Demystifying Iyami: Beyond Patriarchy, Politics, and Heresy

Its hilarious to read some writings by men about Iyami… By the way they write, you would think Iyami was some foreboding characters out of a mysterious fiction novel. You would never be able to look at your own mother and see such a character… But most of the posts and articles are by men… about what they think, guess, suspect Iyami is about… and … most of the time its laughable… if it weren’t taken so serious by some… I want to spend some time writing about My Mothers… Awon Iya Wa… I’d like to clarify some of the misunderstandings and outright lies about Iyami… Ill start with the history here and work my way through over time.

It was missionaries that first began to transform about 40 different languages into one market language: Yoruba. They did so by creating a Yoruba dictionary. While this dictionary was intended to help missionaries began converting the “heathens” to Christianity, it simultaneously created its own definitions of the Traditional spiritual systems. For one, it associated Esu, the primordial who is the messenger and divine teacher as the Devil. This couldn’t have been further from the truth because there is no devil in traditional beliefs, but even today people and even Google interpret Esu as the Devil. Likewise, Iyami Aje were called witches based on the European Churches definition of what a witch is. In colonial Africa, the same ones who were burning women at the stakes were the ones converting the traditionalist to Abrahamic religions. They were also teaching that women of power were dangerous and needed to be controlled.

In Africa, women of power controlled the land.. because of their relationship to Mother Earth. They controlled the marketplace by extension and thus commerce and trade. Women determined the kingship and were on the councils of Justice. They were also psychic protection against threats. They had their own secret societies that were not controlled by men. It’s no surprise why women would be a threat to Colonialist (Islamic and Christian) who wanted to control the economics of the African countries and take over the land. It was advantageous to many men, black and white for women to have less influence so it was often supported and ultimately enforced by many Kings. As those colonist made contact and converted Kings who would influence the villages and people, the politics of the countries influenced traditionalist and converts alike destabilizing and stripping women of much of their power. The issue wasn’t just about changing public opinion of women. It was about the active enactment and enforcement of new laws that specifically forbid women of specific rights, roles, and practices they once enjoyed. Islam, having over 800 years of influence in Nigeria and Africa was just as ferocious about women and “witches” as Christians were demanding immediate execution of those who were accused of the “evil eye”. These laws did not come at once, but came gradually and over time. Waves of change and political suppression of Iyami happened from 1600s to the mid 20th century producing a gradual destabilization of women’s political and spiritual power.

These laws made it necessary for Iyami to go underground. Any woman associated with practicing the ancient ways were subject to death, humiliation, stoning, and beheading. This significantly reduced the number of women practicing and hid the rest from the community to never be spoken of. The masquerades that were originally performed by women, were then only performed by men… Who dressed up like women to “appease” the Iyami primordial mothers. Islam took over a number of Nigerian towns such as Oyo, Ibadan, Osogbo and others which eventually became the pool taken away as slaves to the diaspora with beginning accompanying views on women and Iyami. Because of this need to go underground, a lot of Iyami understanding became riddled in myth and fear but also gave the assumption that there Is no formal society of women and no spiritual tools of Iyami. It simply would not serve men for women to know that they have so much power. So much that a woman can render any work powerless just with her mind let alone using her tools.

Since the schools established to teach English in Nigeria are either Christian or Islamic, it’s easy to see the infiltration of its patriarchal precepts on all who were formally “educated” in Africa. The adaptation of the English as the official language created a paradigm shift throughout. This includes those traditionalist who were converted back as well as the traditionalist attempts to accommodate and adapt to an Islamic or Christian state. Women, of course were prevented from any education at all, let alone having the opportunity to tell their stories, their mysteries, or give their insights. So women’s voices is startlingly absent from most historical documents and books.

Just as Hebrew history was once oral and later written by a number of authors, we must be clear that while Ifa divination may be the word of God, the Odu verses are not inerrant just as the Bible and Quran is not. When examining some Odu verses, it’s hard to tell where Islam or Christianity ends and traditionalism begins. We must be clear that these verses, while offering profound insights were and still are mostly oral and subject to interpretation and the perspective of the person delivering the translation which were primarily men. So when we look at an Odu that involves Iyami Aje, we must keep in mind, that many may reflect the sociopolitical attitude towards women and Aje, but not a spiritual one. As a result some interpretations are skewed or even condescending offering chivalry while taking her rights….and making it appear it was her decision. The quality of the verses along with the spiritual consciousness and maturity of the diviner impacts the overall understanding of it.

It’s disheartening to hear people report that they were told by a priest or priestess that a witch is trying destroy their good fortune… And the need to repel or appease them so that they will leave them alone. At best, they say Iyami should be appeased but avoided at all cost. At worse, they are accused of being the source of evil and misfortune in the world. What is worse is there are often women and priests who continue to perpetuate this self loathing to others mostly because she has been taught by a man or who taught her was taught by a man. In fact, some will even defend a world and support protocols that actively undermine women’s ability to realize their fullest and natural potential. In all cases, the obvious connection to herself is painfully missed.

One such truth is that at a rudimentary level, all women born with a womb are Aje as it is essentially divine feminine energy. Like all women, this energy has a creative side inherent in birth, a sustainable side as evidence by being capable of sustaining life through feeding, and a destroyer reflected in our monthly release of eggs when conception does not occur. It’s is therefore foolish to refer to Aje as negative or evil anymore than it is to create caricatures of women as crazy, irrational, or “unclean”. It is not different that how Christians made Esu the devil… What we have is the inevitable realization that we live in a society (African traditions included) that is still very much afraid of women’s power and still seeks to control it through fear and ignorance.

