Last update May 27, 2022: Motherland connection found, Efe West (see the links on the final page).
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. Another theory is that it originated in Akan/Coromantee practices, but I am not personally as sure about this connection as I am about the Igbo. It seems like one of those things the government said to demonize the revolutionaries of the Tacky rebellion. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of Akan influence, but certain aspects of basic observance, purification, protection, and what ritual purity means, not to mention the esoteric aspects and anti establishment-ness, call the usual origin narrative into question for me. It just doesn’t seem like the whole story.
Because of some confusion, it should be clarified that the term “Obeah” like “Voodoo” usually refers to a category of practices. It is not as broad though, and specifically refers to spirituality and folk medicine of people from the West Indies and Caribbean islands and surrounding areas. These practices made their way into the U.S. and show up often along the east coast. It spread the farthest and deepest among literate African Americans through connections made in churches and fraternal organizations. When I say “spread” though, I don’t mean “became popular”. It was and still remains something usually passed from teacher to student, most often through family, but from time to time someone is “adopted” because they show signs and would be unmanageable without intervention.
We have our own names for our systems, and it may describe the system itself or an ancestor through blood or mentorship. I didn’t mention a common name for east coast practices before because it sounded to me like one of those teacher jokes or a snap back for my being overly label focused. There are very few resources so there was no way but asking people if they were told the same thing. Now after asking and doing some research on why it is, I understand that the term pronounced like “Qabbalah” but spelled “Kabala” is indeed as I initially thought many years ago, Ka Ba Lah. I still don’t use the term often because of how it sounds even though we do learn about the Jewish one. So it’s not a joke or comeback to shut me up. When told to the public, it’s up to the hearer or reader to understand that we’re talking about an updated and evolving discipline with origins in ancient Kemetic style mysticism and Heka.
Looking back to that conversation does bring up a whole lot that is personal for me. A lot that my instructor said and did makes sense in the context of our belief system, but then it highlights some of their biggest mistakes. I understand that certain things that happened between the initial detection and the infusion were life changing for them, not just for me. I had some healing to do and some cycles to break. I seriously shudder when thinking about what I would have been like had I not had that early instruction and done the studying I was told to do. The infusion moment was when I understood many things I didn’t understand before. My worldview was jarringly changed, and I suddenly understood my mom’s religious path. Better a mostly false light than no light.
Though most practitioners could be described as somewhat eclectic, and are happy to teach things that are in the general pool of spiritual knowledge, most details are not shared with the public or in books. There is no way for someone to “self initiate”. One is either mentored by an elder or promoted to that level by a community in the islands or populated by those in this diaspora. For the latter, there is a level of blessing by the people required.
To be clear, all people who are in this were given a particular flavor of blessing by another human being or group of human beings. Though it is in the realm of possibility that under extreme conditions, someone could be snatched by the Serpent, so to speak, this would only happen if the conditions were extreme on the level of wartime or something mind breaking. Even then they would need the assistance of a spiritually aware, competent therapist to contain it after that. It is true that the scales of this Serpent are shaped through pain.
Origins of Obeah
Obeah’s roots are in Kemetic Heka, west African Vodun and Igbo Odinani, as well as other regional African systems, but it developed into a distinct system of medicine and mysticism in Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, and other islands in that region. So it also took on some practices and pantheons and of course bloodlines from indigenous Americans. 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 procedure, 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.
This does not mean that we randomly borrow deities and practices from here and there. Though this entitled view is popular, it is not the way someone should go about things if they value their life and sanity. Before we incorporate any other than our own ancestors and deities introduced to us by our instructors thoroughly, we study under elders, priests, or wise persons of that belief system. For example, if I wish to incorporate White Tara into my practice, I will consult with a Tibetan Buddhist and go to a shrine or retreat to receive her properly. Though many systems allow one to incorporate some deities through simple basic information and sincere observance, some require a formal introduction. One should speak with actual adherents of any tradition one wishes to incorporate elements or deities from. Even some Yoruba deities, cosmopolitan as the system may be, will mess you up if you come at them wrong.