure net or nest.
Mami, La Sirene, Mama Siren, Mommi - Basically Yemaya, but also residing in fresh water.
Manitou – The name some use for the Supreme God. It is an originally Native American Siouan term.
Moon Children – Semi-spirit beings who are children of the Moon and live for one lunar month. They die and are reborn every full moon.
Nadella – Also known as Needler or Neesa, or simply the Unquiet Spirit. She disturbs people until they do what a working was made for them to do. She is sometimes called upon in love spells to cause the person to not be able to rest until they go to the person on whose behalf the spell was done. More often, she is called to plague someone’s enemies so they cannot rest until they make amends or die.
Papa Raccoon – Similar to Shango, but more specific to sexual prowess and sexually motivated aggression. He is called to keep people away from one’s wife or girlfriend. Raccoon bacula (penis bones) are given as love gifts to keep a woman from messing around, and also as protection talismans for non romantic reasons.
Raster – An incubus similar to the Unquiet Spirit who takes the form of a man and brutally rapes women in their dreams. He is usually called on in cases of false rape accusations. If someone who has been falsely accused, they can have a work done in which Raster will take on their form and torture the woman. He is said by some to have been first summoned by the mother of a man who was lynched because of a false rape accusation.
Seven African Powers – The main or most important seven Orishas in human life vary somewhat from person to person. Most people who are more into Vodun have a top 10 or 20 actually. However, seven is a catchy number and so there are many products labelled “Seven African Powers…” for effect. Generally, when people use this term, they’re referring to Eshu, Obatala, Yemaya, Ogun, Shango, Oshun, and Oya.
Sun Children – Semi-spirit beings who are children of the Sun. They die and are reborn every solar year at the summer solstice.
Swamp Queen, Mama Gator – The Mother of all alligators, she takes the form of a giant alligator or a strange old swamp witch, and sometimes a beautiful young woman dressed in tattered, wet clothes. She must be appeased before one is allowed to hunt alligators with any luck. She can make someone get lost in the swamp or everglades or be bitten by a snake. She can also help someone to navigate and survive snakebites that would normally be fatal. Some believe that Mama Gator is Oshun Ibu Ana or Nana Buruku’s closer to Earth manifestation.
Tall Man (mainland) or Moko Jumbie (islands) – A Spirit who manifests as a giant or extremely tall man. In the U.S. mainland, he is said to live in the forest. In the islands, he can show up just about anywhere. He is generally thought to be malevolent towards humans, though some other Spirits who appear as giants may be wrongly thought to be him. Some view him as the protector of the forest whose permission must be gotten before chopping down any trees.
Vampires or Soucouyant – Unlike the undead popular in European folklore, these are Spirits who feed on blood. In many cases, the night time antics of rats, bats, and even thorn bushes have been called vampire attacks, the signs of an actual attack are clear. The person being attacked goes into a trance like state, marks appear on their body, and afterwards they feel very weak. There are many stories of vampires appearing as a ball of light or fire, but this is likely how they appear to some people being attacked. Those who have observed attacks not as the victim, report that it is more like a bubble of darkness and extreme cold. A shadow will pass over the person, they will begin to bleed often in multiple places on their body, and then when it is gone, the person falls from weakness.
Sometimes it is not blood they are after, but vitality, energy, or something else. They can exploit vulnerabilities caused by the evil eye, and often do this as a way of being undetected. Evil eye gets the blame for the person’s misfortunes, and the wrong protection methods will be used that allow the vampire to continue to feed.
Hierarchy of Spirits
This is a general hierarchy, but there is plenty of overlap except in the case of the Supreme God.
Supreme God – The Most High, Unfathomable Supreme Be-ing, Original Creator
Witness Deities – Those deities who were created before the physical Universe, or specifically to witness the creation of the physical Universe, and manage or embody various spiritual or metaphysical principles.
Angels – Attendants of the Supreme God sent when specifically divine intervention is required in any situation.
First Cosmic Deities – Those created at the creation of the physical Universe, and assigned to manage, create, and/or embody specific laws of Nature and existence, planets, or other celestial bodies.
Elemental Deities – Also created at the same time as creation of the physical Universe, they manage and embody elements and the interactions between them.
Earth Specific Forces
Planetary Forces – Those who manage and embody various natural forces on specific planets.
Life Guardians and Animal Spirits – Those who manage and embody the primary energy of specific categories of living things.
The Ancestors/The Dead - The force of spiritual energy to which souls return after death and from which new souls are formed. These may not be Earth specific for everyone.
Earth Specific Attendants
Spirits of Light (Earth Angels or Life Affirming Demons in some languages) and Spirits of Darkness (Demons) – Spirit beings who reside on Earth and may be working in the interest of affirming or sustaining life, or destroying it. Whether it is good or evil depends to some degree on perspective. They are like the day-to-day duty or “lesser” Angels.
