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.)


  1. This is fascinating! I love that you are exploring the meaning of charcoal black at a time when we are surrounded by its opposite--fluffy white snow.

  2. In fact, Babalú´s black color is the perfect contrast to Obatalá's white. People sometimes refer to snow as the "mantle of Obatalá," and these two orichas represent opposites of sorts.