Updated: Dec 19, 2020
It has been ten years since I wrote this article. However, the realities I underscored then are exacerbated now, making me heartsick; thus, I am revisiting it. The Internet represents empowerment. However, when fools have mass communication tools, the result is a cocktail Molotov made of greed for power, lack of judiciousness, desire for instant gratification, and entitlement mentality.
Ethics are not crucial for those seeking to aggrandize themselves. Thus, empowerment in the hands of fools leads only lead to the corruption of traditions. But I am done watching how social media misuse is beheading and gutting the nobility of religions like Lukumí, Palo, and in general, African Traditional Religions (ATRs). The medium is not the monster; it is a glorious instrument for education, networking, and sharing ideas. Still, it leads many on a slippery road to the destruction of traditions.
Some showcase their self-perceived might by plastering on the Internet photographs of rituals 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. While some images can open minds and hearts to a better understanding of our religious cultures, others 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 has been necessary to open a temple's doors to demonstrate that there is nothing dirty or shameful to hide in our religious practices.
The Case of Merced v. City of Euless
In Texas, 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. Merced, a very respectable elder, and my godfather took a calculated decision to open the doors of the igbodu and allow media to take specific photographs of a Día del Medio or the Throne Day, the day when the community is allowed to visit the new initiate or Iyawó. The intention was to illustrate Lukumí traditions as the bonafide and respectable tradition, not as the lurid image perpetuated by Hollywood. What photos show is no different from what any guest to this communal feast would have seen with their own eyes. No secrets were photographed or revealed.
Traditionally, an iyawó will not appear on a photograph. The only way to set the record straight for the tens of thousands of people who would not be privy to this ritual was to show tasteful photos. The selected images would at least provide foreigners to the Lukumí religion with facts. In this case, including a picture of the iyawó was not offensive or gratuitous. It was purposeful and strategic as it reaffirmed to the world the Lukumí right to practice our religion without government prosecution and intervention as protected by the United States Constitution.
Gratuitous Displays of Power
There are, however, many practitioners of ATRs that have a penchant for gratuitous displays of power. Showing steps on the initiation process demonstrate their house's self-perceived might. The inappropriate showcasing of private rituals makes my blood boil.
Since I am all for concrete examples, let me cite one that I find somewhat puzzling. While perusing Facebook pages, I saw photos from an ilé in El Paso, Texas, illustrating certain steps in the process of crowning an iyawó.
One of the 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 lavatory ceremony. A third one illustrates 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. Respectful Oloshas know that those ceremonies are meant to be kept away from the uninitiated. There is no rhyme or reason on posting those photos; there are no cases to be defended, nor freedoms for which to fight. They 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? Those familiar with pedagogy understand the value of exposing students to concepts only as they are ready to assimilate them. A person about to receive an initiation should come to the igbodu free of preconceived notions and with a mind clear of images. Being unmarred allows the person to be imprinted with gnosis and to appreciate the process with an unbiased perspective. However, the more exposure a future Iyawó has to the ritual details plastered on-line, it is akin to robbing that candidate 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 Lukumí community? I think not.
2. Answer this simple question, what the hell is someone doing in the middle of a ceremony with a smartphone taking photos? What I learned from my elders is pretty basic; smartphones have no room in the igbodú. They distract, break of concentration, and perpetuates a dependency not to live in the moment but to live documenting and sharing what needs not to be shared. In an igbodu, the only reason to open the mouth is to sing or respond to a question from the Obá Oriaté. No one needs to be flapping their gums with idle chit chat or pulling out a smartphone to strike a pose. Time to work is time to work. Every act 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? Kariosha is no picnic in the park; it is a life-changing process not free from risks. Everyone, without exception, must be focused and synchronized, working towards the spiritual transformation of the iyawo. Indeed, this is no light matter to me.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
If you think I am uptight about Lukumí rituals, then you are about to see me in a whole new light. When it comes to Palo, the is a zero-tolerance for photos displayed publicly. No one will set foot in my Nsó if they are not part of it. This is how sacred that space is to my elders and my brethren. Need I say more?
However, the state of affairs for the Palo community is pretty sad. I am disgusted by the mindless stupidity I see in Facebook forums and elsewhere. One thing is to show a historical photo of an elder who has long passed, as I have seen as a historical reference. Another is the Rocky Horror Picture show photo parade of mindless Bozos willing to strike a pose by their Ngangas. It is sad to see photos of Nsós with ill-constructed Nkisis, with floors covered with firmas concocted from various books lacking pictographic rhyme or reason. The reputation of that Nsó and of their elders is besmirched. Santísima Muerte, Devil Worship, Steampunk, and Curanderismo are not part of Palo.
The following collage of Facebook forum photos shows the leg and the back of people being "cut" in Palo, some lovely items for sale that are supposed to be already consecrated, and some very creative "firmas."
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? Why are they pushing the limits? Does it serve the greater good of ATRs?
The Internet empowers. It provides an instant forum to voice opinions, dissent, illustrate lives, and share whatever comes to mind. There is no way to close the floodgates. I keep hoping 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 Ashabá