Worshipping Orixá isn’t About Expecting Miracles
by Iya Melissa
Lately I’ve been faced with a few situations that make it clear to me that many people have profound misunderstandings about what Orixá is, how they work in the world and our lives, and why we need them.
Here’s a story that exemplifies what I’m seeing:
A woman is desperate to help her child. She sees her child suffering and can’t take it. He calls her every night crying, and she feels absolutely helpless. He’s in jail because he was found guilty of having committed a crime. Mom wants some work to be done so his sentence can be shortened. In her own despair, she’s having a hard time seeing that the people who her son hurt were also rooting for justice. She’s not able to see the other side of the coin.
Orixá religion, no matter where on Earth it’s being practiced, is largely focused on maintaining equilibrium. We perform ebo or undergo rituals to keep us in alignment, we try to make balanced decisions. We try not to be selfish in our decision making. It’s difficult to see this mother who wants the best for her son as a selfish person, but she is. The moment we stop thinking about how our actions impact others, we’re showing that, indeed, we’re only thinking of ourselves.
Orixá isn’t about expecting miracles.
When we make ebo, it’s not a business transaction we’re making with Orixá; we need water, but water doesn’t need us. While there are many reasons to make ebo, and different categories of ebo, I’m speaking generally in terms of giving offering to the Orixá in order to get something we want – a job, a place to live, a family, etc. We can’t, however, believe that after making ebo all of our dreams will come true.
In Brazil it’s frequently said that Candomblé não é receita de bolo. In other words, there is a certain level of flexibility and individuality that comes with practicing this religion. What works for Tom may not work for Harry; this is why we divine to communicate with Ori to understand what each individual needs. To that end, not all ebos are alike even when the objective is to meet the same outcome for different people. We see this within Candomblé itself, and in comparison to other Orixá religions in Nigeria and the Yoruba diaspora; there are offerings done in Candomblé that may not make sense in a Lukumi context and vice versa. It’s not the offering alone that makes things happen.
What I’ve noticed is that there seems to be a correlation between the folks who refer to Orixá as santos and the expectation that miracles will occur. Language is important. As an English teacher for over a decade who also studied linguistics, I see how language has become an impediment for many in terms of understanding the fundamentals of Orixá religion no matter where in the world we are. So what are saints?
Saints are deified ancestors who are able to perform miracles. Each Catholic saint was a person who walked the Earth, died, and was later deified after being credited with performing three miracles in death. A miracle is something that’s inexplicable by facts and logical reasoning. Without turning this article into a lesson on Catholicism, it’s important to note this very specific function of saints – the performance of miracles, to help people do things they can’t do themselves. People ask St. Anthony to help them find things – from keys to parking spots; his function is to help people find things. This vision of saints, then, often removes the necessity of actual work on our behalf. It also serves as a roadblock for accepting responsibility for our poor decisions, putting us right back at the place where we’re seeking a miracle.
Orixá isn’t about expecting miracles.
Orixá are not saints. We often use the word santo in everyday language to refer to Orixá even though we know that they aren’t the same as Catholic saints. However, the psychology of Catholicism seems to have had an impact on our expectations of Orixá. Orixá does not exist to perform miracles for us. Water will exist without us. Wind will exist without us. Fire will exist without us. We need Orixá, not the other way around. When we make sacrifice, we think about the material – the physical object we are presenting to Orixá. Too often, we forget about the other components of sacrifice – our mindset and our behaviors.
There are no scapegoats in Candomblé; we don’t have a devil to blame when bad things happen, and we don’t have entities that perform miracles. We have our Ori which guides us and the decisions we make as we walk this Earth, that fights on our behalf and holds us accountable when we don’t make the best decisions. We have Orixá who teach us lessons about life, making better decisions, and maintaining equilibrium. Candomblé isn’t a religion of magic, spells and miracles. Candomblé is a religion of balance and ethics.
In Candomblé there has been a conscientious movement to remove Catholic elements from the religion. My ile does not contain images of Catholic saints, we don’t take the Iyawo to church, we don’t use the names of saints to refer to Orixá. These external markers of syncretism have been removed in many iles. The next phase is removing Catholic philosophies from our African derived religions and developing a deeper understanding of traditional Candomblé philosophy and ethics; even when we use the word santo to refer to Orixá we have to remember that the functions of saints and Orixá are vastly different.