Much has been made of the differences between the religion as it is practiced in West Africa, and how it is practiced in Cuba. While there are certainly differences between the practices in the two countries, how different are they? And how did they arrive there? It is a story of a failed attempt to systematically destroy the religion and our way of life on two continents, Africa and the New World.
In Cuba, the religion was brought to its shores with the slaves. Upon arrival, the slaves were forced to practice Christianity in the form of Catholicism. And they were forced to learn Spanish as their main language. They were, of course, forbidden to practice their traditional religion so they took up the practice of hiding the orishas behind the saints. Different groups of Yorubas or Lucumís were brought together as one group. There the Lucumís began to look at themselves less as belonging to one or another Yoruba nation, and more as subsets of the larger Lucumi whole. In this way the Lucumi became homogenized into more of a single nation. In order that the religion survive under the harsh circumstances of slavery, they realized that they needed to restructure the religion somewhat to allow the religion to be best preserved. These decisions were made by councils of the best and brightest priests within societies known as cabildos. There it was decided that as families were often broken up upon arrival to avoid slave revolts, the basic grouping in Santeria would become the ilé: the godfamily. This would allow each ilé to act as a secret cell, independent from the others. If one cell was broken the others would have a better chance of survival. This practice has been used in modern times by secret organizations such as the French Resistance in World War II.
It was decided that for the Religion of the Orishas to survive as a whole, it was necessary for each person, upon being consecrated as a priest, to receive a majority of the orishas at that time (Elegba or Elegguá, Ogún, Oshosi, Obatalá, Oyá, Oshún, Yemayá and Shangó). This is opposed to the practice in West Africa, where a priest of Obatalá would receive Obatalá and Elegba and no other orishas, and so on. In this way, if a cell was broken, there would be much less chance that the worship of a particular orisha would end with the destruction of that cell. Here the orishas became interconnected more than in Africa. Olokún became thought of as the root of all the roads of Yemayá and Oshún was to be regarded as the sister of Yemayá, etc. In this way, the orishas became a family in much the same way as the godfamily exists in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the United States.
It was impractical to have full fledged Igbo Orisha or Orisha Groves as they had in Africa. The Orisha Grove were consecrated groves dedicated to the worship of the different orishas. There the orisha worshippers practiced their secret rites such as the consecration of priests. No one who was not an initiate was allowed to enter. In the New World, any space was able to be consecrated by priests to serve this purpose and once again only initiated priests or priestesses may enter. In modern times Igbodu is often to be found in someone’s garage or basement, anywhere that is away from the prying eyes of the profane, where our rites can be practiced.
Other practices changed as well. In Africa, the stories associated with the different signs in divination or Odu were and are recited as poems. This is an effective mnemonic device, a memory aid that is used by doctors in modern times to learn anatomy. In the New World, as a consequence of Spanish becoming the main language spoken and the loss of fluency in the Yoruba tongue, the stories or histories of the orishas are recited as stories called apatakís or ‘things of importance’ with the original Yoruba poems being recited as Suyeres, a kind of ritual language used to salute the odu. As the Yoruba tongue had no written form, in Cuba, the Spanish way of writing was adopted and accents were used to approximate the tonal quality of Yoruba speaking, though the religion has remained by and large an oral tradition and not a written one.
Meanwhile, Africa did not fare much better. Here the religion was attacked on three fronts. Yorubaland was largely structured in the form of City-States much as ancient Greece used to be. To regard the Yoruba as a single nation is as naive as saying all Europeans are the same, where there are language and cultural differences between the diverse range of countries. The religion was practiced slightly differently from region to region and in different areas the orishas that were worshipped were different. Even in Ifá, which is arguably the most homogenous of the religious practices in Yorubaland, the very order of the divination signs or Odu are different between Ile Ife and Oyo. These City-States were invaded by successive waves of Fulani tribes who spread the religion of Islam by sword throughout much of the area. There were the effects of the slave trade itself where prisoners captured by warring City-States were sold to the Portuguese, Spanish and English who traded in human lives for a living. This decimated many of the religious groups and partially explains why some orishas much worshipped in Cuba and Brazil are virtually non-existent in modern day Nigeria. Then there was the effect of Colonialism itself. The Colonialists regarded the Yoruba peoples as little more than ignorant savages, children who were in great need of being ‘civilized’ by the superior Western Europeans who found the Slave Trade and the horrendous Middle Passage a morally acceptable practice. The Yorubas in Nigeria were forced to speak the language of their oppressors and were encouraged to give up their own language. Missionaries taught many of them to practice Christianity and to forget their own ways and religion and the populace were drawn towards the relative wealth of the larger cities where ‘civilization’ took a particularly harsh toll on the religion.
