Working with Substances: Ataré
These seeds are central to the practice of Lucumí religion. Called Guinea pepper, Alligator pepper, or ataré, the seeds of the Aframomum melagueta appear in critical places in every major ceremony of the religion. Specific numbers of the seeds are used to “mark” or identify the presence of specific orichas. The ancestors are usually fed on a plate where 9 ataré sit on a pool of palm oil resting in 9 small pieces of coconut. The herbal concoction used to birth orichas is also coded with a specific number of ataré. Ochún’s osain takes five ataré, while Obatalá’s takes eight. When people really want to excite Elegguá, they will sometimes take seven ataré in their mouths and chew them, before taking a swig of rum and blowing the mixture out onto Elegguá. I was taught that it intensifies the aché of the prayers uttered. In Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, Omosade Awolalu says Yoruba people still use it the same way.
So why is this particular kind of pepper so important? As the common name suggests, it is linked to Africa. But more importantly, its Lucumí name translates to mean “pepper of blessing” or “pepper of goodness.” Its growth habit and form are also interesting. A tiny seed grows into a robust bush. Trump-shaped purple flowers give way to prodigious seed pods overflowing with thousands of seeds. It is a powerful image of growth and increase.
And why does the awán take seven ataré? Seven is the number or the “mark” of many orichas, including Echu Elegguá, Yemayá, Erinle, and Babalú-Ayé. While most people maintain that the awán is an offering to Babalú, my teacher, Ernesto Pichardo—Obá Irawo maintains that it is in fact an offering to Echu. In either case, the mark matches the active oricha.
Seven ataré in the awán add aché to the prayers of those involved, promise increase and blessing, and allude to the orichas active in the ceremony.