Saturday, February 20, 2010

Revisiting Charcoal and Ojuani

As I reflected on the intersection of charcoal and Ojuani Meyi, I discovered something interesting. It turns out that the sign Ofún-Ojuani represents an important nexus of the various themes that surround Babalú-Ayé. I have a tratado that says explicitly that in this sign is born:

  •  the secret of charcoal (and ashes);
  • the curse of the color black;
  • the pilgrimage; and
  • the great secret of Shakuaná.
 It is interesting to note that the sign also includes a recipe for the creation of Ibako, the prenda of Oluó Popó.

While there is no story explaining the secret of charcoal or the curse of the color black, there is a story explaining the use of colored cloth in the crowning of new oricha priests. It lists black as the color for Shakuaná (though I should say that I think most people would say it should be red).

The tratado does provide some detail about the great secret of Shakuaná. It says that before he was Asojano, he was called Kelejewe Kuto, and he had to die in order to be reborn. It also says that here Shakuaná set out on the road to another land to be crowned. If we look at this as an analogy, in which the link is pilgrimage or movement, we could chart the transformation:

Kelejewe Kuto : Asojano:: old life : rebirth:: uncrowned : crowned

It makes you wonder about the charcoal. It has an old life as wood, and its rebirth results in a crown of new, hotter flames.

So all this suggests—I find it difficult to be too definitive about these things—that breaking charcoal into the basket of the awán is essentially the same as using Ofún-Ojuani as an atena. It suggests that the charcoal promises a movement from old life to rebirth.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Working with Atenas: Ojuani Meyi

So Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye includes the divination sign Ojuani Meyi as one of the atenas he writes under the awán basket. He says it is the birth place of Asojano’s vessel and ritual broom, his cazuela and his . Priests like Abreu see themselves as ceremonialists, claiming that every ritual is a contemporary expression of a timeless story from a particular odu.

In Ojuani Meyi is where Asojuano came down to end the war between Guinea and Partridge.

In ancient times Guinea Hen and Partridge were the witches of the forest. They were both so strong in their witchcraft that they entered into a battle to the death, dragging all their followers into the struggle. While they cast great spells, terrible epidemics assaulted the Earth, and their children emerged from their eggs with witchcraft. Their young were witches by birthright. (Since that time, their eggs have been used in dangerous witchcraft.)

So many were the deaths that Alakaso carried the news to Heaven. There, he found no one willing to go down to Earth to end the war; so Ojuani Meyi asked Olodumare for permission to go and put an end to the conflict. Olodumare told him that was fine, but that he should wait for the right moment. And that moment arrived when Alakaso advised him that in the land of Dassa the armies of Guinea and Partridge were preparing for battle. When the two armies had assembled face to face with their respective kings in front, Ojuani Meyi cast himself from Heaven, crying out “Shakuaná”—meaning “Crowned King.” He landed between the two armies. Guinea and Partridge were both surprised and horrified when, in the havoc of combat, Shakuaná challenged them to a duel. They accepted and attacked. When Partridge landed on Shakuaná’s head to paralize him with excrement, Shakuaná struck him with the, the ritual broom he had brought from Heaven. With a quick stab, Shakuaná ran Guinea through with the já and ended the war, thus making all the children and vassals of Guinea and Partridge into the slaves and servants of Shakuaná. In this way, Shakuaná ended the war, epidemic, and death that were assaulting Dassa.

People use this story to explain that the guinea and partridge are the secret of the crown of Asojano. They say that Mawo, as the Arará call Olodumare, made a crown with the heads of guinea and the partridge and used it to crown the King of Dassa, known from that time by the name Shakuaná Odasamu. Their feathers also adorn the já. (I’ll post a photo next week when I return to the office.)

The já is the quintessential tool of Asojano. In ceremonies priests use it like a broom to sweep off osobo—negativity, especially death and illness—from people. Made from the central stems of young palm fronds, the já has a highly beaded handle that is home to a powerful carga, a ritual charge of ingredients meant to bring Asojano’s aché to bear. I have collected many “recipes” for the já from many knowledgeable elders, and I can say the carga brings us back to working with substances.

The story also makes some other things plain. Ojuani Meyi, the sign itself in the form of a spirit, comes down and takes the name Shakuaná, the most powerful and secret name of Babalú-Ayé. So this sign becomes the oricha himself. No wonder Abreu uses it in awán.

The story also shows the intimate relationship between this oricha and Olodumare himself. Here Olodumare sends him to Earth to put an end to a witchcraft war and an epidemic in one. Here too Olodumare makes his crown and makes him king. So strong is the link between this oricha and the Supreme God that he carries the praise name Omolú, the son of God, and he is routinely referred to as the wrath of Olodumare.

While this story make clear the warrior quality of Ojuani Meyi qua Shakuaná, the specific power of the já and its links to Guinea, Partridge and Olodumare, it does not seem to tell us anything about the vessel of Asojano.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Working with Substances: Charcoal

One of the most beautiful and intriguing things about the world of the orichas is the incredible sophistication and differentiation that exists both in the use of substances for ritual and the complex narratives that represent certain timeless truths. While some people stress one of these aspects over the other, in fact both traditions remain very important and vital. My next few posts will explore these traditions in relationship to Babalú’s awán.