Gardener Beings – Faeries, Gnomes, Diggers, etc. maintain various ecosystems and situations. They seldom have an interest in the lives of humans unless humans are messing something up or they like a particular person or family because they’re helpful.
Predatory Beings – Vampires and others who exploit living things to sustain themselves.
Persons – People at about the same general level that we are in 3 dimensions, who simply live at higher dimensions, who can move within our dimensional range. They are physical beings in their dimension, but appear to us as solid, ethereal, or wraith-like. Some may be mages or just very talented people where they are from. Some may be gardener or predatory beings from other worlds.
There are many theories about the origins of Obeah, even the word itself. There are many words in many West African languages that have “obi” or “obea” in them that are connected to mysticism. Because many Igbo people were taken to the West Indies as slaves though, the term most likely originated from the Igbo word “obia” which means working as a healer or doctor.
Obeah’s roots are in African Vodun, but it developed into a distinct system of medicine and mysticism in Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and other islands in that region. Some call it sorcery or witchcraft, but I don’t like to use these terms because it is much deeper than saying some words and putting together some formulae. Unlike some western forms of witchcraft, it also does not come from an attitude of the Spirits serving the person, but the person serving the Spirits. Obeah practitioners would consider it unthinkable to summon a demon and give it orders as if it was obligated to obey. Like any Vodun practitioner, if we are calling on a Spirit, we follow the proper proceedure, approach with humility, and do not show up empty handed.
Some may go as far as to actually befriend a Spirit. Indeed, many refer to the Orishas and deities as allies. However, it is constantly in mind that they are extremely strong allies who one does not disrespect without severely bad consequences. Because of its African roots, whether the Obeah practitioner is calling Eshu, Odin, Krishna, or a Tengu or Djinn, we approach them with African level respect.
Obeah has a reputation as the most or one of the most powerful magical systems on Earth. As powerful as it is, the fact that most information about it is transmitted orally means that much of the specifics are secret. Obeah practitioners very rarely take on apprentices, and do not even teach it to their children or relatives unless they have the signs. A person’s secrets and discoveries can die with them. This is considered part of the natural order of things.
We believe that some things a person should go through the steps of learning and discovery on their own. They should not be written down or passed to others because they won’t learn what they are supposed to learn by discovering the Truth on their own. The journey, in many cases, is as or more important than the destination.
This does not mean that Obeah people never teach or share. Indeed, we are often very generous with laypersons in giving information that will help them in their daily lives. We may also share information with people who have reached a certain level and deserve the knowledge.
Though Obeah is very closely connected to the Yoruba style of Vodun, there are a few distinct differences. It does not rely on a strict hereditary priesthood, and it incorporates methods and techniques from other belief systems. The basic philosophy is that all people are children of Yemaya, regardless of the place they are born. So as long as a technique is sound and it works, it can be used to get the job done.
Rather than sticking to a limited tradition, it draws from all. This is one reason why Obeah people are sometimes feared and sometimes looked down upon by practitioners of more ethnically centered traditions.
Another reason for the fear is some true and some false tales of what Obeah people do to accomplish their goals. The use of psychoactive plants is one of the truths. We do use a variety of herbs for healing and for trance. Some are less concerned about legality than others.
There is also concern about the use of blood in ceremony and the creation of talismans. Some would call what is done to sacrificed animals before they are dispatched, cruelty. Though I personally don’t practice cruelty to animals, and have any slaughtering done by a priest of Ogun or a shochet (a Jewish kosher slaughterer), some others are not so careful.
Then finally, there is the use of death curses. Many believe that death curses are a normal thing in Obeah. It is and it isn’t. I’ll explain. It is normal in that there are Obeah people who do them. It’s just that it’s not something that is done normally. A death curse is not something that is done without thought or regard for the consequences.
Though Obeah practitioners do not have a uniform religion per se, we all believe that no human is stronger than Nature itself, and that every action has consequences. Just as unjustified killing with your hands will bring the wrath of that person’s family, law enforcement, and the Spirits, unjustified killing with a curse will as well. There is a high price even for unjustified ill will, so for a conscious curse, the price is even higher.
There are many perspectives about Obeah and many articles about what it is. Everybody has their view. The important thing to remember about it though is that though it is very individualist, the basis of it is Mami Wata. Obeah is basically eclectic Vodun in the West Indian diaspora.
Is Obeah evil?
Obeah itself is neutral. The person practicing it can be basically good or basically evil. No human is totally good, so it can be used for evil purposes.
