by Shloma Rosenberg Afolabi Awoyoyomi (iba’ye)
(Afolabi’s Oba pictured above.)
It has been a long time that I have been alone. I do remember, although I am old and some things fade, a time when I was not. If my memory serves me correctly then I am glad to be alone.
Like most women I was not given an identity of my own. I bore my father’s name and knew that I would continue to do so until I received the name of another man. When my father no longer cared to own me he found that man, my husband Shango. An agreement was made and bridewealth exchanged, with only slightly less care than that involved in the sale of a cow or maybe a piece of fine cloth. I bear no grudge against either of these men for the events that shaped my life, as we all were simply following the examples that had been set for what seems to have been eternity.
After a time I was joined by two co-wives, Oya and Oshun, in my husband’s compound. I observed Shango’s pleasure at the talents they displayed. Oshun cooked for him and kept house. At night I heard his cries from their conjugal bed. Apparently she had other talents not so easily displayed to the rest of the compound.
Oya, on the other hand, was far from a traditional wife. When Shango fought, she was at his side, fighting as well or better than any of the men in his army. She is the one I admired for her independence, although as I look back I believe that my admiration manifested itself more often as disgust and shock, partly that someone who was supposed to be a wife would act in such a bold fashion, but even more so that Shango reveled in her actions.
My jealousy grew from day to day. I watched Oshun cook and took careful notes, recording each step meticulously, even improving on most of her dishes. When I attempted to impress Shango with my culinary skills, he seemed uninterested. I climbed atop his body in vain, his sex remaining limp and unresponsive. I observed Oya in action and recorded her movements to the finest detail. I became as fine a warrior as Oya ever was, developing skills even she did not possess. When I demonstrated the use of the saber to my husband, he watched only long enough to learn how to do it himself, then informed me that I was too clumsy to go into battle with him.
I became crazed with jealousy. There seemed to be a conspiracy against me. No matter how well I performed the skills that I thought would impress Shango, he paid me no mind. I was sure that it was the work of Witches, and that I had to find the magic that would counteract the evil spell.
The diviners would not speak to me. They did not want to risk their heads by advising the King’s wife in matters concerning Witchcraft. No one among my family or friends had any advice for me either. Even they feared Shango’s wrath.
Finally I asked one of my co-wives what to do. I cannot remember which one it was, probably because it would be too painful to do so.
She told me that she knew of the Witchcraft that had been worked against me, that a spell had been cast by my other co-wife. She said that long ago a diviner had taught her a remedy for such evil magic. I listened in a confusion of eagerness and horror as she told me what I must do.
"Prepare for Shango a stew. It must be the finest stew ever created, and to that stew you must add your own left ear. This will forever bind the King’s heart to your own."
In my insanity I took to the task. I awoke long before the sun, if I ever slept at all. I ground flour until my hands bled. I chopped vegetables so fine they were transparent. I searched for the finest rooster in the compound. I remember it now as though I watched it from somewhere outside myself. The wild eyes I see in my memory frighten me. My skin was tight around my face with derangement and anguish. My body was near exhaustion when the time came for the final ingredient.
Of the mutilation of my ear I have no memory. The twisted scar, like a braid of battered flesh down the left side of my head, tells me that it was not the stuff of marginally recalled nightmares.
I came to Shango like a mad ghoul, thinking myself beautiful. My aching head bound in bloody rags, my gown soiled. He looked at me first only in disgust, then horror, as his eyes moved to the dish I held in my hands. There, atop a mass of grain and stew, overly garnished as if it had been prepared by a demented gourmet, were the gnarled, blood soaked remains of my ear.
He turned and walked slowly from the room. He must have been in shock. The palace guards, apparently on his orders, escorted me to the gates of the city, banishing me forever.
At that moment the world disappeared. I felt like a stone that had been dropped in the ocean. Everything went black, and there was a rushing of pressure and sound that filled my head. I had entered oblivion.
I do not know how long I was in that state. A thousand years, perhaps. When I regained my senses I went to live in Ile Iku, the land of the dead. I knew that was the one place where I would never have to lay eyes on my husband again. His fear of the dead was legendary. I sat quietly among their bones to meditate on my lot.
In my life I had started with nothing, nothing that was mine. The things that I had truly loved to do, to learn and to teach what I had learned, I had done only for the pleasure of a man. I had hoped that this man would complete me, would fill the hole that I had been taught existed in my life. If no man owned me, loved me, appreciated me, affirmed me, then I did not exist. I came to realize that my desire to learn and teach, and my ability to do so, is what pushed my husband away from me, for he feared my intellect and my power. In the end I mutilated myself to gain his approval, an act which left me with less than nothing.
