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Friday, January 26, 2007

Old post an analysis of Obi

Aboru Aboye Aboshishe,

I'm in the midst of learning a new way of throwing Obi (the kola nut) but I recently had an exchange on another board which I now no longer post to, where a priestess actually unprovoked, wished "Okana" on me because she didn't agree with my views. She did so, because I suggested it was ironic that in a previous post, she started with "alaafia" which means peace, before writing a very negative post. Since she didn't understand yoruba, she figured the opposite of alaafia was Okana instead of saying Ibi or (osogbo for the lucumi) or some such thing.

I'm thankful to her, because it got me thinking about what Okana meant and where it came from. I used to think simply that it came from the yoruba word Okan, meaning one, for the one white side showing, but as I started to study Ifa, realized that was not the total picture. Okana, is actually a modification of the Ifa odu Okanran. In the diloggun system, Okana is 1. Now the reason I believe this comes from Ifa is that in Ifa, even though Babalawos never read only one leg of a "letra" like the santeros/olorishas, they read two legs, the way you mark Okanran as an odu is:


as in three pieces brown and one white. (of course to be fair, if it's marked the opposite direction, it's obara) What's more interesting is you'll often see this also called Okanasode, which all Babalawos will recognize as the Odu Okanrans'ode or the alias for the Odu Okanrana - ogbe. Now, okanran ogbe is actually marked thus:


and has it's own stories associated with it, which aren't all bad. Though in the lucumi system, there is a story of Okanran obge which talks about a child with large ears and long story short, the motion made by the Babalawo is to cover ones ears, which some of the older Olorishas will say is something you do when this is cast in Obi.

I have always had thoughts on the other names as well:

Alaafia = peace (in Yoruba) matching the peacefullness and coolness of all white side of Obi upwards. The corresponding odu in Ifa would be Ogbe.

Etawa = I've always pronouned it with an e (dot underneath) where Eta means three in yoruba (3 white sides are up), and wa with the accent down on the a means "to exist" so, three exist. Ita, with an I, is third day, which in Fama's dictionary she also notes is third day divination as in Ita Ifa or Ita Osha.

Ejiife = this is a harder one, it corresponds to no odu but can be broken down eji-two and ife can mean love or the holy city of Ife. It's possible it could mean the love created by two, signifying the balance of light and dark, or the literal love created by two, signifying man and woman, as the Yoruba are very centered around the family and marriage with man and woman, the two opposites, creating a whole.

Oyekun - Odu Oyekun meji, which if you look at only one leg of how it's marked in Ifa is:


or equivalent to all faced down, which is fairly self explanatory in the sense that you can physically see the resemblance. As an odu, Oyekun Meji is not all negative, but it is the Odu in which Iku was introduced to the world, and as such I can see the negative interpretation.

O dabo

Friday, January 12, 2007

What is the role of Charity?

After having spent over 20 years in the Orisha community and just under half of that as a priest, I've come to wonder, what is the role of charity?

It seems like a simple question, but I racked my brain looking for examples. The most I could come up with were those where a particular person known to the community was in need (usually for an initiation, or burial) and a call was made. There was also the occasional time when in a reading someone is told to donate to the poor. In very rare instances, and mostly within the Traditional African community, there were calls for money and clothes for Nigerian temples (and once for some help with Katrina victims). Other then these instances (which seem very few and far between) I haven't seen much in the form of charity.

It's always struck me the lack of interest in organizing charitable functions within the Orisa traditions is an extension of the loss of community and move toward individualism (my practice/my ile syndrome as I call it) . The exception being particular cases of particular people (ie funding an Osha or a funeral). Much beyond that, I've heard of little in the community. It seems to me that although this is a prominently latino community, capitalistic/individualism has permeated the mind and people don't think of charitable practices as a part of their religious life. I think this also stems from the explosive growth of priests being initiated, and as an extension their generally poor theological education. To some extent, the US practices have become a bit of a cult of personality, with a godparent/s who rule over their temples, and though they may be morally responsible for their "house" (not all are), they also inadvertently end up in a situation where their financial well being in part springs from this relationship. Therefore there seems to be a lack of motivation to look beyond themselves to their obligations to the community as a whole. Add to that the constant need of adherents priest/practitioner alike, to undergo costly initiations and cleansings and you further weaken the impetus for helping out others.

These might not seem like words of inspiration, but I think it's important to look at the factors for why the problem exists before you can create a solution.

