I am too embarrassed. I like to consider myself a conscious student of Ifa. I like to consider myself in tuned with nature and less likely to take nature for granted. I have been watching the happenings of flooding along the Mississippi river practically right in the back of my own neighborhood. The level of the river water has risen significantly. I have seen the Mississippi flood, but I cannot remember the last time I have seen the river so swollen.
Last night I drove across the big 270 highway bridge just north of St. Louis, Missouri to check up on some property I have in a storage locker just across the river. The river looked like a lake. The little road that runs along the river on the Missouri side was a lot closer to the water than it should be. As I drove into Illinois there were soggy puddles of standing water in the fields just on the other side of the river levee. I marveled at all the water. The Chain of Rocks canal that runs parallel to the larger river is no longer visibly separate from the river adding to the lake affect. It was another impressive manifestation of nature.
My property was safe by the way. Now that the family has a minivan, I parked my blue 1992 Honda Accord wagon in covered storage with some other items that are hard to keep when a family is trying to stay in a large one bedroom apartment. In order to keep the car in good shape, I start her up once a week and let her run for a few minutes. The river will crest in the next day or so and it looks like the levees will hold easily. I was prepared to move my things. I was even prepared to lose a few items. But it looks like the wagon and the other items will be safe.
However, it wasn’t until this morning that I realized that had not acknowledged the Orisa Osun at anytime during this ordeal. When I saw the storms traveling through the upper Midwest, my mind automatically went to the Orisas Oya, Yemonja, and Sango. I saw the winds blow and the tornadoes spin and I would give praise to Oya! I saw the rain fall and I would give praise to Yemonja! I saw the lightening strikes and I would praise Sango! I saw the rivers swell and I said wow. I have been severely lacking in my appreciation of Osun. I would like to take a second and correct that mistake.
Osun, the Orisa of the river, plays a seriously important role for humanity. The river has done so much for humanity. We have used for travel. We use it as a source of drinking water. We have disrespectfully used the river as an open toilet for our waste products. The river water has quenched the thirst of our crops. We have used the power of the river to light our houses. Man is so smug to think that we can build river damns strong enough to hold the river at bay. We think we can build levees that will keep the river confined to a small channel of water that is guaranteed to hold the water for five hundred years!
The river must be the Rodney Dangerfield of nature. It gets no respect.
Orisa are interdependent. In nature, it is rare for one Orisa to manifest change alone. They work together. Oya, Yemonja, and Sango have created conditions that have made the normally docile Osun an assertive, uncooperative, force of water, one of the most forceful elements of nature. While high velocity winds, raging fires, and movements of earth are destructive forces in their own right, the river Orisa can effectively turn our world upside down with a burst through a barrier with so much energy that a wall of water will destroy anything in its path for miles and disappear as quickly as she came. Or, Osun can creep quietly and glide slowly but relentlessly, without exhaustion, until she has literally consumed our entire world. She will stay for days, and then quietly slink away just as slowly, leaving considerable damage in her wake to everything made by the hand of humans.
As humans we have done a lot to try and redefine the relationship between the land and the river. The natural occasion of water exceeding the river banks was part of nature’s cycle. To live next to the river was to live with the fact that it is only temporary and when the river wanted to exceed the banks it was time for those living next to her to leave. It was natural. Water pouring over the land helped replenish water tables. Even the sediment and sludge that traveled with the water would carry nutrients to help keep land fertile. All of this is nature keeping maintenance of its self.
But we have engineered levees and water management systems that are intended to make the cycle of water exceeding the river banks a once in a five hundred year event. We’ve built concrete canal systems that are intended to keep the rainwater from being absorbed into the soil and instead, moving it back to the river so it can be swept out of our vicinity, back to the river, to be whisked away to some other location. And when nature responds with even greater river swells, man responds with stronger levees, damns, dykes and locks until mutually assured destruction is inevitable. The mutually assured destruction is not shared between humans and the river but among all the people who dare become so comfy that underestimate the danger of the situation we create for ourselves.
