African Traditional Religions Overexposed: How much is too much to show?

Fostering Understanding by opening the Igbodu Doors on a Día del Medio or Throne Day

Empowerment in the hands of fools will only lead to the corruption of traditions. I have spoken before about the double edge sword that the Internet represents. It can be a glorious instrument for education, networking and sharing of ideas, but it can also lead us on a slippery road to the destruction of core aspects of African Traditional Religions (ATRs).

There are some houses that want to show off their self-perceived might by plastering on the Internet photographs of rituals that are held sacred to the Santeria, Ifá, Voodoo and Palo communities amongst other ATRs. I find myself thorn on the issue of how much is too much to show. On one hand, some images can open minds and hearts to a better understanding of our religious cultures, but on the other, some images simply go beyond what should be seen by the eyes of those who have not pledged their life to the service of the Orisha, Lwá, Ifá or Nkisis.

Let us deal with some concrete examples to illustrate when it is necessary to open the doors of a temple to illustrate that there indeed is nothing dirty or shameful to hide in our religious practices.

The Case of Merced v. City of Euless

In Texas, the case of Merced v. City of Euless elicited great controversy because Obá Oriaté Merced was forbidden by the City of Euless, Texas to perform animal sacrifices for Santería initiations. Merced, who lost his initial challenge to the law, was backed in his appeal by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The federal appeals court decided that Euless, Texas law enforcement officials violated the religious rights of Jose Merced, when they prevented him from sacrificing a goat.

This case received a great deal of media attention and Merced, a very respectable elder and my godfather, took a calculated decision to open the doors of the igbodu and allow media to take certain photographs of a Dia del Medio or the Throne Day, the day when the community is allowed to visit the new initiate or Iyawó. The point was to illustrate our traditions not as the Hollywood lurid image of Santería that newspapers are so fond to perpetuate, but as a bona fide and respectable religion followed by hundreds of thousands of people in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Central and South America and even in Asia. What was illustrated in photos was no different than what any guest to this communal feast would have been able to see with their own eyes. No secrets were photographed or revealed.

Traditionally an iyawó will not appear on a photograph, however there is no other way to set the record straight about what is seen that day for the thousands of people who would never be able to walk into our world but are only too happy to pass judgment upon our practices sitting from the comfort of their homes and speaking from an unenlightened point of view. In this case, allowing an iyawó to be photographed is not offensive to me in light of the understanding and support that it can shed for the Santería community in Texas and in the United States fighting to reaffirm its right to practice our religion without government prosecution and intervention as it should be thanks to the protection of the United States Constitution.

A Throne Day in Euless, Texas

Gratuitous Displays of Power

There are however many practitioners of ATRs that have a penchant for gratuitous displays of power. For them, showing steps on the initiation process is but a way to demonstrate the might of their houses. Here is where my misgivings truly start to boil under the surface of my skin and make me feel the inner Aganjú that rules half of my life (Anganjú is the orisha of Volcanoes and my father in Osha, yes it makes me a touch volatile and unpredictable at times).

Since I am all for concrete examples let me cite one that I find rather puzzling. While perusing on Facebook I found photos from an ilé in El Paso, Texas that illustrate particular steps in the process of crowning an iyawó.

One of said photos which I will not reproduce in the article shows a person kneeling on the mat and receiving the sacred paints used as part of the ordination ceremony of a new iyawó, the other photo shows people lined up ready for the lavatorio ceremony and a third photo shows the person in charge of the herbs kneeling on the mat herbs in hand.

Now at first, these descriptions may sound like no big deal. However, they are to me a rather big deal because those are steps that are meant to be kept away from the eyes of those who are not initiated. There is no rhyme or reason on posting those photos; there are no cases to be defended, no freedoms to fight for. They simply are there to show a house in the throes of practice. My issue is two folded:

1. Those steps illustrate a mystery that should be part of a process for an iyawó as he or she gets presented to Igbodú. Why is it important to keep this secret you may wonder? Well those who are familiar with pedagogy understand the value of exposing students to concepts only as they are ready to assimilate them. When someone walks into a room with a mind clear of perceptions and images, the mind is open to be imprinted with gnosis and to appreciate the process that was done upon them with a fresh pair of eyes. However, when photos are plastered on-line it is akin to robbing iyawós of the innocence of a process that should be kept pure. Explain to me where is the benefit here in showing off? Do the photos serve the greater good of the Santeria community? I think not.

