Interview with Morgan Page Iyawo Odofemi

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 18, 2011 — 38 Comments

At The Wild Hunt I strive to engage with and report on issues affecting adherents to African diasporic religions like Santeria/Lukumi and Vodou because I feel that their struggles for equal treatment are setting important precedents for modern Pagans, and because I feel we’re part of a larger theological “family” with a growing number of Pagans seeking training and initiations from these faiths. However, despite my efforts and good intentions, my perspective will ultimately be that of an outsider. So I was very pleased when presented the opportunity to interview Morgan Page Iyawo Odofemi, a Lukumi iyawo made to Oshun. She is a writer, artist, and a feminist activist, working extensively around queer, trans, and sex workers’ rights issues in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In our interview we discuss Santeria/Lukumi, whether Lukumi is Pagan, what it means to be an Iyawo, and misconceptions about the faith.

Morgan Page Iyawo Odofemi

Before you came to Lukumi/Santeria were you involved in other Pagan religions or esoteric practices? If so, did involvement in those traditions help fuel your interest in Lukumi?

I was raised by New Ager parents who were Christian on paper, but in reality they believed in a lot of things that aren’t particularly Christian. Reincarnation, tarot and playing card divination, psychicism, and Welsh folk magic were part of the fabric of my childhood, especially from my mother. When I got into my teens, I explored a lot of different religions (including Buddhism and Hinduism), and spent some time studying Hoodoo, witchcraft, and ceremonial magic. I wasn’t getting what I needed out of any of those traditions and religions, though, and when I found Lukumi something just clicked.

I find your phrasing of this question really fascinating. You locate Lukumi as a Pagan religion (“other Pagan religions”). I’ve seen this a lot from Neo-Pagans, and I always find it really interesting. The Oloshas (priests) I have known almost never refer to our religion as Pagan, or in any way associated with the Neo-Pagan movement(s). Afro-Diasporic Religions tend to be categorized as something completely different and separate, probably in part because Paganism and Neo-Paganism are almost exclusively European-derived. The point has also been made before (the name of the person escapes me) that Pagan, quite literally, doesn’t actually apply to Lukumi, as Yoruba culture is urban and Pagan refers to rural people.

How did you find your Godmother’s House? Was it difficult to find a teacher/guide/parent? Was there a period of searching and learning before a connection was made?

It all started because I was looking for information on Haitian Vodou. I read a book about queer and trans people in Afro-Diasporic Religions, intent to get more info on Vodou, but instead I read the description of the Orisha Yemoja, and I fell head-over-heels in love. Quickly, I got my hands on more books on Lukumi, and eventually sought out a Santero – Shloma Rosenberg Afolabi (iba’ye). I was too shy to call him more than once, so after an initial contact, I didn’t speak to him again for months. Finally, one of his other Godchildren put a call out saying that his health was in bad shape and there was no one to check on him, so I packed a bag, got onto a bus to Detroit and showed up on Shloma’s doorstep. He marked my head for Oshun, and I became his Godchild. Several months later, when I received my Warriors (one of the early initiations in the religion), his friend Sarah came for the ceremony and was my Ojugbona (sponsor, or secondary Godparent). After Shloma passed away, Sarah took me into her House – thank God! As a trans woman, it’s not always easy to find Godparents in this religion, and if she hadn’t taken me in, I don’t know how I would’ve made Ocha!

Could you explain a little about what it means to be an Iyawo? I’m given to understand that this is a year-long period of growth (incubation?) after an initiation, and that there are several restrictions and rules that one must follow.

Iyawo in Yoruba means “(junior) bride.” When a person is initiated as a priest of their Orisha, they are called an Iyawo for the first year in Lukumi. During this time, they are treated like a baby who must be protected. We wear only white clothes, and my understanding of this is that we wear white to stay cool. Coolness is a very important concept in Lukumi. To be cool (pele) is to be calm, gentle, and pure, whereas to be hot is to be dangerous, rough, and dirty. White is a symbol of coolness, and especially of Obatala, the Orisha of coolness. We also live by a very large number of taboos governing everything from where we can go, when we can go there, what we can do or say, and even what we can eat and drink. In addition to the standard taboos followed by most iyawos, each priest receives additional taboos specific to them to be followed for the rest of their lives. They might be told that they are never allowed to eat pork again, for example. I, personally, got away pretty lightly on the taboos. Not too many lifelong ones – Modupe Oshun!

