Correcting the Myths and Uncovering the Realities of a Growing Religion
Mary Ann Clark,


The Religious Family

Rather than proclaiming assent to a creed or belief system to become a worshiper of the Orisha, one comes to be a participant in this religion by undergoing the different initiatory rituals that introduce them into the tradition and deeper levels of knowledge. Such initiatory rituals require that the initiate place himself or herself under the spiritual protection and authority of a priest or priestess who is at a higher initiatory level. Within the Orisha traditions, the priest or priestess who performs one’s initiations is called one’s godfather or godmother (padrino or madrina in Spanish). The relationship that one has with one’s godparents is especially important because these are the people who guide one’s life, especially one’s spiritual and religious life.

Among Orisha devotees in Yorubaland, parents and grandparents often pass the knowledge of these religious traditions from generation to generation, and many priestly orders belong to certain family lineages. However, when the Yoruba peoples were brought to the Americas as slaves, their family lines were broken and such a system could not be reconstructed. Instead, a different way of determining family lines was developed, with the lines based on initiation rather than birth. Even today, even if one’s parents are Orisha devotees one must be born into a religious family through the initiations provided by its more senior members. This means that, rather than the more informal relationship of other types of religious congregations, everyone within a Santería household (often call by the Yoruba word for family or household, ile) is related through a complex hierarchy of initiation described in terms of kinship and family.

According to the Santería worldview, before one is born they kneel before Olodumare and choose a destiny for this life. Included in that destiny is not only when and where one is born, the identity of one’s parents and family, where one will live and work, and where and when one will die, but also which of the many Orisha will be one’s personal protectors during this lifetime. The relationship one has with these protector Orisha is also a familial one. Although these protectors are not formally identified until one is initiated into the priesthood, everyone, whether they know it or not, has at least two Orisha who watch over and protect them like parents because everyone is omo-Orisha, that is, a child of the Orisha. As one prepares for initiation (or often earlier) one’s primary Orisha guardian is identified. This Orisha is said to own one’s head or one’s destiny. During the initiation process, a second Orisha of the opposite gender is named one’s secondary Orisha. There, two parent Orisha form the basis of one’s personal pantheon. Because of their protective functions, often these Orisha are known as one’s “guardian angels” or (ángel guardián in Spanish).

An analysis of spiritual kinship or the religious family within Orisha traditions can focus on two different sets of relationships. One is the person-to-person relationship formed by the devotee and his or her godparents along with all of the other people in one’s human religious family. The other is the relationship formed between the Orisha and their devotees, which are also described according to familial metaphors. In the rest of this chapter, I will describe both these two types of familial relations: that of the religious household headed by one’s godparent and that of one Orisha family headed by one’s guardian angel Orisha.

The Religious Household (Ile Orisha)

In pre-colonial times (and often even today), Yoruba people lived together in family compounds that were headed by the most senior man and included several generations of his descendants. A typical family consisted of a man, his wives, and their children, along with his adult sons and their wives and children. In addition, members of the previous generations—for example, the senior man’s mother and her co-wives—unmarried daughters, and their children and unrelated outsiders may have also lived within a family compound. While the compound as a whole, lead by the senior man or his elders, may have served the titular Orisha of the family, any individual may or may not have participated in the worship of that Orisha. Individuals may have served other Orisha as well as (or instead of) the titular Orisha or no Orisha at all. In addition, non-family members living in a compound (in-marrying wives, as well as unrelated outsiders) may or may not have participated in the service of the titular Orisha, and may or may not have continued in the service of other Orisha.

Individuals came to the worship of the Orisha in several ways. Children may be marked from conception or birth as the devotee of a particular Orisha; these people were said as having “come from heaven” worshipping that Orisha or as being “born by” that Orisha. Children born with deformities or with a caul are said to belong to Obatala. Children with a certain kind of hair belong to Dada, the sister of Shango. Children born after their mothers have made offering and petitions to an Orisha belong to that Orisha. The mothers of such children would serve the Orisha for them, taking them to festivals, making sacrifices on their behalf, and perhaps participating in rituals until the child is old enough to do this on their own. Parents or grandparents may choose to train one or more of their children or grandchildren to serve their own Orisha, whether the titular Orisha of the compound or another Orisha. This is the way the worship of the titular Orisha is passed from generation to generation within the family. Others within the compound—for example, a woman who brought the worship of her family Orisha with her when she married into the family—might assure the worship of her Orisha within the family by training one or more of her children in the rituals of that Orisha. If a person is having inexplicable problems in his or her life, divination might reveal that an Orisha is campaigning for his or her devotion. Even though no one within the family is currently a devotee of that Orisha, the indigenous understanding is that the Orisha had been worshipped by an ancestor and resents its recent neglect.

