Divination and Spirit Possession in the Americas

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Divination and Spirit Possession in the Americas

The orishas (also spelled orisa and orixá ), the guardian spirits of Yoruba religions, originally settled in the city of Ile Ife (in present-day Nigeria). There they established all of the ancient Yoruba arts, including farming, smithing, sciences, and divination. Each orisha, upon his or her passing, became the divine patron of the individual art he or she had mastered. The creator god, Olodumare, asked the orisha Orumila to stay on earth to advise humans regarding the dangers of daily life through the art of divination. Since then, divination has been used in Africaand eventually in the New Worldas the way for humans to receive advice from the orishas in matters that range from the spiritual to the physical. However, as time has passed, the orishas have availed themselves of man's own advances (e.g., in the arts of medicine, law, finances, etc.) and directed their believers to an expert in specific fields. This has been the most important change in the divination process since its creation.

The character of divination is predominantly private, while that of spirit possession is usually communal. Spirit possession or mounting (as in climbing on a horse), is common to most ancient belief systems, benefiting one person or an entire community through the energy that is believed to come from the spirits. This energy, known as axé or aché, is achieved through trance. Two elements are necessary for the propitiation of a trance: drumming and dance. At a speed of 200 to 220 beats per minute, drumming induces a state of altered consciousness. The drums employed for these rituals have been consecrated to particular deities. Dancing adheres to similar parameters, with an endless repetition of simple steps done to prepare for a trance. Particular rhythms are associated to each divinity. Once mounted, trancers dance the characteristic steps and movements of the visiting spirit. Another manifestation of trance is a sudden change from the mother tongue to one of the Yoruba dialects.

Spirit possession can be observed in the rituals of four of the major African-based religions in America: Candomblé, Santería, Umbanda, and Vodou. Eventually, these religions meshed with the Catholic beliefs of the colonizers and were enriched by the cosmology and trance traditions of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas, such as the Caribs, Arawaks, and Tainos.


Candomblé has two realms, the spiritual (or orun ), and the earthly (or aiê ). Orun is composed of nine concentric energy circles of ever-increasing power. Olorum, the main god, presides where the energy is highest. Closest to Orolum is the irumale, then the ancestors or eguns, and finally the orixás. These circles surround aiê. The level inhabited by the orixás has an energy level similar to that of Earth, thus facilitating transit during possession rituals.

The pai- or mãe-de-santo (fathers and mothers) occupies the highest position within the religion. The high priest is assisted by the iaôs, also known as filhos- and filhas-de-santo, or sons and daughters. Possession occurs predominantly through filhas during rituals held in their temples (terreiros ). Trance occurs within the context of religious festivities conducted in the barracão, the meeting room for public ceremonies. When possession seems imminent a drummer plays a dissonant note as if to precipitate the event. The orixás announce their identity by uttering Yoruba expressions associated with their individual personality; for example, those possessed by Omula will shout Atotô ! The trancers then start to act out the orixá's personality.

During this activity, the congregation dances in concentric circles. In this manner their individual energies are channeled into the ritual's focal point. The possessed worshiper is placed at that focal point when the first signs of spirit possession appear. Another manifestation of trance is a sudden change from the mother tongue to one of the Yoruba dialects. After possession occurs, the individual is taken to an adjacent room and dressed in the color-coded garments and attributes associated with the deity. Returned to the barracão wearing the proper regalia, the orixá begins to provide personal advice, warnings, admonitions, and guidance to devotees. The character of this advice is general in nature; individualized advice is received only via divination.

In the early hours of morning, the body of the possessed filhas experiences a secondary trance in which the orixá changes to a childhood state, called erê. In this state the orixá tends to be obscene, playful, and boisterous. This type of trance signals the ending of the festivities. Once the santo leaves the body it has occupied during the festivities, the vehicle person has no recollection of the events that ensued during the trance and does not remember any message given by the orixá.

Communication between orun and aiê is achieved with the intervention of the pai-de-santo. The first step of divination is the identification of the client's guardian deities, of which there are usually two. Of the many divination methods brought from Africa to Brazil, the jogo de búzios, or shell toss, remains paramount. The priest begins the ritual with salutations and invocations to the orixás in a mixture of Yoruba and Portuguese. Sixteen cowry shells are tossed into a small wooden board adorned with sacred necklaces. The formation and position, open or closed, of the cowries will determine which odu, or myth, is applicable to the problem at hand. A second toss, this time using only four shells, is done to verify the answer obtained during the first toss. Other materials employed in divination to communicate with the orixás include small fruits and grains favored by the deity summoned.


