Myalism...Why Don't Jamaicans Talk About This?
A few days ago, my doula instructor posted something on Facebook that really got me starting to probe. Her post was about palo santo and the fact that it is ENDANGERED. She chooses to burn bark and herbs that are native to her region in New York. I commented on how I had heard that palo santo was endangered and how I learned that white sage was actually a sacred plant for many Native American tribes. (I blame privileged people who have become obsessed with writing blog posts about surface spirituality professing how much palo santo and sage can make you a less shitty human). I also shared that although I could find herbs that were native to my region, I was not sure what herbs were used by my ancestors.
I am first generation American-born, from a family that comes from Jamaica. Of course the slave trade happened and I don’t know my true origins aka where my people ORIGINALLY came from (like 5+ generations back). Naturally, my interested is piqued quite easily, so I decided to start looking on what Jamaicans did for spiritual practice outside of Christianity.
I had grown up knowing about “duppies” ghosts/spirits and I had learned about Obeah, a kind of dark/black magic practice over a decade ago. Obeah was something that was usually feared and rarely talked about. If it was talked about, it was compared to voodoo and not in a good way.
I’m not afraid of Obeah, so I started there. There are a few books that you can actually find with Obeah being the main or one of the main subjects. Again, it gets looped in with Voodoo (voduo), Santeria, and other Caribbean religions. Obeah is said to deal with “bad” juju, the more evil tasks or combating evil. Poisons, curses, and the summoning of evil spirits was a major theme. Many people were harmed in Jamaica during slavery times (you know my people were tearing up the slaveholders dem) so they outlawed Obeah in 1760.
What I found pretty cool is that Obeah-people and Myal-People used similar things to what you would see in a botanica today like “send evil away” oils, candles, herbs, etc. I had only known about the items in botanicas because of Latinx use of such materials. I had no idea that my own people were so similar. If you think about it, the Caribbean islands are not that far apart, so why would we be that different from each other?
As I continued looking into Obeah, “Myalism” kept popping up along with it, in various different articles. There aren’t any books that I found on Myalism, but many sources online seem to show that Myalism is the more “good” or positive variation of Obeah. It looks like Myalism is more centered around healing, summoning ancestors, the use of herbs, dancing, and drumming. It was a religion created by slaves, maybe pooling their information of rituals, religions, and cultures together in this new land. It is said that this religion was created “as a form of religious resistance to the oppression experienced in plantation life.” Myalism seems to be more community centered, especially in regards to the dancing. This religion seems to be derived from the religions of West Africa. Myal-men also used their religion to counteract the works of Obeah. I read that “Myalism was the bridge or the force between Obeah and Vodou, Santeria, and Hoodoo. The more I read, the more the idea of being a Myal-woman resonated with me. Not that I wanted to become one, but that I came from a lineage of peoples that were a part of this religious tradition.
Myalism is considered a folk religion and I don’t believe it is considered an actual religion, presently. It is just really upsetting to never have heard of this until literally a week ago. I have never seen a book about Myalism, let alone Obeah, on a bookshelf, even in people’s personal collections. It is such a shame that the religions mentioned in this article got such a bad rep and made people too afraid to even talk about it. I get that some of these practices were indeed used to do harm as well as heal and protect…but you don’t see people holding Christianity or any other major religions in the same regards *cues major side eye* where its history is essentially buried.
I will continue my research on this subject and hopefully the right people and information put themselves in my path!
**DISCLAIMER: I do not want to commercialize or bastardize any religion mentioned as I do not have enough information on ANYTHING written. This is article is intended to simply share my of findings on the history of my people that has not been handed down by oral tradition or otherwise. (It may have been handed down, but this religion was not ever mentioned within my family unit) Please do your own research. Please look for ways to connect to your own people, lands,