Episode 018: Busy Bee

May 17 2011 Published by under Before My Year, Podcasts


Since my godfather takes frequent breaks from the religion to focus on his health, finances, and to just generally keep things balanced in his life, I tend to do the same.

It’s not like I’m just sitting around doing nothing.  I’m just not going to drummings, getting readings, or that sort of thing.  I follow my ile’s Letter of the Year as best as I can and I try not to forget to take care of eggun and Elegua when they need it.

Work has been taking up a lot of my time, recently.  Now that it’s starting to slow down a bit, I’ve been trying to find some new things to do.  I like a bit of variety.

As an example, during the past few weeks, I’ve been learning about beekeeping.  It’s pretty interesting stuff.  Beekeeping season has pretty much already started, so I will probably wait until next year before I really start getting into it.  I’ll probably try to find someone in the area who does it already, so I can get a feel for it before I try it on my own.

I’ve also been trying to go hiking on the weekend.  There are some really large wooded areas nearby with plenty of winding trails.  It’s pretty neat out there.  I’ve seen a dozen or so wild pigs, deer, and all sorts of little critters.  For a city-boy, I guess I’ve become quite acclimated to being out here…

One of my favorite spots is where the trail is crossed by a small river.  It looks more like a small creek, really, but it’s still nice. There are a lot of cypress trees and plenty of shade.  It’s just very peaceful and nice.  It’s out of the way enough that if it didn’t take me nearly an hour to get to walk there, it would probably be a nice spot to dispose of ebos or leave offerings to Oshun.  It’s one thing to leave stuff out in a small public park or whatever, but since this place is over 6,000-acres, it’s a different story.  It’s still not a good idea to leave things near the trail, but there’s not as high of a chance that someone would accidentally run across something they shouldn’t.

The other spot I like is the remnants of a brick chimney.  By the looks of it, it used to be part of a log cabin. It’s apparently pretty old.  There’s a fence all around it because the county wants to preserve it.  Still, it’s difficult not to see it there out in the middle of the woods and not think of Ogun.

Even when I’m away from the religion for a while, I guess it’s never very far away from me.

Recently, there was a post on The Wild Hunt blog that caught my eye.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s full of news and opinion pieces focusing on the pagan community.  It’s a bit like what I try to do with my site, but much more in-depth.  A lot of time is spent researching the articles and it shows.  A lot of the content is geared more towards the general Pagan community and not a lot of it appeals to me.  Every once and a while, though, there are articles dealing with topics and issues that affect people in the ATR community.

The blog post on April 18th had an interview with an iyawo named Morgan Page.  As a general rule, I don’t pay much attention to these types of posts when I run across them online…  Typically, it’s just the same old talking points — the origins of the religion, the reasons for animal sacrifice, Catholic syncretism, etc. — basic stuff that satisfies the curiosity of most people who don’t know much about it.  Once you’re in the religion, you kind of just stop caring about that sort of stuff.

This one was a bit different.  I definitely recommend reading the whole article for yourself, if you haven’t already.

The topic of misconceptions came up during the interview and that was especially interesting to me.

Here’s a bit from the interview:

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.

I couldn’t agree more!

She goes on to talk about how spiritism and Palo Mayombe are the much more prevalent syncretic practices found in the religion.  In some houses, they’ve become so intertwined with Lucumi that it’s hard to tell where one stops and another begins.

Lastly, she had some advice for those who felt a strong attraction to ATR practices:

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.

Also, she squashes the excuse of people claiming that they don’t live close enough to participate in the religious community. While working minimum wage and supporting herself, she saved up the money needed to regularly travel from her home in Canada to the United States.

Just imagining that makes me happy that my padrino is only a two-hour drive away.

But, again, she’s got a point.  You can’t learn the religion from a book or a website.  If you’re committed fully to the religion, there should be no reason why you can’t do things properly.

Speaking of which, there was a small discussion in the comments about whether there is a way to get around animal sacrifice, especially in relation to Vegan practitioners.  It was simplified pretty well by the iyawo:

No. Lukumi requires animal sacrifice. Period.

There are vegan Oloshas, but they still sacrifice animals, and there are certain times when they must eat meat.

There’s no getting around animal sacrifice in Lukumi.

A follow-up by another commenter clarified things even further:

As a vegan you may choose to never eat meat in your daily life. But if you enter the priesthood in this religion there are times when you are expected to eat meat. It’s like being expected to shave your head, or wear white for a year. It is part of a meaningful ceremony, not an everyday occurrence. It doesn’t change the fact that outside that ceremony the person doesn’t eat animal products and is a vegan.

Last month, I spotted a fairly short Havana Times posting called, “Offerings to the Orishas.”  In it, Jorge Milanes has a discussion with a practitioner in the religion about offerings and ebos left in public for the Orisha.  Criticism is given towards the fruit and animal remains left in parks and other areas where people outside of the religion are likely to stumble upon them.  These people are then likely to either come in contact with what’s been left for the Orisha or at the very least have to see and smell it as it decomposes.  It just isn’t responsible.

The practitioner’s response was:

My brother, you’re absolutely right. I practice the Yoruba religion, but it’s necessary to have greater consciousness of those things. One can do good on one hand, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can come back on you.

Sometimes people cleanse their bodies with a jumble of tree branches and then they just toss them anywhere, even in places where they themselves have to pass by.

The same thing happens when those offerings are left in parks, in addition to the other consequences that you already know.