Possession in Santería (often referred to as Regla de Osha ) is also known as mounting, as in climbing atop a horse. Commonly limited to members of the priesthood class, however, it is not restricted to initiates alone. Mounting in non-initiates can signal a calling into the priesthood class to serve under the possessing orisha, called a santo. Mounting occurs within the content of a religious festivity (bembé ). The events that follow the coming of the orisha are very similar to those described in Candomble.

There are two types of divination in Santería. One of them, diloggun, can be performed by all priests and priestesses while ekuele or ifa is reserved for the high priests alone. In diloggun, cowry shells or coconut pieces are the vehicle of communication with the orishas. As a result, coconut consumption is forbidden to initiates. The coconut used in divination is broken into pieces, from which the officiating priest chooses four. Small portions from each are removed to equal the number associated with the orisha to be consulted, and the pieces are placed on the deity's soup tureen. Chants are then sung in honor of Olodumare, the supreme being, the orishas, the priest's godparents, the client's godparents (in the event they exist), and the ancestors, or eguns. Following this ritual, the santero (priest) asks permission to perform the divination from all of the previously mentioned spirits and deities, and from Biague, the first diviner who employed coconut pieces in divination. A strict ritual ensues, whereby the four pieces are passed over the client's head, shoulders, chest, hands, knees, and feet, while the santero requests that the coconut pieces tell the truth. Once this ritual is finished, the pieces are cast into a special rug used only for divination. Each question is then repeated for verification purposes. The coconut pieces can fall with the white side up or with the dark outer cover up, in any of the mathematical combinations possible for the number four. A letra (letter) with its own particular meaning is associated to each of the five possible combinations. Each letter has its own name: Alafia, Otagüe, Eyife, Okana Sorde and Oyekun. The santos also employ the coconut to communicate with a particular adherent, though on those occasions questions are not formulated before casting the pieces into the mat.

A similar approach is followed when using the cowry shells for divination. The bottom of each shell is removed for stability, and the way the shells fall determines the orisha's message. The number of shells employed is sixteen, a sacred amount in the religion. In their absence, larger shells, (ayes ), small black stones, (ota ), and even human vertebrae are used as substitutes. The different numeric combinations, odús, are identified by individual names. Odús are associated with several stories (appatakis ) from the lives of the orishas. It is up to the priest, who must memorize all of these stories, to choose the one that carries a message applicable to the condition or situation experienced by the person undergoing the divination.

Only the highest priests within the religion, the babalaos, can perform the most reliable form of divination in Santería. This type leaves no room for mistakes, since it involves direct communication with Olodumare. Two modalities are available: the Ekuele and the Tablet of Ifá. The Ekuele is made up of two chains, fourteen to sixteen inches long. Hooked to these chains are pieces of metals, seeds, and a variety of small objects. Only one chain is employed per day. Part of a priest's morning rituals is to throw the ekueles into the divination matt, which allows Olodumare to decide which one will be used that day.

Ifá's Tablet (Opon Ifá ) has two components, a round tablet and sixteen palm nuts. The heads of the orishas who control the four cardinal points are engraved in the tablet. Occasionally, the tablet is rectangular in shape, and in those cases the number of palm nuts increases to seventeen. The ritual begins with invocations like those employed for divining through coconut and cowries. The ritual develops in the following manner: the priest holds all the nuts in the right hand and allows them to slide through his fingers. The resulting combinations and letras depend on the number of shells that escape and those that remain in the priest's hand. The process is repeated eight times in order to obtain an odu.


With a cosmos organized somewhat differently than that of the other three religions discussed in this article, the dynamics of spirit interaction and possession in Umbanda also vary. Here, the cosmos is divided into three spaces: the underworld, earth, and the ancestral realm, home to good spirits. Exús and Quinbanda spirits inhabit the underworld but venture to earth to harm humans, which harm is undone by the enlightened spirits. Among the enlightened spirits are the Caboclos, unacculturated Amazonian natives, and Pretos Velhos, elderly enslaved Africans. The latter perform their good deeds on earth as a means to ascend to a higher level of spiritual awareness. Orixás also take part in trance, depending on the type of Umbanda practiced at the individual center. The most important forms of Umbanda practiced are Kardecista (spiritism), Oriental, and Africana (African). Trances occur within the context of public celebrations, held in tents or rooms of worship (terreiros ).

