Reviewed in the United States on April 5, 2014
I wasn’t sure why I was buying Finding Soul on the Path of Orisa: A West African Spiritual Tradition by Tobe Melora Correal since I don’t work with much from Yoruba religion, but am very grateful I did. Somehow, in trying to balance the out the dangerous misconception that all the MoreWorlders (Deities, ancestors, Nature, “spirits,” etc) are safe and want to help, I stopped remembering the loving part of the MoreWorld. Especially when I read about Vodou, Santeria, hoodoo, and all the other African Diaspora religions which are filled with warnings that the Gods are real, you better follow thru, and this is not a game. Those are very important messages for all MoreWorlder workers. Many Neopagans who don’t understand that need books about Santeria warning them. Those of us who are hard polytheists tend to already know (the hard way?) that the MoreWorlders are real, we better not break oaths to them, and it is the fabric of your life.
New Orleans Voodoo and Southern US hoodoo is usually judged by one thing: Does it work? There is no Priesthood and the books tend to focus on spells and workings. Worship doesn’t come into play, unless Christian. Cuban Santeria (Yoruba) and Haitian Vodou (mainly Dahomey) are much more closely linked to different African ways and thus have rules, hierarchy, initiations, and long ceremonies of worship.
Reading a book about the spiritual growth and love within one West African tradition, orisa from the Yoruba people in southern Nigeria, some of whom still worship the orisa the way they have for possibly 10,000 years, inspired me to remember why we usually come to any religion: love. Central to a healthy religion is love, a sense of being loved, and a greater capacity to love which comes with wisdom, humbling experiences and greater understanding of What Is Going On.
Yoruba is monotheistic, but with some twists. God is not the Creator. God is also unknowable because God is such a massively huge Source of All. Like Allah with no face, humans cannot know God. God is named Olorun in Yoruba but no one prays to Olorun. Olorun is beyond our comprehension. From Olorun, the Source, all that is has ashe (ah-shay is how Luisha Teish taught me to pronounce it). Ashe is the medicinal, powerful, creative and destructive, magical force that takes various shapes in humans, animals, plants, rivers, soil, mountains, drums, fire and the orisha, but that’s getting ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that as we animists know, all that is lives with same beautiful power of the Source as anything else.
Olorun I see as Nature. Nature was here at the Big Bang and will be here long after all life is gone from this planet. Nature is unknowable. We are Nature, everything is Nature, so how can we know something within we are immersed? Nature is impersonal like Olorun. We don’t try to prey to “Nature” because Nature is so far beyond us and yet everywhere.
Olorun has a child, also transgendered/ no gendered/ beyond gender, who is the Creator Olodumare. Olodumare organizes Earthly things. I see Olodumare as the laws of nature. Gravity, Earth as a closed ecosystem, velocity, chemicals, etc. It was hard for me at first to wrap my mind around the fact that God/Source is not the Creator just because of my culture.
From Olodumare we have the 44 orishas, gods and goddesses filled with ashe from Olorun, given purpose via Olodumare. The orisha are forces of nature, creative and destructive. Each of them has a side that builds up and a side that tears down. Morality such as good and evil don’t apply. This matches a lot of polytheist thought. Gods have to do what they have to do because they are bound by the same laws of nature everything else is. If there is Global Warming, the storm Gods have to make hurricanes. If there is fracking, there Earthquake Gods have to cause Earthquakes. Sometimes we can briefly make deals with the MoreWorlders for personal safety, but we cannot change the natural order of things even if they hurt us.
The ashe in everything and Olorun the Source of All being so unknowable connects me to monism, not monotheism. For me Olorun is like Brahman in this one aspect. That another god (lower case g) organized everything is a logical concept, one I read about in some Native American myths. Olorun needs edges, separateness for there to be persons (human and otherwise) with ashe. Ashe is the power in food, medicine, magic, places, etc. Ashe (and thus God the Unknowable Source) is everywhere, so everyone and everything must be treated as sacred. Including ourselves, so self destructive patterns are against God, against our own ashe.
All of us are reborn into our families which can be confusing for those used to the Western version of Hindu reincarnation. Like the ancestral reincarnation of the Siberian Yukaghirs in the book Soul Hunters, a person is both who they are and the ancestor. In Yoruba the ancestor also stays an ancestor, as honoring of the dead is a corner stone of the cosmology. No one is an individual; everyone is their family, here with gifts to help the family and thus tribe. In many Native American cultures, when you meet someone you ask “Who are your people?” ie your family. This seems rather common with indigenous religion. Iron Age Indo-European Pagans took genealogy very seriously. Druids memorized epic lists of tribal names while the Norse appear to have included honoring ancestors as mandatory. The beginning of the Old Testament is the Jewish ancestral tree.
