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Ethics and the Orishas: The Impact of Drugs, Alcohol and Sexual Promiscuity on Initiations

Orisha Academy: Mentorship

arly mornings are great for soul searching. It is in the quiet moments of the morning when I first elevate my prayers to the Orishas and seek their guidance and blessings. This morning, my thoughts gravitated towards a complex subject: Ethics in Santeria.

The complexity of human emotions and interests drive us, initiates, to either embrace tradition or to modify it to suit personal or collective needs. I am not much for the modification of traditions, unless said traditions are flawed and have no logic in their practices. Only then, I will seek a consensus with my elders and the permission of the Orishas to amend practices in the most direct and unobtrusive way possible.

One issue I have been pondering for a while is how the righteousness of our acts as initiates impact the life of those people under our spiritual mentorship, particularly, acts that are born from poor choices. I see the relationship between godparent and godson/daughter as a sacred one, and as such, our actions as initiates must be as beyond reproach as possible if we are to be upheld as models for our godchildren and for the community at large.

Within the realm of reproachable behaviors in our society there are several that aggravate me most and can have a direct bearing in the results of initiations: Drugs, Alcohol and Sexual Promiscuity.


In my ilé (orisha house) drugs are not condoned. There is in fact a zero tolerance when it comes to any activity related to illegal drugs. I will simply not undertake as a godchild or even do a reading for anyone which I know is linked to drugs. Experience has demonstrated over and over, that drugs only bring with them chaos, legal problems and murder.

Beyond the fact that drugs are illegal, they also render a priest incapable of performing properly in a ritual, much like alcohol would. However, consumption of alcohol is a subject that will be explored on its own.

Other religious cultures use drugs to induce a state of trance and spiritual communion but since I do not belong to those cultures or practices, they are not for me to judge or criticize.

However, if there is something I have learned with my elders is that the body must be kept clean of drugs because it is a consecrated vessel to the orishas who may manifest as they will through it. As an Olosha, I can certainly attest to the fact that oloshas do not require the use of drugs to manifest the power of the orishas in their bodies. Quite the opposite, drugs hinder the body by opening it to negative spiritual influences, not allowing the olosha to protect himself from said influences. It interferes with the very energies being raised to call the orisha down to earth.

Trance possession or the ability to be a ´horse´ for the orishas is an honor. Not every initiate is meant to be a ´subidor´ or to be mounted. There are various elements that trigger trance possession. Through the manipulation of energies using sacred music (Anyá consecrated drums), motion (dance) and lyrics or the suyeres that are intoned by an akpwpón (singer), the orishas are called down to earth to share with their children.

Prior to a Wemilere (batá drumming with Anyá or consecrated drums), there are preparations required for trance possession. A ´subidor, ´ or a Santero that has demonstrated the ability of manifesting the orisha through trance possession is invited to dance for the orisha in whose honor the drumming is held. Prior to the Wemilere, the olosha in question must observe a state of physical cleanliness that includes abstention from sex, drugs and alcohol, and should actively seek a state of meditation and reflection. His or her body is a vessel for the orishas and must be kept clean for proper manifestation.

The batá is only one of various examples of why drugs and Santería do not mix. A huge no-no for me is having any use of drugs before or during initiations.

During a Kariosha or any other initiation, it is expected of an officiating priest to exhibit full control of the ritual and to direct the officiating priests that are collaborating in the initiation. Can anyone retain self-control and command the respect of his or her peers while under the influence of illegal drugs? Think about it. If you have a cold and you take an over the counter medication that makes you drowsy, does it not hinder your ability to function? If that is just with a medication sold without a prescription, imagine the level of impairment that a drug user would bring to the mix in a sacred ceremony. How can an obá oriaté perform properly with a body sullied with drugs? Furthermore, what would be the impact on the iyawó of having said person touch their head and transfer part of their ashé or spiritual energies onto them…for life?


This is one of those proverbial sticky subjects of the Orisha religion. On one hand, otí (rum) is used liberally at various stages of Kariosha, but on the other hand, it too has a profound impact on any person who is officiating under its influence. There is such a double standard about the use of alcohol that it is hard to draw the line.

Instead of moralizing on the subject, let me enter a territory that I have not seen addressed in public before: Alcoholics and initiations.

