Scholarly investigations of African diaspora religions are well established within the fields of cultural anthropology and art history, in addition to the popular devotional accounts that circulate within communities of these religions’ contemporary practitioners. Increasingly, African diaspora religions are the subject of theological treatments, such as Diane Stewart’s Three Eyes for the Journey (Oxford University Press, 2005), Michelle Gonzalez’s Afro-Cuban Theology (University of Florida Press, 2005), and the present text under review. Such theological studies generate new audiences for these materials, and raise new topical and methodological questions to consider, foremost among these: How should theologians, usually trained to systematize Western monotheistic traditions, approach non-Western, polytheistic religions? How should scholar-practitioners position themselves in relation to a religion they both practice and analyze?
Where the Men Are Wives and Mothers Rule is addressed to both scholars and practitioners of orisha religions. Orishas are divine beings, who were originally worshipped by Oyo, Egba, and other West African ethnic groups (now collectively designated as Yoruba) from the regions of present-day Nigeria and Benin. These enslaved West Africans (known as Lukumi in colonial Cuba) brought the worship of orishas to various locations of the New World, where these religious practices were reformulated by their religious descendants.
Focused on the Afro-Cuban religious complex known as Santería, Where the Men Are Wives and Mothers Rule is a welcome African diaspora addition to recent studies of religion and gender. The book includes a helpful glossary of terms, and is arranged with topical chapters about divination, initiation rites, possession trance, sacrifice, and witchcraft. By providing a theology of contemporary orisha traditions that reflects upon the gender implications of Santería ritual practices, Clark challenges both “male normative” Western theological traditions as well as the “misogynistic attitudes” found in the orisha traditions of which she is an adherent (3).
Within religious studies, African diaspora religions are often regarded as the “Other” of Western theological traditions. For scholars in emerging fields, such as religious studies scholars who research African diaspora religions, it is challenging to maintain apace our respective content, theory, and method conversations—particularly when, as expressed as program sessions of the American Academy of Religion, these discussions often proceed along parallel tracks. Although at times her categorizations are a bit sweeping, Clark bridges this rift a bit. She situates her discussion of possession trance in African diaspora religions in relation to religious studies literature on mystical experience, adding a critical revision that emphasizes the necessity of an attendant ritual community for the interpretation of possession trance within orisha [End Page 724] religions. Her theoretically informed description of orisha possession as an instance of Self as Other to divine being (98) is a helpful addition to the discussion of alterity in religious experience.
Clark focuses on “feminine” gendered performances in orisha spirit possession rituals, a signature trait of orisha religious practice that has long attracted adherents’ and researchers’ commentary, but few sustained analyses. Santería, Clark argues, is best described as “female-normative,” since “the feminine is considered the most appropriate metaphor for religiosity” (78). That is, in orisha religions, “priestliness is concurrent with womanliness” (78), such that “all practitioners… are expected to take up female gender roles in the practice of the religion” (5). While female devotees are routinely possessed by male-gendered orishas, just as male devotees (who are said to be disproportionately homosexual) can be possessed by female-gendered orishas, all entranced mediums—regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or the gender of the possessing deity—are temporarily gendered as “female,” and assume a “passive” role in order to “receive” their spirit-husband orisha (98).
Clark’s strongest contribution is her delineation of the title iyawo, a Yoruba word meaning “wife, younger than the speaker,” and a label that, in New World orisha religions, often designates initiates and underscores their lack of religious seniority. In the sexually inflected idiom of Santería, the orishas are said to “penetrate” or “mount” iyawos, who then function as “wifely...