Jamaican Religion

Over 750,000 African captives came to Jamaica from the Bight of Biafra, the region of present-day Ghana, and west Central Africa. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, Jamaica saw the emergence of a variety of African and African-influenced religious traditions. The three major traditions that then reached the United States are called Obeah, Jamaican Revivalism or Pukumina, and Rastafarianism.

Obeah is a form of herbal and spiritual technology used to cure ailments and to harm one’s enemies. In Jamaica, obeahmen were believed capable of poisoning people and of dominating them by catching their shadows. Some researchers attribute the origins of Obeah to the Ashanti people of what is now Ghana and their practice of obayifo. In Jamaica, these practices were a legendary component of slave resistance and revolt. In the United States today, Obeah men and women, commonly referred to as “readers” and known as skilled herbalists, are sought primarily for the healing of physical, spiritual, and mental disorders, and for protection from malevolent spiritual forces.

A Jamaican RevivalistThe Jamaican Revivalist movement, called Pukumina, is a form of Christian revivalism strongly influenced by African ritual idioms of drumming, dancing, and trance, or spirit possession. tradition called Pukumina—more structured than Obeah in belief and practice, with numerous churchesThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... and congregations—is practiced in most major U.S. cities today. Like mainland black North American ChristianityChristianity is the religious tradition of Christians: those who confesses faith in Jesus Christ, follow the path Christ taught, and gather together in the community of the church., Jamaican Revivalism is much more likely to be described as “African” by outsiders than by insiders, though there are many parallels between Jamaican Revivalist movements and West African cultures. Various Jamaican Revivalist practices recall West African and Haitian religions. For example, each of the various spirits venerated in Revivalism is said to prefer specific foods, colors, and music. Recalling Haitian VodouVodou refers to the religious traditions of Haiti—a blend of Fon, Yoruba and Kongo traditions of Africa with French Catholicism. While Haitians do use the term Vodou, they more often speak of “serving the spirits,” the lwa, who are honored on altars..., Pukumina ceremonial space includes the “ritual architecture” of a central pole, to which Jamaicans add a basin of water used for spirit-channelling. This apparatus stands at the center of the sacred space, whether it be in the backyard or in a special meeting hall. Drumming and dancing culminate in trances and contact between the worshippers and the spirits who bring about divine healing or divine inspiration. In the Revivalist traditions, however, it is often said to be the Holy SpiritThe Holy Spirit is the Christian term used to describe the dynamic presence of God. Christians symbolize this presence as breath, fire, and dove, all expressing the mystery and freedom of God’s presence. The Holy Spirit is one of the three aspects or ... who “possesses” the devotees, or the spirits of Biblical figures such as the prophetA prophet is one who communicates a divine message or vision, sometimes calling people to repentance or awakening, sometimes predicting future events. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Hebrew prophets, including Abraham and Moses. Muslims believe ... JeremiahJeremiah was a Hebrew prophet of the 7th century BCE who foresaw the downfall of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. and the apostleThe apostles are the disciples of Jesus recognized as leaders of the early church; Paul, although not a disciple, came to be considered an apostle as well. Peter.

The most famous Jamaican religion is undoubtedly Rastafarianism, a complex spiritual and political movement that emerged in Jamaica during the depression years of the 1930s. It combined inspirational Jamaican folk Christianity with pan-Africanist sentiments inspired by Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association. In repudiating British colonialism, RastafariansThe Rastafarian tradition arose in the 1930s in Jamaica as an African-identified, anti-colonial religious movement that saw Haile Selassie, the ruler of Ethiopia, as a savior. They took his name—Ras Tafari or Prince of Tafari—as the name of this movem... were inspired by Ethiopia, noted as the one land of Africa mentioned in the BibleThe Greek term biblia means the “books.” Bible is used in both the Jewish and Christian traditions to refer to the book which gathers together their sacred writings. The Hebrew Bible includes the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings—a collection re.... Ethiopia’s twentieth-century emperor Haile Selassie, “the Lion of Judah,” was believed by Rastafarians to be the 225th king of biblical Ethiopia; they took Haile Selassie’s name, Ras Tafari, the “Prince of Tafari Province,” as their own. Garvey’s dream of a return to Africa became the RastafarianThe Rastafarian tradition arose in the 1930s in Jamaica as an African-identified, anti-colonial religious movement that saw Haile Selassie, the ruler of Ethiopia, as a savior. They took his name—Ras Tafari or Prince of Tafari—as the name of this movem... dream as well, and some Rastafarians have indeed settled in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Zaire.

Rastafarians interpret the Old TestamentThe Old Testament is the term Christians often use for the body of writings that comprise the Hebrew Bible which Jews call Tanakh. as the history of the black people and as a propheticA prophet is one who communicates a divine message or vision, sometimes calling people to repentance or awakening, sometimes predicting future events. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Hebrew prophets, including Abraham and Moses. Muslims believe ... key to understanding events in the modern world. They see themselves as successors to the biblical prophetsA prophet is one who communicates a divine message or vision, sometimes calling people to repentance or awakening, sometimes predicting future events. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Hebrew prophets, including Abraham and Moses. Muslims believe ... and, like devotees of Jamaican Revivalist movements, often speak as the present-day voices of biblical prophets such as MosesMoses was the great Biblical prophet who is credited with leading the people of Israel out of Egyptian bondage and teaching them the divine laws at Sinai. The story of Moses is told in the book of Exodus in the Bible and is also told in the Qur’an, wher..., JoshuaJoshua was the leader Moses appointed to succeed him after his death, laying his hands upon Joshua and committing to him the leadership of the people of Israel. According to biblical history, Joshua led the Israelites, who had been tested for forty years ..., and IsaiahIsaiah was an 8th century BCE Hebrew prophet whose spiritual vision is recorded in the biblical book of Isaiah, although part of the book (usually said to be ch. 40-55) is commonly held to have been written by a second author of the 6th century BCE, refer.... The characteristic Rastafarian hairstyle, “dreadlocks,” is said to symbolize both the lion’s mane and the strength of Samson. Some Rastafarians believe that African warriors wear their hair in a similar style. The sacramental use of marijuana among Rastafarians is believed to bring divine inspiration, to cure diseases, and to enhance strength.

In the United States, the rhythm of Rastafarian reggae music has become one of the best known aspects of this Jamaican religious tradition. The lyrics, like the Rastafarian lifestyle, often include a strong note of social protest as well as the dream of returning to the biblical Ethiopia. As Bob Marley sings,

We are the children of the Rastaman.
We are the children of the Higher Man.
Africa, Unite ’cause the children wanna come home.
Africa, Unite ’cause we’re moving right out of Babylon.
And we’re grooving to our father’s land.

Just as Rastafarian identification with the biblical Ethiopia was a strong form of resistance to British colonial society in the 1930s, so today Rastafarian protest affirms African identity in the face of Eurocentric Jamaican and American cultures.


X
- Enter Your Location -
- or -