If somehow Osun burst through the levee that kept my property across the river safe it would be no one’s fault but my own. I made the choice to put my property within her reach. I know the river is swelling and yet I leave my property there instead of moving it safely out of the way. Just like the river helps to take excesses away from the land it would take my excess stuff away from me.
For now, it looks like Osun will let us keep our excesses. Regardless, she deserves an ebo. Tonight, I plan to go to the grocery store and buy a melon, apples, oranges, and etcetera. I will make a big basket of fruit. I will take it to the old Chain of Rocks Bridge that crosses the Mississippi that is now reserved for pedestrian and bicycle traffic across the river just south of the 270 interstate highway bridge. I’ll go out there to the middle of the river and toss the fruit in. I’ll watch the water rage below me. I’ll feel my heart pound in my chest with adrenaline as common sense heightened by a sense of self preservation tries to convince me not to take such an unnecessary risk with the river so swollen. Hopefully, the experience will instill with me such respect for the river that I will never take Osun for granted again.
In the spiritual tradition of Ifa, the calendar year is usually associated with an Orisa that would take the focus or priority for the year’s happenings from our human perspectives. In practical terms from the Orisa perspective, no Orisa takes priority over another. Yemonja would never be more or less important than Obatala. Each Orisa has his or her job to do in the natural environment and the absence of one would be a serious detriment to the whole.
But it is human nature to setup hierarchy and priority in order to satisfy our human need for some type of order. In order to help us establish our relationship with nature, we will be given various priorities for nature using Orisa. This is truly an oversimplification for the definition of this relationship between humanity and nature. An entire volume can be written to help define this phenomenon. This definition, although true, barely scratches the surface of the complexities of this relationship.
According to the year’s reading given to me by Baba Orunmila, 2008 is the year of Olodumare, for all practical purposes, the Supreme Being in Ifa spirituality. Olodumare, the Supreme Being, is not an Orisa. He is not one of the more common manifestation of nature, but the founder and top manager of these manifestations at this level of existence throughout the universe. So in essence, 2008 is the year humanity should be focused on its relationship with the Supreme Being. We have caught his attention and he is now taking notice.
When I first heard this bit of news, my heart skipped a beat. I kind of felt like one of the guy who works down in the mailroom of a world wide conglomerate and word gets out that the chief executive officer in another city is now paying attention to what’s happening in our mailroom. What in the world would draw his or her attention here? Certainly the CEO’s time would be much better spent studying other aspects of the business. What in the world could be happening that would draw top management’s attention? Suddenly, I would be much more self conscious about the way we went about our business. The only problem is that nobody else in the mailroom is listening or believes the news. So it is business as usual.
A few days ago, I asked Baba Orunmila about Olodumare’s year. I told Baba that I expected this year to be a time of significant impact to humanity. Orunmila laughed and asked if I had not been paying attention. Orunmila knows I’m not the deepest oar in the ocean. My paddle barely reaches the water from the row boat. So he didn’t wait very long to break it down for me.
One thing we must remember about Olodumare is that he doesn’t move like he is the Supreme Being. He doesn’t have to. It is human nature to expect the person in charge to manifest a personality that can command attention at the drop of a dime. The CEO of a multinational can walk in the room and people will notice a change in the air. Everyone in the room will turn and face him or her. People will drop their conversations to hear what he or she has to say.
But the realm of Orisa doesn’t operate on such superficial principles. While some Orisas have a very commanding presence, the ladies man Baba Sango quickly comes to mind, other Orisas are more comfortable with the attention being elsewhere, like Baba Osanyin. But, everybody has their job to do. Regardless of his size or his ability to command attention, Olodumare is Olodumare. Everybody knows who he is without him having to throw weight. More importantly Olodumare knows who he is without having to command submissiveness or subservience from the Orisas.
