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The Jaffa were originally human, taken from Earth millennia ago, and were genetically altered to incubate a Goa'uld larva inside a pouch in the abdomen. While a Jaffa carries a symbiote, he or she is given a longer life, increased strength, and an enhanced ability to recover from illness and wounds. The symbiote acts as the Jaffa's immune system. Once a symbiote has been implanted inside a Jaffa, it cannot be removed without killing the Jaffa. When the symbiote matures, it is removed from the Jaffa and placed in a host, usually a human, thereby becoming a Goa'uld that can act and communicate on its own. The Jaffa must then receive a new symbiote or die.

Because of the advantages in strength and healing ability that the symbiote conferred, many of the male Jaffa became warriors serving under a Goa'uld (e.g., Teal'c was in the service of Apophis). The Goa'uld maintained their power over the Jaffa that served them by telling the Jaffa that the Goa'uld were gods. Thus, Jaffa, both male and female, served the Goa'uld by practicing the rituals of worship associated with recognizing the Goa'uld as a god.

The majority of the Jaffa serving under the Goa'uld System Lords won their freedom after the Battle of Dakara. Even after the System Lords were defeated at this battle, there remained some Jaffa who stayed loyal to their Goa'uld masters, but for the most part, the Jaffa are a free people.