Orisha Tradition: The Ritual Head-Marking
In the past decade since I have been in the Orisha Tradition, knowledge of the orishas have become more mainstream, which has generated a heightened state of curiosity about what and how we practice. As people come to know about orishas like Obatala, King of the White Cloth and orisha of wisdom and purity; Yemoja, the orisha of the motherhood who is associated with the seas; and Oshun, the orisha of love, beauty and femininity that many saw honored and evoked in Beyonce's video for her song "Hold Up," more and more Black and Brown people feel drawn to honoring and venerating African gods and goddesses.
Along with knowledge of the orishas, knowledge of particular practices have also made their way into the mainstream. Outside of animal sacrifice, the most common question I receive about Orisha Tradition is about getting one's head marked, or finding out which orisha has one's head. In fact, this was one of the first things I learned about Orisha Tradition when I was a student at Temple University. One of my professors told the class that in Yoruba tradition they believe that everyone is ruled by a deity and that the deity is said to "own the head" of the person, with the head being the receptacle of spiritual energy.
As people learn about the energies and characteristics of the orishas, along with the concept of orisha head-ownership, they inevitably ask, "What orisha owns my head?"
What happens after that question is asked depends on whether one has access to a priest or priestess in tradition. If they do, they will ask for a reading. If they don't, they may read about the orishas and make a guess based off their personalities.
"I am a peaceful and level-headed so I must be an Obatala."
"I am sweet and I love the color yellow so I know I am a child of Oshun."
"Ohhh, girl, he is FINE! You see that swag?! He MUST be a child of Shango!"
Because this is such an oft-asked question, I decided to write this post to help folks better understand the concept of the practice, as well as how the actual ritual is done.
The first thing to understand is that we cannot treat the orishas like they are zodiac signs.
Though many people do exhibit characteristics of the orisha that owns their head, not only does it not always hold, but we believe that we chose the orisha who owns our head before we incarnated because that orisha can best support our destiny. Therefore, it has very little to do with personality. In fact, in Nigeria sometimes whole families belong to a particular orisha, and surely everyone in that family does not have the same personality. Yes, sometimes the blacksmith turns out to be a child of Ogun or the cosmetologist is a child of Oshun, but there are times when the child of Obatala is an athlete or the child of Elegba is a doctor, career choices are not readily attributed to those orishas. And besides,
Sometimes the orishas represent what we most need, not our dominant personality traits.
This goes back to us choosing the orisha who best supports our destiny. Because of this, we often choose the orisha that can bring the most balance to our lives. So that overzealous athlete may need calm and peaceful Obatala energy but may seem more like a Shango, and that doctor may need to be flexible and agile like Elegba, but may seem more like an Ogun.
Along with understanding this, I think it's also important to know that the head-marking ritual is best done when one has decided to work with a priest or priestess within an ile (Yoruba word for house). If you have not decided that this is your path, you definitely do not want to just find out what orisha has your head and then walk away. This knowledge often accompanies some additional information -- like the need to initiate! -- that is important to follow through on so that you can have the spiritual support you need.
Most orisha houses perform the head-marking in one of three ways:
- The erindiloggun (cowrie shells) of the godparent's orishas are read in a specific head-marking reading. Usually the godparent will use the shells of Elegba or the orisha they are initiated to and will sometimes ask another priest or priestess to do the reading for neutrality. Taboos given during this reading typically hold until the person initiatea to their head orisha. This is practice typically done in Santeria/Lukumi houses that do not regularly work with babalawos (male priests of Ifa).
- Three or more babalawos will use the ikin (sacred palm nuts of Ifa) to ask Ifa which orisha has the person's head. Three or more babalawos are used to ensure that the Odu (sacred oracle) that is marked on the opon (the divining tray) is correct and so that the querent can receive as much information as possible about the lessons and taboos of the odu. Any taboos here are usually expected to be kept until the person receives their Isefa/Kofa/Awofakan/Hand of Ifa (the ceremony where one receives the sacred icon of Ifa) or initiates to the orisha of their head. This is a Santeria/Lukumi practice for houses that work with babalawos.
- The person finds out the orisha of their head during the ita (divination that accompanies an initiation or the reception of an orisha and is considered life-long until initiation supercedes it) of their Isefa/Kofa/Awofakan/Hand of Ifa ceremony. Basically, when someone receives their Ifa pot, they can find out their head orisha and other initiations they may need to receive during the divination. Again, the taboos here are typically understood to be in effect until initiation. This is the most common practice for those who practice Isese, or Nigerian tradition, but is a practice used for in Santeria/Lukumi houses that work with Ifa priests and encourage or require their members to receive Ifa.. This is also the practice that I prefer to use for my ile, though I have witnessed the other two ceremonies and recognize that each is valid.
Please know that my experience is limited to Lukumi/Santeria and Isese traditions. I cannot speak for how practitioners of Candomble, Haitian Voodoo, or any other traditions determine this information.
I hope that this information was helpful for all those who who have wondered what orisha has their head or even why knowing your head orisha is important. As always, feel free to leave comments and/or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org,