Oshun is in love with Shango, but he’s married to Oya. Oshun thinks Shango will leave his wife and choose her if she can cook the foods he loves. She asks Oya to share her recipe for Shango’s favorite soup. Oya suspects that Oshun is sleeping with her husband, and Oya wants revenge. She tells Oshun, “If you want your man to love you as much as Shango loves me, you have to put some of your body in the soup, like your ear. The sweetness will keep him from knowing what he’s eating.” Oshun is a bad cook anyway. She cuts off her whole ear and throws it in the soup. When she serves the soup to Shango, he sees something floating on top of the soup and asks, “Oshun, what’s this?” Oshun says, “Oya told me to put it in because you would like it. It’s my ear.” Shango doesn’t like the ear soup. He blames his wife for tricking his lover into disfiguring herself, so he divorces Oya and marries Oshun. That’s why Oshun and Oya hate each other, and Oshun always wears a headwrap to cover her missing ear.
The Yoruba people of West Africa tell this story. In their spiritual tradition, known as Ifa, Oshun, Oya and Shango are divinities called orishas, who serve as intermediaries between humans and the ultimate creator. Orishas also represent the archetypal energies which compose human complexity. The mythology of Ifa dramatizes the primal conflicts of our lives. Oshun represents love and eroticism. Shango represents anger, aggressive sexuality and justice. Oya is truth.
I am one of many women who have made this soup. It’s a sticky soup with a bitter aftertaste, and we often add more enticing body parts than just our ears. Cleaning up the mess can take most of a lifetime.
Honey in the River tells the story of my experiences with one Yoruba priest (called a babalawo). I don’t know if he is representative of other Yoruba spiritual leaders. I’m simply an observer of Ifa practices and a participant in many ceremonies, not an initiate nor an anthropologist. My reporting is subjective. From my point of view, this story is completely true, although I can’t vouch for the reliability of my informants. I’ve changed names and details to protect privacy, but all these events happened. The other characters might recount the same events differently. In some of those stories, I would be cast as the villain. Those versions might also be true.
My encounter with this unfamiliar religion caused me to question my basic assumptions about monogamy, love, life and death. My story is both archetypal drama and epic soap opera. Blood is spilled. Friends are betrayed. Lovers are deceived. Some readers may be shocked at my behavior, dislike me or question my sanity. Others may think I was naïve, immoral, judgmental or just plain stupid. Please read on. I’ll take you for a wild ride through sexual passion, secrecy, jealousy, anger and tragedy. I’ll put aside my fears about what you may think of me to tell my uncensored truth. I’ll take off my headwrap and show you the messy scars around my metaphorical missing ear.
Honey in the River: Shadow, Sex and West African Spirituality
Endorsements for Honey in the River
Marsha Scarbrough fell in love with a polygamous West African shaman and tells the tale in her smart, sexy memoir Honey in the River. Explicit, funny and above all erotic, Scarbrough questions monogamy, experiments with polygamy and embraces a little-known indigenous religion. In so doing she plunges the reader into a world of trance, rhythm and ancient African mythology. A remarkable tour de force of sexual and emotional healing.
-- Margaret Leslie Davis, Author of Dark Side of Fortune, Mona Lisa in Camelot
Marsha Scarbrough’s painfully honest writing at once reveals stark truths and privation and revels in glorious erotic excess as she relives the blazing arc of her relationship across race, cultural norms and conventions. This true story merges reality with myth, the body with the soul, and the sexual with the spiritual to powerful effect.
-- Neil Besner, Author, Literary Critic, Editor
When a woman tells the truth about her life, the veils between the worlds open so that true love can be revealed. Marsha Scarbrough kept my heart open to receive her story, page after page. This book is about the gift of self love.
-- Joanna Harcourt-Smith, Author of Tripping the Bardo with Timothy Leary
Scarbrough shows us her scars. She bravely unwraps herself, offering us her history and her soul. We see the author for what she truly is: a beautiful human being, making light, seeking healing. Honey in the River helps us understand the complexities of social conditioning, and what can happen when we allow ourselves to experience and embrace both the human drama and universal mystery. Questions ensue.
-- Dr. Anya , Reiki Master, Relationship Coach, Author of Opening Love
Marsha’s book is a deeply heartfelt journey into love, shamanism and human mysteries. She warmly takes us as her passengers, to spiritual and moral destinations that we could not experience without her courage to explore and share.
-- Pen Densham, Writer/Producer/Director, The Twilight Zone TV series, Outer Limits TV series, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Honey in the River is a fascinating book that tells the true story of a decade-long love affair between a white American woman and a charismatic black shaman from Nigeria. Set to a backdrop of powerful rituals, dance, African drumming, mythological archetypes and sacrifice, the author takes us through a breath-taking journey of love, passion, sex, betrayal and ultimately, healing.
For me, reading the book was a little bit like watching a car crash in slow motion: compelling, but painful. The author’s raw honesty in sharing her addiction to a passionate but ultimately toxic sexual liaison really resonated with me. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the alluring shaman who seems to have everything going for him – talent, charisma, success - turns out to be a married serial adulterer addicted to marijuana who has unprotected sex with droves of women and leaves children behind everywhere he goes. Every woman is told that she is the ‘special one’ and the ‘only one’, which makes for a rude awakening when all the women in his harem finally find out about each other. Yet, despite all the harrowing accounts of jealousy, lies and betrayal, we are shown moments of real sweetness, authenticity and spirituality, too, which makes the book an emotional rollercoaster.
Spiritual leaders who abuse their powers for sexual and material gain is an all too common subject and I deeply respect author Marsha Scarbrough for honestly sharing her story and for forcing the shaman to take a look at his shadow side. Though she often loses her resolve around him and has a lot of shadow of her own to resolve, she nonetheless remains truthful throughout and tries to heal the situation in the best way she can. It is her who walks out gracefully with her head held high at the end of the story, despite the many battle scars she suffered in the course of the affair.
Apart from being a riveting read, Honey in the River is a worthy investigation into polygamy, spirituality, cultural differences and co-dependent relationships. I enjoyed the wonderfully portrayed characters and profound reflections of the author which will no doubt help many women in a similar situation to heal and see past the glamour that so often surrounds spiritual leaders.
-- Tiziana Stupia, Author of Meeting Shiva