The fourth and final part of this series focuses on the divination systems of the Lukumi and Palo Mayombe spiritual traditions. I have, for the sake of length, eschewed historical surveys of these two traditions. I have also excluded the Yoruba Isese tradition. For consistency's sake, I have used words and phraseology loyal to these two traditions' Afro-Cuban origins. While I speak simultaneously about these two traditions, they are nowhere near as culturally similar as many erroneously believe despite their co-existence in Cuba since at least the 19th century.
A brief introduction
In contrast to the methodologies assessed in the previous posts in this series, the divination systems pertaining to the Lukumi and Palo Mayombe spiritual traditions are accompanied by a very rigid set of rules about who can use them, for what purpose, and how. These divination systems are used, primarily, by initiated, trained priests to communicate with the divinities of these two traditions: called oricha in Lukumi and mpungo in Palo Mayombe. While oricha and mpungo are not the only entities that speak in divination sessions, these entities speak solely through the divination systems of their respective traditions. To be blunt, if you are not receiving a divination from a competent priest in one of these traditions who is using the implements and knowledge system specific to that tradition, you are not in conversation with the oricha or the mpungo. Oricha and mpungo do not speak through the tarot. Mpungo do not speak in odu Ifa and oricha do not speak via chamalongo or nkobo.
Divination in Lukumi and Palo Mayombe
There is one Lukumi divination method employed by the initiated and the uninitiated alike: obi (4 pieces of coconut) Let me say, however, that the use of this system by the uninitiated is still debatable depending on the lineage and Iyalosha/Babalosha (initiated female and male priests, also Godmother/Godfather) of the ile (spiritual house) of which one is a member. In lineages and iles where the uninitiated are allowed to use obi, they may do so with the permission of and under the tutelage of the their godparent.
The three other divination modalities in the Lukumi system are the dillogún, the manipulation of 16 cowry shells - primarily the cowry shells belonging to the oricha Elleguá (Elegba) - used by experienced Iyaloshas and Babaloshas some of whom hold the title of Oba Oriaté (Master of Ceremonies); the opele, comprised of 8 half nuts of the opele tree fastened to a metal chain; and 16 ikin (palm fronds). The latter two systems and their aforementioned implements are used exclusively by the all male priesthood of the oricha Orula (Orunmila) also referred to as Babalawos (Fathers of the secrets).
In Palo Mayombe, there are at least three, perhaps even four or more, depending on your rama (branch; Mayombe, Brillumba, or Kimbisa) divination methods: one employs the use of 4 or 7 chamalongos (disks made from coconut husk), another employs up to 21 nkobos (tiger cowry shells), yet another uses the mpaka (a scrying device), and yet another is possession of the Tata Nkisi Malongo or Yaya Nkisi Malongo by his or her mpungo or ndundun. In Palo Mayombe, all diviners must be, at least, initiated and trained by their Tata or Yaya in order to divine. Other rules may also apply depending on the ngao (lineage) and munanso (spiritual house).
I will not go into detail about ritual implement consecration per tradition. However, all of the aforementioned implements used to divine in Lukumi and Palo Mayombe must be ritually consecrated by competent priests in accordance with the relevant rules of each tradition. I assert that if the tools used in a divination have not been ritually consecrated, that divination is not accessing the source of information that pertains to the spiritual tradition.
What is the source of information accessed in these divination sessions?
The perspectives on this question number as many as the practitioners of these traditions. Where Palo is concerned, my responses are based on my lived experience as a Yayi Nkisi Malongo and the teachings of my Tikan Tikan (the priestess who initiated me) and my ngao Brama con Brama. In a Palo Mayombe divination session, the priest is in conversation with the myriad ngolo (forces) present in the universe and their interactions with the querent and his/her ngolo. These forces reveal themselves with each cast of the priest's consecrated implements and allow the priest to diagnose and recognize a diversity of conditions past, present, and future.
Within the Lukumi tradition, I am an aborisa, which means I am a member of an ile, under the guidance and tutelage of an Iyalosha. My response is based on my lived experience as an aborisa who divines with obi; an individual who has been on the receiving end of many dillogún divinations and divinations with Babalawos performed, fortunately, by skilled diviners; and as someone who has been consistently engaged in an academic study of this tradition for 15 years. All of the Lukumi divination systems point to the odu Ifacorpus, which is the body of knowledge that describes the totality of the Lukumi worldview and offers succinct advice to practitioners that, when followed, places individuals in alignment with their destiny.
I say “point to” as there are divergent opinions on whether obi, and even dillogún, access odu Ifa. I am of the opinion that dillogún accesses odu Ifá through the lens of the oricha Elleguá; however, I am far from an authority on Lukumi divination. The one thing all agree on is that divination conducted by a Babalawo directly accesses odu Ifa.
Why divine and how to prepare?
One chooses to divine for any number of reasons. One may be a practitioner and is looking for advice and insight on a specific issue. One may be looking to connect to an African spiritual system and wants to learn if one of these systems is right for them. One may be a priest/priestess and divines for clients and/or their godchildren. When I was first starting out with Lukumi, I came to it in a time of great distress looking for succor and support. I found it, it made sense, and I moved on to eventually become a member of an ile. Similarly, with Palo, I was experiencing uncertainty and distress, that, it turned out, Palo was uniquely capable of identifying and handling.
While every divination is an experience unto itself, there are some basics worth knowing. Check out these nine guidelines.
- Why are you seeking divination? Be honest with yourself. Even if you won't be honest, the diviner, if he or she is worth his/her salt, will reveal the truth. Your life will be laid bare before you.
- If the divination says you have work to do, are you ready to do it? Ideally, any work to be done should be done shortly after the reading, without delay. If you aren't ready to do the work, do you really need to have the info?
- Get clear on price ahead of time. Divining is work. You need to be prepared to pay a fair rate.
- Write out your questions beforehand so you can bring them up during the session. If something the diviner says is unclear ask him/her to explain in detail.
- Take notes! Readings are often chock full of information much of which can be overwhelming. In the moment you may be so jolted that you don't remember all that was told. A summary that you can refer back to is very useful.
- The diviner is not your crutch, even if he/she is your godparent! The diviner is the vessel through which the forces of the universe communicate to you. He/she is not at your beck and call now that you're interested in fixing your raggedy mess of a life after being read for filth. He/she is a mentor and an advocate. The onus for doing the personal and spiritual work is on you.
- Be careful running around from diviner to diviner. The cadre of reputable diviners in the Lukumi and Palo Mayombe communities in the United States is, dare I say it, minuscule, and we are two degrees of separation from each other. Running around from diviner to diviner asking the same questions because you didn't like what the first diviner said is a sure way to earn yourself the brand of persona non grata.
- You have agency in the divination process. No matter what is told to you, you can choose how to handle it. It is always advisable, however, to do so respectfully.
- If after a reading you decide, or are told, you want/need to pursue a path in this spiritual tradition, find out the protocol for doing so. Minimally, consider the potential impact this will have on your life and the adjustments and commitments you will need to make. Some of this info can be gleaned from a priest/priestess. Other of it is only learned along the way.
Thank you for joining me on this journey through divination. Let’s keep the conversation going!