gossamer.gif (9363 bytes)Orisha Groupies, or, the Cult of the Next Big Thing
A Field Guide to Some Very Strange Birds

by Shloma Rosenberg

I have been noticing a surprising phenomenon lately among Orisha worshippers. It is something that had never dawned on me as a possibility within a religious tradition, especially one in which so much emphasis is placed on the development of character, as well as on humility and respect. The trend of which I speak is that of the Orisha "groupies" who seem to be popping up all over the place.

I first noticed this in a city in which there are very few practitioners of Orisha tradition. A well-traveled woman I encountered at a social gathering noticed the bracelet I wear which signifies my status as a priest.  She began to chatter of her involvement in the religion. It seemed that she was the goddaughter of a well-known author/Babalosha and she was not going to let ANYONE forget it. She threw names around like fastballs at a world series game. She had seen this-or-that author lecture and this-or-that Bata group give a presentation at a local college. Never did she mention an Orisha function that was not a public event or did not involve a famous author. Indeed, it quickly became apparent that she had never attended anything but the Grandest of Orisha Balls.

Weeks later, she called to invite me to an exhibition of Bata drumming being held at a museum in my city for which she was going to be in town. I politely declined her kind offer, explaining that I really didn't have time to attend a show. To that she replied "Well you really should consider going, this is the REAL THING!" I replied that I believed that I would probably be fine without this "rare treat" and that she should fill me in on what it was like to see "real live bata drums."  It never occurred to her that I, as a member and priest of the religion, would witness the playing of bata drums on a regular basis.  The religion to her was something to be watched from a folding chair in a university auditorium.  The priests, even her own religious family, were simply performers.

It was then that I had my first inkling of the existence of the Orisha Groupie. For several years I thought it to be an isolated phenomenon, but recently, especially after going "high tech" (haha) on the Internet, I have found that it is becoming quite widespread. I am going to present, for your amusement and/or interest, a tongue-in-cheek field guide to the various types of Orisha Groupies, so you can identify them when you are out and about in this strange world.

Keep in mind that many Orisha Groupies are mutts, bearing the characteristics of two or more species. I will use the pronouns he and she randomly, but this is not to insinuate that these individual are any more likely to be of one gender than the other.

The Diviner Junkie, also known as The Adult Child of a Really Lousy Godparent

This breed of Groupie is unique in that he is more often initiated than not. This should be unusual, as one would hope that initiation would bring a level of awareness about the true nature of this religion at least to the degree that Groupie-itis would not be present. Alas, with the Diviner Junkie, this is not the case.

Most often this species is created by irresponsible, fanatical or incompetent godparents. The Junkie has no confidence in his elders and usually disassociates himself from them very early on. He wanders from reader to reader, from priest to priest in search of the Great Wizard who will cure all his problems.

He takes you aside at bembes and tells you, "Have you gone to see the Babalawo at that new Botanica? HE IS GOOD!" He attends numerous initiation ceremonies, but only so he can go to the Ita and drag the Italero into the other room to get a reading.

What he is looking for, and often finds, are diviners who will cater to his fantasies. Even as an Iyawo, you will find him in the home of every Babalawo, Italero, Palero, Spiritist and fly-by-night water gazer. He refuses to take responsibility for the mess he has made of his life, and therefore wanders from reader to reader, certain that he is going to find the Next Big Thing who will have the cure for what ails him.

The initiated Junkie does the unthinkable: He carries the book in which his Ita was written around WITH him. He shows it to every diviner he encounters and begs for further insight. Even though he has made no effort to comply with the taboos and imperatives set forth in the original divination, he is certain that he will run across the one diviner who can look at his Odu and give him the magic pill that will make his life perfect.

The uninitiated Diviner Junkie learns just enough about divination so that he can remember which Odu came out in his last reading. He then chatters about having brought out that Odu in front of every priest he runs across, hoping for further information.

Whether initiated or not, he is FANATICAL in the belief that witchcraft and "evil spirits" follow him all the days of his life. There is NO POSSIBLE WAY that his problems could be the result of his own actions. Therefore, everyone, man, woman and beast with whom he interacts on a daily basis is a possible malefactor. He has few friends, because unscrupulous diviners (or the Junkieís own suspicious mind) have labeled all his acquaintances as senders of ill will. As soon as one personís "spell" is removed, the next ex-friend is waiting in the wings with another. Just ask the Junkie, he'll tell you ALL about it.

