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Judith Gleason--Oyá Lola Has Joined the Ancestors

A couple weeks back I had to go to New York City for work, and I called Judith Gleason to see if she wanted to have dinner. No answer, so I left a message. The next day, her son left me a message explaining that she had joined the ancestors on August 5th after having a stroke.

I have "known" Judith since 1987, though I doubt anyone really knew her. In all honesty it is terribly difficult for me to separate her from Oyá, the oricha of her devotion, the oricha of lightning and winds, whose unpredictable movements shake up the status quo and reveal new opportunities. So here I am cleaning up after this storm.

When I was twenty-one, I found Judith´s book, Oyá: In Praise of the Goddess. I read it again and again, as I tried to follow the shifting currents of its prose and as I worked to digest the world it depicted. I still have the original copy whose binding has been broken by wear and double taped for reinforcement. The book is a masterpiece of original, synthetic scholarship that breaks between lived experience, anthropology, depth psychology, textual analysis, and diasporic description. These shifting perspectives imitate the motile quality of Oyá's subjectivity and reveal Judith’s unwillingness to privilege any one perspective. Such was her deep commitment to her vision of wholeness.

Having been pulled (or blown?) into the world of oricha, I needed to find a way to connect to the community, so I sought Judith out. I found her name and address in Contemporary Authors and wrote her a short letter explaining my situation. A week later I received a short letter in her own hand, explaining that she only knew two diviners but recommending one--Santiago Pedroso. A month later I visited Santiago for my first cowry shell reading, and five years later Santiago's sister Norma initiated me to the orichas.

As the years went by, Judith and I would talk from time to time, always circling our common interests--oricha, the feminine, depth psychology, writing, family, and finding a path through the world. Over the years, I heard about "the children" at Stanford, in Mexico, dealing with mental illness. There were conversations where I called with a specific question, and Judith and I would talk till we wandered through to some kind of answer. But there were other "conversations" where Judith would launch into whatever she was working on or thinking about, propelled by the inner force that defined her in some way. In either case, I usually would get a letter a week or two later with more thoughts, hints, intuitions, and images.

In one such conversation, we discussed Nana Burukú and Nanú, dark goddesses associated with the powerful mysteries of the Earth. I had told Judith that my guiding ancestor spirit had served Nana Burukú as a priestess in life. A week later, a letter arrived addressed in her distinctive handwriting, and it contained a small necklace for Nana Burukú that Judith had gotten in Dassa, Benin, where the goddess has her principal temple. That necklace still sits on my ancestor shrine, gracing the neck of the doll that represents my guide spirit.

At some point, Judith wanted to go to Cuba to meet a senior Oyá priestess I had mentioned to her several times. I set her up with a driver, a place to stay, and more contacts than she could possibly meet in a week. To my delight, she fell in love with Cuba. The simplicity and directness of most people delighted her, and she appreciated the priestess Ester de Oyá, who in her late seventies was still dancing for the orichas at drumming ceremonies. Judith also took a shining to my friend Paco, with whom she stayed. I think she ended up going twice, but the years make it hard to remember. What I do remember is the lilt in her voice when she spoke of Cuba. I was thrilled to be able to return the favor of opening the roads for her to find some new vitality.

The last time we spoke was in April. She called because a mutual friend had reached out to ask her about her involvement in the oricha community in New York in the late 1960s, and Judith somehow decided she wanted to cover some of this territory this with me. I had spoken to her relatively recently, and so I had some sense of her struggles to survive on a fixed income and the devastating loss she had suffered from the death of daughter. She told me of her efforts to find some footing in this new place. She recounted how a friend had insisted that she needed help and had directed her to a psychologist--her "shrink" as she kept saying. The talk-therapy helped, she said, but she confessed that she never told her shrink about her involvement with the orichas. "I am not sure what he would make of it, but I have never said anything about it." We talked too about the power of the psyche to defend itself from terrible trauma and loss. She mentioned a poem by Wallace Stevens that had helped her a bit as she struggled to make sense of the trajectory of her own life.

My wife tells me that when I got off the phone, I said I thought Judith was dying.

A week later the last handwritten letter arrived, continuing the conversation with more bits of detail about her family and her Yoruba experiences," this time telling how she had just recounted her first meeting with Pierre Verger to her eldest daughter. "So shreds of my Yoruba experience fly by. The years collapse and sometimes I cannot imagine how it all happened." Taped into the middle of the letter was the Stevens poem.

The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain

There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,

How he had recomposed the pine,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among the clouds,

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion

The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged

Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.

--Wallace Stevens

It seems the blustering energy of a stormy intellect finally came home, directed to the specific, solitary solidity of the mountain. The opposites touched for a moment or a month, and now Judith Gleason--Oyá Lola is gone.