Those who follow the lineage of Armando Zulueta—Omí Toké crumble charcoal at the bottom of the basket used in the awán. My teacher Ernesto Pichardo taught me to do this, explaining that the charcoal moves us into the realm of the unknown, the mysterious. However, he also taught me to consider carefully the substances that we use in the religion to gain a better understanding of their inherent aché.

When organic materials like wood are burned in the absence of oxygen, they produce charcoal. It takes great skill to stack wood and burn it into charcoal, and in the Cuban countryside, many people make their living from cutting the invaisive maribú trees, burning them into charcoal, and selling it. It is widely used for cooking, and it remains most traditional for preparing the food at oricha ceremonies. Transformed wood becomes the basis for transforming food.

After burning, charcoal is much lighter but retains the basic shape of the original material. In this way, charcoal resembles the skeleton of a deceased person: The transformation changes it, but soemthing recognizable remains. In fact, many ritual works for individuals use a similar principle: the name of the concerned is written on a piece of paper and then burned; the ashes are placed in the work to make certain that the person named is affected. In each case, the remainder is a kind of irreducible essence of the thing.

Charcoal burns at very high heat and thus evokes “candela” in the religion. “Candela” literally means “fire.” Cubans will refer to problematic and memorable people as “candela,” but more often than not it implies danger, trouble, and problems. In fact, when the sign Eyila appears on the mat in dilogún divination, tradition mandates that the diviner light a piece of charcoal and then extinguish it in omiero, the watery herbal concoction used in ceremonies. This simple ceremony is meant to extinguish—or at least mitigate—the “candela” carried by sign.

The black color of charcoal links it to various important domains of activity. Ogún, the oricha of the forge, takes black in his necklace. Working in the vicinty of the forge, Ogún gets dirty, and the blacksmith’s art requires candela and the same kind of transformation as charcoal burning. Some roads of Babalú also take black, evoking the color of fertile Earth. In addition to these material realms, anthropologist Anthony Buckley has observed that black Earth parallels black skin, and when removed, red laterite or red sores appear, signalling the end of a agricultural or healthy productivity. Babalú’s black also reminds us the night. The awán must take place after dark, and Babalú will only eat—receive sacrifices—after sunset. Even the syncretic Feast of San Lázaro includes a nightime pilgrimage.

As Pichardo said, black evokes the unknown, and charcoal is used in the funeral rites of an initiate. Charcoal is added to the gourd that contains many sacred substances linked to the deceased and the whole gourd is wrapped in white and then black cloth.

So charcoal reflects transformation, contains something essential and material, and links to candela, Earth, night, and death. These things point to the unique aché of the charcoal added to the basket for an awán.

(Special thanks to Robin Thom and Flikr for the photograph of a charcoal stack in Cuba.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Awán Ceremony and Worshipping Babalú-Ayé




Perhaps the most common ceremony for worshiping Babalú-Ayé is the awán. In the ceremony, a basket is lined with sack cloth with many plates of cut-up food encircling it. Some elders say 13 plates, some say 17, and some even say 77 plates must be present. After sunset, participants gather round the basket and taking handfuls of food from each plate into their closed hands, rub the food around their bodies to remove negativity or osobo. Each handful of food is cast into the basket, until everyone has cleansed themselves. People are also cleansed with a speckled rooster, a guinea hen, two eggs and the já, the ritual broom of Babalú. Different lineages finish the awán in different ways, but these things remain pretty stable wherever you go.


Those who work the awán in the so-called Lucumí tradition follow the Arará-Dajomé lineage of Armando Zulueta. They place things at the bottom of the basket to begin. They crumble charcoal and add a peice of bread smeared with palm oil and topped with seven guinea peppers.

When Pedro Abreu-Asonyanye of the Arará-Sabalú performs the awán, he begins by tracing a circle of chalk on the ground. Inside the circle he marks a series of divination signs to invoke the key moments in the life of Asojano. Called atenas, these signs bring the specific aché of each sign to bear on the awán and the lives of those who participate. Pedro uses the following signs:

Oché-Turá is where Echu entered the world.
Ojuani Meyi is where Asojano's pot and já were born.
Irete Meyi is Asojano's spirituality.
Ogbe Twanilara is where Orunmila began speaking for Asojano. (Some people say this is also the birthplace of the secrets of Asojano.)
Ogbe-Yono is the journey of Asojano from to the land of the Arará.
Ocana-Osá is a sign used to remove osobo.

He also uses Obara-Oturá and Otura-Ché.

The study of these substances and signs should lead to new insight into the life and times of Asojano.

(So as I prepared to write this post, I realized that I have never taken a picture of an awán for Babalú-Ayé. The closest ritual is a similar ceremony done for Olocun, as seen in this photograph from the Playa de los Chivos in Habana del Este by David Brown. The awán for Babalú takes a similar form, but it always takes place after dark and it has a different function.)