These days, many people of many backgrounds are finding their way to Vodun. Where to start depends on your own background and tendencies. People of recent African ancestry may find it easier and more “instinctive” than people of more distant African ancestry. This does not mean that the person of more recent African ancestry will advance more quickly or have a better understanding. It does however, help when someone has a genetic connection to Mami Wata practitioners or priesthood, especially concerning practical matters.
Someone with more distant African ancestry may have inhibitions that someone of more recent ancestry does not. However, someone of recent ancestry may take things for granted that someone more distant would not.
There is also the question of whether or not certain later developments in belief systems are an evolution or devolution of Mami Wata Vodun. The original shamans and esoterics saw things a certain way, but politics, changes in the environment, migrations, and the necessities of life outside of Africa caused many shifts. Some may make the mistake of abandoning perfectly good practices in favor of things that they think are Vodun, but their abilities of understanding may be limited.
For instance, an African American of mixed ancestry may come to think that working with Norse runes is somehow wrong because they are “getting back to their roots”. They may take up diloggun as a replacement for runes rather than simply an addition to their knowledge and repertoire. If runes were working for them before, then there is no reason that they wouldn’t still. Unless the Orishas specifically tell them to abandon runes, they should not take it on themselves to do so.
Another common problem is in the conflation of Orishas with specific roles with the Creator. On the one hand, there is a part of the Ultimate Unfathomable in the Orishas and in every created being or thing, but on the other, the Orishas are not the same thing as the Original or First Will.
This confusion exists because post Jewish faiths either place Jesus or another prophet as a stand-in for the Creator, or have rules against idolatry that were made to combat competing ideologies and corrupt state religions. They don’t really understand Vodun, so they may co-opt Eshu because they worship Satan, or reject Eshu because they don’t want to be worshipping Satan.
Some people legitimately cannot think in terms of a Universe with a Creator who is called by different names according to the language and culture the idea came from. Some cannot think of a Universe where people don’t automatically decide that the deity in charge of a particular force of Nature is not the top of the spiritual hierarchy just because a lot of people adore him/her. They are used to limited or politicized religions.
This is not their fault, and it is not your fault if you are unable to adhere only to west African Mami Wata only or Haitian Vodou only. There is nothing wrong with being or remaining eclectic so long as you are understanding of people who aren’t.
Some people should be solitary, and some people should not. If you’re a person who feels they might go astray if they are left alone, or who simply enjoys the comfort of community and stricter dogma, then you should find a priest or priestess under whom to study. Organization is good for some people, and bad for others.
If on the other hand, you have always been an independent thinker, you may prefer to stay on your own and learn directly from the Orishas themselves, or learn under the tutelage of another relatively solitary elder.
All three paths are legitimate, and have their pros and cons. Choose the one that is right for you.
But how do I choose?
Simply ask Eshu. Eshu is the gatekeeper, and will tell you exactly what you should do. It may take some time, but he will show you through tests.
He is the Orisha most people start with. Unless another Orisha chooses you when you know nothing of Vodun, Eshu is literally the gateway. You can talk to Eshu like talking to anyone else. Depending on how you prefer to think of it, he is either in or a line to him is in every living being. One can think of him as the bridge between what we know as the physical universe and higher dimensions. It is helpful though, to make or acquire an Eshu figure or build an Eshu altar. It just helps as a visualization tool and beacon or presence, and to keep you mindful.
If you are stubborn and hard to deal with, and won’t listen to others, or have too many people telling you too many different things, and don’t know who to turn to, go directly to Eshu to clear things up.
Here are a few links that should help you get started getting both information and supplies. They’re low on hype and high on information and perspective.
A traditional African faith site with both informative articles and perspectives from adherents. It’s one of my favorites because it’s about the deeper spirituality, not how to cast spells and such. They also have great store links where you can get ethically produced, natural products like kola nuts and shea butter.
This has been my favorite shop since I used to order their paper catalogue in the early 1990’s. Their products are the real thing and most are made by hand by actual practitioners. They will also give you advice on what to get if you have a special problem. They saved my friend’s and many of his neighbors’ lives when they had “snakes in the stomach” because the same sort of toxin that is used for that curse got into his town’s water supply.
This a main community center on the net, not just for people specifically in the Santeria branch of Vodun. Almost everybody ends up stopping by eventually. You can make some good contacts and get lots of good advice and perspective. Many older and lifelong practitioners are there, and you can find information you just won’t see anywhere else in English.
Learning at least some of a west African language is very helpful in learning Vodun and reconnecting with your home cultures if you’re African American. This page from the University of Iowa has links to many good resources for getting started learning the basics of Ewe. One of my favorites is UCLA’s phoenetics lab page with sound files of Ewe words and phrases.
Reading the stories as close to the original as has been recorded thusfar, is very useful. Many things have been lost, but what hasn’t been is very good to know.