One of the most common things that I hear on the various groups that I moderate is something along the lines of “someone told me that Yemaya is my Oricha/Deity,” or, “someone told me that I am a child of Chango.” Of course, we hear this for the various African Diaspora Traditions other than Oricha as well… “I was just told that I am Erzulie Dantor’s Child,” or, “I feel that Danballa is my Lwa Met Tet.”
One of the things that I wonder first when I hear this is, why is it always the most well known and most documented spirits that people say claim them? Almost never does someone from outside the religions say, “someone told me that Inle was my Oricha,” or ,“I’m pretty sure that Mama Zila is my Met Tet;” because no matter how ‘divine’ the intercession that revealed this information, it is always limited to information that is public, well known and easily found online.
The very next thing is of course, “I’d like to know how to set up an altar to her/him, how do I do it?” or, “I’d like to start to work with this spirit, how do I set up an altar to them?” My very first response is, calm down. Please! In the ADRs there is a system, and progressive series of steps that really needs to be followed for you to have a successful relationship with these spirits.
This information is not new… Santera/os, Houngans and Mambos, Babalawos, and other Priests of the ADRs have been putting this out there on the internet for years, but unfortunately the information sometimes gets lost in the noise of the “do what thou wilt” folk; who are not a part of the ADR community and who can no speak for the spirits of Africa, Haiti and the Caribbean.
With that being said, I thought it may be beneficial to lay out some facts in an easy to understand format, which will hopefully resolve some of these questions and leave people more confident in their dealings with the ADR community.
- When it comes to Oricha, a person can not simply ‘know’ which Oricha rules your head. The Oricha do carry many human traits, so sometimes we might look at an individual and think “they are a lot like Chango,” or perhaps, “they are a lot like Eleggua;” but this does not mean that they are the child of that Oricha. No, the only way in which your ruling Oricha can be identified is through a very specific kind of reading. This reading can be done by an experienced Santera/o (priest who specialises in divination, called an itelero),or a Babalawo. This particular reading is not something that one rushes into in Santeria/Lukumi traditions. Instead, the revelation of which spirit rules your head will generally wait until you go before Ifa (the supreme divination system of the religion) in preparation to be crowned as a priest/ess of the religion. Up until that point there is not really any need to know what Oricha rules your head.
- Similarly, when it comes to the lwa of Haitian Vodou, you can not ‘guess’ or ‘feel’ the lwa met tet, or the lwa that rules your head. This lwa is often very secretive prior to initiation, and is only revealed inside the djevo, which is the initiation chamber of Haitian Vodou. The lwa, like the Oricha, have very human traits; and often when we look at someone we will see those traits manifested. But we, by our very nature, are not two dimensional. While one day you might meet me and see me dressed in white, in a calm place where I experience what ever the world throws my way with a detached calm and acceptance, you may look at me and think that it is Danballa that rules my head… Yet the next day you might come across me wearing lots of colour, and with my Spanish passion dominating! That part of my personality reacts to EVERYTHING, and on that day you would swear me a child of the Petro… And if you see me when one of my family is in need, you might start to wonder if I were a child of the devil himself! You see, we are multidimensional, and what traits we see one day might not be the traits we see on another.
What can you deduce from this is that no one with any certainty can simply come up to you and say, “hey, your a child of *****,” because they can not know this. They might guess, but only through consultation at the correct time with a Priest/ess of the religion will you know this for sure. And to be honest, there is no need to.
What often accompanies this idea of, “I’ve been told I’m a child of ***” is the statement, “and I feel a deep connection with him/her.” It may sound harsh to say, but this ‘deep connection’ is often imagined. In most cases the person knows very little about the spirit involved, and what they do know is superficial at best. A classic example here is the Oricha Ochun. She is the Oricha of all things sweet. She is beauty personified, and she is the Oricha of wealth, health, love and all that makes life sweet and worth living. Many people ‘feel a deep connection’ with her, but forget that she has many sides and many aspects. Yes she can be sweet, she can dance with abandon in the forest, or sensually in the city as she draws love to her and around her; and so also to those who are beloved of her, but Ochun has many faces and many moods. Just as she can be the light of any party, she can also be the Witch – the manipulator of magic who will take all sweetness away leaving you cold and bitter. Her laugh may roll across the valleys inspiring joy wherever it lands, but when she is laughing is also when she is most dangerous, for that laugh can hide her most destructive magic.
