Recently, some Orisha adherents in the diaspora have expressed concerns with the use of the term “witch”. They worry that it is an expression of internalized beliefs of inferiority since in the past, many of our long established spiritual and some would say religious practices were called witchcraft as slander. They cite that the term “witchcraft” in English’s equivalent in the Yoruba language, aje has a different meaning and context than in the west. They are correct, but an updated translation of the craft as it is actually practiced in the west, in Yoruba is òògún or spiritually inclusive medicine.
A smaller but significant proportion of those practicing basically folk medicine and therapeutic empowerment in the west are practicing witchcraft in terms of conscious sorcery with specific to goal ceremonies independent of deity/archetype observance. Even these however, would be termed by a Yoruba speaker who was concerned about accuracy, by whatever means they specialized. In Yorubaland and elsewhere in Africa, most spiritual practices are well established within their own societies. Aje refers to a specific deity or force and the practices of those who adhere to their specific rules and practices in Yorubaland. There is a secret society that is extremely exclusive. You don’t join it or seek to join it. They find who is chosen.
So you understand how things can get confusing. In Yorubaland, one would never refer to themselves as a practitioner of aje. The only ones known by the public to exist are those who have exemption for festival participation. To be accused of attempting to use this force outside of the parameters of the society would be like being accused of attempted murder. There are practices that are, for all intents and purposes, spells and magical formulas, but those who do and maybe even specialize in them would not refer to themselves as “aje”.
Now, the question is whether, in the diaspora, we should do the same with the word “witch” because of bad or outdated translations. I think not.
“Witch” and “aje” do not mean the same thing. Someone who is practicing witchcraft in the west would be best described in Yoruba as ologbon obinrin for wise woman or ologbon eniyan for wise man or (as I understand it) person in general (I could be wrong so please ask a native Yoruba speaker for the correct general or nonbinary term). If they are nurturing and educational about it, they may be a spiritual guide or itasona emi. Emi is the term for having to do with the spirits or spirituality. Magic is idan, and someone who does magic is an onidan. Aje is a specific entity and energy.
In the west and the African diaspora within it who speak English, we have reclaimed the term “witch” for better or worse. For what it means now, basically someone who consciously calls upon forces or aspects nature to manifest their will, many of us fit the definition. So what is needed, in my opinion, is better translation.
The confusion of “witch” with “initiated adherent of Aje” leads to all sorts of problems. Aside of unaware people making a major mistake in etiquette that can get them into serious trouble, some people exploit others’ ignorance or confusion by taking on fake titles. As if the fake babalawo issue wasn’t already bad enough, now we have fake Iyami Aje really playing with fire and claiming to be powerful African witches. The fact they don’t get away with it very long before some witch hunter or actual initiate catches up with them doesn’t stop them from trying.
What makes this even more dangerous is that, as I’ve recently been made aware, there are diaspora groups of Iyami Osoronga (Mothers who bestow the ability (for humans) of out of body travel). They are still secretive, and nobody would know who was in these houses except their fellow initiates. They are only known of at all because diaspora practices were forged in war and oppression, so it is possible to call for their help as a last resort. One should not play with these people. If someone is running around faking being a part of them, they might as well start writing their will. It doesn’t matter if the fraud believes or doesn’t. As soon as they speak or write that title, something in their psyche calls the eye of a very dangerous bird of prey to zero in on them.
On the spiritual side, a lot of people are convinced that they can just bandy about the name of Aje willy nilly without any consequences. First of all, that is a Yoruba word for a Yoruba deity who needs to be respected according to the Yoruba context. Even though I was not raised Yoruba and am very comfortable out here in my diaspora situation, something in me squicks a little bit when there is an over discussion of Aje same as when that happens with Eshu. So on that note, let me just summarize and say that I like the term “witch” for what I am and “witchcraft” for what I do, but I do think that when speaking to Yoruba people on the matter, one should be careful to make the distinction between what we do and what adherents of Aje do in the Yoruba context.
There are many cultures in Africa, and though not all have the same situation as the Yoruba people, each has their own context for witches and witchcraft and there may be translation issues. Some cultural sensitivity is in order, and some things may need clarification as we move forward.
We should be sensitive to the fact that colonialism has left a lot of damage in its wake. Equation of African spirituality with devil worship is still having lasting effects. We’re now in the phase wherein some are moving more towards the Motherland and older traditions while others, like myself, are forging a new paths though sanity and soundness checked by traditional priesthoods. People should know when they are getting into something that is traditional or when something is an innovation. They should also know when something is just totally wrong, and for that we need to step up our linguistic accuracy.