Iyami: Human, Ancestral, Primordial, And Cosmic
I want people to understand that Iyami is layered… It’s not one group as believed. While all connected, each has its own part. There are human Iyami Aje. Those are divided into those who are Aje by virtue of being a woman born with a womb, those who carry Aje “powers” naturally and may not know it, and those who are conscious and inducted as Aje through ceremonies. Iyami is a yoruba word for these feminine powers but the concept of Iyami is not limited to Yoruba or West African culture. They are world wide….even cosmic in scope. To that end, the women’s secret societies that honor these primordial mothers are widespread under different names and traditions. Igbo, for instance call them Iyambo Ekpe. Among the Mende, they were Sande and Bundo. They are the Matrikas in Tibet and India. In Mexican, Nagul traditions, they are Lechuzza. In Europe, they were Black Doves and later Witches.
While they are mentioned and incorporated into the Ifa/ Orisha system of spiritual development, they are not inherently an Ifa/ orisha based tradition. It’s history is significantly older than the introduction of Ifa as we know it, although there is some evidence to suggest the binary signatures and process derived from a feminine concept, one of which is that the Ọdus are connected to the moon’s transitions from new moon to full. The Dravidians hold a similar concept of 16 principles to the 16 Nityas…primordial goddesses each governing a lunar day with the 16th day being the full moon. I’m not asserting that this is absolute truth. Just that there are similarities in how each indigenous tradition chose to express similar concepts and how the womban’s mysteries may lay at the root of Ifa too. In any case, the societies in Nigeria are precolonial and pre Oyo empire extending across Africa and other indigenous societies each with their own name. When Ifa was introduced, it incorporated Iyami into its corpus thus there are stories of Orunmila seeking to join with Iyami. Ifa, at its roots begins with the earth Onile, itself. Before writing on divination trays, it was written in sand on the earth and that’s Iyami.
Unfortunately, the interpretation of Iyami through the Ifa tradition is often skewed due to strong patriarchal influence, interpretations, and political corruption over hundreds of years. Iyami are all too often stigmatized as frightening, unreasonable, crazy, and needing to be appeased, when the truth is that if Iyami are causing a problem for someone, it’s most likely they have violated a law of nature or mistreated a woman. Like all mothers, they will correct character and discipline you, but they can also be loving, understanding and kind. They are not one dimensional. Only mindsets are one dimensional. In any case, Iyami is its own autonomous priesthood independent of any male dominated tradition and yet, there is no tradition or Odu without Iyami.
There are also Aje who exist in the spiritual world. They are ancestral mothers..those who have lived on earth. They may have been a part of the secret societies when incarnated as human. These mothers gather in the inner planes and human ones gather with them in dream states and altered states. There are Iyami who are primordials aligned with Mother Nature and are expressed through the elements of nature. They govern the seasons of the earth and the inner workings of the planet. Lastly there are Iyami who are cosmic and stellar in nature and not confined to earth, this solar system or Galaxy. So when we say Iyami, it’s a loaded word full of numerous meanings and not just one.
That said, I’d like to address this thing of initiation to Iyami. This too, is layered. Many say there is no initiation nor a pot for Iyami. They are wrong. You certainly can’t give what you don’t have and you can’t speak on what you don’t know or have never been taught so I will leave that. Interestingly, one one hand they will say there is no initiation. In the same paragraph, they will say only Iyami chose who they want. Soooo….human Iyami can and do chose who they want and they have processes through which to determine acceptance and align others to Iyami energy. One process is through Ogboni Societies. These are ancient pre Oyo societies that are known as Omo Iya (child of the Mother) . While having males and females, Women in those societies must be Iyami. Here is where Iyami are assigned for issues of Justice as Ogboni’s historical role is as a judicial branch of the community. .There are also secret society and women’s Egbes who have induction processes. Ifa, having joined Iyami has its own processes. Some require that a woman be an elder, while others accept menstruating women. There are some priests, male and female who know how to prepare the pot and perform the ceremony. There are odu Ifa that specifically give instructions on how to make an Iyami pot. Now, some women receive Iyami Pots as a complement to men who receive Odu pots. Even within the tradition, each town has its own lineages of Iyami with its own approaches to human membership so no one no any one Egbe has a monopoly on how it is done or any region in the world. Just like no one owns Orisha or Nature and each lineage has a different approach, no one owns the mothers.
I hope this sheds light on this topic. It’s important to understand though…that there is a caveat… The caveat is that induction into a society does not automatically mean full acceptance and initiation into Iyami in the spiritual realm. It is true that Iyami initiate their own and that initiation ultimately takes place spiritually in the astral realms. The induction is the physical process. The initiation is the spiritual process. Sometimes there may be a trial period for the person. This is how corruption is avoided because while some will initiate you for money or politics, true Iyami in the ancestral and spiritual planes will look at your character first. After all, these are mothers of Justice…and human Iyami are not exempt from the laws.
To that end, it is also important to know that while all women are born with some level of Aje, not all women have the discipline or moral aptitude to walk the path. There are many who are corrupt and ego driven and even void of conscience. It’s no different from any other tradition that has humans… Humans are subject to flaws… And many women who have a misunderstanding of Iyami as well. They want it for power, greed, control or to pay back men. So Primordial Iyami examine you before you are conferred with power or knowledge. Iwa is not just a concept. She is an Iyami and guides character and development. To that end, those they initiate will likely be older women and elder mothers, though menstruating women who have discipline and are balance can be initiated too. How do you know you were accepted? There are things you are given in the spiritual plane that you are likely to experience in dream or astral form. There is information you are provided that can let the inductor know it is done. These can then be further validated through divination.
I can only share what was told to me by Iyami on the spiritual planes. They told me there are fundamental laws that must always be followed. Laws of nature, but also spiritual laws and codes of conduct. Harmful conduct upsets the balance which must be maintained. One was one must never be greedy.. Always share with your sisters.. Iyami are more egalitarian in terms of function. They function more as a family…and community than as a elitist group or person divorced from all other women or people. Iyami have an inherent relationship with nature… Mother Nature… Mother Earth..Cosmic Mother IyaNla.. Because of this relationship they have an intimate relationship with plants, trees, herbs, etc. By extension, they know their uses physically and esoterically.
The common assumption is that they use it for harm… I’ve noticed that people seem to equate Aje or its power with evil…but then…you will notice those same ones equate women with evil too.. So beware of those who project that any Iyami…red, black, or white are automatically harmful. It is all about the individual and how they may use the power based on their level of spiritual maturity and development. The white, red, and black is all about what all mother goddesses represent….the triune energy of creation, sustainability, and destruction. Destruction is not always a bad thing. Something must be destroyed for things to be birthed on higher ground…it’s the circle of life. A woman’s body does all three.. Shhh…there’s a secret…
The truth is Aje are just like other traditional healers… They can use their knowledge for healing, midwifery, divination, and spiritual support in addition to practical issues on the physical plan and ancestral work. One of my main assignments from Iyami is for promoting healing so my emphasis is in spiritual, emotional, and physical healing. So another caveat is that it is not enough to be Iyami by name and ego… Having a pot is not the criteria the strength of your power is measured. It’s about doing the work… Doing the work in our communities. Doing the work on the planet.