The Voice of a Priestess of Iya: A cultural perspective on African spiritual traditions and beliefs

Altar at our Temple's Midsummer Ritual June 18, 2016
Altar at our Temple’s Midsummer Ritual June 18, 2016

The Spirit’s Edge Shamonial Temple held its Midsummer / Summer Solstice Ritual & Salon on Saturday. It was an incredibly beautiful and powerful ritual partnering with Yemoja / Yemaya, Oshun / Osun, Papa Legba / Elegba and Erzulie, who approached us in the spring asking for this ritual in their honor.

It was a beautiful and amazing night of community, and the individual stories and impact of the ritual was beyond words to describe. In case you missed it, HERE is a shortened online version for the ritual. Read on for our guest blog…

on our altar for our Temple's Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016
on our altar for our Temple’s Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016

In working with the Orisha and Lwa in writing the ritual, they had, as always, an amazing way of bringing through messages and making connections to share the story that they want told. Iyanifa Fayele (also Ayele Kumari, Phd) reached out to me at the request of her oracles to offer information to us in doing this Work. Iyanifa is initiated into the Mysteries of Oya, Obatala, Yemoja, Osun and Orunmila.

One of the initial important pieces of wisdom she shared with us was that the three great mothers are associated with the three rivers here – The Mississippi River with Oya; The Missouri River with Yemoja; and The Meramec River with Osun.

The Mississippi River in honor of Oya
The Mississippi River in honor of Oya

After hearing this, we set about making a journey to each river to ask the great mothers and their rivers for their blessings in this Work, to make an offering to them and to gather waters for our altar with their permission.

Our goal in this ritual and Work was to honor the Orisha, the Lwa, and their cultures of origin with respect and love. I welcomed this gracious offer from Iyanifa, and I asked for her insight and wisdom.

The Missouri River in honor of Yemoja / Yemaya
The Missouri River in honor of Yemoja / Yemaya

I asked her, from the perspective of a traditionally trained and initiated priestess of the Orisha…

  • What does she most want people to understand about her traditions and practices?
  • What message would she most want folks to come away with?
  • What advice or cautions would she have
  • And also, if folks wanted to learn more, what would she personally recommend
  • Or anything else that she felt was important.
The Meramec River in honor of Osun / Oshun
The Meramec River in honor of Osun / Oshun

Iyanifa responded with a beautiful message, and I asked her if I could share it here, as a guest blog post so that more folks would see this message. She graciously agreed.

Her message is below – unedited. Iyanifa has over 25 years of experience in healing and in indigenous knowledge systems; 15 years as a college professor; and she is an author of three books and publisher of 15 books. For more information on Iyanifa and her background, please visit her website and her bio.

Here are Iyanifa’s thoughts, in her words…

I felt people should come away with is that the Orisha are best understood and worked through the indigenous cultures and cosmology that birthed them….in West Africa. They are a part of an entire system of spiritual development. They are not considered gods in our culture.

on our altar for our Temple's Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016
on our altar for our Temple’s Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016

The Orisha that are known in the diaspora came to be understood that way through the transatlantic slave trade. It is an ancestral tradition. It’s what those Africans who were stolen from their home lands brought with them to the Americas. Orisha are who helped them survive the horrors of that experience for hundreds of years.

Because their open practice was forbidden, and it was against the law to practice their traditional spiritual systems, they hid them in the guise of Catholic Saints. So what came to be came out of necessity to survive. And often that is how they are presented… But they are not Catholic saints. 

Some adaptations were also made in order to survive. Smoke from Legba was one of those adaptations. It was adapted from the relationship slaves developed with the Taino Indigenous people in the new lands who shared a crossroad divinity as well. We also had to learn to use the herbs and medicine on the new lands to support the practices as the original tools and some training with them were no longer available.

That said, Ifa, as it is known in West Africa has come to be for the world. But it is important to remember it is African. And it’s what Africa gave to the world. I say that in the contexts of a few things. Many African Diasporic people are not often welcomed in Pagan communities…but our traditions are used. And our ancestral spirits are called.

Many African people experience blatant and covert racism from pagans…here… In St. Louis.

I will never forget going to a ritual where there was a group of white women who self-identified as WASP… White Anglo Saxon Pagans…. All the while, I’m invoking Yemoja for the ritual. I admit that I felt angry and annoyed. And were it not Yemoja… A gentle loving mother I was invoking, I would have brought down Ogun.

And I wish that was an isolated incident but I know quite a few people of color who experience covert and overt racism in the pagan community…And many of us decided to keep our traditions to ourselves so that they would not be exploited by the same people who held our ancestors in captivity while exploiting them. Especially if our traditions are used but our people are insulted and dishonored.

