Tag Archives: initiation

Vodun F.A.Q.: Do I Have to Be Initiated to Practice An ATR?

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 Initiation is very important in most African traditional religions.  You may worship whichever deities you like, so long as you do so respectfully, but it is important to understand that Vodun and other African and diaspora belief systems are alive and have actual communities practicing in unbroken lines for over 10,000 years.  They have actual communities of followers keeping aeons old traditions.  It may not look as organized as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, and our sects may get along better because our core beliefs include that division is an illusion.  However, it is so organized that it surpasses what humans often view as order.  It is so organized that it is in our (recently African) blood in an overt way, and pops up in not-recently-Africans from time to time.  So we have ties by ancestry as well as earthly accountability structures that should not be ignored when walking this path.

So initiation is important for a few spiritual and historical reasons.  You should be initiated into whichever African belief system you intend to follow faithfully.  The only reasons you should not be initiated are if it is impossible for practical reasons, or you haven’t found a community you trust, or the deities you worship have told you through divination, that you should not seek official initiation.

Now, the real heavy question is what sort of initiation you should seek; whether you should stick to your diaspora style, community, and temple, or you should go to Africa to be initiated there.  Those in the diaspora whose Ancestors were sold as slaves should consider this carefully because there is the matter of reclamation of one’s Ancestors.  Many do not know where their Ancestors are from, and are afraid to get DNA tests because of fear of this being misused by governments and corporations.  They also don’t give a complete picture of one’s actual ancestry. The good news is that there is such a thing as Ifa divination, so you can seek spiritually relevant answers in this.  Some temples, like Temple Behumbeza in Benin, specifically reclaim Africans from the diaspora.  Contact Hounnon Houedossi Ahouegnon for details and guidance.

She warns that many people who seek this are duped by unscrupulous individuals, into thinking that they are priests because they went through a short initiation.  The truth of the matter is that it is not that simple.  In some cases, I think it is a matter of misunderstanding, but either way, Africans in the diaspora who make pilgrimages to Africa for initiation should understand that this is just the beginning of their journey, and does not make them a priest as in a ranking official in the temple.  It also doesn’t entitle them to lord over others in the diaspora.  It’s something like the difference between a Muslim who has and one who hasn’t passed through the Hajj.

Being initiated in Africa is definitely a good thing.  However, so is being initiated into your local or your teacher’s tradition.  Most of the time, you can do both since we network. Though most traditional systems are community based, you can initiate yourself to your own ancestral practice. Be mindful that this is a matter of careful innovation, and you cannot claim any titles that would be relevant to other communities.

So if there is a question, do divination to see what you should do.  Different people have different paths.  Just don’t claim community titles and ranks that you didn’t earn from the community.  It’s okay to be unaffiliated or initiated only into a particular diaspora tradition, ile, or temple.

If you decide to remain unaffiliated though, consider that the road of a solitary is a lonely one.  It is good to have a community when you find a group of people you trust and consider family.  I can understand very well the fears of community that come from being traumatized by cults and viral religions.  I also understand well though, that African traditional religions have built in checks and balances that have stood the test of time, and that you can see the legitimacy of any group by what it produces.

Another thing to consider is that some of us have been initiated into traditions that are not group dependent, such as Obeah, though they are still blood and spiritual family dependent.  There is also still the community factor. Few if any of our systems are called “Obeah”. It is a description, but not the name of the system, which may be a name we do not reveal. We just know when we meet a relative who has been through the same passages.  Though there are groups, most sorcerers were instructed by a teacher, and pass it down to students if they pass it at all.  Does an Obeah sorcerer, conjurer, or one who came up a similar way need to be initiated into a larger community, or to go to Africa for initiation?  One can only answer this question for themselves.  As I said, do the divination, and then search yourself for why you got the answer you did.