Where does that leave us? It is of course difficult to get people to see beyond their own problems, in any religion, especially one in which people can do tangible things (make ebo) in order to have tangible results. It creates a bit of a quandry as it leaves people wondering what being charitable will do for them. I pay my money, i get initiated. I do my ebo, I am free from witchcraft. I do my love spell, I get my mate.

In this case I believe that the best way to change this is to use the nomenclature of the religion in order to have people understand what they need to do. Feeding the poor is ebo so that we may not see poverty. Helping the sick is ebo so that we may not see sickness. Volunteering is a responsibility of the priest/practitioner alike.

But what's important is that the example begins from the top. In this hierarchical religion, where we often see in larger or lesser ways, cults of personality (read strong godparent), the godparent has to set the example. As in life, the mother/father in theory should set an example for their children, so to it's the responsibility of the godparent to set the example for their godchildren. Be it in learning/teaching the theology, or helping the community at large.

This is a difficult task, and one which probably will take a mindshift in many of the "elders", but a few well positioned elders taking the lead and leading by example could inspire a system that often gets mired down by greed, politics, and power. We are human, and I'm not trying to point a finger, but we all also have to look at ourselves and those around us.

If you could get 1 or 2 elders to step forward and ask their godchildren to commit to communally volunteering once every 3 months, things would begin to change.

This bring to mind 2 of the 16 laws of Ifa from Ika Ofun:

won ni ki won ma gba opa l'owo afoju
They (Babalawo) advised them not to take a walking cane from the blind

Won ni ki won ma gba opa l'owo ogbo
They (Babalawo) advised them not to take a walking cane from an old person

Ika Ofun tells us, that we must help the disabled and help the elderly, for it is never known when we might become disabled, and we all hope to live long lives. One way or the other, someday it will be us.

I leave this conversation with a saying from the Odu Oturupon Oworin:

Ifa ni ti a ba ji ni kutukutu
Ogbon ni ki a ma a ko ara wa . . .

Ifa says when we wake early mornings
We should teach each other wisdom . . .

Babalawo Ifalola omo Iwori Aweda - marcos

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Lessons . . .

Through my words, I am set free . . .

If you would have asked me years ago what I would be when I grew up, I don't know that I would have known. I think I would have likely said a lawyer, although I've always felt spiritual, and I've always felt the call to lead people. What do I do now? I am a marketer, who knows the power of words to move people to action, or inaction.

What am I now?

I am a priest who knows the power of words, but also knows the power of the the divine.

I am an Orisha priest - an Awo Orisha

I am an Ifa priest - a Babalawo

Most important of all, I am a priest of life

Is that how I define myself? Yes, it is. Perhaps that's a strange way of identifying oneself, but I feel moved by that which I can not understand. Marriam-Webster defines priest as:

one authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God.

We all, in our own right should have a direct relationship with God, whoever or whatever we think that is. I call God Olodumare according to my beliefs, derived from the traditional Yoruba religion. My role in Ifa is to regularly commune with the divine in order to help interpret the messages left for us. My role in Ifa is to guide and help people develop. My role in Ifa is to do what I can to help improve myself, those who come to me, and if possible, the world.

If you would have asked me years ago if I would be religious? I would have said no. But I can't see the wonders of the world without seeing how they are all representative of something greater then me. Is that religion? not necessarily, religion is just belief system that attempts to define as much as is possible, that which is greater then us, and define the parameters for how we relate with that. Is religion stiff and unmoving? It can be, but as with the world, in order to survive, we must sometimes adapt, perhaps that's Olodumare's greatest lesson.

Am I anti-lucumi?? January 04, 2007

I was recently asked to leave a ceremony because I was accused of being anti-lucumi, so I decided to set the record straight. I am NOT anti-Lucumi.

The past two years have been a process for me of coming to grips with my religious practice and who I am. Having been raised on the idea that it is important to question with a critical eye and not simply accept everything at face value has been a large part of who I am and who I continue to be. A part that is not particularly valued in the hierarchy of most organized religions, including the Lucumi.

My original Ile was many things, some good, some bad, however for me, in the end, not a place in which I felt I could learn and grow. However, being attached to a Botanica (store that sells santeria/lucumi religious items), it gave me access to the public face of the lucumi religion, and acted as a focal point for those who were in or seeking to be in the religion. As such, I was constantly bombarded by the politics and stories of strangers who would wander in to talk about their experiences.

