Getting Started in an ATR: Letter Written to a Friend
I thought I would share verbatim my email reply to a friend I’ve only ever known on Facebook, one who knows I am an adherent of the African Traditional Religion (ATR) of Ifá. She reached out to me via email last night, asking my advice on how she can get started as she’s read a lot of books and has an affinity for several of the Orisha and Lwa but she wants to go about things the right way. This is how I replied to her questions this morning; her name, the state where she lives, and the name of a mutual acquaintance she and I share have been removed for privacy purposes. I’m sharing this correspondence here as this is something I get asked quite often and I would give the same advice to anybody.
Detail of my home shrine to Eshu. Photo (c) Anna Urosević Applegate. Please do not share without my express written permission.
Subject: African Traditional/Diaspora Religions
The short answer to this is you need to find a reputable House that you can frequent regularly in person.I cannot stress this enough.You need to have the leader of that House guide you every step of the way through direct mentorship, through House worship services or festival gatherings, but ESPECIALLY through divination protocols to determine where you should be headed in that religion/your level of involvement to be reflected via a series of initiations (more on this in a bit). Whichever religion it may be, “Old World” Africa (Vodoun as practiced in Benin, Ifá from Nigeria) or “New World” Africa (the explosion of indigenous religions with a Roman Catholic veneer like Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Vodou, Brazilian Quimbanda or Palo Mayombe or Puerto Rican or Afro-Cuban Santería/Lukumí), we’re talking about affiliating yourself with a House and receiving the series of initiations (there are several, and again, divination will determine how far you are “meant” to go) to govern your personal devotion to whichever Orisha or Lwa you may or may notbe called to serve.
This is the number-one thing I have to caution people approaching African Traditional Religions (ATRs) that come from Western Neopagan / Witchcraft backgrounds: African religions are ABSOLUTIST. There is no trying to circumvent training by book-learning instead, there is no “I think I’ll create a shrine to Orisha This or Lwa That this way instead…” NO. The divination protocols—I’m used to the Ifá system but there are many others, like throwing the cowrie shells in Santería or Vodoun—are ABSOLUTE. They are seen as direct Oracles/Mouthpieces of the Powers, not their human mediators (a Babalawo or Santero/Santera or Mambo or whomever is “doing” the divination). Divination sessions describe the problems of the querent/why you’ve REALLY come for a reading or what the REAL problem is, and offer spiritual prescriptions to the problems. Those spiritual prescriptions HAVE TO BE FOLLOWED EXACTLY.
This is where Pagans I know have historically choked—they DON’T LIKE the idea of absolutism. It smacks too much of the Judeo-Christian religion they were escaping when they heeded the call to become Pagan! And yet, that is exactly what you have to embrace, a very absolute DO IT THIS WAY, OR DON’T DO IT AT ALL attitude. Unlike the Gods of various European Pantheons, Who may be willing to tolerate improvisation or “mistakes” committed by the devotee, there is no such quarter granted in ATRs. You have to follow your House leader to the letter, whether we’re talking about the way you’re supposed to give offerings, perform a working, construct a shrine in your house for personal worship, etc. You cannot improvise; you cannot do something because it’s what you read in a book and you think it’s a good idea and you want to try it too. NO.
The Orisha and the Lwa are known to punish, and punish SEVERELY, depending on the offense. (Depending on Whom it is we’re talking about, the punishment can range from a flat-out blocking of your stated goal or prayer to you getting into a violent car accident.) Ask yourself if you are willing to be comfortable with this, to accept this absolutist thinking as your reality.
Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the idea of animal sacrifice also. In every ATR’s series of initiations, they are required. In severe life emergencies, when you are tying to stave off your own literal physical death, animal lives are required (“life for life,” as the sympathetic magic principle states) as substitutes for human lives. Even in extreme cases of spiritual cleansings like removing one or more evil spiritual attachments/entities from your person (I’ve had this performed on me; it’s the equivalent of an exorcism ritual), animals’ blood will have to be shed and the meat from those animals cannot be consumed by the living. No book learning can prepare you for the moment when that rooster gets decapitated so the tangible representations of your Orisha can feed from the blood! This is 100 percent an experiential religion. Mercifully, you’re not the one actually doing the bloodletting—the wielders of the knives have years of initiations and training to serve Powers to do their work as swiftly and as humanely as possible—but you need to ask yourself how comfortable you are with the idea of seeing an animal’s life ebb before you and because of you. If someone would have told me before the summer of 2007, when my own involvement in Ifá began, that I would be an adherent of a religion where animal sacrifices are done, vegetarian me (I’ve been vegetarian since my high school freshman year) would have said they were CRAZY and I would have told them to fuck off. And yet, here I am, 12 years later, walking this road…my guardian Orisha certainly loves IRONY!!!
