Connect with us
Intro to Orisha
Monday, November 17, 2008

Initiation Rituals and Membership

The Orisha-worshiping religions are traditions that require initiation rituals for membership. There are degrees of membership; each is conferred during a different ritual. As the members progress from one initiation to another, they are also taught, or learn from observation of their godparents, more of the secrets of the religion.

The basic ceremonies are the initiation to Necklaces and Warriors, Hand of Orula, Crowning, and the Knife. Other secret rituals are performed, but those not initiated do not know the rituals or responsibilities of these initiations. Membership requirements are complex and have great bearing on the practice of Orisha worshipers in detention. Secret rituals are prohibited, as are any practices that include a prohibited act. This is worthy of mention because of the secrecy embedded in the religious practices and the custom of animal sacrifice for certain rituals.

A person who has received the first rite of initiation is an aleyo. He has received the initiation of the necklaces. Other common names for this initiation are derived from Spanish and African dialects, Los Collares and Elekes, respectively. The ritual brings the initiate into a religious or spiritual family, placing him under the protection and authority of the priest and priestess, the godparents who brought the initiate to the Orisha family. After the initiation, the aleyo may observe or participate in other public rituals but remains under the guidance and protection of his godparents.

The initiation into the warriors (Elegua, Ochosi, and Oggun) is often conferred at the same time or soon after the Los Collares. Women ordinarily do not confer that initiation on men. Another common initiation is the initiation into the Seven African Powers (Elegua, Obatala, Oggun, Chango, Yemaya, Oshun, and Orunmilla). Devotees from Cuba often replace Orunmilla with Babalu-Aye. The Seven African Powers are consecrated into one eleke.

Unless a detainee has come into detention having already received the first initiation rites, he will have to delay the public initiations until release, because clergy of any faith tradition are never authorized to exercise their religious or spiritual leadership over other detainees during detention. However, this should not prevent devotees from observing and studying the practices of Orisha worship while in detention. In the event that a regular contractor or volunteer believes his devotee requires a further initiation without delay, initiation rituals should be conferred by the volunteer or contractor in a private setting, under direct supervision. Whether actually initiated or not, many detainees believe they have a kinship with particular Orisha families. Unless there is a security threat, detainees should be allowed to wear one colored necklace bearing the color(s) pleasing to their Orisha.

The number of initiated Orisha worshipers is uncertain because the tradition is a secret family-based practice, with no central repository of records. Scholars estimate there may be as many as 100 million practitioners in the United States and Central and South America.


The roots of Orisha worship rest in Southwestern African indigenous rituals of the Yoruba-speaking tribes of Nigeria and Benin. The rituals were brought to the Americas (the Caribbean region, specifically Cuba) by enslaved people in the late 18th and early 19th century. There, West African beliefs and practices were syncretized with the Spanish Roman Catholic practices of the majority. The reason for this syncretization is not fully known. Some believe this occurred as the Nigerians struggled to maintain their own beliefs without the knowledge of their captors. Others believe that this mixture of religions and cultures is a general characteristic of African indigenous religions – that is, the tendency in Africa to incorporate the new into the old leads to subsuming Catholic beliefs and practices into their own. This occurred with slight variations during the same period throughout the Spanish-speaking Caribbean colonies, thus accounting for slight variances in beliefs and practices.

An African-American community called the Gullah inhabits a 500-mile stretch of lowlands between Jacksonville, South Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida. This community has its roots in 18th-century Sierra Leone and the slave trade of the rice plantation owners of the sea island lowlands. Gullah community members have been very successful in preserving their culture, while other Black communities were more or less assimilated. The community is largely Protestant today, but has preserved many of spiritist traditions and incorporated these into Protestant rituals, much as Orisha worshipers have done with respect to Roman Catholic veneration of the saints. While Gullah practice the faith healing and divination rituals of their West African ancestors, they would not be likely to identify themselves as Orisha worshipers. There had always been some Orisha worshipers in the United States, but it is a mistake to believe that this phenomenon flourished among African slaves in the United States during this period.

Orisha worshipers were largely introduced to the United States as a result of the 1959 Cuban revolution and its aftermath. A small Afro-Caribbean Black Nationalist movement in the 1960's included the incorporation of ethnocentric religious rituals in an effort to retrieve a uniquely Black culture in the United States. It is often difficult to separate nationalist rituals from religious beliefs and practices, but an effort should always be made to protect the integrity of religious beliefs.

With the arrival of the Marielitos in 1980, however, Orisha worshipers got a strong foothold in the United States. Since then, the large Caribbean immigrant population in the South and in the New York area has resulted in significant growth of the religion. Laws protecting the freedom of religion (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) also led to the strengthening of the status of the religion and ensured the right of Orisha worshipers to practice their faith without interference.

Scholar Mary Pat Fisher, in her 2006 book Living Religions, estimates there may be as many as 100 million worshipers in the United States and Latin America. This may be due in part to the New Age spiritualist movement, a postmodern amalgamation of nature-based religious beliefs and practices.


The religion comprises certain African tribal beliefs. According to John Mason, author of Black Gods: Orisa Studies in the New World, adherents do not believe in the devil because their ancestral West African belief system is not derived from a dualistic theory – good v. evil or God v. the devil – but instead from a cosmological philosophy dealing with the nature of the universe.

