Before Initiation: open coconuts, sweep floors; After initiation: open coconuts, sweep floors.
When I first started talking with my Godfather (iba’ye) about being initiated as a priest, he used to say that “as soon as you get off the throne, they hand you a broom.” In my case, it was a vacuum cleaner. While stating very plainly something that does happen right after your initiation is finished, he was also talking about the entire philosophical outlook of the religion. This is a religion of hard work.
I’ve been watching a trashy reality TV series from the UK and Australia called World’s Strictest Parents recently, which takes ‘out of control’ teenagers and put them into strict homes in different countries for a week to ‘straighten them out,’ and reflecting on how I easily could’ve been one of those kids. When I was a teenager, my life was a mess, my headstrong Capricorn nature was in full swing, and I was against hard work. Coming into Lukumi, I was dazzled by the beautiful altars, intricate beadwork, and fascinating patakis (folklore). It never occurred to me that this religion would be so much work.
Attending my first few ceremonies really took some of the wool from my eyes, and over the years I’ve learned more and more just how much work goes into the religion. Ceremonies, which often take all day long, involve dozens of people cleaning, doing ritual work, cleaning, plucking chickens, cleaning, opening goats, cleaning, cooking, and more cleaning, simultaneously. It’s not all just dancing and wearing pretty bead necklaces. At our best, our ilés are well-oiled machines.
What might be surprising to some is that you’re just as likely to find a Santera with 28 years of Ocha crowned plucking chickens and sweeping floors as you are to find her leading the ceremonies.
Beyond the intense work of ceremonies, Lukumi requires a great deal of work on ones own. Each level of initiation into the religion carries it’s own responsibilities. For me, I spend about half an hour every day praying to the Orisha and Egun, and tending to their shrines, and an additional half an hour or more on Mondays. Several times a year, I am required to devote a great deal of time and energy into cleaning and feeding my Orisha, and once a year I throw a party for Oshun. My responsibilities have been growing recently to include making ebó not only for myself, but also for others, and may someday include giving initiations to others.
The work doesn’t stop there. Beyond all of these ritual actions, the real work is on the self, which we refer to as iwa (character). In Orisha religion, our personal goal is to achieve a state of being called iwa pele (gentle character). To have iwa pele is to have a cool head (ori tutu), to be as calm and as gentle and as generous as we can be, within reason. Not to become a saint, per se, but to strive toward being an all-around good person. For me this has been very challenging. I think that I have in the past had a tendency to be hotheaded, with a somewhat vicious tongue — armour I learned over years of walking through a world that often isn’t friendly to trans women like me. While it still is a great challenge for me to come from a place of gentleness and compassion with even my most hated enemy, I continue to try and to grow.
I think I’ve definitely been a bit of a brat in my early experiences within the religion, but Orisha have really worked hard to change that in me, and for that I’m thankful. I have a a bit of a way to go, but I think I’m starting to understand the value and ashé of hard work in service of the Orisha.
Modupe gbogbo Orisha!
Modupe gbogbo Iworo!
<3 <3 <3 <3 <3
(Painting by Marcus Sangodoyin)
Juan told me of two wondrous events that bound his family to the worship of orisa. First, his mother, grandmother and aunt went to a drum festival for Oshun, at the society. Before midnight, Lola, his grandmother became possessed by Oshun. She gave everyone toasted corn (agbado sisun) and told them to go home, the festival was ended. They asked her if she was angry with them and she told them that she was not angry but she wanted everyone not to come there and to stay home for the rest of the year. The elders of the society sent everyone home but Oshun remained mounted after they had closed the doors. Two days later someone bombed the society. The police came and accused the society members of the bombing. When the police questioned Lola they talked to her disrespectfully, but they didn’t realize that she was mounted by Oshun. She told the policeman that she was not Lola, but Oshun. She opened the door of the society and everyone saw the chief of police inside the building. He was found to be the culprit. Oshun had saved the people and revealed the guilty person. The second event occurred when his brother, Jesús was born. Their father, who was present when both Juan and his brother were born, called the midwife in each birth. Jesús could not breathe when he was born and the midwife became possessed by Oya and began rubbing him until he started breathing regularly. She saved his life.
John Mason, Araaraara: Wondrous Inhabitor of Thunder, 2012, pg. 199.
These two true stories are incredible examples of the kinds of miracles that happen in Orisha religion and are related in stories passed down from practitioner to practitioner. Maferefun Oshun ati Oya!
