Orishas and Lwas in Saints’ Robes?

About an hour ago, the wonderful owner of The Hoodoo Shop and related blog, Carolina González, commented on some terminology I used in a reply that syncretized the saints with the lwa and the orishas. Given her long-time working relationship with all three groups of entities, she is quite well positioned to point out the faux pas on my part (thank you). As I explained to her, I used syncretic language in my reply, the language of association and sameness for the saints in relation to the lwa and orishas because that is common in African Diaspora traditions, having passed through centuries of Christian religious influence. So, despite the fact that I dislike syncretism in its forms, I found myself using that language…and not immediately noticing the problem with it in this particular case. So, that explains it…but does that excuse it? I think not. Why? Because if it were any other religious tradition besides Christianity, I do not think I would have made that mistake. It’s awful, but it’s true. Also, my explanation does not excuse the faux pas because the saints (and other entities in the Christian worldview) are individual forces, separate from the orisha and from the lwa.

Sometimes, I find myself so far off the shore of Christian cosmology that I forget that I actually do believe the Christian god, Jesus, the angels, and the saints are out in the universe doing whatever it is that they choose to do. Because I chronically forget that belief of mine, at times I am tempted in the case of saints and angels to treat them like simple color correspondences for the orishas and for the lwa as well. I am fully aware that each group are separate entities but the tendency of saints to sometimes lend their face to orishas and to lwa makes it even harder to break that habit of using terminology that syncs them (or rather terminology that syncs their iconography!). They are indeed separate beings; I know this to be true. But I wonder about their iconography. Does that belong only to the saints?

So how does one deal with this? I pose this question because I do not work with the saints. They have not called to me, at least I don’t think. Each time I thought I was being approached by a saint, it was a little awkward dance with me and the entity until the entity revealed itself more clearly as an orisha or lwa. Given their centuries of sharing a face, is it problematic on my part to think that an orisha or lwa can throw a saint candle at a person to get their attention or inundate a person with a host of saint references to get the person to raise an eye in their direction?? If that is problematic, if the orisha and lwa do not – at least sometimes – work that way, then I am screwed because now I have to figure out how to get in touch with and appease/apologize to two saints who work within yet another religious tradition system that I would have to become at least mildly conversant in (I was not raised Catholic).This scenario would also cast a bit of a shadow on my budding relationship with one particular lwa.

Again, I am not a fan of syncretism because it conflates entities, shadows their unique being, and obscures their very real individual existence. I think the saints “meet” orisha and lwa situation is an interesting one because it seems to me that on occasion the orisha and the lwa will borrow a saint candle or website to get a person’s attention and awaken her to their presence. That’s what seems to have happened in my situation. The relationships I have formed with one Orisha and one Lwa – which both started with the faces of saints – feel right to me. They feel good. They feel like they may go or are already going somewhere. But what of the saints whose faces they borrowed?

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8 thoughts on “Orishas and Lwas in Saints’ Robes?

  1. I think that, despite being different entities, what you are saying happens a lot: a Lwa or Orisha uses a disguise to call a follower’s attention into their path. If your connection with Shango is better when he’s disguised as Santa Barbara, or you feel a better flow of energy when Eleggua is disguised as Saint Anthony, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In my experience with other practitioners, when someone works with an Orisha that’s behind the image of a Saint, most of the time they are working with both entities at the same time, and not with one merged entity – and although I prefer to work with each separate entity, actually that’s rare; so I don’t think you’re “screwed” at all :). My only advice would be to give a little love to those Saints!

  2. I’ve been avoiding everything to do with the Orishas and Lwas for a long time because of some things I was told early on in my search for a spiritual path indicating that there was no room for compromise or syncretism (not to other deities, but even including any other path) in following them. I’m still somewhat nervous and reluctant about it, but this post combined with several other little events in my life lately have me thinking about it more and more.

    I don’t feel that I can share details right now, but I was strongly attracted to several saints while I was on a trip to the southwest US recently, and I’ve been confused about why that might be and what I was meant to do about it. A lot of what you say here makes sense and drove me to do some research of my own. After looking through some of that research, I think I might also be experiencing what you describe here, where another entity is borrowing the form of a saint. It will be interesting to see where this goes! Thanks for sharing and helping me to make some possible sense of these experiences.

    • I find it very surprising that you were told that you had to limit yourself to the orisa/lwa to relate with them. The only Yoruba-influenced paths I’ve seen that opposed multi-path practices are African-American innovations. The best known African-diasporic traditions (Santeria/Lucumi, Vodun, and Candomble) all *required* participation in Catholic worship (though some houses no longer require that). And, historically in West Africa, cults were swapped around regularly from culture to culture.

      • I think they counted the Catholic worship as part of the religion and so wouldn’t have seen that as contradictory. But I’m guessing at that, I haven’t had much contact with those people since and think most of what they told me is wrong…for some reason, that criticism stuck with me anyway. They were quick to call anything but reconstruction religions “culture rape” or at least “misappropriation” and attacked a forum member for mentioning that she had a relationship with a lwa alongside other gods.

        Just in the past few days as I’ve been doing research of my own, though, I can already see how little they knew and how wrong they probably were. I’ll keep searching. Thanks for your input!

    • In my own experience, it was quite odd and, at first, a little disconcerting when orisha and lwa borrowed bits of iconography from saints, beings that I do not have a strong connection with. So, I definitely empathize with the challenge you are facing in sorting out your unique situation. I wish you the best on your search for more information and a greater understanding of your experience.

  3. I feel like that happens outside of the Orisha and Lwa contexts as well. Before I started working with Aphrodite, I felt very strongly compelled to connect with the Stella Maris or “Star of the Sea” aspect of Mary. I eventually settled into a relationship with Aphrodite (well, we’re still working on it) though at the time I did feel a compulsion to research Yemanja (who I found out is also known by “Stella Maris”). At the time I was too overwhelmed to start a relationship with Her without a network of other practitioners I could talk to. I may follow up a relationship with Her though now that deity work isn’t *as* overwhelming as it once was….not that I’m an expert at it by any means. Again, I wonder at my deity connections, the ones I should have made, could make, will make.

    One day at time, one day at a time…

    • I have had a few “deity telephone chains” form in my own work, where one deity will pop up in research or iconography to signal connections to other deities. It is a really awesome and intriguing if sometimes confusing process! I do however really appreciate Carolina’s suggestion that in those cases, the spirits in the chain receive some sort of offering/recognition for their help!

  4. Pingback: Ezili Danto « Wound Like Thread

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