When seeking to understand the Orishas, it is important to know that they are not a part of just one religion, but several related religious traditions across different cultures. 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.
For reference, I’ll briefly walk through the history of the indigenous religion and its diasporic traditions while also highlighting how to distinguish them from each other as unique religious and spiritual paths.
The History & Origins
Many thousands of years ago, the Yoruba people of West Africa (primarily in Nigeria) developed an oral tradition and sacred literature called Ifá. The worship of the Orishas comes from Ifá traditions, and every lineage family has its own ways and its own version of the Odu Ifá. So the way the Orishas are worshipped varies region by region and lineage by lineage.
Though the Orishas do originate from one African culture, they have become a part of many different religious traditions across the diaspora. The slave trade forcefully brought Yoruba people and their religion around the world, especially to Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. It’s in these countries that many babalawos, iyalawos, and olorishas (priests and priestesses) had to convert to Catholicism and hide their worship of the Orishas as the worship of saints and under the guise of Catholic practices. This is how many diasporic traditions of Orisha worship developed that maintain their roots in Yoruba culture while also having influences from Catholicism and from many different Afro-diasporic cultures and languages.
created by artist Jacob V. Joyce
Three Orisha Traditions
Orisha tradition comes from the same source in Yoruba culture, but each one also has very different traditions and ways of going about Orisha worship. While there are many different Orisha traditions, these are the largest three.
This is the most well-known and talked about Orisha tradition. It is known by many different names including Santería, La Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumí, and Lucumí/Lukumí. It developed as a distinct Afro-Cuban religion when many Yoruba slaves practicing Ifá traditions were brought to Cuba. Those Yoruba descendants in Cuba became the Lucumí people, who developed their own version of the religion syncretized with Catholicism.
Not to be confused with Ifá as it is practiced by the Yoruba people in West Africa, there are also Ifá traditions of the Orisha Orunmila within Lucumí. In Lucumí, only men can be babalawos, the priests of Ifá. People of any gender can be olorishas, the Ocha priests of any Orisha other than Orunmila. There are iles / casas (lineages/houses) of Lucumí that work with babalawos and ones that only work with Ocha (all the Orishas other than Orunmila).
West African Ifá / Isese
This is the indigenous African religion of the Yoruba peoples, where all Orisha traditions originally come from. The word “Ifá” can refer to many different things: the Yoruba system of divination, verses of the literary corpus known as the Odu Ifá, and the entire religion itself.
Since there are Ifá traditions in both the Yoruba and Afro-Cuban practices, Isese (meaning “tradition” in Yoruba language) is the term that is used in Lucumí to refer to the traditional Yoruba religion. In West African Ifá tradition, there are both babalawos (priests of Ifá) and iyanifas / iyalawos (priestesses of Ifá).
This is the Afro-Brazilian Orisha tradition, which also has some influences from the African cultures of the Fon and Bantu peoples – not just the Yoruba. In Candomblé, they are called Orixas as the language of Brazil, Portuguese, is used instead of Spanish. There are other notable differences (for example in which Orixas are worshipped and what ritual clothing is worn) that come from the distinct Afro-Brazilian culture that developed the tradition.
It is difficult to learn and practice Candomblé outside of Brazil, and so it usually requires living there or traveling there for initiations and hands-on learning about the religion.