Updated: Jul 5, 2020
To consider and appreciate the role and place of Spiritism in Lukumí or Orisha practices, we must first take a step back and understand what Spiritism is vis-à-vis with the Egungun cult.
The massive enslavement of people from West Africa, brought to the Caribbean and the Americas to work the land and create wealth for colonial masters, created horrendous living conditions where life expectancy was abysmal. Shorter life-spans for the enslaved, meant among many things, a loss of spiritual technology and expertise. Taking a simplistic approach, fewer people from Yorubaland adept in ritual, music, art, and customs associated with the Egun meant a gradual decline of the cult and a reduced chance of this fundamental spiritual practice to survive.
The early 19th century witnessed the advent of Spiritism, created by Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail (1804–1869), more easily recognized by his pen name: Allen Kardec. In a nutshell, the system Kardec created categorizing the world of spirit and provided ways to pursue communication with spirits through mediumship, trance possession, and the transmission of messages from the spirit to the world of the living. It is also important to underscore that Kardec, prior to Spiritism was a devout Roman Catholic, and his works are undeniably rooted in a Catholic mentality. Even some of his book titles reflect Catholic-themes: The Gospel According to Spiritism, The Genesis According to Spiritism, Heaven and Hell.
The Lukumí have been adopting many things into their practices, the use of soperas or soup tureens to house the sacred otás, the lushness of throne rooms decked with fabric coming from abroad, and even the style of ashó orisha, the clothing used for iyawós, have been evolving through the years adapting to the availability of richer materials. The Lukumí embraced other spiritual accouterments for multiple reasons. It was favorable to stylize throne rooms and to better house the orisha in luxurious porcelain vessels. Likewise, to embrace a spiritual practice that was the rage for middle and upper classes in Europe, the United States of America, Brazil, and more also gained ground. The Lukumí, pragmatic to the core, saw in Spiritism a system that allowed them to supplement the dwindling Egungun cult. Therefore, Spiritism was adopted, evolved, and adapted to fill a need in the spiritual echelon of the Orisha community.
From my perspective, there were multiple factors that helped Spiritism to have more adopters. One of those reasons could have been aspirational. The Egungun Cult was intrinsically West African and very much a public communal display of love and respect to ancestors.
Picture for a second trying to hold a ritual Egungun Masquerade in today’s world. Would an Egungun masquerade be fully embraced in the middle of Coral Gables in Florida or how about marching in front of the White House in Washington D.C.? How would that be perceived, embraced, accepted? Have we really made that much progress as to be able to claim practices like this openly without raising eyebrows or having the police called?
I underscore today’s challenges as a poignant social commentary because, in the U. S., the Constitution affords its citizens freedoms that were denied to our Lukumí ancestors at a time where religious innovation was taking place. The Lukumí were not afforded the freedom to openly practice their religion, quite the opposite, syncretism became a necessity for survival and the terms Santería, which still brands us even nowadays lingers as a legacy of a harsh past. Therefore, I would deduct that practicing spiritism was easier than keeping the Egungun Cult alive and practicing it out in the open.
Another advantage that Spiritism presented was the lack of need for a foreign language such as Yoruba. It was portable, it required few tools at best: a candle, a glass of water, a table and some chairs. Furthermore, Spiritism does not require initiatory status, just training, and ample practice.
I am purposely being simplistic to lay down a few points for further private consideration. Each person needs to dig deeper into history and draw their own conclusions. However, from a pragmatic perspective, to commune with the dead, little is truly needed. My own godfather, Jorge Puig Kaiser, Awó Iwori Oddí loves to remind me how much an individual can accomplish with earnest prayers, a candle, and a glass of water.
On the other hand, honoring the dead through the Egungun cult requires expertise in a foreign language, memorizing and understanding the content of songs, performing communal open-air rituals, making masks and costumes, and, having priests and priestesses trained in communication with the dead, funerary rites and belonging to lineages who had the right to represent their rituals of masquerades.
