The biggest question folks often have about the Orishas is how can you go about worshipping them? Unlike pagan religions such as Norse traditions or Hellenism where deities can be worshipped somewhat independently of their whole religious traditions, it is not possible to do so with the Orishas. They are spirits who require specific and complex ceremonies, offerings, and initiations to work with them respectfully.
There is no such thing as solitary Orisha worship because the practices can only be taught and properly carried out within a community that includes initiated priests and priestesses. I’ve written this guide to help those who feel a call to the Orishas learn more about how to practice these roads and potentially begin walking down that path.
If you are wondering about whether or not you can practice as a person without any African descent, please see this separate page about that question.
1) Choose a Path
Before you can begin to think about how to enter these traditions, you’ll have to consider which Orisha tradition you will seek out (click here to read more about the different traditions).
Very Different Roads
I’m using the term “Orisha traditions” on the broadest level to include all relevant religions and paths such as Santería/Lucumí, Candomblé, and Ifá / Isese. Which path you choose will not only have a significant impact on your journey but also on your ability to engage with the traditions.
Depending on where you live, you may have easier access to houses of certain Orisha traditions more than others. For example, many practitioners of Ifá / Isese must travel to Nigeria to become fully initiated as a priest. It is not too difficult to find Lucumí houses in the US and Cuba, but they would be extremely difficult to find in Europe.
Research & Study
I highly encourage you to do some independent research in order to choose one of the Orisha traditions and to better understand if any of them are really something you want to seriously commit to and practice. Here are some book recommendations that could get you started on learning which Orisha tradition you may be the most interested in and what to generally expect if you become a practitioner.
Bringing Orishas into your life and receiving initiations are serious, life-long commitments that cannot be undone or canceled. Personally, I am very grateful for the research I’ve done ahead of time to prepare myself for the responsibilities that I chose to take on. The information is helpful preparation for going into these traditions with eyes wide open and with the right intentions.
2) Pray to Your Ancestors
Once you’ve done some research on Orisha traditions, you’ll pick up right away on how important the Egun or Egungun (ancestors) are to every variation of the tradition. Working with them is one the best ways to get started and get closer to practicing an Orisha tradition.
Importance of the Ancestors
By “ancestors,” I mean your ancestors, those who are related to you but have passed on and are no longer living. In virtually every African traditional religion, the ancestors are the whole foundation of the practice. They are your first protectors, guides, and mediums to higher spirits like the Orishas.
In order to even begin to communicate with the Orishas and work with them, any godparent in will first teach you how to work with your ancestors. Skipping this step in the process may seem tempting, but it never turns out well. It’d be like trying to walk across a river without a bridge or trying to call someone long-distance without a telephone. Developing this relationship with your ancestors is always the first step in every Orisha tradition because it is necessary.
The great part about this is that you don’t need to be a part of any Orisha tradition to begin working with your own ancestors. You can pray to them, do genealogical research about them, give offerings to them, and set up an ancestral altar for them – all completely on your own. Having the extra guidance of a godparent within an Orisha tradition for how to approach ancestor work is extremely helpful, but not required. Within the Hoodoo Library, there are tutorials for contacting your ancestors and setting up bovedas and ancestor altars, which can be used by anyone of African descent.
Once you have started establishing this relationship with your ancestors, you can pray to them to help bring you to the house of an Orisha tradition and connect you with great godparents. Our ancestors know even better than us what we need and what is on the path of our destiny, and so for anyone who is meant to worship the Orishas, your ancestors will absolutely help you get there.
3) Receive a Traditional Reading
The first real step to practicing an Orisha tradition aside from ancestor work is to receive a traditional reading in that tradition. All major decisions (and many smaller decisions as well) in Orisha traditions are made through communication with the spirits (such as the Orishas and Egun) through traditional divination methods.
The Role of Divination
The only way to know what your path is in an Orisha tradition is to receive a reading from an initiated priest or priestess. It is possible to be involved with Orisha traditions on many different levels since there are so many kinds of rituals and initiations of different types and degrees. It is even possible to consult divination and be told that you would be best suited to another religious or spiritual path instead. This can happen even if you are of African descent because it is a belief within the Orisha traditions that they are not necessarily meant for everyone.
