Tag Archive: fraud alerts

Calling Out an Appropriator of Culture

This is not "spiritual art" nor is it a "fetish". This is a real Eleggua.

This is not “spiritual art” nor is it a “fetish”. This is a real Eleggua prepared by an Olorisha received in an initiation

Recently, I posted an article calling out various cultural appropriators on their practices. One of the examples given in the article was of “Crowned Elegguas” being sold by PlanetVoodoo.com by Denise Alvarado. After writing a blog article blasting me and claiming that SAFE is nothing more than a spiritual police that’s attempting to silence her voice as an artist, I wrote her a reply on her blog. I am cross-posting it here for you all to read, refuting her claims of copyright infringement, and also explaining that her practices are insensitive and offensive to traditional Santeria Lucumí practitioners.

Response To Denise Alvarado Regarding Her Post at Planetvoodoo.tumblr.com

In response to your emotionally charged article against me I will address each of the points you bring up. I encourge you, and any other reader of your blog, to read the original article which pointed out why your wares you are selling and claiming are just art, are still cultural appropriation and wholy offensive to the traditional orisha community. The original article titled “SAFE Alert – Cultural Appropriation of Lucumí Religion by Non-Initiates” can be found at the URL: http://santeriachurch.org/safe-alert-cultural-appropriation-of-lucumi-religion-by-non-initiates/

First, no one labeled you as a fraud. In fact, your name was not associated with the article until you raised a fuss about the use of a photo from your website (which was used under fair use rights according to copyright law – see below). Once I actually heard from you (instead of second-hand from your friends and your passive-aggressive online posting about me) I removed the image immediately as you requested. Even though I was within my rights to use the image for product reviews and criticism, I opted to take it down and let everyone know who wanted it down and why.

To reiterate, you were not labeled as a fraud, you were accused RIGHTLY of cultural appropriation. If you actually read the article and researched the information contained therein, you would see that you are clearly “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission … includ(ing) unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” I was referring to your creation of “Eleggua Statues” that wholly appropriate the visual, religious and cultural symbolism of my culture as a Cuban Santero. How do you attain the “permission” to make such objects – through initiation as a priest (Olorisha or Babalawo) in the orisha faith.

You ask what gives me the authority to criticize you and call you out on this. Two things:

1) I belong to the culture, folklore and people from which Eleggua’s worship in the form of a head-like sculpture originates, namely from Cuban Santeria Lucumí. You claim to practice Voodoo/Hoodoo, yet Eleggua is not worshipped in Voodoo nor in Hoodoo. Voodoo works with Legba not Eleggua, and Hoodoo workers are Christians. Legba is not depicted in Voodoo as a clay or cement head, he is more typically depicted as St. Lazarus or in the form of his veve. The construction of an Eleggua that is packed with aches and proper items is not even DONE in Voodoo for which you claim authority.

2) I am an initiated priest in the Santeria Lucumí faith of over 11 years, initiated by a priest who had over 30 years of initiation when he died, and work with Cuban priests who have been raised in the religion since birth. I – by initiation – have authority to speak on these matters. I actually have received Eleggua, gone through kariocha, received igbodú, washed, birthed, and given Eleggua in my life. You do not have that authority. It’s like asking how a Catholic priest has the right to call someone out on things written in the bible… by definition they do. It is their area of expertise.

Next you bring up the idea that you are creating sacred art. You claim they are only fetishes. Let’s start with definitions. Mirriam Webster’s dictionary defines a fetish as “an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner”. You attribute magical powers to your objects. They are not just art. Your product descriptions for said “Crowned Elleguas” states: “Handcrafted from a unique blend of clay and traditional herbs, Ellegua can remove obstacles, improve communication, provide spiritual protection and bring luck and good fortune.” You are making spiritual claims of power for these objects, calling them Ellegua, saying they can remove obstacles, improve communication, provide spiritual protection, etc. You are not presenting this as art, you are ascribing them identity and magical powers. Your own product descriptions are misleading at best.

Regarding your claims of copyright infringement by utilizing a thumbnail of your product. I am well within the Fair Use of copyrighted materials according to copyright law. Section 107 of the Copyright Act states:

“the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”

I was utilizing your image for the purpose of “criticism and comment” as well as “teaching and scholarship” to educate the public about what is traditional Santeria Lucumí and what is Culturally Appropriated.

Your legal claims of libel hold no ground either as I have not called you a fraud, I have called you a cultural appropriator, and anyone who crafts “artwork” or “spirtual fetishes” as you call them that draw upon the culture of Brazilian Kimbanda/Umbanda and Cuban Lucumí when they have no initiations in said traditions and does not come from those places, is still appropriating cultural elements – in this case, religious symbolism which is a very delicate topic.