It Takes a Village
One of the most integral aspects of Lukumi and other African-diasporic religions is that they are based around community. It takes a village to make a priest. One of the unfortunate aspects of the religions gaining popularity among anglophones in the last quarter of the 20th century has been the sudden creation of a market for books that purport to teach you everything you need to know to start making ebo to the Orisha or ride with the Lwa all on your own.
Orisha religion’s deepest metaphors revolve around family. Our temple-communities are called ilés, and everyone within them is considered family — referred to as godfamily in english. We learn at the feet of our Godparents, studying through apprenticeship. The importance of this African style of learning is such that elders are notorious for clamming up if you take out a pen and try to write anything down. It is reinforced over and over that we must learn by observing and by doing under the guidance of our elders. This is a familial responsibility.
The family bond of the ilé is such that no sexual affairs are permitted between members of the ilé, most especially between Godparent and Godchild. This would be incest and is absolutely taboo. Furthermore, ilés function to take care of each other as families do. If someone in the ilé is sick or suffers tragedy, the ilé comes together to support that person with whatever they need that we can help with. That may be prayers, it may be ceremonies, it may be taking someone to the hospital.
The family metaphor extends beyond the ilé itself and into the cosmology of the Yoruba universe. Our Orisha are our mothers (iya) and fathers (baba) and we are their children (omo). The Orisha work with us became we are introduced to them and made a part of their family through initiation.
The vast majority of our important ceremonies cannot be conducted alone. They require many priests, who not only bring their ashé (sacred power/life-force) but also fulfill important ritual functions. A bembe (drumming ceremony)? Well, you’re going to need sacred drummers, possession mounts, an akpón (ritual singer), cooks.. The list goes on.
West African cultures place the community before the individual. We work together to insure our survival and to insure that our traditions are passed on in the correct manner. There is no such thing as a “solitary practitioner” in African-Diasporic religions. This idea is antithetical to the way of thinking of West African peoples (and also to most Creole peoples for that matter).
This is how it was taught to me by my elders, as it was taught to them by their elders, and so on back to Yorubaland and back in time to the dawn of these cultures.
I am forever grateful to all of the priests and aleyos who have lifted me up and taught me (most especially my Godmothers Sarah and Vajra and my first Godfather Shloma, iba’ye), and to those who will continue to lift me up and teach me. Moforibale! (I put my head to the ground.)
Modupe gbogbo iworo kale ilé!
The Orishas Aren’t Plumbers
One of the misconceptions of the Orisha that I’ve found to be very common and particularly difficult to explain to people is about how people try to use the Orisha as plumbers. Bear with me here. When people first learn about the Orisha, they treat the Orisha like listings in a telephone book — got love problems? Call Oshun at 1-866-55OSHUN. Need help getting pregnant? Operators are waiting for your call at 1-7YE-MAYA.
This way of reducing the Orisha to singular functions comes primarily from poorly written books and websites that feature Neo-Pagan-style “correspondence lists,” which attempt to list the attributes of various Orisha (such as colours, numbers, foods, and areas of life) for easy, quick reference. Aleyos (non-initiates) read these and the next day set up their very own Oshun Love Altar or Elegba Money Altar, putting together a series of objects that vaguely relate to the things on the list in the hopes of asking the Orisha, whom they’ve never met before, for a favour.
It often can come from a really good, genuine place of wanting connection with the Orisha, but this approach doesn’t make a lot of sense. In Orisha religion, we don’t treat the Orisha like plumbers — specialists that you can just ring up on the phone to fix all of your problems in each specific area of life. When we approach Orisha, it is generally guided through divination with the dilogun, Obi, and/or Ifa oracles, and the advice of priests.
While the books might have you believe that you should go straight to Oshun for matters of the heart, in reality what you might actually need to get your love life sorted out is the calming and cooling influence of Obatala, or the charming and assertive nature of Shango. Furthermore, what you might really need is to change your behaviour, and thus will be given taboos. The Orisha are not one-dimensional deified archetypes of human behaviour whose existence is static. The Orisha are complex and ever-changing beings, and our relationships with them are almost constantly changing, just as our relationships with humans are.
And this is why we have divination. It is only through Odu that we learn the sources of our problems and the steps we need to take to achieve or hold onto blessings in our lives. It is only through Odu that we understand the will of the Orisha and of God.
The Orisha are so much more complex than treating them like plumbers allows them to be. They have minds of their own, and cannot be reduced to simple functions.
Maferefun gbogbo Orisha!
