Tag Archive: initiation

How to Learn Santería – Studying the Religion

Two candles offered to the ibeji at the Santeria Church of the Orishas.

Two candles offered to the Ibeji at the Santeria Church of the Orishas.

One of the most common questions I receive through our church’s Facebook page and through our Contact Us page is some variation of “How do I learn Santería?” Indeed it seems to be one of the most challenging questions to get a straight answer on, but I am going to give you the answer I would give a godchild. Hopefully each of you who are interested in learning the religion of Santeria will find your own way to the right person. Before I go into my answer, however, I must preface everything I write here with one bit of information. The Santería Church of the Orishas does NOT give out any referrals to priests outside of our local area (Los Angeles, CA) and we cannot refer you to anyone outside of our lineage. Please do not reply to this article seeking a godparent. That is not the intent of this article. The intent is to educate the public on the right way to learn; it is then up to you to find the right godparent.

Santeria Lukumi is a Communal Religion

In order to understand the way you learn Santeria, you must understand the history of our faith and our culture – for the two are largely indivisible. Santería Lukumí came together on the island of Cuba as the aggregate worship of the various Yoruba-speaking people from different tribes, along with elements of Arará worship, Catholicism and Spiritism. For many generations it was protected and kept secret – as something solely for African people. But over time, African people and European people began to have children of mixed ancestries and as such, the doors to Lucumí slowly (and reluctantly for many people) opened to non-African participants. But even then, the practice of Lucumí was something you did because your family did it. It was tribal – and in many families it continues to be tribal. At its core, Santería Lucumí is NOT an individual practice, is not a personal path, and is something you inherit and pass on to others as elements of a culture that survived the tragedy of slavery in Cuba. You learned Santería because it was what your people did. You practice Santería with others in the community, because it serves the greater whole.

Learning Santería Lucumí in the Information Age

Even our church's website isn't a replacement for in-person training from a godparent.

Even our church’s website isn’t a replacement for training in-person with your godparent.

With the advent of the internet and mass social media, communication has become easier than ever. More and more people have discovered Santería Lucumí and are attracted to the orishas. But sadly, many people bring with them an American, fast-paced culture of instant results and quick fixes. This clashes with the traditional Lucumí way of learning. This has resulted in many people gobbling up information on websites and through books that are poorly-informed at best, or damagingly misleading at worst. Some have taken to “worshipping” in their own invented manner, often grafting the Orishas onto neo-pagan traditions like Wicca, or utilizing the orishas like a table of correspondences when performing candle spells or folk magic spells. Still others approach the religion thinking “I WANT TO BE INITIATED!” Not realizing that initiation into Santeria is something that is marked through divination because you need it, not because you want it. There are many scoundrels and charlatans who have taken advantage of this generation of American-cultured people by offering sham initiations through the internet, or mail-order orishas, or a multitude of culturally appropriated products that steal the imagery, symbolism and religious elements of Santeria Lucumí outside of a cultural or traditional religious context. That is why our church founded SAFE – Santeros Against Fraud and Exploitation – in order to educated the public about what is traditional, legitimate practice and what isn’t. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. In spite of the wave of cyber-fraud and poorly educated priests touting themselves as experts behind an internet-devised persona, there are still many lineages and houses that practice the proper way, training people in true apprenticeship, with the utmost of ethical integrity.

So How Do You Learn Santería Lucumí?

Learning Santeria is a process that requires true apprenticeship. That means learning side-by-side from your godparent, following what they say, and doing what they do. If you talk to a multitude of Santeros each godfamily will have minor variations on how things are done and you will simply confuse yourself and get frustrated. Stick to one spiritual lineage and one godparent and take things slowly. Here are a few things you’ll need in your process of learning Santería Lucumi:

Select a Godparent

The first thing you must do to learn Santería Lucumí is that you must find a godparent. This can be a man or woman who is initiated as an Olorisha in the religion. A Babalawo may be able to help you with life problems, but he will not be able to give you the required elements to proceed in the religion beyond the limited few that a Babalawo can give (Hand of Orunla, Idé of Orunla and Ifá warriors – he cannot crown you with an orisha like Chango, Eleggua, etc. He can only initiate others to Ifá as babalawos.). I highly recommend that you take your time before you dedicate yourself to one priest or priestess as your godparent. Take a few months and get to know that person – the longer the better – before you jump into receiving any initiations from him or her. I also recommend you work with ONE PERSON AT A TIME. Do not “shop” several olorishas at a time. That is highly disrespectful and insulting. Our religion is a practice of discipline and respect, not one where you select a godparent based on the lowest bidder. Learn from one olorisha, and if you find they are not a good match, formally end the relationship with them before going to find another one.  You can’t have your feet in two different camps at the same time.

