In thinking about women, plants, and spirituality, I thought about the traditional West African Yoruba relationship to the plant realm as articulated in their traditional religious beliefs. I also thought about individual women of my acquaintance and their relationships and interactions with the plant realm. The first portion of this paper is a sketch of the Yoruba traditional religious relationship to the plant realm and the activities of women in this regard. The second portion of this paper will speak on a more personal level of women’s relationship to, and interactions with, plant medicine.
The reason for my focus on the Yoruba is twofold. One, their traditional religion is an area of personal interest and attention. Second, the Yoruba arrived in large number to the shores of the Western Atlantic relatively late in the era of the slave trade. As such, the retentions of their traditional beliefs and practices can be readily seen throughout the Caribbean and South America. Similar African retentions are evidenced in North America.
Overview of the Place of Women in Yoruba Traditional Religion
The ontological orientation of the Yoruba is one of seamless interrelationship between the realms of the seen and unseen. All is imbued with ashe, life force. Orun (heaven) and Aye (earth) are not cleaved; rather, they are interpenetrating. Right relationship and balance between the seen and unseen realms is the measure of health. Within Yoruba religion, there are priestesses. These women are ritualists, divinatory seers, spirit mediums, and healers. In Yoruba Women, Work and Social Change (2009), McIntosh states, “Since the goal of religious ceremonies was to restore balance and harmony between the various components of the physical and spiritual worlds, any rituals that did not include women would be pointless” (p. 190).
Dis-ease and illness are taken as indication that restoration of this balance is needed, as in the words of Oyeronke Olajubu, from her book, Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere1: “Among the Yoruba, sickness attests to the fact that an individual is out of tune with nature and the supernatural” (p. 110). Healing involves restoration of physical, psychological, and emotional well-being and also involves balancing or recalibrating the relationship between the seen and unseen realms. Olajubu continues, “Medicine among the Yoruba encompasses the use of herbs and the act of combining herbs with incantations and/or sacrifice” (p. 110). It might have come as a surprise to British imperialists who, during the European witch trials, suppressed women’s healing arts, but, as conveyed by McIntosh,2 a report of Yoruba women’s economic activities during the colonial period found that women were “herbalists, (and) traditional medical practitioners…who were consulted about illnesses” (p. 167). The professional Yoruba medicine woman is called Onisegun.
Ewe is roughly translated as “leaves” and includes plants, herbs, roots, bark, and other elements of flora.
Ewe is roughly translated as “leaves” and includes plants, herbs, roots, bark, and other elements of flora. As prescriptive, it is plant medicine. As plant medicine, the dimension of spirit is paramount. Tariq Sawandi,3 writing on plant spirit medicine in Yoruba tradition, states, “plants are living, breathing, communicating creatures, endowed with personality and attributes of soul…they are ready, willing, and able to cooperate [with] and assist humanity” (p. 116). Olajubu (2003) adds emphasis to this in stating that the Yoruba “perceive herbs as possessing life, names, taboo, and praise poems (oriki); hence to approach, annex, and utilize them, a special kind of knowledge is required” (p. 112). This knowledge is the knowledge of working with the unseen realms.
Olajubu (2003) continues: “The invisible plane of power is within the custody of the women, and it serves as the base on which the visible plane of power rests” (p. 124). She goes on to state, “certain deities are perceived to be custodians of herbs for healing; the healer is expected to know and be on good terms with such deities” (Olajubu, 2003, p. 111). Two primary examples are Osanyin/Osain, the deity of herbs and herbal potency, and Osun, whose water itself is a potent healing force, and whose inclusion is needed in remedies. “Water to the Yoruba is a primordial element with supernatural qualities that regenerate and effect wellness” (Olajubu, 2003, p. 112). A healer’s effectiveness is, therefore, contingent upon her relationship with the spirit realm. The healer is also a diviner; diagnosis and prescriptive remedy are ascertained through the technology of divination.
Sawandi reports additional channels of communication between the individual and plant spirits as including trance states, dreams, and ingestion of the herb.
Eerindinlogun (16 cowry), the system of divination attributed to Osun, is said to offer “direct access to herbs and roots (ewe ati egbo)” (Olajubu, 2003, p. 87). Thus, to quote Olajubu (2003), “while other diviners have to pay homage to the Iya mi group through offerings and sacrifices for the efficacy of herbs and roots used, Eerindinlogun practitioners… do not” (p. 87). The Iya mi group, headed by Osun, is a society of powerful women who straddle the realms. In African Medicine (2016), Sawandi reports additional channels of communication between the individual and plant spirits as including trance states, dreams, and ingestion of the herb.
The authors of Women in Africa and the African Diaspora (1996) affirm, “during slavery black women performed healing roles… (and) had to rely on a number of home remedies for survival. Some of this knowledge, particularly of the value of medicinal herbs, was derived from Africa”.4 In North America, the slave codes prohibited any practice associated with African traditional religion; most famously, drumming.
The conjurer could also be known as a rootworker because knowledge and use of plant life is part of the practice of conjuring
Nevertheless, African retentions were evidenced as seen in hoodoo and conjure. In African American Folk Healing (2007), Stephanie Mitchem maintains that “hoodoo was pragmatic, revolving around roots and herbs for healing or protection, with a constant awareness of the interconnectedness of all life… The conjurer could also be known as a rootworker because knowledge and use of plant life is part of the practice of conjuring” (p. 20); and conjuring involves an intimate relationship with the realm of spirit.
Cementing the close affinity of New World folk healing with African epistemologies, Mitchem5 states, “Folk healing depends on the ability of the healer… to orchestrate the flow of the natural, spiritual, and relational aspects of life… The practitioner learns to ‘work’ the elements in order to draw power to achieve some desired end” (p. 17). This working the elements entailed connecting to and communicating with their spiritual essence.