Ibaye, ibaye tonu.
Homage of the world, homage of the world to the one in heaven.


  1. Thanks for this tender eulogy. I only knew her through her books, so it is especially bittersweet to glimpse her in life.

    Oya is a gem, but I can't tell you how often I have returned to A Recitation of Ifa to listen to that warm scholarly voice. Would there have been more of them.

  2. I agree that Recitation of Ifa is also a great book. I routinely return to it after almost 20 years as a diviner. There is a depth and clarity--and a warmth as you rightly say--that has been an important part of my understanding of the individual signs and their interrelationships. See the last odu, Obara-Osa, for more insight on the author.

    1. Been trying to find out information on Judith for some time. In 1971 we moved into her apartment in NYC for two years while the family was in Rome. I had met her in the early 60's over the phone while on medical leave from Africa and the Peace Corps. Someone recommended her as an expert on Africa, I was returning to Liberia and wanted books. She told me of a bookstore in the east village and I thought I had really scored when I got there. Later she came down to my school in Maryland and did some programs for my African History course. Then when I was looking for work in NYC she put me up and took me to Manhattan Country School on 96th, where
      I was hired. We had gone to NYC earlier to get our new son baptised by a Santeria in the Bronx, a naming ceremony took place and we named our son Nathan Obawole Hanson. She dedicated her book on Orisha to him and one other child. I mention all this because I am such a fan of Judith Gleason, the only book I don't have is the Ifa one. Hope we can communicate. Andy Hanson,

  3. Thanks for the news and lovely words. Peace to her soul, and condolences to you. Love, Ona

  4. Today as I reflect on the life of my friend, god daughter, and comadre Katherine Hahedorn, I wonder if the shifting sensibilities that Judith embodied are in fact a universal part of every human life.

  5. so late to come upon this news, and so saddened by it. I wish I had been able to talk to her and am grateful for the fullness of your entry. And including the poem. She was my lit-companion when writing about the cast iron artist community, but I've never found anyone who speaks specifically about Oya in the furnace and suspected she could tell me…

  6. so late to come upon this news, and so saddened by it. I wish I had been able to talk to her and am grateful for the fullness of your entry. Thank you for including the poem. She was my lit-companion when writing about the cast iron artist community, but I've never found anyone who speaks specifically about Oya in the furnace and suspected she could tell me… Nor Hall

  7. A new website, draws attention to the contribution of Candomblé to the birth of Samba. That set me thinking about Judith and wondering whether she was still alive. Google sent me to Àṣẹ at Jumel Terrace Books: From the Library of Judith Gleason Medium, a fascinating record of her personal library, where she is referred to as “late.” A further search, adding “obituary” to her name, led me to this page.
    In the early years of this century, when I had completed my first novel, Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, I started looking for other novels of the slave trade. That led me to read Judith’s novel, Agotime, Her Legend, which, though set in the Atlantic slave trade, is really about African spirituality. I searched for information about the author, without success. Then the BBC started a program in which they offered to put listeners in touch with long lost heroes, footballers, musicians and the like. They succeeded in locating Judith and in the course of a 3-way telephone conversation, Accra-London-New York, I was able to tell her how much I had appreciated her novel.
    Some years later I was paying a rare visit to New York and called her. She invited me to dinner at her apartment on the Upper East Side. She clearly wasn’t well off. Her daughter, an aspiring poet, joined us. We ate artichokes and talked and talked and talked. I subsequently bought a copy of Oya, the edition with a fine cover showing a dancer, which sits beside me as I write this.
    Apart from this page I haven’t found any other obituaries. That strikes me as a sad reflection on the communities to which Judith belonged, the African scholars, anthropologists, makers of documentary films, writers and those who share her spiritual beliefs. Her memory surely deserves better?
    My search did result in one other hit, a paper by Judith entitled “Oya in the Company of Saints” ( Journal of the American Academy of Religion June 2000 Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 265-292 © 2000 The American Academy of Religion) resulting from the visit to Cuba which Michael mentions and in which she records her thanks “… First to Michael Mason of Regla de Ocha and the Smithsonian who so deftly arranged both home stay and a reliable, compatible driver with whom to accomplish an itinerary whose essential contacts, again, were his.”
    Manu Herbstein
    Accra, Ghana

  8. I composed a homely praise poem to the powerful woman who opened the road to the orichas for me and who remained my interlocutor until the end. She deserves the very best in my mind, and I honor her spirit every day when I invoke her along with all my other ancestors. At the request of her family, I dispatched her orichas as is the tradition among the New World Yoruba/Lucumí, and I was particularly honored when her Elegguá chose to stay with me. On Saturday afternoon, I sat with him and rubbed him down with palm oil to cool him and raise the memory of my dear, departed friend.


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