Going back to the absolutism of ATRs, you may also have to prepare yourself for hearing, via an ATR Oracle, that any of these spiritual paths are not meant for you to walk in this life. I had this happen to a friend of mine here in Chicago in the past year. She is African-American and she thought, “Well, this is LITERALLY the religion of my ancestors,” so she came asking me questions about Vodoun and I referred her to Haitian Vodoun friends I have in Chicago who belong to an active House and they wound up telling me the Lwa rejected my friend, saying that Vodoun wasn’t meant for her in this lifetime. But she’s black. So what? Skin color/racial background has nothing to do with whether you wind up practicing an ATR or not. (A reputable House will confirm this worldview, saying the Powers oversee the human race, not just people of African descent; a disreputable one will play the race card and say only Africans or only Cubans can venerate these Powers, blah blah blah, so you watch carefully for that!) In Ifá, what we call your “Orí,” your Will or Destiny, does.
Another personal anecdote: a devout Roman Catholic friend I went to high school and my undergrad college with came asking me about my involvement in Ifá about six months ago. She’d been having a series of crises involving her teenage children and her relationship with her husband, in addition to job instability. I had an in-person conversation with her, telling her all the things I’m revealing to you in this email. She said she understood, from an anthropological perspective, how she could disguise venerating the Orisha under the guise of Catholic saints. She told me she still was eager to see what a Babalawo would have to say to her in an Ifá reading. (Another very important aside: as a devotee, you will have to considerably devote resources of time, energy, and moneyto any ATR. Even a divination session/consultation with a Santero, Babalawo, Houngan, Santera, Mambo, etc., isn’t cheap—somewhere in the realm of $50, but the session can last an hour or longer to answer additional questions you may have. For initiations and ritual workings you are spiritually prescribed to perform, you have to purchase all the supplies needed—sacrificial animals included, if need be—yourself as well as pay the ritual leader’s fee for conducting the service.) So I introduced her to my Oluwo/Godfather in Ifá, the man who runs the House I belong to and to whom I am now related by way of initiation. We all geographically live very close to each other, which is an added bonus. Well, my friend, who is part Latina, was told by Ifá that this path IS for her to walk in this lifetime; her Orí in her own head declared it to Ifá, and Ifá was relaying the news back to her. She was told she had to undergo the ceremony of discovering Who her Guardian Orisha is. To her credit, she did do that. Then the next logical step was to receive the first in a series of initiations so she could begin her devotional relationship with that Orisha, to begin to start serving that Orisha properly in her own home.
This is where she’s choked. She’s made the initial promises to undertake this first critical initiation verbally, but in actuality has since “confessed” to both me and my Godfather that she really doesn’t want to. That she wants to “work around” actually getting initiated. (!!!!!) UMMMM, NO! If you are being ordered to do something and you promise to do it but you fail to obey those orders, then you have no right to complain about how shittily things are going in your life, that your eldest son has to be committed to a psych ward because of his ongoing nervous breakdowns and your husband is on the verge of leaving you for another woman and you’re changing jobs every 3 months or so because the “right job” keeps evading you. FULFILL YOUR PROMISE TO THE ORISHA! I saw my Oluwo last week and we both were sadly assessing her going back against her word and how she’s digging her own grave (quite possibly literally, considering Who her Guardian is!) by not getting initiated like she’s supposed to. “She just wants a fortune-teller; she doesn’t want to actually practice,” my Oluwo said. “She will come to a very bad end. There is nothing you or I can do unless she has a change of heart. Perhaps her worsening life circumstances will bring her to that. Otherwise…” his voice trailed off. We can all complete the statement of what he was going to utter.
One other point: SECRECY MATTERS IN ATRs. This is why it may take you a very long time to find a reputable House. It took me almost 4 months of constant searching. I don’t know about where you are in [CORRESPONDENT’S HOME STATE], but I imagine you’re going to have to be willing to travel to an urban area that has shops like botanicas, many of which often serve as a retail front for a Santería House. Those would be the places I would frequent first. Language barriers may be an issue, so being able to speak a handful of Spanish phrases may go a long way. If you see people in the botanica wearing multicolored beaded necklaces stacked one on top of the other, that’s a good sign—it’s a sign the wearer has received his or her elekes (necklaces), one of the earliest-prescribed levels of initiation in an ATR. Go declare your intent that you are seeking a consultada/consultation for a reading. Hopefully you will be pointed in the right direction. The biggest caution that I was told about myself and that made me leery was there are a lot of con-men taking advantage of white folks looking to join an ATR, so be cautious: They assume an economic reality about you that may or may not be true, and may overcharge you for things. If you ever encounter someone who tells you off the bat that you are “cursed” and you need to spend a ridiculous sum of money to have the “curse lifted” from you, don’t walk, RUN AWAY SCREAMING! That is a HUGE indicator of a huckster!