By the mid twentieth century, the Traditional Yoruba Religion was only practiced by an estimated 10% of the population, the rest had become either Christians or Islamic. Many of the Igbo Orisha had fallen into disuse and decay and many sacred posts were left unfilled due to lack of interest on the part of the young who were more interested in finding their fortunes in the cities and the ‘modern world’. The practice of reading the merindilogun or cowrey shell divination had almost ceased to be practiced in Nigeria, with people frequenting Ifá priests or Babalawos almost exclusively.And the religion itself was having to adapt itself to a rapidly changing world, much as what had happened in Cuba and Brazil.
In recent times there has been a great resurgence of the religion, not only in Cuba and Africa, but in all corners of the world. In the sixties, the Austrian artist Suzanne Wenger married a traditional drummer in Oshogbo and became a priestess of Obatalá. She then set about renewing the ancient Orisha Groves there, creating and recreating great beauty where decay had set in. The religion as practiced in Cuba as well as Africa sparked the imaginations, the hearts and the souls of many, particularly in the United States. Pilgrimages particularly to Nigeria had a huge effect on the traditional religion. Where some Yorubas once saw only an embarassing past, they became proud. A renewed interest in the religion caused a massive movement to study and to document the religion in its original home. The groves became the beautiful receptacles of awe and mystery they once were and the worship of the orishas became respectable to the point of being included in the course of study in the major Nigerian Universities. The religion has become popular the world over, with the religion being featured in a recent edition of Vogue magazine. A recent conference on Orisha worship brought people from such diverse places as the Netherlands, France and Germany as well as Cuba, Puerto, Rico, the United States, Brazil, Trinidad and Nigeria. Here, due to the diversity of languages spoken, the main language spoken at the conference was Yoruba!
Our religion has suffered through exceptional hardship in its original home in Africa as well as its adopted homes in the Diaspora. The truths of this religion have been preserved in different ways on both continents. Things that were preserved in Cuba and Brazil had almost disappeared in Nigeria. Things that were preserved in Africa had been lost or forgotten in the New World. Truth in this religion is not to be found exclusively in any one place any longer.
There is an apataki or ‘Important History’ where Obatalá had a servant (Eshu) who was envious of Obatalá’s exalted position in the world. This envy grew to the point that Eshu set about a plot to assassinate the Lord of All The Orishas. One day as he accompanied Obatalá to the side of a cliff on a tall mountain, he saw his chance. With one push he toppled the Great Orisha off the top of the mountain where he crashed among the rocks below. Pieces of Obatalá were everywhere.
Orunmila arrived on the scene a little while later, having heard of this great ‘mishap’ that had occurred. Knowing that the preservation of order in the world depended on it, Orunmila went about attempting to put all the pieces of the Great Orisha back together. While he was able to re-assemble most of the parts of Obatalá, the task was so great that not even the wise and patient Orunmila could find all the pieces that were strewn across the entirety of the world.
In the same way, the truths of our religion are strewn across the world, on two distant continents. Each area, be it Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad, Puerto Rico or even Nigeria, has only pieces of these truths. And it is up to us to try to complete as well as we can, the monumental task begun by Orunmila, so that our beloved religion may once again be whole. With Wisdom, Love for the Orishas and a true sense of Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) we just may succeed in this daunting task.