In Jamaica, Obeah Is an Ancient Magic That’s Rarely Discussed—Until Now

The son of a Jamaican Obeah Man reveals the magic that’s always running beneath the surface.

In Jamaica, Obeah Is an Ancient Magic That’s Rarely Discussed—Until Now

Illustration by Bene Rohlmann

They shall not pass

You do not take magic to an enchanted place. That’s the law. Touch down at the Norman Manley International Airport in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, and you will not see a sign. But a quick visit to the customs agency’s website reveals that a strict rule applies:

All publications of de Laurence Scott & Company and of the Red Star Publishing Company of Chicago in the United States of America relating to divination, magic, cultism or supernatural arts are prohibited from entering the country through the ports.

Collect your bags. Apart from that sparkle on the Caribbean Sea, you will not observe a trail of pixie dust as you cruise inland, but you might notice that New Testament Bible perched on your taxi driver’s dashboard. It’s been open to Psalm 35 long enough for the pages to crisp under the sun. The book is for his spiritual protection. That piece of jewelry riding his index finger is a guard ring. It has a single red stone to ward off negativity, so let’s hope you didn’t bring any with you. Things just got real—or real magical.

Cruise through downtown Kingston in the early morning. That street vendor squeezing a lime and throwing buckets of water around his stall? He knows: Mischief comes under cover of night to sprinkle potions (“Oil of No Sale,” “Powder of No Profit”) meant to negatively affect his livelihood. And if Jah didn’t send showers of blessings overnight, it’s up to the vendor to wash the evil away before commencing business.

In another shop, you might see an aerosol can of “Bad Mind Go Away” spray. As you pass through the city’s ghettos, travel to fishing villages in the south, or range across the rain-drenched ravines of the countryside, watch for flags mounted on bamboo poles—they mean there’s a spiritual doctor in the house. Behind the corrugated zinc fence is a balmyard, the home or “office” of an Obeah Man or Woman.

Obeah is Jamaica’s spiritual folk practice, used either to ward off evil or bring harm to someone else. Some compare it to Santeria or Haitian Vodou or North American Hoodoo. When you know to look for it, Obeah will materialize everywhere. But you will find no Jamaican quick to admit even an oblique association with the practice. Well, let me be the first. My name is Roland Watson-Grant. I am the Obeah Man’s Son. I can tell you some stories.


My father, the repairman

My father, Joe, was a fixer. My brothers and I grew up in the 1970s in a two-bedroom dwelling in Kingston, among scores of household appliances that had given up the ghost. It was a morgue of sorts, but Joe was known for resurrecting radios and TVs with the wave of a soldering iron. Every day, many a customer came to collect precious items brought back to life.

Then there were those who came by night. They spoke in whispers: Who in the tenement yard is trying to harm me? What talisman can break a curse? Yes, Joe also repaired things in the spiritual realm and provided the trinkets of the trade. Dealing in Obeah is an open secret in Jamaica. Yet customers are careful to conduct business covertly as the practice is still frowned upon by some—and against the law.

The first prohibitions against Obeah were uttered as early as 1760, after slaves rebelling against the British Crown were said to have enjoyed the spiritual protection of Obeah Men and Women. Today, more than a hundred years after the forbidding ink dried on the written law, the taboo remains, though the archaic punishments prescribed by the original document—including whipping the offender over a barrel—have long lost their relevance and power to deter.

Those who put quill to parchment did not foresee an oracle called the Internet or a medium named Amazon, dealers in the sorcery of making things appear on one’s doorstep. British lawmakers could not have anticipated YouTube videos streaming full instructions on how to cast a revenge spell on whoever stole your lover.

Those who put quill to parchment did not foresee an oracle called the Internet or a medium named Amazon.

One morning, before dawn, police raided our house. They flipped the mattresses, searched for weapons, dug through appliances, and demanded to see a license for CB radio equipment, all the time ignoring a different kind of technology—or sciance, as Jamaicans sometimes refer to Obeah—that had been packed into wooden boxes under the bed.

