“If Ya Don’t Got It, Ya Can’t See It”: Initiation and Secrecy in Santeria

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In our religion most of our ceremonies are secret and have been since time immemorial. We don’t talk about what happens during initiations and non-initiates are forbidden from viewing Orichas inside the soperas or tureens in which they live. Those who receive an initiation are also forbidden to talk about the ceremonies they have gone through. Sometimes those rules are distilled down to the short, pithy phrase, “if you don’t got it, ya can’t see it.”

The initiations are secrets held between the Orichas, their priests and their initiates. In fact, in many of these ceremonies, the initiate is actually imbued with the secrets of the Oricha.

“So… how do you prepare for initiation?” Simply put, there really is no way for you to prepare for what happens during our initiations. Beside the fact that they are secret, there is no way to prepare yourself for the effects of many of our initiations. Often we wouldn’t be able to really describe these effects even if we wanted to.

Some of the ceremonies in an initiation are specifically to prepare the initiate for being in the presence of the Oricha and an unprepared person can be spiritually injured by seeing something they aren’t supposed to without this preparation. In fact, certain Powers (in particular Oddun/Olofin) can actually be deadly if viewed without having gone through the necessary ceremonies.
The Orichas can also become extremely angry with those who look upon them without the prerequisite ceremonies and can punish those who reveal their ceremonies. There is a famous case in Havana, Cuba where a babalawo revealed parts of the initiation process to government ethnologists. Afterwards, he became gravely ill and when he was at death’s doorstep he had to go the babalawos in order to be saved. Ifá demanded he go through the iyoyé ceremony again (the iyoyé is the only public part of the initiation of a babalawo, and is a painful ceremony where the initiate has to pass through a gauntlet of babalawos and is beaten with ‘cujes’ – thin sticks – which often tear the flesh). This time as punishment as well as to save his life. Babalawos came from all over Havana to participate and when they were all through with him, he was truly a bloody a mess. The babalawos videotaped the ceremony and passed it around for good measure as a warning to anyone else who might be tempted to betray Ifá’s secrets.
Orula was good for his word of course, and the babalawo lived for years after the ceremony.
People are attracted to the religion because the power of Ifá and the Orichas is legendary, and the Orichas truly love their children. But there can be a severe side to that great power as well and they can be quite dangerous when they are betrayed. That is why they say, “Con los Orichas no se juega.”     “You don’t play with the Orichas.”

Why I Don’t Mention Odduns by Name

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Some of you may have noticed that when I write about the stories (patakís, itan) and proverbs from Ifa odduns, I usually don’t mention the oddun by name. There are a couple of reasons for this.
One: The odduns, and the information associated with them, traditionally are fully in the province of the babalawos alone. As I mention in my book Babalawo, Santeria’s High Priests, in the 1940s Pedro Arango published a book called Iwe ni Iyewó ni Ifá Orunmila, which gave detailed information on the odduns of Ifá. In his, “Words from the Author,” section prefacing the second edition of the book, Arango admitted copies of the first edition of the book had fallen into the hands of a woman, presumably a santera, and two obá oriatés. Arango wrote that to save his responsibility (and probably his reputation as well), he was publishing the greatly enlarged second edition using much tighter security: he put a different secret mark in each copy so that if that copy was found in a non-babalawo’s hands, they would immediately know exactly who had been the source of the leak. In addition, Arango threatened to publicly denounce any non-babalawo found to be in possession of the book to their elders. Obviously, it was considered sacrilege to santeros and babalawos alike or such a denunciation would not have been much of a threat. In fact, the accessing of books on Ifá odduns by non-babalawos is very likely to have played a major role in the frictions we see today between olorichas and
Two: I often see posts from people asking about an oddun get irresponsibly answered with a cut and paste of all the information from one of these books. I say irresponsibly, because these books are written in the form of notes and is meant to interpreted by an experienced babalawo according to the type of iré (blessings) or osobo (negativity) that the person came with as well as the Witness odduns, etc. Often there is information that will appear to be downright contradictory if you don’t understand how these odduns and these books work. An oddun can also take very, very different forms depending on what kind of iré or osobo the person has come with.

These books may have parts that speak of very dark events meant for the person who came with Ikú (Death) that wouldn’t apply to a person who came in iré or with one of the lesser types of negativity. The same oddun can speak of beautiful things as well, which apply more for the person who has come in certain types of iré (blessings).

The types of work needed will be very different as well. So, dumping all the information on an oddun at best will be confusing and virtually meaningless at best, and dangerous to the person at worst.
Writing without mentioning the actual name of the oddun gives me the ability to share the wisdom of Ifa, without confusing or unintentionally misleading the reader. And things that have been kept secret for centuries can remain, well, secret… Which is particularly important as a babalawo who takes his vows, including those regarding secrecy, seriously.

