For the most part, many traditional religions rely on faith based on a belief in the existence of a god or many deities. Oftentimes, this entails believing in an unseen, intangible force greater than humankind. This concept is palatable for millions of prayer warriors — Christians, Muslims, Jews and the like — despite having no concrete evidence. However, when it comes to interpretations of African traditional religion, somehow and some way, the information gets skewed. An uninformed consensus would claim that these traditions are sacrilegious, demonic or even tied to witchcraft, but in actuality that’s not the case.
Traditional African religions are simply a way of life that is unfamiliar to the masses, and can explain quite a bit of Black cultural customs and mythology. With many stemming from Yoruba, most of these religions are beliefs and practices specific to African spirituality and culture. They are some of the purest representations of Africanism to exist in modern day, remaining uncorrupted by the dominant culture.
Before diving into concept of what African traditional religions is, it is important to state what they ain’t. It is not the “monkey see, monkey do” trend The Atlantic likens it to in its recent article, “The Witches of Baltimore.” According to Sigal Samuel — the article’s white, female author, Black millennials are essentially following in the footsteps of white millennials, who “have embraced witchcraft in droves.” Samuel also suggests the offspring traditions of Yoruba are indeed African American witchcraft syncretized with Christian religions. This is not only a lazy assessment of traditional African religion, it is somewhat yellow reporting.
When I spoke with Lukumí practitioner Jameelah Mullins, about her thoughts on the sensationalism and lore surrounding traditional African religion and its association with witchcraft, she set the record straight.
“Well, in traditional faith, priestesses and conjure workers are referred to as ‘brujas’ or ‘brujerías,’ [which means 'witch' or 'witchcraft' in Spanish.] Even I refer to myself as a witch sometimes," Mullins told me. "But I think the term is being overused and romanticized. Like right now, it's ‘cool’ to be a witch. I don't think people really know what the tradition entails. They just think because they got a crystal set and a dashiki that they are witches.”
Lukumí, Voodoo, Hoodoo, Ifá, Candomblé, Palo Mayombe and others are all derivatives of traditional African religions like Yoruba, and what these religions share is that they center on primeval customs, symbols, arts and community. Traditional African religious practices spread beyond Africa after being carried with enslaved people from West Africa to various ports throughout the Americas during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, particularly to Louisiana, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and more. Slave traders and owners prohibited Africans who were held captive from observing their native religions, citing them as demonic and uncivilized. Banning these traditional spiritual practices was also a means for slave owners to to dominate, control and oppress enslaved populations.
On Cuban soil Lukumí, which is also known as Santería, was developed by Africans as a means to subvert Christianity, which was imposed upon them. True to African descendants’ cunning ways of survival and endurance, they practiced their own native traditions under the guise of Catholicism, aligning orishas — or deities within the Yoruban faith — with Roman Catholic saints. They continued rituals such as trance possession, veneration of ancestors, offerings to the orishas, healing and prayer. Doing so allowed them to preserve African conventions while withstanding the harsh reality of chattel slavery, much in the way that hymnals, spirituals, and the blues music provided salvation for American slaves.
What many get wrong about traditional African religions is the assumption it is antichrist or oppositional to any other Abrahamic religion. According to Harvard Divinity School African religious traditions professor Jacob K. Olupona, “triple heritage,” is a thing in African societies:This refers to the triumvirate consisting of indigenous religion, Islam and Christianity, and how followers of each not only coexisted in Africa, but also commingled.
Blavity kicked it with Keka Araújo, a new priestess of Lukumí who has been crowned Yemaya, and a Palo Mayombe initiate. She offered more insight on the practices and rituals rooted in traditional African religion.
Blavity: There are a plethora of traditional religions from the motherland. But specifically speaking to those more familiar on this side of the Atlantic, how does Lukumí differ from Santería, differ from Ifá, differ from Candomblé, differ from Palo Mayombe?
Keka Araújo: Santería is the Christian aspect of it, where there are some prayers in English and Spanish. But typically during initiation, the songs I sing — they're not sung in English or Spanish, they’re sung in Yoruba. So [at its core], it is truly an African practice. Aspects of it, like the patron saints, are syncretized with the orishas — that's the link, but it is truly an African practice.
Candomblé is the Brazilian practice. I don't want to say it’s equivalent, because it’s based on what they had to do to keep the tradition alive in their country. For the most part, though, it would be the Brazilian equivalent of Lukumí.
Ifá is the practice that originated in Nigeria. It would be the mother, and Lukumí and Candomblé would be [like its] bro and sis raised in different places.
Palo Mayombe has nothing to do with the orishas at all. It originated in the Congo. It is nature-based and deals with the dead. They are completely separate practices; they don't blend at all.
Blavity: I initially thought there were only eight orishas. Then someone told me there were 16, then I heard there were a whole lot more. How many orishas are there?
Orishas represent the four elements: Earth, wind, fire and water. But also there are a multitude of natural wonders with characteristics of each element. For example, there's the ocean, right? But there's the crest of the ocean; there's a part of the sea where the light passes through and is visible. There is wildfire which encompasses both wind and fire. With volcanoes, the Earth's crust passes fire. So there are different levels of each element.
Blavity: Let's go back to Palo’s association with death. In Christianity, Islam and Judaism, there is this taboo about making connections with the dead — it is considered blasphemous. Why does the practice receive negative reactions?