Divination with diloggún is one of the best ways to learn where you are on your path to destiny.

Divination with diloggún is one of the best ways to learn where you are on your path to destiny.

Get Readings With Your Godparent

One of the first things you should do is to get a diloggún reading (or an Ifá reading if you are part of an Ifá house) from your godparent, or a diviner that they trust. The reason I recommend a diloggún reading is that you will be communicating with the orishas themselves – not with spirits of the dead or someone’s intuition. A spiritist mass (misa espiritual) is not a suitable alternative to a diloggún reading! The orisha Elegguá will tell you what your destiny is and where your path in the religion lies. The religion – as much as you may love it – might not be the right place for you, and a diloggún reading will tell you as much. It will also tell you if you need to be initiated or not (for those folks who come wanting to know if they can be initiated). Not everyone has a destiny that includes initiation! But the reading will give you a clear understanding of our working relationship with the orishas in our faith, and also expose you to our divination systems, and the technology of ebó. Additionally, I’ve found that watching an olorisha’s divining style says a lot about how they function as a godparent. Are they taking time to give you guidance on how to make the most of the sign that comes out in the reading? Are they giving you positive and negative elements to the sign or are they simply giving a “doom and gloom reading?” Are they trying to find simple ebós to do to remedy your situation or are they immediately jumping to sacrificing the entire barnyard of animals? Are they pushing you into doing an initiation you don’t want to do, or are they simply prescribing the initiation and telling you that it would be in your best interest – then letting you decide in good time? These are all things to watch out for in a divination.

Ask Your Godparent Questions

Do you have a question about something you don’t understand in our religion? Ask your godparent! As tempting as it might be, don’t go looking for answers on internet discussion boards and websites (yes I see the irony of that statement). We have a saying for those places: “In the town of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!” Most people on internet discussion boards are half-educated or think they know a lot because they have 5 years of initiation. There are masters in our religion with over 40 years of initiation and actual experience in an igbodú (sacred ocha room) that you could be asking who will have your answer and the history behind it! But you have to ask them in-person. A website is no replacement for in-person learning. Always ask the person to whom you have entrusted your training – your godparent! Always verify things you read online by confirming them through your godparent, as there are variations from lineage to lineage within our religion. Save up a list of questions and their answers in a notebook. I used to do that, and while it did drive my godparent crazy, in the end I was glad for it. Those answers proved to be precious jewels of information that so few others actually had access to. Ask your godparent’s elders (if they are around) to see if they can elaborate on the situation – just ask your godparent first so you don’t seem to be jumping over his/her head.

Remember the most important question of all: “Why do we do that?” All too often priests and priestesses in our religion learn by copying what others do, and never learn why we perform ritual actions in a certain manner. All of our ceremonies, our songs, our rituals, our offerings, our prayers and our traditions are encapsulated in odu (the signs of the diloggún divination system). There is a reason for why we do things, and often times, once you understand the reasons for our actions, the ritual actions are even easier to remember. You can also weed out an Olorisha’s personal superstitions and style from the actual practice of Santería by doing this. Also remember there is a time and place for everything. Stopping your godparent in the middle of a ceremony to ask why they are doing something is not usually a good idea. It is best to wait until there is a break in the ceremony or until the ceremony is done and quietly pull your godparent aside and ask them why ritual actions were done. That way your godparent can focus on completing the ebó or ritual and not get sidetracked with questions. Also, some godparents do not like to be questioned in front of their peers, and this method preserves the respect between godchild and godparent. Questions are best asked in private to avoid problems.

Apprenticeship is How You Truly Learn Santería

Santería Lucumí is traditionally learned through true apprenticeship, not in sit-down classes. This means that as a newcomer to the religion, you learn the most menial of tasks first: taking out the trash, plucking chickens, sweeping, washing dishes, mopping the floor, etc. What you should be focusing on is the sanctity found in service toward others. If no one takes out the trash the ritual won’t be able to proceed. Your role as the trash guy is just as critical as the Oriaté’s role in singing the songs of the ritual. Take pride in a job well done even if you’re just plucking chickens, for it is in humbling ourselves to serve that we learn what communal religion really is about. It’s not about titles and ego, it’s about love, community and service. While you are performing chores, listen attentively to the conversations taking place around you. You will absorb information about past rituals, information about odu, historical accounts of old Santeros and Santeras and how they used to do things, and THAT is how you start to learn in the religion. Gossip less, and learn more by listening while doing chores! Offer to do the things no one likes to do, or by watching. Stand next to the butcher and watch how he or she opens the animals so that you can learn how to do it. Offer to crack open coconuts and remove the meat from them, and you’ll learn a few tricks from older olorishas. Offer to clean up the area outside dedicated to feeding the dead, and set it up with its offerings of drinks and food. You’ll learn a lot about how to propitiate the ancestors in the process. Sit side-by-side in readings (if your godparent permits it) so that you can begin to understand the mechanics of a diloggún reading, and if you have questions ask your godparent after the reading is done to better understand how it works. This is the meaning of true apprenticeship and it is how we learn to practice Santería Lucumí.

