Iyawo for 7 years…what?!?!?

by Iya Melissa 

I’ve been meeting more and more people lately who have been asking about our period of Iyawo in Candomblé. More often than not people already have the mind frame of Lukumi when they think “Iyawo,” and say things like they could never be a Iyawo for 7 years. There are lots of differences between a Lukumi Iyawo and a Iyawo in Candomblé.

Candomblé is an extremely hierarchical religion. One is afforded certain liberties with age; these liberties range from what you are allowed to wear, where you sit, the order in which you dance during a ceremony, with what you are allowed to eat, etc…Progression up the hierarchical ladder is a long and slow process, but it is also very necessary to the survival of the religion and maintenance of our traditions.

Before getting into the meat of what it means to spend 7 years as a Iyawo, let’s talk about what it means to be an elder in Candomblé. Being an elder in Candomblé means that you have completed your initiatic cycle. In Candomblé, initiation does not end when the Iyawo leaves the ile to go back to their own home and a normal life. The feitura or adoshu simply marks the beginning of the initiation.

An elder has earned the right to be called Iya (Mãe) or Baba (Pai); to dress in fancy and delicate fabrics; to sit in special, designated chairs; to perform certain functions in ritual. Elders who have specific titles or functions within the ile may assume their roles after completing their initiatic cycle; they may be in charge of keeping shrines clean, performing sacrifice, cooking ritual meals, drumming, and taking care of and raising Iyawos during their feitura, among others. Elders who have the path to be an Iyalorisa or Babalorisa are allowed to perform divination, make ebo, have clients and godchildren, as well as opening an ile of their own.

The 7 year cycle allows for the expertise needed for eldership to be cultivated. This is especially necessary in the case of a Babalorisa or Iyalorisa, because they are expected to know everything; they must know herbs, how to divine, songs for both feasts and rituals, prayers and oriki, cooking for all Orisa, the clothes and colors of all Orisa, etc…

So, in Candomblé when we say we are Iyawos for 7 years this doesn’t mean that we are wearing white for 7 years. Nor does it mean that we are treated as babies for 7 years. It does not mean being forbidden to dance, being home before dark, no sex or alcohol, partying or being called Iyawo for 7 years. Being a Iyawo for 7 years in Candomblé (or however long it takes to complete one’s 7th year obligation, which may not always happen on the 7th birthday) means that we are slowly climbing up the hill to being an elder.

In a general day-to-day sense, that means deferring to your elders and being extremely respectful (using Sir and Ma’am, even), wearing simple clothing and no shoes during feasts, serving your elders before eating, not sitting in those special, designated chairs, and so on. Being a Iyawo means, hopefully, that you are learning how to be an elder. During the 7 years, obligations are also fulfilled to our Orisa at our 1st, 3rd and 7th years. Some nations also do a 5th year obligation.

During feitura (21+ days) the Iyawo gets to know their Orisa, and begins getting used to being an olorisa; they learn the basic steps that are necessary to take care of themselves and their Orisa. The cycle begins here and ends 7 years later when the initiate completes the final obligation before becoming an elder and being introduced to the community as such. So when we say we are Iyawos, it is not Iyawo in the Lukumi sense, but rather stating, “I’m not an elder, yet.”

See also:

Understanding the Hierachy of Candomblé