Although a Yoruba child would have been born into an Orisha-worshipping society, no one Orisha was universally worshipped. Although one might not participate in the worship of any Orisha, it was more common for individuals to worship several Orisha, coming to the worship of each in a different manner. An individual might be born worshipping an Orisha, be trained into the worship of another Orisha by a parent or grandparent, and may take up the worship of yet another Orisha based on a divination session. In the early twentieth century, William Bascom estimated that, at that time, the average person worship five different Orisha.1

When the hundreds of thousands of Yoruba-speaking people were brought to the Americas in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the lineage system of worship and religious training could not be maintained. Families were ripped apart, and marriages among Africans and Afro-Cubans were difficult to establish and maintain. There were more African and Afro-Cuban women than men. At the same time, among the Spanish population, there were more men than women. This lead many of the women within the ranks of the gente de color, the free people of color, to become concubines of the Spanish men since legitimate marriages across these class lines were impossible. In spite of all these cultural difficulties, many of those who lived in the cities of Cuba were able to work together to recreate the worship of their Orisha. Unable to re-create the family structures they had known in Africa, they developed a new lineage system based on initiation rather than blood. Although the exact history has still not been fully identified, what was developed has become the current system of godparenthood. Under the guidance of one’s godparents, one is reborn into a religious family and lineage tradition, and learns the rites and rituals of the Orisha.2

In Yorubaland, the senior priests and priestesses of an Orisha were responsible for initiating new members into the worship group, and for training and supervising them. Although there was coordination between many of the groups, each Orisha’s worship community was independent and autonomous. However, as the religious system was re-created in Cuba, the worshippers of all the Orisha organized themselves into a single community under the leadership of senior priests and priestesses of different Orisha. These elders, many of whom had been born and trained in Africa, lead rituals and were responsible for initiating and training new devotees. These leaders worked together and, over time, developed a system of religious lineages based on initiation.

According to current understandings, everyone is born as the child of a specific Orisha who owns their head and is their primary protector. However, in order to become a worshipper of that Orisha or the Orisha in general, everyone needs a priest or priestess who can initiate her into the service of the Orisha and teach her the appropriate cultural and religious forms. With a few exceptions, both men and women can become priests of the Orisha and perform all of the ritual activities required of them. Since many of the first religious leaders in Cuba were woman and many of contemporary worshippers are women, I will prefer the female in this account of the person-to-person relationships, with the understanding that it applies equally to men and women. When I describe the relationships between individuals and their Orisha, I will prefer the male, again with the understanding that my description applies equally to men and women. Contemporary Santería initiations require four named actors (along with other members of the community): the iyawo, the olorisha who is the initiating priest or priestess who will be the iyawo’s primary godparent, the yubona who is the second godparent, and the oriate who is the ritual specialist who conducts these ceremonies.

It is the primary godparent who provides the Orisha icons from which the initiate’s icon are born, whose ashé vivifies these icons and empowers the ashé of the iyawo, and who has the primary responsibility for the training and religious supervision of the iyawo. All Santería initiations require that the new icons be empowered through contact with the old. It is only in the presence of the icons of the primary godparent that new icons can be consecrated, and only in the presence of the initiating priest that a new priest can be consecrated. Just as no child can be born without a mother, no one can be initiated and no icons can be animated without contact with an existing priest and her Orisha icons. Similarly, just as every child must have two parents, every ritual requires the participation of two priests who become the godparents of the initiate. The only requirement is that the godparents must be fully-crowned priests. Other characteristics, for example, their gender, chronological age, or race, are irrelevant. Importantly, these godparents need not be of opposite genders. The iyawo may have a padrino and a madrino (godfather and godmother), two padrinos or two madrinas.