On a personal note, when I asked the question, I got a, “No, you don’t need to, but you can.”  So I will get to Osogbo when I am provided the means and ability.  Meanwhile, I serve the community as I was taught by my elders.  Over time, I came to understand why I got such a seeming “lukewarm” answer in this.  It is because I am neither a layperson nor am I destined to be a priestess within any established temple structure.  I am not in that ancestral line.  In addition to that, “follower” is simply not a part of my personality, and never has been.  I am a sorceress.  My way is the fringes: the way of the outcast; the way of the functioning and resourceful outcast, but still outcast.  I appreciate those who reach out to me, but I understand that there is no group in which I could ever find true acceptance.  It’s just not possible.  I’m somewhere in the sweet-spot between mad scientist and crazy shamaness.

Most likely, the next goal after Osogbo will be Ghana to join with a temple there that does things closer to what I practice.

If you find yourself in the same predicament then, as I have learned thankfully the easy way from watching others’ mistakes, you must accept your limitations.  I can help people to a point, and teach them to a point, but I can’t really give them a community unless they are also a witch.  Thing is though, I don’t pretend to be otherwise.  You shouldn’t either.  It may seem a good idea at the time to mock a high title, but ultimately the authentic will out you, and you will experience a much more damaging rejection than you would if you had simply owned your lack of organized status or lower rank within that status.

I have not lost a client from being honest with them about my lack of belonging to an organized religion or system.  I do not envy the path of the priest/ess.  In fact, I need them.  They keep me humane, in touch and spiritually aligned with one of my ethnicities, and provide help for some people in some situations that I am simply not equipped to give.  Instead of being bad imitations of them, people should drop the pretense and make peace with them.  As I said before, the African priesthood never had issues with folks making due.  Just respect the source.

So, I am the female King of Ile Baalat Teva, a diaspora house of witches.  I am a practitioner of Obeah, and have some knowledge of Kindoki and Brujeria as well.  Though well grounded in my African diaspora practices, I am learning more about authentic African Vodun, and being a writer, relaying some of the information I get along the way to the English speaking world.  It may not seem very lofty to some, but it’s good enough for me.

Blessings and Ashé!

Solutions: How to Avoid Negative Cultural Appropriation of African and Diaspora Belief Systems

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Hof Dor, Israel

Hof Dor, Israel

Lately, there has been some buzz in the community about cultural appropriation of African belief systems.  We’ve talked a lot about the problem, and I think it’s time we addressed some realistic solutions.  The global spiritual community has always shared information, but the speed has increased dramatically since the internet.  Sometimes speed isn’t such a good thing when one is dealing with ideas that can take many years to grasp, even for someone who belongs to the culture in which it arose.

It is very important that diaspora practitioners, who sometimes have the western tendency to be a bit focused on maintaining identity in a way that Africans in their ancestral homelands don’t have to worry about, understand the way others learn about the Vodun.  If you are multi generation legacy, the way you learned is not the only way or the only legitimate way.  For some, this is a journey they began as an individual, or their legacy may be only one or two generations deep, or may have been secret.

In some cases, someone may have been called/contacted by a Vodun, Orisha, Lwa, or other African flavor of Energy/Spirit even though they are practicing a non African faith.  In some, they find that African ideas fill in some space in their belief system that others don’t.  Sometimes, it’s just a matter of liking an idea and incorporating it into their practice.  These aren’t necessarily bad, but can turn bad if they are misinterpreting something, and don’t have the guidance to correct it.

Heritage, Tradition, and Innovation.

A great artist, Pablo Picasso once said that one should learn the rules so that one can break them like an artist.  Though African spirituality tends to be more like a science no matter where in Africa it is from, one should learn the traditions well before taking it upon one’s self to deviate from them.  For this reason, if you are not a practitioner of west or central African belief systems, but were called nonetheless, or you are incorporating Spirits whose relational identities were crystallized in Africa into your belief system, you should take it upon yourself to contact a priest/ess in or from Africa.

All of us in the diaspora with the option and any level of respect, have connections with priests and practitioners in Africa.  All of us.

Be aware that most traditions were local and based around families, clans, and villages, and that the people and geography and climate were important and unique.  What is a blessing in one place may be an abomination in another, as far as general practice, but at the more esoteric level, many things start to merge.  You will do well to be in touch with someone aware enough and deep enough in actual practice, to advise and guide you even though you are far from their local area.

