A Glossary of Lucumi Words and Ideas

This glossary of English, Spanish and Lucumí terms aims at illuminating aspects of How to Greet Strangers, not at providing a full description of the Lucumí religious tradition also known as Santería. For further information, see: Santería: African Spirits in America by Joseph M. Murphy; Santería Enthroned: Art Ritual and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion by David M. Brown; and The Diloggun: The Orishas, Proverbs, Sacrifices, and Prohibitions of Cuban Santeria by Ocha’ni Lele.

Unless a word is noted as English, this glossary follows Spanish rules for accent. If an accent is marked, the stress of the word falls on the marked syllable. Words with unmarked accents are to be pronounced according to normal Spanish rules: on the next to last syllable if the word ends in a vowel, n or s; in all other cases on the last syllable. Modern Yoruba, sister language to Lucumí, has its own system of accent and other diacritical marks. The Spanish accent system is more accurate to the pronunciation of these words in the Yoruban diaspora in both Cuba and the United States.


Adimú – Literally referring to the sacrifice of cooked food rather than blood, orishas that cannot be crowned or do not receive four-legged animals as sacrifice are sometimes called “adimú” orishas. In practice, this means that these orishas cannot or have not given itá.

Aganjú – The orisha of the volcano and the desert, Aganjú is a thundering giant. As Chango’s father, he is also the source of his fire.

Agogó – Obatalá’s sacred bell.

Alafia – Lucumí for “peace,” Alafia is one of the orientations of coconut divination, in which all four white sides face up.

Asohano – A name for the orisha of infectious disease. His name having the potential to call him, Asohano is also euphemistically called Babaluayé, Lucumí for “Father of the World,” or San Lazaro after the Catholic saint.

Ayubona – Literally, “leader on the road,” the Ayubona is the secondary godparent who physically cares for the initiate during his or her initiation.

Babalawo – Often glossed in English as a “high priest,” a babalawo is a male priest of a separate cult focused on the orisha of divination, called Orunmila or Ifa. Although distinct in many respects, the relationship between babalawos and olorishas is symbiotic.

Bembé – A celebration for the orishas, a bembe involves drumming, singing, dancing, and trance possession. They are thrown for special events, either as the fulfillment of an obligation or as a celebration of the new year or new priest.

Bendición – A request for blessing from an elder priest, to which the reply is most often “Santo” (“holy” in Spanish).

Bóveda – An altar for the dead constructed by spiritualists within the Lucumí tradition.

Changó – The third king of Oyó, deified. Chango is the orisha of fire, lightening and thunder. His worship is marked by royal symbols and the color red with white.

Cuchillo – Spanish for “knife,” receiving cuchillo is a large ceremony in which a mature priest receives a ritual knife and the right to perform blood sacrifice on his or her own. The priest will receive a new set of itás from all of his or her ochas, including Oggun if the orisha has not yet given the initiate itá.

Derecho – “Right” in Spanish, a derecho is a ritual fee owed for ritual service. These range from very small—$1.21—to very large—many thousands of dollars.

Dillogún – The sixteen cowrie shells used by olorishas in divination.

Elekes – Sacred necklaces given at a ceremonial “baptism” into the tradition. Each necklace is beaded for a different orisha using their special colors, and is then bathed in the sacred herbs and sacrificial blood of those orishas.

Ebo – A sacrifice prescribed by the orishas.

Ebo meta – The special sacrifice at the end of the third month of the Iyawó year. After this ceremony, the Iyawó is permitted to eat at the table, sleep in the bed, and touch non-priests.

Eggun – The spirits of the dead, both collectively and personally.

Egúngun – Ancestor worship as practiced in Africa, the Egungun cult did not survive the passage to the new world. The worship of the dead has instead transmuted into veneration of Eggun at spiritist altars. In the Egungun ceremony, priests possessed by the spirits of the dead would don a full body costume made of many-colored strips of fabric, dance and swirl in the costume, and, of course, dispense spiritual remedies.

Elleguá – The trickster at the crossroads and the doorway also known in some manifestations as Eshu. Elleguá allows prayers and offerings to pass to their destinations and so must always be propitiated first. His colors are red and black, and he is counted among the warrior orishas.

Espiritista – “Spirtualist” in Spanish, these are people, not always ocha priests, who specialize in the worship of the dead. Although the egungun cult of the dead was lost between Africa and Cuba, ancestor worship remains an essential part of Lucumí practice. Employing some Congolese elements, Cuban spiritism is based on the 19th-century teachings of Allan Kardec.

Ibayé – A prayer said in honor of the dead.

Ibeji – The twins, sacred, mischievous and powerful, dressed in red and blue.

