Advice to Newcomers to Orisha Worship
If you are surfing the net looking for information and advice about getting involved in Orisha worship, there are plenty of websites and newsgroups, and discussion forums to be found on the net - lots of books to read - and beware, plenty of crooks and charlatans out there in cyberland (and the real world) ready to take you for a ride. This is not peculiar to Orisha worship- any religion has members who are unethical. my words of warning, and advice are targeted to the tradition Lukumi Santeria tradition but apply to others (see Candomble Scam Alert) .
So how do you get started in Lukumi/Santeria/Orisha worship?
My suggestion is to do some reading first. Read the FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions, here on this site.
Be prepared - don't just walk into the first botanica (ATR
religious supplies store) you find asking around, or send an email off to a
purported priest (anyone can claim to be an initiate on the internet). Some
of the so-called elders who spend a lot of time dispensing advice via cyberspace
aren't priests at all, and some folks who write books and say they are priests
aren't even initiated. Many are legitimate priests however - you just need
to learn how to tell the difference.
My suggestion is read two basic texts first - Four New World
Yoruba Rituals, by John Mason and Finding Soul on the Path to the Orisha, by
Tobe Melora Correal :
John's book is good because it covers the basics - and starts
out with the ancestors. Tobe's book is a spiritual guide - not a "how
to book". You won't find any crappy recipes for witchcraft (a
la Wippler), just solid advice on how to start your journey. Another good basic
introductory text is Santeria, by Joseph Murphy.
Second. After you have done some reading start looking for godparents - or at least a godparent. Orisha traditions are communal and hierarchical. These are not "do-it-yourself" traditions, and you cannot self-initiate. This is a lineage based system - with levels of initiation, and it takes time to move through these levels and be trained. Not everyone has a calling to the priesthood. Some people are content to join an ile and stay as simple worshippers. Some folks don't even go that far - they are simply "clients" looking for advice. Be clear about what level of interest or involvement you want to have.
The godparent becomes your teacher and guide. They are not a substitute for parents. They aren't medical doctors, therapists or marital counselors. Nor can they "magically" solve all your problems. What they can do is guide you through the basic steps of Orisha worship, teach you about how to honor your ancestors and Orisha, and guide your spiritual development. Nor do they have the answer to everything - but they should be part of a structure where they can seek spiritual advice as well. They don't have to be rich- nor do they need to have a college degree, or to have written books. Are they humble? Do they seem to be content with their own lives? Do they have a sense of humor? Do they seem willing to teach? If they tell you not to speak to anyone else - not to ever open a book (a better response is that they can suggest what books are appropriate) be careful. I'd like to digress here - not all elder priests read books - their method of teaching is through demonstration - this is a" learn by doing faith" (experiential learning), and cannot be learned simply by buying up books. But they should be willing to teach, and answer questions. Not all questions can be answered in the beginning - some things are not appropriate for the uninitiated to explore. But there are basic questions they must be prepared to answer which will provide some credentials.
First - they should be able to tell you the names of who initiated them - when and where. And who initiated the person who initiated their elder. They should be part of an ile (house) and know their lineage (rama). If they are Lukumi (Santeria) priests they should be easy to check out.
There are only four or five major ramas in the U.S.
Pimienta (sub rama Pirana, Pimienta Coral)
San Jose Ochenta (includes Aina)
For the history of all of these groups born in Cuba - get a
copy of David Brown's "Santeria Enthroned". This book is not a
basic text - but has a great index - and you'll find the names of all the
founding ancestors in it.
If the rama is African Traditional - not descended from a Cuban line - I cannot comment here on methods of investigation since I am Lukumi (Cuban lineage). But they will have a lineage. Just because they say were initiated in Africa - or because they are Nigerian or speak Yoruba does not make them valid priests. Try checking them out though irunmole.org.
