A: I’ve been around the new-age movements for quite some time, and in my days I have seen ... everything. In Orlando there was a group that practiced “Santerísmo,” and I’ve met many people worshipping the orishas through the pagan faith of Wicca. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I wasn’t impressed.
Still, at their most basic level the orishas are the forces of nature. One could leave offerings for Oshún at the river, Yemayá at the ocean, or Ogún at the crossroads. Prayers and cleansings to Érínlè could be made at the place where the river meets the sea. But even though one makes those offerings at the appropriate places, the question remains, “Would the orishas hear the supplicant or even accept the offerings?”
My belief is maybe.
The reason I say maybe is because of an orisha in our pantheon similar to one in your own, Elegguá. Elegguá is the orisha who stands at the crossroad between heaven and earth; he is the orisha who determines if our prayers and offerings reach the orishas, or if they don’t. In the oral corpus of Unle Meji (8-8 in the diloggún) we have many stories explaining why this is so, and in the body of the original manuscript Teachings of the Santería Gods I wrote one of the patakís explaining why Elegguá had this very special ashé, this power. Unfortunately, due to space constraints I had to cut it from the final manuscript. I’ll share this story with you here (and please forgive its rough nature – I never wrote it as a final draft):
Olódumare was alone in heaven, contemplating his creation, the earth. It was like a smooth turquoise stone, wrapped in black velvet and nesting carefully in a swath of swirling planets and stars. It teemed with life, forms and figures drawn from the creator’s own dreams. For an eternity, the eternal had molded and minded his sculptures, nurturing them with his ashé. With his work completed, Olódumare was exhausted. Yet his emissaries, the orishas, were new and fresh. “If I give them ashé,” Olódumare thought, “I can rest and watch my world evolve.”
As if in prayer, Olódumare touched his hands to his forehead; then, he bowed, crossing his arms over his chest. He sent his thoughts over the earth, and called his orishas home.
Elegguá was the first to hear his summoning, and Elegguá was the first to arrive. The orisha was not young himself; his form coalesced when Olódumare first awakened and spread throughout the universe. He, along with the powerful Orúnmila, through the eyes of Agidai, watched creation as it unfolded. They saw the first stirrings, and knew them intimately. While ancient, Elegguá’s physical form was new, and he had the strength to do what Olódumare was too tired to complete.
Elegguá grieved when he saw his father. Olódumare seemed old and weak; the act of creation drained his strength, and he sat in a chair, looking small and ineffective. In reverence, Elegguá prostrated himself on the floor, saying as he did, “Olódumare, you look tired. Please, let me help you with your work.”
Too tired to stand and bend but unable to leave Elegguá stranded on the floor, Olódumare stooped from his seat and blessed the orisha, bidding him to rise. Every movement he made was slow and pained, and he knew he would never finish the work ahead alone. “Son,” he agreed, sadly, “You are right. For centuries I have worked so that you all had a place to live. I, with my own hands, created a world and the universe in which that world dwells. I did not realize how exhausted I was until I sat here today. But before I can rest, there is more work to do, work that cannot wait. I must suffuse each orisha with my ashé if I am to retire and turn the world over to them. I doubt I have the strength to do it alone. But if you help me, you might be here with me for a very long time. Please, do not tease me or make false promises. Have you the dedication for such a task?”
Elegguá knew he was eternal, like his father, and knew that he had nothing but time on his hands. “Father, you have sacrificed your own eternal existence to create us and the world in which we live. How can there be any doubt? I must stay with you until the end. It is the least that I can do for you.”
With Elegguá at his side, Olódumare continued to call the orishas to heaven. Each left imbued with ashé. In the beginning, Elegguá stood by his father, a silent participant in the ritual of ashé; and by watching, he learned what ashé was, and how it was given. Each who came failed to notice Olódumare’s exhaustion, and no one save Elegguá offered to stay and help.
As Olódumare’s strength waned, Elegguá became his strength, and helped him put the ashé on each head that came to him. Soon, Elegguá was so proficient in bestowing ashé that he was able to do it alone, with Olódumare watching and blessing it by his words only. It took sixteen long years, but finally the last orisha came through Olódumare’s doors; and that orisha received ashé from Elegguá’s hands while Olódumare watched proudly. He was thankful, for Elegguá finished a task he did not have the strength to complete. God was grateful, and rested.