Keep a Professional Relationship With Your Godparent

One of the common mistakes of newcomers to the religion is that they want to create a personal and friendly relationship with their godparent. I do not recommend this. I find that this crosses certain lines and can actually cause friction between godchild and godparent. I’ve found in my own life as a godchild and as a godparent that the best way to keep the relationship between godparent and godchild healthy is to keep a healthy professional distance between the two of you. Offer to help your godparent, reach out to them regularly so that you can know when events are taking place and see if you can attend them, but do not spend personal and casual time together like buddies. This can actually cause there to be resentment, spreading of gossip and misunderstandings about expectations. This also helps prevent unethical behavior from happening on either side of the fence.

“You Can’t Know That Until You Are Initiated!”

Santería Lucumí is an initiatory religion and many of its aspects are secret. The contents of our ceremonies and some of the deeper rituals we perform are secrets that are not given to those who are uninitiated. It is normal to be told by your godparent that they cannot answer your question until you’ve been initiated as an Olorisha and been presented to the Igbodú (sacred room). Do not despair, there are still plenty of things you can learn before initiation. If you have not yet received any initiations, it is best to focus your learning on understanding the structure of the godfamily, getting to know people in your godfamily and learning general information about the religion. Learn the best ways to do all of the chores in the religion: trash, washing dishes, opening coconuts, plucking chickens, etc. Also learn about the orishas: their likes and dislikes, what forces of nature they have dominion over, their colors, numbers, patakís (legends), etc. Start to build relationships with the orishas through offerings of addimús, fulfilling ebós with your godparent’s guidance, and learning their songs and dances. Going to drum ceremonies are a good way to learn the songs and dances too.

A traditional Lucumi Egun shrine with offerings to the ancestors.

A traditional Lucumi Egun shrine with offerings to the ancestors.

Work With Your Ancestors

The first place most newcomers to Santería begin their devotions is with their personal ancestors. Everyone has access to their ancestors, whether it is through the traditional Lucumí shrine that is placed on the ground, or through Espiritismo and the bóveda. The best thing a new aleyo can do is to start by developing a relationship with their ancestors, guides and spirits as well as learning how to listen to their guidance. This is where having a godparent is important, as they can guide you and show you how to communicate with the ancestors and how to make proper offerings to them. Most newcomers will participate in spiritist masses (misas espirituales) as a way to develop their mediumship skills and build relationships with their guides, under the tutelage of their godparent as well.

Keep An Open Mind

As you learn and grow in Santeria you’ll run across other adherents of the faith and invariably you’re going to learn about varying practices and seeming contradictions in the way people follow our faith. It’s important to keep an open mind and not judge others in the process of learning. It’s easy to paint things in black and white but until you’ve been fully initiated in the religion and know the inner workings of our ceremonies, it’s going to be hard to discern what is legitimate variances in practices versus what is misinformation or fraudulent practices. One of the best things you can do is take any information you gather back to your godparent for verification and explanation. Then stick to the way things are done in your god-family. You’ll grow in your community, learn and form respectful bonds with your god-family. As you make your way in Santeria you’ll see just how best to function as a tribe, how to honor the ancestors, the orishas and your family through your actions and in how you conduct yourself in life.

Destiny and Sacrifice: Initiations of Santeria – by Rev. Dr. E.

Pantheacon is an interdenominational convention discussing various earth-based religious and spiritual paths held every year in San Jose, CA.

Pantheacon is an interdenominational convention discussing various earth-based religious and spiritual paths held every year in San Jose, CA.

Rev. Dr. E. will be presenting a lecture titled “Destiny and Sacrifice: Initiations of Santeria” at Pantheacon in San Jose on Feb. 16th, 2013. Registration for Pantheacon is required in order to attend.

Destiny and Sacrifice: Initiation of Santeria

  • Saturday February 16, 2013
  • 9:00AM
  • DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel
  • San Jose, CA
  • San Juan Room

Some people bring good destinies from heaven, others bring bad destinies, but with the intervention of the orishas, and support from the community through rituals of sacrifice we can exchange our destinies for better ones. Join Dr. E, founder of the Santeria Church of the Orishas, as he demystifies the initiations of Santeri­a and explores the function of ritual sacrifice and tribal unity within the Lukumi cosmology.

For more information visit Pantheacon’s website.

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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