I was 18 years old when I came out of the broom closet to my Serbian immigrant parents, announcing that the Serbian Orthodox Christian faith in which they’d raised me was irreconcilable with my expanding consciousness that came to understand Deity, humanity’s relationship with nature, and human nature itself in ways that were markedly different from the catechism of my upbringing. While my parents weren’t wholly surprised–despite being devout Christians they (especially my mother) always encouraged openminded inquiry about world religions; furthermore, it was commonly accepted in my family that I was “weird”–there was an air of sadness to near elegiac levels in the kitchen of my childhood home that September day when I made my announcement. My father worried that my self-imposed exile from the Church would result in “God” removing “His” protection from me, laying me wide open to assault by “unclean” (read: demonic) forces, meaning I would be making an unnecessarily hard life for myself as I entered the world of adulthood. Did I really want to start my life as a college student that way?
My mother’s sadness was more tersely expressed: “Don’t cut yourself off from your roots, Ana,” she said with a sad shake of her head. The a priori assumption there is that, since so many European national churches in Eastern Orthodox Christianity (Serbian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, etc.) inform peoples’ cultural understanding of themselves (especially when those people were subjugated by foreign empires headed by a non-Orthodox theocracy–thus the Serbs, like the Greeks, struggled to retain their Orthodox Christian beliefs during 500 years of occupation by the Islamic Ottoman Empire), by announcing my severance from the Serbian Church, I was, to her, for all intents and purposes, annihilating my ethnicity in favor of becoming a root-less American, someone utterly divorced from the cultural traditions of their ancestors. My parents had always prided themselves on the fact that, despite having been born in the U.S., my brother and I were decidedly “not American” by virtue of the fact that we hailed from a distinct, very intact culture–language (I was raised bilingual), customs, cultural modes of artistic expression, Church, and all.
The paradox–which you’ve heard me describe before if you’ve read my Gravatar profile copy–is that it was a fondness for and eventual investigation into the histories of the ceremonialism, sensory stimulation (icons and incense and singing, oh my!), and indisputable Slavic Pagan folk magic incorporated into so much of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s liturgical practices that made me want to shed any “threadbare Christian cloak” (to borrow the words of anthropologist Sir James Frazer) and embrace Paganism fully.
Of course, with a very vibrant–and growing–Slavic (and Baltic) Pagan renaissance taking place throughout Eastern Europe, I can more than confidently assure my mother that far from straying from my cultural heritage, my polytheistic Pagan path is giving me a greater sense of rootedness. The ways of one’s ancestors should hopefully serve as a springboard for inquiry for anyone–whatever their race, ethnic background, or national origin–who is dissatisfied with the religion of her upbringing and feels compelled to walk the path of the Seeker. (All too often, I’ve wondered about the Westerners who, dissatisfied with their Judeo-Christian religious upbringings, wound up embracing Eastern paths like Buddhism or Hinduism later in life; what if they had looked into the pre-Abrahamic beliefs and customs of their people instead? I’ve especially wondered about this regarding Europeans or Caucasian-Americans who find a home in Hinduism that Judaism or Christianity could never have been for them…News flash: Your ancestors worshipped a plethora of Gods, too! And chances are, they’re not so very different from the Deities of India; hence the term “Indo-European.” But I’m digressing.)
While I’m proud of my Slavic heritage and seek to preserve the pre-Christian beliefs of my ancestors in my daily devotional Pagan practices (especially the cult of the dead, which is a BIG DEAL in Serbian culture and has been a central part of my spiritual life since early childhood; the ancestor altar is the biggest focal point of family spiritual activity in a Serbian home) as best as I can (meaning that I live in modern Chicago, not medieval Kragujevac), I want to be unequivocally clear that one’s Pagan religious orientation should not be defined by their DNA.
Because, let’s face it: I’m not exactly Egyptian. Nor am I of the beautiful Yoruba and Fôn peoples of modern-day Nigeria and Benin. But the Gods, Goddesses, and Spirits of those lands have definitely laid claim to my head and heart. They’ve woven themselves into the skein of my Wyrd a long time ago, perhaps even, as the Yoruba belief in the West African religion of Ifá expresses it, before I was born. For then, it is said, a person’s Orí or Destiny (anthropomorphized as one’s own literal head) “kneels” before the throne of the Creator and agrees to have the life experiences It is going to have in the person’s incarnation on Earth–everything is predetermined: the parents you’ll have, the experiences that will shape your character (iwa pele in Yoruba; one’s only true possession in life), even your Guardian Orisha and any other Gods you will serve in your lifetime. It’s literally all in your head!
