Interview by Amber C. Snider
Trained in anthropology and a variety of magical traditions, Lilith Dorsey has been a Voodoo Priestess for nearly 30 years. Dorsey has initiations in Santeria (or Lucumi), Haitian Vodou, and New Orleans Voodoo and they are also the author of the bestselling book Orishas, Goddesses, and Voodoo Queens, which seamlessly blends folklore and mythology with practical spellwork.
Here, Dorsey discusses the divine feminine in traditional African religions, honoring the orishas, the meaning of ashe, and turning to women of color to elucidate the intersectionality of these practices, while also debunking a few misconceptions.
Amber C. Snider: I have to say this book is truly excellent and one of the best I’ve read on orishas and goddesses. I really wish it was around years ago when I was working on my graduate thesis! What first made you want to write Orishas, Goddesses, and Voodoo Queens?
Lilith Dorsey: I wanted to write this book my entire life. Growing up, I didn’t really see any positive images of the sacred feminine, let alone anything about Voodoo or Santo or any of the African traditional religions. At that point in time, they were still telling us things that were alternative or African were ‘bad or evil.’ Even at some of the pagan or occult events back in the 80s, you couldn’t have drumming or recorded music. The events were really restrictive, but the tide has since changed (for good and bad) over these last 20 years or so. At least we can drum now…
ACS: Can you explain what ashe is –– and does everyone have it?
LD: Everything has ashe. It’s the sacred energy of the universe when we talk about these African traditional religions.
The orisha Oshun is simultaneously the ashe of the river, so that feeling you get when you’re by a river, or when you’re using river water in one of your spells or ritual baths. But she’s also the ashe of oranges, honey, the dance –– and it’s really not a Western way of conceiving of things. It’s really an African-based way of seeing things as connected on a different level.
In that respect, my academic training helped me. Anyone in academia knows, you can compare any two things and make them seem similar or dissimilar. So in that way, it was about finding connections and also differences with the way, let’s say, the ashe of Oshun works compared with that of Yemaya. Yemaya is the ashe of the seawater or the top of the ocean. They’re both water, but they have very different characteristics.
ACS: You also describe the many paths –– or the caminos –– of the orishas. Can you describe what these paths mean?
LD: They’re not as simple as ‘Oshun is love’ or “Oshun is money’ –– there are many paths. When someone gets a reading, they throw the shells or opele, so there’s a series of different combinations that can come out in a reading. It’s very mathematical. Each one represents an orisha, but a specific path of the orisha.
You can have an Oshun that’s very young and flirtatious and loves to dance. [But] I have a good friend whose path of Oshun sits at the bottom of the river, knits all the time, complains about everybody, and is sort of ancient! So there are many different parts, just as there are many different parts to a person.
When you get the reading you find out, ‘Oh this is the path and this is the story that goes along with this path’. It’s mythology, folklore, and a cautionary tale all wrapped into one.
Everything has ashe. It’s the sacred energy of the universe when we talk about these African traditional religions.
ACS: Can you share a story of Oshun?
LD: One famous one about Oshun has to do with her being poisoned with honey, so when you offer it to her, you taste it first to show that it’s not poisoned. A lot of people I know who are children of Oshun have very specific tastes; they are very picky, they don’t like eating at other people’s houses. All of this goes to their character, as being a child of Oshun. Whether they knew it or not.
ACS: What was it like learning you’re a child of Oshun?
LD: For me it was an a-ha moment. Like, ‘Oh, this is why I don’t like shellfish,’ which is definitely one of the big things you offer to her. But there are certain times, where after you’ve gone through initiation, you can’t eat shellfish anymore. A lot of the priests cannot eat shellfish or her other sacred items.
It’s a difficult thing to explain because it’s not a Western concept, but you have a strong reaction to [the offerings of the orishas]. It doesn’t matter if your strong reaction is that you love seafood or you hate it –– both can be an indicator that you’re connected to that orisha.
ACS: You brought up Mami Wata in the book and I really loved her origin story. Can you give a brief description of her and why you made the decision to include her in the book?
LD: Mami Wata is so beautiful. She comes originally from West Africa from Benin, so it's slightly different from the orisha, which comes from the neighboring Yoruba region. It's different people; it's different languages, different everything. But Mami Wata is simply the spirit of water. So everywhere you have water, Mami Wata is present.
She is a primal feminine figure. She's seen as the mother to all of us and they still do rituals to her. There's an amazing documentary by Djimon Hounsou called In Search of Voodoo that depicts two very beautiful rituals to her, one in the city and one at the water side. [It shows] how people do ritual baths and sing to her and pray to her and give offerings. They really connect with this divine feminine force that we all came from.
So much of her has to do with protection and love, but also the fierceness that comes with motherhood. Patience as well. I remember doing a ritual for her in Canada with my Priestess Miriam and the ritual drummers had REMOS so they could get in the water. She had all of us singing and drumming and literally standing in the water for over four hours while we did this ritual. And the gravity of the world and the water and the beauty of it really became clear. And the stillness of it, as well. I’ll never forget that.
ACS: The way you’re describing her reminds me a bit of Yemaya. How are they different? Is it just the regions or is there something fundamentally different between the two?
LD: Generally, is it the region. But over the years, when [these traditions] were brought to Cuba and Puerto RIco and blended with the indigenous Taíno people that were there, Yemaya got separated into Yemaya and Olokun. Yemaya is seen as the top of the seawater, whereas Olokun is seen as the depths of the ocean. Mami Wata simply is all water. There’s not a distinction; She’s in all water, even the water that’s sitting next to me in a glass. Anywhere you have it.
ACS: What is your spiritual background?
LD: My parents named me Lilith so there was always a sort of goddess-informed existence. I think that showed up at the very beginning. There’s so much Lilith stuff out there now, but at the time when I was growing up in the 70s, a lot of it was very demonized and created by the misogynistic powers that be. Trying to find positive things about spirituality and witchcraft, I pretty much did on my own until I was a teenager.
I remember going to Enchantments and Magickal Childe, all the stores...it was such a joy to be around people and have knowledge and information. This was before the internet so to be able to see and experience those things first hand was beautiful.
ACS: How did you meet your first Priestess?
I met my Priestess Miriam from the Voodoo Spiritual Temple here in New Orleans [28 years ago]. I gotta hand it to her, she did five rituals in five nights, which is a lot. And it was just so beautiful and she's like family to me and I've been studying with her ever since then. Over the years I did get initiations in other types of ATRs as different things occurred in my life.
ACS: What led you to seek out the other traditions?
LD: It wasn’t ‘Oh, let me go initiate in 5 different traditions'; there really were things in my life [that led me to them]. There was a situation I was in where I needed justice for this horrible thing and I had a dear friend who was a Santera Priestess in the Lucumi tradition, and she said well let me see if there's anything I can do.
So we did a reading and it turned out that I needed to initiate and study with her. We did get justice in the situation, so that made me really happy. Same sort of deal with my Haitian Vodou initiations.
I knew Priestess Miriam, but I was living in New England at the time and did not have much money as a single mom. I was traveling back and forth to New Orleans so often as I could and I started praying for somebody to come and help me locally. I was teaching tarot and intro to astrology at a UU church and they called me and said we have this Haitian Mambo who went to Harvard Divinity School and she’s coming as our UU Minister…
ACS: It reminds me of the saying, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ That seems to be true with the situations you’re describing.
LD: Yes, I felt like I was ready. But there's a difference between when you feel like you're ready and when the universe feels like you're ready. I traveled 1000 miles to see my Priestess in New Orleans five times last year, before I moved here this year during the pandemic. Sometimes we do have to go out of our way because it is such an important thing.
[Finding a spiritual family] is important. Can you trust them with your life? Because ultimately you are trusting them with your life –– with your relationships, finances, health, all of these things. I wanted somebody I trusted and then I prayed for it really, really hard to find the people I did and they did appear.
Mami Wata is simply the spirit of water. So everywhere you have water, Mami Wata is present. She is a primal feminine figure. She's seen as the mother to all of us
ACS: Which sections or subjects brought you the most joy during the writing process?
LD: I felt joy writing about Oshun. I’m a daughter of Oshun and that gets determined by divination in the practice. I hoped it was Oshun because she’s so beautiful and graceful. I’m biased, but the ashe of the river, the sacred energy of the river, and talking about her just flowed out. There have been so many experiences and times that I felt her energy and felt the benefits of her blessings.
ACS: When it comes to Lucumi and Haitian Vodou, there have been many misrepresentations of these practices, particularly in the media. What are some myths or misconceptions that you’d like to set straight?
LD: I’d like to set the record straight about initiation and divination, because it’s very important. Everybody’s path is individualized. It's not one size fits all; you need to have a teacher because that’s somebody who's going to help guide you through all these things. As much as I want people to rush out and buy the book, it's not the kind of thing where you can just buy a book and then know everything.
There's a saying: you can’t get Awo from a book, which is spiritual knowledge. You can get information, but it’s not the same as knowledge. It’s not the same as practical knowledge or deeply understanding deeply what these things do. I want people to understand that in order to respectfully practice the tradition it does involve working with a house.
ACS: Do you recommend people get initiated before seeking out the orishas?
LD: I guess it depends. For me, I draw the line at, are you just going to read stories about them or maybe leave an orange by the river? That’s more acceptable than, let’s say...well I knew someone who was a kook and threw a $50 necklace in the Hudson River in order to get a husband. And that’s not how any of this works.
[That’s why getting a reading is important first]. Is finding a husband or partner the most important thing right now? Because maybe they have an issue with finances or with their home or health. It doesn't matter if they find the ‘perfect partner’ if the next day they're dead or homeless or some other horrible thing is going on that they really need to handle in the immediate. And then, if they want to move forward, maybe there's things they have to do in order to initiate.
When my godchildren first start out [it’s] so hard for them, because many have been practicing magic for a long time. But I tell them they need to focus on themselves first. You need to help yourself first, get in a secure and settled place before you decide to open up a magic business and consult hundreds of people. And also secure advisors, teachers, and a network of people to help support you. It's not just about getting this ‘one thing’ you want. It's about shaping your life so that it's the proper path for you to travel; for you to live in the most successful way you can.
ACS: Absolutely, Lilith. I’ve also noticed an uptick in popularity in Lucumi and other Afro-Caribbean traditions. How can magical practitioners and seekers understand more about these practices in a respectful and mindful way, without veering into cultural appropriation?
LD: I usually recommend that people get a reading first. I'm not hard and fast on ‘this is something that's only for people who have African heritage,’ because some of the earliest signs of life were in Africa. When we go back anthropologically, that's where the cradles of civilization are, so everybody has some connection to that area and these practices. But whether or not everybody is supposed to run out and initiate, that's gotta be determined by a reading.
If somebody is white presenting and [they get a reading that says] they should continue in the tradition, initiate and become a Babalawo or a Santero, [then the] reading backs that up. Instead of someone questioning you, they’re going to judge you based on your spiritual family. That’s why picking a spiritual family is so important.
Where I draw the line really is the commodification of it. But I think there's a way in which people need to be really mindful of what they're doing.
A lot of times I see the success of some practitioners that aren't African American or POC and I think it’s [because there is a] silent bias against the other practitioners and they really are taking away limited resources. It’s the same way that men and women don't get paid the same, and how Black authors don't get the same type of advances that white authors do. It's really a slim market and when you're competing in that capitalistic way, unfortunately you're going to be taking some of these things away from other people.
ACS: In the book you bring you also talk about the importance of understanding goddess spirituality, feminism, and African traditional religions by specifically looking to women of color to elucidate that knowledge. Is that one of the reasons you wrote this book? Can you talk more about that?
LD: It is. I think that a lot of the authors out there are not women and certainly not WOC, so I thought that [these were] greatly underrepresented voices when we are talking about orishas and Voodoo queens that are Black, they’re POC, they’re gods and goddesses of color.
It's this Eurocentric, misogynistic viewpoint that's going to be very different than someone who grew up with this skin color, who grew up with this gender, etc.
ACS: What tools do you use in your own readings and magickal practices?
LD: I use a conjunction of things. I’ve used the New Orleans Voodoo Tarot for years –– it was written by my priest Lewis Martine and Sallie Ann Glassman who is a Mambo down here in the city. It was the first African American-based tarot deck, but I’ve also used things like pendulums and dowsing rods when I’m doing a reading.
My priestess Miriam at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple uses a system of bone reading combined with geomancy and crystals. It's going to be different everywhere. Basically find someone who is a practitioner of the religion you want to practice and get a reading from them.
ACS: Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with the readers of Enchantments and many congratulations on this book!
LD: Oh thank you! It’s a pleasure.
*Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
To purchase Orishas, Goddesses, and Voodoo Queens, visit the Enchantments shop in NYC or order online. Call for availability.
Lilith Dorsey (M.A.) hails from many magickal traditions, including Afro-Caribbean, Celtic, and Indigenous American spirituality. Their magickal training includes numerous initiations in Santeria also known as Lucumi, Haitian Vodoun, and New Orleans Voodoo. A Voodoo Priestess, Dorsey has been doing successful magick since 1991 for patrons and is proud to be a published Black author of such titles as Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism, 55 Ways to Connect to Goddess, The African-American Ritual Cookbook, Love Magic, Orishas, Goddesses and Voodoo Queens, and the newly released Water Magic.
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