In my last blog entry I mentioned how anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith wondered if the use of a plant with vermifugal properties such as Worm-weed gave rise to the idea that animals and other foreign bodies could be removed from under a person’s skin by Obeah practitioners.
In Black Roadways (1929), Beckwith wrote of the technique of Obeah pulling; i.e. removing an object or creature from patient’s body as a cure for their malady. Beckwith’s description is almost entirely based on the writings of the African-Jamaican clergyman, Thomas Banbury. In my post on Calabashes I looked briefly at Banbury’s account of Obeah pulling where calabash cups were placed on a patient’s body to draw out the foreign body which infected him. Banbury went on to describe how the skin was scored with a knife to facilitate the removal of the object and the practitioner/ healer could also suck the foreign matter out using his or her mouth rather than a cup.
Items removed by this method included “pieces of glass bottles, nails, pins, needles, the teeth of cats, serpents, bits of bones, shells, small vials, lizards, spiders and other small insects.”
Prior to the procedure, some practitioners would consult an item called an amber. Beckwith described ambers as “fetich” objects employed by Myalists or Obeah practitioners. In some areas an amber bead was used, in others a glass marble.
An example of using an amber in Obeah-pulling is illustrated in the excerpts of song lyrics from the early 20th century collected by Beckwith shown below. The first song came from James White, described by Beckwith as having “a reputation for knowledge of herb medicines and of songs to raise the dead” and the second song’s lyrics were given to Beckwith by Swabe, the lead dancer in Jonkonnu ceremonies in Prospect. The eagle-eyed among you may notice a few different spellings of “amber” – I’m using both variations as this is how the songs appear in Beckwith’s text.
Pull-ee me am-bah ye, Pull –ee me am- bah ye
Pull-ee me am-bah ye, Pull-ee me am-bah ye[p.
Amba dead a dirt-ee, oh, good ol’ amba!
Tol’ somebody dat you saw dem, good ol’ amba!
Come pull out obeah fe me, oh, good ol’ amba!
I get musical with gourds
Rev. Thomas Banbury, Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island (Kingston: Mortimer Co. De Souza, 1894), pp. 12-13, 14.
Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), p. 132.
Martha Warren Beckwith, “Christmas Mummings” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), pp. 49, 11
Song lyrics from “Christmas Mummings”, pp. 52, 33
Picture credits: Charles J Sharp – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJamaican_Gray_(stripefoot)_anole_(Anolis lineatopus)JPG