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

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.”