It is certainly not because they are thrilled to have to learn in many cases a foreign language, or because the practitioners of these spiritual traditions are very open to accept people outside their communities and culture. No, as a matter of fact, there are many shifts that a newcomer to these religions would have to make to accommodate and understand fully any of these systems. So, if the path is not particularly rosy, what keeps making Jane and John Doe want to become an Houngan, a Tata, a Babalosha, an Hounsi, a Yaya, an Iyalosha and to claim in due legitimacy any of these hard earned and until rather recent times hard to get titles?
The answer is as complicated as the question itself.
There are lots of Western magicians who have confessed to me of having a feeling of profound dissatisfaction with how watered down their practices are. Some tell me they no longer feel a sense of true community, a strong underlying current of magic, or for that matter, they no longer feel a connection with pagan deities. Some others come to ATRs because they know there is a sense of vibrancy and strength untouched and untamed thanks to centuries of live practices handed down unbroken, generation after generation.
People loath and fear, respect and covet the raw power the ATRs practitioners command and that of the growing houses where these religions are practiced. Call them what you will, Terreiros, Ilés, Hounfors, Munansos, the houses gather and play hard, these are no conglomerates of armchair magicians. We feast and elevate spirits in more sense than one. We keep our spirits alive through blood ritual, rituals that resonate at a gut level with anyone who comes across them. Repelled or attracted by our practices, the fact is that no one that comes near them can stay a neutral observant. The forces that live in stones and shells, in sticks and herbs, in large receptacles filled with a myriad elements bound to form a small universe of power will always impact the observer and mark the experience as a once in a lifetime ordeal.
Thus, more and more venture to test their limited Spanish, shake off the rust that covered their high school French and even pick up a few phrases in Portuguese to venture into a brave new world of spirits. How fascinating that practices came to the Americas through the darkest days of slavery, now steal the hearts of the great grand children of the ones that were masters. The color of the skin is no longer relevant. Many come to ATRs captive of an unfathomable love and passion that only these religions can elicit. Furthermore, more are coming because they feel a call, a need, an emptiness, a desire to be rooted. In ATRs they find themselves again, they start to ask all sorts of questions and eventually the right questions. A discovery of ties to their own ancestry begins. A new dimension to the world of spirits opens like Aladin’s cave, in it glistening spiritual jewels await, spirits linked by blood or inherited, a world of spiritual marche ensemble, a cuadro espiritual that had been walking with them as silent travelers now find eager ears and eyes to notice them, now they too have a voice.
The world of African Traditional Religions is filled with unsung heroes, with dedicated practitioners that sacrifice for their spiritual families. But likewise it is not one without perils, it is littered with charlatans, with power and money hungry babalawos, santeros, paleros and houngans that will do and say whatever to secure followers, money and power. Not all is glitter. If you are searching, beware. A word to the wise: observe. If you are dying to be initiated, be patient. These are not pathways to walk in a hurry, each step has meaning, each link brings you closer to a larger commitment, thus steady progress is preferred and time is required to assimilate the impact of each initiation.
I mentioned that great adjustments are required to truly be successful in the practice of an ATR. One of the things that draws people in, also tends to stall their acculturation process and can fill them with great stress and social anxiety. Westerners come seeking community ties, but seldom take the time to understand the culture in which they seek to be acculturated. Worse yet, the ones with the house keys, the door keepers are sometimes just as guilty of not wanting to walk a mile in the shoes of the newcomers and to understand their cultural and religious perspective. Cultural clashes will emerge, they always do; godparents will separate from godchildren that can’t adapt or can’t understand cultural rules outside their own, rules that if they would have been raised in that culture would be unspoken norms, but since they are outsider can become rocks in the path to religious acculturation.
How to navigate cultural differences, language barriers and unspoken etiquette and behavioral rules?
It all depends which ATR you have selected, but chances are, if you ask, I can guide you and help you come out with flying colors.
The floor is open for questions.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá