By Eric K. Lerner
As a santero, Yoruba priest, who practices divination with both diloggun and tarot, I am frequently asked to compare the two and will attempt to do so in this brief essay.
Historically, Tarot began as a card game in Medieval Europe. It gained popularity as a means of predicting the future. In the right hands of a skilled interpreter, it reveals specific situations, psychological states and likely outcomes. While many tarot readers have deep religious beliefs, tarot is not part of the methodology of any particular religion. This differs from Diloggun, which originated with the Yoruba People of Southwest Nigeria. Only Yoruba priests practice diloggun divination for others. In Santeria¹ (the religion developed in Cuba from Yoruba) a priest must undergo an elaborate initiation and adhere to a novitiate of one year and a week before she can divine for others. The goal of diloggun is to reveal the will of effective demi-gods, called orisha, as well as ancestors both genetic and spiritual. A reading marks appropriate offerings to either secure good fortune or alleviate negative energy. The system is governed by a religious conviction that powerful unseen forces influence our lives and can be encouraged to act on our behalves.
Diloggun readings adhere to a ritual structure. Readers employ sixteen consecrated cowry shells, as well as a few other objects, to participate in oracular discourse. A reader begins by praying over these tools. The prayers are typically said in Lucumi (creolized Yoruba.) She always invokes God Almighty, deceased and living members of the priest’s spiritual family, and orisha. (It is useful for a client to note this because omission of this step likely indicates the reader is a fraud.) Often offerings of cigar smoke, water and alcohol to the spiritual owner of the shells accompany prayer. Usually the client is asked to make a statement that she wishes to participate in a dialogue with the orisha of her own free will and is invited to hold the shells in her own hands briefly while meditating on concerns. Then the priest casts the shells to indicate the first part of a composite odu. (Odu may be translated as “container of knowledge.” Odu are the fundaments of meaning in a reading.) Specific odu are indicated by the number of shells that fall with open mouths facing upward. Each number one to sixteen corresponds to a particular odu. The reader may begin to offer interpretation at this time, but a second casting determines a precise composite odu. They incorporate proverbs, mythological stories, divination verses, predictions, and recommended offerings. At this point in a consultation, most readers hand the client two small objects such as stones – one light and one dark – to shuffle between her hands. When one rests in each the client’s hands, the reader casts of the shells one or two times to determine which hand to choose. A light colored object indicates good fortune and a dark one negative energy. Some readers make more precise determinations as to the type of energy by repeating this step with different pairs of objects until an exact cause is identified. The procedure is repeated to indicate what spiritual entities (either the dead or orisha) preside over a reading and what offerings are necessary. The order of these steps varies according to the individual priest’s lineage teachings and subjective judgement. Additional odu may be cast in the course of the consultation, and the shuffling procedure is always repeated one more time in order to guarantee that the necessary dialogue is complete.
Cuban Santeria teaches that the orisha Yemaya acquired from her husband the secrets of diloggun divination as means for other orisha and mankind to understand divine will. In Africa, the act is sometimes attributed to the orisha Oshun.
Now that the reader has been informed of the basic procedure of a diloggun consultation, we can examine how it compares to tarot. Three key differences emerge immediately.
Diloggun relies on fixed narratives similar to Greek myths of Gods, heroes and everymen. Tarot readings generate a narrative through successive cards unique to the client.
Diloggun typically does not invite the client to immediately respond to the oracle. Most clients lack the education to grasp correspondences between the number of open-mouthed shells and their meanings. Hence, a trained interpreter must guide them every step of the way. Tarot cards have immediate visual signification. They provoke client response. While not all tarot decks’ minor arcana feature rich illustration, all major arcana and court cards do. It is hard to imagine that a client can behold images such as a Priestess, Lightning Struck Tower or actor of a court card and not form some subjective response about its meaning.
Diloggun reminds us of a bygone epoch when divination was solely the domain of an educated priesthood. It is not a tool to be used without intensive training. A tarot deck may be acquired by anyone who wishes to interpret it whether or not she educates herself about it.
Also, comparison of diloggun and tarot portray difference between African and Western cultures. Most African cultures have no historic written language. Sacred knowledge was orally transmitted to a select few. Westerners have had access to published references since medieval times. Also, Africans have little tradition of narrative iconography. Traditional African art is largely limited to sculpture and patterned cloth weaving and batik. With the exception of Eshu (called Eleggua in Santeria) fetishes, one does not encounter visual representations of the orisha until the Mid-Twentieth Century. (Most often shrine sculptures represented worshippers and not deities among the Yoruba.) One theory regarding the origins of major arcana in tarot is that they promulgated allegorical teachings. Such imagery intended to educate was already familiar to commoners through Church art. In short, Western culture has long used the printed word and illustration as learning tools. Africans have not. So tarot meanings are largely derived from printed and illuminated sources. Diloggun develops its discourse from orally transmitted knowledge.
This distinction between African and Western civilizations makes developing a tarot based on diloggun or the methodology of orisha worship troublesome. Diloggun operates from a base number of four (The most common system of divination in Santeria is Obi that uses four pieces of coconut to indicate yes or no answers. Diloggun builds from this core.) Tarots are composed of either 22 Major Arcana or a total 78 major and minor cards. Most western cultures operate from a base number of ten. It is beyond the scope of this essay to precisely work out what the base number in Tarot is. (Four definitely does not work. I might argue the case for three.) Logically, it is near impossible to make the two divination systems synchronize in a coherent manor.
This has been a major downfall of tarot decks that try to use Santeria mythology as a theme. I have collected tarots for years and advocate that tarot is a valid visual narrative form of artistic expression. However, to be successful, a deck should reflect organizing principles behind tarot. Most of the Santeria or Yoruba inspired decks I have examined betray little comprehension of tarot structure and Santeria theology. In them the assignations between Santeria mythology and Diloggun and tarot meanings are ad hoc at best. I am frequently left to wonder how well the decks’ creators have thought through their subject matter.
However, odu may suggest meanings of certain tarot cards. For instance, certain well-known stories of the orisha Shango that appear in both odu and folktales bare striking resemblance to the meaning of the Tower arcana. (Shango precipitates his downfall by bringing down lightning on his own palace. Further elaboration on this can be found in Scarlet Press’ upcoming book Sixteen.) Human beings across all cultures share basic concerns and feelings. These inform the oracles they employ and meanings portrayed therein, but it does not make their systems equal one another.
Baring that in mind, I perceive certain advantages in choosing either diloggun or tarot. Diloggun serves as a remedy. It marks offerings to propitiate spiritual entities I know to be effective intercessors. Hence, if a client comes to me with a clearly identified grave challenge I think that it is a remarkably powerful tool for helping a client overcome it. In such an instance, tarot might be more effective in helping the client understand why she faces what it is at hand. However, as a bottom line, I feel that if you see someone trapped in a burning car that you should pull him out before asking what led to him be there.
This raises the issue of helping a client understand his situation. For most people who are not Santeria practitioners, I lean toward employing tarot. It offers an immediate advantage of inviting the client to participate in the reading through its use of imagery. I believe it is an effective reading technique to point to a card and ask a client what that suggests to her. Part of the rationale for doing so is to make her take ownership of the reading and her situation. In a diloggun reading, I must relate a narrative associated with the revealed odu, and then ask the client how that relates to her to achieve a similar response. There is a pause in the response, and a lot more of its value depends on my skill as a story-teller.
In summary, both divination systems have distinctive merits and reflect the cultures from which they emerged. Hopefully, this essay can serve as a basis for exploration of the relationship between both and help clients choose which reading technique best suits their needs. I am happy to answer e-mails to further clarify issues herein raised, and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org