The vast majority of African religions and Afro-diasporic traditions are initiatory (semi-closed), meaning that you cannot fully engage with and practice the religion without being initiated into it or at least joining an in-person community of initiated practitioners who can guide and teach you.
These concepts of initiation and lineages of oral tradition are frequently misunderstood, but they are also foundational to understanding Africana religions. Though some prospective practitioners wish to skip or jump around them, they are inseparable aspects of many African religions.
What are Houses?
Ilé in Yoruba language means “house,” “land,” or “earth.” It is what we call a lineage in Ifá tradition. This is a concept that is actually very relevant to many African traditional religions (ATRs) such as Santería / Lucumí, Candomblé, the Palo traditions, Vodou, and Vodun. None of these are single, organized religions. They are each made up of many, many different lineages that have certain practices and beliefs in common, but also lots of individualized differences as well.
Every lineage in an ATR has its own way of doing things, and this is very important to recognize. Going back to the example of ilé in Yoruba tradition, there are countless different lineages in Ifá tradition have their own beliefs about the Orishas:
“Bascom concluded that myths about the orisha are stories believed to be true and that the stories about how the orisha arrived on earth in Ile-Ife differ from lineage to lineage” [ Olupona, City of 201 Gods, p. 76 ].
While the Yoruba word for a lineage or house is an ilé, they are also called casas (“houses”) or cases de Ocha (“houses of the Orishas”) in Santería / Lucumí. In Vodou, they are called a sosyete (“society”).
Every House is Unique
Every lineage has its own name. For example, the Idio lineage and Obadio lineage are two Yoruba lineages of Ifá tradition. The Asson lineage, Deka Lineage, and Tcha Tcha Lineage are well-known lineages of Haitian Vodou. In Lucumí / Santería tradition, casas or ilés are often referred to by the initiation name of their founding priest or priestess.
Every house and lineage has its own set of beliefs and way of practicing. Though all the lineages of a specific ATR will have a lot in common as they are all part of the same religion, it is important to remember that there are always variations across each lineage and its version of the oral traditions passed down. One classic example is that some Lucumí ilés require practitioners to taste a bit of honey before offering it to Oshun while others do not have this practice.
This is one of many reasons why it is usually impossible to practice any ATR completely on your own. Most ATRs such as the ones described here are at their core based on community, lineage, initiation, and oral tradition. All these concepts are intertwined and without them, you cannot fully engage in the traditions or even learn them at all.
The Role of Initiation
Most African traditional religions are initiatory-based. Unfortunately, this is an aspect of Africana traditions and religions that is frequently misunderstood both inside and outside of black communities. Requiring the guidance of a godparent or teacher and/or requiring initiation is not a form of gatekeeping or elitism. It is how many of these religions have always been since their very beginnings due to the passing down of traditions orally and the complex nature of working with the spirits.
When you get initiated, you become part of a lineage. This is one of many reasons why initiation is so important. To learn and practice many ATRs, you must get involved with a specific lineage. It becomes the spiritual family that you are officially adopted into when you are initiated. The priest or priestess who initiated you is often referred to as your godparent although this varies greatly depending on the ATR.
While sometimes just referred to in the singular as “initiation,” there are usually many levels of initiation in each ATR. Some ceremonies (such as receiving elekes in Lucumí) are considered initiations in certain houses of an ATR while others do not refer to it as an initiation. In this sense, what “counts” as being initiated or not and to what degree actually has a lot more fluidity and variation than is typically recognized. Regardless, initiation involves a fundamental, life-changing moment in a person’s life that enables to have access to certain aspects of the religious tradition.
The notion of spiritual authority is key in the lineage structure of many African religions, and initiation is what grants someone a certain level of that spiritual authority. It is required to have various levels of connections to the spirits, to open up certain spiritual channels in oneself, and to be trusted with certain secrets of wisdom. It is generally the belief that one’s initiations throughout their lifetime are predetermined before birth. Though this is a controversial idea not accepted by some, it is also believed in many African religions that it is not everyone’s destiny (regardless of African ancestry or heritage) to practice certain ATRs or to be initiated at any level or only to certain levels.