Sunday, June 29, 2014

Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold

"I came down on a lightning bolt
Nine months in my mama's belly
When I was born, the midwife scream and shout
I had fire and brimstone coming out of my mouth
I'm Exuma, I'm the Obeah man"
-- Exuma "Exuma the Obeah Man"

The white witch of Rose Hall,
A beauty above all.
The slaves out in the fields
Had brothers who were killed.
This Obeah woman made the spirits rise,
Destroying the unwanted with her eyes.

-- Coven "The White Witch of Rose Hall"

Hadean Press. 2013. 107 pages. Duodecimo (Twelvemo). Full color illustration + black & white illustrations.

Available in three editions:

Digital e-book

Trade Hardback: No limitation stated.

Limited Edition: Limited to 21 copies bound in full sheepskin.

The name Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold should be a familiar one to anyone interested in Caribbean and South American magical traditions. He has written a number of fascinating books on Quimbanda and Palo Mayombe. In one of his most recent works, Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary, he focuses on a somewhat obscure and often poorly understood tradition: Obeah, a form of "Afro-Shamanic Witchcraft". Obeah is believed to have roots linking back to the Igbo people in present day Nigeria. It is perhaps one of the most syncretic practices in the Caribbean. Most Afro-Caribbean traditions are a melange of African and European religions and folk traditions. Obeah has all these elements, but it also has influences from India and the Middle East, as Trinidad has sizable Hindu and Muslim populations. The result is a unique fusion of international beliefs, yet it remains rooted closely to the land in which it has developed, roughly from Trinadad & Tobago to Jamaica.

Interestingly, Obeah has been illegal in Jamaica since 1760. While other Caribbean nations have rewritten their laws to decriminalize it, in Jamaica it is still illegal under the Obeah Act of 1898, though it hasn't been enforced since the 1960s. For more on this subject I recommend Enacting Power: The Criminalization of Obeah in the Anglophone Caribbean, 1760–2011 by  Jerome S. Handler and Kenneth M. Bilby.

What makes Obeah unique is that, unlike Haitian Vodou or Santeria, it is not a religion, nor is it a magical system per se. If it is neither of these then what exactly is it? This is where it gets complicated. Even the author admits it is a bit hard to pin down exactly what Obeah is. The author states,
"Obeah does not refer to a given system, but a sorcerous trade ...  a 'tower of power' -- a storehouse or occult engine of supernatural power owned by Papa Bones and gifted to his votaries."

He describes it best when he says it is a spiritual "technology". Therefore Obeah is not a system or a specific set of practices (though there are some common practices among Obeahmen); rather, it is a power that is received through direct transmission from Obeahmen in succession that acts as a magical catalyst igniting powers within the Obeahman. One could say it is a magical inheritance when referring to passing down of the "obi" or "obiya", a transformative magical essence similar to what many in Traditional Witchcraft call "witch-blood". Through the succession of obiya power Obeah could be also be considered a "thaumaturgical cult" of the initiated.

The raised seal of Anansi in copper.

Other common names for Obeahmen/women are: bush-doctor, balm-man, four-eyed man, buzu, and shadow-catcher. The latter comes from the practice of "duppy-catching" and "shadow-nailing". Duppies (or jumbies) are vampiric ghosts or elementals that are caught and controlled. Shadows (or sasa) are also caught and nailed to cotton trees to facilitate healing and grant other powers.

In some ways Obeah is like contemporary Chaos Magic, as the Obeahman often uses intuitive methods and a very pragmatic and practical "whatever works" approach. Considering they are not restricted by a defined system of practices or religious framework they are free to use whatever is at their disposal to work their magic. The author states,
"Obiya is about your soul set aflame in spiritual congruence and in this way the Obeahman is reminiscent of the modern day Chaos magician but instead of sensitivity with social paradigms he or she holds sensitivity with the shifting arches of creation."

The author continues by finding links and commonalities between Obeah and shamanism too. In fact the author states that shamanism is the "prime technique" used by Obeahmen, as Obeah is about direct spirit contact and working with unseen forces. Like shamans of all cultures, from the secretive kanaima of the Amazon to the soul-traveling Sámi noaide in far northern Scandinavia, Obeahmen are often regarded as outsiders and live a lonely and reclusive life. They also utilize possession and trance to enable traffic with spirits. Obeahman have a "sasa", the invisible spiritual power of an individual that causes a spell to work. It is the sasa that "gives the Obeahman the power to awaken the spirit of plants and bones." Obeahmen also have the power of night-stalking and skin-leaping. These powers are somewhat analogous to the Navajo skinwalker, a malicious sorcerer with the ability to shape-shift into animals. Regarding this subject, I highly recommend Clyde Kluckhohn's book, Navajo Witchcraft.