I didn't work there full time, but was there on weekends and during ceremonies, at which time many people walked into the store seeking help or advice. The stories came flooding in, from people who had been literally abused, to those who had wasted away thousands of dollars on "ceremonies" or "trabajos" that were in the end meaningless. From people who received invisible elegbas to those who received spiritual cauldrons or prendas which had nothing more then sticks, rocks and dirt in them.

"Didn't you know, your neighbor cast a spell on you" or "yes, I can make them love you" and all for only $750 or $2000 or I'll make you a priest for only $16,000. It was more a story of the politics of money, then that of religion. Needless to say, it left my image of the religion tarnished at the best of times, bleak at the worst. And these stories were not only from the bay area, but also from LA, Miami, NYC and more. Bad news travels . . .

My own Ile of course was not devoid of politics. Without getting into anything specific, I had seen questionable practices which I felt were more driven by the almighty dollar then anything else.

Add to that my own personal experiences and I'm often amazed I still practice this religion. From drunk Apwon (singer) at tambors (religious drumming events), to priests swearing and fighting in front of Orisha during ceremonies, to people being charged outrageous sums of money to be initiated, to priests pretending to be mounted, to "shunnings" of godchildren who did little wrong, the list goes on.

Needless to say, it left bittersweet emotions. I loved the religion, but I could do without many of the "priests" and practitioners.

Being a questioning person I wondered. I wondered why things were done a certain way, I wondered why ceremonies were changed, I wondered if things were changed only to survive, why practices couldn't revert to their original state once it was again possible. I questioned, and I learned that question and criticism are not traits valued in the lucumi tradition. There was a pervading feeling that the religion was created in Cuba, and anything African was bad (perhaps a racism from the predominantly light skinned latinos practicing today). I was amazed at the myths that were propagated about the origins of things, with little scholarly investigation.

I'm certainly not perfect, and I'm not interested in stirring the pot just to stir it, but in order to better ourselves and our practice, sometimes it's important to ask questions and not simply practice religion through rout memorization. So, this lead me to ask hard questions, point out questionable practices, and wonder why "elders" didn't really do anything.

From conversations with elder Cubans, it seems that things have changed from the earlier days in Cuba. America has put it's stamp of individualism and profit on the religion both here and in Cuba (don't get me wrong, Nigerians are all about money too, but that's not what we're talking about right now). Back in the old days, the ratio of priest to practitioner was different, with far fewer priests, but ones who were more studious. Here in the US, everyone wants to be Queen bee and no one wants to be a worker. We initiated priests like Ford model T's. Can the primarily community oriented Orisha worship survive in the individual capitalistic society of the USA?

It also seems to me like the production line, the speeding up of initiations has increased the number of priests, but has not increased the quality of priests. In fact it's had a somewhat adverse affect. There are more priests who are undertrained (if trained at all), and due to designs in the system, they are gathering their own "godchildren" for initiation. Like amway, the layers are increasing, and there is little time between generations for the new one to gain the true knowledge that prepares them to do what they have undertaken. Every new layer takes them farther away from the top. Like america, babies are having babies. Why can't we slow down.

These were my experiences and some of my thoughts, and in the beginning, my online posts had a slightly bitter tone, but as time passed, and I passed to Ifa, I shifted my thinking. I apologized. I suppose in part because I was not the diplomat for the job, nor was I capable of reforming a system that had no interest in reform. There was also my new focus on Ifa, and traditional African practice. In the end I realized two things.

It is not the lucumi religion that bothered me, but the practice of some people, and there will always be bad people in all religions.

The lucumi are their own sect of the Orisha traditions, and should I decide not to practice, then I should not be critical of the system they are happy with.

Am I anti-lucumi? no
Is it a practice I can reform? no
What then am I? I am a practitioner of Ifa.
Would I work with a lucumi priest? Yes, those that are ethical and respectful of me.

Ifa is Ifa, Lucumi or Traditional, I've had some good and some bad experiences with Lucumi Babalawo, but I hope that I will be able to work with my Lucumi brothers to promote Ifa and increase the knowledge of ritual, liturgy and theology for the betterment of the world.

What ancestors do I worship? November 07, 2006

To understand Orisha worship and traditional african religion is to understand that ancestors are a critical part of our lives. The Yoruba say we stand on the shoulders of those that come before us. This is an important idea to which I would add, whether those people were of good or bad character. This is important because even people who've made bad choices can be learned from, so that we hopefully don't make the same ones.

