We at the Santeria Church of the Orishas are dedicated to education and ethical practice of Santeria. In an effort to educate the public about any unethical or fraudulent activity, we have launched SAFE – Santeros Against Fraud and Exploitation. SAFE is an action committee of our church dedicated to exposing any activities considered fraudulent or non-traditional according to the culture bearers of the Santeria faith. SAFE will issue “SAFE Alerts” here on our blog to notify the public of such activities to prevent exploitation of the public or other unethical activities.
Monthly Archive: June 2012
Does your spiritual lineage work with Ifá or is it an Ocha house? (Ocha is a Spanish contraction of Orisha) This is a common question you’ll hear among santeros and it is a topic of great debate. There seem to be two major ways of working the religion of Santeria: spiritual lineages who work with Ifá and Babalawos, and those who don’t. Both are legitimate and valid practices but what is the difference, and why does this disparity exist in Santeria?
What is Ifá and Who are Babalawos
Ifá is the name of the sect of Orunmila within Santeria. Orunmila (also spelled Orunla or Orula) is the orisha of divination who knows how our fate will unfold. Some practitioners also call Orunmila by the name Ifá. The reason I specifically call out Ifá as a separate sect is because the ritual functions within the Ifá sect can only be accomplished by priests of Orunmila – called Babalawos (or Oluwos if they were orisha priests prior to passing to Ifá – which many are). Only Babalawos can give the Eshu that is received in Ifá. Only Babalawos can give the Idé of Orunmila (bracelet of Orunmila), which is always worn and keeps the spirit of Ikú (death) at bay. Only Babalawos can divine with the okuelé (diviner’s chain) and the ikín (palm nuts) – and these are the ONLY divination tools used in Ifá. Only Babalawos can give Kofá or Awofakán (Mano de Orula), giving a smaller shrine of Orunmila for people to have in their home (note this is not a consecration as a priest of Orunmila – it is a reception of his mysteries into your life for balance and to learn one’s destiny). Only Babalawos can consecrate other Babalawos as priests. A Santero or Santera cannot do these things.
But the inverse is also true. A Babalawo cannot do many of the things a Santero or Santera can. They cannot give addimú orishas (token Orishas) to others except for the Warriors (Eshu, Ogun, Ochosi, Osun), Osain, Olokun and Oduduwa – and even then they can only give the Ifá style ones that can never be passed on by that individual (unless they become a Babalawo in time). They do not read diloggún (cowrie shells) – they stick only to the use of the diviner’s chain and palm nuts. There is a pataki (legend) that Orunmila surrendered the cowries to Oshun and the orishas to use after she mastered the skill simply by watching him – and he swore that he would create a new system only for men, and only for his priests; that was the okuelé and ikin. Babalawos cannot give the initiation of Elekes (necklaces) – but they can give Orunmila’s eleke to people. They cannot initiate people in the Kariocha ceremony to be priests of other Orishas. They can perform sacrificial rights, or entrance readings leading in to a kariocha but they cannot be in the sacred room when the initiation is taking place. They do not birth orishas.
So in many ways, the Ifá sect is a subdivision of Santería. A cloistered sect of diviners with membership limited to heterosexual men, who dedicate their lives to the mastery of divination, the science of Ifá and the knowledge of Odu. Babalawos are not the high priests of our religion. That is a misnomer perpetuated in many of the early books on Santeria written by outsiders to our faith. They are the masterful diviners in our religion who focus solely on the function of Ifá.
Lineages that Work with Ifá
Many of the spiritual lineages, or “houses”, that work with Ifá will regularly go to Babalawos or include them in their ritual functions. Babalawos are consulted when determining the tutelary Orisha of an individual. In this ritual, three Babalawos (minimum) gather together and use the ikin (palm nuts) and the Opón Ifá (table of Ifá) to determine that person’s tutelary Orisha. This is often done when a person received their Kofá or Awofakán (mano de Orula, hand of Orunmila). Ifá believes that only a Babalawo can determine a person’s tutelary Orisha because Orunmila witnessed destiny unfold. (Orisha priests will argue this point and explain that it was Orunmila and Elegguá who witnessed fate together and that Elegguá actually preceded Orunmila, so Elegguá can also tell us who a person’s tutelary orisha is.) Houses that work with Ifá will also employ Babalawos to perform sacrificial rites during ceremonies, and they will have Babalawos perform the entrance reading and the Ebó Até (cleansing at the mat) during a person’s life reading.
