After reading Erna Brodber’s novel ‘Myal’, I wanted to take a brief look at this religion and how it evolved in Jamaica.

Originally an Akan based religion in West Africa, Myalism (the religious practice of healing the spirit) was maintained by those captured and transported to Jamaica as slaves. The religion took two paths in Jamaica, one was practiced in its purest form by the Windward Maroons, the other was influenced by the Christian beliefs of Baptist missionaries. The religion unified the enslaved and played an important role in rebellions during slavery and in the years following emancipation.

Healing in Myalism is achieved through a Myal dance. The central figure is the Myal-man (or Kumfu-man in Maroon communities), who becomes possessed by ancestral spirits to counteract the ill effects of Obeah. The spirits are summoned with dance, drumming and other instruments such as the Abeng. Baths, herbal medicines and the sacrifice of fowls also played a part in the ritual.

Following emancipation in 1838, Myalism increased in popularity, as did attendances to Baptist churches. In 1865, Paul Bogle, a Baptist Deacon and Myalist preacher led the Morant Bay rebellion based on his beliefs to challenge colonial rule.

Myalism formed the basis for the religions that replaced it: Revivalism and Pocomania.

Myal by Erna Brodber

'Myal' or Myalism is an African derived religion practiced in Jamaica, which takes elements from both African and Christian belief systems. Myalism is associated with healing.

Following on from reading ‘Jane and Louisa will soon come home’, ‘Myal’ links in nicely and has similar images, themes and specific Jamaican cultural references (many related to colonialism, religion, skin pigmentation, slavery and identity). For me, it was easier to link the narrative together than in ‘Jane and Louisa will soon come home’. However after reading the reviews of ‘Myal’, I realised I had missed a few key points in the story.

Set in Jamaica during the early 1900s, two stories emerge. The first is of Ella, an outcast in her community due to having a black mother and a white father. Her lighter skin tone brings animosity from others, stemming from a perception that she will have an advantage to learn and gain employment. “It didn’t make any sense beating out themselves on this child and having the embarrassment of seeing welts on her from the slightest touch of the strap, when she was going to get through anyhow. So they stopped seeing her and she too stopped seeing them.” p10-11.

The wife of a baptist preacher convinces Ella’s mother that Ella would be better placed to learn with her and in essence she gives up her blackness for ‘better’ opportunities. Ella’s later marriage to an American man, further shapes her into a white wife, leaving her ‘zombified’ and devoid of any black soul.

“a phenomenon common in parts of Africa and in places like Haiti and Brazil, they tell me. I’ve not been to those but I have experienced Africa. People are separated from the parts of themselves that make them think and they are left as flesh only. Flesh that takes direction from someone." p108

The second story is of Anita who like Ella, is taken in by the preacher’s wife. Anita however is plagued by Obeah at a young age. A ‘spirit’ sexually and physically abuses her throughout her teenage years, a spirit who is in fact the white baptist deacon. The Myalists perform their ceremonies to rid Anita of this spirit thief.

Myal is Erna Brodber’s way of re-educating and pointing out the whitewashing of black history through religion and colonialism. Telling the stories outside of published history ‘the half has never been told’.

“That need to preserve might have come from my knowledge of how people’s history gets distorted and stolen. I was brought up in a household that was very aware. One of the first times I ever saw my father angry, he was angry about colonialism.” Erna Brodber 2004 interview BOMB magazine.

Myal by Erna Brodber Review

Title: Myal

Author: Erna Brodber

Genre(s): Literature, African Culture, Colonialism 

Publisher: New Beacon

Publication Date: February 1 2007

Paperback: 112 pages

Back of the Book:

There is no summary on the back of this book. It is a difficult book to read so in my review I will attempt to explain the story without spoiling to much.

My Rating: 

My Thoughts: 

I finished this book for my Concepts of Culture class a month ago but haven’t reviewed it because it is a very difficult text to discuss and to read. I wanted to wait until after a few lectures on the book so that I could better understand the story and give a fair review on the book.

Myal centres on Ella O’Grady (Langley later in the story), a mixed girl (Jamaican mother and Irish father) living in Grove Town Jamaica. The story focuses on Ella’s upbringing, how she is ridiculed in her town for her mixed parentage but suddenly looked up to after she recites some of Kipling’s works during a recitation at school. After this recitation Reverend and Mrs. Brassington (a man with mixed parentage like Ella and a white woman) offer to bring Ella with them to the States for education. The story focuses on Ella’s life in Grove Town and in the States, how she changes and how colonialism changes her. There are also elements of voodooism, Myalism, and magic.

The story is confusing, especially when the elements of voodooism but moreso the emergence of telepathy between some of the characters in the text. It isn’t fully explained how this magic came to be, and after reading the first chapter reader’s can’t help but feel their mind swirl with confusion and question what kind of book they’re reading. The language is difficult, and their are so many characters it’s hard to keep track of who is who in the novel.

But I still enjoyed Myal and discussing it in class helped me understand the book as a whole. It was interesting to learn about a new culture, watch the effects of colonialism, and learn about a different kind of spirituality I am unused to.

It’s difficult to describe why I like this book any further, go check the books Goodreads page and you’ll find less help. I recommend the book for a different read but it would be best if you’re reading it from an academic point of view.

Kala senja di sebuah café

Aku dan kamu, memilih lantai dua sebagai tempat kitabercengkrama

Memilih sebuah sudut di dekat beranda

Ah! Kamu selalu tau dimana tempat favorite ku

Kamu duduk tepat di sebalahku,

Sambil menatap serius, kamu memilih beberapa makanan di dalam menu

Lalu menatapku dalam

Dan aku, hanya tersenyum malu ..

Aku ingin menjadi biasa saja untukmu. 

Yang biasa kau cintai, 

yang biasa kau ingat, 

yang biasa kau rindukan, 

yang biasa kau cari, 

dan yang biasa kau butuhkan.