I sat in Ile Iku and watched the souls of dead women arrive. Each bore evidence, some more apparent than others, of the same mutilation. Women from Asia arrived with bent and crooked feet, feet which were broken at birth to be made smaller and to render the women less mobile. Women from Africa arrived with scars still fresh from the genital mutilation which killed them, their vaginal walls torn and sewn back together in unnatural shapes. Women arrived from more “civilized” countries shorn of most of their body hair, their figures bound by creations of cloth and metal meant to shape their bodies into forms more acceptable to men, and wearing shoes that bent their feet into unholy, but apparently “sexier” positions.
I watched as the broken and battered women marched through the gates of Ile Iku. As they entered, they began to heal. The binding garments fell from their bodies, disappearing as they hit the Earth. Feet that were crushed and twisted uncurled, becoming once again large and beautiful. I watched as the flowers of their sex opened, becoming once again full and healthy. I saw that this was as it should be. We danced together. They brought me gifts of precious stones and shells, with which I decorated my remaining ear. I knew then that all I had was beautiful, and deserved adornment for my own sake, for no other reason than my own pleasure.
I watched also as the souls of dead men arrived. They too bore signs of mutilation. Men arrived from Mesopotamia, bearing bombs and guns meant to settle theological disagreements. Men from the United States came with glass pipes at their lips, drugs for sale in their pockets. Men came from all over the world bearing weapons of steel and weapons of flesh. They marched in droves with fear, anger, and hate clinging to their backs like disfigured monkeys.
As they passed through the gates, they too changed. Weapons fell to the Earth and vanished. Faces and muscles that had been twisted and tense relaxed. Men and women came together in peace, in love, in equality. I saw that this is as it should be. We danced together and celebrated, as they awaited their return to the world of the living. Each promised each other that it would be different next time.
Upon hearing this, a shudder moved through me. It would not be different next time. Awaiting them in the land of the living were the same lawmakers, the same educators, the same parents that had instructed them in the past. It would not be different, it would be the same.
Unless I returned to the world of the living.
So I went to work. I possessed my daughters and sons and worked through them. By creating literature, education, interaction, trade, and commerce, I empowered humanity. Books could be written, ideas exchanged. Even the destructive forces who would misuse the media that I created could be argued with, openly, honestly, publicly, and loudly.
There was much opposition at first. Books were burned, authors jailed. There were books written by devious men who wanted their word to be law. To disagree with them meant death. The struggle continued for almost two thousand years.
For my own part I recorded the ways of the Orisha. Proverbs and legends, rituals and divination verses, these would be my tools for transforming the world. The lessons we had learned while living in this world would be used to show others the possibilities inherent in themselves. When people realized the harmony that the universe had to offer, when they learned the lessons that the Orisha learned so long ago, it would bring growth, and growth brings change. I revealed these mysteries to many different people in many different lands, in many different ways and under many different names. There was growth, and there was change.
Now, my worship has spread. They call me the Teacher of the Mysteries. They call me “She Who Brings Growth”. They call me the Perfect Woman. This last could mean many different things. I know what it means for me, and it is true. They say that I am never to be offended, although some may be confused as to what offends me. To set the record straight let me say that ignorance, or, rather, the unwillingness to abandon it, offends me, degradation offends me, and injustice offends me. To offend me is to offend God, to offend God is to offend yourself, and if you offend yourself, you will have no peace.
My children write and read books that speak the truth, and they cannot be silenced. No longer is there only one model to be followed. No longer is it accepted that there is nothing that can be done about the abuses rained down upon God and Her creations by those who would wallow in ignorance. Now that I have achieved my goal, now that I have given people the gift of an alternative, let us see what they will do with it.
Anonymous said: are there a lot of whites in your santero community? I don't mean white americans but whites in general, I don't know how it is in nyc so I ask because I'm in florida which obviously has a large white cuban population and my ile is basically all full out white cuban/latin american people with only two poc outside of me one cuban and one west indian. it makes me uncomfortable because I feel like they're taking over the culture my ancestors died for in order to preserve from their ancestors (cont)
(cont) their ancestors destruction, but at the same time as cubans its also their culture now since we’ve become integrated as a people and cuban culture transcends race, so I feel guilty for feeling animosity towards them, is it wrong that I feel that way? it’s just weird. like even my godmother for example her parents were born in spain, and it made me think of how our religion has so much to do with honoring our ancestors but how are we honoring my ancestors when we’re literally honoring
cont) their ancestors who enslaved and raped and killed mine? I’ve been wanting to talk to her about this subject but she’s one of those color blind “blancos, negros, chinos, mulatos somos todos cubanos” tfypes and I feel like she’d react negatively. sorry if this doesn’t make sense..———————————————-
Well this is a loaded question but I totally understand what you are getting at. My Ile in New York is very Black. African Americans an Afro latinx dominate. There are some of those “racially ambiguous” latinx in my Ile. And most are Puerto Rican and Dominican. my padrino is Afro Puerto Rican and I honestly can’t tell what my madrina is. She’s either Afro Cuban or Afro boricua though.
