Santería’s Growth Dilemma: Listening to Eyeunle Melli

Updated: Aug 20


Eyeunle: The Head Carries the Body

The Lukumí or Orisha religion has been facing growing pains in the Americas and abroad. Our practices are centered in small communal and ilé or house-oriented structures, and while some groups are seeing through these accelerated changes intelligently and systematically, some are guided by less than noble intentions. This presents a dilemma; where do oloshas draw the line calling out and exposing potentially harmful behaviors? Do we allow the body to guide the actions of the head or follow the proverb 8-8 which supports the head being the guidance of the body?


I published this article nearly a decade ago. I have revisited it in light of persistent systemic issues that need to be addressed. Current global affairs are driving more people to seek spirituality with the orisha.


The terms head and body are seen from the following perspective: The body stands for the orisha community, and the head, stands for the collective/individual sense of direction, path, and religious destiny.


An organism must have normal healthy growth in order to thrive. However, accelerated growth when left unchecked leads to aberrant results.

Factors like the proliferation of social media, the availability of smart communication devices, and the need for instant gratification are contributors to pernicious behaviors that hurt our communities.


Shysters are taking full advantage of those factors because they exploit religion as a business, amass followers, and line their pockets. These people appropriate and profit from a religious legacy they don’t care to learn, honor, and preserve. They are part of the culture of greed and power exploiting people seeking spirituality.


Identifying a shyster is easy. Their social media posts are about crafting a guru-like persona. These people usually spend a lot of time on self-promotion, selling unrealistic expectations, showcasing on “lives” and videos of rituals, and touting blatant mendacity. The tidal growth of religious-snake-oil salesmen gives way to inventions, poorly executed and overpriced rituals, confused initiates and it simply erodes the foundations of future generations. Their proliferation does little to foster the creation of proper ilés. Instead, it proliferates shanties populated by destabilized new initiates lacking fundamental knowledge but all too eager to follow those same footsteps.


When the body controls the head


This is the ideal path for impatient people. For them, everything is about collecting godchildren. It is about the aggrandized sense of “honor” of being singled out to become a godparent or an oyugbona. When success is based on quantity, not on the quality of initiates, shanties filled with aborishas, aleyos, and oloshas follow. These communities do not value spiritual readiness and prudently trained leaders. It is about the financial business of being a godparent and not the needs of those entrusting their spiritual grown and their pocketbook to an individual.

Accelerated growth is justified in many ways. Chief reasoning is, “if my orisha has placed this opportunity in my path, then it must mean I am ready for it.” Wrong! The Orisha may select a person, it does not mean that an olosha is ready to undertake the responsibility to educate that person. The communication here is between that person and the orisha and not necessarily supporting or ensuring the readiness of the individual to be a spiritual elder. These are two different and distinct conversations. However, more often than not, the olosha interprets this as, “The orisha wants me to learn by doing”, “It came in my itá that I would be initiating people immediately after my year in white or within my year in white” and the list goes on.


Is this really fair to people coming to seek help and offer their life to the orishas? Is this really a sustainable intelligent path for those who want to serve as oloshas and lack experience?

In many cases, the orisha will say yes to the question “Can I initiate this individual?” The response may come in the form of a resounding perfect answer like an eye ife. But are we asking the right questions before going to the orisha? Are we asking of ourselves, am I properly trained for this responsibility? Do I possess the knowledge to assume the task of raising the level of spirituality of this individual? Am I qualified to face crucial life decisions based on the corpus of knowledge that resides in our oddú, dilogún, patakís, and ebbós? Do I truly know enough to help another individual flourish?


When the body controls the head, Santería grows almost like the infamous pyramid schemes when the person raises the top by creating a huge base of followers, a costly base of followers. This is a recipe for disaster. There are many out there who have suffered at the hands of ill-prepared oloshas. I am heartsick of hearing stories about abandoned iyawós, about people left to their own devices, and even worse, about those raised in houses where little effort is made to reach beyond the rudimentary mechanics necessary to carry on the brute labor of karioshas. Every single new olosha who has gone to the igbodú (initiatory room) in the hands of poorly trained practitioners knows that it is not so much the process of initiation, because there are paid oloshas and an oriaté who will come to support those who are not yet prepared to support during the rituals, but the lack of teachings after the initiation what sorely hurts their formative years and that brands their life thereon.


It is disheartening to see that there are many oloshas with more than their share of years under their belts that support this position. One wonders if their position is selfish because it secures them a position on the pyramid structure, money in their pockets, or because of their own personal agendas. Years in the service do not always equal wisdom and certainly is not an indicator of an examined religious life.


When the head carries the body


The positioning of those houses that value methodical teaching and preparation of initiates is a much simpler one. Steps are taken to make sure that each initiate knows the fundamental building blocks of Santería. Here oloshas learn about their history, oddú, and patakí. It is important to point out that patakís are mnemonic devices to ease communications in an oral-based tradition such as Santería. This means, not every single word you hear in a patakí is factual. Initiates in these houses are taught to ferret out the lessons contained in the patakís and not to fret over the details of the story. Supporting inquisitive and analytical godchildren is a healthy sign of an ilé led by elders who welcome respectful dialogue and do not perpetuate ignorance. This is an indicator of an ilé that values a head that truly carries the body.


Children of proper houses are exposed to a variety of learning opportunities that slowly and methodically bring them up the ranks in grace and knowledge. They typically are given tasks such as learning their lineage, moyugba, and oddú. Concurrently they may serve in supportive roles such as being the first oyugbona to elekes, learning to do proper head feeding, ebbó, organizing materials for a sarayeye, and most important learning the corps of music and prayers to both the orisha and the Egún.


Godparents in these houses know when to advance the virtuosos and when to pay close attention to those who require more dedication and teaching because they value the contributions of both the talented and the average initiate. These are the godparents that recognize that their spiritual crown is best adorned by the brilliancy of their godchildren.

Here the questions of why, how, where, and when are not scary or disrespectful. One is required in these houses to know why things are done, how they are best executed, where to go to get help and obtain resources, and most importantly, they learn the value of when to do or not to do.


The babaloshas and iyaloshas leading houses where the head controls the body know that there is a great need for learning about future initiate. Each aborisha has particular needs that must be understood to ensure they are good fits for the sustained growth and elevation of everyone in the ilé and the community at large. Responsible oloshas know that each action, each pair of hands, and each kariosha represent a link in the chain of a living legacy.


Thus, before they go to orisha to ask if one of their initiates can take on the role of godparent or oyugbona, many other questions have been formulated and answered.

In summary, any olosha can initiate straight out of the year (once they complete all their ceremonies). It is not a question of physical or spiritual ability; it is a question of ability in light of knowledge and experience accumulated before jumping to mindlessly reproduce.


Let me leave you with an analogy to consider. Any teenager can reproduce. Children of teens place undue burdens on their parents who are not mentally ready to bear the weight of childrearing because they are children themselves. Who suffers the consequences of a lack of judgment in reproduction matters? We all do. Society at large suffers from the deterioration of family structures, the teen parents suffer, and so do the grandparents who must step in to help rear their grandchildren, but especially the young suffer as well.


If we can’t learn from this direct parallel, then is our body controlling the head, or is our head controlling the body? You be the judge.


Omimelli

Oní Yemayá Achagbá

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