The Science, Reality, and Panacea of Orisha

 The Yoruba African Spiritual system has gone viral. It presents a broad framework with fascinating social and inclusive indigenous appeal, embracing a holistic and intuitive approach which incorporates history, flexibility, science, portability, and functionality, simultaneously making allowance for individuality and originality. This system was one of the driving forces behind the development of African Tribal art in Nigeria. The framework is similar to the methodology used in Object Oriented Programming (OOP) which utilizes objects, classes, and procedures.

Shango Dance Staff of a Standing Mother Carrying a Child. c. 1900.

A simple example should illustrate.

Note the Specific individuality.

If Jesus Christ were to be incorporated as an Orisha (spiritual being or divinity), the narrative would probably read as follows; His primary paths would be those of peace, sacrifice, and love. The offerings given to a shrine dedicated to him would consist of bread, fish, and wine. His colors would be “white” say, and his emblems would be the cross, the palm/olive branch, or thorns.

Note the General Characteristics

He would lie in the second of five levels of the Yoruba pantheon, below the level of Oldumare, Creator and Supreme Being. The third level would be the “Egungun” which are the ancestral spirits of the people. The next two levels consist of humans, grouped by kings, queens, chiefs, priests and priestesses ,while devotees complete the bottom level.

“The Orisha are seen as emissaries of Oldumare from whom they emanated. These Orisha are ancestors whose great deeds earned them divinity. The Orisha are said to recognize each other and are themselves identified or associated with different numbers and colors. “These polarities which each Orisha exhibits are expressed as personalities called Roads or Paths of the Orisha.” This is done through offerings to Orisha of their particular favorite foods and other gifts. One can learn much about these different Orishas by watching the forces of nature at work about you. “

“For instance, you can learn much about Oshún and her children by watching the rivers and streams she rules over and observing that though she always heads toward her sister Yemayá (the Sea) she does so on her own circuitous route. Also observe how the babbling brook and the flash flood reflect her changeable moods.” [1]

These Orishas can be contacted during a “bembe” where one or more of their priests will be mounted in a form of highly spiritualized trance possession. This possession by an Orisha is an integral part of Yoruba religious ritual as it serves as a means of communicating with the forces of Oldumare (God).

Shango Dancing Staff

Portability

This is demonstrated as follows – “Yoruba spiritual beliefs were retained in several systems including Batuque, Candomble, Tambor De Mina and Umbanda in Brazil, Lucumi and Santeria in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad and Jamaica, Venezuela, Palo, Vodou or Voodoo in Haiti. Consequently, slaves did not completely disconnect with their culture, nor blindly convert as the Christian Churches describe as “good sheep.” “Autonomous organizational structures, the framework of forced and eventual free migration, mutual contact and exchange stimulated the development of Orisha religions in the New World.” [2]

Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka (the first African awarded the Nobel Prize (’86) for Literature) , explained the Yoruba worldview as centered in compromise and stated that the greatest Yoruba virtue is tolerance. He claims that the survival of Yoruba religion in Cuba and Brazil is because of the powerful sense of tolerance and compromise.

“The deities have compromised with present times and modern technologies,” he said, citing, “the practice of placing god representations and saints on the single same altar in Brazil.”

” The gods are exemplars of human striving,” said Soyinka, “paradigms of existence and phenomenon… Yoruba gods are not perfect or infallible, “infallibility is seen as mystification.” [3]

[1] http://www.orishanet.org/ocha.html

[2] http://www.rootsandrooted.org/?p=1123

[3] http://www.loyno.edu/newsandcalendars/loyolatoday/2003/12/soyinka.html

E1 : http://ocw.nd.edu/anthropology

E2 : www.ohio.edu/africanart/gallerypageq.html

E3 : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wole_Soyinka

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Susu, Anansi, and Tabanka – the beginning

Five Areas of Common Tribal Heritage we never knew.

Beyond the use of masks in festivals and masquerades there are several areas of  African Tribal Art, and customs that form a common part of the heritage of the Diaspora. It is amazing that after hundreds of years there are commonalities and ties that have stood the test of both advances in technology, and concentrated attempts at indoctrination in different cultures.

