Decolonizing Christianity: Evil Herbs?

Christians have to stop demonizing the things that we do not understand. I’m thinking specifically of the anti-sage or even more general anti-herbal healing campaigns all around us. I wonder where such strong feelings against herbal healing originate? When we speak against the natural healing power of herbs not only are we denying the greatness, the fullness, the completion of God’s creation – think of the Garden of Eden – we are also negating, dismissing, erasing all of the knowledge that our ancestors brought with them through the Middle Passage and kept alive throughout enslavement across the Americas so that we could be healed today. 

What I hear Christians often say is I don’t need nothing but Jesus, and I don’t know if we realize how antithetical to the gospel sentiments like that actually are. When Jesus rose from the grave he commanded his disciples to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew 28:19, NRSV). In articulating the Great Commission, Jesus highlights how he works in community with the Father and the Holy Spirit; in other words, Jesus is not alone. If all we needed was Jesus, something tells me Jesus would have said so. 

One of the things that strikes me about Jesus’ ministry and teachings is the focus on the natural world. Using parables about seeds, soil, and water Jesus makes plain God’s love for humanity and what we can do to be in right relationship with God. Jesus even used elements of the natural world to perform healing, although we know his words alone are powerful enough to heal. In John 9:6-7 we see that Jesus gave a blind man vision by spitting on the dirt to make mud, rubbing the mud on the man’s eyes, and instructing him to rinse off with water in a nearby pool. In the aftermath the man, who had been born blind, was able to see. I often wonder about this miracle and the purpose it serves in teaching about Jesus. Jesus did not look at the man and say, “now, see!” He didn’t lay hands on the man and command him to open his eyes. Jesus, who was present as the universe was being formed, who knew the wonders of Eden and its garden intimately, knew a thing or two about dirt. In this moment, Jesus took what he knew about soil and applied it to perform a healing. My mind wonders, What was in that dirt? What was growing in the Earth there that supplied the soil with healing properties? 

As a gardener I pay a lot of attention to dirt. I know that certain plants will thrive in the right soil, but will perish in other soil. I know that the soil is changed by what is planted in it. That the roots of the plant will both feed off of and feed the soil allowing it to grow. And so I wonder what it was that Jesus was accessing when he bent down to make mud from his saliva and the dirt. I wonder what minerals were there. I wonder what root had been growing to change the composition of that soil. I wonder what Jesus knew. And so when I think about the ways that I’ve seen Christians, especially Black Christians, demonize knowledge of herbs and their use for healing I can’t help but wonder where that comes from. It makes me wonder, rhetorically, who taught us that knowledge of herbs and traditional forms of healing was not of Jesus? The Jesus who was presented with frankincense and myrrh when he was born – incense from trees with healing properties. The Jesus who lived at a time without access to an internist or ER doctor in the face of medical emergencies. The Jesus who very likely knew which herbs to take to heal a sore, cure a cough, or calm a headache. 

So when I think about where we are as Black people in the Americas and all of the things that we are carrying with us – the generational trauma and the present violence that is continuously inflicted on our bodies, our collective psyche and spiritual selves I recognize that we are in need of healing practices and processes. And as followers of the Christ we look to Jesus for direction, understanding and knowledge. What I know to be true about Jesus is that he knew him something about some soil. Look at the parables and the comparisons Jesus makes to dirt, seeds, growth, and water to teach his message – so much of it centered on ecology. Jesus used that knowledge of the Earth to teach and to heal. Our ancestors across the Americas did the very same thing. At a time when access to Medical Care was non-existent for Black people, enslaved Africans resorted to their knowledge of herbs and roots to bring healing to the sick, to doctor wounds, to purify the air and the body. Some of that knowledge continues to live on today, and it’s this wisdom that we can tap into – while following Jesus – to help us heal from the trauma we’re born with and the violence we experience every single day here in exile.  

Healing takes many forms. It’s being in constant communication with God through prayer, but that’s only one layer. We can clear out our physical spaces with the use of incense. Sage, for example, is an incense that purifies the air. At a time where we’re plagued with airborne illness clean air to breathe is essential. Sage can also reduce stress and anxiety. Many herbs are also packed with antioxidants, and contain important vitamins and minerals like D and iron – supplements that Black folks in particular should prioritize taking because of widespread deficiencies. Aromatic herbs like lavender and mint are helpful to scent your space as well as to drink as tea; both are calming and have healing properties as well. The amount of racism, transantagonism, sexism, misogynoir, homoantagonism, classism, ableism and other inequities we face on a daily basis are enough to tear our bodies down. We pray, we lay hands, we sing and dance in praise – all forms of healing. There’s power in leaves, too. The entire Bible is a story of a people being called back to their ancestor’s ways. How did we get to a place where we despise ours?  

