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Healing Practices of the If-Orisha Tradition

Sonia Cristina Hart, Farid Leonardo Suarez

Journal of Africana Religions, Volume 1, Number 3, 2013, pp. 394-403

Published by Penn State University Press

For additional information about this article


Access provided by University of California @ Berkeley (4 Nov 2013 20:15 GMT)

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s on i a cris t ina hart an d farid

l e onard o s uare z
Healing Practices of the If-Orisha Tradition

In the Americas, If-Orisha religion is a syncretic practice that survived forced removal from the African continent, the enslavement of
its followers, and subsequent centuries of subjugation and marginalization. Today, social and institutional oppressions continue to limit
the degree to which If-Orisha religious practice holds legitimacy as
an independent and viable epistemology. The healing practices of
this tradition deserve critical scholarly attention alongside other nonWestern healing systems such as Ayurveda, Reiki, and Yoga, which
have over time gained widespread Western and academic acclaim.
As scholar-practitioners, we contend that there remains a significant disconnect between the numbers of If-Orisha practitioners
worldwide and its representation in American academia. The ethnographic interview data presented in the Sacred Healing and Wholeness symposium place If-Orisha within a framework to understand
how this practice helps people in their daily lives. This project is an
exploratory exercise with the aim of guiding future empirical investigation into the healing interventions of If-Orisha divination. Our
reasons for wishing to participate in the symposium were broadly
based in our belief of the Lukumi (the Yoruba people of Cuba) proverb one tree does not a forest make, and we could not pass on the
opportunity to share with like-minded scholars of the same or related
cultures and spiritual paths.
In December 1999 scholars and practitioners of If-Orisha from four different continents came together at Florida International University (FIU) for
a three-day conference dedicated to examining the globalization of Yoruba
religious culture. The historical importance of this conference is summarized
in the declaration of If-Orisha as a legitimate global religion.1 The critical,

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comprehensive, and foundational work of that conference and its publication

has fomented new scholarship, including the present investigation of the
ways in which If-Orisha and other sister religions have tangible impacts on
peoples lives, particularly with regard to health and wellness. The April 2012
Sacred Healing and Wholeness in Africa and the Americas symposium at
Harvard paralleled the ambitious efforts put forth over a decade ago by our
elders at the Florida conference. We were fortunate to participate, and the
end result of the Harvard symposium surpassed many of our most optimistic
expectations. It is a privilege to be able to contribute to this growing epistemology and body of literature.
We situate our work within a critique of polarized views of world religion
prevalent in American academia and also in popular discourse. Olupona and
Rey call this an East/West centrism with regard to global religion as a whole:
. . . the term world religion is only salvageable (and can only move
beyond its East/West centrism) through a critical rehabilitation in
light of todays global religious landscape, and through an uprooting
of the evolutionist premise of such Western typologies: such as high
versus low religions, scriptural versus primitive, big traditions
versus little traditions.2
Olupona and Rey were not alone in this assertion. Stephen Prothero of Boston
University echoed these same sentiments in 2010:
Just as considerations of black and white have dominated conversations about race in the United States, and considerations of
Anglophone and Francophone have dominated conversations about
culture in Canada, conversations about the worlds religions have been
dominated by the East/West divide. . . . Unfortunately, this approach
obscures and often renders invisible religions that do not fall easily
along either side of the East/West divide.3
If-Orisha is among the religions that cannot be clearly categorized on
either side in this distinction between the venerable East and the progressive
West.4 If-Orisha and other spiritual traditions of African origin are routinely
lumped together along with Native American and South Pacific aboriginal
theologies into the last chapters of world religion books, occupying sections

