Remembering the old folks
Practicing a combination of ancestor worship, divination, animal sacrifice and even reincarnation, devotees of orisha voudou claim theirs is the world’s oldest religion. “It all starts with the ancestors,” says Baba Akinwon, 54, a voudou priest who has lived in the village for more than 15 years. Akinwon says the rites of orisha voudou are reserved for those of African descent because non-Africans do not have the proper spiritual lineage.
Sitting regally near the village entrance gates and sporting a cane, dark shades and a long African gown, Akinwon says orisha voudou honors dead ancestors through prayers, offerings and dedicated family altars. In Christianity, Akinwon says, believers are not encouraged to communicate with deceased relatives, but in orisha voudou it is believed that departed loved ones can still advise and assist those who seek their guidance.
“If you sought out your ancestors’ wisdom when they were alive,” Akinwon asks, “why would you stop after they passed away?”
Tortured cries fill the village air. A short walk and craned neck wins a glimpse of a rite that visitors are forbidden to see: a pair of bloody hands holding the slashed throat of a chicken in its last moments of flailing life. Oyotunji performs animal sacrifice — legal in America under a 1993 Supreme Court ruling — as it has been carried out for centuries in West Africa.
“It doesn’t make me squeamish anymore,” says the buoyant Obasegun Adefunmi, 17, who held one of the chickens with its neck cut as its blood spilled into a pot. “I grew up around this. I have seen this done thousands of times.”
Adefunmi says he laughs at those who say that animal sacrifice is cruel. “I don’t see it,” he insists, with traces of blood still spattered on his forearms. “It’s a sacrifice. The blood is the life force for all life. It has ritual power.”
Bruce Friedrich, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says that while animal sacrifice is wrong, Americans should not be too indignant about it. “With 10 billion land animals slaughtered for food every year in the United States,” Friedrich says, “anyone who is eating meat has no room to cast a stone.”
Friedrich says it’s better for PETA to invest its resources in promoting vegetarianism than trying to persuade Oyotunji members to end a rite they and their ancestors have been performing for thousands of years.
Egunleti Adelabu, 65, a grandmotherly looking voudou priestess and tour guide, says that blood sacrifices are just a small part of the offerings made in the village. Most of the offerings to the orishas — there are at least 206 — are in the form of candy, candles, food or liquor left at their altars, she says.
Raised as a Baptist, Adelabu says she found orisha voudou by asking herself as a child how Africans worshiped God. Impressed by what she learned — including the role that offerings played in the faith — she joined the Oyotunji community in 1982.
Sacrificing at the altar of Oya
All offerings are made to give something to the deity first before seeking their assistance, Adelabu says, while bowing and reverently straightening out a can of ginger ale and a jar of strawberry jam left in front of the shrine of Elegba, the trickster deity.
Animals sacrificed in the village include chickens, rams, roosters and goats, Adelabu says, as she passes a white goat, perking up its ears while enjoying a mouthful of lush grass.
Animals were not the only things once sacrificed. Upon dedicating a new village, human sacrifice was a part of Yoruba culture, writes Rob Davis in his book American Voudou. And in 1972, when a Black Panther with outstanding warrants was shot and killed in self-defense by an Oyotunji villager, the death took on deep significance for the first King. Oba Adefunmi told Davis: “We’d already started building the village by then, so we construed it as, hey, look how the gods had worked that deal.”
“Ebos [sacrifices] work,” insists Olugbemi. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo — one of the most destructive hurricanes to batter the United States — was heading for Oyotunji. Faced with evacuation and certain ruin, Oyotunji villagers sacrificed a goat at the altar of Oya — the deity of wind — asking that their village be spared. Shortly afterwards, says Olugbemi, the hurricane unexpectedly altered course and spared the village with only minor damage.
Olugbemi says no hurricane has struck Oyotunji for the nearly 40 years that it has existed, “thanks to honoring Oya, the ancestors, the orisha voudou way,” she says.
And for today, as the sun shines bright, the weather appears good over Oyotunji Village and no one looks happier than the white goat still chomping on the lush grass.
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