There are five levels in the cosmology: Orisha worshipers believe in a creator who is called Olodumare or Olorun (God), the Orishas, human beings, human ancestors, and the lowest group, plants and animals. The cosmos is seen as containing forces of expansion and contraction that interacted in complex ways to create the universe. All things have positive aspects – iré – and negative aspects – ibi. Nothing is completely good or completely evil; all things have both ire and ibi qualities. Similarly, no action is universally wrong or right, but can only be judged within the context and circumstances in which it takes place. Each person is made up of both positive/constructive and negative/destructive impulses. His talents and facilities thus have potential for both positive and negative expression.

A great deal of attention is devoted to each individual’s striving to develop good character and doing good works (asciento). Good character is defined as doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not out of fear of retribution or as a way of seeking rewards. All humans have the potential for being good and blessed people, but also to make evil choices. The lifetimes of Orisha worshipers are spent perfecting themselves by making good choices. Orisha worshipers believe that the spirit lives on after death and may return as a reincarnated being.

Many beliefs and practices are respectfully secreted from non-believers. However, certain beliefs and traditions are disclosed to the public – particularly in postmodern times when the religion and spirituality of Orisha worshipers is being once again blended, this time with New Age beliefs and practices. Olodumare is the one god, creator. All other Orishas represent various manifestations of the one god. Each Orisha possesses and expresses a certain quality or characteristic of Olodumare. It is Olodumare who contains the universe and all that is in it. The Orishas are forces of nature (parts of god) who mediate between Olodumare and humanity. Humanity can commune directly with God by way of the trance/possession – always in a ritual setting.

Ebo, or sacrifice, is a broad concept including all types of sacrifices and offerings to the Orisha. These can include candles, fruit, candy, and various items or actions that may be appreciated by the Orisha. Ritual sacrifice is an important part of the beliefs and practices of Orisha worshipers. In the community, animals, particularly chickens, are often offered as sacrifices in situations such as serious illness or misfortune. Fruits and vegetables are used frequently and are pleasing to the particular Orishas.


Aberinkula – unconsecrated drums

Abure – the brothers

Addele – the 2-5 cowrie shells that are not read

Addimu – small offering made to an orisha

Agogo – a ritual bell used to call down the Orishas

Ana – the spirit that lives in the sacred drums, angel guardian/guardian angel – one’s primary Orisha, determined by a divination ritual performed by the priest and godparent

ashe – ritual power, energy, or blessing

Aye – the visual world

Babalawo – high priest of Orula/Orunmila; the highest form of divination; the owner of Ifa

Babalosha – male priest who has initiated other santeros

Bata – consecrated ritual drums

Bembe – drum ritual (also called tambor)

Botanica – retail store for the sale of supplies for the Orisha practices

Boveda – home altar (also called trono)

Caracoles – divination performed with cowrie shells

casa de Orisha – House of the Orisha, a home shrine

cocos – divination using four coconut shards which are cast on a mat to determine the yes-or-no wishes of the Orisha. The number of interior/exterior side of shards showing determines the answer. The practitioner can narrow the questions further and further to get a precise answer: the will of the Orisha – but the answer to each question has to be a yes/no/maybe possibility.

Collares – necklaces; strands of colored beads representing the Orishas (also called eleke or ilekes)

cowrie shells – small sea shells used for divination.

dia de media – middle day of initiation ritual when initiate is presented to the community

diloggun – divination system using 16 cowry shells

ebo/ebbo – spell, sacrifice, offering, or work given to the Orisha

ebo/ebbo eje – blood sacrifice (a prohibited act)

efun – white chalk used in rituals

egun – spirits of deceased ancestors (also called muertos)

elekes – see collares

emi – breath; vital force

epe – a curse

epo – palm oil

espiritista – spiritist practitioner 

estera – straw mat used for rituals and beneath offerings, should be at least the size of a place mat, but preferably the size of a beach mat

Florida water – alcohol-based citrus scented cologne popular among Orisha worshipers

fundamento de santo – the first or basic initiation, which is the foundation of the ascent

guerrero – a set of protective powers from Ellegua, Ogun, Ochosi, Osun, received at an early initiation ritual performed by a priest or babalawo

Ifa – a fraternity of male diviners (not a separate religion); a ritual performed only by a babalawo; another name for the orisha Orula/Orunmila

ilekes – see collares

ita – a high-level divination ritual using cowrie shells always occurring after animal sacrifices – never appropriate in a correctional setting

iyawo – the new initiate; a spiritual newborn, who must observe certain strict customs for a year following initiation

madrina – godmother; a priestess who initiates others and heads a house; to be a madrina, one must have already received the collares and the warrior ritual

moyuba – a chanted prayer praising god and honoring the deceased ancestors and the Orishas

oba – master of ceremonies for initiation and Ifa rituals (also called oriate)

orisha – a deity; each orisha controls a particular power and domain of the universe

padrino – godfather; see madrina, above

pataki – myth, legend, story (also called historia)

pilon – a ritual stool used in most initiation rituals

rama – the geneological line of descent to which a particular household is attached

rogacion – head blessing ritual

santero – the priest or devotee of the Orisha, considered by some to be pejorative, especially Ifa members who call their priests babalowas

santo – the Catholic saints associated with the Orishas

shekere – beaded musical instrument made from a dried gourd

sopera – lidded vessel used to contain the orishas’ stones, shells, and icons (may also be called Orisha pots)

Tambor – literally drum, more specifically the ritual drumming ceremony that includes drumming, dancing, and spirit possession

Tinaja – a glazed water vessel for Olokun, the Orisha who has control over the deep (see sopera, above)

Trono – throne, an elaborate temporary canopy-like throne decorated with the cloth and leaves of the orishas’ colors. Initiates are presented to the community under this lavish canopy. See boveda, above.