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labeled as tribal, animist, and indigenous religions.5 Quite to the contrary

and on a variety of grounds, If-Orisha contains more similarities to Asian traditions than is commonly recognized.6 Given that this East/West dichotomy is
prevalent in popular narratives in both U.S. society and academia, we consider
our dialogue in academic spaces on any and all aspects of these religions to
be an act of necessary resistance. By putting If-Orisha practice in conversation with healing practices, we contribute to an interdisciplinary and transnational body of work that stands outside of the boundaries of the East/West
dichotomy.7 The efforts to cultivate a scholarly branch of If-Orisha study will
redefine the limits and dynamics of theological as well as sociocultural systems
of normality.8 Thus, as we develop the issue of healing within African, African
diaspora, and indigenous religions,9 we are able to employ an interdisciplinary,
transnational methodology simultaneously and to challenge the binary East/
West or us/them approach to studying world religions.
Methodologically, we work as insider researchers,10 and use an interdisciplinary approach that integrates our backgrounds as practitioners and scholars with training in both the humanities and the social sciences. Indeed, the
nature of our research interests requires us to formulate questions, designs,
and analyses in our project that transcend any single conventional discipline.
We prioritize what Linda Tuhiwai Smith conceptualizes as an indigenous
research agenda in her foundational text about research and methodology
in order to advance the production of knowledge and decolonize our ways
of knowing and our current concerns from the limiting and silencing spaces
of Western theology and science.11 As evidenced by the 1999 Florida conference, the history of If-Orisha and its role within academia is a contested one.
We link this friction to academias own complex history, beginning with the
advent of European imperialism and colonialism, within which our presentday academic traditions are housed.12 In the Americas, If-Orisha is a syncretic
practice that survived forced removal from the African continent, the enslavement of its followers, and subsequent centuries of subjugation and marginalization. Today, these social and institutional oppressions continue to influence
the state of affairs within the global If-Orisha community. These histories are
driving forces behind our investigation of health and healing within the sacred
traditions of If-Orisha worship.
Concentrating on health practices can yield significant progress toward
the realization of a robust yet critical intellectual engagement with If-Orisha
practice in a broader sense that grows beyond the current treatment of the

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subject. Cuban scholar Lzara Menendez explains that the contemporary

intellectual engagement excludes If-Orisha and its oracle from the greater
sociocultural context, including the contexts of the physiological and psychological. By consequence, Menendez argues that If-Orisha, its paradigms,
and its applications become nothing more than an archaeological document,
lacking transcendence into quotidian life. This practice of marginalizing the
traditions real-world applications (e.g., physical and mental health care)
from critical scholarly analysis and epistemological consideration ensures the
relegation of If-Orisha to the subaltern and enforces prejudices that this
spiritual practice continues to face to date.13 We frame our intervention as one
that proposes a future for If-Orisha tradition in wider and pragmatic contexts. In reviewing the literature of religious healing and medical anthropology, we find that some comparable indigenous and diaspora traditions, like
Native American medicine and Mexican-origin curanderismo, are gaining wider
The critical dialogue created in this roundtables intellectual space has
simultaneously reified our research goals and helped to contextualize our
work within existing and ongoing research. The basic principles of If-Orisha
center sacred wholeness as fundamental in both the theological and practical
realms, with particular attention designated to psychological and emotional
themes. When looking at these themes in If-Orisha worship, it is important
to understand that this belief system projects itself as a self-sufficient practice,
viable in and of itself, differentiated and differentiable, but also interactive
with other belief systems.15 For example, we find that respect for and incorporation of medical and health-related professional disciplines are integral to
If-Orisha predictive-interpretive systems.16 The study of sacred texts such as
Odu17 and Patakin18 show us explicitly how basic principles of If-Orisha provide wisdom and advice that apply directly to physiological, psychological, and
emotional problems.
Mercedes Sandoval argues, in her essay Santeria in the Twenty-First
Century, that Cuban If-Orisha tradition functions as an emotional and
social support system, which served as a mediating institution not only for
post-revolution populations in Cuba but also for Cuban-American immigrants suffering from culture shock.19 Sandoval elaborates this point by stating that the spiritual family acts as a surrogate support system, and that this
augmented social support function of Santeria has expanded into a viable
mental health delivery system, which offers social support, counseling, and

