Saturday, July 3, 2010

Interview with Ócha'ni Lele (Part III)

Q: What role can books (even excellent books like yours!) play in the religion? At what point do you have to stop reading and start looking for a community?

I think we need to think about books and the written word in conjunction with what the odu teaches us; and might I note that there are plenty of proverbs in the odu that speak of books and the written word. The most obvious one that comes to mind right now is the odu Osá Irosun, 9 mouths followed by 4 mouths in the diloggún. There are a couple of proverbs speaking of just this:


What is written you cannot erase.
What is written is not forgotten.
You can look ahead and you can look behind, but what is written is not forgotten.
Quite a few years ago I read some of John Mason’s collective works. One of the theories he espoused as both a priest and a scholar is that each of our elders in this religion is a folkloric library. Every head living has a unique collection of experiences: anecdotes, stories, and personal experiences. Likewise, each head living has a collective body of knowledge gleaned by years of experience in the religion. Thankfully and sadly not each head holds the same knowledge. I say thankfully, because it proves that our spirituality is too diverse for one person to know everything – there have to be specialties of knowledge among our ranks. And I say sadly, because when death takes an elder his or her unique collection of knowledge and experience is wiped from this earth.

If that elder has passed on his knowledge, it remains in his descendants. Unfortunately, knowledge and experience aren’t passed on equally and loss in our oral system is almost guaranteed.

My opinion is that the written word can and should be our salvation. Elders and minors alike should document the things they go through, their various experiences which will, one day, become a vital part of history. Books must be written, and those books must be published. Secrets not belonging in the general public, for example the uninitiated aleyos and aborishas, should be reserved for the priesthood only but nonetheless they should be committed to paper for inheritance after an elder’s death. We are growing geometrically, and a single elder might have dozens if not hundreds of initiated godchildren. With our present system no one can adequately train all those heads; however, if things are committed to paper they can be saved and passed on. People will argue this, of course, but it’s true.

There is another patakís that appeared in the original manuscript of Teachings of the Santería Gods that, unfortunately, did not make my final cut for the manuscript. It is from the oral corpus of Eji Oko, two mouths. It explains how the markings for the oracle of Ifá came to be; and by extension, when writing and the written word were introduced to the Lucumí slaves in the New World, the patakís came to embody the inclusion of the written word in our religion. It went through some changes, as the oral lore often does. I’d like to share that here. It is still rough, so, please, forgive me for that. I never finished a final draft:
The Birth of Ink and Writing:
After many centuries of work, Olófin was tired and wished to retire. To Obatalá he turned over the task of educating humans. “Go out into the world, Obatalá, and find a way to make our texts and truths eternal. For soon, we will all withdraw into heaven, and while we are far away, the humans will still need our teachings to evolve.”
Obatalá went out into the world and taught the humans one-on-one. He gathered the priests and priestesses and instructed them in the mysteries of heaven and earth, and everything that lay between them. Odu, proverbs, patakís, history, and ebó: He taught all this, and more, to the first generation of initiates himself, and watched as they, in turn, began to instruct others.
Yet word of mouth changed the teachings from generation to generation, and Obatalá found he still had to instruct mortals one-on-one, especially when a great elder passed, taking many things untaught to his or her grave.
“Never again will I see heaven,” Obatalá thought. “For I will always be here, doing exactly this.”
The old man set out to find a way to record his teachings, permanently, so nothing would be lost. First, he wandered in the desert, and with his staff he drew symbols in the sand, recording everything that the humans needed to know to continue the spirituality of the orishas on earth. When he was done, he stood back, and looked at his writing.
A great wind blew; the sands shifted, and everything was lost.
“The sands shift, and nothing is left. This is no different than the death of an elder – an entire library is lost. This will not survive the ages. There must be another way,” he thought.
Obatalá continued to wander and think until he came to the land of Abeokuta. There were great stone slabs throughout the city, and he had another great idea. Using efun, he wrote out all the sacred patakís and lore of the faith on these great rocks, and when he was done, humans came and lauded his work.
But it was the rainy season, and when the rains came, they washed the stones clean.
“This will not do,” said Obatalá to himself. “Our teachings must be eternal. Again, time has erased them.”
Once more, Obatalá wandered the world, thinking about how to best preserve the knowledge of their religion. He wandered into Oyó, and came to Shangó’s palace. The orisha was there, and when he saw Obatalá, he was happy.
“Father!” he embraced the old man. “What has brought you to my kingdom?”
Together, the two walked through the courtyard while Obatalá unburdened himself on Shangó. “Olófin says that soon, we will all return to heaven. He gave me the task of immortalizing our teachings so everyone remembers them through the generations. I tried instructing the elder priests one-on-one, but the elders die, and things go untaught and are lost. That is not eternal; it is not what Olófin asked me to do. So I created writing, and wrote all our teachings in the sand. But the winds blew that away. It is not eternal, and is not what Olófin wanted. So I wrote all our teachings on stone, with efun, and the rains washed that away. It is not eternal. It is not what Olófin wanted me to do.”
“You, father, need something that can stand up to the elements. And you need something that can be stored safely.” Shangó called his men to cut down a great palm tree, and from its wood, they cut thin boards. Shangó mixed efun with the powdered shavings of the palm, and then sacrificed a white dove over that. It became a thick, black ink. He whittled a thin branch until it had a point, and dipped it in the ink. This, he gave to Obatalá.
“Now, Father, write what you will. When it dries, the wind cannot erase it, nor can the rain wash it away; and it will be light enough for us to store in our houses and study.”
Obatalá embraced the orisha, and thanked him. He then locked himself up in Shangó’s palace, and wrote out all the knowledge he had in his head.
And so it is through today. Whenever we want to immortalize our words, we write then down with ink on paper, and store them safely in our houses. Memories fade, but the writing lasts forever, and nothing is truly lost as long as those writings are saved.
I think those who study this patakís can understand the importance of the written word to our faith.

