Why Obeah Has a Scary Reputation
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 (or how ever one’s tradition personifies the spiritual essence of Water), 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 ethnocentric traditions. Yes, we do draw from many sources but this is only because we come from a variety of sources. We do our best to respect all of them because to mess this up and mix things haphazardly is a good way to alienate and anger forces of Nature. Granted, we can’t even allow ourselves to really think of the spirits’ anger as anger in the way that humans think of it. It isn’t a feeling for them. It is like a reflex that if you mess this up in the physical realm, things fall like dominoes.
We are used to navigating this balance very carefully, but I have to admit, personally, I can totally understand the fear and worry someone who isn’t familiar with how we go about things may have about our practices. It is not easy. We make it look easy for flair and theater, but it is a like dancing on a Universe sized spider’s web with atom sized strings, trying not to get stuck or tangled up somewhere. We have to operate with extreme levels of respect.
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. Most of us avoid the “poison path” though. Some of us even have spiritual practices around our medication. If you’ve seen someone from the islands do a little hand gesture before they smoke a cigarette, that’s what that is.
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 could be defined as eclectic Vodun in the West Indian diaspora, but more the practical using local resources than a religion/tradition. It is not however, the same tradition as west African Vodun. It is its own unique approach to African diaspora spirituality born from the Caribbean.