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socialization opportunities for people who are suffering from the many
stressors that characterize acculturation, immigration, and de-culturative processes.20 Whereas Sandoval highlights the positive effects of group dynamics
associated with Santeria practice, our study proceeds to address comparable
effects of the one-on-one counseling process central to If-Orisha divination.
In the first chapter of Living Santeria, Ritual and Experiences in Afro-Cuban Religion, Michael Atwood Mason gives an account and analysis of a cowrie-shell
divination session, by means of which he also provides a general introduction
to the mechanics of the divination process itself:21
The divination ritual helps clarify her position in the social and
supernatural worlds. After her situation is clarified, she is able to act,
to make a sacrifice that plants her squarely in the larger cosmological
context. The ritual of dilogun divination touches on a multitude of
experiences within the clients life, evoking various social identities
she maintains. . . . Divination apparently reduces anxiety and provides
a basis for action. . . . The diviner supplies the client with a way to
imagine and understand her situation.22
Still, Atwood Mason recognizes that the method by which divination clarifies
situations and offers solutions remains unclear.23
Our research builds on work from writers such as Menendez, Sandoval,
and Atwood Mason to delve even deeper into understanding the methods of
If consultation in and of itself, providing testimonies from people at different levels of initiation as to their specific experiences of this process. Our goal
was and remains to investigate this method that Atwood Mason identifies as
unclear. In this task, it is necessary to engage critically with Yoruba theological
concepts such as the divine self (Or), reincarnation (Atunwa), the self-chosen
destiny (Ipn), and the concept of sacrifice (Eb). Using the existing literature
and theological texts detailing these concepts, we examine how these and other
concepts interact with each other and how they play out during the course of
a divination session.
The Yoruba and their descendants believe that before birth, every person
chooses a destiny in life for themselves with the guidance of Olodumare.24 The
purpose of ones life then becomes to find and live that chosen destiny, if possible helping others find their destinies along the way. Yoruba theology posits
that suffering endured throughout life can be directly related to whether or not

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a person finds themselves in alignment with their destiny, with the resulting
imbalances producing physiological, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual consequences as a matter of course. As reflected in the therapeutic meditation techniques of Maximilian Sandor and Edward Dawson, this theology contends:
Any course of action that is not aligned with the central goal/anti-goal
of a person will inevitably lead to a decrease of happiness and success.
A person not following its [sic] own basic axioms will become the
worst enemy of itself [sic]. The Individual discovery and recognition
of a persons gunas or prime motivator or goal/anti-goal can lead
to an alignment of the persons current and future goals, dramatically
increasing effectiveness and success rate.25
Those initiated into If-Orisha receive a series of divination sessions
called ita that effectively inform the initiate on these basic axioms that need to
be adhered to if they are to strive to live their destiny. While the advice given
at an ita is applicable for life, divination sessions performed outside the context
of an initiation ceremony have the explicit purpose of providing a short-term
diagnosis gauging where a person finds themselves in relation to the set of
self-chosen goals that constitute their destiny. Drawing from these foundational principles, one major aim of If divination is to identify the root cause
of a persons imbalance or misalignment, prescribing instructions to correct
the imbalance through traditional medicine and ritual, and giving the person
advice about how to avoid the same or similar problems in the future.
The concept of wholeness is crucial in this process given that If posits
that if left unattended, both spiritual and mental imbalances may manifest
as physiological ailments. In Western psychology and psychiatric medicine,
this same model for mind/body amalgamation is pathologized clinically as
psychosomatic or somatoform and factitious disorders.26 This basic holistic
notion will have us understand that suffering unfolds in multiple domains
of human functioningspiritual, emotional, cognitive, and physiological. To
constitute a whole, healthy, and spiritually aligned person, healing practices
within If-Orisha are structured accordingly to address these areas as needed.
Participants in the interviews we collected as part of our research describe
their personal understanding of these concepts, their experiences of divination and healing practices, and their relationship to the babalawo27 as well as the
wider If-Orisha community.

