Taboo and Honoring Sacred Difference

The year is 2016 and tremendous violence continues to be perpetuated by people who seek to impose their reality on others by force. More extreme forms include hate crimes, terrorist attacks, acts of domestic violence, and religious or government policies to stifle cultural difference. Although most people would oppose on principle such overtly hateful forms of “othering”, seemingly minor and often unconscious acts of prejudice and micro-aggression are the ground in which violent extremism germinates and takes root. As we continue to grapple in the United States and elsewhere with painful legacies of racism, sexism, religious intolerance, and other forms of bigotry, one way to participate in necessary cultural healing is to bring greater awareness to these subtle habits of objectifying and demeaning others as they live in ourselves and those closest to us.

Let me be clear; noticing difference is not a bad thing and is not the same as objectifying others. Basic cognition and memory, human or otherwise, is largely organized around the principle of pattern recognition. Our identities hinge upon our ability to distinguish familiar people and surroundings from new encounters. Noticing difference is based in part on biology and essential to our survival, which means it’s a losing battle to try to see everyone and everything as the same even if this were somehow desirable. And yet the ways in which we ascribe meaning to the differences we notice can run the full spectrum from passionate celebration of diversity to subtle objectification or outright violence. Here’s one way to frame the challenge: How can we harness our innate tendency to notice difference in ways that encourage cultural healing rather than harmful othering, prejudice, and violence?

Remember that objectification and harmful othering are not new human problems. Widely diverse cultures have well-documented histories of tearing down the image of local community members or neighboring peoples as a precursor to acts of violence. Fortunately, this means that many of our ancestors have already been grappling with problem of how to temper the human tendency to objectify others, and in some cases this ancestral wisdom remains available in the form of traditions and practices. As a life-long student of world religious systems and doctor of psychology, I’m interested in the strategies that deeply rooted spiritual traditions employ for navigating what I think of as “sacred difference”. Have you already experienced religious or spiritual systems that help you to understand and respect diverse types of people? More than any other single influence, my experiences as a practitioner of traditional Yorùbá religion, also known as Ifá/Òrìṣà tradition, has helped me to expand my vocabulary for diverse human experiences and to take a more kind and informed approach to making sense of and navigating personal differences.

Gabu, Susie ati awon maalu

What are Your Taboos? Before exploring Yorùbá perspectives, notice what associations the concept of taboo carries for you. The word enters English from Tongan culture and implies a cultural limit, perhaps rooted in sacred or spiritual realities. Are there any taboos you already honor as part of your religious or spiritual practice (e.g., avoiding certain foods, fasting certain days)? Taboo often carries negative associations such as shaming, restriction, and unkind moralizing. See if you can try on a value-neutral meaning that’s more about the affirmation of personal and cultural limits. We are all unique people with specific cultural settings.

As a European-ancestored American, I know I wasn’t raised with a sacred context for taboo, but I’ve come to see many moral debates through the lens of hashing out cultural-level taboos. For example, most Americans would decline to eat even a gourmet preparation of horse or dog and would also consider such foods to be culturally taboo. Many feel similar about families with multiple husbands or wives, although such arrangements are common in other cultures and among some Americans. Contentious social issues like the death penalty or abortion tend to hit people on the gut level of cultural taboo. If you’ve lived in other countries or reflected on cultural difference, you likely understand that communities and cultures are formed in part from an intricate system of do’s and don’ts.

In addition to widely held societal or cultural taboos, most Americans are willing to respect personal differences when it comes to food, drink, and intoxicants. When feeding friends and family who are vegetarian, lactose-intolerant, or who have food allergies, most cooks understand that some foods we enjoy are harmful, effectively taboo, for others. We also tend to respect the choices of those we love when they decline to drink alcohol or share in a smoke break. And folks with allergies, food sensitivities, or a preference for sobriety may also experience pressure, judgment, and variable levels of accommodation around personal difference.


