When I first got involved in Santeria, I first had to learn how to learn in the religion. Teaching, like most things, is done in the traditional way, because… well… it works. But it took some getting used to…
When I had just been initiated as a santero, I called my Oyugbona in Abofaca, Julito Collazo, to give him the news.
“I know you’re hungry, so I’m going to give you something to learn.” He then gave me a series of prayers. Continue reading Apprenticeship in Santeria
Adapted from my book, “Babalawo: SanterÃa’s High Priests” published by LLewellyn Worldwide:
SanterÃa, its priests the santeros and its high priests the babalawos are justly famous for their power. Divination is at the core of Santeria and almost everything we do literally begins and ends with it. Besides telling us our past, present, and future with astonishing detail and accuracy, it is through divination that the Orichas communicate their wants and needs, and are able to deliver warnings, encouragement, and advice.
When a person is seen with IfÃ¡, the client is advised on the best course of action to take, which rituals or offerings are required, and which Orichas to go to for aid. In this manner a person can achieve and maintain proper alignment and balance, both within themselves as well as with the forces that surround us.
Babalawos initiated into the service of Orula, the Oricha or deity of wisdom and knowledge, and are the only priests who practice IfÃ¡, the highest and most profound form of divination in SanterÃa. IfÃ¡ is probably best known for being a sophisticated and remarkably accurate and effective form of divination, containing within it a system of remedies, a vast body of knowledge and wisdom covering everything from the human condition to the universe at large, as accumulated and distilled over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
You could say IfÃ¡ is the totality of knowledge. Everything that exists
in the universe and in our lives was born and is described in IfÃ¡â€™s odduns (signs), and babalawos have been accessing and manipulating the vast program called our universe since time immemorial. And they have been effectively hacking the universe ever since.
IfÃ¡ is the handwriting of Olodumare (God), and it is simplicity itself.
At its core it consists of just two numbers. One and zero.
IÂ IÂ Â Â Â (Baba Eyiogbe, my oddun in IfÃ¡)
I still find this short definition of IfÃ¡, to be very handy when I’m asked to explain just what IfÃ¡ is and what I do as a babalawo…
Iboru, Iboya, IbochechÃ©
Frank Baba Eyiogbe
The other day, as I was performing my morning IfÃ¡ consultation for myself, the oddun where the tempest was born appeared. The oddun predicts a major storm will occur soon and to take precautions to avoid getting rain on one’s head. When I asked my wife and ApetebÃ Lisa ChangÃ³ about it, she said the forecast was for sun and clear skies for the next month.
I looked at a few forecasts and they all agreed with the one Lisa had seen. Knowing Oricha Standard Time can be very different from our own, I decided to file that information so I could see how long it took for the predicted storm to appear. For a long time I had joked that I was often so busy that I was having to get my weather reports from IfÃ¡ rather than by the usual means. But this was the first time IfÃ¡ was directly contradicting the weather reports by such a large measure. So this one should be interesting…
Early that afternoon, when we went out for the day, sure enough the sky was clear and sunny just as the weather reports had predicted. We brought along our umbrellas and hats just in case even though it looked like they would not be needed.
We were enjoying the sun and the perfect weather when suddenly we heard distant thunder. Before long dark clouds had come rushing in, dumping tons of rain on us. Fortunately, we were prepared and the sudden downpour had little effect on us.
When we got home, the news was all about the freak storm that had hit the area so suddenly…
So… IfÃ¡ 1, Meteorologists 0…
As they say, “IfÃ¡’s word never falls to the floor…”
IborÃº, Iboya, IbochichÃ©
â€œThe more you go inside the world of the Ndi Xti Santo (Little Saint Children), the more things are seen. And you also see our past and our future, which are there together as a single thing already achieved, already happened… I saw stolen horses and buried cities, the existence of which was unknown, and they are going to be brought to light. Millions of things I saw and knew. I knew and saw God: an immense clock that ticks, the spheres that go slowly around and inside the stars, the earth, the entire universe, the day and the night, the cry and the smile, the happiness and the pain. He who knows to the end the secret of the Ndi Xi Santo can even see that infinite clockwork.â€
– Maria Sabina, Mazatec Chota Chjine (Woman of Knowledge)
Shortly before making our trip to Huautla, consulting IfÃ¡ about the trip had yielded the oddun Ojuani Boka. In this path of IfÃ¡, Orunmila had divined for humanity using grains of corn. What I found particularly amazing was that shamans among the Mazatec Indians often divine with corn kernels. In fact, I was first drawn to La SanterÃa because while planning a trip to Huautla years before I went to be seen in hopes of gaining insight into the Mazatec corn kernel divination through experiencing what I hoped to be a similar form of divination in SanterÃa! The Mazatec Indians had led me to IfÃ¡ and now IfÃ¡ was pointing me back to the Mazatecs.