It is my hope that on our journey to collective healing we remember that God, “made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food,” (Genesis 2:9, NRSV) and told Adam that he, “may freely eat of every tree in the garden;” (2:16). The only prohibition was against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Not sage or any other leaf that grows on earth. I wonder what impact it would have if Christians rallied against child abuse or poverty the way some of us go hard against some sage. 

Yes, Black is King.

by Melissa

For several years now, the North American Orisha community has speculated about Beyoncé’s involvement in Orisha religion. If she was spotted wearing yellow nail polish, it was all the confirmation folks needed that she had, indeed, been initiated to Oshun during a trip to Cuba. And while there are several celebrities whose initiation or involvement in Orisha religion has been confirmed (either by the priests who initiated them, witnesses who were present, or the celebrity themself), we don’t know anything about Mrs. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter’s time on the mat. We do know, however, that she boldly proclaimed that Black is King on July 31, 2020. When I listened to “Black Parade” for the first time weeks before the movie’s premiere, I heard in her words a spiritual journey with which I’m intimately familiar. 2

From references to baby Moses flowing down the river in a wicker basket, to painting faces using what looks like efun, a native West African white chalk that is used in religious ceremony, to women walking to the shore holding baskets of flowers on their heads and others with calabashes in their hands – and that’s just the first few minutes – this visual album is a spiritual experience if there ever was one. In the album’s lyrics, Beyoncé calls on God, the ancestors and the Orisha. For me, Black is King showcases the depth of Afro-Diasporic religiosity by highlighting that following Jesus doesn’t mean one has to relinquish, ignore and demonize indigenous ancestry and ways of understanding the brilliance and vastness of Olorun’s creation.     

I recognize, here, the limitations of my Yorubacentric perspective, and love that art is always open to interpretation.

The film is bookended by scenes at the water. A river carrying a wicker basket flows into the ocean and deposits the basket on the shore. In traditional Yoruba religion, there are many riverine deities, but the ocean belongs exclusively to Olokun. In Yoruba-diasporic religion, the ocean becomes the domain of Yemoja/Yemanja/Yemaya, Olokun’s daughter in the Yoruba pantheon and the deity of the River Ogun in Nigeria.  An Afro-Brazilian oral history tells of Yemoja worshippers on ships leaving West Africa’s coast headed for enslavement who called out to Olokun in prayer asking that they protect the journey;  that if the worshipers made it to wherever they were going safely they would show Olokun their gratitude by elevating Yemoja’s status in the pantheon. 

“The coast belongs to our ancestors.” Beyoncé, Black is King

3In Candomblé, Yemanja’s role transforms and she becomes the divine mother and protector of every uninitiated person. Ceremonies take place annually at the sea in honor of her. Offerings are deposited into the sea both in reverence of the sea’s divinity and as a symbolic return to Africa in remembrance of our ancestors. As Beyoncé transforms into different roles in Black is King, her character dressed in white who seems to be guiding, protecting, and blessing the king makes me wonder – is she Yemoja? Perhaps the king’s Ori? Maybe even the king’s mother or an amalgamation of ancestral mothers; by the end of the film this same character can be observed placing a baby in the basket – is the baby Moses? Is she Jochebed (Moses’ mother) making the ultimate sacrifice to save her child who will in turn lead their people out of bondage?  

Beyoncé narrates the film, reminding us that, “our ancestors hold us from within our own bodies, guiding us through our reflections.” If this ain’t the most basic breakdown of our relationship to our ancestry, I don’t know how to make it any simpler. From the scientific reality that the essence of those of us walking the earth today was literally in our grandmothers’ bodies before our mothers were born, to the spiritual understanding of reincarnation that many indigenous African worldviews hold to be true, there is no way to separate us from our roots. The melding of Black American and West African aesthetics and understandings throughout Black is King is the nudge that many of us need to accept all of who we are as opposed to demonizing wholesale who we used to be.

The Lion King’s androgynous Rafiki is gendered as what I’m interpreting as a female elder in Black is King. Rafiki blesses Simba before he takes the throne and lifts his adult body off the ground. In traditional Yoruba religion, the Iyami – literally, my mother – play an indispensable role in the installation of a king. Also called Awon iya wa (all of our mothers, or our collective mothers, in reference to feminine ancestry), Eleye (owner of the birds), or Aje (there’s no direct translation, but this name signifies an intense primordial feminine power) and often misrepresented as witches as a result of colonization, I couldn’t help but recognize Iyami in Rafiki’s representation as they blessed and installed the king. A Yoruba proverb reminds us that the earth is a marketplace, and heaven is home. When Rafiki lifts Simba, he ascends into the beyond where he’s reunited with his heavenly community, egbe.  