After the last orisha came and left, Olódumare looked at his son; he was worn out from the work. “Elegguá, you have served me well, and you have learned things no other orisha knows. Now, it is your turn to have ashé.” Olódumare then ministered to him, and as ashé settled on his head, Elegguá’s form refreshed, and he became a young child. “You can be young or old as it pleases you, Elegguá.” Elegguá marveled at the miracle. “I called you first, and you will always be first, and since you were the last to leave me, you shall also be the last in all things. And because you served me so well, I give you a special task in the world. The road between heaven and earth must be sealed. You will be that seal. Anyone who wishes their prayers to be heard by me must first go through you, and you have the right to demand payment from them before you let them pass. Those who bring gifts to you have my ear; those who come empty-handed, you can block them as you wish. As you were my helper here; you will be my helper on earth.”
So Elegguá, after sixteen years of servitude, left heaven and settled at the cross-roads separating the spiritual and material realms. Those who approached the gates to heaven had to first petition him, and Elegguá, at his whim, would either allow or deny access to heaven. No mortal dared approach without making ebó, and no orisha, no matter how powerful, could sway Elegguá without a gift. This was the beginning of his great ashé in our religion, and how Elegguá amassed great wealth.It is for that reason that I can only say maybe when asked if an orisha will accept or even know about an offering when someone outside our faith makes it. Before approaching any orisha, Elegguá must be supplicated; also he receives a portion of each offering made. Yet the only way to know what Elegguá wants from us is to ask Elegguá; and the only way to approach Elegguá directly, at least by the uninitiated, is through a reading with either obí (the coconuts) or the diloggún (the cowrie shells). And the only people in the world who have consecrated Elegguás to whom one may throw obí, or consecrated cowrie shells that will access the 256 odu of creation, are the santeros, the priests who have initiation.
There are myriad paths to the orishas: there is the Lucumí faith (Santería), Candomble, and dozens of traditional Yoruba faiths that have made their way into the United States. If I’m not mistaken, Vodou, the faith you practice, has Yoruba influence and worships quite a few of the orishas in its way. If someone truly loves the orishas and wants to worship them, in my opinion they will walk one of the paths that actually leads to them and not some hodge-podge “mix and match” thing they create as they go. That, quite simply, is cultural appropriation.
Q: I was intrigued by your criticism of William Bascom’s dismissal of the diloggún (cowries) in favor of the Table of Ifá. I wonder how much of his prejudice stems from the fact that the cowries have become prominent in Cuba, whereas Ifá is favored in Africa. I’ve noticed that many academics focus on the African roots of the religion and denigrate, ignore, or minimize the variations which became prevalent in the New World.
A: To be honest, I’m surprised that anyone considers William Bascom an authority on anything regarding the diloggún. His first book titled Ifá Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa was published in 1969. It seems the manuscript for that volume was finished (barring final edits) in March of 1965 when he wrote the original preface to the volume. He did spend a considerable amount of time doing research for that volume. In his preface he wrote, “Most of the data for this study were recorded in the city of Ife in 1937-1938 on a predoctoral fellowship from the Social Science Research Council ... six weeks were spent in Igana during that year.” A later Fulbright grant allowed him to spend three months in Meko, three months in Oyó, and three months in Ijesa – all during the period from 1950 through 1952. During that time he also spent a day or two in the following towns: Ilaro, Ilara, Abeokuta, Ibadan, Iseyin, Oke-Iho, Irawo, Ogbomoso, Osogbo, Sagamu, Ijebu Ode, Ondo, and half a dozen towns throughout Ekiti. Two months were spent in Nigeria in 1960 and three months in 1965; this was funded by the University of California’s Institute of International Studies and the Social Science Research Council. He admits in his preface that Ifá divination was not the only subject studied during this time, but he doesn’t list what other studies were completed.
If we accept that the period in 1937 through 1938 was a full year, Bascom spent a total of 26 months doing his research on Ifá – or two years and two months. It is an impressive amount of time for a cultural anthropologist to spend studying a single subject. Personally, I don’t agree that this makes him an authority on Ifá divination. I feel that the true authorities are the people who live and breathe Ifá every day of their lives. Still, he had a considerable knowledge base from which to write his book.