Olodumare doesn’t do things in a big kind of way. He is very subtle. He doesn’t beg for attention. This year has seen more pressure for change than I give it credit for. Throughout the Midwest and southwest portion of the nation tornadoes have been scouring the landscape almost on a daily basis. The tornadoes started early and have come often. Entire towns have been changed. The winds of Oya have been extremely busy. The rains of Yemonja have deluged other parts of the nation that were already trying to cope with extraordinary snowfall. Parts of the northwest were inundated with ten inches of snow in the first week of May. This was on top of a particularly snowy winter. Fires have returned to the west. And there was a good sized earthquake of a magnitude 5.2 on the Richter scale in Illinois along what used to be considered a stable fault line. And there have been subsequent earthquakes in Missouri along the New Madrid fault line where the big one, a magnitude seven plus, could come any day now.
On the global perspective, Marynmar has been hit with a cyclone that was initially estimated to have killed four thousand. However the latest estimate now says that more than a hundred thousand people have perished. The government of Marynmar has been slow to respond to the crisis and it is just a matter of time before Babalu Aye, the orisa of health, lets loose with a barrage of diseases on the devastated population. And this morning, China was hit with a massive earthquake estimated on the Richter scale to have a magnitude 7.8. The initial death toll in China was estimated to be about four thousand. But if Marynmar is any indication that death toll will rise high very quickly. lt has already been adjusted to upwards of twelve thousand.
And how do we respond as a people to these incidents? The price of fuel has skyrocketed. A relatively small pool of people have actually benefited from the inflation of petroleum. The vast majority of people have been forced to deal with lining the pockets of people already wealthy. The extra cost of fuel has rippled through the economy driving up the price of food. People already trying to cope with budgets devastated by housing costs are now dealing with the elevated costs of everything else. Like most things in life, there is an opportunity for somebody to make a profit and the opportunity to make money has a knock too strong for most people to ignore. It is business as usual for most people.
We are barely into the second trimester of the year. We have a long way to go to get to December. And there will be far more subtle changes in weather and the rest of nature to come our way that will have a significant impact to humanity and challenge our ability to cope. We can take all the changes coming our way and dismiss them as little more than the cost of doing life on this planet. Natural disasters are natural after all. Tornadoes will spin. Rain will fall. Droughts will be where the rain refuses to fall. Forest will burn. Earthquakes will rumble. Mountains will slide. Some of us are bound to suffer extraordinarily. But some of us will figure out a way to take advantage and profit handsomely. There is nothing wrong with our collective sense of socialism. And what’s the harm of a little profit between friends?
We should be more aware of what is going on in the environment. We should be practicing a much more socially oriented consciousness. But that would be business unusual for a world so focused on the global economy. Like the pharaoh of Egypt that famously refused to exercise some kind of social responsibility and let go of his preconceived notions of irresponsible entitlement, we won’t have a change of heart until the disasters have us all on our knees. We won’t ever change our attitude until we all lose big.
As humans we have difficulty with concepts of supreme beings and spiritual entities. Our spirituality depends on our ability to take the supernatural and define it in parameters that are much closer to our own level of existence. A long time ago I learned as a Christian that god created man in his own image. But what is probably more accurate is to say that Christians defined god in man’s image. To think that god walks around in a human form is evidence of humanity’s god sized ego. We are very full of ourselves and our arrogance knows no bounds.
In the African spiritual tradition known as Ifa, we are constantly putting human weaknesses and failings on the Orisas and the Supreme Being we call Olodumare. I was taught to think of the Orisa community in rather simplistic terms based on Odu verses and patakis, African fables that have been passed verbally from one generation to another. There is the pataki of Ogun, the Orisa of technology, assaulting Yemonja, the Orisa of the ocean and mother of all Orisas and life of the planet itself. There is the story of how Osun, the Orisa of the river, seducing Ogun to return to the Orisa community after he exiled himself after his assault on Yemonja. There is the story of how Esu, the Orisa hell bent on teaching humanity lessons by trickery, tricked Obatala and wound up in Orisa jail. There is a story for almost everything.
