Jamaica's population largely consists of the descendants of African slaves who were brought to the island by the Spanish and the British. The Maroons, freed slaves living in their own communities, had little to do with the religious experiences of the nearby slaves.
Elements of African religions remained important to the African slaves, and two seemingly opposing religions came to light in Jamaica. Obeah and Myal posed as opposing forces, but they were extremely similar. The British slave owners quickly banned Obeah, condemning it as witchcraft.
In actuality, the practice of Obeah did involve elements of what might be considered witchcraft, including the use of herbal potions, spells, and other forms of mysticism. However, the real danger to the British came from the obeahman's ability to lead the slaves. Their belief in his magical powers increased the possibility of slave uprisings. In fact, obeahmen led Tacky's Rebellion, one of the most important slave rebellions in Jamaica's history.
This gave Obeah an extremely bad reputation on British islands. On the other hand, Myal professed to be the answer to Obeah. The two faiths were not much different, but the myal-men portrayed themselves differently; they claimed to exorcise the bad spirits brought by Obeah.
Although the slaveowners viewed Myal as safer than Obeah, they did not respect the religion, which included ritualistic dancing and possessions. Ritualistic possession is an important element in all of the African-based religions in the Caribbean.
According to Myal, positive influences would possess myal-men, allowing them to drive out bad spirits. In this way they were both healers and spiritual leaders. They were much like medicine men, knowing the best curative (or not-so-curative) properties of local plants.
Many other British Caribbean islands did not have the experience of a second, opposing belief system. As an opposing religion to Obeah, Myal was unique to Jamaica. Overall, the practices of both Myal and Obeah were extremely similar, but Myal did incorporate a baptismal practice.
None of the African-based religions is particularly widespread in modern times. Myal joined with Protestant Christianity to form a new creole religion known as Revivalism. This was a strongly Christian religion, but included the spiritual possession found in African religions. It has since been absorbed almost entirely into mainstream Pentecostal churches on Jamaica.
The different cultures on Jamaica's shaped the island's religion, both limiting and encouraging distinct branches of African faiths. The result is a rich religious background and a more cohesive sense of religion in modern times.
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