How the events unfolded was equally amazing. As I mentioned in the last blog entry, soon after we arrived we had made contact with a woman who had agreed to perform a velada ceremony with the Little Saint Children with us… Until she learned we had come from Los Angeles. She had been told by the Little Saint Children during a prior ceremony that people would be arriving from Los Angeles and that she could not do the ceremony for us, but instead must take us to an elder Woman or Man of Knowledge.
The Chota Chjine carefully made three piles of the Ndi Xti Santo (Little Saint Children). When I first saw the huge mound of the Saint Children she intended for me, I was taken aback for an instant. I had read from a number of sources that the Mazatecs never gave outsiders more than a one or two pairs and here there were probably a good twenty pairs â€“ a massive amount even for a Mazateco. But it quickly occurred to me that she too had obviously had been told of our coming by the Saints and had been told what to do, so without question I ate the entire amount given to me in exactly the manner she described.
She began her prayers and songs and in less than an hour I felt I was sinking into the depths and knew I was to have little control over what would follow.
When the Ndi Xti Santo first took me to â€œthe place where everything is known,â€ they explained that they were offering me a rare gift: but I couldn’t withstand the journey as I was: if I wanted to go I must allow them to kill me and have every particle of my being torn apart, but promised me they would ‘rebuild me’ into something greater than I was before. I agreed and after my constituent elements were torn apart, they led me to â€œthe place where everything is knownâ€ where I saw the entirety of the past, the future and the present, from the birth to the end of the universe itself, happening all at once. The immenseness of time and space could be found in a single conscious moment. The universe itself was not only alive but conscious, from the littlest particle to the universe as a whole. And all the wisdom and knowledge of the whole universe was laid bare in front of me. This was the place where the odduns of IfÃ¡ lived! I was experiencing the immensity that is IfÃ¡!
Everything occurring in front of me was also being explained by the Little Saint Children. I knew at that moment why it had been necessary for me to have become initiated as a babalawo and to have received Olofin and OrÃ before going to this place.
The Chota Chjine knew what had occurred of course and the Little Saint Children began teaching me some of the Mazatec healing practices what I needed to do to help the Chota Chjine as even the healer needs to be healed.
She began to cry as we saw how the traditions taught to the Mazatecos by the Ndi Xti Santo – that had been kept alive for hundreds if not thousands of years – were being lost due to the lack of people willing to devote their lives to learning them. I assured her, and the Little Saint Children, that the traditions are not dead if there is even one person on earth who keeps them.
At this point the Chota Chjine told Lisa Chango and myself that we had a lot of work in front of us and that since we had been given a priceless gift: knowledge, we must follow the prohibitions including refraining from sexual activity, not for the usual four or five days, but for fifty two days, the same number as the number of years in a century according to the sacred mesoamerican calendar.
I found SanterÃa and IfÃ¡ while searching for insight into the Mazatecs, and in turn the Mazatecs gave me a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the knowledge and wisdom that is IfÃ¡. And I am just beginning to fathom just how much the two ways of knowledge complement each other to make a complete whole.
IborÃº, Iboya, IbochechÃ©
Looking out the window of our bus as it crawled along the narrow winding roads towards the small city of Huautla de Jimenez, I pondered on my own long, winding road that was finally taking me to this remote town after more than thirty years. Needless to say, I had big hopes, but what would occur there would sail beyond my wildest dreams.
