The Body as Layered Divinity

Regla de Ocha-Ifá Ritual Kinship

by | Mar 1, 2021

Elena Martínez


I am a practitioner in the Afro-Cuban spiritual-religious tradition, Regla de Ocha-Ifá. What is the tradition, you might ask? You might be familiar with Regla de Ocha-Ifá as Lukumí, Ocha or (Cuban) Santería, in which kinship is initiated and solidified through ritual work. I personally do not like the term “Santería” how it is popularly known by as it deemphasizes the Afrikan legacy of the practice. I spell Afrika and Afrikan with a ‘k’ from the influence of the socio-political movement of Black nationalism in the United States and prominent leaders in the Black arts movement like Black American author, educator and poet Haki. R. Madhubuti. In Madhubuti’s 1979 work, From Plan to Planet Life Studies- The Need for Afrikan Minds and Institutions, there are four reasons to spell Afrika with a K which include that most traditional languages on the continent spell Afrika with a K, Portuguese and British colonized our languages by replacing C whenever they saw or heard the sounds of K like Kongo and Congo during the colonial project on the continent. Utilizing K symbolizes a reconnection of Afrikan people and their descendants through these practices of Black self-determination.

Transpersonal relationships are then spiritually bonded and consecrated. The role of third parties, Orishas, the deities of Ocha-Ifá, is essential in the spiritual birthing that happens whenever a practitioner initiates, especially in the significant ceremony initiation, to become a high priestess or priest called Kari Ocha/Leri Ocha. 

I explore the transcendental kin relations through an Indigenous and Yoruba lens by tending to the Ritual Kinship in Ocha-Ifá and the human body in relation to the Orishas. I also experience these sacred kin relations in my Ocha-Ifá community called my Ilé

In my second year as an undergraduate at Hampshire College, I cultivated an independent study course on revisiting dance composition as a tool for Afrikan-Diasporic ancestral connection. I felt the call to return to the practice of choreographing dance, and I knew that I could only do so by decentering, recentering, decolonizing and reclaiming space, origin and identity. I choreographed working with the music and movement of Afro-Dominican Palo and Gagá. Still, at Hampshire and the next semester, I found myself in many ceremonies and initiations engaging in Ocha-Ifá ritual-based repetitive movements in dance-making. This experience has influenced my studies and practice at Harvard Divinity School.

In an academic context, I pull from Black Feminist anthropologists like Zora Neal Hurston, Katherine Dunham, Yvonne Daniels, Aisha M. Beliso De Jesús when thinking about dance, movement, the body as a critical crux in understanding the connection to African Diasporic spiritual-religious traditions, spatiality and ecologies. Despite the fact that many in academia devalue the transcendental realities of Afrikan Diasporic traditions, practitioners, deities and Black Gods, a practitioner’s body goes through an intense initiation to offer an additive understanding of anatomy that serves as a reorientation of the body, space and energy to a place of value. 

Dancing in Cuba


As a dance-practitioner myself, I have had to study anatomy to satisfy requirements as a training dancer. Now, I find myself, a fully professional dancer, dance educator and an Iyalocha, a high priestess in Ocha-Ifá. To understand my body in relationship to the Orishas means to delve into the layers of the body as a divine thread. The Orishas represent nature, and each Orisha not only resides and represents natural ecologies like the ocean, river, mountain tops, swamps and volcanos, but they actively are those natural ecologies. To understand my body with which I perform and through which I teach dance means to unlearn and relearn that my body is in relationship to natural ecologies, and ultimately, divine nature. The role of the body in Ocha-Ifá, the Orishas, and their representation in the human body brings me to inquire about the possible shared body of Diasporic communities in this spiritual-religious network.

Regla de Ocha-Ifá is an AfroCuban spiritual-religious practice that is initiation-based. Ocha-Ifá practitioners undergo ceremonies and rituals both in community and individually, including dance, chants, and rituals. As a Ocha-Ifá practitioner, I intentionally do not use Santería as it deemphasizes the Afrikan legacy of the practice. While Regla de Ocha-Ifá shares commonalities with Candomblé in Brazil, Shangó and Trinidad Orisha in Trinidad and Tobago and Traditional Ifá in Nigeria, Ocha-Ifá differs because it is culturally very Cuban. Regla de Ocha-Ifá is a coming together of three religions: Yoruba, Catholicism and Espiritismo (the practice of communicating with one’s Egún or blood ancestors and guiding spirits through prayers and mental concentration)