Often the priests of Ifa and Orisha are a little too common-sense-oriented for him. This leads to subspecies 1, the Spiritism Junkie:

The Spiritism Junkie, also known as The Adult Child of a Fanatical Espiritista

There is as good a chance as not that the Spiritism Junkie is a priest. She travels from spiritual mass to spiritual mass in search of the remedy for her lack of progress. Any advice she is given in a misa about altering her own behaviour is quickly discarded. She is very confident that all her problems are the result of disgruntled spirits and the malefic actions of others.

She often goes to diviners of Ifa or dilogun, but she almost always ignores their advice. There is much too much about personal character development in the oracles for her to be totally comfortable with them. Unless the diviner detects an outside source for her unhappiness, she does not want to hear what he has to say.

Instead, she runs back to the spiritual mass, and slavishly follows the prescriptions which she is given. She never progresses, which only serves to convince her that the witchcraft she has on her is incredibly strong, and the only solution is to increase her participation in spiritual ceremonies.

Just like the Diviner Junkie, you will find her in EVERY Palero and Spiritistís house. Whether Aleyo, Iyawo or Olosha, she will be there with bells on, begging readings and advice from whoever will listen.

The Spiritism Junkie and the Diviner Junkie are automatically members of a third species, The Conglomerate.

The Conglomerate, also known as the Adult Child of Quite a Few Really Lousy Godparents

The Conglomerate is almost invariably an initiate, and is usually separated from the individual who initiated him. He has no elders, has served no apprenticeship and claims no pride of lineage. He has usually left his elders because they were neither willing nor competent to train him properly, or he may just be an asshole.

His habit, usually, is to find a priest who, for whatever reason, offers him a little training or advice. He latches on and sucks up as much information as possible, adding it to his repertoire of practices. His favorite quote is. "I like to see how things are done in different houses." His practices are usually a mixture of Orisha, Palo Mayombe and Espiritismo, although lately the practices of the modern-day Nigeria and Candomble have been creeping into his arsenal.

He rarely holds on to any of his practices for long. He does, however, seem to have an internal magnet for incorrect or ill-conceived practices. These he is hesitant to abandon. When mistakes that have been perpetuated into tradition are pointed out to him, his usual response is, "Well, if something has been done repeatedly, even if it is a mistake, it BECOMES tradition." He loves the mistakes because they are usually easier to execute than the proper method.

As soon as the priest to whom he has attached himself becomes undesirable (usually because he gets too expensive, fails to answer every one of his questions, or in some other way displays his humanity), the Conglomerate takes off for his next victim.

He rarely has godchildren of his own. His lack of confidence in his own practices and his willingness to abandon and adapt alterations in his style of ritual fail to inspire confidence in those who come to him for spiritual guidance. Godchildren, however, are what he craves the most, and the acquisition of followers is his primary gauge of how well he is doing. This keeps him running.

The Glamour Leech, also known as The Celebrity Stalker

Lately the Glamour Leech has become the most common of the Orisha Groupies. With the proliferation of priest/authors, priest/lecturers, anthropologists specializing in Orisha studies, musicians and even Orisha Internet celebrities in the mass media, the cult of personality was destined to rear its ugly head in the community.

The Leech goes to every public event. At every book signing, convention, lecture, workshop, symposium, public class...you canít swing a dead chicken without hitting a bunch of Leeches.

Her conversation is peppered with the names of the well-known. She is under the impression that if someone is famous, their word in the religion is law. She has little or no allegiance to any one particular tradition, and often belongs to no house at all. If she does have a godparent, the situation usually manifests in one of two ways:

Scenario 1:  Her godparent is a well-known priest--not necessarily well-known among other priests, but definitely well-known among other groupies. She tells you the name of her author/godparent within the first two minutes of your acquaintance, regaling you with anecdotes concerning her godparentís wit, wisdom, and, most of all, her godparentís other famous friends. The Godparent may be a reputable priest, as fame does not exclude competence or ethics. If this is the case, though, the Godparent is usually terribly embarrassed by her behaviour. The other possibility is that the godparent is an egomaniac who uses the Glamour Leech as a gopher to run errands and further his or her career.