The writer then concluded the article with a comment about it not being the Orisha telling them to leave the offerings in parks.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.  I mean, if you need to bring something to the ocean or the railroad tracks, that’s just what you’ve got to do.  I think people bring offerings to the parks largely because they don’t have access to more rural wooded area.  At least I’d like to hope that’s the case and they aren’t just being lazy.  I think it’s important, though, to find out from the person doing the reading whether it’s something that needs to be left in that place or whether the Orisha will allow you to bring it to the spot and then dispose of it nearby instead.

If you’re committed to the religion, you should be committed to being responsible about it.  It’s a pet-peeve of mine, so I apologize if I harp on this issue too often, but under no circumstances should you ever be leaving offerings or disposing of ebos with them wrapped in a plastic bag.   If you have to use any sort of container or bag, make it something that’s likely going to decompose on its own.  Brown paper bags are what a lot of people use, but what about banana leaves or something? Instead of being trashy about it, you can be creative.  Yes, it’ll be less convenient, but it’s not like you’re doing ebos all the time, right?

Speaking of leaving animal remains in public places, Scott, a frequent commenter to the blog and podcast, pointed out an interesting story over on Patch.com, from May 12th.  Judging by the pictures, a person-shaped figure had been made out of sticks and branches and an animal skull was tied on top of it.  Nearby, there was also a stone with a symbol on it of a circle with an ‘X’ through it, a couple more bone pieces, and — oddly enough — an American flag.  After some children reported it, the area was investigated by police.  A deer skull, deer bones, and a mouse skull were found at the site.
A Union City spokesman commented on the apparent animal ritual remains, saying that, “It’s certainly not a regular occurrence but it does happen from time to time. We have a large parks system and we do have residents who do this stuff, possibly Santeria, especially in the more urban areas of the county.”  He goes on to add that the site is not only patrolled by the county, but also has a maintenance worker who is in the area on an almost daily basis.  According to the spokesman, “This couldn’t have been there very long. He would have seen it.”

On its surface, this sounds like a pretty straight-forward case of people jumping-the-gun and linking it to Santeria just because there were a couple animal skulls found.  The comments ended up being much more interesting…

A few people were critical of the reporter, for linking the story to Santeria.  Any criticisms should instead be directed towards the spokesman, Sebastian D’Ella, who seems to be the one that suggested there was a link to Santeria.  I don’t think there was any malice behind it, though — just ignorance.

Later, there were posts that were — apparently — by one of the people who actually was involved in staging the site.  He and his friends had set it up as a joke. He references some ideas from The Blair Witch Project. A lot of detailed information is given relating to where individual items came from, things that weren’t mentioned or shown in the pictures, and that sort of thing. It definitely added some credibility to his claim.

There was definitely something along the lines of an “I-Told-You-So” vibe coming from the practitioners who had been commenting earlier — requesting that both the county spokesman and the writer apologize and that the article be updated with the new information.  Two words come to mind: Persecution Complex.   Do people look towards Santeria pretty much every time an animal is found? You bet.  Should people speak up and point out when it’s clearly not related?  Heck yeah.  But I don’t really see a need for a writer to apologize because the person interviewed mentioned Santeria.  To people who don’t know much about Santeria, it sounds plausible.  I’ll let you in on a secret, folks… People outside of the religion have no idea whether deer or mice are used in the religion.  They have no idea what is or isn’t normal for a Santeria ritual and, more to the point, most of them probably don’t care.

Educating people is awesome and, long term, it’s going to have a positive effect on the way the religion and its practitioners are viewed by the public. I believe that, without question.  But I feel like sometimes we need to step back and look at what’s being said and then consider the message we’re looking to impart…

For some, at least, these handful of comments represent Santeria and may affect how they think of the religion.  Right or wrong, opinions — at least online — seem to be based a lot more on perception than on facts and information.

It goes beyond just this article, though.  This sort of thing happens just about any time there’s a popular news story about animal remains being found.

Consider something as simple as a handful of comments from people saying, “I practice this religion and this doesn’t look related” or something along those lines. Maybe explain why you don’t think it’s related or whatever. But by keeping things objective and informative, it gives the impression of two things.  First, it raises the question of whether it was actually related to the religion or, as is often the case, just the work of a couple teenagers.  Secondly, as long as the comments don’t digress too much, it helps show that the religion isn’t something just done by a handful of weirdos or whatever.  Yes, there might be some heated comments from people whose beliefs strongly differ from yours, but those can be dealt with (or not) as needed. It’s better to come into things open and friendly, I think, than to already be on the defensive right away.

Sometimes, you can come out looking a lot better if you don’t participate in the back-and-forth arguments.  If the other person is clearly trying to instigate things, just leave them hanging.

The stereotype seems to be that the people in this religion are ignorant, barbaric, and of questionable mental health.  I’m trying to be politically-correct here… The terms used are typically much more colorful.  In any case, especially if you participate in online discussions, be sure you’re adding some benefit rather than just fanning the flames.  Being hot-headed does more harm than good.

After all, you aren’t going to win an argument about religion, animal sacrifice, or any of the other hot-button topics.  If you see it heading down that path, just move on.  Education isn’t always about reciting facts and figures.  Sometimes it’s about teaching through action.

Speaking of action, I love hearing from readers of the blog or listeners who enjoy the podcast, so please be sure to leave a review for the show on iTunes or write in on the blog.

Even more exciting than comments is when people show their support with a donation.

“Dr. E” from ConjureDoctor.com is this month’s contributor.  He made a generous donation of $50 towards my Ocha Fund.  I don’t normally like to mention other sites or companies on here, but — honestly — I’m more than happy to “sell out” if it means making Ocha a bit quicker.

That’s all for now.  As always, you can find more on the website, at YearInWhite.com. You can also show your love for the podcast on iTunes or become a fan on Facebook, at Facebook.com/YearInWhite.

Maferefún eggun.
Maferefún orisha.


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