Who You Callin’ a Priest?
by Iya Melissa
As Candomblé continues to spread in the United States, I’m coming across more and more people who have been taken for a ride by impostor priests. In Brazil, priests often validate themselves by stating their lineage. In the United States, however, that’s not always helpful because it’s not as easy to verify. Here are some signs to look for (based on actual scenarios) to help you figure out if someone is a real priest:
In Candomblé, all priests (Iya/Babalorixa) earn the right to read merindinlogun upon completing the 7th year obligation and receiving deka (It’s important to note that the 7th year obligation and deka are not synonymous. One could very well complete the 7 year obligation, not be ready to function as a priest, and therefore receive deka at a later date.). If someone claims to be a priest, and you inquire about an Orixá reading, that reading should not take place with obi, tarot cards, or anything other than merindinlogun. That doesn’t mean that priests don’t use other tools for divination, but a Candomblé priest will use merindinlogun for divination within the parameters of Candomblé. While we do use obi (kola nut) for divination in Candomblé, it is not the customary tool for regular consultation outside of a ritual or ceremony.
Until the 7 year obligation is complete, the iyawo is not considered a priest; that means they should not have godchildren, apprentices, godchildren-in-waiting or anything related. Iyawos do not perform Orisha divination; divination is far more complex than memorizing Odu and interpreting shell patterns.
Candomblé is divided into three nations – Nago/Ketu (Yoruba/Orixá), Jeje (Fon/Vodoun), Angola (Angola/Bantu/Nkisi). In Brazil, one would be initiated into one nation and one nation only. If, for some reason, a person changes nations, they are no longer practicing the traditions of the previous nation. That means that being Angola and Jeje, for example, doesn’t exist. One may have been initiated in Angola, and later joined a Jeje house. That person is now Jeje, and not a mixture of the two.
In the United States, it’s common to find people who are initiated into Orisha (in traditions other than Candomblé), Vodoun and Nkisi at the same time. If someone tells you that they’re a Candomblé priest when you are seeking guidance about Candomblé, but offers to perform a ritual in a different religion (like seating a prenda or performing a lave tet), tread lightly (and that’s being diplomatic, because what I mean is run for the hills!).
There are many similarities between Candomblé and Lukumi, but there are also clear differences. A Candomblé priest will not give you warriors, ileke that follow the same color patterns as Lukumi ileke, set up an Egun altar for you, or give you Orisha like Olokun or Ibeji as preliminary rituals. A Candomblé priest is not going to take you to an Oba or Babalawo to get a reading, they are going to perform the reading themselves using merindinlogun.
In Candomble, the only people who can consecrate Orisha are fully ordained priests. While it’s true across the board that you don’t give what you don’t have, in Candomble simply having the ashe of an Orisha doesn’t necessarily mean that one has the ashe to consecrate that Orisha. Besides, an ethical priest should redirect you to your own tradition to receive that Orisha instead of offering to do it themselves. There’s an entire body of knowledge that comes with taking care of an Orisha; if someone does not actually practice Candomble, how will they take care of the Orisha with the necessary songs, prayers, oriki, foods, etc. in accordance with traditional liturgy?
All Iya/Babalorixas are egbomis, but not all egbomis are Baba/Iyalorixas. Egbomis do not read merindinlogun, take on godchildren or do things like give ileke or bori. While egbomis are elders who have completed their 7 year obligation, they did not go through the rituals that make one a priest, nor did they receive the objects and ashe that allow one to function as a priest and begin their own religious community.
As has always been my advice, just remember to take things s l o w l y as you’re looking for a Candomblé priest to guide you into the religion. The road to Candomblé priesthood is quite long. While the number of initiates has increased greatly in 10 years, the community of priests remains relatively small.