Not all cultures are the same when it comes to someone outside of their culture making artwork for members of their culture. For example, the Catholic Church has hired Jewish goldsmiths to craft their religious objects and they didn’t really have a problem that the artisans weren’t part of their culture. The same goes with Jewish houses of worship employing non-Jewish experts to craft sculptures or art for their holy places. But not all cultures are amenable to this practice. In particular, African traditional religions including Lucumí, Ifá, Palo Mayombe, Vodou, Candomblé, and Kimbanda just to name a few, are not ok with non-initiated people making objects that emulate their religious or spiritual items. Making objects that draw upon these cultures’ symbols and divinities is insulting to them especially when they had ancestors who died trying to preserve traditional practice through generations. As a culture bearer of two of these religions (Palo and Lucumí) I can certainly tell you that this is highly offensive to those that died preserving our cultural practices. You wouldn’t even know what an Elegguá head looked like had slaves not given their lives to worship in the face of oppressive colonialism.

Here’s another good example. As you well know, there are laws in place throughout our country that require you to identify Native-looking artwork as clearly “not made by Native Americans” before they are sold. The state of New Mexico even requires Native artisans and jewelry crafters to stamp their artwork as a sign of authenticity because cultural appropriators came in and started making cheap squash blossom necklaces and fake turquoise jewelry in China then swamping the US markets with these items putting them out of business. You should be particularly sensitive to this as someone who has Native American ancestry, no? How would you feel if someone started making peace pipes and claiming they had the right to create them because “their spirits moved them to do it”? It’s cultural appropriation and it is damaging to minority cultures as my article clearly explained.

Now another point you bring up is about why I didn’t contact you personally about this. Frankly it’s because others have brought this up with you before and you didn’t make any changes to your practices. You feel entitled to do this. You claim it is your right as an artist. Indeed this is America and you can do whatever you want, but when someone comes along and calls you out on exactly what you’re doing, you can’t get upset at the end of the day. I’ll also point out that you didn’t contact me personally but instead went through friends and professional associates who were uninvolved in the issue when there was a clearly marked “Contact Us” page on both my church website and my professional conjure site – neither of which you used until my associates pointed them out to you, and only then after you blasted me in a passive-aggressive manner on your blog.

My church’s action committee, SAFE, is an educational foundation whose purpose is to educate the public about non-traditional and illegitimate practices. We educate the public, and since the article has gone up I’ve received dozens of emails and messages, as well as in-person thanks from people all congratulating me on finally taking a stand and calling people out on their cultural appropriation. Members of Haitian Vodou, Santeria Lucumi, Brazilian Kimbanda, Palo Mayombe, Traditonal Ifá, Brazilian Umbanda, and practitioners of Hoodoo all have come forward and lauded the article. Only two people have scoffed at it; you being one of them. You call my organization a “spiritual police” and in a sense you are correct. It’s about time that we police our own or point out those who are acting outside of what is spiritually traditional.

You have also attempted to sully the name of the association to which I personally belong: The Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (AIRR), by throwing their code of conduct in my face and accusing me of breaking their rules regarding copyright infringement. I have already refuted your claim as baseless and cited law to back my stance. As a long-term member of AIRR I have always conducted myself according to the code of conduct and I hold that up as a bastion of ethics and transparency in my work. Where is your code of conduct? I can’t seem to find it on your website, perhaps you could point it out for me?

You have the right to spiritually express yourself through art, but if someone is offended by it they will speak out. Freedom of your speech doesn’t mean requirement of my silence in return. My church and it’s SAFE committee also have the right to express ourselves against your “artwork” as non-traditional and examples of cultural appropriation. What’s good for Mama D. is also good for Dr. E.

Finally, I will not only post this in reply on your Tumblr blog and hope you’ll keep it up as a testament to freedom of speech, but I will also copy it on my Santeria Church of the Orishas website and if needed I’ll also include it on my Google+ feed. This dialogue is important as cultural appropriation is damaging to minority cultures. I hope you’ll reconsider the way in which you present these objects on your site and perhaps learn a valuable lesson through this interaction.

SAFE Alert – Cultural Appropriation of Lucumí Religion by Non-Initiates

A self-proclaimed Obeah woman created this "Hoodoo Bones" reading tray. The tray utilizes a symbol from Brazilian Kimbanda in the center for Exu (who she claims is the same Eshu from Yoruban religion - which he isn't). The orishas have nothing to do with hoodoo.

