Serpent as Primal Ancestor: Selected Indo-European and African Cultural and Religious Contexts

Dahomey greeting given to a python encountered in the wild: “You are my father and my mother. Be propitious to me.”

My father is coping well, overall, with his monthly chemotherapy treatments, and I’m very grateful for having the opportunity to spend so much time with him. This past Sunday was the most important Serbian cultural one for my parents and me: The Feast Day (Slava, pronounced SLAH-vuh) of our family’s patron saint, John the Baptist. The activities surrounding ritual purification with talismanic water (blessed during a special Mass by a bishop using sprigs of dried hyssop, basil, and rue) clearly are vestiges of pre-Christian Slavic customs designed to promote renewal. I gladly welcome the opportunity to fully celebrate these time-honored customs with my family. So after Sunday’s private Mass (held for families observing their John the Baptist Slava), Dad and I headed straight for my brother’s grave a short walk away from the monastery entrance. The Chicagoland area was gifted with nearly 10 inches of snow from the previous day’s storm; the day was sunny but cold, with a daytime high temperature of 11°. As I watched my frail, cancer-stricken father wade into the snow to make offerings of ritual foods at my brother’s grave, my heart immediately felt weighted by a heavy sadness.

dadatcemetery

Dad clearing space in the snow to leave offerings of ritual food on my brother’s grave.

I thought about the importance of the day, and how the uniquely Serbian concept of the Slava is a patrilineal one, with different saints “assigned” as protectors to Serbian clans, and I wondered which Pagan Gods those saints displaced. How far back into the mists of antiquity did this observance go? I thought about the cultural importance attached to the male head of the household and the enormous magico-religious role played by that man in every Serbian family, about how he serves as bringer of luck (or the lack of it) to a Serbian family’s Sudbina, or Destiny, and how he serves as mediator between the present and the past, between the living and the dead, stretching all the way back in time to the First Ancestor (i.e., the God of the Underworld, Veles), who incarnated as a serpent. I also thought about similar beliefs held about the head of the household and the connection to serpent-ancestors in ancient Greek and Roman religions and contemporary East African and West African ones. The cultic practice dots definitely connected in my mind in strikingly similar ways, as the research I’ve done and share below bears out. Join me on this cross-cultural spiritual odyssey into the serpentine Labyrinth of the Ancestors, won’t you?

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Honoring Eshu, Making Ébo

“You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice.”

—The Wicker Man (directed by Robin Hardy), 1973

A fundamental principle in the West African indigenous religion of Ifá is that of ébo, or sacrifice. That which is offered is of great value both to the one offering as well as to the Recipient, be it one or more of the Orisha or the giver’s Ancestors.  Continue reading

Spiritual Cleansing in Ifá: Bribing Away Evil Spirits

Should Oyekun Iwori surface as the main odu (sign) in an Ifá reading, you may want to resort to the spiritual prescription that my oluwo (godfather), who is also a Babalawo, advised for me: bribing away the evil spirit or spirits currently wreaking havoc in your life. Mind you, this odu is a marker of serious negativity, and battling it requires a major cleansing in addition to the magical working I’m about to describe, but this latter activity is a necessary prequel that will hopefully give you a better sense of control as you prep for the major cleansing (rompimiento in Lukumí) that needs to happen immediately afterwards. Continue reading

Magically Charged Water: Clearing Physical Space in Ifá

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Spring Equinox is a little more than three weeks away. Many of us partake of time-honored rituals this time of year that have to do with purging and purifying our homes, from thorough physical scrubbing and scouring of our living spaces to donating old clothes and housewares that no longer meet our needs. As we discard the old and unwanted, we open our heads, hearts, and homes to receiving the new, as it should be.

As invigorating as a good housecleaning can feel once you’ve finished, I don’t believe in resting on your laurels. Better to follow up work done on the material plane with a thorough spiritual cleansing of your home, which should occur during the day and not at night (morning is ideal, but anytime after the sun has risen). I have a recipe my Oluwo (Godfather) in Ifá recently shared with me in person and which I have permission, in turn, to share with the aleyo (non-initiate) community.  Continue reading

Circles of Power: Reflections on Receiving My Elekes Initiation in Ifá

During my lunch break today, I swear I spotted an avatar of the Orisha Eshu. A young man skateboarding downhill on Adams Street in the shadow of the Sears Tower (yes, you read that right: as a native Chicagoan, I refuse to call it by any other name), weaving in and out of hordes of slow-moving tourists on this gloriously sunny and summer-like Monday. He sported a t-shirt that looked like a modified version of the Chicago flag: instead of the iconic series of four red, six-pointed stars, however, the word “Character” was emblazoned in large cursive script.

Ashé, ashé! I mentally affirmed as I read the t-shirt’s message and silently blessed the youth that whizzed past me. I pulled down on the collar of my shirt to expose my newly acquired elekes, and I said a prayer of thanks to each of the Orisha whose energies find manifestation in the individual necklaces ringing my neck, the necklaces I received this past Saturday night (the timing was interesting: Dark of the Moon and right on the cusp of the onset of a Mercury Retrograde period) in an initiation ceremony that lasted nearly four hours. Continue reading

It’s All in Your Head: Orí as Indwelling Divinity, Locus of Consciousness, and Roadmap to Destiny in Ifá

Wednesday’s felicitous news that the U.S. will begin normalizing relations with Cuba has me hopeful that 2015 will be the year I accompany my oluwo in Ifá to the island so that I can finally become fully initiated in my guardian Orisha’s mysteries–in Cuban Lukumí/Santeria terms, I would be undergoing asiento, “making the saint.” Not only has that been a longstanding dream of mine, it’s part of my destiny. That is what Ifá, also known as the Orisha Orunmila, revealed to me in 2008 when I received my Warriors–Los Guerreros. Continue reading