Iyalorisha & Iyawo: Medium of the Gods among African Yoruba

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 Iyawo of the Orisha. Iyawo is a word that has become important because of the Cuban/Puerto Rican component of the Yoruba religion. It might be said that the Iyawo is literally an initiate into the family of an Orisha.

A ritual of 10 days must be performed. The Iyawo is labeled as such usually after the initial 10-day ritual, but the Iyawo 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 Iyawo and her Orisha, as the Iyawo receives the Orisha internally and becomes linked for life.

For 7 of those 10 days, the Iyawo is sometimes in seclusion. After these 10 days, the person becomes an Iyawo, 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 Iyawo still faces some restrictions for the next 9 months.

Depending on the particular ethnic group, the restrictions on the Iyawo 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 Iyawo’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 Iyawo, 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 Iyawo 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 Iyawo must not only be immaculately dressed, but he or she must have immaculate hygiene. However, the Iyawo 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 Iyawo’s orisha and another bracelet, usually white or silver, that identifies Obatala. Women Iyawo may also wear bracelets that identify female Orishas.

Ongoing Restrictions

The Iyawo can never eat at a table and must instead eat on a mat. The Iyawo is given a plate, cup, and spoon that he or she uses for the entire year. The Iyawo is not allowed to look in a mirror, even for dressing and hygiene. The Iyawo 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 Iyawo cannot go to any event where there are a lot of people, except a religious event. At these religious activities, the Iyawo 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 Iyawo.

The Iyawo 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 Iyawo 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 Iyawo 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 Iyawo can pay for them. Therefore, the 3-month ritual may not occur after the first 3 months if the Iyawo has not secured the funds for it.

Among some groups (as in Cuba), the Iyawo is able to perform her duties or work as a priest after the 3-month ceremony. But in most cases, the Iyawo is not given the right to work until all of the ceremonies and rituals have occurred. The Iyawo is given that right to work through a public ceremony. In effect, the Iyawo is generally considered an Iyawo after the initial initiation process, but he or she cannot perform her duties until after all of the rituals are completed.

Non-priests are not allowed to call an Iyawo by the title of “Iyawo.” In the hierarchy of the priesthood, that would be considered rude.

An Iyawo is also considered a novice in relation to her Orisha. So a nonpriest would be calling this person a “novice,” although the Iyawo is higher in the hierarchy than the person calling him or her a novice. Instead, nonpriests call an Iyawo by her family name.

Source:

Scheub, Harold – A dictionary of African mythology : the mythmaker as storyteller

Molefi Kete Asante, Ana Mazama – Encyclopedia of African Religion

Knappert, JanAfrican mythology : an encyclopedia of myth and legend

Monaghan, Patricia – New Book Of Goddesses & Heroines

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