Initiating into an African traditional system, starts with the action of thought and intention – the action of beginning to pursue the idea that an African traditional system may suit your needs above other traditions or religions. No matter what path you decide to pursue, I believe 9 out of 10 will endorse that you begin an action by initiating it with your intentions, your thoughts; thinking and then speaking things into existence. There is an actual unseen force that many people do not pay attention to in their everyday lives, so much so that many people actually curse themselves. “I’m having a bad day.” I do it and then have to catch myself as my day spirals out of control and I begin to search for the reason why and it often began when I professed my day to go as such before it even started that way.
My personal thought process into how one initiates into an African traditional system would start by determining which system the interest is held. Most of us are limited by lack of knowledge of the many traditions, Native or African, but instead we choose what we recognize or what feels comfortable to us. In American society, much of our culture was stripped from us and we were assimilated into “American” culture, or so people have thought. African slaves made their mark on the slave master’s culture as well and there are quite a few practices done without many people realizing the origin. Baptisms done via immersion in water, fried chicken, catching the “holy ghost” and speaking in tongues, musical rhythms, call and response – I could go on. There are practices within African traditions that we will recognize, or behavior that models what we recognize and results we aspire to meet.
In Lucumi, the basic initiation starts when you find godparents and present plate. For this first step within my tradition, we do not call the new people initiates. The term often used is aleyos (stranger). Aleyos have not received elekes (consecrated beads) or Warriors (Elegua, Ogun, Osossi, Osun). What aleyos do is what anyone could or should do. Aleyos work with their Ancestors.
There are many ways to set up ancestral altars, shrines, and bovedas it would be impossible to say what exactly should be on it. Each shrine and boveda is so unique to the person and the family they come from that it can be almost like a fingerprint. There are, however, some fairly standard items such as water, candle, white cloth (or not), but I’ve seen some on the floor on white cloth, on table without white cloth, one glass of water, nine or more glasses of water, dolls or pictures. Through working with your Ancestors one develops all these different nuances that makes it a beautiful experience and provides that eventual fingerprint that emerges through time.
It seems simple to say that aleyos only work with Ancestors but this is actually a significant undertaking and one that should not be looked upon lightly. The Orisas may be a person’s focus and yes, you want to care for them but it is your Ancestors above all else who have an invested interest in your success and seeing you happy. Orisas are often neutral. They don’t get mad at you and try to hurt you, they aren’t so in love with you that you can never do any wrong – that type of emotional investment is a human distraction. Any poor results one achieves (or good results) coming from the Orisas are due to that person’s own characteristics or behavior that put into motion cause and effect. Your Ancestors have loved, guided and protected you all throughout your life even before you were aware of their existence. After death they continue to do so but from a much more powerful realm than our physical plane, so they are the ones we really should communicate with daily and appease routinely.
The next level after aleyo is aborisha (aborisa). This is when the aleyo has earned elekes and Warriors and is now an aborisa or “student of nature.” Here you begin to really delve into learning the different Orisa, how to use your elekes and work with your Warriors if your ile permits. Some iles teach divination with coconut (biague) and some iles do not. The question of whether an ile teaches coconut divination to aborisa or not, you can feel free to ask when considering choosing godparents. Keep in mind, however, that it does not mean the ile that teaches this method of divination is better than one that does not. Different lineages follow different rules and for very good reasons, both for teaching and for not teaching at this stage.
The next level is apetebii or awofakan where a ceremony is done. I will not address this level in this post because there are some complexities that I may get into in another post about perceived benefits or disadvantages.
Then, finally, what I would really call a true level of initiation is into priesthood when one becomes an iyawo, or new priest. This is where I find the most confusion surrounding the word “initiation” because there is an initiation of sort in being introduced into an ATR, then there is initiation into priesthood. Everyone who begins their journey through this tradition does not necessarily obtain priesthood. Priests are called, and it is through divination, not desire, that one is informed whether he or she is called into priesthood. Some people have spent more than 30 years as an apetebii or aborisa never having been called to priesthood and that is more than fine. The goal of our existence is to reach our highest level of elevation, not everyone requires becoming a priest to do so. A person may start a tradition with the wish to be a priest, and that is fine also, but realize that you may never be called.
This is my complex answer to the simple question of what is initiation into an African traditional system. It is complex because the process is so and involves realization that initiation into priesthood is not guaranteed for everyone nor should it be an end goal. Often the most simplest step, and to me, the first step of learning to work with one’s Ancestors is the largest one as it is a foundation on which everything else can be built. In the context of an aleyo seeking information, working with your Ancestors is your birthright. There is no one who can charge you for this, or sell it to you. Guidance can be provided to basic concepts, such as cleansing a space and there are ceremonies where items may have to be purchased that will help to strengthen the connection, but this is the most basic place to start even before seeking godparents.