A self-proclaimed Obeah woman created this “Hoodoo Bones” reading tray. The tray utilizes a symbol from Brazilian Kimbanda in the center for Exu (who she claims is the same Eshu/Eleggua from Yoruban religion – which he isn’t). The orishas have nothing to do with hoodoo.

A popular phenomenon we’ve witnessed with the incredible amount of information available on the internet about Lucumí religion, is the cultural appropriation of Lucumí and Yoruban ritual elements by online merchants, Neo-Pagans and Eclectic Magical Workers claiming to be practicing hoodoo, voodoo, rootwork or obeah all at once. This phenomenon seems to be very prominent amongst professional workers who are peddling their services online, or more commonly with individuals selling “magical products” like oils, baths, incense, soaps, mojos, pakets, or even statues and sculptures made to look like orishas. This is not only completely out of alignment with traditional Santería Lucumí practice but it is very dangerous for spiritual reasons outlined below.

In this article we hope to demonstrate some of the examples the members of SAFE (Santeros Against Fraud and Exploitation) have seen in the community and online, and empower the reader to effectively distinguish between traditional, real Santería Lucumí practice and illegitimate, non-traditional worship being peddled for money and little more.

Cultural Appropriation – “I’ll Take That!”

Before we can really discuss the examples of cultural appropriation we’ve witnessed online we first need to explore what cultural appropriation really is. Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, when asked to give a succinct definition of cultural appropriation, described it as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” and further explained “This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

In our article we are mainly concerned with the religious symbols and sacred objects. One of the things to keep in mind is that there are two elements to appropriation: lack of permission and symbols being taken from someone else’s culture. In the orisha traditions, permission is granted through initiation, and culture is transmitted and preserved through participation in the tradition, or through cultural immersion in the religion and its practices.

In the examples we cite you’ll see the names of Yoruban/Lucumí orishas being used, symbolism from their shrines, colors, numbers, even magical practices from other areas of Africa all being dumped together to make things “even more African” in an effort to create an illusion of legitimacy (though the people who bear the cultural origins of these different images, symbols and spirits were often warring enemies and never intermingled their religious practices).

Why is Cultural Appropriation So Harmful?

An "Orisha Box" sold by an online vendor claiming it to be a portable altar to the orisha Oshun. Appropriation of orisha colors, numbers and no cultural context is another way vendors make money by stealing cultural symbols.

An “Orisha Box” sold by a vendor claiming it to be a portable altar to the orisha Oshun. Appropriation of orisha colors, symbols and numbers with no cultural context is another way vendors make money through cultural appropriation. Oshun is not worshipped in this manner in Lukumí nor Yoruba practice.

Cultural Appropriation is harmful for several reasons. First, it harms people because it is a colonialist objectification of ancient traditions. A minority people who have suffered the scourge of colonialism have a damaged sense of ancestry, have had their lands and power stripped away from them and have often been ripped away from their traditional religious practices. Their traditions are the last thing they can truly own when their land is gone, their families destroyed and their power stripped away. When a dominant culture comes along and objectifies indigenous practices so that they become a costume, a fad, a decorating motif or the flavor of the month, the culture of the oppressed minority is ridiculed and seen as a simple object that can be shuffled about, traded or purchased for money. It is the final blow to a minority oppressed people’s soul.

Secondly, these religious traditions were preserved for centuries by disciplined adherents to the faith, through hurdles to participation like intensive study and initiatory requirements, as well as keeping inner secrets guarded by the priesthood. Many ancestors died to preserve these traditions even in the face of slavery and persecution. For an outsider to come along and start wearing the false vestments of religious authority because they think an orisha is “pretty” or because “they love her” is insulting to the ancestors and reduces the ancient religious secret practices of that people to a mockery.

Third, cultural appropriation can lead to people of the dominant culture assuming they have privilege and the right to practice minority indigenous religious practices in which they have not been trained or duly initiated. This can result in them tampering with energies, deities, spiritualities, entities, spirits and forces they are not ready to deal with. Simply put, when a person dresses a fierce indigenous spirit in a warm-fuzzy, culturally objectified, “rounded-corners for your protection” colonialist attitude, she’ll find herself tampering with a force that will unbalance her life in no time.

Often those in the majority mindset will apply their cultural values to the situation to justify their attitude. Sayings like “The gods are love and they understand I am coming from the right place”, “She chose me to worship her” or “If we didn’t worship these Gods they’d probably disappear” are a perfect example of a privileged approach to indigenous culture and are hallmarks of cultural appropriation. (If you truly appreciated that orisha or those traditions you’d go to a culture bearer who worships in the manner that preserved that spirit’s practice and learn they way the orisha likes to be worshipped instead of assuming your way is right.)