Araújo: In most indigenous practices, there is ancestor veneration — an ancestor or an eggún can and should be venerated. That is a common practice and honor. Those particular faiths lose that [valuable] part of worship. You cannot crown — [in other words, be initiated] — without acknowledging your ancestors first.
Blavity: What are your personal reflections on how traditional African religions have been interpreted by those who do not get it?
Araújo: Because it’s foreign and people don’t take the time to learn or understand, they draw their own conclusions.
To make it plain, in these traditional faiths, there is no heaven or hell. The ultimate goal is to be the best person you can be, and then your spirit lives on in the form you lived. There is a certain connotation when it comes to Christianity that you're a good person because you want to ascend to a certain space. [However], it doesn’t mean you’re a good person; you just don't want to do anything wrong and not have a spot in heaven. I believe that African traditional religion encourages you to be the best you can be, because it’s your contribution to the world opposed to looking to get a prize at the end of your life.
Blavity: There are some practices within the religion — lighting candles, offerings and altars. Are these tied to witchcraft?
Araújo: Witchcraft is a very Eurocentric way of thinking that comes from Abrahamic religions; when you can't explain something supernatural you call it “witchcraft.” Witchcraft is used by foreigners of these traditions.They see something work, and think it’s magical. And it's just the power of African spirit to manifest things by doing certain rituals. I think it's the complete lack of understanding of the power the human mind has in connection to God.
Blavity: That sounds a lot like the concept of prayer. Also, Catholics light candles during mass. Is that similar to the offerings to the orisha?
Araújo: We don't have a church where we light the candles and celebrate the Eucharist. For us, it's not that kind of process. A Catholic altar offers something to relics [or saints]. Catholics light candles, bring cloth and burn ash. Other Christian denominations pass the plate, and you put your money in it.
In Lukumí, we appease our orisha. We ask for their favor. We ask for things daily — protection, love, money — and we pay that forward with the offering. It's like asking your parents for something constantly, and giving something in return.
It's a very personal relationship. If I need something, it is no issue for me to sit on a mat and get with Eleggúa. I take a cigar, candy, liquor and palm oil. He is there to help me, and in return I give him. I don't want to say it’s transactional, but that's what they’re there for. They’re there to help me and guide me along in this life.
Blavity: I read the singing and drumming is a really important feature. Is it likened to praise dancing and gospel music?
Araújo: In the sense of worship, yes. Gospel is meant to praise, not invoke. The cantos rezos [or prayers] are calling for the orishas to come. Even in Palo Mayombe, you sing and play drums to bring their essences down […] so they can be celebrated and worshipped. They also mount people to give advice, to cleanse [and] take away negative energy.
YouTube | Walter Romero
Blavity: This sounds similar to being “slain in the spirit,” or rather “catching the Holy Ghost.”
Let's talk about some of the sacrificial rituals — what is it all about?
Araújo: The sacrifice is not about the animal. Let's say it occurs because blood is needed to feed the orishas, and we use the animal to accomplish that. It’s no different than Christian communion or even Judaism; you have to give something living. It's the same principle.
Blavity: So why so literal? In Christianity, the sacrifice is not literal. They use wine and crackers.
Araújo: The representation is still blood, so what's the difference? You can't physically go around drinking blood. However, if Jesus could be present himself a billion times over, theoretically, people would be consuming his blood every time there was communion.
In African traditional religion, “tradition” is honored. So we do as our ancestors have done. And nobody's drinking blood — it is an offering to the orisha, which has to be fed blood that comes from a living source.
Blavity: I've seen instances where Black culture shows some semblance to African traditional religion. Is there a connection or possibly some missing link that has been lost in translation, since it's an oral tradition? For example, pouring out a little liquor and flowers for the dead lend themselves to venerating ancestors.
Araújo: I believe it's in our DNA. We do it innately without knowing. Even if you don't know, it will find you.
Blavity: Where can someone find Lukumí? Are there brick-and-mortar locations? Where would one seek it?
Araújo: Depending on where you live, it can be easy to find someone affiliated with the religion. It really depends on where you live. But I think with cautionary warning, Google is your friend.
However, the information you get from Google you should [also] discuss with a well-versed elder [to ensure that you are getting] proper guidance. There are a lot of people who think just because they read up on Google, and they get a few nuts and berries and initiate themselves because they have this link to Oshun, or because they have these characteristics think they know what orisha they would be crowned under. It doesn’t work like that. There is a structure to this and it has to be respected, because you're doing more harm than good.
Blavity: OK. So how did you seek out an elder? How do you find your tribe?
Araújo: There are tons groups on Facebook. Information may be limited because it is sacred, but Facebook is good place to start. Or you can go to a botánica and get a consultation. A lot of information is guarded until you find a godparent.
African traditional religion is not some abstract, new wave, witchery revived by Black millennials. It is a well-established, cultural tradition that has transcended time and circumstance, courtesy of the diaspora. Much like the evolution of American Blackness, it was born out of oppression and sustained through the resistance of its people. The similarities between contemporary religious and cultural practices observed within the Black community and the customs and articles of faith that are affiliated with traditional African religion and its derivatives are dead giveaways of this. All you need to understand it is tolerance, awareness and desire.