Scenario 2:  Her godparent is neither well-known nor competent. This is the reason the Leech is a Leech. Her godmother is a notorious fraud who couldn't progress her way out of a paper bag and is the laughing stock of the community, and is so desperate to keep a grip on the few godchildren she has, that she doesn't mind her Leech/goddaughter running from famous priest to famous priest in Orisha High Society. What the Leech herself does not realize is that she is desperately searching for someone legitimate, and has to go to public events because she has no in-roads to private Orisha houses, often because she shows her ass so frequently that nobody will give her the time of day.

She is often pompous and pedantic. This is because her primary fantasy is that her leeching is paying off, and she is becoming just as important and deserving of notoriety as the Orisha rock stars whom she worships. She goes everywhere, participates in everything, but it never dawns on her that she does all of this A-L-O-N-E. This is because nobody can stand her. Occasionally she picks up a follower, but they donít last long.  They either become full-fledged and self-sufficient Leeches on their own, or they manage to find their way past the smokescreen to something meaningful within the religion.

The Leech draws no lines between traditions. In her world, a celebrity is a celebrity and all celebrities reign supreme over the lesser-known. If a Lukumi priest says things are one way and a Candomble priest says they are another, the fact that they are from different traditions means absolutely nothing. The more famous of the two is right. All priests live in subservience to the famous. Unknown priests from Nigeria must bow before the Cuban author. Obscure priests from New Jersey have to answer to the Brasilian who is in town for a lecture tour. Even if they are from the same tradition (and perhaps even more so), the golden aura of notoriety outshines an eternity of experience.

The Star, also known as The Elder Aleyo

THIS is a strange one. I was sitting at the table after an initiation listening to a woman complaining of her treatment at the hands of her brothers and sisters within her godmotherís Ile.

"Whenever we do anything," she said, "they treat me like I am some sort of underling. I am disgusted that they fail to recognize me as an elder!"

Perhaps I was tired, or just temporarily insane, but I bit. I heard the words coming out of my mouth, and I was horrified, but powerless to stop them. "Well, how many years of initiation do you have?" I asked.

"Oh, I am not initiated," replied the Star, "but I have been in the religion for 8 years! I am the elder among the aleyos."

As I was about kindly explain that there was no hierarchy among aleyos (an explanation that was destined to fall on deaf ears), I saw my godsonís mouth open and knew what was coming. He is a priest of Oshun and is not the best at holding things back. "So," said he, "you have 8 years of NOTHING."

I plotzed. The Star got up and harrumphed her way into the other room.

There have always been non-priests who overstep their boundaries. They join in on conversations with Oloshas and Oluwos and quack about what the religion is and what it should and shouldn't be. When I was a member of the Orisha Mailing List (an E-mail discussion forum), there were several members who had no initiation and presumed to instruct, as well as to argue certain points with very experienced elder priests. There WERE members of the List who were not priests but who were respectfully informative, like my friend Sim El Fatunmishe, who offered good, solid information in a respectful, respectable and sensible way.   Unfortunately, his wonderful posts were often lost in a sea of flame wars and posturing.

It must be said that there are many such members of the religion who are not priests and are very intelligent, wise, knowledgeable people, just as there are also many initiates whose knowledge and/or understanding of the religion is nothing to write home about. Neither lack of initiation on the part of aleyos nor lack of experience on the part of young initiates should restrict them from discussing and understanding the religion.   There is a profound difference, however, between discussing the religion with one's elders and attempting to define the parameters of the religion.  There are many elements and areas of religious thought and practice which are closed to aleyos, and aleyos have no choice but to accept that. 

The Star is unable to accept it because she believes that her time in the religion has earned her the right to some sort of status within its hierarchy, as well as a place at the table with elder priests. This is just not the case. No amount of experience or knowledge will cause the ashe of priesthood to spontaneously appear in the head of a non-initiate. Without that ashe, one cannot hope to have the depth of insight into the mysteries of Orisha required to act or speak with authority.  Similarly, having passed through the rites of priesthood does not purchase the knowledge and experience required to function effectively as a priest.  It is only the combination of initiation, experience and diligent study which provides the foundation required to gain elderhood.

The most problematic of the Star's tendencies is to teach.  She feels that her experiences and knowledge of the religion arm her to offer advice and instruction.  She is under the impression that her godparents tell her everything they know, but she fails to realize that there exists an entire foundational body of knowledge behind each tidbit of information she receives from them.  For instance, in divination she will be told to give Oshun an offering to resolve a problem.  She then instructs someone else to do the same thing in order to resolve a similar problem.  What she does not know is that each ebo is dictated by the Odu which falls in divination and is unique to the individual and to the situation.  She could very well cause serious problems for the person she instructs, as she may be prescribing medicine for a condition which does not exist.  She is building a castle on a foundation of sand.   It's kind of like a person who thinks they can teach DOS just because they know Windows (I hope that analogy is not too obscure, because it's really GOOD). 