A person becomes a Babalawo when they are told they have a destiny in the sect of Ifá through divination. This can be through the life reading when receiving Awofakán, or it can be through a life reading received after their Kariocha. Not everyone can become a Babalawo. Women and gay men are strictly prohibited from being initiated as Babalawos in Santería Lucumi (Lukumí). Some individuals go from being an Aborisha directly into the sect of Ifá as a priest of Orunmila. Most others end up being initiated as an Olorisha to their tutelary orisha (Elegguá, Ogún, Oshun, Yemaya, etc.) and then later in life “pass to Ifá” and become ordained as a priest of Orunmila (Babalawo). These individuals are called Oluwos (Oluos). The moment they pass to Ifá they no longer function as an Olorisha and can no longer participate in the rituals that an Olorisha officiates (elekes, warriors of ocha, kariocha, etc.). They dedicate their lives to the sect of Ifá and the ritual functions to which they are limited.
Lineages that Do Not Work with Ifá
Many spiritual lineages, or “houses”, do not work with Ifá at all. In these houses the Obá Oriaté will officiate all ceremonies. The Oriaté is an orisha priest who has been specially consecrated due to his knowledge of divination and all of our ceremonial rituals, to officiate rituals in the sacred room (igbodú). Since the Oriaté is a Santero or Santera, he/she can do much more for an orisha initiate than a Babalawo can – but he cannot perform the special functions that are restricted to Ifá. An Oriate can determine the tutelary Orisha of an individual (actually any orisha priest can, provided he or she is a skilled diviner). This is performed either using the cowrie shells of the godparent’s tutelary orisha, or with the diloggun of Eleggua (because Elegguá witnessed all destiny and knows everything taking place – and is truly neutral). Houses that do not work with Ifá argue that Olorishas are the only ones who should truly determine a person’s tutelary orisha because they actually birth orishas and crown people as priests, where Ifá does not. (Personally I do not think this is a determining factor because you can cite the impartiality of Ifá as an equally valid reason to let Babalawos do this.) In non-Ifá houses, the Oriaté performs sacrificial rites (so can any individual who has received Pinaldo – the sacred knife), the Oriaté does the entrance readings prior to Kariocha and the Ebó Até (cleansing at the mat) during a person’s life reading. The Oriaté officiates the kariocha ceremony where a priest is initiated. Oriatés can birth and give addimú orishas (token orishas) or any other function in the religion. They are the Orisha High Priests.
Why the Division? Where Did This Originate?
The separation between Ifá and Ocha lineages has historical roots. When the slave trade of the Yoruba began, the spiritual practices of the Yoruban tribes were just starting to solidify into one religion. As millions of Yoruba people, especially Olorishas, were sold into slavery, the Yoruba populace was divided by the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. The religion continued to evolve back in Africa, and evolved differently here in the Americas. This accounts for this disparity between the two religions and explains why Yoruba Traditional Religion has commonalities with, but cannot be compared directly to Lucumi/Lukumí Religion. The followers of Ifá in Africa were relatively untouched by the slave trade, and the sect of Ifá in Africa grew in prominence and ritual function. In Traditional Yoruba Religion, Ifá is deeply intertwined with Orisha worship and plays a different role than in Lukumí. The followers of Ifá, as a population, were the last group taken in slavery and brought to Cuba.
In Cuba, as Santeria Lucumi started to take form, there was a marked absence of Babalawos and the Ifá sect. The style of initiation performed in the Yoruba city of Oyo became the most prominent style of initiation in Santeria. This initiation includes the reception of the “four pillar” orishas of Santeria regardless of that person’s tutelary orisha: Obatala, Oshun, Yemaya and Chango. The Obá Oriaté functioned as the master of ceremonies in all rituals. Women were the strongest leaders in Santeria and every lineage will honor mighty women in their Moyuba prayer. Santeria Lucumi unified in practice and purpose in the late 1800’s. There is historical evidence that by 1860, Lucumi people were performing ordinations to priesthood. Santeria, without the influence of Ifá, was functioning strongly in Cuba up until the early 1900’s.
