One of my first lessons upon coming to practice the Way of the Orishas or Santería was the concept of multas or fines. Since our practices are based on oral tradition, for me every opportunity to listen to elders talk about how things were back in Cuba was always a welcome treat. Thus, decades ago when the subject of fines came about one afternoon after a lovely dinner with my ikofá godfather Oluwo Iwori Oddí, I seized the opportunity to extend the after-dinner conversation with the second round of coffee to keep the chat going.
Cabildos and Fines
The conversation was fascinating because I learned from my godfather about the first time about Cabildos de Nación and their role in the development of our modern ilé orishas. Cabildos, literally a town council based on the Spanish model, were mini neo-African monarchies or ‘kingdoms’ founded in Cuba as early as the 16th Century. The Cabildos de Nación, made of African-born slaves and sanctioned by the Spanish government and the Catholic church, were intended as mechanisms of control over slaves who congregated in them as a religious fraternity. Each cabildo was dedicated to honoring a Catholic saint. But really, the Cabildo had many other functions that were not intended by the Catholic Church. Slaves were resilient and improvised quickly, thus, for them the cabildos became a place of protection and freedom within their repressed lives. These groups were ruled by a hereditary king and had other officials who helped the ruler to organize its members. There is much to be said about Cabildos, but for the purposes of this article, it is important to point out that these cabildos in due time would transform into the ilé or house structure under which we currently function, but that is another story.
It was from this structure that the concept of fines emerged. When a person crossed the line, the king or queen of the cabildo could impose a fine for the infraction. Godmothers and godfathers, which are the modern equivalent of ‘queens’ and ‘kings’ of ilés, can impose a punishment or fines when godchildren break rules. Fines can be anywhere from bringing a small gift to the orisha such as a candle to feeding the head orisha of the house birds or even a four-legged animal, depending on the infraction.
In my years as olosha, I have never had to pay a fine. I have not even given reason to my godparents to utter the warning, “If you don’t mind the rules, I will fine you.” I guess I have done fairly well staying out of trouble.
Nothing like time to show you examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have seen plenty of conduct that merits a fine, yet I have seen no elders stepping up to the plate and punishing misbehaved oloshas, oluwos, and aborishas.
Take for example a batá I attended some years ago in Texas. There was an olosha supposedly mounted with Aganjú, but in the middle of the possession the olosha ‘mounted’ stepped on a sharp object and said, “Oh shit!”. In the ‘good old times’ a person committing such infraction, faking a possession, would have been humiliated in public, but nowadays no one bothers to call fakers out.
Of course, that is an example of a big infraction, but there are lots of small infractions that go unchecked. The issue is that fining unruly aborishas and oloshas requires great tact. As an elder, I can call people to order in public if I observe rules being broken, however, having the grace to look for the right moment to correct someone is as important as pointing out the need to amend detrimental behaviors or incorrect practices.
Fines require Tact
First, it is important to have a word in private with the godparent of the unruly person. Selecting the time and place and the right words to convey should reflect care and self-composure. Taking the high road is paramount. It will also avoid having a godparent become defensive. The idea is to illustrate an area of improvement while avoiding friction. Perhaps this is why establishing fines may be a thing of the past. There are few people who care to do things politely and prefer to look the other way and simply speak behind the godparent’s back about how poorly raised the person is. Sad, but true.
An elder may also choose to speak directly to the person circumventing the godparents. It all depends on the circumstances. I have in good conscious pointed out the errors to oloshas in the past and asked them to seek the guidance of their godparents to improve their manners, behavior, and practices. I could have established a fine, call their godparent, and point out what was going on. This would have created a difficult situation that would have humiliated both the olosha and the godparent. Instead, I relied on the maturity of an adult initiate to address and amend their conduct.
Fines and Iyawós
However, I would recommend never circumventing a conversation with a godparent when observing iyawós breaking rules. That first year can be hard and confusing and an iyawó should respond for their behavior directly to the godparent.
Over the years I have seen unruly iyawós commit many infractions and I have gently spoken to godparents about it. Most times, godparents were appreciative of tact and privacy. Some other times, well it was not so well received. Here are some infractions that deserve to be addressed:
Drinking alcoholic beverages and asking for them at public Osha events
Getting readings with a priest other than the main godparent or the oyugbonakán and without the presence of either
Misinterpreting itá and adjusting the realities therein recorded to fit their purposes.
Going out after dark
Failing to keep mirrors covered
Badmouthing godparents and elders in public and in private
Participating or instigating gossip
Getting involved in fights (I was always told to stay out of quarrels and potential hotheads)
Wearing revealing clothes in public
Self-promotion to scout for future godchildren
Refusing to salute elder priests
Violation of the celibacy rule imposed by the godparents and getting in compromising circumstances.
I will comment on some of these violations. Gossipmongers are not to be encouraged, particularly if they are iyawós. The reason is simple. Iyawós must remain cool, wagging one’s tongue does not help. I have yet to see edification in gossip or gossip as a way to cool down orí. Perhaps I am wrong and gossiping is a form of ebbó? Seriously! That is one of the lines I have heard from elders that gossip is a kind of ebó. Their reasoning is that those who speak ill about them are doing them a favor because they cleanse him with their maliciousness. I would say, where there is smoke, usually, there is or was a fire. If someone speaks ill of a person, an intelligent person would analyze why his or her name is on the tip of wagging tongues and what behaviors need to be addressed. Perhaps the true ebó is introspection which may lead to avoiding a potential upcoming fine.
The year in white is for reflection and analysis, not to run around breaking rules and shaming godparents.
Padrino, who is 91 years old was reminiscing while sipping his coffee about the good old times in Havana when godparents simply dropped by unannounced to check on their iyawós. Clothes not tidy and neatly white was grounds for a stern conversation.
I am not sure how many iyawós get surprise visits from godparents in this day and age. In this society where karioshas are dime a dozen as soon as a new godchild is crowned the prior godchild seems to be left aside like a tattered doll. Some godparents perhaps should consider the virtue of a stellar reputation as their most valuable asset. Each iyawó needs to be under watchful eyes. If they commit infractions, by all means, consider a fine.
Fines and the Internet Age
I have always said that the best way to learn about this religion is by listening and if you truly want to learn about what NOT to do, all you need is a fine pair of eyes to read Facebook and Instagram posts to mention two social media hot spots. These deserve fines:
Posting photos/videos on social media of iyawós
Posting photos/videos of initiations and private orisha celebrations
Posting photos/videos of an akwón singing the phone instead of minding singing to the batá
Stealing and posting articles written by other oloshas
Publishing materials and photos of crafts made by oloshas without permission
Lack of civility and blatant disrespect of elders and peers in public forums
The list can certainly be expanded. The point is that a religious community should always strive to behave with respect and care. To be uncivil, create discord, and exhibit a lack of control and coolness hurts the person, tarnishes the reputation of godparents and of the ilé, and in general hurts the community at large.
Are fines still needed? If reasonable, just and appropriately communicated, I believe they can be useful. We all learn from mistakes, but if one is not aware, or made aware of those, learning opportunities evaporate.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá