Thursday, March 25, 2010

Working with Atenas: Ogbe-Tuanilara

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Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye also writes the sign Ogbe-Otura under the awán basket. Nicknamed Ogbe-Tuanilara, this sign is often referred to as the place where Asojano’s secrets were born and where illness was spread across the world. These may or may not have anything to do with each other, but it is interesting to notice these things share the same source.

Which of Asojano’s many secrets are born here? The secret of what goes into the já to make it powerful? The secret that goes into the beaded and be-shelled bracelet called the cachá? The secret that Pedro places inside the covered vessel where Asojano eats? The secret place where he eats? The secret that Jundesi planted behind the house of Armando Zulueta?

The sign does include a long story about why oricha priests and priestesses perform their cleansing offerings—why they make ebó—with Eleguá. Eleguá wants to know the secrets of Osain, the oricha of the secrets of the forest. In the process, his mother transforms him into a hunchback, so he will resemble Osain. Osain is in trouble and is told to make an offering to Babalú-Ayé, but he turns to his father instead. Eleguá calls down the rains, and the trees become twisted and people become ill. In the end, Eleguá makes ebó with trash from the Earth and speckled rooster and everything goes back to normal. The summary of the story says the client must have an awán with a speckled rooster.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that when I recently asked Pedro about this sign and its role in the awán, he changed the subject to the sign Oché-Osá, where the Arará Eleguás are born.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

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.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Working with Atenas: Irete Meyi

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Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye uses signs under the awán basket and includes Irete Meyi. He glosses the sign as the spirituality of Asojano, and I have heard other babalawos say the same thing. Some people add that this sign is Babalú-Ayé in person. Nothing else gets said; apparently it is not necessary in the laconic style of the religion.

Other things also appear in this sign: it is the birthplace of the bubonic plague, pleurisy, pestilent fevers, syphilis, leukemia, and leprosy. It speaks of illnesses in the legs and even paralysis. It also seems to rule skin diseases: it is the birthplace of eczema, abscesses, and furuncles. Some people say that smallpox was born here, but others insist it was born in Odí-Eyeunle.

The sign also rules pimples on the skin. In Cuban Spanish, the word granos means both “pimples” and “grains.” So in some way, the universal offering to Babalú, the gourd filled with grains and beans, can be thought of a gathering of sores offered back to their source.

Irete Meyi seems to focus on many of the destructive aspects of Asojano, but when it comes out in divination, it promises long life. So maybe Irete Meyi, Asojano in person, seems to embody a long life filled with pustules, pestilence, and plagues.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Working with Substances: Bread


Santería priests work with bread in many contexts. There are only a few things that every oricha will eat: fruit, coconuts, the tamales called ekó, and bread. Seventeen rolls on a plate is a common offering to Babalú-Ayé, and in some house you even see them nailed to the inside of the door frame as a concrete prayer for a constant supply of food to enter the house. They are also placed in the bottom of the awán basket when they honor Babalú.


What could be more essential, more basic, than bread--that ancient mixture of wheat, water, leavening, and fire? Bread remains "the staff of life." And as a culinary imperative, it holds a special place in the imagination of many cultures. Bread is the most basic food, the sine qua non of Western cuisine. Some writers have even seen bread as the best symbol for human beings' transformational impact on nature. It is the raw, and then cooked, as Levi-Strauss pointed out. As a basic building block of the Cuban diet, its inclusion in the awán points to the centrality of Babalú-Ayé.

Bread starts out alive. The leavening grows, nourishing itself on the sugars in the wheat. The gas produced in the process creates the characteristic air holes. However, when you add fire and bake, the leavening dies, and the loaves are nothing but the skeleton of once living colony of yeasts. It's a bit like the coral stones so characteristic of Babalú's worship--like the one at the Sociedad Africana de Santa Bárbara. They start out as living organisms, but when removed, they too are skeletons--each one the long-lasting remnant of a former existence. More on that later...

So adding the bread to the awán basket invokes two very different aspects of Babalú-Ayé. It calls up a universal notion of sustenance, the daily bread, the material necessities that keep our bodies alive and moving. At the same time, it invokes that enduring, irreducible part of human being that remains present even after devastating violence or irreparable harm.

(Special thanks to filmmaker Madli Lääne of Estonia for the fantastic image. Check out her work, including the film Toma Uno about Cuba.)