This is why these religions are passed down; from teacher to student, from parent to child, because it’s kind of like learning maths. When we first begin to learn maths, we begin with the very basics, the foundations that will allow us to build and get to know the system of numbers. 1 + 1 = 2, 1 x 1 = 1, etc., and as we learn the system of numbers and the rules of maths, we build upon those basics to learn more complex maths. Sometimes the maths we learn later seems to follow a different set of laws, yet as we understand it more we realise that it is all based on the same basic system that we found in the beginning. This is the same in the spiritual world of the African Diaspora. The information that is available to the public is at that very foundational level, the very basic essence of the spirits and their aspects, but you will need to go through a lot of learning to understand and build upon that foundation of knowledge, which is passed down through lineage.
What typically comes next is the request for information on how to work with said Oricha or Lwa. Now, this is not an unreasonable request, but remember, these spirits come from a complex history and there is no guarantee that they will have any interest in working with you. The justification that someone ‘feels’ this spirit close to them, even if accurate, is still not justification that you will be working magically with these spirits. To begin with, magic in these systems is fundamentally different from that in folk magic, in other religious systems, or in Wicca, Paganism or Ceremonial Magic. Magic in the African Diaspora Religions is prescribed based on knowledge of the spirits, the herbs most closely associated with them, and the herbs that form the foundation of the herbal lore or the Caribbean and of their African nature. Also, ‘magic’ (and I am using this term for lack of a better word), differs between the Oricha systems and the Lwa systems. Yet what they share in common is that they are both what I like to call ‘prescription based’.
What I mean by ‘prescription based’ is that spiritual work in the African Diaspora is much like going to the Doctor. One begins by sitting down with the Priest/ess of the religion (Santeria/Lukumi, Yoruba, Candomble, Vodou, etc.), and discussing what is wrong. From there the Priest/ess will give their feedback, and then consult the spirits to determine what the best remedy/solution is. In Oricha traditions this done through consulting Odu, the corpus of the Yoruba faith, through the oracle known as the diloggoun. Diloggoun is a selection of cowrie shells. By throwing these shells, the Priest reading them is able to see the full picture of the situation the client has brought in front of them. They will then use Odu alongside their own spiritual knowledge to flesh out the solution to the matter at hand. This can take various numbers of throws of the oracle and will sometimes bring to the surface the foundation issues of this life. The solution may be as simple as a candle, or as complex as requiring initiation. In some cases the client may be able to complete the solution (which we call ebbo) themselves, while in other cases they may have to return to the Priest/ess with various offerings and money to have the Priest complete the ebbo for them.
One should not see this is a bad thing. Even initiated Priests of the Lukumi tradition will go to their godparents or others for readings to get advice and have ebbo performed on their behalf. Often they will go to another Priest/ess for spiritual cleansing and in some cases for a second opinion about something in their own lives. It may also be that there needs to be an ebbo made to an Oricha that they have not received el fundamento (meaning they have not received that Oricha’s secrets through initiation), and so need to go to a Priest/ess who has that Oricha to make the required offering.
In Yoruba Traditions there is also the option of going before Ifa. Ifa is the supreme divination system of the Oricha Traditions and is read by the High Priests of the Religion, known as Babalawos. Although the process is similar the methodology is different, as they may read different divination systems. However, their prescriptions are still found in Odu.