Like a lot of children with an avid interest in history, I “felt” that ancient Egypt was somehow “home” to me. I really connected with the fantastic, animal-headed Deities and marveled at the Pyramids and other sacred locations throughout Upper and Lower Egypt: the Valley of the Kings, the stupendous temple complexes at Luxor and Karnak. And wow, Nile crocodiles, even (Hail, Sobek)! They all made my soul sing. This greatly got on the nerves of the nuns and lay teachers who taught the Religion classes of my Archdiocese of Chicago-fueled K-12 education. I was forever pointing out–and getting in trouble for doing so–that the Egyptians, to me, seemed way culturally superior to those grubby Israelites and if the Hebrew God was “all-powerful,” then why did “He” allow “His ‘Chosen People'” to fall into servitude to the Egyptians in the first place? [Insert deer-in-the-headlights response from Religion teacher nun, followed by the angry injunction for me to roll up the right sleeve of my white Oxford shirt so I could be hit with the yardstick from the chalkboard ledge.] And sorry, no, I didn’t believe that Pharaoh Rameses II (Rameses the Great) mentioned in the Book of Exodus was a bad guy at all; and it was terrible of “God,” via Moses, to punish the Egyptians by having the first-born children killed. (What the fuck? Tell me again how this “God” is all-loving and good?)
Defiantly, I also added that Pontius Pilate was a cool dude. I refused to recite the Apostles’ Creed starting at age 10 because I felt he was being made an unfair scapegoat for Jesus’ execution. After all, he didn’t want to have anything to do with it; he washed his hands of it. So leave Pontius Pilate alone! And oh yeah, the ancient Romans were culturally superior to those grubby Israelites, too!
Whack, Whack, WHACK! Meetings with the Principal and allegations of my “Satanism” spread. The Dominican nun Principal of my grammar school on Chicago’s far north side called my mom when I was in fifth grade to discuss my “Satanic” pro-Egyptian, pro-Roman stance…and concluded, after speaking with my mother (who angrily defended me), that I must come from a Satanic family too! Man, those Serbian immigrants, I tell ya! 😉
So perhaps that’s when Pagan seeds stirred in my developing childhood consciousness. Out of a love for and solidarity with Mediterranean basin Paganism, that which held sway before the time of “A.D.” would come to mar the development of human history. The year before I came out of the broom closet was the year I completed reading the Egyptian Book of the Dead (or, translated more accurately, The Book of Going Forth By Day), and I had profound epiphanies. They were made all the more emotionally relevant in the wake of my brother’s death; he was killed when he was 20 years old, one week before my 17th birthday. The Neteru of the Two Lands watched and aided me, I just knew it. Anpu/Anubis guarded my roaming ka at night and saw it to its safe return to my body in the morning. When my mother was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003 and she almost died from a surgery meant to insert artificial platelets in her spinal vertebral column, I squeezed her hand and prayed with all my might to Aset (Isis) to bring her fully back into this world and to bring healing and relief. Yes, the Neteru are with me and it is to Nebet-Het I am chiefly sworn to lifelong service through my legal ordination as Priestess in the Fellowship of Isis.
As Egyptian Gods, lest one forget (and many people often do!), are ultimately African Gods, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I would ultimately be claimed by the West African religion of Ifá and sworn to service (through levels of initiation; I suspect this reflects the influence of European Freemasonry courtesy of French incursions into Central and West Africa during the Imperialist age of the 18th and 19th centuries) to the Orisha. (Please note I use this term both singular and plural per Yoruba grammar–you don’t refer to a group of more than one Orisha as “Orishas.”) Though I will admit, I didn’t see it coming.
Mind you, I had always had an academic interest, going back to junior high, of the related Diaspora religion of Vodou or Vodoun (which has its origins in the tiny nation of Benin on Africa’s West Coast), and while the concept of spirit possession in Vodou definitely intrigued me, I didn’t feel that it was appropriate for me, as a non-Haitian, to take it up as anything other than an academic interest. In my heart, though, I definitely respected the Lwa.
