When setting up an altar to an Orisha, it is wise to include the Orisha's tools. These tools, also called herramientas, represent aspects of the Orisha and the phenomena they govern. Most of the tools are a combination of traditional items familiar to the Yoruba people before the Transatlantic slave trade, and objects they encountered in the Americas. While not traditional parts of West African culture, objects like metal crowns, ox-drawn plows, and metal chalices all found their place among the tools of the Orishas.
Most Orishas have their own distinct set of tools, and a sopera to hold both the tools and fetish stones (otá). Some of these include:
Ochun does not have many tools. Her crown represents her sovereignty, while the lances that hang from it represent her protective nature. Her other tool, oars, symbolizes her position as a river goddess, as well as the balance between tenderness and ferocity, and good and evil. Her soperas are yellow and gold ceramic, and her five yellow stones come from the Osun river.
Shango is the god of battle and lightning, and his tools are traditionally made from the wood of his favorite tree, red cedar. As an invincible warrior, his tools reflect items used in battle -- an ax, oshe (double-headed ax), an arrow, a dagger, a machete, and a lance. His sopera is usually cedar wood, containing at least six thunderstones along with eighteen cowrie shells.
Inle is a hunter and healer who dwells where rivers meet the sea. His tools consist of a trident wrapped in snakes (similar to a caduceus or staff of Asclepius), three fish, a spear, and a bow. These represent prosperity, in the form of the bounty of the land and seas. His sopera is usually blue and green, and some of them cleverly incorporate fish motifs.
Yemaya is the beautiful goddess of the sea, while Olokun is often named as her husband, father, or sometimes even combined with her. As an ocean deity, Yemaya-Olokun's tools are frequently made of lead -- the only metal salt water will not corrode. Her tools are a moon, symbolic of her role as mother to the Orishas, and a sun, symbolic of power, life, and her ability to extinguish it. A pair of oars represent balance, while an anchor represents stability. A life preserver symbolizes her willingness to save those in need. Lastly, mermaid represents her beauty and connection to the ocean's mystery.
One of Olokun's tools is a doll with a snake in one hand and a mask in the other, to represent life and death. Her soperas are predominantly blue or blue and white ceramic, and contain seven black, smooth stones and eighteen cowries as well as her tools.
Using the Orishas' Tools
Skilled, experienced practitioners can use the tools of the Orishas as a type of sympathetic magic. Shango's weapons, for example, can be used to protect someone from harm and keep danger away, and Inle can bring wealth and prosperity. The methods for using them vary from tradition to tradition, and not all traditions or houses use the same tools for a given Orisha.
No matter what tradition you follow, it is important to build a relationship with an Orisha before doing this -- think of it as paying your dues before attempting to ask them for help. Place cups or bowls of fresh water on the altar, and change them daily. Light candles in the right colors. At least once a week, leave the appropriate food offerings on the altar. (Be sure to replace them if they begin to decay!)
The Orishas tools empower them to help create change. They are physical symbols of the Orishas' power, and, through them, they can help bring you protection, healing, prosperity, beauty, love, and more. By working within your tradition to properly honor your Orisha, set up an altar, and provide them with the right tools and environment, you can strengthen your spiritual connection.