The relationship between the initiate and her primary godparent is the most important human-to-human relationship in the religion. This is followed closely by the relationship between the initiate and secondary godparent (the yubona). The godparents are responsible for the initiate’s spiritual and religious life. The initiate will be expected to salute them first when meeting them at later rituals or other events, and she will be expected to honor them on their own religious birthdays. When the initiate is a priest, the godparents will pay an important part in her own religious birthday celebrations, and if one or both survive the death of their godchild, they will be responsible for their godchild’s funeral ritual.

Through this system of godparentage, new religious families are created. A priest who has initiated many godchildren becomes the head of her own extended religious family that includes not only her own godparents but also all of godchildren of her godparents. The godchildren of one’s godparent become one’s religious siblings, some older in the religion and, over time, some younger. Also included in one’s religious family are the godparents of one’s godparents (one’s grandparents or abuelos in the religion) and one’s godparent’s religious siblings, who can be thought of as one’s religious aunts and uncles, along with their godchildren, one’s religious cousins. Just as one’s personal family extends in all directions back into time, sideways to include cousins and others of one’s generation, and into the future with the birth of new children into the family, so one’s religious family also extends in every direction. For many people, one’s religious family is more complex than one’s personal family because of the greater number of relationally near individuals and because of the complexity of cross-initiations.

Because of the importance of one’s religious lineage, new priests are encouraged to learn the names of their religious ancestors back to the founder of their religious line. Each ritual begins with the recitation of the names of the religious ancestors of the primary participants. Even when little is known about these ancestors beyond their names, each priest who has been initiated in a Cuban-based religious family knows that he or she is the member of a religious lineage that can be traced back to one of the original founders of the religion in Cuba. Members of other Orisha traditions may not trace their lineage back to Cuba, but all maintain this type of lineage system.

Participation in all of the Orisha traditions is shaped by the initiations one has undergone. Each initiation involves the devotee into a progressively more intense relationship with both the Orisha and the initiating godparents. For many people, the first initiations are those of Warriors and Necklaces. Although these rituals can be performed separately, many santeros prefer a single ceremony. If the same godparents present both the necklaces and the warriors, the new godchild comes away from the ceremony with two godparents whose hierarchy is easy to understand. However, since in most households women are not allowed to present warriors to devotees, when a woman wants to give warriors and necklaces to a new devotee, she must call in a priest to be the primary godparent for the warriors portion of the rituals. In this situation, the new godchild is left in the somewhat confusing situation of having two primary godparents, one for necklaces and one for warriors. If the two priests are from different religious families, which is common, the new godchild is left in the situation where she has responsibilities to two different religious families who may have minor (or even major) differences of practice and ritual.

The Necklaces ceremony brings the new devotee (often called an aleyo) into the Orisha community, and puts her under the protection of the Orisha and under the guidance of the primary godparent. While someone with necklaces can still only attend public rituals, she has taken the first step into the religious community. As a member of the household of her primary godparent, the devotee has some minor ritual responsibilities toward the primary godparent. She may also be expected to help out when the godparents have other ceremonies or celebrations. Although she is excluded from the majority of religious rituals, there is much secondary work, particularly in the kitchen and its environs, that she can do, from providing coffee and snacks during ritual breaks to processing the carcasses of sacrificial animals into dishes for the feasting that follows major rituals. Like a young child who learns about the world by working alongside her parents, the aleyo begins to learn about this religious tradition by working alongside her godparents and the other godchildren in the household.

The Warriors ceremony actually makes a devotee an Orisha worshipper. During this ritual, the aleyo actually receives the empowered icons of the Orisha Eleggua, Ogun, Ochosi, and Osun. With this ritual, she has taken the first step toward full participation in the religion. As an aleyo with warriors, the devotee has a similar level of social responsibility as one who has received necklaces. However, because she has actual Orisha living in her house, her ritual responsibility is higher. She must propitiate her warriors weekly, and may interact with them directly. In some households, the aleyo is taught to divine with coconut pieces so that these Orisha may communicate directly with her.

The relationship between the aleyo and her godparents is deepened with each of these rituals. The godchild has a responsibility to honor and respect the godparents, and they are expected not only to guide the aleyo’s spiritual development, but also to begin teaching her about the rituals and values of the religion. In the ideal situation, these will be the godparents who will work with the aleyo throughout her lifetime, providing additional rituals and ceremonies as required. However, many godchildren choose to leave the religious household of these first godparents. There is little stigma attached to a godchild who chooses to leave his first religious family and associate herself with a different household. Each new ritual has the possibility of breaking the ties with a previous godparent and establishing ties with a new godparent. If a devotee chooses to leave the household of a godparent and associate herself with a new household, the new godparent may annul her relationships with the original godparents by “throwing away” or destroying the ritual paraphernalia received from them and re-initiating her with new warriors and necklaces. Although a devotee may associate herself with several godparents before making a final commitment to a religious family, there is a limit to the larger community’s tolerance for fickleness. A devotee who is known to have moved from one house to another several times may be seen as unreliable and not welcomed in subsequent households.

