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!
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!
Page 1 of 3