Akan "Bayi" and Jamaican "Obeah"
July 2011


"Bayi" is the word for "witchraft" in the Akan language. "Obayifo"/"Abayifo" used in the current Akan language means "person who practices witchcraft". I say this because both words have roots that are associated with witchcraft, one among the Akan in west Africa and the other among Jamaicans in the Caribbean, some of whom are descendants of Akans sent there.

"Obeah" also can be seen as meaning "woman" or a short for "witch woman", and in fact some Akan groups such as the Akuapem and perhaps even the Akwamu do not say "obaa" but rather "obeah" when they refer to "woman".

So the long and short of this is that "obeah" derives from Akans who were sent from west Africa to Jamaica. The structure of Obeah is the same as that  of witchcraft practiced in Ghana today.



ARE THE WORDS "BAYI" AND "OBEAH" RELATED?

Question: Could it be that "Obeah" and "Bayi" are actually linked? This seems to be the case. How many people actually know that "Obeah" and "Obeahfo" are the same thing? They both refer to "woman" (see dictionary definitions below). 

Christaller's Dictionary (1933: pg. 2):
o-baa, pi. m-, Ak. F. woman, female == obea, o(baa)basia; cf. abaawa. pr.
o-babaa, pi. m-, Ak. F. [oba, child, obaa, woman] daughter = obabea.
ababaa, ababawa, Aky. abayewa, pi. m-, maiden, young woman, married or not, who has not yet given birth to a child; syn. abeafo.


Christaller's Dictionary (1933: pg. 12)
abeafo, pi. m-, a lovely young woman, neatly, nicely dressed.



JOSEPH WILLIAMS ON OBEAH

In his book Voodoos and Obeas, Joseph Williams has this to say, "The Jamaica term Obeah is unquestionably derived from the Ashanti word Obayifo, which according to Captain Rattray signifies "a wizard, or more generally a witch."..."Dropping the suffix, then, from Obayifo, the resulting Obayi, as heard from the lips of the Koromantin slaves (shown to be Ashanti, at least as regards their leading spirits), was variously rendered by the Jamaican whites as obeah, obia, etc. For even now there is no agreement as to the correct spelling of the word. . . . Both with the Ashanti themselves and their descendants in Jamaica the word is commonly shortened into Obi. Thus we find the Obi country referred to in the history of the Ashanti Fetish Priest, Okomfo-Anotchi, that is Anotchi the priest."

So "Obi" is a corruption of "Obayi"...which is witchcraft in Akan, the practitioner of which is called "Obayi-fo" (meaning "Obayi" (witchcraft) "fo" (person)

In chapter 4 of the text "Voodoos and Obeahs: Phases of West African Witchcraft" (Joseph J. Williams, 1932), we have the following excerpt:

"And there is another important difference between Voudou and Obeah, and that is that Voudou requires for the celebration of its rites a priestess and a priest. Obeah can be worked by either alone, and is [not] tied to the presence of the snake. Both these cults have sprung from slaves imported from Ellis's district, Obeah from slaves bought at Koromantin mainly, and Voudou from those bought at Dahomey. Nevertheless it seems to me these good people have differentiated their religion in the West Indies considerably; for example, in Obeah the spider (anansi) has a position given it equal to that of the snake in Voudou."

This book in part ridicules natives of that period for totally believing in  and practicing their spirituality, a common trait among Europeans of the time who were in fact exposing their cluelessness about the spirituality of others, a topic I address in section 5.16 of The Akan Book. Rattray was one of the notable exceptions to this rule.



OBEAH TRACES TO AKAN  WHILE VOODOO TRACES TO EWE/FON

"Koromantin" of course is a 'code word' that refers to Akan people as has previously been shown in The Akan Book (sections 3.2 and 3.3) so Obeah originates from the Akan while Voodoo originates from the Ewe and the Fon. Obeah or witchcraft is very much like a form of 'shamanism'. The witches can astral travel, they have spirit helpers and other abilities such as clairvoyance. They also work with some nature spirits such as the mmoetia/kontomble (i.e. dwarves/gnomes) and other spiritual beings. This is an individual path which can also be practiced in a community. Powers can be used to help or to harm.

Voodoo is more ceremonial and ritualistic, where the powers are solicited from external nature spirit entities through ritual. This is more along the lines of ceremonial magic or sorcery and is different from 'abeyisem' (witchcraft) where the obayifo (witch) uses his or her own etheric-astral body to cause non-ordinary effects. I think this distinction is an important one to be made. The practitioner of voodoo could also have 'witchcraft powers' but not necessarily.



