The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Yuruba Faith Encounter

December 11th, 2019 · No Comments · Uncategorized

As a pagan, I have throughout my life chosen my own gods. A significant part of this is an anti-authoritarian impulse driven from trauma associated with modern Christianity. I’ve never taken on a deity because I belonged to a group or because some guru directed me to, although I have participated in deistic rituals without any connection to those deities. Mostly what this has meant was turning to the Greek gods I first learned about as a young child.

While I was born in Texas, I haven’t adopted any Native American theology (at least not consciously), but I’m also not Greek, either, but Irish/English. The Greek gods were just the first ones that I knew stories about, so they represented the oldest archetypes for me. All I know is that when I call to them, I hear them answer, so that’s really good enough for me.

I have heard other gods speak.

When trying to replicate something of what ancient pagans may have done to construct their faiths, I adopted some techniques to recognize deity “in the wild”. There are a multitude of gods in nature, and gods in the arrangement of nature, and gods in the process of nature. Many of these gods you can watch if you have eyes to see. Quite a few of them have things to say, and they’d really like us to listen. Yet it’s still hard to learn about these gods, to understand what they like, and how they influence our world.

Working with deities that others have already codified and contiuously celebrate is much easier. For example, my encounters with variations of Yuruba faith have been fascinating and fruitful.

The Yuruba culture spans several modern countries in Western Africa, encompassing many different tribes and sub-cultures with an extensive history of having been captured and sold as slaves somewhere in the Americas. They brought their gods and ancestors with them, and today in many places, their descendants are holding reverence for them as well. It’s called Candomble in Brazil, Voodou in Haiti, and Lucumi or Santeria in Cuba. Spellings differ, but the underlying continuity of faith in each case is clear.

Some of the secrets of the faith are preserved in Spanish (or Portuguese), or rendered within a Catholic framework of saints and miricles. The root of the faith is still spoken in the Yuruba tongue, and its deepest secrets are still hidden there. They worship their ancestors, their heroes, their gods, and the spirit of their people, just as ancient pagans did before the Christians came. They work with the spirit of their people, the spirit within themselves, and the spirit of ideas and emotions. Watching these people work is as close to watching my own ancestors as I’ll ever get. Even though I’m very white and very square, every practictioner I’ve ever met has been nothing but friendly and kind, and delighted to share their faith (or at least, the public parts) with me.

Beyond this, I have only a skeletal understanding of their theology, but I have nonetheless had several encounters with Orisha, which seem a lot like my Greek gods in many ways. I have heard them speak. They’ve been friendly. Each time was in the company of a believer, so I’ve not really worked with them in my own private rituals. I’m given the impression of being an honored guest, with an option to be at the table.

To be honest, the Orisha frighten me. They are very present and very near, they don’t ask for permission, and if they have something to tell you, it’s a good idea to listen. They don’t have much to do with folks who don’t work with them, but for those who do, they are always right there. If you’re on their good side, then great! But if you’re not, you should take out a good insurance policy or two.

I knew a Santero from New Orleans: he had been crowned in the faith, meaning he was a priest, but has since joined the ancestors. I got a reading from him once and could hear the voice of Elegua in my head. Since the deity I’ve followed for the longest has many aspects in common with Elegua, I didn’t find this all that unusual, but I did notice the differences — and not just the gender and race, but also their ranges, attitudes and types of tools they liked to use. Mostly, they’re different because the history of their respective cultures was different.

The cool thing about the reading for me was watching the form of divination he used. I’ve long studied various forms of divination, and I’m fascinated by looking where-ever humans have found eternal patterns. In this case, he had a collection of cowrie shell beads that he threw to a mat, and read the oracle from how the shells had fallen.

Very recently, a close friend recommended I see a priest of the oracle called Ifa. This time, the dinivation was done with a chain of beads and shells that were compulsively hoisted and dropped along with a rhythmic utterance of prayers in Spanish and Yuruba. The rite obliged me to work with four different Orisha. While the requests seemed unusual to me, they were relatively pedantic by local standards, so I gladly did as I was bid and my hosts guided me along.

As a result, I now feel a closeness of those four Orisha, and I’ve got an interest in learning more about them. Perhaps when they speak to me, I’ll be aware enough to understand them. I don’t yet feel the same bond with them as what I’ve made with my usual pantheon, and I’m discouraged from really interacting with them further without assistance. And frankly, my inability to speak Spanish fluently (to say nothing of Yuruba) makes integrating with that culture challenging before my own race is even considered.

But I can stand across the water and admire the beauty and life inherent in these African cultures still vibrant at my front door. I can see the truth in their practice and be totally jealous of the vast community that supports it. It’s beauty and love and understanding and solice: it’s a library of human experience and a map of man’s relationship to the gods. With I work with modern Yurubans, I am touched by their ancestors in a profound way.