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The evolution of Myalism – Part 1

Published:Wednesday | May 20, 2015 | 5:50 PMPaul H. Williams
Elements of Myal are still present in contemporary indigenous religious customs, such as wakes.
PHOTOS BY PAUL WILLIAMS Drumming is central to the Myal ritual.

The evolution of Myalism - Part 1

FRICAN PEOPLE have always had their own religious ideologies and philosophies, their own explanations for their existence and hereafter. They are fully aware of the universal conflict between evil and good forces, and they believe the latter will prevail over the former.

Central to all of this is the practice of communicating and consulting with the departed, from whom they seek wisdom and guidance.

When they were forcibly brought to the West Indies by slavers, they had no material possessions, but their songs were on their lips, and in their waists, feet and hands were stored the vocabularies of their creative arts. In their brain were embedded their beliefs, values, and perspectives of themselves. They were community-centred, and anything that sought to bring misfortune and discontent to their communities were countered and eradicated.

"This is the religious tradition to which Afro-Jamaican religious movements belong ... . This tradition has been a powerful catalyst for African and Afro-Jamaican resistance to European values and control," Monica Schuler writes in Myalism and the African Religious Tradition.

She said the planter/historian Edward Long was the first European to write about Myalism, and that was in the 1760s, and for about a century, it went through periods of ebb and flow, but established itself as an influential religious movement.

"Myalists believe that all misfortune, not just slavery, stemmed from malicious forces, embodied in the spirit of the dead. The Myal organisation provided specialists, doctors, trained to identify the spirit causing the problem, exorcising it, and prevent recurrence. All problems, including body illnesses, were thought to stem from spiritual sources, and required the performance of

appropriate ritual," Schuler writes.

The most essential element of the Myal ritual was the dance, in which death and rebirth were reenacted to counteract European witchcraft. Ivy Baxter, in The Arts of an Island, describes it as "a violent dance", perhaps because of the frantic movements of all parts of the body. The word Myal itself, she writes, is similar to the Spanish word Mayal, which "can be translated as a flail".

The dance shows "a wide range of body movement, an extensive coverage of space, and a violence of action, produced by throwing the body on the ground and by acrobatic feats, as well as the vibrating movements brought about by a succession of rapid sideway shifts from foot to foot on the toes and with knees bent".

The rituals themselves, led by Myal men claiming to have contact with the spirit world, were loud and chaotic, which Europeans didn't really like, and which some were afraid of. They had good reasons to fear because much of the Myal was aimed at them.

In Black Ivory, James Walvin writes, "The ceremony was usually audible. In a frenzy of drumming and dance, the spirit took possession first of the Myal men, and then of their followers. These ceremonies may have been designed as an antidote to evil spirits (duppies) and have a remarkable similarity to certain ceremonies among Fanti priests in 20th-century Africa."

The element of possession was very much a part of the Myal ceremonies. It was in this detached state that the Myal men claimed they communicated with the spirits. They were transported into the spiritual realm by drinking a mixture of cold water and branched calalue, according to Schuler and Walvin.

The mixture "occasions a trance, a profound sleep of certain duration [to] endeavour to convince the deluded spectators of the power to reincarnate dead bodies", is how Walvin describes it. After drinking the mixture, they dance "until they reach a state of dissociation resembling death", Schuler writes. Another application of the drink was said to revive the 'possessed'.

"Among the slaves, the evil spirits against whom the Myal men operated were the slave-owners, the people who had taken the Africans from their homelands, inflicted on them the agonies of the Middle Passage and consigned them to a daily version of hell on Earth. That such a series of related disasters should befall the slaves could be explained only in terms of evil spirits; those spirits were the white perpetrators of black misfortune," Walvin explains.