There are white people in my ile though. And they’re pretty great! One of my favorite Santeras I know is White. She’s amazing and she’s very knowledgable. She’s also very aware of her privilege as a white person and doesn’t take up space.
I think the point you made about how over here Cubans became Cuban first rather in Cuba they were never questioned on their Cubanidad but race was/still is always on the forefront when it comes to religious ideas.(it’s way more complicated than this because obviously black Cubans were and still are ignored and treated like crap by the white Cubans)
If white people, including white Latinxs are going to keep joining our traditions we have to make sure that they know the religion is a black one. And that it has very important indigenous roots. It’s a tradition of resistance from white supremacy. And that’s very important to know while being a practitioner.
Olorisha Asiel Baez on initiation prices in Lukumi-Santeria.
This is something I get asked about a lot. Asiel sums it up really well here. Although, I’ve never heard of a $5k outside of Cuba! Whoa, that would be so cheap! Most Orisha that I’ve seen are between $8k-12k in California and Michigan (with Warriors and Oya and Oba being around $14k). I imagine it’s cheaper and easier in Miami.
"Male" priest of Oya wearing a female-style wrap in Ijebu Remo, Nigeria. 1982.
Certain “male” priests of the Orisha (particularly Oshun, Shango, and Oya) were known to wear the female clothes and hairstyles, as well a take on female names and sometimes marry husbands. For more information, check out J Lorand Mattory’s Sex and the Empire That is No More.
Photo is from Margaret Thompson Drewal’s article “Art and Trace among Yoruba Shango Devotees” in African Arts Magazine.
Are Veve’s Part of Santeria? Do the Orisha Have Veves?
Veves are very popular nowadays. You can get them on everything from keychains to candles. They come from Haitian Vodou, a sort of cousin religion to Santeria/Lukumi. People online, especially those involved in Hoodoo and Neo-Paganism, have been getting them mixed up with the Orisha lately.
To set the record straight: veves are not part of Lukumi/Santeria. They are part of Haitian Vodou and traditionally are only drawn on the ground with cornmeal or other flours (and sewed into dwapo lwa) and only then by initiated Houngans and Manbos (priests) who have been taught the specific veves for the lwa in their sosyete. Veves vary considerably by sosyete and even by specific use. They are not to be copied out of mass-produced books.
They have nothing to do with the Orisha, who are distinct spiritual entities from the Lwa. My Godmother is both an Olorisha and a Manbo Si Pwen (initiated by Mama Lola), and believe me when I say she can explain to you the difference between Orisha and Lwa. While the Orisha and Lwa have some things in common, including similar names in a few cases (for example, Ogou and Ogun, Papa Legba and Elegba, Nanan Bouclou and Nana Buruku), they have changed considerably in Haiti and are not worshipped in the same way there as in other places of Orisha worship.
Now, in Lukumi Orisha worship there are certain drawn patterns that are used, but these are considered very secret and are largely not public knowledge. They do not really resemble veves at all. In Yorubaland, ritual ground drawings of cornmeal and flour do exist in Orisha worship, particularly in the worship of Olokun, but these largely did not survive travel to Cuba. What survived looks nothing like these sacred drawings.
So, if someone tries to sell you an “Oshun packet” with a well-known veve for Ezili Freda on it, don’t waste your money. It’s just straight-up cultural appropriation and misinformation. God only knows what trouble it might cause, if it could do anything at all.
Ayibobo to all of the Houngans and Manbos who have taught me what little I know about Haitian Vodou! And Modupe to all of the Olorisha who continue to teach me about our beautiful Lukumi religious traditions!
Sorry that I haven’t been updating this blog more, but I’m waiting for inspiration to write more! It’ll come in time. Modupe gbogbo Orisha every single day of my life. <3 <3 <3 <3 <3
Obini Bata - Yemaya. Ohhh, those voices. The dance…
Obini Bata are the first all-women bata group in Cuba. They’re amazing! Traditionally bata is restricted to men within the religion (and typically also men outside of the religion in ‘folkloric’ groups — a subject for another day!), but Obini Bata represents a step in a different direction. Really talented drummers!
(Bata are the three sacred double-headed drums used to play Añas in Lukumi/Santeria — a much more formal sort of drumming ceremony than the usual güiros/bembes/tambors, and unlike those drums, these must be played by specially initiated and trained Omo Añas. Your hands are washed for Aña, the Orisha of the Bata drums.)
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!
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