2. The second part of my issue is what the hell are they doing in the middle of a ceremony camera in hand taking photos? What I learned from my elders is pretty basic, cell phones off, cameras out of the room, complete and total concentration in the work at hand with the orishas. No mouths need to be opened and gums flapping on idle chit chat, time to work is time to work and every act thus performed in the igbodu must be meaningful and purposeful. Otherwise, leave the room.

What do I seem a tad uptight about the seriousness of initiations? Well a kariosha is no picnic in the park, it is a life changing process not free from risks and every one without exception must be in sync working towards the spiritual transformation of the iyawo. Certainly this is no light matter to me.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

When it comes to Palo, if you think I am uptight you are about to see me in another whole new light. There is absolutely no way you will ever see photos of my Nkisis anywhere. Chances are you will never see the inside of my Munansó if you do not belong to it. This is how sacred that space is to me and to my elders. Need I say more?

However, the state of affairs for the Palo community is pretty sad and the preponderance of mindless Bozos willing to photograph all their Ngangas is simply revolting to me. I have seen photos on Facebook that give me belly ache, they are filled with altars that are not properly built, firmas (sacred drawings) that are book concoctions and have no pictographic or communicative rhyme or reason and mixtures of Santisima Muerte, Curanderismo and even Ceremonial Magic and Devil Worship to spice up a disgusting goulash being passed on as ‘legitimate Palo’. Go figure.

Empowerment in the hands of fools will only lead to the corruption of traditions. Next time you see a photo of a ritual or a mysterious object set aside the desire to satisfy your curiosity and ponder for a moment the motives behind the person posting the photo. What are they trying to convey? What is the purpose of pushing the limits? Does it serve a purpose? Does it serve the greater good of ATRs?

The Internet has empowered many by providing them with an instant forum to voice opinions, illustrate their lives and share whatever comes to mind, there is no way to close the floodgates. I just hope logic, intelligence and decorum guide the steps of those who have the power to make or break the beauty of our African Traditional Religions.

Oní Yemayá Achagbá

For those who are interested in more information on the case of Merced v. City of Euless, visit the following link:

12 Replies to “African Traditional Religions Overexposed: How much is too much to show?”

  1. This comment comes from Facebook and I am sharing it on the blog after having requested permission from its author Obá Ernesto Pichardo (CLBA.

    Oba Pichardo Misty, I assisted in this case and was present in the trial. To be specific the City and court upheld that sacrifice of 4 legged animals were prohibited based on public health laws. Court of appeal reversed the lower court decision. This ca…se generated a very hostile media frenzy. As usual, the religious community did not help but many were quick to offer negative opinions over a few media photos. Media photos only expose what is public. In other words, given the situation of the case, Merced allowed photos of activity that alejo’s can and do see. Also, there was a logical need to establish community relations with local officials in ways that provided education. Merced’s case was not alone, there was another critical case as well. A Palo Pot was found in a bush near a double homicide. On behalf of CLBA I reached out to detectives and assisted them. The case was resolved. CLBA also got the legal help for court of appeals in the Merced case. The Fund took the case pro-bono and won which saved over $100,000.00 in fee’s that Merced would have had to pay according to the lower court ruling. Your point on recklace public exposure for the sake of religious publicity is well taken. In addition, there is no excuse for recklace publicity which cannot be measured against legal cases.

    Misty Seas I am well aware of all the help you provided to Padrino and I salute you for it and for having taking the huge task to spearhead with CLBA the case that set the cornerstone to defend our rights. We need to continue supporting each other, t…raining proper spokespeople to represent our points of view coherently and logically. There is much to be done still and many battles of minds and will still ahead of us, thus preparation is key to ensure our success and so is continuing to educate our initiates. Thank you for taking the time to read the article and commenting. If you don’t mind, I would like your permission to repost these two comments on the blog directly for others who do not read FB to be able to follow up from the blog.

  2. Greetings!
    i agree perfectly and i am happy that you address this problem. As a side remark: i myself have sometimes wondered if some of these photographs don’t show on purpose the wrong set-up: to confound the non-initiate. Which works, as we all know; and then this wrong set-up makes its way into the world, advertised by the non-initiates who think they *know* all. In my religion, Haitian Vodou, vévé’s are an example.

    1. Greetings Mambo Fouye Racine

      You have a good point, some are sly like that but I think a lot of the photos that pop up on line maybe a genuine goulash from folks who have learned from ignorant people. It is sad that in the sake of getting things done expediently and to satisfy the ‘I want it now’ mentality many trust their spiritual life in the hands of poorly trained people and of folks who are not really meant to teach because they either have nothing to share or lack the skills to do so.