Most Lukumi babalawos pay great homage to Oshun. Lukumi Ifa divination rituals cannot take place if Oshun does not receive her due homage. Likewise, the role of the apetebi, the babalawo’s wife, is indispensable. The preferred apetebi, according to most babalawos, is an omo of Oshun. At the same time, her association with this sensitive and delicate orisha, in every aspect of the term, contributes tremendously to the respect Cuban babalawos show for their apetebis, something that is quite possibly born out of their dread of Oshun. Even when Cuban babalawos will deny this fact, for them, Oshun is both revered and feared, and arguably, the former is due to the latter.
Miguel “Willie” Ramos, Ilari Oba in his book Obi Agbon: Lukumi Divination with Coconut.
(Seriously. As much as we all love Oshun, many fear her because she can become offended, and you don’t want to offend the Orisha in charge of everything that makes life worth living, you know? Her wrath is as fierce as her countenance is splendid, to use a line from Angels in America.)
My Ten Cents on the Matter
People often ask about morality in Lukumi. Religions around the world tend to play a big role in regulating cultural morals, in both positive and negative ways. The community I live in, the queer/trans community, has often been targeted in negative ways by religious morality, primarily from the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and by other major religions (though primarily those religions seem to have tended to be homophobic only after their cultures faced colonization by cultures based around Abrahamic faiths — see for example, colonialism in India and in African nations and the effects this has had on fostering homophobia within those places). People tend to do two things simultaneously upon finding out that I’m a priest: 1) begin to silently, or not so silently, question whether or not I’m judging their sexuality/gender/profession/etc; 2) begin to, also silently, hope that my religion isn’t the kind that holds such judgements.
While I get asked about Lukumi’s perspective on homophobia and transphobia a lot, people rarely ask about Lukumi’s position on sex work. On such rare occasions, I like to tell this story.
In my lineage, there is a woman whom I greatly admire, named Aurora Lamar Oba Tola (iba’ye l’ayen t’onu), and Iyalorisha made to the Orisha Aganju (direct — not Shango con oro para Aganju). Her nickname, because Cubans are particularly fond of giving nicknames, was “La China de la Ten Cent.” She is important for many, many reasons. Firstly, she initiated a large number of priests, including the priestess who would go on to initiate all of the people who lead down the rama to me. And for that, I will always be incredibly grateful.
Aurora was also one of the major important women involved in an incident that the very respected Oriate Miguel “Willie” Ramos Ilari Oba refers to as la division de la habana. This incident, as Mr. Ramos has so thoroughly outlined in his writings, happened in the beginning of the 20th century and resulted in the standardizing of Lukumi initiation practices across Cuba, and, ultimately, the world.
In addition to this, her enduring reputation came from her practice of initiating people and letting them pay her off in installments. Initiation has always been costly, due to the large numbers of materials that must be purchased and priests who must be paid (and, at that time, police who had to be paid off not to raid the ceremony). This is what earned her her nickname “La China de la Ten Cent.” It means the Chinese-looking woman of the Ten Cent Plan (Cuban racial politics in the early 20th century were.. complex, and lots of people had vaguely racist nicknames). She would hold people’s Orishas until they had paid her off, but this Ten Cent Plan allowed people who otherwise might’ve been too poor but who really needed to be initiated quickly to be initiated.
Now what does this have to do with sex work? Well, here’s the other really interesting thing about Aurora Lamar. She is remembered for having been the madam of a brothel. It’s been said to me that she initiated all of the women working there. Perhaps that’s how she came up with the idea of the Ten Cent Plan.
Her dual roles as brothel madam and as senior priestess make perfect sense in the Lukumi worldview. We are intensely practical people. This is a religion that wants to make sure that, no matter how it gets there, we always have food on the table and a roof over our head. We do what we must do, whether it be working at McDonald’s or in a brothel.
Certainly not all Lukumi agree on this or any other moral issue, but I am very happy to know that one of our most respected Ancestors understood this completely. This is part of why I hold her in such particularly high regard.
The Seven African Powers are known and called upon throughout the Carribean, Latin America, and North America. The Seven African Powers are Chango, Orunla, Ogum, Elegua, Obatala, Yemalla, Ochun, and Olofi (that’s actually 8 if you count them..), represented by Saint chromolithographs popularly associated with these Orisha. You can find it printed on candles, magical oils, and incense, and also turned into statues and chromolithographs at just about every botanica and candle shop serving Latino communities throughout the Western world. The image has gained such dominance that some newcomers to Santeria are surprised to learn that there are, in fact, more than seven Orisha. It’s said that there are 401 Orisha in total (though one researcher in Nigeria counted over 630 Orisha, see the excellent book Hail Orisha!).