Haitian Vodou is also prescription based, although the methods of divination may vary. Rather than working through a system of numbers as Odu does, the Mambo or Houngan (Priestess or Priest respectively) may choose any number of divination systems. The most popular I’ve encountered amongst the Mambo and Houngan I have had the honour of sharing with are: playing cards, scrying either with fire or water or a combination thereof, reading wax, reading cigar smoke, or the most popular is to speak directly with the lwa through the mechanism of possession. Through possession the spirit will talk with you, guiding you through the situation and it’s real foundation and then prescribe for you how to fix it. This may be something that you can do yourself, or it may require you, just like in Lukumi tradition, to collect various items, objects, herbs, waters, etc., and return to the Mambo or Houngan or have the work completed. Sometimes the work is completed by the Priest/ess, while at other times the spirit will come again in possession to complete the magical work themselves.
There is clearly a right way and a wrong way to approach these traditions and the spirits that form them. It is also extremely important to remember that in these traditions these spirits are exactly that, they are spirits, akin to Saints in the Catholic Church. They are not gods in any sense of the word. Our Afro-Caribbean traditions are first and foremost monotheistic. We acknowledge one God, however He has given us the Oricha and Lwa as intercessors for us. That means that we can approach these spirits for aid, even if we are not initiated, even if we do not have someone to read for us. There is always a way to approach the spirits, but one has to remember to do it correctly. In order to do it correctly in this scenario three things are important:
- You must approach the spirit within the context that it is best known. This means you do not use the tools of neo-paganism. You don’t cast a circle, you don’t almost set the house on fire by creating fire indoors, ‘cause ain’t no-one going to appreciate that.
- Sincerity. This is vital. One needs to approach the spirits with a sincere heart. If one is not sincere then the spirits will not even bother to listen. Have an honest heart. Do not approach the spirit with a sense of entitlement, because that is ego; nor should you approach them with a sense of worship, as worship is reserved specifically for God. They should be approached with respect. If you have been given advice from a Priest/ess then follow that advice as the spirit will know if you are not, and may take additional offence. Of course the worst case response for offence is that the spirit will simply not listen to you, nor accept your offerings, but this could leave you open to a trickster spirit.
- Location. Location. Location. To many who have been raised on ‘the spirits are everywhere’ this may not seem so important, but remember these are spirits that you do not know, and who you have not been formally introduced to yet. So the correct thing to do is to go to their place in nature. Again, this might take some research, and also may vary according to which path you are called to follow. If you are called to Lukumi, for example, and you want to introduce yourself to Yemaya and make a sincere offering; then you would go to the beach, as her home is the Ocean. But if you’re following a more Yoruba/Traditional Nigerian branch of Oricha then you would go to the river which is her home in Yorubaland. For Eleggua you would find yourself going to the crossroads, but for Papa Legba, you would go to your front door or gate. Remember the Lwa and Oricha are different even when they serve different functions. If you are looking for Erzulie Freda or Ochun you would go to the river, for Obatala the mountain top, for Danballa a beautiful clear stream. For the Oricha, because you do not have them el fundamento you will need to go to their place in nature. For Lwa, you can prepare a simple surface, cover that in a white cloth, and in the centre place a glass of cool clear water and a white candle and make your offering to them here. You will still need to dispose of the offering at a crossroads once you are done.
Using these instructions you can prepare a small offering for the spirit, take it to their place in nature and call on them respectfully. In the beginning you will just be introducing yourself. It is not polite to show up on someones doorstep asking for something, but as you get to know the spirit more, you might make a slightly larger offering asking for their assistance.
Let me lay it out for you though, if you are called by the spirits of the African Diaspora, they will bring you to the care of a Priest/ess and house/sosyete. You will need to come be correctly introduced to the religion and to the spirits. You will need to be prepared, make ebbo, have your head washed, receive the initiations that the spirits call on your to receive, and accept what the spirits advise. Not everyone is meant to be a priest/ess, not everyone is called for initiation, and in some cases only the very early initiations are necessary – those that form your connection with the spirits and the house/sosyete. I’ve written on the subject of finding a house (and no doubt will again), but do so with faith, trusting your ancestors above all to help you find where you need to be. From there, you will find an honest place to safety get to know those spirits that walk with you, and who form your spiritual court.
Pa Presse Soulage Minfo Edeyo Bon Houngan