What is a responsible godmother or godfather to do in case of a godson or goddaughter who is a recovering alcoholic and is about to be initiated as an olosha? The very omiero (sacred herbal water) that the iyawó will consume for 7 days will contain alcohol.

First the godparent must understand that alcoholism is an illness and an addiction. Second, he or she must decide to act either on the best interest of the iyawó, to act out of custom and tradition, or to come to a happy medium. If the ceremony carries on without changes, using alcohol no matter the consequences for the iyawó, the godparent will have failed to understand the fundamental needs of a human being struggling with a dangerous and life threatening disease. Is this then a suitable match for a godparent-godchild relationship? I think not.

Alcoholism indeed poses a complex moral and religious challenge that can´t be ignored. It is crucial for a godparent to understand that for a recovering alcoholic, any amount of alcohol ingested will be unacceptable as it unchains a series of chemical reactions in the body that are at the core of the illness and addiction.

Here is my recommendation in this case. I would simply abstain from using alcohol in the omiero that would be ingested by the iyawó. Some of the omiero can be set aside for the iyawó before ´seasoning´ the rest of it basins with rum. Furthermore, I would keep any alcohol locked away from the iyawó, no matter how strong the will of this person may be. Also, I would not serve alcohol, as it is customary in many houses. Sometimes alcohol is served once the ceremonies are concluded and people are busy plucking chickens, skinning and gutting goats or cooking on the kariosha day. Alcohol is often times served as well during the Dia del Medio (Throne Day). What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Out of respect for the iyawó all must abstain—after all it is the iyawó who foots the bill for the initiation and the money for the alcohol would come out of that budget. No one will die out of missing some booze for a few days, and if that is the case, perhaps they should pay a visit to Alcoholics Anonymous as soon as possible. In any case, karioshas should not be an excuse for free liquor.

There are other instances where alcohol is used; the rule of thumb should be to address the needs of particular members of the ilé and of the household as a whole before allowing the socially acceptable consumption of alcohol to drive behaviors. It is time that as a religious community we take a critical look into the problem of alcoholism and stop any behavior that is detrimental to our ilés. We must become more sensitive to bullying and peer pressure as it relates to alcoholic consumption and while at it, revisit the ´ true need´ for the use of alcohol in ritual circumstances.

Sexual Promiscuity

If drugs and alcohol are difficult subjects to tackle...try addressing sexual promiscuity. What is sexual promiscuity and why is it important to avoid it in our religious practices?

Sexual promiscuity is normally defined as casual sex with many partners, no matter the sexual orientation of the activity. In short, such behavior will expose an olosha to a variety of energies that are undesirable prior to initiation as he or she cannot possibly account for the spiritual development or spiritual and physical cleanliness of each partner. Those energies are dragged into ritual space by any olosha. This is a complex subject which I intend to explore in a separate post in the near future. However, for the purposes of this essay, I will narrow it to the impact of sex prior to religious initiations in the orisha community.

It is expected that every person involved in a kariosha, or in any other initiation, abstains from sex for a minimum period of 24 hours prior to initiatory rites taking place. Notice the word minimum. In the past the abstinence period could extend for a year prior to kariosha for the future iyawó. Why the abstinence? Sexual energies are hot and they linger upon our bodies, mind and spirit. When entering ritual space in the Santeria community, those energies are useless and detrimental as we need cool mind, hands and bodies to transfer ashé to the initiate and the tools to be consecrated.

I have heard first account stories of oloshas who had their obá oriaté involved in sexual acts the night prior to kariosha. What exactly is the impact of said energies in the iyawó? There is no hard and fast rule about the outcome; however it is sufficient to say, since I don’t want to betray the confidence in which of these stories was shared with me, that the iyawó in question did not have a stellar itá as it was plagued by osogbos and hard oddús. Was this coincidence? No. Some of the osogbos had to do directly with the obá oriaté and some with the main godparent. I believe that the orisha is exact in its communications through the diloggún and will mark the life of the iyawó and those present in such a way as for them to learn the lessons they have set on their paths, be it collective or individual lessons.

In conclusion, the process of transference of energies or ashé is one that is impacted by the actions and choices of officiating oloshas prior and during initiation, therefore it is imperative to select wisely who participates in the process and to be clear about the preparations they must observe.


Oní Yemayá Achagbá

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