The relationship between godchild and godparent becomes solidified and indestructible when the devotee decides that she has been called by the Orisha to become a priest. The godparents who place the Orisha in or on the devotee’s head during the kariocha rituals establish a permanent relationship with the new initiate, now known as a iyawo. This ritual overrides all previous initiations and abrogates any previous godparent relationships so that after this ritual the initiate has no more obligations to any previous godparents. Although the iyawo as a new priest may participate in other rituals with other godparents, those relationships are additive, additions that cannot nullify the relationship between the priest and the kariocha godparents. Even if the priest severs her ties with her kariocha godparents and receive the pinaldo (Knife) ceremony from a different set of godparents, the kariocha ties are never completely dissolved. In such a case, the new godparents are viewed more as adoptive parents, those who take on the offspring of others.

Since the religious households of babalawo are only loosely connected to the households of santeros, babalawo and santeros cannot participate in each other’s rituals. Warriors received from a babalawo cannot be used during the kariocha rituals, and a different set must be given to the devotee by a santero. Santeros cannot give the Hand of Orula or initiate a godchild into the mysteries of Ifa, since these are the exclusive privilege of the babalawo. Many babalawo marry fully-crowned Santería priestesses so that their godchildren can move between the realms of the babalawo and the santero while staying within the same general religious sphere. However, the relationship between the babalawo and his godchildren and that between them and his priestess wife are different and independent relationships. Each may have godchildren independent of the other, and each is entitled to different types of honor and respect.

Since many practitioners receive different rituals from different sets of godparents, both the godparents and the godchildren will introduce each other according to the highest initiation received. Thus, you may hear someone say, “she is my godmother for knife,” “he is my godchild of warriors,” or “he is my godchild in Ifa.” The higher the ritual invoked, the more intense the assumed relationship between the godparent and godchild. By acknowledging their relationship to others, the godparent and godchild further solidify their bond, regardless of the bonds each may have with other sets of godchildren and godparents.

Having multiple sets of godparents, particularly having different godparents for kariocha and pinaldo, indicate disruptions in the religious family structure. Ideally, the godparent can call upon his or her godchild for both ritual and practical support. Similarly, the godchild should be able to call upon the godparent for both spiritual and practical assistance. Religious siblings and members of the wider religious community should be able to trust and respect each other and to rely upon each other in times of both religious and practical needs. However, many religious families fail to follow the ideal. In the United States, many godparents and godchildren are geographically separated, with godparents living in another state or even in Nigeria, Cuba, or another foreign country. As people’s career and personal responsibilities take them away from their initiating communities, they may find it difficult to maintain their religious relationships. Ritual support may require that one or both of the parties travel, often long distances, to participate. Often godchildren establish alternative “adoptive” relationships in their new home areas, putting themselves under the protection and guidance of senior priests that have little or no relationship to their original godparents. Over time, the relationship between the godchild and these adoptive godparents may become stronger and more durable than that with the original but absent godparents.

Physical proximately doesn’t ensure good relationships either. The ideal relationship is based on cultural forms that many American find difficult to maintain, and it is common to find godparents and godchildren who are alienated from each other. Santeros talk about losing respect for their elders, of disrespectful godchildren, and of a general loss of trust within the community. Disruptions within the community are usually described in terms of respect, or rather its loss. Godparents complain that their godchildren are disrespectful, while godchildren complain that their godparents either don’t respect them as adults or that the godparents are no longer worthy of respect. Both godparents and godchildren feel as though they ought to be respected for their religious and initiatory status, regardless of their personal behavior. At the same time, both sides feel as though they need only respect others who act in a manner worthy of their respect. Often, the rhetoric of disrespect between the parties escalates until an unavoidable break occurs. Whereas, in traditional societies such as those found in pre-colonial Yorubaland and in colonial Cuba, respect is naturally afforded to persons because of age, social rank, or initiatory status, in the contemporary United States, respect must be constantly earned. Particularly in the religious sphere, respect is always contingent upon appropriate behavior, and those who act in an unacceptable manner risk the loss of the respect of others.