Common Volcabulary[1]

“Susu” is a word based on the Yoruba word “esusu” meaning a rotation of funds to persons who have contributed to a central banker; a sharing of capital. This practice is done commonly throughout West Africa. A general misconception is that the word had its origins in the French word for “cent.”

The Caribbean use of “Allyuh” and “you all” also bear traits of West African language. Standard English just has “you,” which acts as the 2nd person singular AND the 2nd person plural. African languages make a distinction between the plural ‘you’ and the singular ‘you’ so therefore the “all” is inserted “allyuh”, “you all” to mean more than one. The Bajan “wunna,” which means “you all” is a version of the Ibo pronoun “unna” which has a similar meaning.

Ibo (Igbo) Tribe, Nigeria - Spirit Maiden Mask

“Moomoo” a word meaning stupid, or dumb, and “booboo” meaning coal in the eyes are also African based words. “Anansi” likewise is a chief character of folk tales in the Gold Coast. “Jumbi” is a word from Angola meaning a ghost, an entity that returns from the dead. “Locho” is a Congo word meaning “cheap; mean; stingy” that has found its way to the Caribbean. “Tabanka” or its variant (without the nasal consonants “n or m”) “Tabaka,” is a Congo word meaning sold out or bought out completely. So from this we have the Caribbean word “tabanka/tabaka” meaning completely lost in love. “Tooloom” comes from the word “toolumuka” which means to drag oneself or to pull out teeth. The Caribbean word “Lahe” which mean “wutless” or “good for nothing” is based in the Congo word “laha” which means the same. “Kongori” can be found in a series of languages in Africa from Gabon to the interior, and the meaning is the same – a millipede. “Kaiso” among the Niger Delta peoples is a term that means “well done!” and so at the end of a “kaiso” or “calypso” it is very suitable to hear such an acclamation. “Dwen/Douen” is also an African word which refers to the soul of a child that has died.

Bwoon Mask, Kuba Tribe - DRC : Famous Royal three way relationship!

 

Bamilike Tribe, Cameroon[2]

To compensate for not preserving the skull of a male ancestor, a family member must undergo a ceremony involving pouring libations into the ground. Dirt gathered from the spot then becomes a proxy representing the skull of the deceased. The tradition of sprinkling drops of liquor when a new bottle is opened may be derived from this.

Gunyege Mask, Dan Tribe - Ivory Coast

 

Dan Tribe, Ivory Coast[3]

The tradition of “tin” is still an essential part of Dan culture. Young people strive to make a name for themselves by lavishly spending at community feasts to demonstrate their wealth – hence to be described as a “Dan” refers to someone who dresses well, and who shows himself to be ahead of others in the categories of wealth or social prominence.

Ashanti, Ghana[4]

The Anansi tales are believed to have originated  from the Ashanti  tribe in Ghana. The word Anansi is Akan, and means simply spider.  An example of Anansi’s craftiness is given in the excerpt which sees him capturing a nest of hornets.

“To catch the hornets, Anansi filled a calabash with water and poured some over a banana leaf he held over his head and some over the nest, calling out that it was raining. He suggested the hornets get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening.”

Religious Beliefs – Yoruba Tribe,Nigeria [5]

With the trans Atlantic Slave Trade, the Yoruba religion was transplanted in various parts of the western hemisphere. Today it is practiced in a host of different forms. One of these is Vodoun, a mixture of Yoruba, Catholicism, and Freemasonry, in Haiti. It is known throughout South America, the Caribbean, and Central America as Santeria where it is practiced not only by Africans but also the descendants of indigenous peoples (misnomered Indians or Hispanic) that inhabit the region. Worship in the Yoruba religion is based upon the belief in a Supreme Being (Oldumare), the creator of Heaven (Orun) and Earth (Aye); the belief in a multitude of spiritual deities (Orisha); and the belief in ancestral spirits (Egungun).

Picasso, Demoiselles, Lam and “The Jungle”

Picasso’s African period, from 1907 to 1909[1] has been extensively documented. For some reason many authors seek to use the artist’s appreciation of Tribal African Art as justification that the styles, spirituality, and beauty of the art-form should be worthy of similar adulation and fascination by the masses.