Find out who was the Oriate/Oba (Master of Ceremonies) for their initiation. If the person tells you that everyone involved with their initiation is dead (unless they are over 80), and you can't verify anything about them - get a pair of Nike's and run - in the opposite direction. The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye (CLBA) has a list of legitimate priests - whose initiations are verified.
Legitimate priests usually have godchildren and/or elders
around. If you meet their godchildren - and they look like they are Moonies or
are on drugs, and they start chanting "Nam myo ho rengay kyo"
you missed the Lukumi train and are on your way to either Tibet or Woodstock.
A word of advice. All of these questions must be asked
courteously and with humility. Don't go in "interrogation mode".
If the person is an elder they may take offense. But - get
answers - before committing to a relationship. In these days of
instantaneous internet communication and the proliferation of websites - there
are a few good ones where you can begin to make inquiries. Be aware that
there are legitimate priests who may not be liked by other priests (it's kind of
like the rivalry between and among Protestant sects). Listen and observe.
Some priests are members of organizations which are devoted to
specific Orishas called Egbes. There are also workshops and panel
discussions held in major cities. Some elders - and many younger priests (1 to
30 years of initiation) participate in online discussion groups like OLU
(Organization for Lukumi Unity) or Santeria Lukumi, or CLBA, or MySanteriaCommunity
among others (see my
If online priests take American Express or VISA for ceremonies
- get the sneakers out again. If they say they'll do them by mail or via
internet - run faster.
If they tell you they'll take you on a tour to Haiti or Cuba,
or Africa (along with a busload of others) to get initiated - get track
If things they tell you sound like they come from a cross
between Wicca, Zen, Vegetarianism, Hare Krishna or an Ashram - you are talking
to the wrong person. Botanicas - places that sell religious supplies to a
variety of traditions - Lukumi, Vodou, Palo, Espiritismo, Hoodoo may be a
starting point in your journey - but beware. There are Espiritistas
(spiritualists) who are not santeros (priests) who are wearing multi-colored
bead necklaces (elekes) and who do readings (consultas). Many
people who are new can't tell the difference. You can ask the person if they
"have ocha made". Even if they say "yes", if you are
na´ve, you could be in for a rude awakening down the road. See later
details in this post for more info on verification.
For many people entering the religion - the first thing they
do is get a basic reading (divination). If the priest says it costs more than 50
bucks - keep your money in your pockets. The East coast average is 21
dollars. For some reason I can't fathom it's 50.00 out west - probably
because there are far fewer diviners.
When I mention readings here - I'm referring to cowry shell divination. The costs of an Ifa reading with a Babalawo may be a bit higher. If they say they are going read you with tarot cards - or dominos - get out the sneakers again.
The first ceremony most folks go through, to join an ile is to
receive elekes (beads/collares). A person I know paid 1,000 a piece for his
(total $7,000). The crook in the Bronx (who claimed to be a Santera and
wasn't) who lifted his wallet this way should be jailed. The receiving of
beads - though not a must, is like a contract - or entry into an ile (house) and
the basic costs range from 121 dollars to 421.00 ( though I think 421 is way too
high) - but - it's your money. Some (mid-west and west coast) houses
have a more elaborate ceremony which can cost up to 600.00. There are
regional and ile variations.
If you are gay - and they are homophobic - exit stage left.
If you are white and they keep referring to "white devils" - get
to steppin'. If you don't speak Spanish and they hold conversations with
everyone around you without translating (or having someone there who can
translate) - either take a total immersion language course, and come back later
- or find a house where you can figure out what the heck is being said around
you. Rude is rude - no matter what language it's in.
If they read/divine for you and pick up a mass produced book
in order to do the interpretation - beware. You can buy your own book and
be just as mis-educated. If they immediately tell you, "you are
cursed" and will die in three weeks if you don't cough up 12 to 20 thousand
dollars for an instant initiation - take your money and get an IRA. Or go
out and buy the Brooklyn Bridge.
