When it comes to Santeria, I still consider myself a baby. At 12 years as an initiate of Yemayá I am barely scratching the surface of all there is to know and to do. Therefore, I am constant in my studies and always seeking opportunities to share ritual space with true elders. I also keep at arm’s length bookworms and internet junkies that are nothing but arm chair magicians filled with regurgitated knowledge. In any case, no matter how much I apply myself to my studies, I am never where I would like to be. Proof of it is what I just learned, two novel and brilliant concepts: The Catholic Osobgo and the Christian Iré.
How did you come to learn about this Omimelli, you may wonder? Let me tell you the story. I was doing my nightly reading on a closed room for oloshas and Ifá initiates only, and there it was, an interesting subject like a beacon in the night luring me into its shining light.
The question to the initiates’ forum was: What is a ‘water baptism’? But then the thread evolved to include what I considered the true center of the debate. Is there a need for baptism before a person does kariosha? or even receives the elekes?
The water baptism is nothing other than a simple ceremony to bless a newborn which can be done by anyone. This is a vestige from the days when oloshas had to hide behind the skirts of the Catholic Church to keep their practices alive. It also rings of Spiritist undertones, yet another practice that has been superimposed over Santeros as a sort of prerequisite to initiations and which is but a shadow substitute of the Egungun cult. I think it is enough that we still call ourselves ‘Santeros’ which is reminiscent of that syncretic past, but then again, a name is what we want it to be…and that is a story for another day.
When the time came, I was glad high school was over. Despite having what I would characterize as an exciting “nightlife” (after all, I performed regularly on stages), I was very much a nerd. I had horribly unfashionable glasses, a large, unattractive mullet (thanks, Mom!) and being that I was more of an intellectual/reader than an athletic star (that would be my brother, Mr. Basketball…), I was not a ladies man. My experience in high school was a mixed blessing. I recognize that I had a great education and some very interesting classes and teachers. On the other hand, it was mostly a time of trial and feelings of inadequacy. I never did totally fit in with the “majority crowd”, keeping to some small friends, whether it be other intellectual kids (nerds), or other Latino/African-American groups.
I had heard of Berklee College of Music and had begun to entertain the idea of going there. However, my father was worried I wouldn’t get a rounded-education there. He suggested one of the local Universities in the very same town, which happened to be the major campus of that state’s University. During the summers, they’d have these major jazz concerts featuring the likes of Billy Taylor, Max Roach, Poncho Sanchez, Manny Oquendo and Libre, etc. My father felt that the music department there would be strong enough to give me the education I needed while giving me the pedigree of a liberal-arts education at a major university. Unlike the stereotypical American kid on TV, I didn’t have any major problems with my parents and didn’t feel the need to trek across the country to a faraway college. I applied to only that university and was accepted.
I have heard over and over the same story, people who are initiated into Santeria and for their own personal reasons, whatever they may be, one day they decide they want to leave Santeria and simply throw away their orishas down the river. Capital mistake, huge mistake, a mistake that can cost a person their very own life.
Let me start with a case I know from firsthand experience. Timothy was one of my best friends and in time he became my godson, but his path to my Yemayá was not free of accidents and woes.
Tim, my husband and I all received the warriors, elekes and Olokun around the same time from the hands of Omi Oké in San Antonio, TX. Back then, Tim was in a huge hurry to amass initiations as he dabbled in many things from Kabalah to Ceremonial Magic to…Santeria. I used to tease him calling him ´degree collector´ but he never took offense to it and I held hopes that one day he would simply commit to one spiritual path. Contrary to Tim´s point of view, for my husband and I, the orisha are not a destination, they are our lifetime path to travel.
One day, I went to visit Tim and I had the most disgusting feeling as I stepped into his home. I asked to salute Elegua and to my horror I found the orisha covered in offerings, old stale candies and lots of nasty cockroaches and bugs. I immediately made him clean Elegua and disinfect the area. I was visiting Tim because he had had a series of mishaps and strange things happening, now you can see that Mr. Personality was upset and trying to get attention. A long conversation with Tim followed; I then discovered that he wanted to get rid of his orishas. I was shocked that he would consider that step after spending so much money on the initiations and being in such a hurry to get all of them. But in reality his reasons to return the orisha were very childish. Therefore, I advised him to simply take them back to our godfather and not throw them away. He followed my advice.