How does one determine who to worship? Well, there are several avenues that can be utilized to determine this. First is simply following your family tree, and making sure that you are giving praise to your bloodline. To this, you may choose to add your extended family (those who've passed and were close to you, but may have not been related by blood). If you belong to an Ile (house), Egbe etc, you may add to this your extended spiritual family that has passed, specifically priests from that lineage. Should you not know these people, it is always acceptable to seek advice through divination to determine which ancestors need attention.

Where this gets complex is in dealing with those ancestors who may have had questionable ethics, or were just bad people. Some suggest that when a person departs from this life, they retain their evil character, so why give them praise. First, we are not giving praise to the things that they did in life (though we can for those that were good people), we are giving praise that they are our ancestor and without them we would not exist, and we are praying that they may have guidance in choosing good Ori in their next incarnation.

A person's character can not remain the same after disengaging from the body. If that were the case, all wicked people would always remain wicked, and we know that not to be the case. People reincarnate, and their Ori choses it's destiny at the foot of Olodumare, I have to believe that the soul does understand it's wrongs in life, and that it doesn't continue to chose wickedness over and over (or at least at some point in the cycle it realizes). Now fulfilling the promise of a good life is another problem? Choosing the righteous path and walking the righteous path are sometimes two different things.

I also believe it is not for us to judge the outcome of someone's life, that is the place of Olodumare, Ifa and Orisa since only they can see the sum total of one's existence weighing out the many complex decisions we as humans may have never seen. Sometimes honorable people do dishonorable things, and part of restoring their honor is making amends, realizing what they've done, and changing, hopefully in this lifetime (though this certainly doesn't always happen).

Life is not always simple, and often there is grey. The color of someones skin does not automatically make them honorable, and flipside, it doesn't always make them dishonorable either. This is where the past becomes murky. I believe true traditionalists would say that you must teach your children the whole truth about their ancestry, and you should pay homage to all your ancestors. This does not mean that a child needs to take the religion or practices of all their ancestors, but they should know about them. In our increasingly mixed society, a parent still has a responsibility to raise a child within the system they feel is right, though eventually the child needs to choose for themselves.

Each of us is born with Ori, and our Ori will lead us to what our path is, and in part we are not a missionary religion, because we believe that Ori chooses it's path. To that end, it may or may not be the path of that child to follow Orisha, we can teach them about it, but in the end they must choose. It is I believe our responsibility to teach our children about all of their ancestors and ancestry, and let them choose.

I will tell my children about their spanish great grandmother, their Kuna indian great grandmother and their jewish great grandparents. This is the new world of pluralism that we now live in. I will also teach them about the Orisha, and if they want to learn more about the Kuna, or the spaniards, or the jews I will learn with them.


What it means for Ori to select one's destiny. . . September 17, 2006

The following question was recently posed:

"When we select our Ori's in orun our destiny begins. Is this to say that the many
Nigerians and other countires selected ori's that brought them into servitude?
Help me out Babas. Why was this option even present for us?"

To which I responded:

We should clarify what it means to select one's desiny. As I understand it, it does not mean that you can choose to be born to a rich family, or that you can choose to be white or black, or that you can choose to be born during a time of peace and prosperity vs. during the holocaust or other times of atrocities. What it means is to choose what one will do with one's life once here on Aiye. It's about choosing character, choosing what type of life one will lead, even what one might try and accomplish while here.

The Yoruba have a clear concept of the idea of freewill, which is reflected in this idea of destiny. While our Ori has chosen its destiny, we do not remember it, and it is through our actions, our search and our attempt to discover it that it can be can achieved. We do that through Iwa pele, we do that through leading a good life, we do that by being kind and giving, we do it by being humble, we do it by serving Orisha, we do it by seeking their council and abiding by it, and we do it through sacrifice.

The concept of sacrifice is one that I feel often gets twisted. We think that sacrifice only means giving the blood of an animal, or leaving food. But sacrifice also comes through one's actions, by adhering to ewoo (taboo), by giving to others and serving the community and by helping your neighbor. This is far too often forgotten, and many in the Orisha traditions get caught up in the "business" of Orisha, or simply the idea that leading a good life means being rich and having material things. Choosing your destiny means just that, but it still requires getting there, and it is up to each and every one of us to do what we need to do to both understand it and achieve it.