Another difficulty in the development of religious families in the United State is the tendency of American culture to support a vocabulary of family dysfunction that militates against using the natal family as a model of religious kinship. Without a model of a functioning personal family where elders are owed unconditional respect and children are given unconditional love, many Americans are at a loss when the relationships between godparents and godchildren are strained. Godchildren, many of whom are initiated as adults, chafe under the authority of their godparents, who may be chronologically younger than themselves. Godparents complain that their godchildren are disrespectful when they act according to the American ideals of autonomy, individualism, and self-reliance. Many practitioners seem unwilling or unable to fully commit to their new religious families in the manner expected by the ideal case. Godchildren leave their original godparents and form new “foster” relationships; godparents kick their godchildren out of their religious families, leaving them to fend for themselves. Even in the best of cases, our mobile society works against long-term and close relationships, as godchildren and godparents may live hundreds or even thousands of miles from each other.

Both godparents and godchildren bring into these relationships pre-existing ideas of how others should act, with little regard for their own behavioral responsibilities. Godparents are expected to exhibit exemplary behavior and are often discounted when their feet of clay are revealed. Godchildren are expected to exhibit a level of deference unknown in other situations. Nowhere in American society is respect given or received merely on the strength on one’s position: presidents can and have been impeached, and ministers and priests of the dominant religions can and have been defrocked and indicted for crimes against their parishioners. Santería ideology, however, says that practitioners owe each other respect as well as trust and reliability, not because of who they are or how they act, but because of their positions within the Santería hierarchy. By demanding respect from others while denying it to those whom they feel are not worthy of respect, santeros betray their lack of deep understanding of that ideology. These issues of mutual respect have become one of the most challenging areas of practice for Americans.

The Orisha as Parents and Guardians

The Orisha, as the deities of this religion, are multi-dimensional beings that represent the forces of nature, act as archetypes, and function as sacred patrons or “guardian angels” for devotees. As knowable aspects of Olodumare, the great God, they represent a level of power that is approachable through ritual, and thus are the focus of all religious action. When one kneels before Olodumare and chooses one’s destiny for this lifetime, included in that destiny is the determination of one’s Orisha guardians. These are the Orisha who will be the special patrons of the individual throughout his lifetime. If it is part of his destiny to become a priest in the tradition, he will be initiated as the priest of one of these Orisha, identified as the Orisha that “owns his head” (or destiny).

Before initiation and without any knowledge or understanding of the religion, everyone is born as a child of the Orisha, omo Orisha. Thus, one’s first relationship with the Orisha is that of a child to a loving parent. Divination can determine which specific Orisha has chosen to accompany this child through his earthly journey, but even before that knowledge is obtained, the Orisha as a generalized force stand ready to guard and protect him. Lydia Cabrara, an early ethnographer of this religion in Cuba, was surprised when she was told by her Afro-Cuban informants that, in spite of being white and ignorant of the religion, she, like everyone else, had “un Santo y una Santa,” a male and female Orisha who watched over and protected her “porque eran mis padres,” because they were her parents.3 Similarly, newcomers to the religion are often surprised to be told that they, too, are protected by Orisha who watch over and protect them in spite of their ignorance of the tradition.

Many elders discourage devotees from attempting to discover the identity of one’s Orisha guardian, since this information isn’t needed until one is preparing for initiation. However, it is common for both newcomers and established priests to want to know to whom one stands in this special relationship. In the same way that those who know astrology feel that they know something about an individual when they know his or her birth sign, practitioners believe that knowing one’s Orisha guardian gives them insight into the person’s personality. Independent of the divination session that establishes one’s primary guardian, Orisha practitioners speculate on who “owns” a newcomer’s head. As the child of an Orisha, the devotee is often said to exhibit the archetypal qualities of that Orisha, and one’s personal characteristics are often used to guess the identity of one’s Orisha guardian. Thus, a hot-blooded, macho man-about-town would be associated with Shango, while an earth mother-type would be associated with Yemaya.