So receiving a traditional reading can have a lot of different possible outcomes, and it doesn’t automatically commit you to whatever house your diviner belongs to. Some people may only receive one divination reading, get all the life advice that they needed from that, and never need to return again. Others may come on a regular basis, but not need to receive anything or any initiations and simply be guided from time to time. Other still may indefinitely be a non-initiate under the guidance of godparents, and have access to some aspects of the Orisha tradition but not others. Even a fully initiated priest is a priest of some aspect of the tradition. No one is ever initiated into every possible aspect of the whole religion. Everyone has their own destiny, their own path. And this is what divination reveals to us over time.
Challenges & Obstacles
I’ll be completely honest. Hands down, for most people this is the hardest step in the whole process for a lot of reasons. Everything up to this point is about researching, deciding, and engaging in personal practices that all completely depend on the individual. Now, you’re looking for a traditional reading in the Orisha tradition that you’ve chosen, and that’s not usually so easy to find if you don’t already know family or friends who practice that tradition.
First off, as mentioned earlier, it’s not always possible to find practitioners in your area. It all depends on the Orisha tradition that you’re looking for and where you live. In US cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami, or New Orleans, your chances of finding an Ifá / Isese or Santería / Lucumí house are pretty good. If you’re able to fly out to Brazil, Cuba, or Nigeria – that helps, but you’d still need to have contacts to help you actually find the communities you’re looking for. Typically, houses of the Orisha traditions don’t advertise their existence or go looking for new practitioners. They always trust the right people to be guided to them.
Location aside, the other hurdle to cross is at this point is finding authentic, legitimate diviners in the tradition. This is the point at which people seeking Orisha traditions can most easily be scammed or duped into a fake reading, leading to fake ceremonies and “initiations.” There are rootworkers of hoodoo tradition and priests of other traditions that are not initiated into any Orisha traditions but will take your money to tell you things about your path in Orisha tradition that they are not qualified to know. If a priest or priestess of another Africana tradition or religion tries to tell you this kind of information, it must still be verified by someone initiated into an Orisha tradition.
4) Seek out a house/lineage
Once you’ve received a reading, you’ll know what your next steps in the tradition are and where the beginning of your path lies. As you get more and more involved, you’ll want to decide whether or not you want to become part of a particular house or lineage in that tradition. Learn more about lineages and initiations in Orisha traditions here.
If anything was prescribed to you during your reading, you may choose to go ahead and receive certain things from the priest or priestess who divined for you, or you may seek out another priest. Readings, cleansings, and certain ceremonies don’t bind you to a particular house or lineage. However, initiations like receiving elekes (the beaded Orisha necklaces) usually do officially bring you into a specific lineage. By the time you decide to commit to an initiation, you will need to decide if you are very comfortable with and trusting of the house that you would be joining.
I highly recommend you to be cautious and take time to get to know your potential future godparents and spiritual community. Unfortunately, some godparents can be emotionally or sexually abusive and manipulative towards their godchildren. In some situations, houses are trying to turn a huge profit and charge people way more than the needed achedi (price). I’ve heard some awful horror stories and know of situations where people had to switch godparents and houses even multiple times due to these sorts of serious issues. Initiations in Orisha traditions require a lot of trust from the initiate going into it, and so it’s important to be very careful where you place your trust, your time, and your hard-earned savings.
Learning & Practicing
As you experience more with the priests and priestesses of a certain house, you may receive invitations to special events within the community such as a bembé (drumming ceremony), an Ocha birthday (initiation anniversary), or attending part of someone’s elekes initiation. These are great opportunities to get to know everyone in that house and their spiritual community altogether. You’ll find out over time how you feel about the community and whether or not it’s a good fit for you.
Every ceremony, ritual, and event requires a lot of materials and usually the participation of several priests, not just one. Aleyos (“strangers” or those new to the traditions) sometimes play a crucial role by helping as well. It’s also likely that at some point you’ll be asked to help out – whether it’s by cooking, cleaning, or bringing spiritual supplies. It can be a lot of work, but it’s through that work that you come to understand the traditions and what it takes to be a part of it. As your participation grows, you’ll learn more of the traditions and get a better sense of how it feels.