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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Explore the diversity of Jamaica with our guide to the best things to do in Jamaica.
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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