Even if you don’t intend to fully commit to an African belief system, it is important to have this line of communication to avoid doing things that may be disrespectful or just imbalanced or nonsensical.  If, for instance, you are Wiccan, and you like Yemaya, that is all good, but if you want to get the most positive energy from that, you should ask Eshu to open the way for you to speak to Yemaya.  There is no Yemaya without Vodun, and in Vodun, we (generally) call to Eshu (or the Gate Keeper by another name) before we contact other Orishas.  There are many good reasons for this that a priest/ess would be able to explain to you in detail.

We keep in touch with those in the Motherland so that even if our ways are quite different, we stay within certain bounds of sanity and soundness.

Now, using the Yemaya example again, once you understand why you should ask Eshu to open the gate first, and the ways to go about this, you may think of ways to do this “seamlessly” in a Wiccan ceremony or observance.  This is an innovation, and it is okay.  Just get some feedback from your African guides, and perhaps discuss this with others who are doing something similar.

Once you know the traditions, you can understand how to deviate from them in a respectful way.  Respectful deviation is far, far away from negative cultural appropriation.  It is good innovation, and nobody should have a problem with it, though some will anyway.

Doing it Wrong

The wrong way to go about appropriation/incorporation is to steal bits and pieces of practices without any regard for their cultural origins, or to claim titles specific to certain organizations without actually earning them.

It is the habit of many neopagans to call themselves priests and priestesses of whatever deities they like.  We don’t do this in African systems.  To be a priest/ess of a deity, you must pass through the initiations and rise through the ranks of the cult of that deity.  There is no way around this.  The first members of this deity’s cult may have had to go it alone, but once it was established, it became a matter of community.

This does not mean that you are not permitted to worship an Orisha.  Some today are running around telling people that they are not entitled to worship or mention Orisha because they have not been initiated, but this is just a bald faced lie.  The Orishas are forces of Nature, and all living beings live in the same Nature.  Atheists call it “ocean”, and we call it Olokun.  It doesn’t matter what it is called, it is what it is.  Thing is, if you’re going to utter the name Olokun in reverence, you must respect the fact that the name and its legends come from west Africa.  Part of that respect is respecting the priesthood unless or until the day comes that the priesthood no longer respects Olokun, and I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

In the diaspora, there are priests and priestesses within their specific systems.  In this case, they will add which temple or group in which they serve as a priest or priestess, so as to avoid confusion with the temples in Africa.   The ranks may not imply what they would in Africa though.  In some groups, being a priest/ess may mean that they have begun service to the community, and may still be in a phase of training, whereas in other groups, they have passed through the highest initiation for one of more deities.  African systems are alive, and new groups develop all the time.

It is wrong to treat Vodun and other very alive African belief systems as if they are dead, and nobody knows what they should be doing.  It is very much alive, and for anyone in the world with internet, guidance is just a click away.

It is also wrong to attempt to force African belief systems to fit Christian or western “hippie” sensibilities.  Though we do believe that one’s beliefs affect one’s behavior and energy, and therefore one’s life, there is no thought policing in Vodun.  We do not insist that everyone think the same or behave the same or according to the same set of rules and taboos.  Not only do traditions and pantheons vary from place to place, but what is a good deed and what is a “sin” or unwise or negative action varies from head to head.  Sometimes person to person as well.

We believe that all of Nature deserves respect, not denial, and that things that are negative or evil should be coped with honestly.  The “white light” way is not and should not be universal. Conflict feels like an unfortunate aspect of life, but life could not exist without it.  Your body must draw air in and out in order for you to survive.  Sometimes a person must kill in order to protect themselves and their loved ones.

One of the hardest things some of us have found in teaching non Africans and over-assimilated Africans, is getting them to understand that some things others can do and get away with, that they cannot, and vise versa.  What is sweet for one may be bitter to another.  What would depress or degrade one may uplift and exalt another.  There is no one way for everybody.

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