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With Menendezs and Smiths urging to expand the breadth of research

in traditionally underrepresented cultural practices, our semi-structured
interviews aimed to show the influence of If divination on the everyday lives
of ten participants (five male and five female). These participants held various levels of involvement in If-Orisha worship and practice, ranging from
completely uninitiated (aleyo) to fully initiated Orisha priests (olorishas). Their
insights into topics such as morality, agency, and self-accountability contribute
to a dynamic analysis of If-Orisha healing practices. For those interviewees
with either current or prior experience with a traditional therapist or mental
health care professional, we were able to draw connections and distinctions
as to how each type of counselor assumed the helping28 role and promotes
(ordoes not promote) healing for the individual. Of the five participants with
prior experience in mainstream mental health care, two found the babalawo
and the mainstream therapist complementary, while three expressed preference for the babalawo.
Those of us working in the health care and/or advising professions face
the difficult ethical responsibility of providing healing services and interventions for those people placed in our care.29 For this reason, it is imperative that
If and Orisha priests, as well as those in clinical practice, counselors, advisers,
doctors, etc., conscientiously take on this issue in their work. Fortunately, for
those of us participating in this symposium and scholarly dialogue, we have
organically begun work to bridge the divide that separates textbook clinical
health care from the healing practices that If-Orisha and related African and
diasporic traditions have developed over their respective histories.
In order to advance the case for the viability of non-Western philosophies
and healing traditions alongside those that are mainstream, we are compelled
to shape our research in the spirit of interdenominational as well as crossdisciplinary collaboration. The Sacred Healing and Wholeness conference
brought together scholars and practitioners representing not only If-Orisha
in its various manifestations but also colleagues versed in such diverse traditions as Vodoun, Sufi Islam, and Oriental medicine. These exchanges allowed
us, as part of an incipient generation of scholars trained in interdisciplinary methodology, to network with those like Iya Luisah Teish and Iya Tracey
Hucks,30 who have already dedicated their careers to this work. In addition,
we were able to meet other early scholars who are also If-Orisha initiates,
which is methodologically significant and morally uplifting because our area
of study can be an isolating undertaking.31 The conference allowed us to learn

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from others who are doing work complementary to ours even though much of
this research has been produced outside of our academic disciplines, remains
in progress, or is otherwise unpublished. Iya Suzanne Hendersons work on
If-Orisha spirituality and mental health,32 for example, both supports and
expands on our findings. While our work focuses on the specific benefits of
divination as a form of alternative counseling, Hendersons project places divination within a framework for various aspects of practice conducive to mental health. Our work is complementary in that we aim to demonstrate how
people of all initiatory levels can enjoy benefits of Lukumi If divination, while
Henderson concentrates on full initiates and the benefits they enjoy as a result
of undergoing the Lukumi ritual of Kariocha. 33 Finally, we were lucky to benefit from the work of colleagues whose work we did not previously anticipate
would have an influence on ours, like Chelsea Strayers work on the placebo
effect and Onaje Woodbine and Dr. Robert Woodbines work on historical
memory, trauma, and intergenerational susceptibility to disease.
In the end, the dialogue resulting from the symposium represents the unifying potential of scholarship. The Sacred Healing and Wholeness in Africa
and the Americas symposium created opportunities to collaborate across religious traditions and academic disciplines and encouraged us to expand this
line of work. By engaging with the work of our colleagues, we strengthen our
own. We foreground the challenge to critique deeply ingrained perceptions,
which limit the extent to which non-Western healing traditions are accepted,
and we quickly realize that we will all be well served by fostering cooperation
and community.

1. Jacob K. Olupona and Terry Rey, eds., Orisa Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yoruba Religious Culture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008).
2. Ibid., 7.
3. Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World
(NewYork: HarperOne, 2010), 220.
4. Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions; or, How European Universalism Was
Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 4.
5. Olupona and Rey, eds., Orisa Devotion as World Religion, 7.
6. Cornerstones in both If-Orisha and Hindu philosophy share many similarities
including a belief in reincarnation, a concept of the true divine inner self, and a
pantheon of deities that collectively serve as a conduit to the divine.