Fang Mask - Stylistically similar to African Art said to have inspired Picasso

What may be more interesting however is that forceful thread of artistic scholarship, passed in spirit from an unknown African carver, to Picasso, to renown Afro-Cuban artist, Wifredo Lam.

Lam's "The Jungle" (1943) & Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907)

Although Les Demoiselles is seen as the first Cubist work, Picasso continued to develop a style derived from African art before beginning the Analytic Cubism phase of his painting in 1910. Both artists used African Tribal masks directly in their paintings (shown above) to reflect the multi faceted character of the human spirit.

Wifredo Lam, was a Cuban artist who developed an artistic style steeped in Surrealism and Cubism with which he used to highlight and interpret the beauty of Afro-Cuban form, culture, and it’s symbiotic relationship with nature, and natural forces. In 1938 Lam spent time in Paris where he developed a working friendship with Picasso whose encouragement may have “led Lam to search for his own interpretation of modernism.”[2]

When Lam returned to Cuba he painted his masterpiece (The Jungle), which reflected three main  themes,

1)   He believed that Cuba was in danger of losing its African heritage and therefore sought to display the Afro_Cuban spirit, free from cultural subjugation.

2)   He rejected the exploitation of the Afro-Cuban,

3)   He used his art as a “Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise… to disturb”[3]

Lam’s art is influenced by his background and exposure to African cultures, and African religions adapted to Caribbean life. He was exposed to the rituals of Santeria and Voodoun. His success is an inspiration to the artist working the unheralded theme, exploring new depths to which beauty can be both interpretive and forceful.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picasso’s_African_Period

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wifredo_Lam

3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wifredo_Lam

Witchcraft, Happiness and Coincidence

Malleability is an inherent characteristic of all men… very necessary so that when we get all “bent out of shape” it’s easier for God to straighten us out.

Bambara, Chiwara - Shapeshifter Legend

The opening diatribe is an essential preamble to a blog on race and religion -which covers two of the three PC untouchables. 

 So at the heart of the matter – I happened to come across an interesting article yesterday and the following quotes piqued my interest –   “A new Gallup poll found that belief in magic is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with over half of respondents saying they personally believe in witchcraft… Interestingly such belief was inversely linked to happiness.” [1]

One may view such articles as embarrassingly irresponsible , and funny, but at the same time I recognize that they represent a truth to certain people  and others may find them insensitive, demeaning, and misleading.

To begin with let’s start with the low hanging fruit. If one were to heavily weight the divorce rate as an inverse metric of happiness then the people in the US would far and away rank as the unhappiest in the world, (4.95 per 1000).[2] Conversely the Total Fertility Rates (TFR), in SS Africa are among the highest in the world[3], (go figure)!  Another point to consider is that maybe the causative factors of the alleged unhappiness in SS Africa have more to do with the poverty, infant mortality, and endemic malaria in the region[4], and less to do with their belief  in astrology and astronomy.

Kota Tribe - Abstract Ancestor Reliquary

On the issue of witchcraft – it has been a long recurring motif used to marginalize and degrade people based on differences in their religions. As part of the justification for the legalization of slavery, peoples of SS Africa were branded as pagan, cannibal, and inhuman.  History has shown the inverse to be closer to the truth. Many Tribal African religions involve ancestor worship (read as “Honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors”) and have a central Animist[5]  (a favorite of Aristotle) theme. The consistent irony is that the demonization of non-Christian religions is in itself contrary to the tenets of Christianity. Think about it. If people put on their “selective incident caps” and called a religion whose leaders engaged and enabled horrific acts against indigenous peoples (Fang, Mayan, Arawaks), and

Fang, Bieri

systematically seduced young males in their congregations, would one be straying far from the mark if they then linked that religion to devil–worship?

One can’t define people by their religion…. people take what they want from religion…. some take love, some hate, some indifference… if categorizing people is a high priority, one might as well define people by the reservoirs that supply their potable water needs.


[1] http://news.yahoo.com/s/livescience/20100831/sc_livescience/beliefinwitchcraftwidespreadinafrica

[2] http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/peo_div_rat-people-divorce-rate

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_and_dependent_territories_by_fertility_rate#The_UN_TFR_Ranking

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub-Saharan_Africa#Demographics

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism

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