But the Orisha had other plans, in concert with my own Orí, for me.
It started in 2007. My marriage to my alcoholic sailor of a spouse was falling apart. It was horrendous. The spring of that year, frightfully so. Out of nowhere, I felt a compulsion to begin studying everything I could get my hands on about Orisha worship, Santería, Lukumí. It really felt like a life-or-death compulsion. I read book after book, some good and some of dubious academic quality. I started having weird dreams of male beings of African descent (I recognized them as more than human) who, given their colors of their attire (green and black, red and black), I would come to recognize as the Orisha Ogun and Eshu, respectively. And during the day, I became obsessed with one Orisha in particular: Oyá, the Warrior Woman, Ruler of the Cemetery, the Whirlwind, the Marketplace. My life was feeling like an out-of-control whirlwind at the time, but Oyá would give me the strength to stand in the eye of the hurricane.
Instinctively, I felt the best place to get Oyá’s attention was a desolate crossroads in the very cemetery where my brother was buried. I spoke to Her, left Her (and Eshu) offerings routinely. I was working up the nerve to ask Her to facilitate the curse I was planning on throwing on my soon-to-be Wasband. In the meantime, I was desperately looking around Chicago to find a reputable santero or other clergy skilled in working with the Orisha. I needed a reading. I needed advice on my planned working. But whom to trust? I was so leery of con artists, of being duped because I’m a white woman with no family ties/cultural connection to the tradition I was seeking to enter. And it’s a secretive community too. Whom to trust? It had to be a man with street cred.
I found him after a couple of weeks of searching. In mid-July, I stopped at my favorite occult bookstore in the city, Alchemy Arts, to talk to Ken, the owner, about my plight. He stoically handed me a flyer announcing an Ifá priest who was a personal friend of his was coming to the store that very night to give a talk on the cult of the ancestors in Ifá! I was blown away! The stars truly were aligned! After the talk (which was excellent and had me convinced I’d indeed been led on the right path), I spoke with the priest/babalawo (now my godfather or padrino), Jim. We set an appointment for me to have a reading the following Saturday.
I’d asked a male friend to come with me as I didn’t feel entirely comfortable going to a stranger’s house for the first time alone. So my friend Andy agreed to join me, and he wound up having a reading too (his was first, actually). When it was time for me to sit across from the babalawo (which means, incidentally, “father of secrets” based on the years of rigorous training they undergo) and have the divination chain, called an opele, thrown for me for the first time, I began weeping tears of joy. It really felt like a homecoming.
“Your ancestors are very glad you’re here, Ana,” Jim said to me. And as he began to sprinkle droplets of water on the floor of his temple/consultation room and invoke his own ancestors, I continued to weep at the beauty of what I was seeing, hearing, and most importantly, experiencing radiating from the center of my chest. My heart chakra, my anahata, was spinning majestically.
The reading confirmed that Oyá had not only taken notice of my plight and would definitely help me, but that She had been walking with me since birth, knowing that my ancestral reverence was strong. Her mate, the great Alafin King Shango, the Orisha of Thunder and patron of the sacred Batàa drums used in ceremonies, was also fond of me and I was under His protection.
Suh-WEET! I had to placate my ancestors, though, Jim warned, and then he asked me, gently, what my philosophy was on animal sacrifice. I took in a deep breath, expecting this question to come up. The same year I came out of the broom closet also happened to be the year I announced I was renouncing meat-eating for a vegetarian lifestyle. And I’ve been vegetarian ever since (23 years and going strong). Yet I knew also, as the Cuban expression in Santería puts it, that there has to be an energy exchange: “Vida para vida.” I honestly answered that I understood the importance of animal sacrifice in this cultural context and thus wasn’t against it; however, as an animal lover, I had no idea how I could predict my reaction, emotionally and physiologically (would I faint?) if an animal had to be sacrificed on my behalf.
There was no getting around it. Three colored roosters and colored pigeons, Jim wrote at the end of my session, like a doctor prescribing meds. He gave me the address of a live poultry vendor in town to procure the birds from. The feeding for my ancestors would have to take place within the week. I was apprehensive but also very excited.