AKAN ABEYISƐM PRACTICES ARE IDENTICAL TO JAMAICAN OBEAH PRACTICES

In chapter 4 of Williams' book, he gives an andecdote of an alleged practitioner of Obeah (i.e. a witch) who use 'witchcraft pots' just like Abayifo of the Akan do. Here is the story:

"The other Negroes of the plantation no sooner heard of this impeachment, than they ran in a body to their master, and confirmed the truth of it, adding that she had carried on this business sit-ice her arrival from Africa and was the terror of the whole neighborhood. Upon this he repaired directly with six white servants to the old woman's house, and forcing open the door, observed the whole inside of the roof (which was of thatch), and every crevice of the walls stuck with the implements of her trade, consisting of rags, feathers, bones of cats, and a thousand other articles. Examining further, a large earthen pot or jar, close covered, was found concealed under her bed.--It contained a prodigious quantity of round balls of earth or clay of various dimensions, large and small, whitened on the outside, and variously compounded, some with hair and rags and feathers of all sorts, and strongly bound with twine; others blended with the upper section of the skulls of cats, or stuck round with cats teeth and claws, or with human or dogs teeth, and some glass beads of different colours; there were also a great many eggshells filled with a viscous or gummy substance, the qualities of which he neglected to examine, and many little bags stuffed with a variety of articles the particulars of which cannot at this distance of time be recollected. The house was instantly pulled down, and with the whole of its contents committed to the flames, amidst the general acclamation of all the other Negroes. In regard to the old woman, he declined bringing her to trial under the Law of the island, which would have punished her with death; but from a principle of humanity, delivered her into the hands of a party of Spaniards, who (as she was thought not incapable of doing some trifling kind of work) were very glad to accept and carry her with them to Cuba."

Here I particularly want to bring the reader's attention to the contents of the 'witch pot'. What was done with Obeah in the Caribbean is still done with Bayi among Akan people. Here is another description of Abayifo/witchcraft, this time from Debrunner:

[A witch pot] a may contain a knife, a millipede, a man's heart, some fingers and a talisman and is sprinkled with a man's blood. Some witches keep them (the pot) in the fork of a tree. Others hide them either inside the trunk of a tree or inside their stomachs

So in essence a 'witch pot' is similar to a 'medicine bag' used by some African and Native Indian groups for instance. The contents of the medicine bag are 'objects of power', same as one can find in a 'witch pot'.


More from Williams:

"Obeah men are the oldest and most artful Negroes; a peculiarity marks them, and every Negro pays the greatest respect to them, they are perfectly well acquainted with medicinal herbs, and know the poisonous ones, which they often use. To prepossess the stranger in favor of their skill, he is told that they can restore the dead to life; for this purpose he is shown a Negro apparently dead, who, by dint of their art, soon recovers; this is produced by administering the narcotic juice of vegetables. On searching one of the Obeah men's houses, was found many bags filled with parts of animals, vegetables, and earth, which the Negroes who attended at the sight of, were struck with terror, and begged that they might be christened, which was done, and the impression was done away. In consequence of the rebellion of the Negroes in the year 1760, a Law was enacted that year to render the practice of Obiah, death."

So in fear the controllers of Jamaica at the time decided to outlaw Obeah. To end this article I will repost information on witchcraft obtained from Debrunner's book:


The witch deceives people before leaving her home
Her personality-soul leaves the body
She turns herself upside down
And flies through the air, emitting light
Witches walk on spiders' webs (presumably etheric webs)
Or even sometimes ride on animals or men
Finally to settle on the tree of the meeting place
The witches meet on a tree
Where their power is concentrated in a witchcraft pot
Just as each witch has her individual witch pot
They are organized as a secret society
The witches dance and play football
They drink human blood
And eat palm oil, pork, corn and coconut
They inflict material loss
They cause sterility, impotence and other diseases
They act on the intelligence of school children and rivals
A witch is a person possessed by a witch-spirit
A witch-spirit can be inherited, picked up, bought or swallowed by chance


 --- The pictures below are from the movie Conan the Barbarian, where a witch which shapeshifts from human into a ball of energy is shown in flight ---

witch flight

witch flight

witch flight

* This kind of witch flight (etheric-astral body projection) is reported among the Akan as well as among various
   other human groups