However, it is important to realize that the identity of one’s Orisha guardian, the Orisha that owns one’s head, cannot be known without a special type of divination. One does not choose one’s Orisha guardian based on personal preference or inclination, neither is one’s personal Orisha determined by one’s personality; rather, one’s Orisha guardian, the Orisha of one’s head, chooses who will be its worshipper and priest. The identity of the Orisha who has chosen one is identified through a formal divination session known as “marking the head,” through the throw of cowry shells or kola nuts.

An Orisha may claim an individual for a variety of reasons. Although the personality one brings to the divination session may predispose one to an alliance with a particular Orisha, some individuals are chosen by an Orisha in opposition to their personal characteristics. Often the associations seem to be completely arbitrary, neither supporting nor challenging the devotee’s personal self-concept. There doesn’t appear to be any necessary relationship between the personality of the individual and his Orisha guardian.

It is also important to realize that, ideally, no consideration of one’s gender or sexual orientation is made in the determination of one’s Orisha guardian. That is, an individual presenting himself for divination is as likely to be given a male as a female Orisha, regardless of his own gender or sexual preference. Because the personality of the priest often correlates with that of the Orisha, one would expect that gay or effeminate men as well as most women would be associated with Oshun, the goddess of love and sexuality, or Yemaya, the maternal Orisha. Although in many communities this correlation does not hold, some diviners do attempt to assign these Orisha to obviously gay men. However, there is no requirement that one tell the diviner one’s sexual orientation, and there are many gay men whose Orisha guardian is male, many straight men whose Orisha guardian is female, and many women whose Orisha guardian doesn’t correlate with either their own gender or their sexual preference. In addition, the attributes associated with the Orisha are not universally projected onto a devotee relative to these gender correspondences or differences. That is, male Oshun priests are not necessarily perceived as effeminate, nor are female Shango priests necessarily seen as overly virile.

Many godparents are quick to take their new godchildren to the diviner to determine their guardian Orisha, believing that this knowledge will help them better guide the individual’s spiritual development. Although the determination of one’s Orisha guardian serves little ritual function until initiation is imminent, for many people, it serves an important part of their socialization into their Orisha community. Once that Orisha guardian has been determined, one is said to be a child not of the Orisha in general but of that Orisha in particular. Once one learns who “owns his head” there is a strong tendency to attribute behaviors to this correspondence. Thus, you will often hear even uninitiated devotees identifying themselves as the daughter of Oshun or the son of Obatala. And once the identification has been made it is very common for individuals to search their own lives and personalities for correspondences with this Orisha’s stories and characteristics.

It is at the time of priestly initiation that the determination of one’s Orisha guardian is most important, because each new priest is initiated as a priest of a particular Orisha. Initiation does more than solidify the relationship between Orisha and devotee. Although one always remains the child of his Orisha guardian, his new relationship as an initiated priest is expressed through the metaphor of marriage. During the initiation event and for a full year afterward, the new priest loses his given name and is simply called iyawo, that is, the new bride of the Orisha. He regains his given name at the end of this period called the iyawoage, but remains conceptually the “wife” of his Orisha guardian—regardless of his own gender or the gender of the Orisha guardian. In spite of the gender(s) assigned to them in the mythology, the Orisha are always considered male relative to their priests and priestesses. At the same time, in spite of often taking on the characteristics of their Orisha guardians, priests and priestesses are always considered female relative to those Orisha. As the wives of the Orisha, priests not only serve as caretakers of the Orisha and their devotee-children, they also serve as the vessels for their head Orisha, most radically during possession events.

During the initiation process, the Orisha is firmly seated in the devotee’s head, so that not only is he the child and priest of the Orisha, but also its vessel, for it is after initiation that the new priest can manifest the Orisha directly through possession trance. The embodied Orisha can bless members of the community, offer healing, or counsel devotees in a particularly personal and physical way. For the duration of the possession event, it is the Orisha that actually speaks and acts using the body of the devotee.

Everyone is born omo Orisha, and through the ritual of initiation one can become iyawo Orisha, however, there remains other important familial relationships between priest and Orisha. At the completion of their iyawoage, fully-crowned priests (those who have completed all of the rituals associated with priestly initiation) may be known as olorisha, that is, “owners of Orisha.” Here we see an interesting balance between the Orisha who “own” the priest (most obvious in the case of the Orisha guardian who is said to own the priest’s head or destiny) and the priest who is said to “own” the Orisha to whom he has been initiated. The priest is responsible for serving and propitiating all of the Orisha that he has received either in his original initiation or in later rituals, all of the Orisha that he “owns.” He may invoke them in divination, appeal to them for the good of himself, his family, or religious household, and give their ashé to others in the form of initiations or presentations.