In retrospect, I realize this predawn raid may have been brought on by the presence of a 30-foot CB radio pole on our roof. Joe constructed towering antennas that allowed him to talk to Louisiana and Alabama from his workbench. In the 1970s, this kind of activity would easily have attracted the attention of the island’s pro-Cuba government, and persons could be perceived as spying for the United States. My father was on another mission, though. Years later, I would fully comprehend the relevance of Louisiana to the Obeah Man’s business.

Joe made treks from Jamaica to the southern United States to learn about Hoodoo, the “cousin” of Obeah. There he would procure the literature that held spells and herbal remedies practiced in both Hoodoo and Obeah, those outlawed books by de Laurence, Scott & Company that the customs department likes to confiscate, and accoutrements sought after by Jamaicans from all walks of life, but not readily available on the island. Talismans to secure love and blessings, amulets to block harm—they all slipped past the airport X-ray among electronics and stove replacement parts.

When my family broke apart in 1980, the repairman couldn’t fix it. Betrayal is a curse of a sort, and a woman’s heart is not simply bewitched back to happiness. My mother took her four sons into a swamp, miles away from where my father lived. It was a wilderness bristling with the thorns of acacia trees, as if evil had overcome a kingdom. I still visited my father’s house.

Plan your trip with the AFAR guide to Jamaica

At age nine, when other boys may have been finding their father’s secret stash of Playboy, I discovered that those wooden boxes still sat under his bed. Packed inside them were a de Laurence book, pamphlets related to the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, and rubber stamps with seals said to summon angels. That same year, after my mother refused to rekindle their relationship, Joe became one of those who lurked under cover of night.

The repairman came to break her. While we slept, he traveled miles to our house in the swamp to use sciance against his own family. Soon it was commonplace for the sun to rise on powder sprinkled across our path, oils splashed on the corrugated zinc fence, or earth freshly disturbed where small glass bottles of colored liquid had been buried.

Apparently, the Obeah Man didn’t reckon that my mother might have had rituals of her own. Had he taught her some tricks, like a Jedi Master? I will never know. What I do know is that soon after those nocturnal activities began, Joe woke up in excruciating pain. Overnight, his arm had swollen to twice its size, a condition that landed him in the hospital. To this day, Joe, now 83 years old, still sends strange, rambling messages by text to his children, like a man possessed. Perhaps my mother is a conjurer herself.


The last stand

I am from Jamaica. The place is enchanted. There is an old folk tale, handed down through generations: Three turkey vultures roll through the streets of Kingston atop a three-wheeled coffin, one of the birds repeatedly asking for a “Mr. Brown”—an event regarded as a classic manifestation of Obeah. (Mr. Brown, as the legend goes, may have sought the services of an Obeah Man, then refused to pay—the vultures were a sort of otherworldly debt collector. The practice might be private, but the punishment? Not so much.)

The story went on to be immortalized in a Bob Marley song of the same name. Even as I write, I nurse a fractured kneecap, the result of a bizarre fall in the streets of the financial district on an otherwise uneventful day in Kingston. After the accident, the calls came in from friends and acquaintances. Most of the conversations did not end without the mention of Obeah.

“So you walkin’ and just fall down and mash up your knee, just so? No, man. Something wrong!”

Then came the nervous laugh. But seriously, even at this moment, magical powers are winning against proscription. In 2019 the current administration began to talk about decriminalizing Obeah. The general feeling among Jamaicans is that such a move would enable practitioners to throw open the gates of hell.

In this debate, I admit: I am with the undecided. Skeptical as I am about matters of the supernatural, I leave room for the inexplicable. My father is a brilliant and practical man, yet a believer. I know what I have seen and yet refuse to completely embrace. Perhaps this half-hug is necessary. Maybe living with such duality is why I write stories that hover somewhere between myths and the mundane.

Regardless of public opinion, the 1898 law is on the back foot, so to speak. Or, more appropriately, perhaps it stepped over the Obeah Man’s “Oil of No Return” and, like me, has been left without a leg to stand on.

Roland Watson-Grant’s first novel, Sketcher (Alma Books, 2013), has been translated into Turkish and Spanish and was nominated for an Amazon Rising Star Award. Watson-Grant was short-listed for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and is the recipient of a Musgrave Medal in his home country, Jamaica.

>>Next: Chronicling the Black Diaspora Through Postcards

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