In the early 1900’s, women who were once the strongest and most powerful leaders in Santeria, began losing prominence as the Babalawos and sect of Ifá rose in power. In the sect of Ifá, when a Babalawo marries a woman Olorisha, she becomes an Apetebí Aya Ifá (slave of Ifá) and is forbidden from performing diloggun divination. Divination becomes the sole domain of the Babalawo in that house, and women are subjugated. Many of the most powerful women in Santeria were getting married to Babalawos because of the status associated with the position, but in the process, women lost power in Santeria. Babalawos became the master of ceremonies in those houses, and thus began the difference between spiritual lineages that work with Ifá versus those that are Ocha-centric. The office of Oriaté, once traditionally held by the most influential women in our religion, became dominated by men. To date there are two, perhaps three, female Oriatés left in the United States, and a few more in Cuba. In modern times, most Apetebís know very little about Ocha, and mainly defer to their husbands about knowledge of Ifá.
Therefore, the lineages that do work with Ifá typically introduced this sect into their Santeria practice through marriages in the past. A female Olorisha likely married a Babalawo and he began divining for everyone and running the show. Lineages that don’t have Ifá strongly involved in their practice likely never experienced this phenomenon. Both are traditional practices according to the culture bearers of the religion of Santeria.
Everyone Comes to the Feet of Ifá
In spite of the division between Ifá and Ocha-centric lineages, everyone will eventually come to Ifá for some need. Some go to Babalawos to get their Kofa or Awofakán (Mano de Orula, Hand of Orula) and that’s it. Others come for an occasional reading from time to time, or to receive the Idé of Orunmila (bracelet of Orunmila that keeps death at bay). Some will visit Babalawos when facing a very difficult spiritual obstacle to employ the tools of Ifá to break through it. While it is not required to participate with Ifá, at some point everyone will come to the foot of Ifá for assistance. For this reason alone, regardless of the divisions between us, we should all respect Orunmila and his special sect of diviners, the Babalawos.
What’s a santero? Is a babalawo a high priest? What do all of these names mean? It is important to understand what the different terms in our religion mean especially those used for the various levels of initiation, so you know who you’re dealing with.
Aleyos are people who have not received anything in Santeria. They may or may not be followers of the religion. They are not formally associated with any spiritual lineage (ilé). They can freely work with their Ancestors as can anyone.
Aborishas are people who have received the initiation of necklaces (elekes) or warriors (Eleggua, Ogún, Ochosi and Osun). These people are under the protection of the Orishas, or have some Orishas in their home. Aborishas have duties and responsibilities toward their godparents that gave them necklaces or the warriors. They are required to honor their godparent on the anniversary of the godparent’s initiation (ocha birthday) as a priest or priestess with an offering called a “derecho”. The derecho consists of a plate, two coconuts, two candles and a donation of money. This derecho is presented to the godparent’s tutelary Orisha every year. Every ceremony in Santeria involves a primary godparent (can be male or female) and a second godparent known as an ojugbona (can be either gender as well). An aborisha will need to pay respect to both their godparent and ojugbona on their ocha birthday. A person remains an aborisha until they are crowned as a priest of priestess in the religion. Some lineages allow aborishas who have received warriors to divine with obi while others reserve this for Olorishas. Most Aborishas are encouraged to focus on their relationship with their Ancestors and their Warriors as ways of developing spiritually.
When a person undergoes the ceremony of kariocha (hacer el santo) he or she becomes an Olorisha. This is a ceremony where that person’s tutelary Orisha is seated on his head – he is literally crowned with that Orisha and his body and life are consecrated to the service of that Orisha. Olorishas can be crowned to any of the following orishas: Eleggua, Ogun, Ochosi, Obatala, Aggayu, Oya, Oshun, Obba, Yemaya, or Chango. Rarer initiations can be done to Inle, Babalu Aye, Orisha Oko, Olokun or Yewa but some of these are only done in Africa. Men or women can be olorishas – the term is the same for either gender. Olorishas can perform readings with cowrie shells (diloggún) or with obi. They can work with ancestors, give necklaces, give warriors, give orishas, crown others in kariocha, or a whole multitude of spiritual services. They are effectively a priest or priestess of our religion.
The terms Santero (man) and Santera (woman) are syncretized terms that indicate “one who works with saints”. Within Santeria, you are not a Santero or a Santera until you have undergone the initiation of kariocha and finished your year as an Iyawo. Santero and Santera are alternate terms for Olorishas.
