The Tres Potencias, the highest Spirits of Venezuela’s Espiritismo. Negro Felipe, Reina Maria Lionza, and Cacique Guaicaipuro.
Very often, I get emails asking me questions like “I cannot find this herb where I live – how can I substitute it?”, or “I feel like I am being called by this Orisha – can I set up an altar to them?”, or “Where can I find books to learn about Espiritismo?” always from people who, despite having the best intention, are completely outside the culture and the practise of the religions of the Diaspora. As much as I would like to have easy and comforting answers for these questions, I don’t – this blog post is (hopefully) a detailed and clear answer to those questions.
The way Spirits are worshipped in the religions of the African Diaspora is not chosen randomly – actually, we usually have very little room for choice. It’s the Spirit themselves who have taught us the exact way they want to be treated, and that knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation, from one House to another. Before Internet, it was through oral tradition, small-edition books, and even photocopies – right now, thanks to Internet, we can communicate with our brothers and sisters around the world, and share the knowledge we have (and, as someone who practise for over a decade before Internet existed, you cannot imagine how happy that makes me!).
Our Deities and Spirits are not archetypes, concepts, or ghosts from the past – our Deities and Spirits are alive, with full agency, and speak to us directly through the possession of Mediums, and through the oracles they see fit to use. Depending on the situation, the tradition, and on their own preference, they can use everything from cowries to regular Tarot cards to talk to their children; but, the preferred option is direct transmission through trance and mediumship, which does not need to be interpreted.
There is a reason for every ingredient and for every procedure, and we don’t question them, try to adapt them, or look for substitutions. Many of the products we use all the time have long lists of ingredients, sometimes very difficult to find, and can take months to prepare. For instance, I only make one batch of my homemade Florida Water a year, because it actually takes me a year to gather the ingredients and prepare the concoction. My recipe comes from Cuba, from my Madrina’s Ile (house of prayer) – and yes, you can assume that all the alleged Florida Water recipes floating around on the Internet are… well, horse manure, to say the least.
NOBODY in the ATRs learns through books – nobody. Learning is always through a Padrino or Madrina, and through hard and patient service to a community. There is no such things as classes or workshops to be initiated, and in my opinion, anyone who tries to sell you initiations is an absolute scammer. This is not about race, because Afro Latin culture has people of almost every race; this is about culture. Either you are part of a culture, or you are not – and yes, I know I mentioned books above, but those are not books to learn about the religion as an outsider; those are highly specialized works, and unless you are extremely familiar with the terms used in each religion, you are not going to understand a thing. ATR slang is there for a purpose – to act as a gatekeeper.
I learnt by staying at my Madrina’s house, and taking care of her home and her children when she suffered backaches. I learnt through the five weeks I took care of her when she broke her ankle and needed an operation. I leant the several months I spent working for almost nothing at a local shop, covering for a Cuban Santera who had suffered a thrombosis and could not walk. I learnt while cleaning, cooking, and taking out the trash. There was no class, no workshop, and not a second of glamour, because i was not allowed yet into rituals – but I happened to catch the attention of Spirits… and here we are today. You become family. It is seamless. It is made of love.
So, I’m sorry, but doing things your way, without the guidance of a Padrino / Madrina that introduces you to the specific items and customs of each Spirit (and of each community), it’s a complete and utter waste of time, money, and energy. While you may not be putting yourself in any real danger, your message will simply not reach the Spirit, or the Spirit will not be able to understand it. It’s like someone speaking to you in a language you are completely foreign to – and if spiritual work is not clear, concise and extremely focused, it loses strength greatly, and becomes a waste of energy. And, you can be grateful that you are not being heard, because I have seen the wrath of Spirits when initiated people lose their way, and it’s not pretty… but that is for another post!
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