Blending Hoodoo, Voodoo (Vodou), Santería, Palo, Obeah and Other African-Diasporic Traditions

An "orisha spirit doll" sold by a vendor claiming it will allow the owner to petition the orisha Oya and gain blessings of prosperity.

An “orisha spirit doll” sold by a vendor claiming it will allow the owner to petition the orisha Oya and gain blessings of prosperity. Oya is not worshiped in this manner, only spirits of the dead are housed in dolls in Lukumí practice.

A common red flag warning you that a practitioner is culturally appropriating without formal training or without respect for the individual traditions he or she is borrowing, is when you see someone blending multiple spiritual paths into one practice. These are each separate and distinct spiritual paths that have nothing to do with one another. (Read our article on the difference between Hoodoo, Voodoo and Santeria.) As was previously mentioned the tribes from where these practices originate were often mortal enemies and at war with one another in Africa and would not blend their traditions nor cross their practices. Even Vodou which does include elements from Fon, Ewe, Yoruba and Congo people (who often warred with one another) has a fixed “reglement” or traditional order that is followed in their religious practices, and it is not a free-for-all religion. Simply put, these are distinct practices and religious traditions. Someone can certainly be initiated in multiple traditions but is rare to find anyone who is initiated in more than two of them.

We’ve witnessed hoodoo spiritual supply shops selling “La Sirene/Yemaya” Oil, when these are two distinct and different spiritual forces from different tribes in Africa that never saw eye to eye.

We’ve seen “orisha spirit dolls” which are essentially rag dolls like the doll babies made in hoodoo, but in the colors of various orishas. The vendors claim they can be used to help the owner obtain blessings, money, protection, etc. There is no way to know what these dolls contain, neither in terms of physical components, nor in the spirits that might decide to reside therein. Without proper consecration, a doll is just a house for some spirit … any spirit … certainly not the orishas. And any spirit would be happy to receive the worship and attention the owner of this doll would give it.

We’ve seen online merchants selling a “Pomba Gira paquet (paket)” when pakets come from Haitian Vodou (where Pomba Gira is NOT worshipped) and Pomba Gira comes from Brazilian Kimbanda where pakets are not constructed nor used in her worship (not to mention that Pomba Gira is a CLASS of spirits and you need to specify which Pomba Gira you are working with). Pomba Gira would not be amused, nor would any initiated Vodowizan.

A "Pomba Gira" spirit paket sold by a vendor with no training in Brazilian Kimbanda. Pakets come from Vodou not Kimbanda.

A “Pomba Gira” spirit paket sold by a vendor with no training in Brazilian Kimbanda. Pakets come from Haitian Vodou not Kimbanda, and Pomba Gira is a class of spirits, not one specific spirit. This is typical of fraudulent tradition crossing.

We’ve seen Etsy shops selling Palo trazos/firmas (sacred symbols of Palo Mayombe) when they are not initiated into Palo. We’ve even seen people selling Palo Trazos/Firmas drawn on cardboard like some kind of amulet to bring you money, protection or luck (even though trazos are drawn in the moment with chalk on the floor and are unique each time they are drawn and used . They are an instruction set to a spirit and without a nganga (pot) or a lucero they mean nothing.) Any palero would laugh at the illogic of this practice.

We even saw a YouTube video of an invented divination system called “hoodoo bone reading” that utilized orisha color symbolism and names from Santería practices but had Kimbanda pontos riscados dawn on a dish along with various random tokens representing different forces in a person’s life, and then tried to pass it off as Obeah divination. Which is it, Hoodoo, Santería, Kimbanda or Obeah? The answer is that it’s none of the above.

This mish-mosh of practices is a sad attempt to lend legitimacy to a fraudulent practice by adding more “mystically foreign” elements to the mix. It’s the attitude of “OH! Add that in there too … it will seem more spooky and exotic, thus POWERFUL!” Not only is this shoddy spiritual craftsmanship but it also causes those who may be sincerely interested in learning these traditions great confusion.

In the short time we’ve been online our church has received messages and questions from many people. We’ve had to explain to people that buying a catholic saint statue of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre does not mean you have received the orisha Oshun. That there is no such thing as palo “elekes”. That a hoodoo spell does not call upon the orisha Eleggua. That Yemaya cannot be contained in a mojo bag. And that you can’t buy a Fimo clay head made to LOOK like Eleggua online and think you actually have received anything of Eleggua.