Ibu Kolé – A road, or manifestation, of Ochun. Ibu Kolé is the vulture, a peacock whose feathers were burned away carrying the prayers of the dying world to God/the Sun. In this road, Ochun is a sorceress.

Ideu – Ochun’s lost child, dressed in yellow and green. Ideu is an orisha with the power to overcome inconsolable sadness.

Ilé – “House,” or a community of orisha worshipers founded and run by a godmother or father.

Iré – Good fortune, marked through divination.

Itá – The life reading of a priest, performed on the third day of the initiation ceremony.

Ikú – Death. Many Lucumí prayers and ceremonies seek to avert an untimely death, which is seen as one of the basic misfortunes to manifest through Odu.

Itutu – The Lucumí funerary ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest is washed, dressed, and prepared for the grave. The dispositions of their ochas must be divined, and the ochas of the priest’s godchildren mount them to grieve the death.

Iyalocha – Literally, “mother of ocha” in Lucumí, an Iyalocha is a priest who has crowned other priests.

Iyawó – Literally, “bride of the mystery.” This is the name of the new priest within the community of Santeros for a year after his or her initiation ceremony (kariocha). During this time, the new initiate wears white from head to toe, along with his or her ceremonial necklaces (elekes) and bracelets (ildes). The iyawo follows a number of prohibitions, including: not being out at night, at noon, or in the rain; not looking in the mirror and not being photographed; sleeping and eating on the floor; not touching non-priests, and not taking objects from their hands. Whenever the new priest is called “Iyawo,” she or he must respond, “Awo,” meaning “mystery.”

Horse – A priest who is “ridden” by an orisha in trance possession.

Lágrimas- “Tears” in Spanish, lagrimas is a state in which the ochas birthed by a deceased olorisha are covered, put on the floor, and not worked due to their grief. After a year, the lagrimas may be ceremonially removed.

Lebrillo – A tall wooden, covered pestle in which Aganjú is housed.

Lucumí – A name for the people who practice orisha worship in Cuba, originally organized through supposedly Catholic fraternal organizations under the Order of the Lucumí (“la Regla de Lucumí”). In orders of these kind, slaves of particular regions of Africa could congregate, making them important spaces in which the religious ceremonies of different ethnic groups could be preserved. The word “Lucumí,” meaning “my friend,” designated the slaves brought or descended from the Yoruban Oyó empire. More generally, the word can be used to refer to any initiates in the Cuban tradition, as well as the particular dialect of Yoruba language preserved liturgically in that tradition.

Madrina – Spanish for “godmother”; godfather is “padrino.” The madrina or padrino is the priest who lends their ache, or spiritual power, to give birth to the ochas that the new priest receives in initiation. In Lucumí, this person is called “Iyatobi” (“Babatobi” if they are male), meaning “mother who birthed me.” The Ayubona, the person designated by the Iyatobi to care for the initiate during the ceremony, is often also called “Madrina.”

Maferefún – “Praise to,” followed by the name of a spiritual entity like an orisha. Often an interjection like “Thank God!”

Making ocha – Also called Kariocha or asiento, to make ocha is to become a priest. In this ceremony, the initiate is crowned with the sacred essence of their tutelary orisha. For one week, the new priest is confined to a throne, where they reside as newly crowned kings or queens. For a year after the end of that week, the new priest must wear white and observe a number of protective taboos. From the start of the ceremony until the end of the year, the new priest will be called “Iyawó” within the community.

Matanzas – “Slaughter” in Spanish, “matanzas” is both ritual blood sacrifice and the name of a city that is an important religious center in Cuba.

Mazos – A special kind of eleke in which strands of beads are bundled together. Most often they are either worn by a new Iyawó on the public “middle day” of their initiation or given as gifts to one’s ochas.

Misa – “Mass” in Spanish, within the Lucumí tradition this refers to the white mass (“misa blanca”) held for spirits of the dead. At a misa, prayers and songs are recited, and espiritistas may be possessed by the dead or pass on their messages. These rituals develop the practitioner’s relationship with their Eggun.

Mojuba – “I salute,” said to the different manifestations of God and auxiliary entities at the start of every Lucumí prayer. The word is also used to refer to the basic prayer formula as a whole, which includes not just salutations but appeals for blessings and protective utterances against harm.

Multa – Spanish for “fine.” A godparent can demand payment of a fine from disobedient godchildren, whether in blood sacrifice or in performance of a particularly odious chore.

Obá – “King” in Lucumí, the Oba is the master of ceremonies who presides at every initiation. In his role as oriate, the Obá is also the master diviner at itá.