What is also apparent is the fundamental feminine nature of the tradition itself. The whole initiation process mimics the feminine process of rebirth including the blood often used to birth a pot. An initiate enters igbodu.. The sacred forest traditionally where women worship in the groves throughout the world. The connection to nature itself is automatic because of offerings made to the ground ie Mother Earth and in Mother Nature.

The apparent discrepancies between certain traditions about women being able to be Iyanifas are based on if a person is given an artificial womb ie an Odu pot or if they were born with one which… to some ironically …isn’t enough. The purpose of the pot is to mimic the power of the womb and give birth to Odu in the divination process. For a man, the Babalawo by way of Orunmilla is married to Odu and she gives the answer to him. It in turn gives him a stronger intuition enabling him to access clearer divine knowledge. For an Iyanifa, she is the embodiment of Odu herself since she was born with a womb. She only needs the Ase within her released and training on how to use it. The divination process also mimics feminine process in that a practitioner sits on a straw woven mat that was a birthing mat, legs spread wide open with an Opon Ifa round plate between their legs emulating an open vagina. The palm nuts are metaphors for ovaries while the tapper is female but has a male tip mimicking a penis tapping the opon. The grinding of the palm nuts mimic a sexual act that results in a birth of an Odu … a child… The diviner’s answer….also called Odu.

Oh, I hear the naysayers now… First giving the tired ….very tired….response of “Odu forbids women from seeing her is in the Odus!” It is said Odu forbade Orunmila from allowing his other wives to see her and ultimately killed them for trying. My response is threefold. First, see the previous part of this essay about the influence of sociopolitical ideologies on Odu verses. Second, for the Odu specified.. Irete Ogbe, another interpretation offered the suggestion of the need Awos to be monogamous as Obatala priests are supposed to be monogamous. This would imply the need for balance of the masculine identified by Orunmilla and the feminine identified by Odu and not excess identified by the other wives. An extension of that idea is shared in Oyeku Meji where having more than one wife only causes trouble. That would put a whole new view on the Odu… And well change how Babalawos might have multiple wives as dictated through Islamic or other influence. Third, Orunmilas wives are apetibiis, not Awos or Iyanifas. These have different roles and responsibilities along with different initiations. The role of an Apetibi is to care for the shrine, the Awo, and guests. The role of an Iyanifa is to function as a priest serving clients, divining, traditional healing, ritual, etc.
That said, Iyanifas are also not necessarily initiated Iyami Aje either. Again different ceremonies and responsibilities. Odu, however is Iyami as is all female Irunmole and Orisha. The Odu Osa Meji speaks of Olodumare granting Odu this power …the power of Motherhood which is what Aje is about. That means Mother Earth, mother of waters, fire, and air, the mother of the world, Queen of heavens too.. The nature of mother is that of creation and the world itself. Through studying what women do by nature, you begin to understand Iyami Aje.

The longstanding truth of women’s intuition and your mama being able to see through you is Aje. Something’s we just…know… We dream it, we feel it, we sense it…and it doesn’t have to be logical or analytical to make it so. It may in reality also be hormonal…and that doesn’t make it a bad thing. Those same hormones tell us when it is time to ovulate, give birth, contract and expand, produce milk, release eggs, expel them, create a protective sac to nurture a child inside from a cell to a full living body, and have an automatic internal clock in alignment with the moon and ocean. Essentially she is able to create, sustain, and end life via menses in her body through her natural process. It allows her to know when her child is in danger even though they may be miles away..Those same energies will given a woman superhuman strength to lift a car by herself if it threatens her child and bring a dead child back to life through her love so this is not a fluke..That is the feminine power of Aje. Women traditionally are gatherers, not hunters …well with the exception of my mother Oya…. But that’s another story! Anyway a woman’s relationship with gather and preparing herbs and food for nourishment and healing fall under her domain. One woman’s magic is another woman’s medicine. Her traditional role in the home is teacher and she is responsible for raising children and creating a suitable home that sustains the inhabitants. To that end she teaches the children how to behave and right from wrong.

When we examine that from a wider perspective, this is what the earth does as well. It provides all life, creates a habitable home for all living things. We are able to sustain ourselves through the earth’s resources, and she will destroy through natural disasters when things get out of hand. She has menses likened to the flowing rivers and the hot lava in the center. She functions in natural predictable cycles and seasons. She receives her children back at the end of their lives into the same ground that gave birth. It embodies the law of giving and receiving which lays the foundation for sacrifice. The earth self regulates and restores balance when necessary through rain, wind, fire, and water. The laws of the universe are enforced by Iyami Aje to hold sacred balance as well. When someone violates the law of Olodumare…ie The laws of nature and cosmic law, Aje is the restorer of order. This may be through cosmic, natural, or societal repercussions. It is no wonder people fear Aje… Through the all seeing eye, nothing is missed and those who are chronic wrong doers receive grave repercussions. It’s not personal though… Not because of hating anyone. And it’s not without prior warning or compassion. It’s just nature. And like an ad back in the 70’s used to say… It’s not nice to fool …with Mother Nature!