This kind of fraud has to stop, and it is important that we call it out when we see it. People are scammed out of thousands of dollars falling for these tricks. We at SAFE are doing our part to inform the public about non-traditional practice but also about what IS traditional. Knowledge of how things are traditionally done is more important than anything, and will help the public stay away from these snake oil vendors.

Emulating Orisha Imagery in Statuary


An “Eleggua” head made of red clay sold by an online vendor. Only an ordained Olorisha or Babalawo can construct such an item, and it would never be made of clay. This vendor has no initiations in Lukumí or Ifá. (Image updated to show the actual object sold online)

Another common example of cultural appropriation with online vendors is the proliferation of “Eleggua” statues being sold online. Elegguá’s shrine traditionally takes the form either of a single stone, or a cement head-shaped shrine into which have been placed cowries. Each Eleggua should be unique to the individual, containing items as divined through diloggún or Ifá, and proper to the camino (road) for that individual. Eleggua is always made of durable construction (like cement or a rock) not clay, nor polymer clay (Fimo or Sculpey) . Elegguá’s shrine must then be washed and consecrated in a long ceremony by initiated olorishas or a babalawo, and then fed animal sacrifice or it isn’t anything. Remember – no blood, no orisha.

We have witnessed red and black polymer clay sculpted heads being sold online with keys, feathers and cowries being jammed into the sculture. We’ve seen Eleggua-like heads sculpted out of play-doh, or red clay (claimed to have been hand-harvested from the great lakes region). We’ve even seen spirit bottles and mojo bags being made “for Eleggua” and sold as if they have anything at all to do with Eleggua. At best these are pretty crafts or art items, but they are most certainly NOT legitimate nor authentic Lucumí nor Yoruban shrines for the orisha Eleggua/Elegba.

(Please note, the image that was originally in this article depicting the Fimo clay Eleggua heads with keys, duck feathers, beads and crystals stuck in them has been removed because the online merchant who made them claimed ownership of the image. Per the request of Denise Alvarado – proprietor of PlanetVoodoo.com –  and out of respect for her copyright ownership of the images of her Eleggua heads, we have removed the images but hold to our article’s point that this is an example of cultural appropriation since she is not an initiated orisha priestess in Lucumi, Ifá, Brazilian Candomblé nor any of the traditions that worships Eleggua in a clay head form, and has no right to make nor sell these things and claim they are Eleggua. While this artist has added a caveat to her website stating these are not made by a babalawo and are not presented as ritual items, her product descriptions and powers she ascribes to the articles clearly indicates that she is selling these sculptures as if they were sacred and ritually prepared including item descriptions saying they were “created within sacred space”. This is misleading at best.)

Non-Ordained, Non-Initiated People Acting as Priesthood

The other example we’ve seen are people acting as priesthood by working with clients, offering readings, leading public rituals, performing spells, selling items and shrines dedicated to Lucumí/Yoruban orishas when they have no ordination or initiation within the Lucumi or Yoruban traditions. To be very clear, before a person can work for clients on the behalf of the orishas, offer readings where the orishas speak, lead public rituals for the orishas, perform ebó or spells that petition the orishas, or construct/consecrate shrines for the orishas within the Lucumí or Yoruba traditions, you MUST BE AN ORDAINED PRIEST (Olorisha or Babalawo). Even within these traditions there are further limitations. (You cannot give a shrine or item of an orisha away if you have not received it first, etc.)

An online vendor sold these Palo Firmas drawn on cardboard as magical charms. The vendor has no initiation in Palo and these firmas are worthless without a nganga and palo initiation.

An online vendor sold these Palo Firmas drawn on cardboard as magical charms. The vendor has no initiation in Palo and these firmas are worthless without a nganga and palo initiation.

This problem is becoming a quite rampant within the neo-pagan community. Neo-paganism is a valid and distinct religion but it is not Lukumi nor Yoruban religious practice. While they may feel they have the right to worship our orishas, our orishas have made it very clear the manner in which they want to be propitiated and worshipped. This is contained within Odu (the signs of our divination system), preserved by ancestors who gave their lives through slavery and persecution to retain their native practices, and perpetuated into modern-day by contemporary practitioners who continue and carry on the manner of worship taught by our elders. It is incredibly insensitive and offensive for someone outside of our religion to think they have the authority to run a ritual to one of our orishas when they have not been properly initiated in our manners. It is a huge example of cultural appropriation.