Nestled in the Sierra Mazateca mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, Huautla is the spiritual capital of the Mazatec Indians or, as they call themselves, the Ha Xuta Enima (Humble People Who Speak The Language).
When an attempt to sell our home had fallen through we had decided to go to Mexico for the Day of the Dead, a lifelong dream for my wife and ApetebÃ, Lisa ChangÃ³. She then suggested we might go to Huautla and fulfill both our dreams at the same time. And during my daily consultations, IfÃ¡ had told us repeatedly that a trip was going to bring us a great good fortune and that there was still something we needed to accomplish in order to move forward and to achieve our destiny. We naturally thought it likely that IfÃ¡ was telling us we needed a little time away in order to give us a fresh outlook and provide us with the answer.
We got in to Huautla on Oct. 30th and the Days of the Dead, which last ten days there, were already in full swing. Josefina, the owner of the hotel we stayed at, was extremely generous and not only said she would help us find an able Chota Chjine (Woman or Man of Knowledge) but introduced us to one of the local Huehuenton groups who represent the dead, going from house to house, singing, dancing, playing music (and exquisite pranks). With Josefina’s gracious help we were get glimpses outsiders rarely get to encounter. It was an incredible experience and I found found myself very glad that I had taken the trouble to learn a little of the Mazatec language as even that small gesture of respect made them more open to us.
After the ceremonies for the dead were complete, Josefina put us into contact with a woman who said could act as our â€˜guideâ€™ in a shamanic ceremony. But when we told her we had come from Los Angeles, she informed us she could not help us. It turned out the Ndi Xti Santo (Little Saint Children) had told her that some people were going to come from Los Angeles. She was not to perform the ceremony herself, but was to turn us over to her elders. The Little Saint Children had known we were coming and had plans for us…
Our Guide offered to refer us to the person she learned from, but that too fell through. But again Josefina came to our rescue and generously offered to seek out a true Chota Chjine or Woman of Knowledge, an old Mazatec woman who lived outside of town in a tiny village in the the woods.
To our great good fortune, the Chota Chjine agreed to perform the ceremony for us. Josefina warned us that she spoke only a little Spanish but was confident the Santitos would make sure we understood despite any language barriers.
That evening we set out over miles of dirt road, winding through the forest past waterfalls and through woods filled with clouds. When we finally arrived and met the old woman and her family, we knew immediately that we found the right woman. They lived in an old structure, much as the Mazatecs had lived for hundreds, if not thousands of years with but a few concessions to the modern world. Though conditions were ‘primitive’ the place felt more like ‘home’ than any place I had ever been. We had never really experienced anyone who lived so connected with the nature around them.
To make a long story short, or at least a little less long, as the night wore on, it became obvious to the Chota Chjine and myself that the Little Saints had chosen Lisa and I. The Little Saints told us we had a lot of work to do and the night was largely dedicated to teaching us what we needed to know to start us on our way to become chota chjines ourselves. Towards the end of the ceremony, the Chota Chjine began to sob: both she and the Little Saint Children were terribly sad as the old traditions were being lost. I pointed out that as long as one person kept the traditions, they would survive. At that point I promised myself as well as her and the Little Saint Children I would do everything in my power to learn the traditions and keep them well and intact. It was the least I could do to show my gratefulness for the immense spiritual treasures and riches they were offering us.
â€œGracias, Gracias Frain (Frank), Gracias LizabÃ©t (Elizabeth)â€
She then informed us the session was a ceremony of conocimiento (knowledge) and not just a regular ceremony, and the â€˜dietâ€™ (restrictions prohibiting the giving or accepting of gifts and sexual relations) would not last the usual 4 days, but was now extended to 53 days.
Needless to say, we have a lot of work in front of us and I now must learn much more of the â€˜maternal languageâ€™ (Mazteco) as well in order to honor the faith put in us by the Ndi Xti Santo (The Little Saint Children) and the chota chjine, our new teachersâ€¦
That evening we felt truly connected to nature for the first time in our lives.
But as we headed towards the city of Oaxaca we had little idea the effects that evening would have on us, or how quickly we would find out just how profoundly we had already been changed…