Contrast this with the period of time he spent studying diloggún divination among the Yoruba. Turning to the introduction of his book Sixteen Cowries, Bascom writes, “When we (referring to his only research subject Salako) met in February, 1951, Salako was about seventy years old ... toward the end of our three months in Oyó, Salako agreed to recite all the verses that he knew into a tape recorder so that they could be preserved for the future... He then sat down before the tape recorder with Mrs. Berta M. Bascom and recorded five and a half solid hours of verses.” Those quotes come from pages 11 through 12 of his text, and the research done with Salako formed the bulk of his knowledge about divining with cowries. Contrast this: Bascom spent roughly 26 months researching Ifá among the Yoruba; however, he spent only five and a half hours of his final months in Oyó recording divination verses from the diloggún. These were gathered from a single research subject named Salako. Five and a half hours, and maybe a couple of friendly conversations, are not enough time to master the bulk of what diloggún is. Honestly, from his field work one cannot say that Ifá divination was more prevalent among the Yoruba at that time because Bascom did not spend that much time with cowrie shell diviners. His view is unbalanced.
That is why I criticize Bascom’s field work regarding diloggún divination; and that is why those who study the subject need to do their own field work and form their own opinions. As a Lucumí priest and diviner, I know from experience that there is nothing simple about this system, and from conversations with Lucumí babalawos, I know our method of divination is just as complicated as theirs.
Q: I also loved your description of ebó. You hit the nail on the head when you stated, “To the Lucumí, everything in this world has its price – that price is known as sacrifice, or ebó.” I think there's a great sense of entitlement not only in Western spiritualism but in Western culture. I wonder how much of that plays into the controversy about sacrifice in African Diaspora religions.
A: It is true that we are a culture espousing instant gratification, and that flows into Western religion. Christianity is the worst. They might argue this point, but Christians for the most part don’t go to Church on Sunday to evolve or grow spiritually. They go to feel good about themselves. Spend all week smoking, drinking, partying, overeating, having premarital sex, doing drugs, cheating on your spouse, lying, beating the children, mistreating the dog, taking God’s name in vain, coveting ... name your sin. But it’s okay because come Sunday one can go to Church or go to Mass and beg forgiveness. “Jesus” wipes it all away and the soul becomes white as lamb’s wool. Monday morning one returns to their daily life knowing there is salvation, and if a person messes up again it’s okay. It’s okay because Jesus will forgive. And so the cycle continues. There is no personal responsibility in any of that.
It makes me ill.
Our religion doesn’t give us that freedom to mess up and beg forgiveness. It demands personal responsibility in all that we do. First and foremost the orishas demand behavior modification. Do the same thing the same way and you’ll get the same results; if you want to grow, if you want to evolve, you have to modify the things you do so you get different results. Also, while prayer is an important part of our faith, worship is a very active thing. This religion is more than a religion; it is a culture. We have foreign languages to learn; we have songs to memorize; and even our bodies must be trained to dance a different way. To be a part of this faith, I even had to learn how to cook because the orishas are spirits who like food! And work itself is an important part of worship: there are floors to sweep and mop; chickens and other animals to pluck, skin, and butcher; there are tons of foods that must be cooked, fabrics to sew, necklaces and mazos to bead. I don’t think any other faith I’ve known has involved work at such an intense level as an act of worship.
Work itself is ebó!
And I think you are right: The great sense of entitlement shared by Western culture and Western spirituality is the reason there is so much controversy about the practices of ebó and sacrifice. People expect something for nothing when it comes to God.
Q: The Lucumí faith, Santería, practices animal sacrifice, and this is a form of ebó. Is it fair to say that the sacrifice of an animal is the highest ebó one may offer?
A: No, it’s not. Although animal sacrifice seems to be a huge thing, in truth it is not the highest sacrifice one can offer. The holiest material ebós in this religion are, from highest to lowest: ñame, corn, coconut, and fresh water. When marking ebó with the diloggún, the sacrifice of an animal is the last thing asked after all other options have been explored. And as anyone who has read my books will note, there are myriad options for ebó that do not include the sacrifice of an animal. The practice is overly sensationalized by the media.