The Devil in the Details: Materiality and the Spirit in a Trinidadian Village

Rebecca Lynch


Illness and other misfortunes were commonly attributed to the Devil in the Trinidadian village where I undertook fieldwork. These explanations included an understanding that both the Holy Spirit and demonic spirits could dwell within and change the nature of bodies and objects. Spirits within the body guided actions, thoughts and feelings but also caused, or cured and protected, individuals from illnesses. A good Christian lifestyle was necessary to maintain the healthy body for the Holy Spirit to dwell within while neglect left the body open to malevolent spirits. These conceptions of health and illness linked to understandings of Caribbean sorcery (obeah) and cultural conceptions of the body, as well as Evangelical Christian approaches. Two types of bodies were constructed in these understandings: the healthy maintained body in which the Holy Spirit dwelt and the unhealthy disordered body in which devilish spirits could be found. These bodies differed not metaphorically but in actual substance, they were materially different bodies. Bodies, spirits, health, illness and morality were thus connected in everyday village life and to gather a more nuanced understanding of this I attend to the concrete aspects of these interactions. Drawing on approaches in medical anthropology focusing on practices and the material, I examine the role of devilish spirits in illness causation and how relationships between spirits and bodies were lived. I argue that through the material body immaterial cosmological understandings were expressed, understood and impacted on practices. This was cosmology as lived, embedded in everyday experience and practice, not in abstract belief.

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