I found a website that discusses Ancestor Reverence. Each ile may have something different to say about the specific techniques for setting up an Egun shrine or altar (so please defer to godparents for that).
A small excerpt from the website:
“As we walk upon the Earth our feet press against the bones of the Ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. Like most indigenous cultures of the world, Africans believe that those who go before us make us what we are. When we walk on the Earth, we literally stand on the shoulders of those who bodies have been committed to the soil, the water, and the wind.”
Ancestors/Egun can be a touchy issue for African Americans whose Egun may seem to end after four or so generations (if you are around my age) because of slavery. At first, I was discouraged and I felt ashamed to say I did not know any further back. I then decided it is not my fault, so why am I discouraged and ashamed. So I proudly chanted off the names I did know. Just four initially, but I did what I could for a child who lost her mother at an early age and lived without close bonds to the rest of the family. Over time, I was given one more name, then another name, then a suspected birth date.
It sparked my curiosity, so I looked up records with the Census Bureau and documents from the County my family originates from. Not only did I find more Egun, I found an interesting fact. One of which was that my family last name is most likely misspelled. The Census taker was apparently so irritated that he made a note regarding a particular Ancestor around the late 1890’s. The Census taker noted that “the negro refused to accept the spelling of his last name” that they tried to verify (Lucas). He was insisting that the name was spelled Lucos. They doubted he could read and continued to use the name Lucas despite his protest.
Just that one action led me to get closer to my maternal Egun in more than one way. I come from a long line of educators: principals, superintendents, and teachers. In the 1890’s having an Ancestor who knew correct spelling ties into the fact that throughout my entire lifetime (and those before me) education was emphasized. The importance of education remains in my family as I continue to see my younger cousins who are currently working as teachers and educators. Even a cousin who did not have a job still taught Sunday school. All this for someone who initially felt they knew nothing of their Egun.
There are many ways to set up an Egun altar or boveda. Meditation and your intention will go a long way to setting up an altar that is right for your Egun. Sit in front of it and let them teach you, talk to you, instruct you, help you grow, and provide guidance. They will tell you what they want on their altar, you don’t have to stress about what to put there. Remember that if it is filled with things they do not recognize, it is not their altar. If your Egun were Muslim, put a Qur’an. If Christian, a Bible. Place items they would remember or have used- a pipe, a favorite wallet, hankerchief. I have a Tiger Cowrie Seashell (Cypraea tigris) on mine because my mother was the only woman I ever saw with this shell. She kept bunches of them.
Some people start Egun bovedas with one glass of water and one white candle. Good enough, work with it. The ase comes from use and working with Egun. You could have no table and just a tree if that is all you have. If you work it with enough intention, with nothing else around it to identify it, strangers will walk up to that tree and remark that there is something special about it. Do not let fear of not having everything just right or all the items you think you saw someone have stop you from the blessings of interacting with Egun.
At one time, my Egun had me strip the boveda completely down from what I had to one glass of water and a candle. Eventually items came back, and some items never returned. So do not expect that the altar will stay exactly as it is set. There was a lesson for me in that. Be obedient when you become used to interacting with them.
Egun are the first to eat. When you cook, their plate is made and presented first. Other offerings I use are coffee, milk, water, rum, Jimmy Walker (particular to an Egun), tea, Sprite or Coke (another Egun). My fiance’s cooking was something that my grandmother got so excited about. On her sickbed she got up to find out what he was cooking at a time when she was barely eating. So his food gets put down first, even if we both happened to cook.
Again, defer to your godparents on ritual but initially I had no ritual or routine things I did in working with my boveda. All I did was place flowers, change the water at least once per week, and light candles. Eventually, I began to sit in front of it and just meditate. Not looking for interaction, just practicing on clearing my mind. I counted breaths. Eventually I started getting messages. Time taught the routine or ritual through years of working with my boveda. There were also times of day that my family chose to sit down and chat about whatever when they were alive. Mostly in the evening after sunset. This is the time I prefer to sit at my boveda now.
Bottom line: They are your Ancestors, you know them best.
“We humans honor them with altars, music and prayer. They in turn offer us guidance, protection and prosperity. We treat our ancestors with loving reverence. Asking for help from our Ancestors must first be balanced with honoring their lives. In the Orisa tradition, as in many other traditions, we commemorate the work, struggles, and triumphs of our Ancestors.”