      By the way, I do love vévés and I take great joy in watching competent priests do them. God knows I am all thumbs when it comes to handling delicate things…it is a miracle I can sew. 🙂

      Thank you for visiting. Ashé for you and yours Mambo.


  3. I agree with you 100%, and also with Fouye Racine Bo Manbo; Im in a house that frankly enjoys a wonderfully public status, with joyously shared pictures of our Fetes all over the place. When we’re having a party, we like to photograph everything, not only for our own history and charting our progress but also to show that we are serious about serving with joy and with beauty, and that we create beautiful service.

    That said, there are MANY things that are simply never photographed; a fete is a pubilc celebration, one that is open to the whole community… in the pictures of a fete, there is never anything visible that would not be visible to attendees, initiates or not. There are many ceremonies, however, such as the vast majority of the Kanzo initiation cycle, that are closed to visitors and are NEVER photographed (nor, even, are they spoken about… some things can be shared between initiates, but there are even things that can only be spoken about between fellow initiates of the same house.)

    Textual information is also a big deal, in the same vein… personally, I run a teaching blog discussing Vodou service for utter beginners; while I have plenty to write about and can share a great deal of basic how-to information for creating a home altar and beginning service at home, there’s a wealth of information that I will just never set in writing; either things that are best taught face to face, or things that decidedly are inappropriate for untrained hands. I try to make it clear that there are areas I simply will not/can not discuss in public or online, and also have no problems making it clear that there is NO text or collection of texts, my own or otherwise, that can make a person a houngan or a manbo without the actual practice of the faith in its traditional group setting (as I know on the Santeria side, there is NO way to “self crown” or “self initiate” or process any form of self elevation without the proper rites, guidance, and all that goes with it of a properly run Ile)

    For Vodou, specifically, there has been a great deal of harm done by people who claim all the answers or who have set themselves up as the ultimate authority; great deals of misinformation as well as blatant wrongness… but there’s no way a total beginner is going to have the knowledge required to discern between a good source or a contaminated source. Cocaine cut with rat poison… no way of knowing that what you think you’re recieving is capale of causing aggregious spiritual harm, or, best case scenario simply leading off into endless delusion the beginner will have to unlearn if they want to seek the reality of what working one of these traditions is all about.

    1. Well said. After all from reading your words, I feel there is still hope for my lost soul.I am a confused initiate. I hope I could get the guidance needed to untangle the mess my life has become. I see myself in everything you have said.

      Thank you for shedding light on my situation.

  4. Ashe Todo. I think what happens in the temple should stay in the temple. So again. Ashe todo and Blessed Be! May the Gods & Goddess’s ever by with you.

  5. This is a very good article, I am seeing too many explicit pictures being revealed on facebook. Especially people from Venezuela, alot of the facebook members who are involve in the religion. Are showing explicit orisha and Ifa pictures. I saw one set of pictures of a babalawao had 40 pictures of him sacrificing a baby bull to his Ifa. I saw 20 pictures of a nganga covered with menga after a feeding. How far are we willing to go to show what we are doing in the religion today? There are ceremonies that were well guarded with secrets that are now available for the “non-initiate,” to know what is going on. Facebook have become the world wrestling federation of the ATR. Advertising how they can take a rooster and flip in the air voila there is your ebo. Not showing any respect for the religion.

    1. Awo Ifagbemi

      I agree with your observation, there are a lot who want to position themselves on Facebook. I think it is nothing other than a case of mine is bigger than yours and I have more ashe and power because I can show it and I know what you are doing and you don’t. Well, in most cases it is nothing but a ploy to fish for godchildren, it is as simple as that.

      I don’t care much for photos, but there are times and places where there are justified needs, those needs should not come often, but they do happen.


  6. The religion will continue to be exposed more and more. I must say I was surprised to watch CSI on night and they put the religion out there and it was in a POSITIVE light. I was glad to see that someone out there was finally representing our BEAUTIFUL CULTURE.

    1. Goddess,

      It is good to see more writers be open to research better instead of going with stereotypes. Then again, they know that if the have a faux pas, they will have a lot of mad people raining on their parade.


    2. Sister goddess, do you happen to know any way that I can search for that episode on youtube or anywhere else? LIke which season it was from or anything like that? I’m shocked that one of these shows would portray us in a positive light…I have to see it to believe it LOL. Alafia gbogbo iworo.

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