Obeah Witches

: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

From the earliest days of Spanish occupancy the Antilles have been the

haunt of strange creatures. Mermen have sung in their waters, witches

and wizards have perplexed their villages, spirits and fiends have

dwelt among their woods. Everybody fears the jumbie, or evil spirit

that walks the night; and the duppy, the rolling calf, the ghost of

the murdered one; all pray that they may never meet the diablesse,

the beautif
l negress with glittering eyes, who passes silently through

fields where people are at work, and smiling on any one of them compels

him to follow her,--where? He never returns. Anansi (grotesquely

disguised sometimes as Aunt Nancy) is a hairy old man with claws,

who outwits the lesser creatures, as Br'er Rabbit does. To him and

his familiars are attributed all manner of queer tales, one of which,

from Jamaica, may be quoted as an illustration:

Sarah Winyan, an orphan of ten, lived with her aunt, while her two

brothers kept house by themselves a mile or two away. This aunt was

an Obeah witch, the duppy, or devil ghost, that was her familiar,

appearing as a great black dog that she called Tiger. Sarah stood

between this old woman and a little property, and after finding that

the child endured her abuse with more or less equanimity and was

not likely to die, she told her that she was too poor to support

her any longer, and she must go. Sarah sat on a stone before the

house, wondering how she could make a living, and all the time sang

mournfully. A racket as of some heavy creature plunging about in the

bushes aroused her with a start and she scrambled into a tree. It was

Tiger who had been making the disturbance. He told her to descend at

once. If she would go with him peacefully, and would be his servant,

all would be well, but if she refused he would gnaw the tree down and

tear her into a thousand pieces. He showed his double row of teeth,

like daggers, whereupon Sarah immediately descended. As she walked

beside him to his lair she sang low, in the hope of being heard

and rescued. It was well that she did so, for her brothers, who were

hunting in the wood, recognized her voice and softly followed. Peering

in at the cave where Tiger made his home, they saw him sleeping

soundly with his head in Sarah's lap. Cautiously, slowly, she drew

away, leaving a block of wood for his head to rest upon, and crept

out of the cavern. Then the boys entered, and with their guns blew

the head of the beast into bits, cut his body into four parts, buried

them at the north, south, east and west edges of the wood; then killed

the wicked aunt. And since that day dogs have been subject to men.

The evil eye is not uncommon in the Antilles. It blights the lives of

children, and it is one of the worst of fates to be "overlooked" by an

Obeah man possessing it. Higes, or witches, too, are seen, who take off

their skins, and in that state of extra-nudity go about looking for

children, whose blood they suck, like vampires. Lockjaw is caused by

this loss of blood. There is a three-footed horse, also, that gallops

about the country roads when it has come freshly out of hell and is

looking for victims it can eat. If it halts before a house, that stop

means death to somebody within, and the peculiar sound made by its

three hoofs tells what has passed. It is not well to look, because

the creature has an eye in the centre of its forehead that flashes

fire. One who meets it is so fascinated by this blazing eye that he

cannot look away. He stares and stares; presently paralysis creeps over

him, and in a little while he falls dead. Sometimes a creature is seen

riding on this horse,--a man with a blue face, like that of a corpse,

and with that face turned toward the tail. Related, in tradition,

to the horse was the king-snake of Carib myth, a frightful creature

that wore a brilliant stone in its head, which it usually concealed

with a lid, like that of the eye, but which it would uncover when it

went to a river to drink, or played about the hills. Whoever looked

on this dazzling stone would lose his sight on the instant.

The Obeah man has an hereditary power that comes to him in advanced

age, and that, when at its strongest, enables him to send an evil

spirit into any object he pleases. Not only do the people believe in

him, but he has the fullest faith in himself. When he boils a witch

broth of scorpions' blood, toads' heads, snake bellies, spider poison,

and certain herbs picked by moonlight (an actual mixture used by

Obeah witches),--boils it over a fire of dead men's bones, between

midnight and dawn,--he has no more doubt of its power to harm than

the physician doubts the power of his quinine and antipyrin for good.

A Cuban planter who suspected one of his older slaves of being an Obeah

man determined to punish him if he were found guilty, and to suppress

the diabolism attending the midnight meetings. Watching his chance,

he followed his slaves into the wood, peeped through the crevices of

the deserted hut which they had entered to perform their fantastic

rites, saw their mad dance, when, stripped and decorated with beads,

shells, and feathers, they leaped about with torches in their hands;

then saw his suspected slave enter through a back door, his black skin

painted to represent a skeleton. The old man held up a fat toad, which,

he said, was his familiar, and the company began to worship it with

grotesque and obscene ceremonies. Though he felt a thrill of disgust

and even a dim sense of fear at the spectacle, the planter broke in at

the door and confronted the Obeah man. Had he ordered the old fellow

to do any given task about his house or grounds in the daytime, that

order would have been obeyed. What was the planter's astonishment,

therefore, when the slave calmly disregarded his command to return

to quarters, and bade his master leave the place at once and cease

to disturb the meeting, or prepare for a great misfortune. Enraged,

and fearing lest this defiance might encourage the other slaves

to mutiny, the master shot the old man dead. A few days later the

planter's wife died while seated at the table. A week after his

daughter died, a seeming victim of poison. All the latent superstition

in his nature having been aroused, he sought out another Obeah man,

to beg that he would intercede with the powers of darkness, but the

wizard was stern. He told him that the slave he had killed was the

most powerful master of spirits in the country, and that nothing

could stay the revenges of fate. When the planter reached his home

he found a letter there announcing the death of his only son in Paris.