The path to the priesthood in Santería, La Regla de Osha, Lukumí, or Orisha call it what you will, is paved with derechos (fees) and thus, it would be advisable to walk it with care and not haste. There are different ways to go about becoming a Santería initiate and please do not confuse the cost from the Diaspora version of our rites and rituals, to the way in which things are done in West Africa or following Traditional Yoruba. For the purpose of this blog, I will focus solely on New World practices.
However, since the modern day Lukumí did not come out of the ether, it is important to understand the historical parameters that brought about our current initiation model. In West Africa, a person would receive back then what is known as ‘Head-and-Feet ,’ or the practice of giving an initiate The Warriors (Elegguá, Osun, Ochosi and Oggun) and his/her tutelary Orisha. This was the norm in West Africa where an initiate of Yemayá, for example, would get that Orisha and would become part of a community dedicated solely to the service of Yemayá.
Now, for a moment try and see the world from the perspective of a slave or even a freedman who just got his or her liberty and was trying to maintain a religious identity and tradition alive. That was the situation among other pioneers who steered a reform, such as Master Oriaté Nicolás Valentín Angarica who was taught by the brilliant Obadimelli, Octavio Samar; and Efuché, Ñá Rosalía. Was their reform, to introduce the Four Pillars Model, a meeting of the minds, readily accepted by everyone? Possibly not, but in the end it was a pragmatic decision that helped to preserve many Orishas that could have been lost and, to shape the Lukumí practices as we know them. These and other pioneers had to deal with very practical matters such as the fact that the life expectancy of slaves was short due to the brutal conditions they faced. Therefore, having specialized communities to the service of ONE Orisha was highly impractical in a world where little was under their control.
The ‘Head-and-Feet’ model thus evolved to become what is known as the Four Pillars. This means receiving the Warriors, the head Orisha and the most commonly worshiped orishas: Obatalá, Yemayá, Oshún and Shangó. If the head Orisha was included among that list, fine. Otherwise the person would have a 5th Orisha received.
Modern Day Practices
There are many steps that a neophyte must take to achieve the level of initiation of priesthood. The first steps are usually the Elekes (necklaces), the Warriors, and in houses that are Ifá-centric the Ikofá for women and the Awofaka for men. Sometimes there are addimú (orishas that are not given in the Kariosha initiation as part of the Four Pillars) Orisha that are received before making Kariosha (priesthood initiation), the most common ones are Olokún, Babalú Aiyé and Orisha Oko. Each of these steps has associated fees related to them. Finally, there is the Kariosha initiation, and that has a series of subsequent steps to be met within the year after the initiation and they involve additional and significant costs. Those steps are Ebbó Meta (3 months Ebbó), presentation to Batá, receiving the Igbodú and the first anniversary celebration.
After that whirl wind of activity subsides, the new priest must face additional costs depending on the Orishas that he or she must receive during the course of his or her lifetime. No one needs to run and get all the Orishas at once because it would be senseless. Each initiation presents the possibility of resolving major issues in the life of a priest. If all initiations are utilized at once, then, what is left to uplift the initiate in times of emergency?
Additional initiations include receiving Pinaldo, the knife. This is an important step for those priests that have the skills and calling to become masters of ceremonies or Oriatés. Back in the early days in Cuba, women who were no longer menstruating were also great Oriatés, amongst them we can list Teresita Ariosa, Ení Oshún; Guillermina Castel, and Timotea Albear, Ayayí La Tuán who was an iyalosha queen in Havana and until her death in 1935 remained exercising her functions as Oriaté, but nowadays chauvinists attitudes do as much as possible to silence the voice of women at the head of the mat. But that is another story…
It is important to mention that women also receive Pinaldo, a ceremony innovated by priestess Efuché, but they are seldom seen killing four-leg animals at Kariosha as this is the realm of the male dominated Oriaté world. Therefore, perhaps the true value of the Pinaldo for women has been relegated to having the opportunity to receive a second Itá (lifetime reading) to reinforce or expand on what was told originally during their Kariosha.
One last initiation main is left, and it is for those males who have the path open to Ifá. Such initiation in the Americas is perhaps the most costly of all.
Let’s Talk Money
There are very many diligent and honest priests who do their best to keep costs down. There are some who live off the religion and still do not go about gouging people for money. However, there are some who are greedy and overcharge initiates while cutting corners and skipping ceremony steps.