Neo-Pagan priests and priestess are running amok claiming to be a “Priestsess of Oshun and Yemaya” or “a daughter of Oya and Ogun” when they have never been through kariocha nor been initiated into Ifá. Even in our religious practice we do not know who are spiritual parentage is until itá (the life reading performed three days after initiation). This creates a shadow culture to our traditional Lucumí/Yoruban practice where people think they can go to a pagan priest to work with the orishas or that they can go give offerings to any orisha in nature while singing pagan songs. While I am sure they have good intentions and are coming from a place of genuine interest and heart, I ask them a very poignant and important question. “If you love the orishas so much, why don’t you learn the way that orisha wants to be worshipped, from the people who preserved that tradition for centuries?”

Typically when these folks are challenged they’ll take one of two roads. The first direction are the folks who claim that “this is how I was taught by my family / mom / grandmother, etc.” (It’s interesting to note that no one ever claims their father or their grandfather taught them these things.) They claim to have been taught to make Haitian-Brazilian-Hoodoo items by family, or that they were taught that the orishas were part of Voodoo, or that “this is they way I was shown it was done”. No one in the USA even knew (or cared) about Pomba Gira until the 21st century and suddenly people are claiming they had family traditions that worked with her (although they have no ancestry in Brazil). Or some even claim to come from a family lineage of Chalcedonian witches – from ancient Chacedon in Turkey, who never worked with the orishas, pomba gira, the lwa, etc. Anyone who has a real root in these traditions would never condone that these practices be mingled.

"Crowned Eleggua" statues made of polymer clay (Fimo) with keys and random items added in. Eleggua must be made of a durable material like stone or concrete and customized through divination. These were sold online by PlanetVoodoo.com - image has been removed by the request of Denise Alvarado as she holds the copyright for the photo.

“Crowned Eleggua” statues made of polymer clay (Fimo) with keys and random items added in. Eleggua must be made of a durable material like stone or concrete and customized through divination. These were sold online by PlanetVoodoo.com – image has been removed by the request of Denise Alvarado as she holds the copyright for the photo.

The second road people usually take is to claim these practices as “their own private spirituality” and “how dare you question me or make me have to explain myself” for doing what they do. Well simply put, we as actual initiated priests and priestesses who entered igbodú (the sacred room), who wen through initiation, who paid our dues and sacrificed our lives for the orishas, are the culture bearers of this religion. We practice it as the priests who initiated us practiced it. We have verifiable lineages that are a testament to our initiation, to the preservation of our culture and to the perseverance of our ancestors in the face of adversity. We honor their sacrifice by practicing our religions the way they did – not by inventing stuff because “we feel we have the right to”.

To those who are appropriating our religions, If someone steps up to call you out on your own “inventions” then don’t be offended when they call you exactly what you are… an inventor. Fly your inventor flag with pride and let people know “Hey this is my own mish-mosh I invented and it’s pretty and I like it”. That’s fine. But don’t try to pass yourself off like some kind of authority … neither by family lineage nor by self-rigteousness.

To the public… ask questions about everything! If it’s boasts a lot and claims to be something authentic, do some research before you buy it. Ask around and see what others think of their practice. Ask outside of their sphere of influence so you can get an honest, unbiased opinion before hiring one of these individuals and always ask for credentials. A true santero or babalawo can tell you where they come from with specific names, dates and places, not veiled mysterious stories about family traditions, grandmothers or divine intercession.

SAFE Alert: Mixing of Santeria and Palo Practices

SAFE Alert! Palo Mayombe practices are being mixed with Santeria Lukumí practices.

A common problem our SAFE members have been observing online and in botanicas around the country is a blending or superimposing of the religious practices of Santeria with those of a separate religion known as Palo Mayombe. Thus far we have seen examples of “Palo elekes” being given for the mpungos, “orisha signatures” culturally appropriated from Brazilian traditions, people being told to be initiated in Palo through diloggún divination, and people being told they need to receive “Palo warriors“. Additionally, there is a growing trend in the USA of people being told they must be initiated in Palo (scratch in Palo) before they go through the Kariocha initiation, whether or not divination is performed to validate that initiation is needed by that person.

What is Palo Mayombe?

A prenda or nganga. The focus of Palo's magical work and worship. This is not Santería!

A prenda or nganga. The focus of Palo Mayombe’s magical work and worship. This is not Santería Lucumí!

In order to understand the differences between Palo and Santeria it is important to understand the different points of origin for these two religions. Palo Mayombe is a religion that evolved in Cuba out of the native religious practices of the Bakongo speaking people of Africa. The Bankongo-speaking people (commonly called Congo) originated from modern-day Congo, Angola and further south on the West African coast. The Bakono-speaking tribes were some of the first slaves taken to the Americas in the slave trade and their religious practices were well-established in Cuba long before the Yoruba people arrived with their Lukumí religion.