The knowledge of plants is an intimate process fully understood in light of research, experimentation and direct observation. However, most of us seldom get the time or the inclination to take these steps; no, we live in days of hurry, fast acquired knowledge and repetition without analysis.
There is much to be learned and shared in the study of herbs as it applies to Santeria and it is good sometimes to take a step back and look at things from a different perspective. Take for example a plant that is an annual, grows sort of wild in abandoned lots but has many applications that are crucial to the creation of omiero or the quintessential herbal water used to consecrate both a new initiate in Santeria as well as the tools this person will use for life.
Ewe tete is the name of the plant in question and it is one of four fundamentals for the many omiero requires. Its scientific name is Amaranthus viridis and there are about 60 different varieties of it, however the one used by Santeros is commonly known as Bledo Blanco. This plant is attributed to Obatalá and Eleguá and has various medicinal applications such as treating boils, diuretic, and it is used in tea to treat dysentery.
My brother and I were not to afraid to make the jump to the United States. We had visited Disney World at Orlando the year before and had an idea of what to expect from “los Americanos”. They didn’t particularly seem as warm as Puerto Ricans were or as publicly joyous, but they weren’t absolutely scary. They just seemed to keep to themselves and that was fine for me, as long as they didn’t give us trouble. Their weird language was still mostly a mystery to us, with all the tonal bends (Spanish was such a direct language, in comparison), but we were confident the basic English we had learned at the Montessori would help us (not quite!).
We spent a week packing our belongings into boxes and sent it out with a moving company (which later, we found out, ended up losing my brother’s totally red bicycle…only my blue one arrived). The day of the flight to the United States, we began the long journey to our new, unknown home. We arrived at night at an airport and had to wait for hours to pick up my dad’s aging Datsun wagon. Once we had it, we headed out to our home, which was located 3:30 away from that airport. Late at night, we arrived in a mysterious neighborhood…a series of apartment complexes, three stories tall. The air was chilly and had a smell of different vegetation and tress…definitely not the tropical smells.
My first years in the United States were filled with the usual “migrant” growing pains. Getting adjusted to a new culture, learning a new language, getting accustomed to snow (oh yes, the love affair with it ended after 1 or 2 years of having to go out and walk in its cold embrace). Thankfully, my parent had made a decision to move us to a town whose public schools were excellent. I had read later that the public schools there compared with private schools in other places. The town where we lived was a college town, with various universities and colleges (3 of them Ivy-League) in the surrounding area. Many of the children that went to the same schools with us were the children of professors and teachers in the area and their parents were adamant supporters of education. Property taxes were high and they were glad to pay them.
If you would have told me that on January 20, 2011, in Marianao, Cuba, I would be exiting a Cuarto de Ifá through the stinging, but symbolic lashes of fellow babalawos, I would have said that you were crazy. I’d probably follow up with, “um…what’s a babalawo anyway…what, is that some guy who has a saliva problem? Hahaha”, as I smirked my usual incredulous smile.
The story of how went from a mostly secular, slightly protestant Christian to an Awó Ni Orunmila is an unusual one. Let me introduce myself. I am Ogbe Ate, Awó Ni Orunmila, Oní-Shangó “Obá Anyá” and Omó-Anyá. I was born in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. Raised in Cupey/Trujillo Alto areas in the metropolitan area of San Juan. Born to two loving, college educated parents in a mostly secular household.
My father, a successful musician and graduate of the Humanities from the University of Puerto Rico, was part of that generation that came of age listening to the Beatles while they sat on the steps of some public square at the University, listening to Fupistas (pro-independence, leftist student activists) speak about Puerto Rican colonialism and University injustices against students. My mother, a successful psychotherapist and social worker with doctorates from prestigious private colleges in the United States, was also from that same generation, though hers was a more “campo” upbringing. Her life, until she arrived at the University of Puerto Rico, was mostly the life of people from Cidra/Aguas Buenas, a life that was humble, good natured while not necessarily very eventful.