During the iyaworaje, an iyawo is supposed to stay as cool as possible while everything in our lives changes. We are also supposed to spend this time learning as much as we can from our elders.

Lukumi/Santeria is a very decentralized faith, with different autonomous houses and initiatory lines. I would assume that an initiate might have different experiences depending on where they were taught, and where their teacher is from. How much diversity is there within Santeria/Lukumi? Do different houses sometimes find they have little in common, or is there enough at the core that each recognizes the other as Santeria?

As an iyawo, I’m pretty inexperienced in the religion, but from what I have seen and been taught, there is some variation between lineages. However, due to a really interesting historical event in the early 20th century called la division de la Habana (which an Oriate named Willie Ramos wrote an amazing paper on), our ceremonies were standardized to a large extent. So while some iles (houses) may do things slightly differently, for the most part it’s all the same at the end of the day. Maintaining orthodoxy has become very important in this religion, and some iles and priests are marginalized if elders consider their practices too divergent.

What does it mean to be a Daughter of Oshun and Shango?

This is such a big question! In this religion, everyone is considered to have an Orisha who owns their head. This Orisha has a really massive influence on who you are as a person, and what the major themes of your life will be. We learn who this Orisha is through dilogun divination, or through Ifa divination. My head was marked to Oshun – the Orisha of the River, love, sexuality, beauty, art, and survival. Orishas manifest differently through their children, but they are always there somewhere. Oshun shines through in me, not just in my vanity, but in my ability to survive and thrive despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

Each person also has a secondary parent Orisha, and this is determined during the initiation ceremony. This Orisha also has a big influence on the person, but usually less so than their Head Orisha. My father is Shango, Orisha of Thunder, fire, masculinity, dance, and kingship. I am still learning more about how Shango influences me. I can see him in my temper. I can see him in my flashy personality. I can see him in my leadership skills.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about Santeria?

Animal sacrifice is always the number one misconception. The idea of animal sacrifice was actually what held me, a vegetarian of over ten years, back from getting involved for a couple of years. I’ve come to understand it on a few different levels. Firstly, animals are food. Orishas are living beings, in a way, and like all living beings, they eat food. Orishas are fed not just with animals, but with a variety of foods and other sacrifices as well.

Secondly, I came to understand that my hesitance toward animal sacrifice was rooted in my privilege as an urban North American. In urban North America, we are completely divorced from any conception of how our food ends up on our plates – it seems to just suddenly and plentifully arrive, neatly wrapped in plastic at the supermarket. We don’t have to deal with the blood and dirt and excrement of the farm, so we forget that what we’re eating was alive, and when confronted with this, many of us feel protective over the poor animals we would normally eat without a second thought. Though Yoruba culture is and has historically been an urban culture, food is not so divorced from its source in everyday life there as it has become here.

Though many animals are sacrificed as forms of food, and their bodies are cooked and eaten by the community, from what I’ve seen this is not always the case. Sometimes we are not allowed to cook and eat the animal after the sacrifice because it has been used to cleanse us, or for any number of other reasons. Sometimes the animal is to be left with the Orisha in nature (often by or in rivers, crossroads, cemeteries, etc.). I’ve come to understand this form of sacrifice through something my Ojugbona (second godparent) said recently, “It’s you or the chicken.” We do not do sacrifice because it’s fun, or because it’s spooky – we sacrifice so that we may live, so that we may be cleansed, so that we may receiving blessings to sustain us. The animal dies so that we do not. If it’s the chicken or me, I know who I’m choosing.

Another major misconception is the idea of “syncretism” between Lukumi and Catholicism. Many people make a lot more out of the syncretic aspects of the religion than they should, which seems to me to be mostly thanks to poor scholarship by early ethnographers. From what I have learned and observed, beyond having Catholic kitsch around our homes, Lukumi in practice features very little Catholic elements. The saints, especially in the United States where many houses are African Nationalist or attempt to be closer to Yoruba culture, play little to no role in the religion outside of kitsch.