Obatalá – “The King of the White Cloth,” Obatalá is the orisha of the color white, of patience, mercy, tranquility. He is the orisha that created the earth and human beings, and he forms the fetus in the womb. He is also an important patron of the initiatory process, and it is his white that the Iyawó wears for a year after being crowned.

Obi – Coconut. In its manifestation as an essential divinatory tool, Obi is an orisha who speaks through a simplified system of Odu.

Ocha – An orisha that can be crowned on the head of a priest. Given the brutality of the middle passage and slavery in Cuba, orisha priests who arrived from Africa were not able to preserve all initiatory secrets of every orisha. Those orishas whose ceremonies remain intact tended to be associated with palace worship in Oyó, or among the “warrior” orishas. More local orishas tend to be worshiped in a minor way in the New World, and cannot be crowned in initiation. In Cuba, the ocha system of initiation sees the new priest not only crowned to their patron, but receiving the fundamental sacred implements of most of the ochas. Receiving orishas in this way facilitates transmission of the tradition by enabling priests to initiate new priests to any of the ochas they have received, not just their patron.

Ochosi – The hunter orisha, Ochosi is a warrior who lives sometimes with Oggun in the forest, sometimes in the palace with Obatalá. He owns the bow and arrow, and his altars are made of skins, feathers and the colors blue and yellow. He is also associated with the police and places of justice.

Ochun – The orisha of the river, of sex, of art. Ochun owns honey, the mirror, the color yellow, and blood. She is the manifestation of everything that makes life worth living. Ochun was originally married to Oggun, but left him for Changó.

Odu – One of sixteen basic forces and patterns of possibility. Existence was created through the emergence of these forces from one another and existence continues to transmute through their patterns. These patterns can be divined by babalawos or olorishas, but through different means. Olorishas use cowrie shells.

Oggun – The orisha of iron, tools, and ironworking, Oggun is associated with labor, technology and progress. He owns our means of transportation,  our weapons and our farming tools. He lives in the forest as one of the warrior orishas. His colors are green and black.

Olókun – the orisha of the oceans untouched by light. Olókun is the keeper of mysteries too big to know and is both male and female. Olókun takes dark blue.

Olorisha – A person who has made ocha, the world literally means “possessor of orisha.” See also Santero.

Orí – “Head,” the faculty of discernment as the personal divinity of each human being.

Orisha – “Selected head,” one of 401 divine entities emerging from and involved in the creation of the human world. Some are “immortal” and bore witness to creation. Others lived human lives and transcended them. Orishas, like saints, are patrons of particular features of human existence, but in the orishas these features are often associated with natural phenomena. For example, Ochun is the orisha of the river; she is also patron of the body’s rivers, that is, the veins and the blood that flows in them. By extension, she is also the orisha of blood relation and kinship.

Osogbo – Ill fortune, marked through divination.

Osun – A warrior orisha, Osun is the watchful rooster who stands at the door and warns of danger.

Otan – The sacred stones of orishas received in initiation.

Oyá – The orisha of the whirlwind, the market place, and queen of the dead, Oyá is a warrior and a wife of Chango. She stole the secret of fire from him and leads him into battle. She loves copper and deep burgundies and purples.

Presa (Pressa) – Spanish for “prison,” to be in presa is to be arrested by one’s commitment to become a priest.

Rogation – A ceremony for cleansing the head, the Egnlish word rogation comes from the Spanish word “rogación,” or prayer.

San Lazaro – See Asohano. Saint Lazarus, who in Caribbean iconography is fashioned as Lazarus of the parable, not Lazarus who rises from the dead.

Santería – Literally “way of the saints” in Spanish, Santería is a popular name for the Cuban tradition of orisha worship.

Santero/Santera – A practioner of Santería, specifically initiated priests. See also “olorisha.”

Sopera – “Soup tureen” in Spanish. Within the Lucumí tradition, the sacred implements of the orishas are kept in covered pots that are often sold as soup tureens.

Yemayá – “Mother of the Fishes,” Yemaya is the orisha of the ocean as far as light penetrates it. She is the nurturing force of nature and is the mother of many other orishas, notably Chango and Oggun, and the adoptive mother of others, like the Ibeji. She is as big as the earth’s oceans, and takes their color—blue.

Warriors – A group of four warrior orishas—Ellegua, Oggun, Ochosi and Osun—that are received together, often before making ocha. If any of the first three are the initiate’s patron orisha (Osun is not an ocha and cannot be crowned), the ceremony becomes much more complicated and therefore expensive. While other orishas (like Oyá or Changó) are also called warriors in as much as they wage war, they are not included in this ritual grouping.

White bath – A bath made for the cleansing of negative spiritual forces. Many of the ingredients are sacred to Obatalá—and are therefore white—but these baths are also often consecrated through one’s Eggun.


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