The deities of Regla de Ocha-Ifá are called Orishas. The Orishas not only reside in a single natural ecology like the river, Ocean, forests and volcanoes, but they are those natural ecologies, making Ocha-Ifá a nature-based religious practice. In order for our ancestors to have been able to practice the Yoruba religion, the Orishas were syncretized with Catholic saints. The Orishas were worshipped behind the guise of Catholic saints like the Orisha Yemayá with La Virgen de Regla, the Virgen Mary. Particular practices are Cuban adaptations resulting from the religion’s need for survival in times of violent enslavement and dislocation. These Cuban adaptations exist both in ceremonies and rituals, language and pronunciation. Before the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the religion was called olucumio, and when the religion arrived in Cuba, it was called Lucumí. Twenty years later, the religion became Lucumí and then Regla de Ocha-Ifá or Santería.

The central divinities of Ocha-Ifá are Olofin, Olodumare, Olorún, Egún and the Orishas. Olofin created all that exists in the world and the Orishas. Olodumare is the owner of the laws of the universe. Olorún is the sun. Egún are familial ancestors and ancestors inherited by initiation. There are several hieratical systems in Ocha-Ifá. The first system of hierarchy is of the Orishas between the major and minor Orishas. Major Orishas in the religion’s hierarchy are Orishas that can be received as one’s tutelar Orisha like Elegguá, Obatalá, Yemayá and Oshún. The minor Orishas cannot be received as one’s tutelar Orisha like Ochumare and the Ibeyis. The second system of hierarchy is of religious roles. The highest is Babalawo/Iyánifá/Iyálawo and the initiatory is Aleyo. As Regla de Ocha-Ifá is an oral tradition, there are variations of spelling and pronunciation of the Orishas and all Ocha-Ifá terminology.

Our Ocha-Ifá practicing bodies record these choreographies that situate themselves in our bones to be performed for years to come. In the prayer of Omi Tuto, Ona Tuto, Ilé Tuto, Awo Arikun Babawa, is Yoruba for “cooling water, cool our road, cool our aché, refresh our house, cool Elegguá, so we may not see death.” In many of our prayers, we ask for health, coolness in a world of lurking chaos, trauma, and violence and to live a long life. Moforibalé is a ritual greeting in which practitioners lie down on the floor and bow’s their head to the floor to honorably salute and pay respect to religious elders, the Orishas at their altars, and the consecrated Batá drums played at ceremonies. Prayers are danced, sung and intrinsic to repetitive movements. As I practiced ritual-based repetitive movements, it allowed me to see the choreographic device of repetition as such a sacred device in dance-making. 

Orisha practitioners are children of the Yoruba deities, the Orishas. Every practitioner has a tutelar Orisha that claims their Orí Eleda (their head and consciousness). Once practitioners goes through the significant initiation of Kari Ocha/Leri Ocha to become a priest or priestess, they are reborn as an Iyawó and carry out an extensive initiation period Iyawóraje, and find out who their second guiding Orisha is. Iyawó translates to “bride of the Orisha” and “child of the Orishas,” yet duality is present as their guardian Orishas are both mother and father. When I think about diasporic kinship, I consider what it means to be one of many children of an Orisha, thus having siblingship with others near and far from me. I suddenly feel everywhere and nowhere, disoriented and situated. In Ocha-Ifá, family and kinship has multiple and pluralistic meanings in the number of Orisha parents one has. Thinking about the father, an initiate may have several father figures. For instance, I have a biological father and the Orishas Olodumare, Olorún, Orula and Elegguá are also my fathers by spiritual-religious consecration. When you receive an Orisha, you are now regarded as that Orisha’s child. In that case, my fathers also include Ogún, Ochoosi, Olokún (who is androgynous) and Shangó.

Nadia Learning from an Elder in Havana, Cuba


How Orishas Align with the Body

Not only do the Orishas represent forces of nature and hold parental bonds with practitioners, they also exist in different parts of the body. Our feet represent Elegguá, as Elegguá is always moving and is everywhere at once. Elegguá also represents the earth, stones and is synonymous with the destiny of people. Orisha Yemayá represents the womb, amniotic fluid, the water in our body, the breasts, and our arrival to life. Yemayá is the universal mother in the Yoruba pantheon who is always giving birth and has birthed all the Orishas. Our head belongs to a source of energy of Orisha Obatalá named Orichanla, the eldest Orisha, who created the mold of the human head, and Obatalá made the orifices of the face. Orisha Oshún is the blood that flows through the veins of the body, like how rivers run in nature. Oyá represents our respiratory system, the breath and the soul. Oyá is the first to enter our body when we arrive in the world, Oyá is the air, the breath who enters directly into our lungs to begin the circulation of our organisms, water, energy, blood, and when the bones begin to move. Shangó is situated in our tongues and genitalia, as Shangó is the Orisha of sacred sexual energy and a smooth-talker who articulates in ways that he needs to acquire anything he wants. Our throat represents Agayú. Asojano represents the joints and bones. Osaín represents the food and medicine that nourishes and heals us. Ogún represents strength.