As we compare side by side the requirements of Egungun versus Spiritism, it is no wonder why one prevailed and flourished in a New World where enslaved people and their descendants faced so many limitations. In addition, there is one consideration that many do not like to discuss: racial stigma. The Egungun cult has Yoruba roots whereas Spiritism emerged in Europe and was conceived by a Frenchman and adopted into the parlors of the bourgeoisie and spread quickly to the Americas. Today, it is cool to retro acculturate and goes back to the source in Yorubaland, if possible, to try and supplement lost practices.
Spiritism’s Value for the Lukumí
It is no wonder that more Oloshas adopted Spiritism to fill the void left by the shrinking Egungun cult. Afterall, diminished ranks of expert priests and priestesses meant more broken lineages and more spiritual knowledge quickly vanishing. Thus, the day-to-day rituals for the dead became part of the realm of the spiritist who provided continuity and connection with the world of ancestors and spirit guides. In addition, it is well documented that Spiritists provided ad-hock mental health and social services in rural areas where trained professionals were unavailable, affordable, or perhaps even trusted. Indeed, there are many who prefer to talk to spirits and to a spiritist and confide in them to heal maladies of the body and emotional wounds.
Well-trained and experienced Spiritists and mediums are fundamental when doing investigations for those seeking to understand, connect, and work with their cuadro espiritual which are the spirits that walk with a person. Spiritual masses, when conducted for a person preparing to undergo kariosha or the initiation to the Olosha priesthood can help the person to identify the main actors of his or her spiritual framework, align them and assign roles and responsibilities, resolve and dispel spiritual and material issues and of course, assist in the mediumship development of the future Olosha. It is usually acceptable to have at least three of those masses or white tables ahead of a kariosha and also what is called Spiritual Crowning. How come Oloshas favor conducting three spiritual masses before kariosha?
How many spiritual masses do we have to hold before kariosha?
The adoption of three masses may be rooted in Christian sacred geometry: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Regardless, I believe the prescription of three masses ahead of kariosha is formulaic and not rooted in logic and practicality. Ascertaining someone’s cuadro espiritual involves careful and methodic observation and also, of participation in dozens of spiritual masses as well as diligent meditation work on the part of the iyawó-to-be.
Let’s think about this logically. Spirits are not hanging around to our bidding, nor reveal themselves on demand. Spirits come and go as they please and manifest differently at various stages of a person’s life. It is common courtesy to allow time for friendships and relationships to developed and to stand the test of time in the material world. Why would it be any different and possibly even more complicated when dealing with two planes of existence? Why would you not treat a Spirit with the same courtesy and respect as you would a person in the material plane?
Spirits are not enslaved beings or trained circus animals to amuse us, at least not those working in white tables and spiritual masses. They have no need to obey our timetables, and, they oftentimes have agendas or their own. Thus, why should they reveal themselves in the magical number of three spiritual masses? To have expectations like that is not only unreasonable, it is naïve.
In my opinion, those who attend research and development spiritual masses in hopes of finding the response to all their answers in one, two, or three masses not only have foolish expectations, they set themselves up for failure or worse, to be victims of spiritual con artists. Spiritual development is like making wine; they are both best developed with time and patience.
Proceed with care, respect, and patience when trying to establish a relationship with entities in the world of spirit. Envision it as a meticulous and very long courtship and have realistic expectations. Give yourself time and seek to have a solid ground to rely upon when laying the foundations to a liaison that ought to last a lifetime.
What to expect when investigating your spiritual framework
If your godparents require spiritual masses prior to kariosha, I would suggest you explore your options with them. You should not be intimidated to have this conversation; it is your spiritual destiny that is at stake here. Fear should not guide your communications with your spiritual elders.
It is reasonable to have an agreement as to what constitutes the appropriate time for research, development, and to accomplish and demonstrate spiritual alignment.
The number of masses you need should not be limited. Do not shortchange yourself. What I consider more crucial when it comes to spiritual masses is the frequency and quality of the participants.
The ideal composition of masses for an iyawó-to-be should be alternating research and development masses for up to a year prior to kariosha and doing the crowing mass at least a month ahead of the actual kariosha. Cramming three masses in one or two months prior to a kariosha is a waste of energy.