I observed the subtle but powerful presence of Oya – the Orisha of transformation often represented by buffalo, wind, storms, and lightning – towards the end of the film. One of Oya’s names, Iyansan – an elision of Iya omo mesan (mother of nine children) – is derived from her relationship to Egungun, or collective ancestry. Oral history teaches that at one time Oya was unable to have children. Upon consulting divination she learned that she inadvertently violated a taboo, the consequence of which was infertility. To rectify the situation sacrifice was prescribed. Her offering included a red cloth that would become part of the clothing the ancestors wear when they come back to visit. Additionally, another of Oya’s names is Onilabalaba – owner of the butterfly – refers to both her transformative nature as butterflies are the result of extreme change, and indigenous understandings that butterflies carry our spirits back to heaven when we die.  Her name Onilababa is also a pun, and can simultaneously be interpreted as Onilagbalagba – owner of the ancestors. 

“Child of dust, return to the river. Your roots and your story will be reborn.” Beyoncé, Black is King

As the song “Otherside” plays in this scene, we see buffalo – Oya’s sacred animal – run off into the distance as a windstorm is approaching. It’s a full-circle moment in Black is King where questions from the first five minutes of the film are finally answered. Beyoncé sings of ancestors in the clouds on the other side. It’s a song of transformation from one life to another. Whether it’s the transition from life on earth to life in the beyond, or the process of initiation as is being alluded to by calling to children of the dust to go to the river to be reborn (one of the most important moments in initiation in Yoruba religion; also, baptism) and I see Oya all up in, through and around its visual representation. 

4I didn’t know what to expect of Black is King. I usually don’t watch anything without reading spoilers first, but I avoided all reactions and previews as I waited two whole days after its release to have this experience. Now that I’m on the other side, I don’t think there’s a work of art that has spoken so clearly to me and my experience as a Black woman navigating my relationship with God and the divine as has this. Black is King is a 21st century Hush Harbor where Black women can construct what it means to have religious beliefs that are affirming of who we are, who we were, and who we will be. It supports the importance of decolonizing our interpretation of the Bible and what we’ve come to understand about God from an oppressive white supremist lens. It extends a hand as we pull ourselves out from a religious sunken place. It begs us to remember who we are as we’re becoming who we were meant to be. Although the film is dedicated to Sir (Beyoncé’s son), includes several references to male divine spirits, and centers patriarchy, my identification of the feminine divine moving throughout the work allows me to experience it as a sister circle space.      

Watching Black is King made me wonder about the impact this film’s imagery will have on generations of Black women to come in ways that films like Daughters of the Dust impacted us. I appreciate how the artistry provides so many entry points for questions, reflection and critique. In Brazil, Cuba, and Trinidad & Tobago (throughout the African diaspora, really) Orisha is no secret. And while there have been initiates to Orisha in the United States for about 60 years, I can’t think of any English language, Black American, mainstream artistic expression that so openly alludes to the complexity of Black American religion. It’s not all indigenous African, but it’s also clearly not all from the Bible* either.  The Motherland drip is real.

*I recognize wholeheartedly that Black American religion includes Islam, Judaism, and other religious traditions. My experiences being raised in the church and having served as an Orisha priestess help me clearly identify remnants of West African religious tradition that survived in the Black church. I don’t have such experience in other Black American religious communities to be able to make those connections. My centering of Christianity in this analysis is not an attempt to ignore the richness of all the religions that make up the Black American religious experience.

Sign Now: Protecting Religious Freedom in Brazil

Last summer we reported on several attacks on terreiros and Umbanda temples in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This week, on August 9th, Afro-Brazilian religions face an even larger attack – a federal Supreme Court ruling on the right to perform animal sacrifice.
Please take a moment to follow the link below to sign and share the petition in support of our brothers and sisters in Brazil.

Oshumare – The Sacred Serpent

by Mãe Melissa Olosun

While many folks are celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th, I thought it would be a fine time to share about serpents within a Candomblé and Yoruba religious context. The following is an original translation from Pierre Fatumbi Verger’s Orixás – Deuses Iorubás na África e no Novo Mundo.

“Oshumare in Africa

Oshumare is the serpent-rainbow; he has multiple functions. They say that he is one of Shango’s servants and that his work consists of gathering rainfall and taking it back up to the clouds…but in this definition we find a certain elementary-school tone of explaining and describing natural phenomena.