Taboo (Èèwọ̀) in Yoruba Culture. One of thousands of differently beautiful indigenous African cultures, Yoruba culture is the root of Ifa/Orisa tradition, now the most widely practiced indigenous African system on Earth. Millions of devotees practice diverse lineages of the faith in West Africa (e.g., Nigeria, Benin, Togo), the Americas (e.g., Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad & Tobago, United States) and beyond. Over the past decade I’ve been blessed to participate in lineages of Ifá/Òrìṣà tradition both in the United States and Nigeria. In the past four years I’ve made pilgrimages to Ogun State, Nigeria to undergo initiations to Ifá, Ọbàtálá, Ọ̀ṣun, and Egúngún in the lineage of Olúwo Fálolú Adésànyà Awoyadé from Òdè Rẹ́mọ. This means I am a beginner in my training (ọmọ awo), and it’s as a non-Yoruba, American initiate that I share on a basic teaching familiar to practitioners of any lineage of the larger tradition.

Èriwo or èèwọ̀, usually translated as taboo, plays a key role in Yoruba traditional religion. Taboos may be temporary or life-long and may pertain to food and drink, clothing, behaviors, personality/character traits, ritual actions, etc. For example, like some other Ifá initiates I have a taboo against wearing black or red clothing, betraying confidences, or failing to respect my elders. Based on the outcome of divinations during my initiation, I also have life-long taboos around certain foods and behaviors. Lifetime taboos are commonplace for initiates and range from hardly noticeable to life altering. One assumption about taboo is that because each person’s destiny is a bit different, each person has a distinct formula or recipe for success when seeking to fulfill that destiny here on Earth. Different destinies give rise to different taboos.

Araba Adesanya

When folks consult with an Ifá or Òrìṣà priest, they often receive temporary taboos based on divination outcomes. For example, after a reading you could be asked to avoid wearing patterned cloth, to abstain from eating coconut, or to decline to host guests in your home for a few months. Insofar as the deities or oriṣa are also players in the larger ecology of reality, they also have taboos. Ram may be offered to Sàngó but not to Ọya. Hen may be offered to Ifá and Ọ̀ṣun but not to Ògún. Dog may occasionally be used to feed Ògún but not Yẹmọja. Palm oil is beloved to Èṣù but not typically given to Ọbàtálá. Like human beings, the deities have personalities and preferences as well as things that are distasteful or even problematic for them.

In this context I’m concerned with how Yoruba teachings on taboo and sacred difference can shed light on a blind spot in modern American culture around what I’ll call personal character or behavioral taboos. To clarify how personal character or behavioral taboos differ from widely shared cultural taboos and from the more familiar category of personal food and drink taboos consider the following examples. Some receive a taboo against jumping in to rescue people, while others in the same tradition walk with a taboo that discourages them from declining to help when asked. One divination signature comes with a taboo around arriving late while another carries a taboo on punctual arrival. Some receive the guidance that prosperity will come from living and working close to home in inherited professions while Ifá admonishes others to travel and innovate for success. Ifá counsels some to mediate disputes or speak out as catalysts for justice, while others receive taboos on getting too immersed in conflict, participating in protests, or speaking from a place of anger. Some are encouraged to have dogs as pets or raise animals for food while others have taboos on both. The tradition easily recognizes thousands of specific short and long-term guidelines that could be classified as personal-level behavioral or character admonitions and taboos (do’s and don’ts). Remember taboo is linked to the view that we have unique destinies to fulfill here on Earth, and therefore we each have a litany of things that can support or hinder us in that undertaking.

What if some of our avoidable interpersonal strife arises from the lack of a framework for respecting and even celebrating our different temperaments and paths of destiny? When we fail to proactively appreciate personal-level diversity, including within the same family and cultural group, we tend to fall back on the guidelines available to us; either believing that everyone should follow our cultural norms and/or that everyone should do what happens to be personally best for us. In either case, odds are high for miserable interpersonal outcomes. In contrast, Ifá/Òrìṣà tradition, like many other indigenous paths, affirms that life is not a one-size-fits-all situation and not everyone needs the same things to be happy and living their purpose.

sacred difference

Honoring Sacred Difference in Everyday Life. If we try on the view that we each have unique, personal destinies and that these soul-level differences give rise to somewhat different recipes for a successful life, how can we then apply this perspective in our everyday lives and relationships? Knowing that most people will never become involved in Ifá/Òrìṣà tradition or Yorùbá culture, how can a basic understanding of sacred difference benefit people of any background?

1. Cultivate a Vocabulary for Sacred Differenc