These somatic embodiments of the Orishas are present in healing and movement practices, a reconnecting of all the senses. In a global community where capitalism depends on excess labor, extracts our spiritual wellbeing and treats people as disposable labor, understanding our bodies tethered to divinity and nature combats the corporal abuse. I came across the term colonial pollutants during my undergraduate years when I attended a conference presented by the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI). This term remains at the forefront of my mind when thinking about corporeal ecologies and how we can release these pollutants through the vibration of the drum and dance. Attempting to practice self-love after learning to disregard our bodies is akin to attempting to love the Earth after learning to disregard it. Understanding this particular reverence grounded in reciprocity is a turning point for building a healthy relationship with nature, thus the Orishas. Afrikan Diasporic Earth-based traditions guide us to reclaim the initiated Afrikan Diasporic body. 

Screen Shot of Traditions


In Yoruba cosmology, when spiritual inhabitants of Orún (heaven) decide that it is their time to incarnate again, they must ask permission to return. These spirits see the Orisha Ajala, who crafts the Orí (destiny) for those who will be born. The Orí is sealed inside identical wooden gourds, left unseen by the spirits who go to pick a destiny. They have no idea what future they will live to experience. The Orí could lead to a life of ease and success or to one of much hardship and tragedy. After spirits choose their Orí, the person returns to the creator, Olodumare, who then breathes them into a body at birth. The Orisha Elegguá is always present in the process of spirits picking their Orí. Elegguá is present to lend advice to the spirit choosing their unknown Orí. Elegguá is an Orisha who knows about death in quite a sacred and intimately context. Ikú Lobi Ocha, “el Muerto parió el Santo” (the dead gave birth to the saint) refers to a oral narrative of the Yoruba pantheon (Patakí) involving Elegguá who finds a coconut on a road he was walking that was gleaming with light. Elegguá takes the coconut and brings it back home and places it behind the door. Elegguá quickly ignored the coconut. The coconut soon became full of ants, and the coconut water and mass dried up and rotted. Alongside the rotten coconut, Elegguá also began to deteriorate and eventually passed away. Elders in the community came together to figure out what caused Elegguá’s death. The elders found out that Elegguá found something and abandoned it behind the house door, but what they saw was a stone. The coconut converted into stone. This oral narrative not only speaks to Elegguá’s experience with death, but the fact that the Orishas are consecrated Otases or stones along with other elements. The body in Ocha-Ifá, the Orishas represented in the human body, and the shared body of Diasporic communities in this particular spiritual-religious network, deconstructs colonial relationships to Earth that profits from the divide of our divine nature.

My dance training and ritual practice becomes more resonant in my Ocha initiated body as I recognize parallels between Ocha-Ifá dance traditions, and repetition in ceremonies and divination that are present in choreographic devices and performing choreography. Both which are tethered to a Diasporic shared body of knowledge and kinship. I learned that the body holds transcendental knowledge as it does of harm enacted upon us. I relearned how the immense power of dance can release corporeal harm and how repetitive movements in ceremonies can literally remove harm and restore balance. My body is in relationship to the Orishas who themselves are natural ecologies, which is present in my mind when I ritualize with them. For a long time, I regard my body as a well of wisdom that engages in powerful dance and ritual work that is undoubtably divine.


Winter 2021Volume XX, Number 2

Nadia Milad Issa is a first-year Master of Theological Studies degree candidate pursuing the African and African American Religious Studies Area of Focus at the Harvard Divinity School. Nadia’s dance training and research centers post-revolution Cuba and the Regla de Ocha-Ifá/Lukumí spiritual-religious tradition. Their ethnographic and dance-focused research, where Nadia spent over three years in Cuba and México pursuing fieldwork, is on Spiritual Reparations in Regla de Ocha-Ifá and other Black Diasporic Traditions and the politics of being an Akpwón in Cuba and its diaspora. Nadia is an Iyalochá (initiated high priestess) in the Ocha-Ifá practice.

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