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Why I Don’t Mention Odduns by Name

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

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

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!

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.


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

Sacred Places on the Verge of Extinction…

Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca, Mexico
Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca, Mexico

Having dealt with two major natural disasters in only a span of a week leaves one thinking of one’s vulnerability and survival. The wrath of mother nature has came with such force that it has shaken people to their core. With Hurricanes wiping out entire Caribbean Islands, and Earthquakes toppling buildings in Mexico with buried lives underneath, one has to question why? There will never be simple answers to such a complicated and difficult situation. As my family and I were scraped by both Hurricane Irma and the 8.1 Earthquake in Mexico in the same week we are still in recovery and frankly once one experiences such events it is difficult to ever go back to normal.

We left Florida for Mexico when Hurricane Irma was on top of the Islands with no clear trajectory where in Florida it will make landfall, but all of Florida was on alert. We considered it a blessing that we had made plans a month before to go to Oaxaca for an Indigenous spiritual ceremony. We boarded up our house as best we could, secured outdoor furniture and breathed a hail Mary. There was already some frenetic-ism from people as stores were out of water, food was low and gas stations were depleted. Since we would be away for a week I erroneously thought that it would blow over by the time we returned home. After an arduous 20 hours of travel to reach the remote mountains of Oaxaca, we traveled by bus overnight arriving at dawn the next morning. Our first night in Oaxaca, I was awakened by shaking, and in my deep slumber from exhaustion I thought my body was shaking from the coldness of the mountains. That is, until I realized that the whole house was shaking, and that in the mountains of Oaxaca people, build houses perched on the sides of the mountain with sheer 100 foot drops. I could barely rouse my kids to cover as my shrieks of alarm did little as their exhaustion was palpable.

That was the beginning of many sleepless nights, but mostly of a series of natural disasters befalling like dominoes. Mexico has been rocked by 2 major Earthquakes and 3 major Hurricanes have made landfall in the U.S. and the Caribbean Islands all within a span of a month. Our home in Florida did receive damage from a fallen tree on our roof, and we had come home to no power, no food or water and the stores were still depleted in the aftermath of Irma. We tried to pick up the pieces at home as best we could but many times I noticed I walked purposeless and would awaken from a zombie like state. Definitely, I had spent too many sleepless nights worried about Hurricanes and Earthquakes. My heart broke upon hearing of the second Earthquake in Puebla as we had just left Puebla a few days before and almost extended our stay due to canceled flights back to Florida. Even though I no longer have family living in Mexico, our hearts still live and breathe Mexicanidad. Especially when the heart of Mexico is wounded, the capital, we are all wounded as we are all tied thru Mexico from its blood vessels to its heart of the epicenter.

As, I tried to get back to the drumbeat of daily life, I took a walk through a nature preserve with befallen trees all around me. I was trying to make sense of the calamity and destruction that had been caused by mother nature and her wrath. It made me ponder the so-called Mayan prophecy of extinction. When a beautiful Florida scrub Jay perches itself on a branch in front of me. It reminds me of the many times I contemplated being a bird or a cat for the ability to not give a damn, or being invincible to problems with their abilities to fly away from any situation. At that moment I realize that the Scrub Blue Jay had been on the threatened species list, but had made a remarkable comeback and that they are now as common as the sight of a Raven or Squirrel in Florida. How did they survive extinction? By preserving their habitats from being bull dozed by development. By allowing these birds to flourish in their sacred places, their sacred homes. Do we as humans not need sacred places too? Do we not need sacred places, our habitats that are conducive to our survival? In Mayan beliefs and all Indigenous cultures, respecting and living in harmony with Mother Nature is at the core of all their religious beliefs.

Nature, with all of its sacred places, is the center of our spiritual nourishment as all of our spirits are tied to this Earth. As a society we have gotten so removed from the balance of nature that we have dealt death blows to our natural world. Maintaining sacred places is fundamental to our survival as our spiritual well being is nourished from the ashé of all living things: the Sun, the moon, the water, the mountains, from the plants that heal us and bring beauty in our lives.

We have a responsibility to preserve our sacred places from the Capitalists that use bulldozers as their way of attaining material profitability and self aggrandizement. Do we not need oxygen from trees to breathe, do we not need clean water to quench our thirst, do we not need clean soil to grow food to nourish our bodies? On the edge of extinction, do we not need sacred places that our conducive to spiritual and human survival?