Let’s suppose for a moment that I go along with the concept of a neatly packaged set of three masses ahead of kariosha, which is clearly not the case. Then we can say that those masses should yield the following results depending on the skill level of its practitioners: (1) Research (2) Development (3) Crowning.
Research: The ideal research mass should have at least a talented clairaudient, a clairvoyant, and at least a physical medium in addition to the person presiding over the mass. This Spiritual Mass is meant to investigate the spiritual framework or cuadro espiritual of a person, be it an iyawó-to-be or not.
Development: This Spiritual Mass is a hands-on experience for all participants where messages from the spirit world are shared and mediums in training have the opportunity to express their budding spiritual gifts under a group of experienced practitioners to supervise the process such as the ones described for the Research Mass. It is imperative to have participants who keep up with their Spiritual Hygiene as not to waste time in cleansings that should be routine work for every developing and expert Spiritist.
Crowning: This Spiritual Mass was created in Cuba to honor the spiritual framework of a person about to go through the process of kariosha. In this mass, a ‘spiritual crowning’ ceremony is done over the head of the individual to crown the individual with his/her main spirit, but to me, this is a symbolic act. The process should be reclassified and seen as a spiritual alignment mass. Those of us who understand the dialectics of religious rituals know that symbols are powerful imprints that take root in the mind of all parties involved. In my estimation, the spiritual crowning is unnecessary and potentially dangerous if there is even the smallest doubt of the validity and identity of said spirit. I believe this process originated to fill the vacuum left by the poor understanding of an important ceremonial tool: the pagugu ni Egun. The pagugu ni Egun can be connected to the main egún of a person and it is the tool used to conduct and direct energy during Egungun rituals. I am very clear that a spiritual guide and the main egún do not necessarily directly correlate. This is why spiritism does not substitute, in its entirety, what was lost as knowledge from the Egungun Cult in the Americas, and why nowadays, we perpetuate rituals like parrots without stopping to consider their origins, implications, and evolution.
A spiritual framework is all but square. If you want to have a better picture of it, envision it as an onion, layer after layer of mysteries which will no doubt require a few tears shed along the way. I have spoken to a lot of people who came to a research mass and wanted to come out of it with a list of names of spirits, their functions, their history and importance rank in one go. NO system can accomplish this without ample time, not Spiritism, not Sanse, not 21 Divisions, no one can deliver this no matter how talented. Do not be deceived. Do not deceive yourself.
Spiritual masses give the individual an opportunity to look at deep-rooted character issues and flaws and to study if those have spiritual origins or if they are simply part of one's personality. It is up to the individual to take note of those observations and findings that emerged from the spiritual mass and work on them to improve his or her circumstances. Spiritual masses can also be cathartic and sometimes help to alleviate emotional and psychological issues. However, if the Spiritists organizing the mass are not experienced this catharsis can go out of control and become a deeper crisis.
Furthermore, spiritual masses can point out possible spiritual reasons behind physical ailments and even provide natural healing remedies and techniques to alleviate and even cure those ailments. The advice provided at masses requires time for execution and a person should also allow time to observe if the workings, baths, or any other recommendations provided are indeed helping to improve his or her situation or supporting spiritual and material development.
Are Spiritual Masses truly a necessity?
Spiritual masses are a good tool. However, in my opinion, the crowing part is unnecessary. A pagugu ni Egun that has been well prepared and linked to the main Egun of a person is preferable. Spiritual masses are good for training and development as they help to clear obstacles and can be a source of spiritual warnings. A well-conducted spiritual mass led by reputable spiritists can be downright enlightening for it can help forge a deeper relationship with spirit guides. It can also provide the means to strengthen relationships between godparents and godchildren and with the spiritual community at large.
What is a true imperative before Kariosha?
Iyawós-to-be must have a deeper understanding of what Egungun is and its role in their spiritual life. They need to learn how to keep an Egún shrine and how to work with those spiritual forces on a practical level. This is perhaps an area that is greatly neglected in our Orisha practices in the New World and which needs further discussion and study as well as training beyond setting plates of offerings and singing a few Egún songs.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá
PS. Here is a lovely medley of songs by a great singer Mercedita Valdés.