Money is a delicate issue. I like to have things well done, people well paid and ceremonies performed flawlessly. Quality initiations do not need to be redone. Responsible oloshas know what to charge and are normally very fair.
As a godmother, I like to see my godchildren as what they are, part of my house. They are not transactions; they are not the means to pay the monthly bills for I am a professional woman who does not depend on the religion to support my livelihood. But that is me. I have seen unscrupulous oloshas who like to create all sorts of excuses to gouge money out of godchildren and whose houses are overran by iyawós who do not know that the Lukumí religion came from West Africa.
Oh yes, I remember this Mexican- American iyawó sitting by me at a Wemilere in Dallas, Texas (Orisha batá drum party) who insisted that the Lukumí came from MEXICO from the Aztecs. Hats off to those godparents on singlehandedly moving a chunk of the continent of Africa into Mexico, and with it, all the history and culture of the Lukumí! She did not even know what the world ‘Elekes’ meant! The point is, make sure you get your moneys ‘worth. Godparents are supposed to teach up to the level of responsibility that each initiation carries it with.
One other case of particular interest since we are in the subject of moneys, is one I remember where on a monthly basis this Olo Obatalá would hold spiritual masses at his/her (not saying the gender) house and would force all godchildren to attend. Invariably, there was some mass ebbó (working) or cleansing that needed to be done immediately. One wonders, how convenient is to have these issues of massive cleansings just about the time when the end of the month rolls by… One would think that after a few months of these cleansings everyone’s life would be in tip-top shape!
When it comes to the Lukumí, the least expensive of all of these ceremonies is the Elekes. It is a beautiful process comparable to that of a baptism, where the neophyte for the first time has his/her head prepared for the Orisha and at the end the colors of the house are presented in the form or beaded necklaces with the patterns and colors of the orishas received by his/her main godparent which can be a male or a female depending on the choice of the initiate. There is also a secondary godparent known as the Oyugbonakán. This person does most of the work in the ceremony.
The ceremony of the Elekes fluctuates from $250 to $350, but I have heard of people charging as much as $1,000. What truly bothers me is when I see Elekes being given to initiates that obviously were not even made by the Godparent. They are just bought at a Botánica (Santería curio shop), and prepared according to tradition. This is troublesome to me at many levels. First, the act of stringing the beads is one of meditation and devotion where the ashé (divine life force) coming out of my hands will touch for years to come my new initiate. When I do an eleke I am in a meditative state of mind, I want no chatter, no distractions because I am praying for the new initiate; concentration is a must when preparing to open the path of a person about to join a house. This is the first nexus to be shared, the first time something of mine and my Orisha will come to this person’s life. The other troublesome bit about buying stuff of a shelf comes from having just generic patterns and colors that are not those of the paths or avatars that the main godparent wears. After all, those beads speak without a voice. Their colors and patterns say to other initiates, “My godmother has Yemayá Achagbá, her Oshun is Ibú Ikonlé, her Obatalá is Babá Ashó, she protects me with Shangó (usually its pattern is pretty standard and no avatars are determined, but some houses do), and her Eleggua also blesses me.” In my case, these are the banners of my house and the first thing people see in godchildren. Other oloshas may differ but I am quite set in my ways.
The Warriors are given to the aleyo (believer) by an olosha (male priest), or, they can be given by an Awó Orunmila. Either way is fine by me. Both oloshas and awós have their grace and both should be respected and not pitted against one another like it is the habit of many who like to endlessly debate who gives a better and finer set of Warriors. In any case the costs fluctuate from $350 to $500 and once again, I have seen them go higher.
Bear in mind the following things when considering initiations. An initiation is more than a material investment, it is a sign of commitment to the Orisha and for that you must place your trust in a household. Negotiating is fine as long as you receive a quality product and there is fairness for both sides. Do consider that godparents paid their dues long time ago and have invested in many other steps to prepare as they should to guide you. Cheap is as cheap does, quality has a cost and if you are dead set in chain store low prices, you will possibly be cheating yourself along the way. On the other hand, expensive not always means you get more than someone who paid a third of what you did.
Bottom line, no pun intended, invest as you can in yourself and keep the lines of communications open with your godparents. I am sure that she or he would not mind explaining costs associated with whatever initiation you are about to receive, after all, it is your spiritual destiny and your pocketbook.
I will continue to write about the costs of other initiations, but for now, this I believe is enough fuel for thought.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá