Traditional African Religions
An Interview with Iya Ta'Shia Asanti
- How are Voudon, Yoruba, Santeria, and Lukumi related? Are they related to Wicca?
Voudon (Voodoo, Vodou, Vodoun) Yoruba Indigenous Religions, Santeria and Lukumi are all children of Ifa, the oldest traditional African religion--some say the oldest religion--in the world. If you trace Vodoun back hundreds of years, you will find its original name "Fa" which is derived from Ifa and the Dahomean people who practiced the religion. Santeria, Lukumi and I should add, Candomble, were formed and created during the enslavement of African people as a way to sustain and keep alive the traditional practices of the enslaved Africans. This is why each of these faiths has an element of Catholicism in it, remnant of their connection to slavery times when practicing African religion was punishable by law. If enslaved Africans were caught practicing any form of African religion, they could be beaten, raped, lynched and even killed. Thus, the now African "slaves" found a way to hide their religion behind Christianity and Catholicism which they were forced to practice. This syncretism was the birthplace of what we know as Voodoo, Santeria and Lukumi.
Wicca is not a part of African religion however many of the ritual work done in Wicca was taken from traditional African practices. Wicca itself was born in the early 1960's, however, supposed witchcraft which was really the use of natural herbs, energetic properties connected to the solar system is much, much older. However, it too has roots in ancient Kemetic and Native Indigenous rituals and rites. This is not an insult or invalidation of the power or intent of the Wiccan practice but in my humble opinion, Wicca and Witchcraft are terms that describe European-influenced renditions of ancient indigenous rites. Again, this is no disrespect to my many friends who practice Wicca and/or witchcraft.
Which path do you follow?
I am initiated into the Ifa tradition. I am a Yoruba priestess of Yemoja in the Ifa tradition. My full priestly name is Iya Ta'Shia Asanti.
What attracted you to it?
I began my religious and spiritual journey as a Christian like most African-Americans. However, I always knew there was another metaphysical experience for me and I began at a very young age searching for a path that was right for me. Later, my research revealed some very painful facts about the origin of Christianity. The short story is that Ifa spoke to me because it was the oldest and closest to what my West African ancestors practiced thousands of years ago and I was clear at the time that I did not want to practice any branch of the faith that still honored white deities i.e Santeria, Candomble and Lukumi--no disrespect to my sisters and brothers who practice these branches of the faith.
How does it empower you?
Through connecting me with my African ancestry, history and spiritual wisdom.
What are its underlying principles?
Ifa is a metaphysical science that uses scriptural wisdom, divination, purification through initiation and personal spiritual development to align one with their divine destiny. The primary and highest calling of the Ifa tradition is to align one with their destiny through continuous spiritual development. We study what is called the "Odu Ifa" which are 401 books of spiritual wisdom based on the teachings of the Orisa, who were actual sages who walked the earth and evolved spiritually with the help of Olodumare, the Yoruba name for God, and Orunmila, the African Prophet. Most African-Americans can't name one African prophet, nor do they know that we have holy scriptures written solely by African people. All of this was a key factor in my embracing of the Ifa religion.
What is your spiritual community like? How is it structured?
I have a small temple in Denver made up of a smaller group of initiated priests whom I initiated and temple members who are various stages of the initiatory process. I am the presiding priestess, there are other priests who work and study with me. There are also members who are not yet initiated to the level of priesthood, they are what we call Aborisa While this informal hierarchy exists, it is not enforced in any class-based system or fashion. The honor I receive is due to my sacrifices as the temple leader and an outspoken activist, as well as the senior status of my priestly title.
Is there a central governing body/authority?
Yes, there is a leadership council in my temple, but they, just like the membership can be quiet transient in nature. This can be painful at times because of the spiritual investment one makes in a student but it is expected because of where we are practicing the faith--in America. In Africa, the level of respect and loyalty to one's spiritual leader or Elder is honored to much greater degrees due to the construct of African culture.
How is knowledge shared or passed down? Is it easily accessible to lay people who are not religious leaders?
Orally and through physical practice. Sitting at the foot of one's elders. There are many writings that share the scriptures of the Odu Ifa, but one must study with a teacher or master to truly understand them.
Can you talk a little about connecting with the ancestors? Is it like connecting with Saints? Do ancestors intercede on human behalf with dieties?
No, they are not saints, but some of them are very evolved. Your worship is in the form of paying homage to them. You are evoking them, asking them for wisdom and protection. It's a regular part of the African tradition, but it's also in Native American, Buddhist, etc. Many indigenous traditions honor their ancestors.
How does your faith approach: the afterlife? sexuality? gender?
Ifa practitioners generally believe in reincarnation. They also believe that the ancestors, their blessings and their wisdom are accessible by the living. There are many specific rituals and rites to access and connect one to the ancestral realm. This [physical] life is lived to connect one to one's destiny.
In Africa, Ifa is expressed within the context of African culture and values. Sexuality is expressed mainly in ritual celebration (costumes, mask wearing and ritual, facial paint, scarifications, piercings, tattoo, dance and drumming). Sex is primarily for the purpose of procreation. In America, things are much different, more liberal and open.
In Africa, though men are viewed as superior, there is an inherent fear and respect for the power of women biologically, metaphysically and ritually. In America, it is basically the same except for women have legal rights that force men to relate to them differently.
Have you experienced any kind of bias based on your sexual orientation/preference or gender?
I have experienced some homophobia within the Ifa community. However, it has come mostly from American practitioners and African traditionalists who are more turned off by the imagery and capitalist directives of white, mainstream "gay" culture than they are the act of two women or men being sexually active or physically in love. In Africa, homosexuality is not a way of life, it is a human expression of biological nature. There is no need to label it with what they see as a political term. Their concern is procreation so if children are being born, they could care less how sexuality is expressed. This is basically my view as well. I do not identify as gay or lesbian. I have loved women most of my adult life but this has never interfered with my love for men nor my understanding of the importance of sustaining the village through childbirth, caring for children and retaining the knowledge of our elders.
What about women who who cannot or decide not to have children?
In traditional African society, it was recognized that some women were not destined to give birth. Those were the ones who took care of the community in a spiritual way. They did tasks that women who had the responsibility of children or a husband couldn't. They were the ones who would be the medicine women, the healers, things like that.
Can you tell us about your organization and your research on two-spirited/SGL people in African culture?
The name of my temple is Ile Ori Ogbe Egun: Temple of the Enlightened Path. We are an inclusive (we accept white and openly two-spirited members) Yoruba temple that practices traditional Ifa as it is, for the most part, practiced in Western Nigeria. There are a few elements of the Lukumi faith that are practiced in my temple so that initiates will remain competent in the practices of a great many Orisa worshipppers in the U.S. We have about 35 active members.
My research has spanned over 10 years and emcompasses an in depth study of the presence of two-spirited and SGL people in African and indigenous culture all over the world.
What books or resources would you suggest for people who want to learn more about traditional African religions?
My own book, The Sacred Door and the following: Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts, Imoye, and Ojise--all three by Baba Ifa Karade.
Also, books by
Awo Fatunmbi Falokun, Migene Wippler-Gonzalez, Malidoma or Sobonfu Some and Chief Fama.
Two of my favorite books are Finding Soul on the Path of Orisa by Tobe Melora Correal and The Altar of My Soul by Marta Moreno Vega. All of these authors can be found through Amazon.com.
About the contributor
Iya Ta'Shia Asanti is an award-winning journalist, fiction writer, poet, playwright, activist, filmmaker and celebrated Yoruba Priestess of Yemoja in the Ifa tradition.