Cosmologies of Uncertainty: Spirits, Sickness and Agency in a Trinidadian Village

Rebecca Lynch (PhD Candidate, University College London)

This paper is based on fieldwork conducted in Trinidad as part of my PhD. The PhD focuses on local understandings of illness to investigate wider notions of misfortune, cosmological worldview, and self and agency in a Trinidadian village. This paper considers a case of spiritual affliction and how it relates to wider notions of agency and cosmological worldview in Trinidad.

The paper focuses on “Skeeter”, a man in his 50s and a local character in the village who was known for being a heavy rum drinker. Skeeter and others in the village understood Skeeter’s drinking to have a spiritual explanation; Skeeter was spirit oppressed, he was surrounded by devilish spirits who were making him drink rum. Skeeter felt that such spirits had been sent to him by others in the village who were jealous of him and had used obeah to pull him down.  While some others in the village agreed, Skeeter had to some extent brought such spirits on himself by distancing himself from God and engaging in ungodly behaviour. God otherwise would have protected him from such spirits or helped him remove them. Skeeter’s lack of engagement with the church and with God made him more susceptible to demonic afflictions and less able to resist them. By choosing to be away from God, Skeeter was allowing the devil to have greater influence on his life, he was choosing the Devil over God and was therefore responsible for his own drinking.

Skeeter’s spirit oppression was distinguished locally from cases of spirit possession, he was not possessed by a spirit within his body but was being influenced by a spirit that was pestering him from outside it, affecting his mind and encouraged him to drink. While it is to be expected that the lines between different spiritual afflictions are not clearly defined, key distinctions between experiences relate to whether a spirit or spirits are inside the individual (“spirit possession”), if a spirit or spirits have caused the individual harm but do not remain inside them (a “spirit lash”) or if a spirit or spirits are not inside the individual but are around them, pestering and influencing them (“spirit oppression” and “spirit obsession”). Such categories differ in the degree of agency the individual retains: whether a spirit or many spirits have control over the whole mind and individual’s thinking, part of the mind or emotions, or whether the individual’s mind is unaffected while their body is impacted on. This suggests a sort of scale of impeded agency, from total loss of agency to no loss at all.

Spirits that enter humans is part of a wider cosmological worldview in which humans choose between following God or the Devil, both of whom wish to claim the soul of the individual. Local worldview places God in control of all things, from natural disasters, national and local events, to community and personal circumstances. While being subject to the will of God, individuals have the ability to make and act upon their own choices and this ability is stressed and given high importance locally. The history of slavery and colonialism in the area may account for some of the importance placed on freedom of choice and the view of restricted agency as a form of punishment. Spiritual affliction is an example of this; it impedes on individual agency, restricting individual freedom, and is viewed as a form of punishment.

Such a worldview may be particularly significant also as community members felt little control over their immediate circumstances. Individuals felt that the government made decisions that were not for their benefit and which they could not influence through their own political action and often saw state institutions as corrupt and the justice system as ineffective. Despite low levels of power locally however, community members were on good terms with “the ultimate power” over life circumstances, God, and He could be communed with and related to in a way that state power (which was in any case, less effective) could not. God as judge, reliably rewarding or punishing, may be particularly appealing in a context where the state is seen as unwilling or unable to do the same. God gives existential security where actual security may be lacking and is connected to order and certainty, while the Devil is related to disorder and uncertainty. Faced with uncertainty and insecurity, a strong cosmological worldview enables community members to deal with and make sense of their circumstances, providing explanation and a (moral) framework within which the individual can act. It allows the individual local agency where they are able to influence and have some level of control over the outcome of their own behaviour where they may feel little socio-political agency to affect their wider social circumstances. The spirit world and role of spiritual agency form a framework through which the individual can understand the uncertain world in which they live, and are able to act within and upon that world.

However while spiritual afflictions reinforce local worldview, such afflictions were also forms of individual suffering. For Skeeter, drinking rum to excess was both a spiritual affliction and illustrative of his own personal pain and distress: they were part of the same experience. Spiritual affliction may also be seen as an expression of difficult personal times, a sign of the disruption of God’s order on an individual level and a culturally approved physical expression of distress.