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What is an eleke?
An eleke is basically a string of beads. It can be in the form of a necklace, a bracelet, an anklet, a kneelet, an armlet, waist beads or breast beads. In the context of Vodun and derivative systems, it is a string of beads that represents Vodun itself or a Spirit or Deity within or syncretized with the system. They can be dedicated to one or multiple Spirits, including one’s ancestors.
Not all African or diaspora systems have a tradition of wearing elekes. Because there is a lot of cultural exchange, some may borrow traditions from other groups though. They may make use of different patterns based on their local or personal beliefs, so not every Eshu eleke for instance, will look the same. Some may have alternating black and red or black and white, or three black, three red, or a combination. Sometimes it depends on whether or not the eleke has a dual purpose of both representing a deity and giving a related blessing or trait to the wearer.
Since Vodun is not really a representative faith, when we say “represent” what we mean is “simultaneously symbolizes, embodies, and calls”. So they don’t merely represent the Spirits. They are something like tendrils of the Spirits that a person mindfully constructs and consecrates. The artist is the tool more than the object.
Where do I get a real eleke?
You may buy an eleke from a shop, receive them as a gift from family or a blood level friend, or receive them formally from the person in your community or “house” who has the authority to give them, or receive them from a solitary practitioner or Obeah-person who is at least of a level that they can make talismans that work. The first eleke you should always buy or receive is that of Eshu, regardless of who is the Spirit of your head. Its colors and patterns will depend on your house or priest/ess. It will usually be black and red, black and white, or black white and red, in patterns of threes.
A real eleke will be made by hand, with each bead strung by hand. It should never be made in a sweatshop or by literal or de facto slaves forced to make elekes. You can usually tell by the price.
It takes a skilled beader, working in a state of near trance, at least an hour to make an eleke. While making it, they will be singing to the Spirit(s) they are making it for. Different people make different wages in different parts of the world, but if it costs less than an hour or two of minimum wage in the part of the world the shop is in, it is very likely made wrong.
Then there is the cost of supplies, and if they are supposedly made by someone at the priestly level, the costs of incense and other things needed to bless them. Unless they are getting all their supplies for free, which some people do, they should be at least in the arena of $10-25.
Some can afford to charge less, or are happy to take a loss, but the vast majority of real eleke makers at least need to make their costs back. So buyer beware. If the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.
As has been mentioned in the comments, some believe that the only good way to receive an eleke is from one’s “godparents” or mentors. Though it is by far, not a universal thing, I would have to say that if you are in an area where this is the common practice, you should respect that and be ready to explain. Nowadays, many are suffering from “one true wayism” and have been misled, and this is not their fault. They place way too much importance on certain items because they don’t know that there is an authentic way of making ceremonial necklaces, and since none of us is going to sit and chew glass and gum here in the diaspora, folks should lighten up a bit.
Actual Yoruba, Bini, Akan, Fulani, and other tribal and ritual necklaces are totally different than the lightweight Czech and Japanese beads most people are wearing in the diaspora. If someone’s elekes are different or differently sourced than yours that is not your business. Yes, it is bad that this aspect of our culture is often copied, but they can’t copy the blessing. A string with no beads that has a strong blessing is better to have than a greed gained string of pearls.
How do I wear my eleke?
Elekes can be worn for ceremonial purposes, or in daily life, to keep a Spirit close to you and on your mind. It can also let other practitioners know that you are their brother in Vodun. To people who don’t know the codes, they’ll just look like beaded necklaces, but to someone who does, it lets them know about you in a similar way to people knowing your astrological sign.
For ceremonial purposes, you should always put on the eleke for Eshu before putting on others. In daily life, you can wear that of another Spirit alone, but you should at least touch your Eshu eleke first. Wherever you hang or store them, the Eshu eleke should be stored first.
If you like to wear them in daily life, it is best to have a set for ceremonial purposes, and a set for daily life purposes. Your ceremonial elekes should never see the inside of a toilet room, or be worn for any purpose but ceremony and ebo. If you do corrupt them, you must give an offering to apologize to Eshu and the Spirit(s) you offended.
That said, if you participate in certain activities, your elekes will get dirty. You may clean them with fresh, clean water.
What activities are permissible for you to do while wearing even a daily wear eleke depend on the Spirit it carries. Orun may allow you to wear his eleke while tanning or frolicking on the beach, but Osu may prefer his eleke be covered in the day and only worn outside the clothing at night. Know your Spirit, and you’ll know how to wear their eleke properly.
Can I put a pendant or ornaments on my eleke?
Again, it depends on the Spirit’s preferences, but generally, you can. The pendant should correspond with the Spirit. You would be ill advised for instance, to wear an Oya pendant on an Oshun eleke. Many elekes are made with pendants.