To contrast, Santeria Lucumí evolved in Cuba out of the traditional religious practices of the Lukumí/Yoruba people who were from the Yoruba-speaking lands of Africa (centered around modern-day Nigeria and Benin) – further north along the West African coast. In Africa, the Yoruba and Congo people were always warring with one another. They were mortal enemies and their religious systems were in direct opposition from one another.

Palo Mayombe is also called by other names (depending on lineage) including: Palo Monte, Palo Kimbisa, Palo Briyumba, or La Regla del Congo. Palo’s religious function revolves around the prenda or nganga – a magical cauldron composed of different soils, stones, wooden sticks, tools and bones. The prenda is a microcosm of the world, and contains a powerful pact between a spirit of the dead and the mpungo (force of nature) who rules the prenda. The Palo priest – called a Palero or Palera – directs the spirit of the prenda to perform works of magic, to heal, curse, make magical changes happen or to make pacts with new initiates. Palo’s worship is very necromantic and heavily involved with working with spirits of the dead.

Palo’s primary initiation is the Rayamiento (scratching) in which the body of a new initiate is ritually prepared by forming a pact with the nganga for protection and spiritual evolution. The Rayamiento derives its name from the ritual practice of lightly cutting the skin of the initiate. Such cuts are never performed in any Lukumí rituals.

Palo is Not a Precursor to Ocha (Santería)

In modern-day Cuba and in the United States it has become more and more common for people to be initiated into both Palo and Lukumí. Lucumí and Palo often exist in parallel within the lives of many adherents to both faiths. Unfortunately, this has led to the modern innovation that a person MUST be Rayado (scratched or initiated in Palo) before undergoing Kariocha, or that once a person goes through a Rayamiento in Palo that they will naturally make their way to Kariocha in Santeria Lucumí. This is misinformed and is not traditional by any means – though it is a very common practice.

To be perfectly clear, initiation in either religion can only be determined through their respective divination systems. It is not correct to assume that someone will be initiated in both or either religion. If a person’s destiny, as revealed through divination, is one where they will only participate in Palo, that is perfectly acceptable and traditional. Similarly if a person’s destiny, as revealed through divination, only requires them to be made a priest in Santería through the kariocha initiation, then that is perfectly acceptable and traditional. One does not automatically lead to the other.

There is one thing to keep in mind, however. According to the Lucumí religious beliefs, kariocha seals the body’s energy systems and must be the last initiation ever conferred upon a person. To cut a person’s body open and make them open to ritual energies after they receive kariocha is very dangerous. Therefore, it is best to make sure any obligations or requirements in Palo are met and completed prior to going through the kariocha ritual – if it has been divined that it is part of your destiny.  There are some religious lineages who do not think there is any risk in undergoing Palo rayamiento after kariocha, but we at the Santeria Church of the Orishas do not recommend that. If this is your desire then it is best for you to consult your elders and follow their advice, and at least bring your tutelary orisha’s diloggun down to the mat to receive their permission before undergoing any such initiation.

Palo Elekes Do Not Exist

This is a Collar de Bandera used by Palo initiates. It is worn diagonally across the chest and reaches from a person's shoulder to their opposite hip.

This is the Collar de Bandera used by Palo initiates. It is worn diagonally across the chest and reaches from a person’s shoulder to their opposite hip.

One of the fraudulent initiations that SAFE recently came across was the practice of giving out “Palo Elekes”. Elekes are beaded necklaces given in Santería, not Palo. The word eleke comes from the Yoruba word “bead”; note, YORUBA word, not Bakongo. Elekes are one of the first initiations given to most adherents of Santeria and they are typically given as a set of 5 beaded necklaces (elekes for Eleggua, Obatala, Oshun, Yemaya and Chango) that are worn around the neck and hang down to a person’s mid-torso. A person can also receive a singular eleke if they need that orisha’s protection and cannot afford the complete elekes initiation.

Such elekes are never given out in Palo Mayombe. Palo Mayombe initiates who have been scratched in the Rayamiento ceremony do receive one necklace that is called a Collar de Bandera (banner necklace). This is worn diagonally like a sash across the person’s body from their shoulder on one side down to their hip on the other side. It is a mark of that person’s status as an initiate and confers upon them the protection of the nganga. These are usually beaded in one long strand of multi-colored beads, or with segments of different patterns for each of the nature forces in Palo (red/black for Lucero Mundo, green/black for Sarabanda, white for Tiembla Tierra, etc.) There are variations of this necklace depending on whether an initiate has received a nganga of his own and typically this includes a series of coins linked into the necklace or three cowrie shells on a segment of chain.

