Jamaica is an island full of folklore, magic, and spirituality, with a rich culture of traditions, customs, and rituals, many of them religious in origin (although by no means all). Jamaican traditions are often a mix of African and European customs – modified and adapted over the years to create the unique Jamaican culture that exists today. The Rough Guide to Jamaica is full of intriguing nuggets of information about the culture and history of this popular Caribbean island, but we've picked out a few of the most interesting Jamaican traditions for you below. And if you're ready to explore the island yourself, check out our recommended excursions here.
Jamaican Revivalism is a mix of European and African religious traditions, turned into something uniquely Jamaican. Revivalism is based on Christianity, but with an African twist – the attitudes towards nature and spirituality are influenced by African religions, as is the style of worship.
Unlike European Christianity, Revivalist Christianity in Jamaica doesn't believe in a separation between this world and the next, meaning spirits can affect the material world and, by extension, our lives. So it makes sense to keep these spirits happy – and Revivalists choose to do this by praising and worshipping them using traditional dances and songs.
As with any religion, there are of course different branches of Revivalism, but generally speaking a Revivalist ritual involves lots of singing, drumming, dancing, hand-clapping, and foot-stomping. This is done to invite possession, and once the spirit is inside its physical host, it becomes an adviser to the ‘flock’, interpreting messages in tongues.
Although many Jamaican death rituals are dying out nowadays, the ‘Nine Nights’ ritual is still going strong – it’s an extended wake that lasts nine days and traditionally involves music, anecdotes, lots of food, and plenty of rum. Friends and relatives will meet and celebrate the life of the person who has passed, and the gatherings are normally very lively and fun. Traditionally, the person will be buried after the ninth night, once the celebrations have finished.
The Nine Nights ritual was traditionally practised to ensure the dead person’s ‘duppy’ did not come back to haunt the living. A duppy is one of two souls that a person has. After death, one of the souls goes up to heaven and the other stays on earth. As duppies are capable of doing both good and evil, many rituals on the island arose as a way to appease these spirits.
Obeah is a belief system that is officially outlawed, although nowadays it's rare for anyone to be convicted for adhering to the practices. It’s a form of black magic and people will turn to obeah to put a curse on an enemy (or protect themselves against one), to bring themselves luck, or to be healed. Obeah practitioners (known as ‘obeah men’) can be hired to use their spells and rituals to bring good or bad luck.
Obeah men are still very popular in rural areas but are viewed in many urban communities nowadays as immoral. The fact that some obeah men take money for their services means they are sometimes accused of preying on the vulnerable by profiting from their superstitious beliefs and poverty. But it's not quite as simple as that – the practice of obeah is an important part of many people’s lives and one has been practised by families for generations. For these people, obeah is a healing practice that is deeply spiritual and keeps them safe from harm.
Kumina is a Jamaican religious ceremony involving music, dance, and spirit possession, and is a way of celebrating and appeasing ancestors. It is perhaps the tradition most closely rooted in African cultures – the Kumina religious group came originally from the Congo.
Kumina combines Jamaican dances, traditional songs, and rhythmic drumming – it's very musical in nature and spectacular to watch. Dancers wear their Jamaican dress and perform to hypnotic drumming rhythms and chants in an attempt to ‘catch the spirit’ – it is believed that the ancestor being called will come down and possess one of the dancers. With its specific dance moves, lively music and colourful dress it is considered by many as a true art form.
Why is Kumina performed? For a variety of reasons. Kumina dances can be used at funerals or wakes, weddings and engagements, or any time good luck is needed (such as when a court case needs to be won, for example). But it is also often performed simply as a form of cultural expression or purely for entertainment, with local dance companies using the traditional Jamaican Kumina dances to create spectacular shows, helping to keep this wonderful tradition alive.
A great way to outwit your duppy nemesis – this Jamaican superstition is believed to protect against trouble at night by preventing a duppy following you home. Did you know duppies can’t count past three? Use this to your advantage by dropping stones and matches along as you walk along a darkened, lonely road. When the duppy tries to follow you, it will immediately be confused once it tries to count the fourth one, leaving you get home ghoul-free whilst the duppy remains permanently on the spot trying to work out where to go next.
Jamaican culture and folklore is teeming with ghosts, spirits, and duppies. Many are the ghosts of real people who have died, but there are also specific ghosts that are a traditional staple of children’s bedtime stories. One is Ol’Hige, who leaves her skin at night to go and feast on babies’ blood. But she can be warded off if a crossed knife and fork and Bible are kept next to the baby’s crib. However, if you want to stop her permanently, you need to find her skin and douse it with salt and pepper. Another terrifying apparition is a night phantom called the Rolling Calf. He is a huge bull with red eyes and is draped with clanking chains. Try to avoid seeing him as to look at him is highly dangerous, and if he attacks then that means certain death.
Jamaica is a country with a rich and diverse culture, and there are countless traditions, rituals, and superstitions that have developed over the centuries and help people maintain a sense of connection to their past. Although Jamaican culture is always changing, with many of the old ways of life giving way to the unstoppable march of modernisation and urbanisation, the unique Jamaican fabric is still there, and the only way to get a true sense of this is to see the island for yourself.
Check out The Rough Guide to Jamaica to find out more about Jamaica's fascinating culture, and start planning your perfect trip to this Caribbean paradise. And for all those already in Jamaica, ready to learn more about the culture, find recommended excursions here.
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