As discussed, the spiritual technology of working with plant energies is an integral part of this spiritual tradition
Yoruba traditional religion and the religions that derive from Yoruba traditional religion are practiced in the United States and in many countries world-wide.6 As discussed, the spiritual technology of working with plant energies is an integral part of this spiritual tradition. Working with a priestess of Olokun, the deity associated with the depths of the sea, I was taught the correct and respectful way to cultivate and work with plants and leaves. Prayers are said and songs are sung to honor the spirit of the plants while working with them and, in turn, they share their healing essence. Following a traumatic incident, I received an herbal cleansing from a priestess of Osun. Again, prayers were said and songs sung, along with other ritual components designed to elicit the benefits of the plant’s healing spirit on my behalf.
Tobacco and marijuana, along with ayahuasca, opium, and others, are classified as plants with psychoactive properties. My great-grandmother, Margaret McKenzie, was a root woman living in Mandeville, Jamaica. During my eldest sister’s childhood, she lived with great-grandmother Margaret. Being 18 years my senior, this sister had the opportunity to live in rural Jamaica, observing and experiencing firsthand great-grandmother’s relationship with her community.
Individuals came to great-grandmother for physical and spiritual healing, as well as for divination. My sister states that our great-grandmother used to “read” people aided by the tobacco she grew. My sister uses the term “smoking people” to describe our great-grandmother’s practice because she would light rolled tobacco (a makeshift cigar) and proceed to blow tobacco smoke over the head and body of an individual while receiving divinatory visions and insight.
A good friend, whom I will call “Evelyn,” was kind enough to share personal anecdotes for this presentation. She begins: “I have had several profound experiences aided by the use of marijuana through both smoking and ingestion.” Following are three of these experiences:
When I was about 20 years old, I took a trip to Jamaica with my friend, S. While there, we went with a cousin of mine to meet a group of old Rastafarians in the mangrove swamps. I remember smoking ganja with them, and they had a large black book, and they explained the spiritual beliefs that underpinned their philosophy. At the time, I remember an unusual level of understanding and perception, even though I could not understand what they were saying. S. later confirmed that they were speaking Amharic but communicated with us telepathically. The experience felt, at the time, like a profound initiation, which I have never forgotten.
During my mid-40s, I went with my husband at the time and his friend hiking through the desert to see the beautiful stark terrain and the ancient petroglyphs on the rocks. During that first walk, I was constantly stuck by cactus thorns of the cholla, the barrel cactus, and other forms of cactus plants. It seemed as if no matter how hard I tried to avoid being stuck by walking as far away as I could from the plants, I was stuck continuously, and I felt very uncomfortable at the end of the hike despite having worn thick socks and boots.
The next time we went hiking, we smoked marijuana first. I approached the largest cholla plant I could see and with sincerity and humility addressed the plant directly. I said “Grandmother, please teach me how to walk in the desert.” I then saw the plant increase in size dramatically with golden vibrational energy surrounding her. I felt honored and deeply grateful for her willingness to communicate with me, and I was never stuck by thorns in the desert again, though we went hiking in that area and different parts of the desert over many years.
Recently, I was at home in bed recovering from a long series of surgeries to remove a sarcoma, or cancer tumor, on my left calf. During the final stage of recovery, while healing from a skin graft, a small mass appeared on the site of the original surgery, now covered with the skin graft. The doctor excised the mass and sent it to pathology. While waiting for the results, I was resting one afternoon in bed after having taken marijuana to relieve the pain in my leg and the residual pain on my thigh at the site of the skin graft. I asked the Teacher Within for a sign. In the living room, I saw my doctor’s face and upper body in his blue surgical uniform; he was smiling at me. The image looked like a movie projection. Then I looked toward the left and saw the wall between the living room and the galley kitchen glowing with white light. I knew I was healed and that the cancer had not returned.
Women as onisegun are instrumental in healing and in the restoration of balance
To summarize and conclude; I have presented a snapshot of the Yoruba ontological perspective that perceives everything as imbued with ashe—life force or spirit—and that comprehends the realms of the seen and unseen as interpenetrating. Balance and harmony are needed between the realms for health. Women as onisegun are instrumental in healing and in the restoration of balance. Ewe—plants and herbs—are a fundamental prescriptive. Through divination and other means, the healer establishes communication with the spirit of the plant on behalf of the individual seeking healing.
Retentions of this ontology and attendant spiritual technologies are found in African American folk healing traditions and in the folk healing traditions of other regions to which enslaved Africans were shipped during the Atlantic Slave Trade. As we look to the use of psychoactive plants in contemporary healing, it is important to remember that the spirit of the plant—its ashe, its efficacious essence—must be honored. I daresay that the misuse of some psychoactive plants and associated negative consequences stem from not honoring the power and spirit of the plant. Let us be mindful.
This paper was presented at the Women and Psychedelics Forum, a symposium promoted by the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines and the East-West Psychology Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), San Francisco, November 19, 2018.
- Olajubu, O. (2003). Women in the Yoruba religious sphere. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ↩
- McIntosh, M. K. (2009). Yoruba women, work, and social change. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ↩
- Sawandi, T. M. (2016). African medicine: A complete guide to Yoruba healing science and African healing remedies. New York City, NY: Nile Valley Medicine. ↩
- Terborg-Penn, R., & Benton Rushing, A. (1996). Women in Africa and the African Diaspora. Washington, DC: Howard University Press. ↩
- Mitchem, S. Y. (2007). African American folk healing. New York City, NY: New York University Press. ↩
- Olupona, J. K. (2008). Orisa devotion as world religion: The globalization of Yoruba religious culture. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. ↩