The root of all evil is discrimination. I have both taken and given hard rides on those rocky waters from different perspectives. Try as we must, it is a condition of humanity to discriminate. Sometimes the word and the action are harsh, sometimes they are a necessity.
Over the years I have often pondered where we deviated from the grace of equality when it comes to respect the virtues of our religious community and elders. By this I mean, when did we as a community determined that women are less capable to carry on the duties of the Oriate than man are? The answer is not simple, but I will try to elaborate it from my limited perspective.
Cultural Clash and the Decline of Female Power
The Yoruba traditionally are matriarchal. While the men are the kings and the chiefs it is women who run the center of power from the heart of the home. Women are responsible to keep traditions, orchestrate family life and raise the future kings and chieftains.
Furthermore, the importance of females can be seen in the powerful female orishas that are pivotal to our practices. From the mother of all orishas, Yemayá—queen of weeping long breasts ‘somu gaga’ who quenches hunger with her abundant breasts, to the strong and cunning Oyá— who fights side by side with Shango and can both create and destroy with her powerful winds of change, females hold a balance of power, grace and intelligence.
In Cuba, women priestess played important roles in the emergence of what we know today as Santeria. Figures like Aurora Lamar, founder of the Ataré lineage from which my house stems, must be recognized for their staunch dedication to tradition. Aurora was known as an innovator and a gateway to provide initiations to those who could not afford the cost upfront. It was this priestess who created a payment plan for initiations which earned her the nickname “La China de los diez centavos,” as she allowed her godchildren to pay her in installments of ten cents.
Resourcefulness is a word that describes these great ladies who are pillars of our religion. The first women oriatés were Oba Tero (Ma Monserrate González) priestess of Shango. She was one of the most influential founders of Santeria in Matanzas and a prominent oriaté in our religion.
Likewise, Ferminita Gomez, Ocha Bí, was a stoic preserver of traditions and a priestess of Yemaya. To her credit falls the preservation of the ocha-centric mysteries of Olokun.
Babalawos would like to think that they are the only ones entitled to those secrets, but thanks to Ocha Bí, that is not the case.
Rosalia Abreu, Efunche Warikondo is another revered figure in our Lukumi history. She was influential in establishing the asiento style of kariosha in Santeria. Together with Timoea Albear, Ayai Latuan they controlled the practices of the Lukumi in Havana, Cuba. Ayai Latuan was another praised jewel in our history as a female oriaté. Together these priestesses standardized practices and raised countless heads to carry on traditions. Their practices included giving iyawós multiple orishas in addition to their tutelary orisha, which is our current standard practice.
Interestingly enough, it was the same men that these great priestesses raised, the ones who slowly took the role of the oriaté away from women. The cultural clash came from the Spanish machismo to an extent. I have heard many mighty oriatés argue that women do not have the physical strength to wield the knife properly or to hold the four-legged animals or to kill bird after bird during the matanza (ritual sacrifice).
The Menstruation Taboo
I have heard other less enlightened oriatés argue that women who still have their menstruation cannot be oriatés because they can’t sit on the mat on the floor. It is understandable that while a woman is having her period her energies are consider hot and volatile and that she is refrained to work with the orisha. However, this should not preclude her from planning to serve as head priestess avoiding those days of the month.
The taboo of the menses is a big one. There is so much misunderstanding around a simple biological function. There is no issue of cleanliness to be debated—women are not unclean during their period. Period. There is just an issue of ‘heat’ which can simply be addressed by proper scheduling.
I would like to see these oriatés diminish their role as their muscles loose tone and strength and their testosterone decrease age. It does happen you know.
Women are just as physically able to perform the duties in the igbodu as any man is. They are just as talented to read the shells and recite apatakis. They are in fact superior to men in many ways and this is what fills the heart of many men with fear. They know that keeping women subservient and tied to cooking, cleaning, sewing and serving gives them a sense of power. The true sense of power a man should hold dear to his heart is of having a partner equal in strength and intelligence to be able to raise the future generations of orisha priestess in the Americas.
Omimellli, Oní Yemayá Achagbá