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.
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.
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.)