Recently I had a lovely visitor on the blog (See http://blog.themysticcup.com/santeria/sweetening-orisha-adimu-adun-yemaya) tell me that it was a huge mistake of mine to eat coconut. I was at first taken aback by the comment and I left a reply that was, oh well in tone with the unwelcome remark. However, as the side of my Aganjú personality gave way to the deep coolness of Yemayá, I realized that there are many who live in the error of parroting what they have heard time and time again without using their intellect to reason beyond repetition.
But before I go on to explain why some orisha initiates eat coconut and why some don’t, let me go back 15 years down memory lane. Once upon a time, I remember a couple of Santeros that I met in Austin, Texas and who were the first blockheads who absolutely thought they had all the knowledge in the world when it came to Santeros not eating coconut. It so happened that my husband, an aleyo back then, was asked to pick up some dessert for the meal we were cooking. As usual, being the polite Southerner he is, he found a gorgeous coconut cake and decided to get it, but he also wanted to offer a choice to those present, so he also got a chocolate cake. He came to our godfather’s Iwori Oddi’s home happy with his choices, and godfather greeted him at the door to help him carry the cakes and praised him on both choices for they were also his favorite cakes.
To my husband’s horror, the Santera, Isabel screeched at him as he entered the kitchen and started to give him grief over buying a coconut cake. “Don’t you know that Santeros do not eat coconut!” shouted the woman. My godfather’s wife reminded her that she was a guest, my husband had gotten not one but two cakes, not everyone present was a Santero and not everyone had the same prohibitions, “ So eat what you will and let the other people be” where doña Maria Luisa’s words to Isabel who had no choice but to respect the elder’s suggestion.
Food restrictions or ewe, are very personal, they come from itá which happens to be a very personal and dare I say one of a kind process.
But let us examine the issue at hand. In the post I am told that since Obi is an orisha we do not eat obi because we would be eating orisha. Ok!
It has rained quite a bit since I learned about this fascinating plant. Back then, the world of Santería was an unraveling mystery filled with scents, sounds and colors that set my imagination, senses and spirit on fire. I remember with awe the first time I held a Prodigiosa leaf in my hand. I was fascinated by the fact that a single leaf of Prodigiosa (Kalanchoe pinnata o Bryophyllum pinnatum) could easily become micro cosmos of wonders sprouting several offspring’s from the edges of the leaf. Later on I found that this is a common trait of the members of the Crassulaceae family, Bryophyllum section of the Kalanchoe genus, which can grow the plantlets without being potted or having water because of its succulent nature.
It is interesting to notice that a plant that crucial in the process of initiation into Santería is not original from Nigeria or from West Africa. Kalanchoe pinnata or Bryophyllum pinnatum by its scientific name hails from Madagascar and it has spread to other areas of the world where it is also admired by many of its attributes.
This plant is known by several names. Under the title of ewe there are several variants of the name: Ewe dún dún/odún dún,and ewe obamoda/abomoda. In Spanish Prodigiosa is also known as Siempre Viva, Yerba Bruja, Inmortal, Flor de Aire, Hoja de Aire, and Hoja Bruja. In other parts of the world the names go from Love Leaf, Mystical Caribbean in North America, to NeverDie or Armapoi in India, Féy Lougarou in Haiti, and even Q’uora Wayra in Perú, such is the popularity and regionalization that it has acquired.
Overall there is plenty of lore associated to the Prodigiosa. Some people say that if you write the name of a person you love and then place a leaf of Prodigiosa over it, love will grow as well. However, setting aside magical uses, let’s look at this plant from another point of view focusing on some important data on botany. Responsible use of plants should include an understanding that goes beyond hand me down information, it is important to support tradition with science whenever possible, particularly when plants are ingested, such as the case of a plant that goes to making omiero (ritual water for initiation made of plants and many other ingredients).