Q: What advice do you have for those looking to enter the religion? How can they find a good ilé and avoid fraudulent or unethical practitioners?

This is a subject that Oba Ernesto Pichardo has written on extensively. For the answer to that question I can do no better than direct readers here.

Q: After Teachings of the Santería Gods, what is coming next? What new books can we be looking for in the coming years?

I think, as a writer, this is the busiest time of my life! While promoting Teachings of the Santería Gods I’m working on a new manuscript that is under contract with Destiny Books, an imprint of Inner Traditions International. The working title for that volume is How the Moon Fooled the Sun: A Collection of Lucumí Folklore from the Diloggún. It is another collection of short stories, retellings of our most ancient patakís. Some are very rare and few except the eldest of our heads will know them. Some are quite popular but I’ve given them new life by focusing on the characterizations and moral dilemmas that each story embraces. All of them are paired with the composite odu in which they are found, and I think that is a major plus of the manuscript because even with our most well-known and well-loved patakís, few initiates know the odu in which they are told. More importantly: the book focuses on the natural world. These are the stories of the moon, the sun, the earth, the sky, the rain, the wind, the oceans, the rivers, and the animals.

Did you know we have hundreds of patakís dealing with the animals? It’s something overlooked by both adherents and researchers alike. When I was a child I grew up on some of the African American folktales and yarns. My grandmother would tell me the tall tales of Aunt Nancy and the plantation stories of Uncle Remus. There were dozens of animal tales among those. Well, a lot of those animal tales, now that I’ve really buckled down and studied our own patakís, have roots in our mythology and folklore. It’s amazing. I had no idea. There are stories about the cat, the dog, the elephant, the leopard, the ferret, the jutía, the pig, the monkey . . . the list seems inexhaustible. And it’s through these stories that morals are most evident. Teachings of the Santería Gods has a small handful of animal stories in it, but this volume I’m writing now will focus on the natural world.

It’s due on my publisher’s desk December 31, 2010, and I’m hoping it will come out by December 2011.

After that book, I have a series of books planned about the orishas and their avatars, or roads. I’m exploring their natures through patakís and narrative, not pompous dialogue. I want to illustrate their natures through their own stories, not discuss my own feelings and opinions about them. I also have two novels (more like novellas right now) planned: The Golden Chain and The Rape of Yembo. The first book, The Golden Chain, is a novelized version of our creation myths. In it I will be exploring the natures and dynamics between Odua, Obatalá, and Eshu. The Rape of Yembo will be an emotional book to write: it examines the issue of rape (as evidenced by the title), and the mess the world was thrown into when Ogún raped his own mother. Both works exist as rough drafts; and they will need a lot of work to bring them to publishable form. But I think, after writing hundreds of short stories, I’m up to the challenge.

Of course there’s more planned, but those works are too far into the future to discuss now. It should suffice to say that I have a lifetime of work ahead of me, and if the orishas grant me the time on this earth I need to complete them, one day I will leave quite a prolific body of work behind for posterity.