Oshumare is movement and activity. One of his duties is to drive the forces that produce danmovement. He is the lord of everything that is elongated. The umbilical cord, which is under his control, is generally buried with the placenta under a palm tree which becomes the property of the newborn, whose health will depend on the tree’s conservation. He is the symbol of continuity and permanence, and sometimes, is represented by a serpent that twists and bites its own tail.  He wraps himself around the earth to keep it from falling apart. If he lost his strength, it would be the end of the world…this is an excellent reason to not be negligent with his offerings.


Oshumare is, at the same time, male and female. This dual-nature appears in the colors red and blue that surround the rainbow.


He also represents wealth, one of the most appreciated benefits in Yoruba worldview.

Some legends of Ifa tell that,

“He was once a babalawo, ‘son-of-the-owner-of-bright-colored-stoles’. He began his life with a long period of mediocrity and his peers held him in contempt. His eventual attainment of glory and power is symbolized in the rainbow, which, when it appears makes people exclaim, “Well, well, there’s Oshumare!” This shows that he is universally recognized, and like the presence of the rainbow keeps rain from falling, it also demonstrates his power.” 

Another legend:

This same babalawo Oshumare was exploited by Olofin, the king of Ife, his main client. He divined his luck every four days, but the king paid him sparingly, and Oshumare struggled to get by. Luckily for him, he was called by Olokun, queen of a neighboring kingdom, whose son suffered from a strange illness: he wasn’t able to stand on his own legs, he has seizures, and in these moments, would roll over ardent leaves from a bonfire. Oshumare cured the child of his illness and went back to Ife with lots of presents, well-dressed in the most beautiful blue clothes. Olofin, shocked by this sudden splendor felt bad about his previous greed, he competed with Olokun’s generosity by also gifting Oshumare with valuable gifts and offering him fine red clothes. Oshumare became rich, respectable and respected, not imagining that even better times were on the way. Olodumare, the supreme God, had issues with his vision and called for Oshumare. He had once been cured by Oshumare, and vowed never to separate from him again. Since that time, Oshumare lived in the sky and was only authorized to walk on earth from time to time. On these occasions, the people became rich and happy.

The place of origin for this Orisha, along with Obaluaye and Nana Buruku, would be with the Mahi in the former kingdom of Dahomey, where he is called Dan. Blue beads, segi in Yoruba, are called Danmi (“serpent excrement”) in the Fon language. According to tradition, these beads are found under the earth, where they are brought to the surface by snakes; they say their value is equal to gold.

Among the Mahi and Fon, Dan plays a more important role than Oshumare plays for the Yoruba. For the Fon, Oshumare brings wealth to humans.


The Orisha of wealth is called Aje Shaluga in Ife, where they say she arrived among Odudwa’s 16 companions. It’s represented by a big shell.

Oshumare’s oriki are very descriptive:

Oshumare who stays in the sky/ controls the rain that falls to earth/ arrives in the forest and breaths like the wind. Father, come to us so we can grow and have a long life.

Oshumare in the New World

In Brazil, worshipers of Oshumare wear yellow and green glass beads; Tuesday is his sacred day. His initiates use braja, long cowry necklaces strung in a way that looks like snakeskin. They carry ebiri in their hand, a type of broom made with palm stems. They can also carry an iron staff forged like snakes. While dancing, his iyawos alternately point up to the carybe-oxumaresky and down to the earth. People scream “Aoboboi!!!” to salute him. Oshumare takes offerings of ducks, mixtures of black beans, corn and shrimp cooked in palm oil.

In Bahia, Oshumare is syncretized with Saint Bartholomew. He is celebrated in a small city bearing his name. The faithful gather there on August 24th in order to bathe in a cascade covered by a humid mist where the sun permanently gives light to Oshumare’s rainbow.


People of Oshumare wish to be rich; they’re patient and perseverant in their undertakings, and don’t worry about sacrificing in order to reach their goals. The tendency they have to be duplicitous could be attributed to the androgynous nature of their god.  They easily become proud and pompous upon gaining success and like to show their new greatness. Their generosity is unstoppable and they don’t refuse to extend help to those in need.”

Orisha Divination is Not Fortune Telling

by Iyalorisa Melissa Olosun

People often come to Orisha religions and think the first step they tarotshellsshould take is to get a reading. While divination is absolutely important in all of the Orisha religions, it is usually not the very first step one would take.

North Americans are quite familiar with Ouija boards, tarot cards, crystal balls, palm readings and other forms of divination that we see popularized in movies and on television. The person using these tools to tell the future often leans in and tells the person on the other side of the table about the mate they’ll meet in the future, what they’ll look like, and how many children they’ll have together.

