Wed | Jul 18, 2018

The evolution of Myalism – Part 3

Published:Sunday | June 7, 2015 | 11:03 PMPaul H. Williams
PHOTO BY PAUL H. WILLIAMS One of the purposes of Myal was to unearth obeah charms.

MYAL PEOPLE believed in the eradication of evil and ridding the land of obeah charms as they prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ.

"Whereas obeah could be directed at harming someone through charms and curses ... Myalism was really anti-witchcraft. Myalism tried to ward off evil ... to allow the slaves' social strengths to win against the evils of the slave system, and its perpetrators," writes James Walvin in Black Ivory.

But Myalism was also aimed at healing the afflicted. "At the core of Myal has been the inseparable linkage between healing and religion. Belief in such a linkage was brought from Africa," says Olive Senior in Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. "The Myalist then, might be seen as the restorer of order to both the individual and the community."

To rid the community of obeah charms and sickness, Myal people held public rituals, which might have started at 6 p.m. and continued until the following morning. The first objective was to find the source of the obeah. This required the drinking of the root of the lily.

spiritual possessions

Then, there were singing and dancing, and spiritual possessions. The possessed claimed they were led by spirits to these charms, and to the persons who planted them. It was their job to remove the objects. Sometimes the ceremony lasted for more than one night.

But missionaries and planters were particularly bothered by theses rituals and their prophetic nature. The wrath of the Myalists was unleashed upon them. It was said that the Myalists were fearless and "reacted to missionary castigation and interference abusively and aggressively".

Monica Schuler, in Myalism and The African Religious Tradition, says in 1841-42, the actions of Myalists were associated with work stoppages. The planters, annoyed by the disruptive elements of Myals on estates, called for the intervention of the police to stop the rituals, but Myalists were not backing down.

Police action

"Police action produced considerable unrest, people attacked constables on their way to make arrests, threatened to burn down a police station, and denounced the authorities, beginning with the Queen and proceeding downwards to the governor and local magistrates," Schuler writes.

It was becoming a very influential force, much more than the efforts of missionaries. "They could lighten, but not eradicate the burden of the people ... Myalists offered something more hopeful, quite simply, the millennium," Schuler says.

The planters frustrated by the Myalists' zeal, and fearing that they might lose control, felt threatened and took action. "Severe measures taken by the authorities against Myalists temporarily checked its public manifestations," Schuler says.

"They understood correctly that Myalism threatened that control. Had they let Myalism as a public regeneration movement go unchecked in 1842, it may well have challenged European control more aggressively as it had done in 1831-32."

Yet, "within three years, however, the dance was performed again on Trelawny estates, and sporadic accounts of Myal practice continued to trickle in in various parishes throughout the troubled 1850s".

It was a period of great social unrests because of economic hardships, which culminated in the riots of 1859. There was a resurgence in Myalist fervour in a movement known as the Great Revival in 1860-61. Although it started in the Moravian, Baptist and Wesleyan churches, Myalists were the ones who took it to another level.

Great Revival

"It could be argued that the Great Revival was more Myalists than Christian. Certainly, when Myalism once more tested its strength against Christianity, Myalism proved more vital. In subsequent years, black Revivalist sects multiplied and flourished. The Myal movement was once more undergoing transformation," Schuler states.

The transformation seems to have been quite drastic, as Olive Senior believes that Myalism was eventually absorbed by Revivalism, and is no longer a separate movement.

"Although Myal as a separate religion probably no longer exists, core elements survived in later developments such as Revival and Kumina ... In Kumina, Myal is the name given to possession by an ancestral spirit or Zambi," Senior says. "In the 1860s, the Myalists or Angelmen ... were described as wheeling, dancing and in the spirit - characteristics that today would describe Revival ceremonies."