It’s a really interesting symbol that is used primarily within syncretized Espiritismo centros (Espiritismo cruzado or Santerismo) that mix the African Lukumi religion with European (by way of Puerto Rico and Cuba) Espiritismo. And as a symbol, it has a fascinating and kind of hilarious history that was explained to me by my Godfather Afolabí (iba’ye).
Santeria arrived in the United States in the 1940s, but didn’t really begin to take hold until the Cuban exiles fled the revolution at the end of the 1950s. One of the first priests to settle in the United States was an Ifá priest, Francisco Pancho Mora, in 1946. He was the most senior Lukumi Ifá priest in North America until his death in 1986. Another Cuban émigré was an Iyalorisha named Nina Perez Igbin Kolade (iba’ye).
Before her death, Nina Perez was my Godfather’s first Godmother (well, in a complicated sort of way), in the Las Vegas area, I believe. She was a powerful woman who is remember very fondly as a prolific Santera. When asked about the Seven African Powers, she explained how, sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, she got a phonecall from a well-known candle company. They wanted to make candles to sell using Orisha imagery and asked her who the most worshipped Orisha were. Perhaps not wanting to deal with them, or perhaps in deference to his authority in the United States, she passed them on to Francisco Mora. He decided, somewhat arbitrarily, on Shango, Oshun, Obatala, Yemaya, Elegba, Ogun, Orunla, and Olofi as the most important Orisha (interesting given that Olofi isn’t an Orisha, but is one of three primary names of God).
His decision has gone on to skew the perception of thousands of practitioners of Santeria, and thousands more non-practitioners. I’ve seen people online try to claim that these Seven African Powers are somehow more elevated than the other Orisha, or that the concept of the Seven African Powers existed in West Africa — which it certainly never did (nothing even resembling such a collection of Orisha existed, much less this particular combination of Orisha). Hilarious and fascinating how much of an effect a company’s marketing decisions can be on religious cultures.
Mojuba Egun! Iba’ye layen t’onu!
The Story of Iroko and Oshun
This is a photo of a ceiba tree. The ceiba tree is considered sacred in Orisha religion — it is our World Tree — and we call him Iroko. Iroko trees used in worship are often wrapped in cloth, as seen in this photo from Brazil. I’m pretty sure we do this in Cuban Lukumi as well. I’d like to share a patakí about Iroko and Oshun with you all.
One day Oshun was very sad because she couldn’t have a child. She wanted a child so badly, but no matter what she tried, she just couldn’t have a child. In sadness, she sat down and leaned against an Iroko tree. She cried and cried, praying so hard that she could have a child.
As she was crying, she suddenly heard a voice speak to her. The voice said, “I am Iroko, and I can give you a child if you promise to make ebó to me.” The voice was coming from the Iroko tree!
Oshun, in desperation, cried to Iroko, “I’ll make any ebó, if only I can have a child to bring my happiness back to me! Oh please, Iroko, I will make your ebó!”
“We have an agreement,” said Iroko. “I will give you a child, and in exchange you will make ebó to me.”
Oshun was overjoyed. Her heart filled with life again, knowing that Iroko would give her a child soon. “What is the ebó that you require, Iroko?” she asked.
“I will give you a child,” said Iroko. “But to make ebó, you must sacrifice that child to me on his seventh birthday.” Oshun was shocked, but Oshun is very cunning. She agreed to make this ebó.
And soon, Oshun’s belly began to blossom, and she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy who brought her happiness back to her and great wealth. And Oshun’s husband, the king, was very happy with her. And all was well for many years. But Oshun never forgot her promise to Iroko. And Iroko never forgot her promise, either. Whenever she passed by the Iroko tree, he would remind her of her promise, and soon she simply stopped walking by Iroko.
Oshun couldn’t give up this beautiful child she had grown to love so much, and she thought that if she just kept him away from Iroko, all would be well. She made the little boy promise never to go near Iroko. And the years went by.
That is, until his seventh birthday. That day, Oshun, who had by now almost forgotten about her promise to Iroko, decided to take her son to the market. Distracted at the market, she lost sight of him. When she noticed, he was gone and Oshun was filled with panic. She looked all throughout the market and couldn’t find him. Finally, she caught sight of him, mere feet away from the Iroko tree!
Oshun ran, calling out his name, but he walked straight up to the Iroko tree. The ground opened then and swallowed him up whole. Iroko got his ebó.