Can I make my own eleke? If so, what is the standard?
Yes you can make your own eleke, but I strongly recommend that you not do so unless you are advanced or under the supervision or guidance of an advanced practitioner of the priestly level. By priestly I mean that they are living so deep in the Spirits that even their diet and sex life is guided by the Vodun.
You should be at least of a level that you have made talismans in the past, and have seen that they work. If you can make working talismans, you can make elekes. Basically anybody can make them, but if anybody makes them, they should make them correctly.
You should research the Spirit(s) you’ll be making elekes for. Start with Eshu. When you have reached the level where you can competently give offerings to Eshu, and make talismans for him, then you can also make elekes for him.
Yes, it is a lot of studying to do to learn to bead a necklace, but elekes are not normal necklaces. If it makes you feel better, some teenagers who grew up in Vodun can do it.
Okay, I have made talismans in the past. How exactly do I make an eleke?
Give an offering to Eshu on Monday, and ask his permission to make elekes, and for which Spirits. Then do readings for confirmation. After you have gotten permission, you may proceed. You must also give an offering to the Spirit(s) the eleke will carry.
It is best to make the eleke on the day that corresponds with the Spirit you’re making it for. Traditions vary, but you should be mindful. Whatever your daily schedule of observances normally is, you should stick to that.
An eleke should be made in both the colors and numerical pattern of the Spirit you’re making it for. If you do not know, then this is one of the things you should ask when you are doing the readings after getting permission from Eshu.
Ideally, an eleke should be made from natural stone beads. Because this can be expensive, it is acceptable to make them of glass, wood, or even plastic beads, depending on what one can afford. The cord should be white or unbleached natural colored cotton or linen. It can be waxed or not.
It should be beaded in a continuous, unbroken pattern if there is no pendant. If there is a pendant, it should be done in a mirroring pattern.
Something I have found in my personal practice is that a daily wear or formal “party” eleke with a clasp is stronger when it starts with three alternating red and black beads. This makes up for it not being a continuous pattern. It starts with a visual and tactile request for Eshu to open its power.
Yes it was. The exact ceremonies and offerings involved with making elekes are passed down from elder or mentor to student. Nobody telling the truth will tell you every single detail involved. This is not an elitist thing though. It is to protect our methods from people who will hurt themselves and others by co-opting Vodun and diaspora systems without the proper respect.
Remember that Vodun is Nature, and Nature includes the spiritual, physical, and psychological. These things in the wrong hands can, aside of spiritually, be psychologically and physically damaging to those who have not gone through the things one needs to go through for these things. Eshu likes to trick the arrogant, the lazy, the silly, and the greedy.
What does it mean if an eleke burns my neck?
You may be allergic to some pigment used to make the eleke. You should try one made of undyed natural stone or plastic beads.
If it is made of undyed natural stone or plastic or glass that has not been coated with anything, it could mean that the Spirit it carries is trying to tell you something. It could be that there is danger near, or that you are about to do or have done something to offend them.
It could also just be that it has accumulated sweat and dirt from your body and needs to be cleaned.
What do I do if my eleke breaks?
In my tradition, you may re-string it, but you must start the procedure over again, with offerings of apology for breaking a sacred object. Some of us have “veteran” elekes that have sacrificed their beauty multiple times to protect us. Broken beads are given an honored burial, and the remaining beads are strung on a new eleke. The broken string is burned honorably in a censer.
In some people’s tradition, a broken eleke is to be completely disposed of. What you should do depends on your traditions or divination guided instructions.
What does it mean if my eleke suddenly breaks on its own while I am wearing it?
If it just all of a sudden breaks or one or more beads explodes a little or cracks while you are wearing it, this means that its Spirit is fighting something that caused him/her to rush to defense, and this was too much for a mere physical object to bear.
Stop, look, and listen. You have likely entered a situation that is spiritually and/or psychologically dangerous for you, and need to get away. Thank the Spirit for protecting you. Give them an offering, or have your priest/ess give an offering on your behalf. The eleke can be re strung with the remaining beads. Any that have broken should be buried, just as you would bury a crystal that had shattered for the same reasons.
Can other people touch my elekes?
It is not advisable that you allow others except maybe close relatives, apprentices, or assistants to touch your private ceremonial elekes. Your outside wear elekes should be consecrated regularly, and if you like, can be touched by others. However, it is best that you not allow anyone to touch your elekes if you are uncomfortable with them or sense a lot of negativity in them. This will make them prone to breakage or other damage.
From the other end, don’t touch people’s elekes without their permission.
How do I store my elekes?
Your private ceremonial elekes are best stored in a box or bag away from other mundane jewelry. Your outside wear elekes can be hung up in a special place on your altar or in your dressing area. Just try to protect them from dust and damage.