The real syncretism that I’ve seen is between Lukumi and Espiritismo and Palo Mayombe. There’s been a really big influence between these religions in some houses – to the point where some people view them all as a single religion. Almost all of the Santeros that I know are also Espirtistas, and some of them are also Paleros. In Cuba, this becomes even more complicated with some people also being members of Abakua lodges, initiates in Arara lineages, and occasionally initiates in Cuban Vodou and Haitian Vodou – and at the end of the day, due to the cultural dominance of the Yoruba and for convenience, they’ll simply call themselves Santeros, or just Catholics.

Santeria has on the whole been quite reserved about interacting with the public, and has few spokespeople who intereact with the press, barring a couple exceptions. Do you think this hurts practitioners? Should there be more public voices from within Santeria/Lukumi?

Practitioners of Lukumi, along with most other Afro-Diasporic Religions, have faced an incredible amount of persecution – including being murdered and having our religious altars desecrated. This ongoing oppression, combined with class issues, race issues, immigration status, and language barriers creates a climate where many elders (who are generally people of colour, lower-income, Spanish-speaking, etc.) do not feel comfortable speaking about the religion out of a very real fear of persecution. There are also some priests who are given taboos against being public about their religious beliefs. I don’t think that our lack of public spokespeople necessarily hurts practitioners. I think racism, classism, and xenophobia hurt practitioners. Secrecy is what helped our ancestors to survive and thrive. Ashe to those who want to take on the burden of being public, but I don’t think it’s something we necessarily “need.”

How do adherents to Santeria/Lukumi see faiths like Haitian Vodou, or various African Traditional Religions? I know that there been some tensions between ATR and Lukumi in Florida.

Everyone is different, and attitudes vary greatly between houses on this sort of thing. My house is run by a priestess who is also an initiate of Haitian Vodou, and many of my Godsisters are involved in Hoodoo. Our house seems to be very celebratory of all Afro-Diasporic Religions. It is fairly common for Santeros to also be Paleros, Espiritistas, and sometimes even Vodouwizan, Hoodoo rootworkers, or Candomble initiates. Personally, I have a deep love and interest in Vodou and Candomble – though I’m not currently feeling the need to be involved in either.

From my small understanding of the Florida issue, what seems to be creating tension is the competition between orthodoxies (and initiations) in Orisha religion. Yoruba Traditionalists maintain that their orthodoxies are correct and see ours as bizarre, and vis versa. And this seems to have led each camp to try to discredit the other. I was extremely fortunate to have the chance to listen to some elders discuss this issue in person, and the elders I listened to seemed to favour creating mutual respect while maintaining different traditions. And I think that seems like the most reasonable way of handling it.

What, in your mind, has been the most significant change in your life since coming to this religion?

Everything about my life has changed. I’m not exaggerating at all. Maferefun gbogbo Orisha for all of the beauty in my life now. Orisha have given me stability that I lacked before.

If you have any final thoughts, or things that you feel the Pagan community should know about Santeria, please feel free to share it here.

I would first like to thank you for the opportunity to share my perspective on my beautiful religion with your readers. My perspective should be contextualized as that of an iyawo – a very young priest who has so much to learn about the religion. I’m by no means an authority about Lukumi – especially given that knowledge and information varies between houses and lineages. The information I’ve shared here is what I’ve been taught in the two houses I have been involved in, and does not necessarily represent all viewpoints.

I know that there are many Pagans who feel a strong draw to Afro-Diasporic Religions. My best advice for those who want to worship Orisha, Lwa, Nkisi, and other spirits, is to seek out a competent diviner (in Lukumi, this would be a dilogun reader, or an Ifa priest). Afro-Diasporic Religions are community-based and cannot be practiced solitarily or “eclectically.” They are often strict and require a great deal of personal sacrifice and commitment – which can be very beautiful. Not living near a priest isn’t a reasonable excuse – I committed to saving my money and traveling regularly to the United States (I live in Canada) when I first became involved in the religion, at a time when I worked minimum wage on sometimes very few hours. I did this while also supporting myself with stable housing.

If you are not descended from the culture which the Afro-Diasporic Religion is from (ie, Cuba for Lukumi, Haiti for Vodou, etc.), I would also recommend spending some time reading about how cultural appropriation works, and also about racism and colonialism. You may want to check your privilege at the door, before knocking on it, you know? That’s something that I did before becoming actively involved, and it was really worth it.

Jason Pitzl-Waters