(In our culture, this wouldn’t be that helpful as we rarely have much in common, including where we live, values and lifeways, with our grandparents, parents or siblings. Since most Americans are tribeless, rootless mutts (even if you are all German, you are from different Teutonic tribes), knowing what ancestor is in someone may be impossible. I don’t know how one works with that.)
A great deal of the book is about working with the egun, your ancestral dead. I can say that after over a decade of doing some hard ancestor work, what she says is on the nose. It can take years of digging through ancestral issues before you really sense that your ancestors, the spirits closest to you, who love you the most, are helpful. There is so much intergenerational trauma combined with the fact that few us ever spent much time with our extended families, our ancestors often start out as strangers who passed on alcoholism, PTSD, racism, fear of God (any sort), and power struggles which today influence us in ways that often lead to extensive therapy. The author actually makes sure to state a few times if when doing ancestor work, you become so upset about the trauma to see a decent therapist. It’s hard to work with a spirit you only knew as the “bitch who beat” your father.
As we heal our own ancestral baggage, our ancestors heal. As they heal, they want to help us more. Many have a different perspective dead than alive and want to make up for their wrongs. Very few of us know much genealogy, so while we try to keep the names alive, we can also honor the ancestors by listing their home nations, occupations, or just the ancestors. Ancestral work is the backbone to Yoruba but it’s very neglected in most books because it is so personal.
The author suggests spending time daily with the ancestors. I feed mine weekly and some weeks it’s nonstop crying as they tell me things I didn’t know about my family. Both sides of my family are very mysterious, trying to forget recent deaths and how those deaths impacted the families.
But the more ancestors I know personally, the more there is to do. Well, not do, but time involved listening and being sick, I’m fatigued. But no one else in my family is working with our dead so it all goes to me. The author calls it tending the ancestral garden. Lots of pulling out trash, nurturing shoots, watering, pruning, ahgh, it’s work. In a traditional Yoruba (and many other cultures) family everyone would do this and everyone before them would have done this as well. Like animism having to catch up to GMOs, nuclear waste and Climate Chaos, modern ancestor tenders may have a ton of work to do if the ancestral garden has been neglected for a few or more generations.
The author explains why this is well worth the time. The ancestors will help you with problems that gods may not. With them, it’s personal. If you did not have a family that was supportive, nurturing and protective, it may be hard to believe that the people who can be the most supportive, nurturing and protective are your own ancestors. They have flaws, yes. But they can provide you with the connectedness many Americans lack, the feeling of security from a large extended loving family.
The end of the book briefly touches on the effects of the three initiations and how to choose a Godparent. Elders in Yoruba and Cuba have to have been initiates for 25 years because it’s much more than knowing what herbs with which to wash someone’s head and what order the drummers play. Experience and wisdom of age is important. However in the US some people are considered elders after only ten years. If they are old in age, they may be able to pull it off, but if they are young or middle aged adults, she writes to be very careful. They don’t have the wisdom of life to be able to guide others. She realistically explains the new spiritual family as being as dysfunctional as any other, driving home that if you want a lace of people all like your spiritual dreams, it doesn’t exist. (Everyone should know this about covens, kindreds, ashrams, sangras, groves, churches, etc.)
She writes very little about the orisa themselves because there are so many books on Yemaya, Ogun, Chango, Oya, Oshun, etc. No ceremonies are given as those are only for initiates. What she mainly focuses on is the private spiritual inner work that must be done or the rituals are hollow. She also shifts Yoruba religion from fear based to God based, which is its original African form. I read some of the orisa books today and am like “Why would anyone worship such awful monsters who treat people terribly?” I think I understand what happened. Yoruba was a wealthy powerful nation. Those in Cuba and Brazil were slaves to other wealthy powerful nations. The dangers and rage in the orisha of Santeria and orixa in Brazil come from living powerless in terror of death. It became about survival for an oppressed people facing cultural genocide and personal murder, not a peaceful family religion practiced by everyone. Survival makes you more aware of evil. The orishas and orixas reflect that. This is still part of their constant need to destroy and create, just in much harder times.
None of my interpretations are meant to reflect what the author meant BTW. I finally got a way to connect Yoruba cosmology with something I personally understand. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the loving side of Yoruba and its original African form and/or for people working with ancestors who are feeling frustrated, repulsed, or filled with grief.