The individual giving out “Palo Elekes” is giving necklaces in the Lukumí/Santeria style but claiming that each necklace is for one of the mpungos: Lucero Mundo, Sarabanda, Chola Wenge, etc. This is simply not a traditional practice within Palo and there is certainly no such practice in Santeria as the mpungos are not a part of Santería. It is a pure invention of someone who is trying to cross up or blend the two different religions. (Keep in mind that the Bakongo and Yoruba people in Africa were mortal enemies and would never have done this.)

Palo Trazos and Brazilian Pontos Riscados Being Called “Orisha Signatures”

This is a ponto riscado from the Brazilian traditions of Umbanda. It is NOT anything used in Santería Lucumí!

This is a ponto riscado from the Brazilian tradition of Umbanda. It is NOT anything used in Santería Lukumí!

Another amazing phenomenon we’ve witnessed is the mixing of Palo trazos and pontos riscados from Brazilian Umbanda with Lukumí practice. In Palo, trazos (sometimes called firmas, or patipembas / patimpembas) are ornate drawings usually drawn on the ground with chalk that act as instructions for the nfumbe (spirit) that lives within the palero’s prenda (pot) to go accomplish certain magical acts. These are characterized by their use of arrows, circles and crosses. (You can see an example of a Palo trazo to the right.)

The members of SAFE recently heard of a “babalawo” teaching students that these were “orisha signatures” that were to be used in spell work as a way of calling the orisha. He also culturally appropriated the pontos riscados of Brazilian Umanda for the same purpose. There is one prolific author who is well known for mixing up the practices of Brazilian Umbanda and Kimbanda into Santeria Lucumí and such practice would never be accepted by either Brazilian or Lucumí practitioners.

Within Santeria/Lucumí we do not utilize such “orisha signatures”. The only type of drawn symbol used is the ozun (or Osun) which resembles a bullseye made up of concentric circles painted in the colors white, yellow, red and blue (in an appropriate combination for that orisha’s initiation). These are seldom done outside of an initiation, however.

This is a trazo (also called a patimpemba or firma) from Palo. These are NOT used in Santería Lukumí

This is a trazo (also called a patimpemba or firma) from Palo. These are NOT used in Santería Lukumí

There is one instance where people use symbols that may resemble palo trazos, and those are specifically related to working with the orisha Osain in front of his cauldron. The instance we observed regarding “orisha signatures” was not this situation. It was clearly someone who was perpetuating illegitimate practice.

Cross-prescribing Rituals/Ebó Through Divination

This practice is very common to find amongst paleros and olorishas, yet it is not appropriate and not-traditional. Occasionally, paleros will indicate through a Palo divination that a person has to undergo kariocha to be an orisha priest. Similarly, some olorisha diviners will tell people that they have to receive a nganga in Palo. This cross-prescribing of ritual practices across religious lines is not acceptable and is completely inappropriate.

The divinatory tools of Lucumí (diloggún, obí, Ifá) should be the only ones used to determine the religious and initiatory needs of a Lucumí practitioner (not Palo divination nor Spiritist readings). Similarly, the divination tools of Palo (chamalongos, nkobos, vititi mensu) should be the only ones used to determine the religious and initiatory needs of a Palo practitioner (not Lucumí divination nor Spiritist readings).

This is a very common occurrence that we at SAFE have witnessed in both the Santería/Lukumí community as well as in Palo and Espiritismo. The best recommendation we can give to avoid any complications or disrespect of priests, is to receive the information you are being told as a suggestion, then go get divination done in the appropriate religious tradition to confirm that suggestion.

For example, if in a Lucumí diloggún reading you are told that you need to be rayado in Palo (initiated), do not accept this as fact – simply as a suggestion. Then follow up by going to a Palo priest and having him do the appropriate divination to ask whether you need to be rayado in Palo (initiated). If the Palo priest confirms it, then consider it as fact. Similarly, if you go to a Palo priest and he tells you that you have to go to an Olorisha and receive warriors (or undergo some initiation in Ocha), do not accept this as fact – only as a recommendation. Follow up by visiting an Olorisha and having them perform diloggún divination to find out if you do indeed need to receive warriors. If he confirms that you do need warriors then it is marked as fact. If he says no, then you are not required to receive them. This is the best way to make sure you work within the lines of each religion in a multi-cultural world, and respect their traditions without mixing them. Diviners within both traditions would do well to respect the authority and jurisdiction of their counterparts and simply refer the client to a priest of the other religion to let them find out what needs to be done.

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