Myal was an African-Jamaican form of divination and a ritual dance by which spirit mediums drew on the power of ancestors to heal and to alleviate misfortune ascribed to the jealousy, greed, and enmity of others. Obeah, another type of divination, inspired terror during periods of insecurity when people believed that evil Obeah specialists endangered them. To counteract the danger, they called on Myal mediums.
Even before leaving Africa as slaves, Africans associated malevolent sorcery with enslavement, devising fantastic symbolic tales and rumors about slave trafficking and slavery that acted as a critique of African and European slavers and slave owners. These tales described slave dealers and owners as cannibals or vampires who consumed African flesh and blood and processed them into a variety of European or American goods—cheeses, red wines, and gunpowder—desired by continental Africans. Slaves took these beliefs to Jamaica.
In the 1760s, a time of slave revolts, Jamaican planter Edward Long described the founding of a new society, open to all, that he called Myal. Its initiation ritual, the drinking of water mixed with calalu, preceded energetic dancing that produced a condition resembling death. Another mixture revived the subject. Myal initiation supposedly made slaves invulnerable to death from white men's bullets. Creole slaves, who feared African sorcery more than European bullets, pinned their hopes on Christian baptism's power of protection. Baptism by immersion as practiced by John the Baptist infused a new spirit, the Holy Spirit, in the baptized and eventually became the initiation rite of choice for many. Both ceremonies, however, were rituals of death and rebirth.
The Myal Society described by Long appears to have been the progenitor of sugar estate–based Myal bands whose activities gained notoriety after slave emancipation (1838). By then, they combined African problem-solving with Jamaican Native Baptist practices; their ranks included archangels, angels, and ministering angelics who recruited converts, excavated buried charms, and caught stolen shadows or second souls.
In 1841 Myal spirit mediums began a revitalization movement catalyzed by unexplained deaths and job competition. They responded to invitations to expose plantation residents suspected of selfish behavior, using physical force to compel public confessions. Myal members stopped working and would not resume, saying they had to clear the land for Jesus, who was returning soon to set the world right. In a show of independence they denounced the authorities, seized missionary meetinghouses, condemned missionaries for incorrect baptizing, and issued new revelations.
By November 1842 official suppression drove the movement underground. A larger revival occurred in 1860, conferring the name Revivalist on religious sects that now proliferated and in which the Myal spirit persisted as the Holy Spirit. Jamaican conceptions of evil, its sources in black and white cupidity, and how it may be overcome flow through Myal, Native Baptist, Revivalist, Rastafarian, and even Marcus Garvey's discourse. In the twentieth century Myal practices survived with a few Christian accretions in St. Elizabeth and Manchester parishes, where the Myal dance was known as gombay (drum) play. An elaboration, known as Jonkonnu, led by a Myal man wearing a large house headdress representing the plantation great house, was held at Christmastime. In Portland and St. Thomas parishes, Maroons and Central African descendants were familiar with gombay play and intense Myal possession. "When we got myal," a Central African Kumina queen told Monica Schuler in 1971, "we can find a thing bury [that is, an Obeah charm] but when we normal, we can't do these things" (Schuler, 1980).
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Bilby, Kenneth. "Gumbay, Myal, and the Great House: New Evidence on the Religious Background of Jonkonnu in Jamaica." ACIJ Research Review 4 (1999): 47–70.
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Schuler, Monica. "Myalism and the African Religious Tradition." In Africa and the Caribbean: The Legacies of A Link, edited by Margaret E. Crahan and Franklin W. Knight. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
Stewart, Robert J. Religion and Society in Post-Emancipation Jamaica. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
monica schuler (2005)