Friday, July 1, 2011

The Power of Knowledge: Elders, Logic and Tratados

My conversations with knowledgeable priests and priestesses generate lots of interesting insights, but only occasionally do these elders cite their sources--something I try to do here. To be fair, Ernesto Pichardo--Obá Irawo often refers to things he learned from his oyugbona, Romelio Pérez--Talabí, who learned from Armando Zulueta--Omí Toké. Pedro Abreu--Asonyanye acknowledges that he learned a lot from Benito--Oché Paure, who studied Arará traditions deeply. Magdelena Fernández--whose oricha name I do not know--will sometimes credit Margot San Lázaro with certain ideas or ritual practices.

At the same time, Pedro is clear about the fact that he does not do ceremonies in the same way as any of his fellow Arará priests. He explains that he engaged in recopilación, a compilation of data, from Oché Paure and others before using logic to come to his own conclusions about how the initiation of Asojano "should" be.

This recopilación includes conversations with elders in the know as well as a review of tratados, those texts where people have tried to capture the knowledge they have about the religion. These tratados can be created by almost anyone. Many practitioners are currently using Nuevo tratado enciclopédico de Ifá as a major source of information. I know Pedro consults and trusts this source as an accurate representation of the different signs of Ifá. Similarly, there is a Tratado de Asojuano that many people have access to. These sources seem to be firmly grounded in Lucumí and Arará practice in Cuba, though the Nuevo tratado includes stories translated from Ibie´s book on Ifá from Benin City, Nigeria.

However, the last few years have seen the appearance of many new tratados that codify many practices that appear to be completely new. The most surprising ones suggest that a babalawo must create an osain for every oricha before it is made--a shocking innovation to most people in Lucumí and Arará houses.

On the other hand, the Oshumaré tratado I recently came across mixes up the small amount of remaining Lucumí knowledge about this deity, the still vibrant Arará traditions about Güeró, a bit of ethnographic data from Herskovits, and some ritual knowledge from Brazil, whose religious landscape I do not know well enough to identify a clear source. At any rate, it is just a terrible mish-mash, what Cubans might call a revolú.

All these sources raise many questions about the source and value of knowledge in the religion. For ease of reflection, we can imagine three sources of images for knowledge about how the practice of the religion: accounts and memories about the actions of the ancestors; the reflections and analyses of active practitioners; and written documentation. To which should we give the greatest weight? Serious critiques can be leveled at each of them. Some elders repeated mechanically what they had seen. While there are norms for logically analyzing our traditions and discussing them, even the most capable priest will have limitations in his vision. And who knows who complied these tratados and what sources they are based on?

In the end, I think it comes down to a deep tension built into the tradition between the authority of our ancestors and their actions on one hand and the authority of centralizing voices like tratados on the other. Less abstractly, practitioners marshal and deploy knowledge from these sources in specific ritual contexts, each with its own social dynamics. The knowledge is a currency, used strategically by senior priests and priestesses, in specific performances, which both demonstrate and generate their authority--one aspect of their aché. These elders must know how and when to bring their knowledge into play to have the greatest impact.

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