This is a patakí stressing the importance of making ebó (sacrifice/offering) and not breaking promises to Orisha. In Yorubaland, this story is actually about a legendary queen named Moremi (who is an incredible historical figure of female power!), but in Cuba, it became associated with Oshun as part of the explanation for why Oshun and children of Oshun must stay away from the Orisha Iroko.
The second half of the explanation that I have been taught about that is a story for another time.
I’ve been thinking on this story since relating it to my twin, Omiala, the other day, and thought I’d share it with you all.
Santeria is a commitment. A huge, lifelong commitment. As Vodou priestess Mama Lola is fond of saying, “If you in, you in. If you out, you STAY OUT.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, about how much of a commitment this religion is. Whenever aleyos (the uninitiated) come to me asking about Santeria, I have to try to impress upon them the weight of the commitment Orisha religion is. It’s a great deal of physical work, takes up a lot of your time, and you have to sacrifice many things, not the least of which being sometimes large amounts of money (a topic for another day). I often worry about people who want to dabble in the religion, because without guidance (and commitment) they can easily get in over their heads and that can make quite a mess.
People involved in Santeria make a variety of commitments. There are the aleyos, whose commitments begin and end with prescriptions (ebos) they get from dilogun and obi readings (and sometimes from misas). They have a low level of commitment that is usually easy to fulfill, however can easily be pulled into deeper commitment (sometimes against their wishes).
Above aleyos are ab’Orisha who have some kind of initiation into the religion, such as elekes and/or Warriors, but aren’t priests. They have more commitments, and are usually committed to a Godparent who takes care of their spiritual health. They will usually regularly get readings, make ebo, and take part in community rituals and events. Those with Warriors are usually committed to doing spiritual work for about twenty minutes every Monday morning with taking care of their warriors. ab’Orisha are more likely to get pulled into deeper commitment, but some are not called or can spend a very long time at this level.
And then we get to the priesthood. I won’t delineate the various kinds of priests right now, but the level of commitment becomes total. We commitment to changing our style of dress (for a period of time, or for life, depending on the person’s taboos), we commit to taking care of many Orisha, we commit to possibly taking care of the spiritual health of others, we commit very deeply to our Godfamily, and we commit to changing our behaviour and circumstances in order to get closer to our Ori (destiny).
Commitment is one of the hardest and most rewarding parts of the religion, and I feel really happy when I see people fulfilling their commitments to Orisha. This is most evident when I run into Iyawos (newly initiated priests — this word literally means “junior bride”), who must wear all white and cover their heads for an entire year. I kind of miss having to do that, myself, to be honest, though I couldn’t wait for it to be over when I was going through it.
Orisha religion is not easy to dabble in. But, for those willing to commit and give themselves over to the Orisha, it is the most beautiful experience I have ever had. <3
Maferefun gbogbo Orisha!
You have to experience this
Since making Ocha, it has really struck me how much this religion cannot be learned apart from experience. No book (or blog) can teach you much of anything, other than a few lovely stories. When I first got into this religion, I enthusiastically consumed every book and website I could find, perhaps because my contact with the religion has always been out of town and thus infrequent. And I certainly learned a lot that I’m glad to know, but I never really ended up learning much about the Orisha until I started meeting them.
In Lukumi, the Orisha speak to us through divination with dilogun, coconut, and the Babalawo’s opele. They also speak to us through possession, when they mount their priests and dance and give advice. This direct contact with the Orisha is something I cherish most about this religion, because I get to actually hear what they say, rather than follow vague feelings and hope for the best.
It was through this direct contact that I started to realize that everything I thought I knew was wrong. Yemaya, for example. In a lot of what is written about Yemaya, we speak of her as a gentle, loving mother. The kind of mother who coddles you and gives you cookies. She is seen as sweet and generous. And she definitely can be. The Yemaya I have come to know, however, is very different.
The Yemaya I know and love is immense. And she will cut you. The Yemaya I know is no nonsense. She loves us all as deep as the ocean, but she knows when to use tough love. Like the ocean, her waters can be rough. She is a survivor who fights brutally to protect her children, but also won’t take any crap from her children. She can be harsh, because you need it.
Suffice it to say, I don’t get the warm fuzzy feelings from her that I had expected. And I love her for it.
I’ve had this experience with so many Orisha, expecting one way of relating to them and finding a completely different feeling when I actually meet them. Maybe we stereotype the Orisha with traits we want them to have, like an ebó to bring those traits out in them. I don’t know. You’d have to ask someone older and more experienced than me. Still, it’s very interesting just how different they can be.
The more that I learn, the more that I realize: this is not a book religion; this is a religion of experience.
(The above painting is my favourite painting of Yemaya! So beautiful!)
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