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THE MAGICAL / SPIRITUAL USE OF HERBS:  THE AFRICAN CONTRIBUTION

Ram goat dashalong

The magical/spiritual use of herbs was very much a part of African tradition. According to Robertson, “herbs are generally, any herbaceous or woody plants which are aromatic in one or more parts, and are considered to have culinary, medicinal or cosmetic value.” Plants constitute a major ingredient in the practice of Ethnomedicine.

Quinlan notes that, “Ethnomedicine, also referred to as traditional medicine, is the area of anthropology that studies different societies’ notions of health and illness, including how people think and how people act about well being and healing.” Lowe contends that, herbal remedies are the most important group of materials used in “natural ethnomedical practices” as well as in home and self medication.
Contributions to Jamaica’s Ethnomedical pharmacopeia came from several sources including the indigenous Tainos, East Indians, Chinese, Europeans and Africans as noted by Lowe... et al, and Robertson amongst others.  However, the basic foundation is deeply rooted in religious concepts derived primarily from African magico - religious practices and concepts.

The dominant part of Jamaica’s folk medicine is of west African  origin, and many persons of different racial origins have grown to accept and use  some of this type of folk medicine, not only for health purposes, but also to cure “poor success in business”. The treatment offered by folk medicine varies greatly in complexity; it could be as simple as the use of bush tea for a cold or to be as complex as the treatment of an obeah practitioner.

Ethnomedical practices are generally classified as natural, spiritual or occult.  African Ethnomedicine is firmly grounded in the healing power of the vegetal realm. Most healing rituals and ceremonies involve the use of leaves, roots, bark, or plant reproductive structures. Ethnomedical practitioners, such as lay midwives, herbalists, spiritual healers and occult healers are usually recognized in the community for their gifts of healing.

In the folk-medical system, magic and religion are not totally separate entities from each other; similarly, plants may be used as medicines for natural or supernatural illnesses and or as part of religious practices for example, in Revival churches, flowers, fruits and plants such as the leaf- of - life are used to decorate altars and tables and protect against evil spirits. The nature of the magic used in Jamaica also reflects the syncretic nature of the folk medical system. African contributions are seen in the invocation and the use of spirits to reveal the appropriate treatment for the illness, with a special emphasis on the healing and magical significance of herbs.
Madam Fate

Occult practitioners are known to use specific herbs to cause illness or death. Certain groups of herbs are associated with the treatment of spiritual illnesses or with the warding off of evil and may be used in bush baths and teas. Herbs such as spirit weed and sweet basil are used to ward off spirits or duppies. Bush baths are the primary means of affecting a cure for illness suspected to be caused by evil spirits. Plants are also important in the preparation of “guards” against evil spirits. Plants such as Madame Fate are used to diagnose the presence of obeah; others such as ram-goat dashalong are used by some healers or obeahmen, sometimes described as “science men,” in divination. Treatments used by spiritual and occult healers often reflect the influence of African beliefs and practices, particularly in the form of the rituals used by practitioners and the spiritual and magical properties associated with specific herbs and treatment.

Plant remedies are common in Africa and also Jamaica. “In Africa, the cures dispensed by the medicine man in are not all products of chance, but results of years of careful experimentation and painstaking observation. Moreover, Lowe et al are of the view that in Jamaica, bush medicines have demonstrated over the years their effectiveness in meeting some of the basic health needs of the people, especially common simple health problems. For example, during the days of slavery, Myal practitioners, who understood the medicinal value of certain plants and had built up a body of knowledge of herb medicine that was of real service in curing the sick, were mobilized to work in the plantation hospitals. However, herbal medicine in Jamaica is not always advantageous. A number of plant materials used is toxic to varying degrees.

References
Barrett, Leonard. The Sun and the Drum. African Roots in Jamaican Folk Tradition. Kingston: Sangster’s Book Stores and Heinemann, 1979.                                                                                                                                  
Bryan, Patrick. The Jamaican People 1880-1902 Race Class and Social Control. Kingston: UWI Press, 2000.

Payne- Jackson, Avrilla. Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing. Kingston: UWI Press, 2004.

Quilan, Marsha “Ethnomedicine” in Singer, Merrill and Pamela I. Erickson, eds. A Companion to Medical Anthropology. Blackwell Publishing, 2011.

Lowe… et al. Jamaica’s Ethnomedicine: It’s Potential in the Health Care System. Kingston: Canoe Press, University of the West Indies, 2000.

Lowe, Henry. “Jamaican Folk Medicine” Jamaica Journal 6.2 (1972): 20-24
Robertson, Diane.  Live Longer Look Younger with Herbs. Kingston: Stationery & School Supplies Limited, 1990.

Turner, Mary. Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Society, 1787-1834. Kingston: The Press University of the West Indies, 1998.

Voeks, Robert. “African Medicine and Magic in the Americas”.  Geographical Review 83.1 (Jan., 1993): 66-78.

Libster, Martha.  Delmar's Integrative Herb Guide for Nurses.  Albany, NY: Delmar/Thomson Learning, ©2002.

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