For some people an introduction to santeros or santeras
(priests) happens in spiritual masses (called misas). This is an outgrowth
of Kardecian spiritisim which was grafted onto Lukumi in the last 40 years,
called 'Espiritismo" - and is often confused with Lukumi. They are
separate - but often practiced dually. Also grafted onto Lukumi practice
is a distinctly different faith originating not from the Yoruba - but from the
Congo - referred to as Palo or Palo Mayombe. To honor your ancestors -
you do not have to become Catholic (if you aren't already Catholic) nor is it a
prerequisite that you must be "scratched or cut" in Palo in order to
honor Orisha. Espiritismo (Puerto Rican Spiritisim) may attract you - and
you may have a path in Palo - but neither is a must. It depends on the ile
you select, and the godparent. If you don't feel this is your road - look
Another way people get introduced to the religion is through music (drumming) or Orisha dance classes. They then wind up attending a "tambor" (a drumming ceremony for Orisha) . If everyone is wearing black - you've gotten the wrong address and are in a coven.
Women wear skirts (usually) and men wear pants. White,
or light colored clothing is predominant at Lukumi events (or African fabrics in
traditional houses). If everyone is wearing glitter spandex disco pants
-you are at Studio 54.
Once you think you have identified a potential godparent, get
yourself invited to events of the ile. Lukumi priests hold a variety of
events open to non-initiates. They celebrate their birthdays of initiation
each year. They hold drummings for the Orishas. Many have spiritual
masses for the ancestors. None of these events cost money to attend. You
may make offerings - fruit, flowers, small amounts of money (a dollar) to
contribute to the event, but this is not mandatory. In fact at Ocha birthdays -
you, as a guest are fed and given fruit from the altar.
See how they deal with their godchildren, and elders. This
is really important. Chat with other attendees.
If you are in a major city like New York, Philadelphia, Miami,
Tampa, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, or Detroit there
are established iles - and elders around. If you are in a small town no
where near any of the aforementioned cities, you'll have to do some traveling.
Beware of solitary practitioners. This is a communal religion.
There are NO solitary practitioners. No initiations can be done in this
practice without a group.
When you get a reading - our tradition is one of reciprocity and balance. In order to achieve balance there are sometimes "ebos" (offerings) or "cleanings" marked. These "ebos" or cleanings may involve buying fruits, or herbs, or items necessary to complete the balance. This in not a religion that is free. I am going to be blunt here. A large number of people are involved in conducting every major ceremony.
The costs of ceremonies, as you become more involved can range from simply buying candles and coconuts and flowers to thousands of dollars- with over 20 to 30 priests participating for initiation to the priesthood. People eat - and yes we sacrifice animals which are cooked and offered to Orisha and then feed the participants (with a few exceptions). The average college student in America these days spends about 10,000 a semester for schooling. A wedding reception can be 10,000 to 20,000 dollars. Initiation to the priesthood is a wedding. And costs. Be clear about this. But since I'm addressing entry level here - I won't go into more detail. But keep this in mind. All churches require tithes, offerings or monetary support from the congregation to sustain themselves. This faith is no exception. In the future I'll discuss more about this - but thought it would be important to make clear from the start.
If you still feel you have been drawn to Orisha and want to go
further, let me offer a welcome. Many people who live in the modern world
have either been disillusioned by non-culturally sensitive faiths, are seeking a
connection to their ancestors, or alternative spiritual paths. I love my
faith and am proud to be a priest. But as a priestess, I feel it important
to offer as objective an introduction - with provisos, as I can.
The opinions I have expressed here are my own - based on 8
years as an initiated priest, and 25 years as a devotee/participant. When
I got started in the religion, I was an aborisha (non-initiated devotee).
I am still learning - and will be as long as I live. I am not an elder,
I'm a very young priestess. I'm close to sixty in earthly years however,
and don't want to sit idly by and watch others distort the faith that I have
found to be so beautiful.