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7. Because our research questions require comparative and cross-disciplinary

analysis with Western healing traditions, we also reference such theoretical work
as Ranjana Khannas, which makes the case for why psychoanalysis continues
to be employed internationally in clinical applications as well as in theorizations
of decolonization and postcoloniality emerging from outside its institutional home
in Europe (emphasis added). Ranjana Khanna, Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and
Colonialism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), 27.
8. Lazara Menendez, Rodar el Coco: Proceso de Cambio en la Santeria (Havana: Instituto
Cubano Del Libro Editorial De Ciencias Sociales, 2002), 15.
9. As we consider health topics on the syncretic practice of If-Orisha, we look
comparatively at a growing body of work in indigenous spiritual and healing
10. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd ed.
(London: Zed Books, 2012), 13841.
11. Ibid., 25.
12. Ibid., 2043.
13. Menendez, Rodar el Coco, 1525.
14. See, for example: Patrisia Gonzalez, Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing
and Healing (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012); Erika Brady, ed. Healing
Logics: Culture and Medicine in Modern Health Belief Systems (Logan: Utah State University
Press, 2001); Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories
of the Wild Woman Archetype (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992); Elena Avila with
Joy Parker, Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets
of Physical and Spiritual Health (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999); and
Eduardo Duran, Buddha in Redface, 3d ed. (New York: Writers Club Press, 2000).
15. Menendez, Rodar el Coco, 19.
16. Ibid.
17. The Yoruba corpus of ritual and historical knowledge is divided and categorized into 256 chapters called Odu If, which were not written down until the
twentieth century. Each Odu contains hundreds of poems comprising verses called
Ese If from which diviners extract the advice given to a client during divination.
18. Patakin is a concept developed in the Yoruba diaspora. Whereas in Africa the
content of Odu consists of Ese If divinatory poems, in Cuban If Odu consists
of parables memorized and transmitted as narrative stories as opposed to poems.
Diaspora diviners extract advice from these stories in the same way that African
diviners extract advice from poems.
19. Mercedes Sandoval, Santeria in the Twenty-First Century, in Orisa Devotion
as World Religion, ed. Jacob K. Olupona and Terry Rey (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 2008).
20. Ibid., 363.
21. Michael Atwood Mason, Living Santeria, Ritual and Experiences in Afro-Cuban Religion
(Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2002). Here it is important to note that
our specific study is exclusively concerned with If divination and not cowrie-shell

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divination, also known as merindinlogun or dilogun. Although the two divination

methods do not organize and classify divinatory verses and advice in the same
manner, the basic mechanics of both systems of consultation are essentially the
same, as are the general functions accomplished by the reading.
22. Ibid., 1718.
23. Ibid.
24. God, in Yoruba theology.
25. Maximilian J. Sandor and Edward J. Dawson, Polar Dynamics 1: Life Paths, Meditation and Counseling Using an If Approach to the Binary Universe (n.p.: Surge Publishing,
2004), 84.
26. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000),
27. Literally translated as father of secrets or father of mysteries, a babalawo is a
person initiated specifically into the priesthood of the Yoruba deity Orunmila.
In Cuban Lukumi If, only a babalawo is permitted to divine using the If oracle.
Orisha priests known as oloshas or olorishas are trained to divine using the merindilogun, or cowrie-shell oracle.
28. Informing our understanding of helping professionals is Clara E. Hill, Helping
Skills, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2005).
29. Ibid.
30. Tracey E. Hucks, African Yoruba: Evolutions in African American Orisa History,
19591970, in Orisa Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yoruba Religious
Culture, ed. Jacob K. Olupona and Terry Rey (Madison: University of Wisconsin
Press, 2008).
31. See previous discussion on insider/outsider research. Linda Tuhiwai Smith,
Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd ed. (London: Zed Books,
2012), 13841.
32. Suzanne Marie Henderson, The African-American Experience of Orisha
Worship (PhD diss., Temple University, 2007).
33. Formal initiation into Orisha priesthood.

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