That’s not what Orisha divination is. Orisha divination (merindinlogun, jogo de buzios) is more of an assessment than fortune telling. Orisha divination, through communication with Orisha, helps us better understand some of the choices we may be making in life, and give us some advice about how to make better decisions and keep our lives in balance. This is different from other forms of (non-Yoruba/derived) divination, because tarot, for example, cannot communicate with the Orisha to diagnose and remedy a problem.

In order to understand the purpose of Orisha and Ifa divination, it’s important to understand the traditional Yoruba perspective of destiny. Traditional Yoruba culture includes the belief in reincarnation. Reincarnation in the Yoruba view, however, is not the karmic reincarnation that we find in many other cultures. We are not continuously born in order to correct the wrongs of previous generations, or to suffer in another life for transgressions of a previous life. A popular Yoruba saying teaches us that the world is a marketplace, heaven is home. It is understood that this life is temporary, and that we’re just here to enjoy the moment while knowing that our true abode is in heaven. This mind-frame survived in the diaspora for many African American families that refer to funerals as home-going services, making it clear that we understand that physical death does not separate us.

Since heaven is home, everything begins there. Before we are born, it is believed that our spirit sits for divination in heaven and chooses our destiny. WE choose our destiny before manifesting in flesh and bone. However, during the process of passing from heaven to earth we end up forgetting the destiny we chose. This is exactly where Orisha and Ifa divination come into play. Merindinlogun divination reveals Odu – ancient wisdom – that tell stories to help us stay on track. Orisha religion, among other things, is about balance. When we follow the advice of Odu and make the prescribed sacrifice, we work toward keeping our lives in balance and fulfilling our destiny.

We seek divination when we have decisions to make in life that could alter our destiny – moving, changing careers, marriage, purchasing a home, etc. We do not seek Orisha divination to make decisions that we can make on our own – like whether or not to leave a cheating spouse.

Unlike other forms of divination like tarot, Orisha divination will often prescribe a sacrifice (ebo). Although it’s true that a priest cannot force you to come back and perform the ebo, it’s probably best not to seek divination if you’re neither prepared nor interested in completing the prescribed ebo. While certain Orisha may be lending their support as you work through a particular situation, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a child of that Orisha. If something is revealed in divination that you later have questions about, go back to the priest who performed the reading to seek clarification from them; advice from others is pure speculation, and will likely confuse you.

In the end, keep in mind that the purpose of merindinlogun divination is to make sure we’re following our destiny. Sometimes, that means receiving information that we’re not ready to hear. Try to keep an open mind, but don’t expect the winning numbers to be revealed in the reading.





Candomblé Cultural Center of NY

I’m so excited to announce that the Candomblé Cultural Center of NY is opening this month in Jamaica, Queens! We’ll be hosting prayer services, lectures, workshops, fellowship and merindinlogun divination (jogo de buzios) all slated to begin in two weeks at the Candomblé Cultural Center of New York in Jamaica, Queens!

Our center is small and seating is limited, so invitations to events will be sent via email instead of posted here or on Facebook to the general public.

Orixa Ninu Ile: Complete Documentary

Orixa Ninu Ile is a documentary about Candomblé that takes viewers through Ile Axe Opo Afonja in Bahia to take a look at specific Orisha and their worship. This documentary truly is a gem, and I’ve been working on translating and adding subtitles.

The full documentary is about 30 minutes long. In order to translate the documentary, I’ve broken it into smaller parts. The documentary in its entirety takes a look at the cult of Obaluaye – including vestments, oriki, songs, and sacred dances.

Part 4 of this timeless documentary provides an overview of sacred dances of Obaluaye, Nana, and Oshumare.

Documentary: Odo Ya! Life With AIDS

Before modern medicine, indigenous people around the world took care of themselves with medicine from the earth.  There was always someone in the community with knowledge of herbs who could help heal the sick, and even prevent illness.

During and immediately following slavery, where Africans and their descendants in the diaspora seldom had access to developing medical care in their new surroundings, our root doctors continued to take care of the community. Many people who were not born into Orisha worshiping families often recount their entry into the religion with stories of having fallen ill, and turning to Candomblé because they knew that the knowledge of herbal remedies ran deep.

When the world shook under the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when the lack of information about the disease caused fear and alienation, many people once again turned to Candomblé for healing – both spiritual and physical.

This rare gem of a documentary, Odô Ya! Life with AIDS, takes us to Bahia to examine AIDS awareness and the role that Candomblé – particularly Obaluaye – plays in helping people cope with the disease. There are also timeless interviews with the late Iyalorisa Beata de Iemanja and Babalorisa Joaquim Motta.  The entire documentary is dubbed in English.