Iyawo (Yawó, Yabo)
In Santeria, when a person goes through kariocha, they spend a year dressed in white with a long list of behavioral restrictions in order to preserve their purity and keep them centered and focused. This allows the energy of the kariocha to properly seat within that individual and it allows them to bond with their Orishas. An iyawo is not allowed to initiate others nor is he or she allowed to participate in ceremonies aside from drumming celebrations. They are supposed to remain rather isolated and quiet for their year. Once an iyawo completes their year in white and celebrates their first ocha birthday (anniversary of their initiation), they can then return to a normal mode of dressing and a regular life. They move out of being an iyawo and into being an Olorisha. Until an iyawo performs his three month ceremony (ebó meta), he cannot work his Orishas or put anything on them in terms of offerings.
Padrino, Madrina (Babatobi, Iyatobi)
The terms padrino and madrina are spanish terms for godfather or godmother. These are terms of respect when referring to the people who initiated you in Santeria. To be a padrino or a madrina you must be an Olorisha or Babalawo because they are the only ones who have the authority to initiate others. The Lucumi term for a padrino is “babatobi” and the term for a madrina is “iyatobi”.
Oyugbona (Ojugbona, Yubona)
An oyugbona is your second godparent and in many ways is more important than your primary godparent. The word oyugbona (ojugbona) literally means “eyes on the road”. They are the “look-out” on your spiritual journey and are in charge of your spiritual well being. Unfortunately the importance of the oyugbona is being forgotten or overshadowed by the role of the godparent. In religious ceremonies, the oyugbona does most of the hard work and deserves as much respect as our babatobi or iyatobi. The oyugbona must also be an olorisha.
There is a great misconception in the religion of Santeria that Babalawos are high priests of the religion. Babalawos are not high priests, they are those who have been consecrated as priests of the Orisha Orunmila (Orunla). The sect of Orunmila is sometimes called Ifá. The term Ifá is also interchangeably used for the Orisha Orunmila himself. In Santeria (Lucumi/Lukumi) only heterosexual men can be initiated as priests of Orunmila/Ifá. Babalawos can only participate in the Ifá sect, they cannot perform kariocha nor can they give the ceremony of elekes. They can give warriors of Ifá, the bracelet of Orunmila (idé Orunmila), and Kofá/Awofakan (Mano de Orunmila) which is an initiation where an individual receives the mysteries of Orunmila. They can, logically, initiate others as Babalawos. If the Babalawo was an Olorisha prior to being initiated in Ifá he is technically called an Oluwo and no longer functions in the realm of the Olorisha once he passes to Ifa.
The sect of Ifá is basically a diviner’s sect. They specialize in divination using either the Okuelé (diviner’s chain with 8 seed pods on it) or with Ikin (palm nuts) and the Opón Ifá (a wooden board). Babalawos can also perform ceremonies of cleansing, readings for a person to determine their tutelary Orisha, entrance readings prior to Kariocha and they can officiate sacrificial ceremonies. It is important to state that Babalawos do not read with cowrie shells – they only use either Okuelé or Ikín in divination. Many lineages do not work with Ifá and most of those lineages refer to an Obá Oriaté to officiate their ceremonies. Once a person is initiated to Ifá or passes from Ocha to Ifá, they are no longer allowed to crown people to any Orisha other than Orunmila. In many ways the step away from the Orisha sects into a strict worship of the Ifá sect.
In African lineages they are beginning to initiate women to Ifá and call them Iyanifá. This is a relatively new evolution of the religion back in Africa and is not recognized in Santeria as a practice.
The Obá Oriaté is the true high priest in our religion. They are the master of ceremonies who knows all of the rituals and officiates them on behalf of a community. There is a great misconception that only men can be Obá Oriates. This is not only liturgically incorrect, but there is historical evidence to the contrary. Some of the most powerful Oriates in our religion were women. Santeria is a woman’s religion, and women dominate its practice. The Oriate is the person who officiates the kariocha ceremony and orchestrates the efforts of the Olorishas who are present to initiate the new Iyawó. The Obá Oriaté can officiate sacrificial ceremonies, work with ancestors, give cowrie shell readings (diloggun), determine a person’s tutelary Orisha, do entrance readings prior to ceremonies, give necklaces, give warriors, give Orishas, give life readings (itá), perform ebó – they can perform religious services in every aspect of Santeria. They go through a special ceremony to remove any taboos from their hands so that they can officiate the initiation of any individual. Oriates may be crowned to any Orisha (except Orunmila).