El Cambio de la Cabeza: The First Changing of Heads

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One day Elegguá went to a land where he saw some olorichas (santeros) divining with shells to find out people’s guardian angel Orichas, disobeying Olofin’s (God’s) mandate that only babalawos were allowed to do so. As Elegguá himself is a babalawo, he promptly went to tell Olofin to complain about what these olorichas were doing against Olofin’s own orders.
Upon hearing this, Olofin called for Oggun and gave very specific orders so the punishment would fit the crime: as the olorichas had been willing to risk marking people’s heads with the wrong Oricha by disobeying Olofin’s mandate that had been made at the Orichas request, the fierce Oggun was to go down to these people and cut off all of their heads and switch them and each body was to have somebody else’s head placed on their necks.
Oggun grabbed his machete and came upon these omo Orishas who were in the midst of the ceremony of consecrating a new iyawo (new initiate).
Meanwhile, while Oggun was wreaking his havoc, Orunmila was seeing himself with Ifá. The oddun or sign that came out (Oyekun Verdura) told him that heads were being changed. Seeing this, Orunmila immediately set out to where the ceremony was being held.
By the time Orunmila arrived, Ogun had almost completed his ravages and it was a truly gruesome sight. Blood was everywhere and each oloricha’s body had another oloricha’s head unceremoniously slapped onto it in a macabre parady of life. Only one person was still alive: the iyawo.
As Oggun went to chop off the iyawo’s head, Orunmila stepped into Oggun’s path and stopped him from cutting off his head, asking the warrior Oricha to permit him to make the head change using the Table of Ifá so Oggun would not have disobeyed Olofin’s mandate. Finally, after much persuading, Oggun agreed to spare the iyawo’s life.
All three went before Olofin.  She demanded to know why the iyawó was still alive and why he still remained with his own head.
Orunmila stepped forward and answered: “You yourself gave me the ache (power) and the mandate to put the affairs of the world in order. This iyawo was himself a victim, not a perpetrator, of these olorishas actions. And you yourself have given me the power even to change a person’s head (destiny).
Olofin, convinced of the truth of Orunmila’s words, responded: “Orunmila, you are indeed the one I commissioned to put the affairs of the world in order and to mend the world when it is broken. If it is your wish to save this iyawo, I will approve it. To iban Echu.”
So ended the first “cambio de la cabeza”…

Apprenticeship in Santeria

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When I first got involved in Santeria, I first had to learn how to learn in the religion. Teaching, like most things, is done in the traditional way, because… well… it works. But it took some getting used to…
When I had just been initiated as a santero, I called my Oyugbona in Abofaca, Julito Collazo, to give him the news.
“I know you’re hungry, so I’m going to give you something to learn.” He then gave me a series of prayers. Continue reading Apprenticeship in Santeria

Gbogbo Orishas!

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Church in Puebla, Mexico
Church in Puebla, Mexico

In Santeria/Lucumi, it is widely recognized that as children of Orishas we are imbued with the characteristics of our guardian Orishas. For example, children of Chango love to eat, drink, dance, are passionate (OK, hot-headed to some) and generally like to party and have a good time. However, I’ve always pondered on how the other Orishas in the Lucumi pantheon intersect and inform our own lives.

In Lucumi/Santeria, we reflect heavily on our tutelary Orishas but we are birthed as Santeras/os with at least 5 other Orishas and then find our other Orisha parent during our Ita de Kariocha. For example, I have Chango crowned and my mother is Obba. But how is it that Ochun, Yemayá, Obatalá, Aganyu, etc. play a role in my life? One of the major changes that were made in Cuban Santeria is the Pantheon of the Orishas that you are birthed with instead of only your Tutelary Orisha as in Yorubaland. This change was necessary in the Americas as a way to preserve Oricha worship in the new world since African slaves in Cuba came from various nation states, such as Oyo. Egbado, Dahomey, etc. with many nation states practicing the worship of only one or two Orichas. I always understood why the changes were necessary but always wondered what the implications of this major change in the Lucumi practice signifies for us as practitioners. What role and how does the pantheon of the Orichas guide us and intersect in our lives besides our tutelary Oricha?

As I reflect on my Ita de Santo, I was told that Ochun wanted a high position in my life, and that I should always have her with the best finery. Sadly, much to my chagrine, I was told that I could never eat calabaza, eggs, wear yellow or frolic at the river. Honestly, I was mortified as empanadas de calabaza were my absolute favorite bread to eat at La Mascota Panaderia on my long walk to high school every morning. Obviously, Ochun took a lot away from me but in retrospect Ochun is also the one that gives me a lot, she is a nurturer and protector who comes to my defense regularly.

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As I contemplate, the role that Ochun plays in my life, I’ve come to the realization that the parallels of the spiritual and earthly intersections are eerily similar. Ochun has taken on the role as a second mother to me, much as the role that my maternal grandmother took on in my upbringing. My own mother was distant and had a share of traumas in her life that she never recovered from, so she prefers to live in solace and isolation. This is very reminiscent of my Oricha mother Obba. After Chango’s adultery and ultimate rejection of her, Obba relegated herself to solace to live in the lakes, lagoons and the cemetery. In my own life, my maternal grandmother nurtured me, showered me with love and protected me from others – sometimes even from my own mother. It is unnerving the parallels that exist both in the spiritual and earthly world but by understanding this, I now have a deeper appreciation of the role and significance the Pantheon of Orichas inform our own daily lives and spiritual practice.

I’ve learned that with Ita’s, one may or not understand the magnitude of their significance as they are happening. Ita’s are living documents of our lives and our spiritual journey. Not everything makes sense at the time, but if you are tenacious and keep picking away and let your Ita live and breathe as a living document of your destiny, it too will come to pass in all of its manifestations on earth and in the spiritual realm.

Lisa Changó