Christian Worship Meets the Obeah -- The native Virgin Islanders have strong spiritual beliefs. The early Christian missionaries were zealous. The slaves, who were brought over from Africa, took quickly to the Christian religion, but the way they practiced it was unique. Many times they incorporated a belief in magic powers and a host of superstitions that they brought over from Africa.
The most famous mythological figure of the Virgin Islands is the Obeah. Originally, belief in the Obeah was not strong among native Virgin Islanders, but it did enjoy cult status "down island," a reference to the islands that sweep downward toward South America. With the influx of so many immigrant islanders into the Virgin Islands looking for work and better economic opportunities, the Obeah arrived.
Basically, the Obeah is a "superstitious force" that natives believe can be responsible for both good and evil. It is considered prudent not to get on the bad side of this force, which might reward you or make trouble for you. If you encounter an old-timer islander and ask, "How are you?" the answer is likely to be, "Not too bad." The person who may actually feel great says this so as not to tempt the force, which might be listening.
The Mother of Folklore -- One person who wants to keep alive the stories of the old days in the Virgin Islands is Arona Peterson, author of The Food & Folklore of the Virgin Islands. This St. Thomas food writer and folklorist is also the author of Herbs and Proverbs and Kreole Ketch 'N' Keep. Many people consider her the authority on the history and culture of the Virgin Islands. Kreole Ketch 'N' Keep is a collection of West Indian stories. Ms. Peterson has a keen ear and recaptures the flavor of old island days, interspersing stories with recipes.
In her stories she remembers the sound and the idiom of the old days and the island's colorful language. In her story "What Does Tomorrow Mean? In any Language, Wait" appears this passage: "Wat I trying to say is dat waitin is wat life is about. Everybody waitin fo something or udder, mannin or nite. Tain get wan purson wat, livin ain waitin-fo a bus, fo a taxi, fo a airplane, fo a steamer, fo a letter to come back. Some doan even know wat dey waiting for but dey still waitin." Her books are sold in local shops.
Don't Let the Jumbies Get Ya! -- "Don't let the Jumbies get ya!" is an often-heard phrase in the Virgin Islands, particularly when people are leaving their hosts and heading home in the dark. Jumbies, capable of good or evil, are supernatural beings that are believed to live around households. It is said that new settlers from the mainland of the United States never see these Jumbies and, therefore, need not fear them. But many islanders believe in their existence and, if queried, may enthrall you with tales of sightings.
No one seems to agree on exactly what a Jumbie is. Some claim it's the spirit of a dead person that didn't go where it belonged. Others disagree. "They're the souls of live people," one islander told us, "but they live in the body of the dead." The most prominent Jumbies are "Mocko Jumbies," carnival stilt walkers seen at all parades.