Jamaicans - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Jamaica is a profoundly religious society, with a wide range of cults, sects, denominations, and movements. The religion of the slaves was based on African beliefs and practices, such as ceremonial spirit possession, spiritual healing, sorcery, and drumming and dance as forms of worship. An ancestor cult called Kumina and belief in obeah (sorcery) are living survivals of the African heritage. Missionization of slaves by Moravians, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians began in 1754 and stimulated the development of syncretic, Afro-Christian cults, among them Zion Revival and Pocomania, or Pukkumina, which still exist. The Rastafarian movement, which reveres Haile Selassie as a messiah and regards marijuana as a sacrament, first appeared in 1933 but did not become widespread until the 1960s. American Pentecostalism has grown rapidly since World War II and is perhaps the most popular religion today. "Science," or "De Laurence," a form of magic based on a mail-order catalog from Chicago, developed during the same period. Jamaicans believe strongly in supernatural influence. Zion Revival incorporates such African notions as a supreme but distant creator who is generally uninvolved in human affairs and a polytheistic pantheon of angels who guide and protect people. Obeah is based on the belief that obeah men capture and use ghosts ("duppies") for malicious ends. Pentecostals seek the inspiration and power of the Holy Ghost, which protects them from Satan and demons. "Fallen angels" are said to be in league with De Laurence. Rastafarians worship Jah, a god who is within them.
Religious Practitioners. Ministers of Christian churches are highly respected and influential. The leaders of Zion Revival cults are known as "daddies," "captains," or "mothers," and their authority is based on the "spiritual gifts" of possession, prophecy, healing, dream interpretation, and the like. Obeah men and "scientists" or "professors" are nearly always men, but many if not most traditional healers are women.
Ceremonies. Zion Revival cults perform a circular, hyperventilative dance called "shouting" or "laboring" at feast ceremonies called "Tables," which resemble the "Altar" ceremonies of Pocomania cults. A meeting of Rastafarians is called a grounation or nyabinghi.
Arts. Music and dance are very popular. Jonkonnu (or John Canoe) is a secular festival that began in the early 1700s, when masked and costumed dancers paraded in the streets during the Christmas season and gave performances at the houses of prominent citizens. Today, however, it is performed mainly on special occasions, such as the annual national Festival. Jamaica is the home of reggae music and its foremost exponent, the late Bob Marley. Jamaican contributions to literature, dance, drama, painting, and sculpture have won international recognition.
Medicine. Jamaican folk medicine is largely derived from African traditional medicine. Zion Revivalists operate healing centers called "balm yards" and often attribute illnesses to duppies and obeah. Balm practitioners are shamanic in that they use spiritual means to diagnose and treat illnesses, but they also use herbs ("bush"), candles, prayers, and tonics. Healing by the laying on of hands is very common in Pentecostal churches.
Death and Afterlife. Funerals are important events in Jamaica, and ghosts of the deceased are widely feared. The slaves believed in a good soul that went to Africa after death and a bad one that lingered as a duppy, particularly around cotton trees. A festive wake was held to pacify the deceased and render the ghost harmless, and this "set-up" or "Nine-Night" is still practiced in rural areas.