I believe that our Ori understands the human conditions under which it incarnates on this earth. Due to some peoples poor choices, egotism and wickedness, earth is not always a great place to be. With that understanding, Ori makes it choice, which we hope was one filled with goodness, and it is up to us to fulfill that destiny. Some people are born under the hardest of conditions, and fulfilling their destiny will be very difficult. But we must not fall into the trap of thinking that a good destiny is one filled with material things and money. A farmer with only his land and a little savings can lead a happier and more fulfilled life then the richest and most powerful of men. A slave can fulfill his destiny and lead a happy life by seeing that his/her children do not have to go through what they went through. A poor person can fulfill their destiny by seeing their children have an education and opportunity to succeed. Long life, with good friends and family that support us, with enough to ensure we are always fed, clothed and sheltered can be more fulfilling then a 5,000 square foot house and 5 mercedes benzes. Those things might seem like they will make you happy, but more often then not, they don't.

I hope this shed a little light on my perspective on this,


Devil and hell in ifa?? September 09, 2006

The Devil and Hell are Judeo/Christian constructs that are NOT shared by non-christian Yoruba and are not a part of traditional Yoruba theology nor as I recall Lucumi. Interestingly, christian missionaries saw esu (eshu/elegba) and because of his potential to be wrathful and known to do "evil" things, they equated him with the devil. When they wrote Yoruba/English dictionaries, they actually went so far as to put Esu as the Yoruba word for the devil, and many Christian Nigerians believe he is the devil and sadly use his name for the Devil in Yoruba. We of course know that Esu is not the devil, though he can be devilish! :-)

That is not to say the Yoruba don't have beings/forces of nature that can perform acts that fall outside of the moral constructs of what we might call "good", and there are certain people who try and utilize the Iyaami for what might be evil purposes. I know also that Aroni, is an imp like creature that is known to
reek havoc in what might be considered an evil way. Perhaps they imbody the ability and nature of chaos, which can run counter to our own needs/desires/wants, which then are interpreted as "evil".

There is not, however, the same dialectic thesis/antithesis as christianity. There is no devil that is trying to win our souls or beat God (Olodumare), but there are "evil things that go bump in the night".
Esu, Aje, Ajoogun, Iyaami. They are to be spoken of in hushed voices (prayers to the iyaami are never spoken loudly,only in a voice above a low tone and are revered and never upset. There are many odu that
talk about the Iyaami for instance, even thwarting the works of Orunmila and other Orisha unless they are appeased. The Yoruba believe we make our own choices and we can certainly make evil ones
ourselves, and they can be affected by evil things, but evil is simply a part of nature, not someone who is the antithesis of god and always trying to "win" the world away from some holy salvation.

There is no hell at all that I've ever heard of . . . which is probably where reincarnation comes in, those people who are wicked do not become one of the Isheshe and reincarnate choosing their destiny each time they do. I suppose now that I think of it, it's much more akin to the buddhist concept. Our Ori is kunle (kneeling) in front of Olodumare as it picks it's destiny, to which Ifa/Orunmila is witness (Eleri Ipin). Obatala then creates the body, Ajala the head and the Emi is given by Olodumare. Because of a time when Ebo was not correctly offered to Elenini, we forget our destiny as we pass through the birth canal. Ori however, has left it's Enikeji (heavenly/spiritual double) in orun to remind us of our chosen destiny and it is our job to always try and recall our chosen path. If we have good character, we can fulfill our destiny and lead a good life.

More thoughts on Yoruba theology.

Olodumare, Ifa, Odu how Odu manifests - Aug. 29, 2006

Olodumare created all holy Isheshe and falls into the camp of that which can not be fully understood/comprehended by humans, simply because Olodumare is all existance and all possibility
. . . Like the God of the judeo/christian traditions, Olodumare is omnipotent

Ifa is both an Orisha and the codification of all the knowledge of the world past present and future, Odu is the womb that encapsulates that knowledge. Odu is constantly birthing the future as it comes to present . . . This is the process that occurs when Ifa is consulted through the manipulation of the ikin. As a Babalawo chants to awaken the energy imbued within the ikin, he spreads the Iyerosun on the Opon Ifa to not only mark it as sacred space, but to prepare it to birth the Odu for the client. In a regular consultation with Ifa, the Odu manifests it's energy in a finite time which may be a day or a month. When odu is cast during Itefa, the Odu will manifest it's energy throughout the rest of the initiates life. When receiving the "hand of Ifa" initiation, the Odu also manifests itself throughout the clients life, or until they pass on to Itefa (if that is their path) and their birth Odu is determined during Ita.