Most often, the Star never passes through the rite of initiation. This is because she rarely has any real faith or level of commitment to the Orishas. She usually is only in the religion because she sees an opportunity to be interesting or to have power. When the Star finds out that this is not so, she moves on to other endeavours. Should she actually become an initiate, she has often spent too much time trying to be grand and is unable to come down to earth.  She believes herself to be wiser than her elders and separates from them so as to avoid subservience. At this point, the Star usually evolves into the Diviner Junkie and/or the Conglomerate.

Two strange new species Ö

As beneficial as the Internet may be to the world at large, it has caused a problem or two in our religion. It has spawned an army of Students and Teachers whose lives in the religion are bathed in the blue light of a computer monitor.

The Cyber Elder, also known as The Time Traveler

The Cyber Elder is a strange one. He first signed on to the Internet as a novice in the religion. Often the Cyber Elder lives in places far removed from large Orisha worshipping communities. He has always been grumpy about being an "unknown" member of the religion, and has longed to be an surly old priest to whom everyone must prostrate themselves. One day he found the Internet, and it was the beginning of a beautiful priesthood.

I have been blessed with a brilliant sweetheart who archives EVERYTHING that is posted to the Internet, whether it be to mailing lists, website guestbooks, newsgroups or message boards. Every once in a while he pulls out a gem that really sets me to chuckling. He recently pointed out a really nice one in which one of the Great and Powerful Grand Poobahs of the Internet, boasting 20 years of initiation, originally gave his initiatory age as something closer to SIX. He is the head of an entire subspecies of Cyber Elders: The Time Travelers. These people start out posting timid questions and bowing their heads with humility, only to miraculously time-warp into elderhood mere months later.

Also unearthed were the posts of another Time Traveler who was originally self-identified as a Christian writing a research paper on "African Spirituality." In less than a year she was teaching classes AND conducting Ifa divination in AOL chat rooms.

One of the most unfortunate things about Cyber Elders is that they often mutate into REAL LIFE elders. Innocent seekers write to them and become their godchildren, or, conversely, they headhunt the curious who post to the guestbooks and message boards, dragging them into their previously fictional Iles to God-knows-what fate. Thankfully, the relationships are usually short-lived, as it is harder to maintain the ruse in person.

The Web-Trained Conglomerate

This is a variation of the standard Conglomerate described above. In this case, the individual is as likely to be initiated as not.

The Web-Trained Conglomerate is often a product of MANY different traditions. She slavishly studies the writings of the Nigerian Babalawo, then she chats with Oloshas from Cuba and Brazil, and finishes her day up by Emailing for advice from the Haitian Mambo.

Like the Cyber-Elder, she often becomes a kind of elder in her own right, giving advice via e-mail or message board. The Internet has rendered elderhood completely up-for-grabs. There are all new ethics, morals and hierarchy in the religion out here in cyberspace. If any of these people acted the way they do in the real world of Orisha worship, some old Santera would backhand them, but out here on the web, it's every man for himself and you can call anybody an asshole you want, regardless of their status within the religion. If someone with "Old Fashioned" sensibilities questions any of these disrespectful upstarts, they are answered with lessons on free-speech, consensus and equality.

You will get to hear LOTS of Yoruba catch-phrases like "iwa pele" and "ori buruku" from the both the Cyber Elder and the Web-Trained Conglomerate. They LOVE these phrases cause they get to use them whenever someone agrees or disagrees with them. Here are the rules (don't forget them):

No matter what kind of animal someone acts like, they are FULL of "Iwa Pele" (gentle character) as long as they are saying something with which you agree. Conversely, anyone who points out the fact that someone is acting like an animal has "Ori Buruku" (bad head) if you like the person they are exposing.

These phrases have been milked of their meaning on the Internet, and are now as empty of discernable meaning as a Christian bible.

In Conclusion

Should you encounter any of the above mentioned species, please, do not make any sudden moves. They can be very dangerous.

Should you recognize yourself as a Groupie: Please, get to the mikvah as soon as possible.

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