If the priest chooses to become the godparent of a new priest, he vivifies the godchild’s Orisha icons and empowers her as a new priest through the power of his own Orisha and the ashé they share with him. After someone has initiated another into the priesthood, he or she may take the title of iyalosha (mother of Orisha) or babalosha (father of Orisha). Now the priest stands not only as a child and wife of the Orisha, but as one of those who has given birth, as the spiritual parent of new devotees and their Orisha icons.

This suggests a movement toward an increasingly gendered view of devotees who begin as undifferentiated children (omo), become wives upon priestly initiation (iyawo), and fully-gendered parents when they reproduce, that is, create new members of the ritual family (as iyalosha or babalosha). At the same time, priests always remain iyawo Orisha, that is, wifely followers of the Orisha whom they serve.

Although every priest has two special Orisha who are considered to be his mother and father Orisha, each is initiated with five to seven Orisha, and most acquire additional Orisha throughout their lifetimes. Just as one has different relationship with the different members of one’s birth family, many priests have different relationships with these different Orisha. Although the Orisha of the head and the second Orisha parent may have primacy, often priests will identify another Orisha as their special Orisha, the one to whom they are most likely to appeal in times of need and the one to whom they are most likely to perform special rituals and ceremonies. Sometimes, this Orisha is identified in a divination session. At other times, the priest himself determines that he has a special relationship with an Orisha other than the Orisha of his head. Just as one’s relationships with one’s friends and relatives may wax and wane over time, so too these Orisha relationships may strengthen and weaken as one’s life and circumstances change.

In an ideal world, a devotee’s godparent wouldn’t take him for the divination that determines the Orisha of his head until he is preparing for initiation. However, many people want to know who owns their heads, and many godparents take devotees to the diviner for this ritual long before they are interested in priestly initiation. Because of the nature of many communities, it is not uncommon for a devotee to have several godparents before the initiation, or for there to be many years between the time that his guardian Orisha is determined and the time he knocks on the door of initiation. Often it happens that the identity of the Orisha guardian changes as the devotee moves from godparent to godparent, or if there is a long time between the determination of the Orisha guardian and the actual initiation. Sometimes a devotee is told in a divination session that an Orisha “loves you very much.” This formula is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that this Orisha owns one’s head. So they are surprised if, at some future divination, a different Orisha is said to “love you very much” or, more importantly, to claim their head.

Devotees question why such changes take place. Were the earlier divinations wrong in their determination, or was the diviner incompetent? New godparents sometimes discredit the work of former godparents in order to solidify the new relationship, suggesting that the former godparent or the diviner they chose was mistaken or dishonest. When there has been a long time between the original determination and the final one, some priests say that the original Orisha got tired of waiting for the priest to decide to initiate, and gave up on him so that another Orisha had to step into the breach. And while one or more Orisha may love the devotee very much, they did not necessarily claim his head, as many have discovered.

Another way of looking at this discrepancy is to reconsider how such changes could happen within the limitations of one’s destiny. The Yoruba idea of destiny is flexible. Rather than an immutable destiny that cannot be changed, according to this worldview, one can soften or strengthen one’s destiny. Thus, it is possible to suggest that, as one moves through life, different Orisha may step forward to protect and help one manifest one’s best destiny. At the same time, every decision one makes closes off some possibilities and improves others. Choosing to go to school rather than to work, to live in this place or that, to marry now or later, this person or another, all change the path of one’s life. An Orisha who would walk with one under certain circumstances may defer to another under different circumstances. A superb coach might be the best mentor should one choose a career in sports, but not if one chooses to enter the business world. As one’s life and one’s associates, including one’s godparents, changes the Orisha, claiming one’s head may also change to reflect one’s current situation, and best and most fulfilling destiny.

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Santería -- : Correcting the Myths and Uncovering the Realities of a Growing Religion


"The Religious Family." Santería : Correcting the Myths and Uncovering the Realities of a Growing Religion. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 30 Nov 2015. <>

Chicago Manual of Style

"The Religious Family." In Santería : Correcting the Myths and Uncovering the Realities of a Growing Religion, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. (accessed November 30, 2015).