Many consider it highly disrespectful to not honor the way our traditions are intended to be practiced because it’s a kind of blind arrogance to do so …. It’s an initiatory tradition…with its specific mysteries… And it’s own initiations….that have been done the same way for thousands of years… not new ones that are made up. People believe because they read of it in a book…it must be ok… Outside its ancient mysteries.

on our altar for our Temple's Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016
on our altar for our Temple’s Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016

It’s not intended to be practiced in an isolated way. We have our own oracles we use to communicate with them… It’s an entire system, culture, and way of life. So these things must be kept in mind because if what you are doing…doesn’t grow you… Doesn’t force transformation within your being, it’s useless. Orisha will force you to look at your own stuff.

So I share this and I made myself available because our oracles told me to. There is nothing I can do about what other people do… But i can give them the right information. I don’t have the same angst as some others do. Our oracles say it is for the world now…so I accept that and will support it as a Priestess.

Oya - on our altar for our Temple's Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016
Oya – on our altar for our Temple’s Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016

Oya is a transformer. She is not some lightweight… You can put down when the ritual is finished. She will bring a tornado in your life uprooting your assumptions and illusions. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always convenient.

Often long held structures and beliefs are torn down… Sometimes violently. Sometimes people are afraid because they don’t want to handle to truth. She can be Tower card in the tarot. The lightening bolt. But…It’s always necessary. Necessary for personal evolution and transformation. She brings winds of change.

She is also iyalode. Which is a leader of women. And a warrior queen. She carries a machete. And will fight like a man….and whoop his ass too! She was queen in her own right…not because she married Sango, She was head of the market place…and thus commerce. She is the opener to Egungun…the ancestral realm. To that end, she wears veils to reflect the veils between worlds.

Papa Legba - - on our altar for our Temple's Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016
Papa Legba – – on our altar for our Temple’s Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016

Legba is known as Elegbara… Or Esu…And no ritual or spiritual work ever happens without him opening the way. He translates our prayer to the language of the heavens.

He is NOT a confuser… He does question your false assumptions and your own confusion. And he brings clarity in the end… He forces your shadow and your light to achieve wholeness. He is all communication… Including our own inner talk. He comes as both an old person…and a child.

Yemoja means Yeye Omo Oja …mother of the fishes. She brings healing and nurturing energy. Deals with our emotions. Our memories, our relationships with our mothers and families.

Yemoja / Yemaya - - on our altar for our Temple's Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016
Yemoja / Yemaya – – on our altar for our Temple’s Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016


She sometimes comes with salt water ie tears…As she is now associated with the Ocean. She was originally a river. But she came across the middle passage (slave ships passage through the Atlantic Ocean) and taking that journey she is merged with Olokun the ocean. This means she reaches the depths of our unconscious. Our womb memories. She heals old hurts. And nurtures our hearts.

Ọṣun is the great mother. She is actually the mother of Esu. She is not just as some describe her as light and sweet. She is that… But also a vulture. She is the leader of the witches. Aje as we call them.

At the beginning of the world, when men tried to start it but left woman out, Ọṣun gathered the witches and stopped it…no progress could be made without her. Until the male deities surrendered and came to her. The world would not be formed. They finally did after receiving council from Olodumare… “God or creator” when they were told they would have to respect women and include her in all that they do. Only then would things go right.

Osun / Oshun - - on our altar for our Temple's Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016
Osun / Oshun – – on our altar for our Temple’s Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016

So Ọṣun is not just some fertility sexual divinity. She is an unapologetic feminist… Who stand for the rights of women as is Oya. She is the master witch of the world… which we call Iyami… (meaning my mother) along with a number of primordial mothers that are called Aje. That is our name for witch. Ọṣun is also a diviner. Some stories of Yemoja and Ọṣun mix because they hailed from different parts of Nigeria but both are mermaids.

Lastly…and this is the most important part of our tradition… Is that Orisha are not the most important part of worship, the Ori is.

The Ori is the higher self. The Ori is what contains the blueprint for our lives. Our soul lessons and path. Our traditions are not designed to worship gods. Our traditions are designed to ultimately become walking “Gods “on earth. Divine immortal beings, We do that by being in alignment with our Ori. That is our true crown…no Orisha is higher than our Ori. Our initiations are designed to align a person to that.

The Orisha are there to supplement that and support areas of deficiency in our lives. And support the soul’s purpose for being here. It doesn’t replace the work of life or living…but it aligns your consciousness with that of your divine self and the Orisha are tools that the divine self used to create balance and wholeness.


Erzulie / Erzulie Freda - - on our altar for our Temple's Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016
Erzulie / Erzulie Freda – – on our altar for our Temple’s Midsummer Ritual on June 18, 2016

All of our love and gratitude to Iyanifa, to the Orisha, the Lwa and the spirits – and to the divine that runs through all things and through each of us.

Blessed be.


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