One should ask themselves though, if a tiger is evil when she kills her prey or defends her cubs? Is a snake evil when he strikes because he is being threatened or mishandled?
Some people are specialists at doing works that cause death and destruction. They are not given this talent for no reason or somehow against Nature. Nothing can happen that God and Nature do not allow. They were given their abilities for the same reason snakes are born with fangs and tigers are born with claws.
How can I protect myself from Obeah curses?
Don’t do bad things to people. That’s it. Anyone, no matter how small or insignificant you may think they are, can enlist the help of an Obeah person. In fact, one of the ways it arose in the islands is to take revenge on slave owners and other exploiters.
When you do bad things to people, you put a wound on your soul. Even in the scientific sense, harming others damages you psychologically. So the more wrong you do to others, the more vulnerable you become to dark forces of Nature.
Also, bear in mind that what Nature and the Spirits of Nature considers wrong may not be limited to what humans consider wrong. If, for instance, you marry someone for money or for the purpose of exploiting them, what you’re doing may be legal, but this does not make it right. If you are a police officer and you arrest someone for smoking marijuana and beat him, again, legal but not right. If this person or someone else on their behalf, takes the matter to an Obeah person, then you could be in trouble.
A curse is basically a removal of that person’s implicit protection over you in the natural network of humanity, and an entreaty to the Spirits for justice. Though you may not see it, all living beings and all things are connected. If that person’s wishing you well was the thing that stood between you and some disaster, you and perhaps those close to you will suffer.
By the same, most Obeah people will not throw a curse unless it is justified. Some however, are young and immature, but very talented and much like the seemingly random snake in the bush or malaria causing mosquito in the jungle. Some are just crazy or petty. Dangerous people exist to keep us from becoming lazy and complaicant. However, if you don’t harm people on purpose, and try to make amends for your misdeeds, you will at least have some protection.
What do I do if I have been cursed?
Think back on all the wrongs you have done to people, and start making amends. It may be that nobody has actually cursed you, but that you have done so much dirt that you’re choking on it. Time to pay the piper.
If for some reason (such as causing greater suffering, or the person you wronged is dead) you cannot make amends, then you’ll need to take it up with the Spirits. You may have to do certain actions or give offerings to the Spirits you offended to remove the curse.
Sometimes though, there is no way out. If you have been blessed, or got help from the Spirits to get something good, and then squandered or misused your gifts, you may never get them back. If, for instance, you were given the gift of beauty beyond your years by Oshun and then used that to exploit others, and someone throws a curse on you that this gift be taken away, you may not get it back, even if they forgive you. It’s Nature.
If you do your best to make up for your wrongs though, you will be blessed in other ways. You will at least have peace and be stronger for what you have learned.
How do I learn Obeah?
Though this is, surprisingly, not a frequently asked question, it is an important one. Few people are interested in becoming Obeah practitioners because it is not a very glamorous life. No matter how much we have in the bank, most of us lead very austere lives, much like other scholarly types. Some of us are shamanistic and choose to live in tents or shacks in the wilderness to be away from people unless they come to us for services. Some of us are more urban, but still a bit reclusive. Some very few are capable of being very public, engaging, and charismatic without suffering overmuch from it. Generally though, we’re solitary people because this particular path makes one very sensitive to the thoughts and emotions of others.
So if you choose to go this way, just be aware that you are not likely to be one of the fortunate who can live a “normal” life, much less enjoy fame. You may achieve fame, but it will probably not be something you enjoy. You’ll consider it the price you pay for being good at what you do.
To begin the path of Obeah, start a personal relationship with Eshu. Make an altar for him in your home, and ask him to teach you. Then brace yourself. It will be a wild ride.
Eshu will teach you and bring you knowledge about the Universe and yourself that you need. He will send people into your life to guide you, and he will remove people from your life who hold you back. It is not always a pleasant situation. You may learn things that are difficult for you to accept.
Once your eyes are open, you cannot un-know what you know. You may have difficult dilemas about how to use the knowledge that you gain. Just remember that none of us is stronger than Nature. Your ideals may not match up to the reality. Once you have accepted Truth and begun to use it to help others and yourself, your success rate will skyrocket because you are truly working in line with Nature, not politics or tradition. You then become like a force of Nature. You become an Obeah person.
More About Obeah
A list of Spirits commonly sought in Obeah, Hoodoo, and diaspora folk magic and spirituality.
Here are some other perspectives on Obeah:
A snippet on Obeah in the Bahamas by Zora Neal Hurston
House of the Divine Prince’s Voodootye’s video: What is legitimate in Hoodoo, Obeah, and Voodoo?
It’s kind of an ad, but it’s appropriately so, since one of the things that is woefully missing in the discussion of legitimacy is transparency and results.