In terms of personal safety, botanicas are often located in run-down neighborhoods of a city, so be safe and don’t go alone if you can help it. I have had to travel alone to some of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods to procure ritual supplies and participate in rituals, but the good news was (besides my Orisha protecting me) it was probably obvious to every gang-banger I had to pass on the street that I was in an ATR (being dressed all in white, turban on my head included, was a major clue!), so they left me and my little Toyota car alone however long I had to stay in said dicey neighborhood. But don’t take risks: if having a companion isn’t possible, pack some pepper spray in your purse. I mean it. Walk like you’re on a mission and don’t dawdle: go straight from point A to point B and be done with it.
Circling back to the issue of SECRECY: You like to write about spiritual things. I like to write about spiritual things. This is one of those spiritual things that is largely going to have to be not written about. You may have noticed I have a smattering of Ifá-related posts on my blog, and those are ones that I had to have permission from my Oluwo to write about. The content was deemed to be acceptable for non-initiates to read. THAT IS LARGELY NOT GOING TO BE THE CASE. What you see, what you do, what ceremonies are performed, the people who are involved, the sacrifices made and to which Holy Power(s), Oracle pronouncements, etc., are all things YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO BE SILENT ABOUT. 98% of what I’ve seen and participated in during my past 10 years of being properly initiated into Ifá and my Guardian Orisha’s Mysteries are things I cannot ever, ever, impart to another human being. You need to be okay with that.
You also need to accept the possibility, going back to the absolute nature of ATRs, that you may be told to not serve one or more Gods or participate in another faith tradition. And don’t tell a member of an ATR that you’re a “witch”—that is a “dirty word” in the African Diaspora! You can tell people you venerate some of your ancestors’ pre-Christian Gods, yes, that you propitiate your ancestors in your own way or per your European-American cultural practices (aside: you’re going to have to be good with your ancestors because serving them is a BIG DEAL in all ATRs!), that you believe in spiritual healing, BUT NEVER, EVER PROCLAIM THAT YOU ARE IN ANY WAY IDENTIFIED WITH “WITCHCRAFT.” You just might be shown the door if you say such a thing, as the cultural connotations with the word “witch” are always exclusively NEGATIVE.
So that’s what comes immediately to mind in response to your Facebook Messenger queries. It’s a lot to ponder over, so please take the time to do so. I notice you and I have a Facebook friend of [NAME] in common; you may want to reach out to her to see what her geographical reach is (she’s originally from Illinois, and she used to belong to the Fellowship of Isis, which is how I came to know her in person), or if she can point you in the direction of reputable Vodou Houses or contacts in [CORRESPONDENT’S HOME STATE]. Again, geography may or may not pose a hindrance for you. You may have to considerably travel to get the House-based experience you need.
So, to recap:
You can’t make up ATR practices from what you read in books or because you feel your heart is calling you to do something in a certain way because you have an affinity for one or more Holy Powers revered in an ATR context; these ATR practices HAVE to be ministered to you by a reputable leader of a House. You have to have divination sessions declaring your level of involvement each step of the way. There is no going around that framework; it’s how things will have to be done. If Oracles reveal an ATR path is for you, you will have to undergo a series of initiations, devoting considerable time, energy, and resources ($$$) along the way. OTHER THINGS IN YOUR LIFE WILL BE PUT ON THE BACK BURNER IF NOT ELIMINATED ENTIRELY ONCE YOU TRULY DO COMMIT. Be ready for that also. If you get initiated, that makes you a wholly new person. Previously known people, life situations, or other spiritual practices may have to exit your life if you become an adherent of an ATR. And sometimes when you resist that evacuation process, the spirits make it THAT MUCH HARDER UNTIL YOU GET THE LESSON. Get comfortable with the absolute black/white binary worldview of an ATR, and that committing yourself wholeheartedly is the only way to go. If you cannot commit, don’t get involved. I have very seasoned Pagan friends even older than me who balk at the idea of ever joining an ATR, because they KNOW you have to follow absolute protocols and have taboos govern your life and they want none of it. The Pagan/Thelemic concept of “Do What You Will” is just not compatible with the ATR way of seeing things. Yes, you do have to do what your Destiny Wills you to do. That’s the basis of a happy life: consciously knowing and following our Destiny, or Orí as it is called in Ifá. Sometimes, however, we make huge mistakes and go off our True Path by following what our hearts want, not What Is Best for Us.
Okay, enough rambling from me—it’s time to feed my snake her weekly breakfast!
Read and reread and reread and really ponder over everything I’ve said to you here. Really take the time to digest it all. I’ll be here if you have questions.