I found Chapter III, "The Kabalistic Banquette of Lemegeton", particularly interesting. In this chapter the author discusses various books used by Obeahmen. These include: Waite's The Book of Black Magic, The Lemegeton, Grimoire of Pope Honorius, Grimorium Verum, and de Laurence's The Great Book of Magical Art. As you can see, the Obeah tradition is heavily influenced by the Western Grimoire tradition. One of the rites includes a banquette where Goetic and animal spirits are invited to possess participants. A Master of Ceremonies is assigned to maintain order and control of the spirits. If spirits get out of hand he is in charge of destroying magic seals and in some cases even whip the possessed to chase out unruly spirits. Sounds like a party.

Sasabonsam - Image credit: The Museum of Witchcraft

The book describes a number of spiritual figures that Obeahmen revere. Foremost of these are: Sasabonsam (The Lord of the Woods -- a diabolical version of the "Green Man"), Papa Bones (Lord of Darkness), his wife Asase (The Woman in the Lake of Pitch), and her daughter Anima Sola. The Lake of Pitch refers to an actual place, the La Brea Pitch Lake, a large tar-pit found in Trinidad's southwest peninsula -- a suitable home for fearsome spirits. Animal spirits are also called upon and worked with such as: Sarato (the serpent), Morocoi (the turtle), Anansi (the spider), Opete (the vulture), and Adyaini (the jaguar). Many of these spirits are worked with by building an altar with colored candles (typically yellow, red, black, and white), pipe or cigar smoke, and also an offering of apricot brandy (but no alcohol when working with Anima Sola).

The Limited Edition contains an additional chapter titled, "The Temporal Obiya" not found in the trade edition.

Now for the physical book...

For this review I shall review the Limited Edition of Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary. Only 19 of the 21 copies were offered for sale. Each book was bound by hand by Erzebet of Hadean Press who states, "My work is, at its core, an act of devotion...". This sentiment can be easily seen and felt when holding this book. The book is bound in full black sheepskin. It is very supple and has a beautiful grain. The book has a faint scent of galbanum, which is found within the attached mojo bag (more on that in a moment). The cover contains a hammered copper plate with the seal of the spider spirit Anansi in high relief. It's really quite striking. The spine has seven raised bands with no title. Black head and tail bands. The book's small size (pocket size) makes it easily portable when taking it to a graveyard or a sacred forest glen.

This book has something very unique and special that makes the Limited Edition of Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary a truly talismanic work. Attached to the black silk ribbon is a red silk bag. The red silk has a wonderfully rich color. Each bag contains the physical components for an Obeah charm: a piece of snakeskin, a hawk feather, Manacá (from a douen tree), a silk cotton thorn and silk cotton, and galbanum.

While on the subject of galbanum... some of you may have noticed that the price of galbanum has gone up precipitously and become a bit scarce. There's a reason for this. The largest exporter of galbanum is Syria. As one may expect, the political upheaval and brutal war in Syria has adversely affected all parts of the nation's economy including production and exports. Hopefully the outcome of this tragic war will be one that reflects the hopes and desires of Syria's displaced people and not the demands of a cruel dictator or fanatical religious groups. But I digress...

"Lord of the Forest -- Lord of the Dead" by Kyle Fyte

The book opens to black endpapers marbled with thin strands of gold. Upon opening the book the reader will quickly encounters the artwork of Kyle Fyte, a full-color piece titled "Lord of the Forest - Lord of the Dead" (also found on the cover of the trade edition). Mr. Fyte's jaggedly colorful Expressionistic work is a perfect compliment to this book. His work has a frenetic passion about it that grabs the viewer and won't let go, dragging the viewer to the feet of primal and elemental forces -- an aesthetic abduction. The text is printed on solid 120gsm cream paper. Each book also comes with a little card held within a red envelope. The card lists the ingredients of the charm and also states the book's limitation number. Oddly there is no mention of what the charm is for or what it is meant to do. It likely serves as an offering to Obeah spirits linked to the book.

Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary is a wonderful glimpse into a culturally complex tradition. The book offers examples of rituals, prayers, conjurations, and a few seals for specific spirits. The only downside is the book's brevity (107 pages). Mr. Frisvold left me wanting more. Being a small book, it's just enough to whet the reader's appetite and send them looking for more. I hope he writes another in-depth book on this subject. In the meantime, here's a good place to start to learn more: Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing from Duke University Press.

*As an aside. I'm sure many of my readers are currently enjoying the international drama of the World Cup. I certainly am (part of the reason for this review's delay). If you are one of those soccer (futbol) fans you may want to pick up this book: Football Voodoo: Magic, Superstition, and Religion in the Beautiful Game by Chris Roberts. Are winning goals due to skill, or is it magic?

Photo credit: F and M Publications

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