When a Santería believer takes the step to become an olosha, the transformation is a delicate one. It literally involves being born again, and not in the Christian sense of the word. Our re-birth is one that carries a transformation of spiritual symbiotic nature. In other words, a spiritual force other than ours is aligned to our force during the kariosha or crowning ceremony and from that moment on, initiate and orisha coexist in a mutual codependent relationship. However, this is my very own point of view and I have yet to hear it being articulated in these particular terms by any other oloshas. Frankly, I am not sure that the scientific/spiritual approach would be one readily accepted by many who have no inclination to study or observation of natural sciences as they apply to religion.
Iyawós enter a period of learning and repose for 12 months, this is known as “The Year in White” and most commonly as “Iyaworaje.” This period is marked by a set of rules and restrictions that are imposed to protect the iyawó. Rules are not arbitrary they are established because they are meant to protect the iyawó from any harm, after all they are the future of our religious community and must be cherished and revered. When an iyawó follows the rules it shows commitment, maturity, responsibility and respect for their new rank, to their godparents and most important, the head orisha. The way in which an iyawó chooses to carry on during this year can and will determine the nature of the relationship with the tutelary orisha for life. Take it from someone who has been there and done that.
1. Caring for the Head:
The head must be protected and covered at all times during the first 3 months of kariosha. Only elders (godmother/godfather or oyugbonakán) are allowed to touch it with no cover. The Iyawo must put some cocoa butter, and cascarilla (efún) on his/her head every day covered by cotton and then use a hankerchief or cap to protect the head.
a. In case of accident medical staff is except from this rule and they can touch the head, they are blessed by Oragun, orisha that protects internal organs.
2. Dress Code, Hygiene and Sex:
a. White is the emblem of the iyawó and it must be worn for one year and 7 days after initiation; this is both in public and at home.
i. Female iyawós wear for the first 3 months a shawl, skirt, bloomers, panties, stockings, brassiere, undershirt, slip, long or calf length skirt, shirt with sleeves and no cleavage showing, white closed shoes, handkerchief and hat. She must also wear all her elekes, bracelets and idé.
ii. Male iyawós wear pants, socks, white closed shoes, shirt with sleeves, undershirt, cap and hat. He must also wear his idé and at the very least the bracelet of Obatalá.
b. Shoes or house shoes with socks or stocking must be worn at all times.
c. Iyawós do not sleep naked (they use pajamas, underwear and socks to bed) or parade themselves naked in front of their orisha.
d. Iyawós do not expose themselves to the elements, they use a white umbrella.
e. Clothes must be clean, pressed and not have holes.
f. Iyawós should take care to have a spare set of clothes at hand in case of accidents.
g. Jewelry not represented the orishas is not allowed.
h. The only exception when an iyawo does not wear religious attributes such as idé and elekes (necklaces) is to go to bed.
i. Some iyawós have work restrictions with regards to attire; those must be consulted during the process of itá to seek leniency or modifications.
j. The iyawo does not wear makeup, cuts his or her hair during the first three months and absolutely does not die his or her hair during the first year.
k. The iyawo sleeps in clean white sheets and uses white towels, white toothbrush, comb and any other utensil must be white.
l. The iyawó bathes twice a day, morning and evenings.
m. A female iyawó does not touch her orisha during her menstrual cycle or partakes in any ritual while on her period.
n. Iyawós should not engage in sexual relations for the first 16 days after kariosha, some houses have different rules, follow your house rules.
o. An iyawó should not be promiscuous and engage in sex with various partners at the same time or concurrently.
a. The iyawó eats on the mat for the first 3 months using a spoon, the dish and mug received during kariosha.
b. If the Iyawo is to eat out, the utensils must be carried as well as the matt.
c. The iyawo does not use fork and knife and will not lift the plate from the mat as he/she eats.
d. The iyawó does not interrupt meals to take calls, text on mobile devices or engage in any activity that could cause stress during the meal.