To my absolute amazement, when the appointed time drew near for my cleansing and feeding of my ancestors, I was enveloped in a sphere of not just calm, but indescribable peace. Roosters and pigeons were decapitated in front of me to feed Spirit Beings, and I was more than okay with it. I remarked on my sense of peace to Jim afterwards and he told me, “That means you are definitely walking the road of your Orí. This religion IS meant for you. Remember what Ifá revealed in your reading: you are meant to receive your Warriors, so don’t put that off. Your roads will really start to open up for you once you have Them in your corner.”
And he was right about that, as he has been right about everything since when I have been in need of his counsel and workings. It’s a beautiful, joyous journey of exploration.
But a lot of people express shock when they see me, Hand of Ifá and all, clad all in white, my head covered, ready to join in the ritual celebrating at a bembe for one or more of the Orisha. I am neither Yoruban nor Cuban! I’m a gringa, a bruja. What am I doing? Shouldn’t I be, as one ignorant person at a barbecue asked me, following the Gods of my own ancestors instead? (I remember bursting out with laughter before I gave my response to that fellow.) While I’m very sensitive to the issue of cultural appropriation, because that is something white people have been excelling at not just in the times of New World colonial conquest, but in more recent times with the New Age hijacking of Native American beliefs, for example. I definitely understand the criticism. And yet, to quote K.W. in her excellent essay, “Being Black and Pagan” from the anthology Shades of Faith: Minority Voices in Paganism: “to blindly dismiss anyone who works in a tradition outside their racial makeup is foolhardy. If more people took the time to actually discuss matters rather than just assuming the worst, I think it would do a lot to foster not only mutual respect, but understanding” (p.112).
That is my answer from my heart, but I have an answer from my head too. As my padrino explained it to me, all human beings, regardless of race, ethnicity, or national origin, have a guardian Orisha. Think of it as a guardian angel. Some people will be called to cultivate a relationship with that Orisha–to have it made official–and others won’t. That’s it.
To me, my whiteness in an African-based religion and cosmology doesn’t matter because, if you want an anthropological explanation, all human beings descended from an African female primal ancestress. This is an indisputable fact. As a Dark Goddess-worshipper, I can say with fierce pride that I AM MY DARK MOTHER’S DAUGHTER. We are all daughters and sons of Africa.
And my Ifá religious practices are done in complete accordance with the proper cultural understanding and guidance from my padrino. This is not me running off on my own and making shit up because I think it’s cool–that Oyá is just another bad-ass Goddess to add to my roster of bad-ass (read: Dark) Goddesses I serve like Nebet-Het, Hekate, or Santa Muerte . You work with very prescribed rules when dealing with the Orisha. It calls for a level of discipline that, again, might be another factor in why some people are called to The Religion (as Ifá or its New World incarnation of Santería is sometimes called) and others are told that it’s not the path for them.
As you might imagine, my home temple space is a busy, bustling, nearly crowded space. I have several active shrines to many Gods and spirits, including more than the Gods I’ve mentioned in this blog post. How does one go about managing all these relationships? Time management skills are a must, and fortunately many of my Deities have Their sacred days of the week that make devotionals easy to tend to. I remember my late Priestess-Hierophant in the Fellowship of Isis, Deena Butta, once telling me that people in your life come into your life “for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” It’s about the magnitude and the duration of the staying power of the relationship, based on its mutually defined need. Same thing with cultivating a symbiotic relationship with a Deity or Spirit. Are you being “tapped” to fulfill a specific working for a specific amount of time, and then the God or Goddess or Spirit will depart? Or is it something definitely long-term, like a soul contract you’ve forged? I feel that what I have with my Gods and Spirits is definitely the latter. What matters is that, however disparate the altars may seem to a casual observer of my temple space, the Gods I have my relationships with make perfect sense to me–the reasons why They’re ensconced in my home, my heart, and my head are ones I need only ever explain/justify to me.
And my Orí. Ase, ase, and So Mote It Be!
So, gentle Pagan folk, if you’re of a Polytheist persuasion, or even if you’re not, how do you feel about working in Pagan traditions outside of your “racial makeup,” to use K.W.’s words from the essay quote above? Do you have experience doing so? Have you gotten flack for it? How about managing multiple relationships with Deities of different cultural traditions/pantheons? Is your approach culturally contextualized or are you doing an eclectic approach of spiritual cafeteria selections? I’d love to hear from you!
May you always walk your Path in Beauty and forever Speak Your Truth! Iré-o! Blessings!