10 Years in Ifa

Today, 13 December, 2019, which many peoples of (northern) European descent celebrate as St. Lucy’s Day (which I dedicate to the honor of the goddess Hekate as Phosphoros, “Light-Bringer”), marks my exact 10-year anniversary of receiving my Hand of Ifa (the culmination of a three-day initiation ritual) and of being crowned with my Guardian Orisha. Today marks a tremendous milestone in my life.

The religion of Ifa has profoundly impacted my life for the better. While my involvement in this West African religion actually began in August of 2007 in the wake of a series of recurring dreams I’d been having for 3 consecutive weeks—leading me at the time to seek the divination and spiritual counseling services of the Babalawo (“Father of Mysteries”) who would ultimately become my oluwo, or godfather—it’s the 13th of December, 2009, that I hold as my definitive initiation date. (Ifa has a series of initiations, actually, depending on how extensive a developmental path one is destined to journey in their service to the Orisha and to their own Ori: indwelling Divinity that outlines one’s purpose in life and sum total of life experiences; divination protocols and oracular pronouncements guide the individual every step of the way.)

Eshu

Los Guerreros (Warriors) shrine with Eshu closeup. Photo (c) Anna Applegate. He loves His booze, sweets, and toys!

Having my Guardian Orisha revealed to me and receiving my Hand of Ifa were spiritual quantum leaps for me. The immediate result, of course, was the establishment of new devotional relationships with very powerful, ancient Beings: Ones Who survived the centuries-long theological onslaughts of Christianity and Islam across the West Coast of Africa and Who subsequently, and very wisely, propagated devotees throughout the New World. An unforeseen result of these milestones in my spiritual journey was that my devotional relationships with other Deities—Gods and Goddesses I’d been honoring decades before my embrace by Ifa—improved as a result, too.

I remember emphatically declaring to my oluwo, in perhaps the second or third Ifa consultation I’d had with him back in 2007, that I’m an avowed contemporary Polytheist who honors many Deities in my domestic cultic practices and in my wider engagement with Chicago’s Pagan communities through the rituals I publicly held. I wasn’t willing to “swap out” longstanding relationships I’d cultivated with very Holy Powers—especially with the trio of Goddesses I’d pledged lifelong service to when I became legally ordained as a Priestess in the worldwide Fellowship of Isis—for new Gods.

My godfather smiled at the time and cheerfully announced the Orisha were far from jealous Beings: in no way would They require me to abandon ties to other Deities, make exclusive claims on my devotional service. So long as I “did right by Them” and kept my devotional practices consistent and kept my word/fulfilled obligations I’d made to Them, the Orisha wouldn’t care if I also prayed and made sacrificial offerings to Hekate, Sekhmet, or Thor. “Actually, I have it on very good authority that Thor and Shango get along really well!” my oluwo said quite matter-of-factly. “It does seem to be that the Orisha and the Germanic Gods know each Other. Is it because They have such long, unbroken lines of worship? That they were never displaced in the peoples’ hearts despite the missionaries’ best efforts?”

Those are damn good questions!

Ochosi

Detail of shrine to Eshu and Ochosi. Photo (c) Anna Applegate.

Over the years, I’ve often said to my oluwo that I know Ifa is the right path for me because so many of the oracular pronouncements that take the form of the odu, the signs revealed in Ifa readings and the Yoruba proverbs that accentuate them, sound an awful lot like it’s my Serbian mother speaking! Always keep your word. Be a person of integrity: Do the right thing even if/especially because no one’s watching, because the Creator sure is watching! Don’t be a boastful person: if you have been showered with blessings, don’t announce it to the world lest you rouse the envy of your enemies; keep your good news to yourself. Stay away from garbage cans at night lest roaming evil spirits/eggun buruku leap on you and have you unknowingly escort them into your house. Avoid gossipers. Make swift breaks and completely cut all ties with false friends—don’t let their negative energy infect your life. Give silent thanks every moment of every day for the little things that work in your favor, so you will always have more things to be grateful for because the Orisha love to be appreciated.

Eshu Odara

I constantly give thanks to this Eshu for keeping me safe on the roads. He protects me against accidents. Photo (c) Anna Applegate

Walking the path of Ifa helps cultivate what in Yoruba is known as iwa pele. In English, the inadequate but closest translation would be “character.” Iwa pele is the only thing we take with us into the grave. Our Ori, our inner Divinity, gives a full accounting of our deeds and misdeeds when we die before the Creator (Olodumare), and the amount of iwa pele we’ve cultivated determines our outcome in the afterlife. Making ebo (sacrifice) to the Orisha—and especially, giving Eshu His due!—is one of the major components of developing one’s iwa pele.

All religions intrinsically provide comfort, among other blessings, to their adherents and Ifa is certainly no exception. The past 10 years have had me undergo overwhelmingly challenging life circumstances—financial disasters, divorce, health issues, job instability, my father’s recent cancer diagnosis—and I’ve wept in the wee hours of many Dark Nights of the Soul. I’ve had excruciating moments when I’ve felt not just hopelessly alone but cut off from the life force itself. But the Orisha, the counsel of Ifa, the emotional support of my godfather and fellow congregants in my House, have always been there for me. “Heaven sees the tears you’re crying and is not immune to your pain,” my oluwo would say. And more often than not, it would be one of the female Orisha Who would enter dramatically in my life to pick me up: the maternal embrace of Yemaya, the iron-clad resolve of the fierce Oya, the needed pampering from Oshun. Ifa, like other African Traditional Religions and Diaspora Religions, is an immanent, not a transcendent, religion: its Holy Powers are actively engaging in the world, helping Their devotees to live their best lives in the here and now, not some paradise in the post-death state. Ashe!

 

LosGuerreros

There are so many more reflections I can make and share on this 10-year anniversary, but I’ve got a fun lunch outing planned and I need to get going. I’m meeting a Northern Tradition Polytheist friend and we’re going to the Christkindl Market in Daley Plaza here in downtown Chicago. We just might get a glimpse of kids dressed in St. Lucy’s Day attire. I’m looking forward to eating some hot pretzels and drinking some hot gluhwein.

I’ve already promised Eshu I’m going to get Him a Krampus ornament, if I can find one, as a toy to adorn His shrine. 🙂

Ashe! 

 

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