e. Leftover food is to be offered to Eshú or Egún.
f. Exceptions to rules due to work restrictions must be consulted during itá.
a. The iyawó will not touch the uninitiated, this includes taking things from other people’s hands, handshaking, kissing on the cheeks or lips (other than spouse or their own children)
b. The iyawó must be accompanied by the oyugbona when visiting an olosha’s house for the first time after kariosha.
c. The Iyawo must avoid going out before 6 am and should be back in doors before night fall. He/she should also avoid direct sun and being exposed to the sun at noon or to the night sky at midnight.
d. The Iyawo will avoid sitting in public parks, standing on street corners, going to bar, night clubs, cabarets, market places, ruined constructions, jails, cemeteries, funeral parlors, hospitals, burials.
e. The iyawó should never walk over holes in the ground and should be careful when entering a cave, tunnel, or a forest.
f. The iyawó does not smoke or drink alcohol of any kind.
g. The iyawó avoids crowded places such as movies, theaters, parties, raves, masquerades and does not attend parties that are not related to orisha activities.
h. The iyawó should be escorted by elder at all possible times.
i. The iyawó will refrain from using drugs, being involved in illicit activities, killing or doing anything that is outsides of the parameters of the law.
j. The iyawó must have a head feeding done every month by either the main godparent of the oyugbonakán.
k. The iyawó will not curse and will not lie.
l. The iyawó will not carry weapons.
m. The Iyawo must avoid at all cost arguing, being involved in gossips, using profane language and being offensive to others; especially if the other persons are relatives, spouse or religious relatives.
There may be variations to these rules and they will be imposed from house to house, however, if a person is considering dedicating his or her life to the orishas they should be fully aware of the commitment and requirements expected and be able to follow them.
In today’s society, where the common mindset pushes people to rush and to impose their will over that of elders, just because they can or because it is in their nature to be contrary and push the envelope, rules are seen as something to bent and broken. Rules for an iyawó are a safe haven; because an iyawó should be in a state of grace leaving the igbodu (ceremonial room) after kariosha, it is imperative to conform to new habits and continue to purification process started during the initiation.
Only when an iyawó understands and accepts this process and is ready to release bad habits from before, will the iyawó truly profit from the initiation by evolving, growing and intensifying the changes that each tutelary orisha has in store for their new initiate. Following rules and the itá will bring the road of blessings to unfold at your feet, iyawó. Do not ever forget, others may and will judge you during your first year and your behavior will reflect on your elders, but ultimately, your elders already have their path established, yours is just starting. Be kind to yourself and remember no one forced you to do kariosha, or so I hope. Honor your orisha by following rules and avoid a possible public or private embarrassment by either oloshas, or even worse, the orisha themselves.
Becoming an iyawó is a great ordeal for many people. To start, it is hard to save money in this economy to do kariosha (to have the orisha seated in one’s head/body), it is also painstaking to find good godparents who are willing to teach and train a new initiate properly, and finally it is a process of profound change and adaptation like no other, which is not to be undertaken lightly.
Therefore, if a person has to go through a lot of steps to get to kariosha, it makes all the sense in the world to truly manifest this commitment by not only following all the rules of the iyawó year, but also, by setting up goals to help bring about blessings and ashé during the year.
The goals do not have to be lofty, there is a lot of pressure iyawós will face as it is with keeping up with their taboos, wearing white clothes in public, avoiding being touched, taking things directly from other people’s hands, keeping up with possible food restrictions and much more.
During my iyawó year I did set some goals and this was done on my own, no one told me to do so, it was in my nature to structure this time because to me it was crucial to establish the best possible relationship with my orisha. I had heard many elders talk about the importance of discipline, respect and devotion to the commitments contracted and how this year would set the tone to a life of spiritual grace or else depending on the choices the iyawó made. I was determined that there was only one path for me: To do things right.
Why are having goals important during this first year? Well there is a variety of reasons. I can give you three reasons that are powerful enough for me: Respect, discipline and devotion.