Iyalorisha

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The Iyalorisha is a medium of the gods or the bride of the Orisha among the Yoruba of Nigeria. Like the Babalorisha, who is normally a male, the Iyalorisha is a key person in the Yoruba spiritual hierarchy because she is married to the Orisha. The Babalawo or the Iyawo represent counterparts of the spiritual priesthood of the Yoruba people. In the form as Iyalorisha, the female becomes the medium for translating the spiritual truths to the community.
Festivals and celebrations are regularly held for the Orishas in Yoruba. A series of rituals occur during these festivals and celebrations, with possession trances as the typical culmination of the ritual sequence. The Iyalorisha experiences these ritualized possession trances, which serve as the periodic retying of the bond between the physical and spirit worlds. When Iyalorishas become possessed during one of these ceremonies with their Orishas, they act in traditional behavior of the Orishas that possess them. The Iyalorisha experiences, among most groups, about a year-long and intricate initiation process, which is described in this entry.

Overview

To become an Iyalorisha, one must become a part of the family, the lyawo of the Orisha. lyawo is a word that has become important because of the Cuban/Puerto Rican component of the Yoruba religion. It might be said that the lyawo is literally an initiate into the family of an Orisha. A ritual of 10 days must be performed. The lyawo is labeled as such usually after the initial 10-day ritual, but the lyawo cannot perform her duties until the entire year of rituals and celebrations has occurred. The beginning of that initiation process lasts between 8 and 10 days in the Santeria/Lukumi (this is mainly from the Puerto Rican or Cuban region) tradition of Orisha religion. On the first day of this 10-day ritual is the birth of the new lyawo and her Orisha, as the lyawo receives the Orisha internally and becomes linked for life.
For 7 of those 10 days, the lyawo is sometimes in seclusion. After these 10 days, the person becomes an lyawo, but her behavior is severely restricted for 3 months. Then another ritual is done, but this ceremony takes only 1 day. Some of the restrictions are lifted after this ritual, but the lyawo still faces some restrictions for the next 9 months.
Depending on the particular ethnic group, the restrictions on the lyawo will be lifted on the 1-year anniversary of the initiation, 7 days after the 1-year anniversary, or a certain number of days after the 1-year anniversary based on the ritual number of the lyawo's Orisha. At this point, when the restrictions are lifted, some of the houses in the town may have a ceremony similar to the 3-month ceremony.

The Initial Period

The lyawo, after her 7- to 10-day initiation, is believed to be a child and therefore must be treated as such for the first 3 months. Therefore, the heavy amount of restrictions during this period stems from this belief. During this 3-month period, the lyawo is always supposed to be well dressed, with her clothes always white and clean. Women are supposed to wear baggy skirts and blouses or dresses, but never pants, and they must have something covering their heads—be it a hat or scarf—at all times during this period except when bathing or sleeping. A piece of cotton is placed underneath their head covering throughout these 3 months.
The lyawo must not only be immaculately dressed, but he or she must have immaculate hygiene. However, the lyawo is not allowed to use perfumes or any sort of cosmetics except deodorant. The medium must bathe religiously because it is an abomination to attend a religious event without bathing beforehand.
Although Iyawos are supposed to look presentable, they are not allowed to use razors to keep up their hygiene until the entire year elapses. Iyawos are also not allowed to cut or comb their hair for the first 3 months. They cannot even decorate their bodies with jewelry, particularly during these first 3 months. They are only allowed to wear the following special set of jewelry: the bracelet on the left wrist that identifies the lyawo's orisha and another bracelet, usually white or silver, that identifies Obatala. Women lyawo may also wear bracelets that identify female Orishas.

Ongoing Restrictions

The lyawo can never eat at a table and must instead eat on a mat. The lyawo is given a plate, cup, and spoon that he or she uses for the entire year. The lyawo is not allowed to look in a mirror, even for dressing and hygiene. The lyawo may be allowed to use a mirror for driving and her work.
These mediums are not supposed to expose themselves to the sun at noon, and they must be home before dusk. Also, around midnight and noon, Iyawos are not supposed to be outside and in some cases must stay indoors until 5 minutes past those times. Of course, there are exceptions, most often if they must be outside at those times for their jobs.
The lyawo cannot go to any event where there are a lot of people, except a religious event. At these religious activities, the lyawo is mandated to help in any way needed. To go to a religious event or an olorisha's home, the godparents or another olosha picked by them must accompany the lyawo.
The lyawo is prohibited from consuming liquor and any sort of drugs or hallucinogens, and he or she cannot even be present when other people consume them. The lyawo is not supposed to take pictures or shake anyone's hands. Iyawos are not supposed to speak unless it is necessary. However, they are always supposed to be listening for lessons from the elders, whom they should always show respect regardless of whether it is warranted.

Life as an Iyalorisha

After this year-long ritual is completed, these restrictions are lifted, and the lyawo is allowed to perform her duties as a medium for her particular Orisha. There are variations in the process of ceremonies based on the ethnic group. After the ceremonies during the up to 10-day initiation process, in some cases, the future ceremonies are held based on whether the lyawo can pay for them. Therefore, the 3-month ritual may not occur after the first 3 months if the lyawo has not secured the funds for it.
Among some groups (as in Cuba), the lyawo is able to perform her duties or work as a priest after the 3-month ceremony. But in most cases, the lyawo is not given the right to work until all of the ceremonies and rituals have occurred. The lyawo is given that right to work through a public ceremony. In effect, the lyawo is generally considered an lyawo after the initial initiation process, but he or she cannot perform her duties until after all of the rituals are completed.
Nonpriests are not allowed to call an lyawo by the title of “lyawo.” In the hierarchy of the priesthood, that would be considered rude. An lyawo is also considered a novice in relation to her Orisha. So a nonpriest would be calling this person a “novice,” although the lyawo is higher in the hierarchy than the person calling him or her a novice. Instead, nonpriests call an lyawo by her family name.

References

Keywords

  • rituals
  • initiation
  • lifts
  • hygiene
  • jewelry
  • right to work
  • duty

Author(s)

Further Reading

  • Amadiume, I. (1987). Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London: Zed Press.
  • Bay, E. (1998). Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
  • Nzenza-Shand, S. (1997). Songs to an African Sunset: A Zimbabwean Story. Melbourne and London: Lonely Planet.
  • Oyewumi, O. (1997). The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Sudarkasa, N. (1996). The Strength of Our Mothers: African and African American Women and Families: Essays and Speeches. Trenton, NJ, and Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press.
  • Yankah, K. (1995). Speaking for the Chief: Okyeame and the Politics of Akan Royal Oratory. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.