Umbanda ritual is conducted in a rectangular white room divided in two. This is a sacred place, with an altar and a public place for the congregation. The altar holds representations of Pretos Velhos, Caboclos, Catholic counterparts of the orixás, and glasses of water (known in spiritism as Grave ). A ritual cleansing (defumacão ) is followed by invocations dedicated to God and to more festive deities, as members of the congregation join the celebrants in clapping hands as they invite the spirits of Caboclos and Pretos Velhos to vem trabalhar (come to work).

Possession begins when the mediums stop dancing and start to convulse and perspire. Immediately after this, they assume the facial and bodily demeanors of the spirits who have entered their bodies. Once settled inside the mediums' bodies, the spirits proceed to greet one another, special members of the congregation, and important visitors. Divination is central to this ritual. An attendant gives numbers for consultation with the different spirits. Consultations aim at resolving the physical and spiritual problems of members of the congregation. At times this consultation involves the transferring of an evil spirit, or exú, from the body of a parishioner to that of a medium. These exorcists claim to have protection against the negative vibrations of the exús.

Spirit possession varies according to the type of Umbanda practiced at each centro. Those with a Kardecian orientation are visited by divinities of the spiritism pantheon: spirits of Arabs, Aztecs, Chinese, and Hindus. Here, trance is subdued and is accompanied by religious classical music, such as the "Ave Maria." In the more African centros it is orixás who come down to earth. The ritual is more elaborate and includes all of the elements of trance described in Candomblé and Regla de Osha.

In Umbanda, the male chefes (leaders) and male mediums, or spiritists, attests to the religion's Kardecian influence. Brazilian machismo still prevails in the religion, to the extent that only in the more Afro-Brazilian practices will a male possessed by a female orixá be allowed to display an overt feminine demeanor without risking expulsion from the centro.


Because Le Bon Dieu, or Bondye (the good god) is well disposed towards man, the religion of Vodou focuses on the loas (spirits and divinities) who are closer to mankind. Music, dance, and animal sacrifices are important parts of the spirit possession experience.

Trance occurs through the serviteurs, members who serve as vehicles. The loas' presence at the ceremonies is understood by the fideles (worshipers) as a positive answer to their prayers and requests. Once a loa has entered the body of a serviteur the fideles can observe the physical manifestations of the loa 's character in the person possessed. It is then that the spirit communicates with the worshipers, either on an individual or collective basis. In many cases, the saint or loa is offered one of its favorite animals, which is then sacrificed by the serviteur, manifesting the loa, in trance. The animal is then given cooks who prepare their meat for the loas and the fideles. Only in Vodou has trance been openly associated with political actions. The slave uprising organized by Mackandal in Saint Domingue (Haiti) in 17571758, was one such instance, for Mackandal claimed to be the representative of an African divinity. Also important was the August 14, 1791, Petro ritual, a form of vodou that allegedly triggered the Haitian Revolution by empowering slaves through possession rituals. In such a spiritual state the slaves emerged victorious over the Napoleonic army in spite of their inferior numbers and lack of sophisticated weaponry.

As in the other religions the Vodou priest, or houngan, is responsible for both trance induction and divination. Communicating with the loas is also very important in Vodou. Playing cards and bones are employed, alternating with the techniques used in Candomblé and Regla de Oshá: seeds or coconut pieces, obí, cowry shells, and Ifá. In Vodou, Ifá is performed with the aid of palm nuts or with a chain of eight half-seed shells, called opelé. Trance is not to be confused with the Petro practice of zombification, which is induced by ingestion of particular substances that produce an altered state in humans. Zombification does not involve communion with the loas, nor does it affect the congregation in a positive manner. Zombification occurs when a person ingests a mixture of herbs and toxins especially prepared by a vodou sorcerer (the mixture may also be applied to the skin). The signs and symptoms follow a progression from feeling sick to generalized body weakness, ending in a decrease of vital signs to levels barely compatible with life. Once this occurs the individual is aware of his or her surroundings but is unable to react to them. At the mercy of the sorcerer, the victim might even be buried alive, only to be disinterred days later and given the antidote. This particular ritual, often performed as punishment, constitutes a show of power.

See also Candomblé; Folk Religion; Orisha; Myal; Religion; Santería; Voodoo; Yoruba Religion and Culture in the Americas


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josÉ antonio lammoglia (2005)

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