But Orisas are not humans. They don’t lose their temper because somebody walked into a room without bowing to their Orisa pot. The worth of the Orisas isn’t dependant on the subjugation of people. That would be akin to people getting angry because ants refuse to bow when they come into our presence. The traditional way of thinking about Orisas has a way of making us appear more equal than we are. But in all honesty an Orisa wouldn’t care if we bowed, danced a jig, or did somersaults when we walked into their presence. Their presence is all around us and not in any ceramic pot, terra cotta pot, or any other pot you want to apply. We have trouble understanding people who exists outside our culture. How in the world are we going to understand Orisa? It is beyond our comprehension.
Even if we could understand the nature of Orisa, understanding the spiritual entity known in Ifa circles as Nana Buruku would still escape us. We associate Iya Nana Buruku with the Orisa community, but she is unlike any other Orisa. Orisas are infinitely old, but Nana Buruku is older still. Not a very easy concept for a human to wrap his or her conscious around. We have the misfortune of comprehending time literally as linearly. That’s okay because at this level of existence that is the only way we can interpret or experience time. But Orisas have a relationship with time that is beyond a start and finish. It has depths and dimensions and directions that we cannot fathom. Don’t try to understand it. It’s like trying to imagine a new color in the spectrum of visible light. It can’t be done.
To hear Iya Nana Buruku tell the story she is the beginning and the end of time at the Orisa level. She was there to watch the creation of Olodumare, the Supreme Being. She was actually in a state of waiting when Olodumare started the universe. She was waiting again when Olodumare sent Obatala to create order and humans on Earth. She is connected to the Earth itself. Ask her what does that mean and the Iya frowns from the effort of trying to put such a concept into words. It cannot be put into words the things that she represents. Nana Buruku has the ability to see deep within people to discern who they are, what they want, and what ails them. She was, is, and will be a consort of Babalu Aye, the Orisa of health. Iya is able to overlook Baba’s various wounds, bandages, and crutches and focus on the inner being. Her ability to see what ails people also makes her an asset in Baba’s work to help heal people and to keep disease from becoming rampant and getting out of hand.
Iya Nana Buruku is represented by the colors black and a pinkish purple or a mauve color. She has made the choice to be a part of the Orisa community and to exist at their level. But she is truly something else to behold. As humans with severely limited understanding of all things that exist on the Orisa level we cannot truly look at her and comprehend her truth and continue to exist as humans. To interact with Iya Nana Buruku is almost like interacting with a distant memory. There is something familiar and yet, at the same time it is far way and unusual. To experience her is not something to be taken lightly. This may sound a little vague and unclear. But despite what we have learned we are not supposed to understand things beyond our comprehension.
In the 1987 movie “The Believers” staring Martin Sheen as police psychiatrist Cal Jamison, there is scene that is probably one of the most violent scenes of destruction I’ve ever witnessed. Cal Jamison is a new bachelor whose wife recently passed. He hires a Spanish speaking housekeeper to help him look after his son Chris, played by Harley Cross. The woman is neck deep into the Santeria form of the ancient Yoruba practice. The housekeeper starts to pick up on some of the evil vibes in the house and starts to leave spiritual tokens around. Mr. Jamison is angry. He tells the housekeeper to keep her voodoo crap out of his house and away from his son.
But the woman has more compassion than she has sense. She sticks an Esu statue under the boy’s bed. Mr. Jamison finds it and takes it to the housekeeper. He’s furious. He physically grabs the woman and starts to throw her out of his house. He then takes the Esu, raises him high over his head, and throws him to the floor with all his furious might. I literally screamed when I saw it. My family and I were watching the movie off of a DVD when I had to tell them to stop it. I had to take a second to actually comprehend what I just saw. The Esu broke into pieces. It was not a pretty sight for any Ifa or Santeria devotee.
That movie helped me to come to terms with the reality of the Orisa we call Esu or Elegba. Esu is often referred to the trickster or in many respects, some people refer to him as the Lucifer that all of us with any experience in Christianity have been warned about. In fact, in the movie Crossroads featuring Ralph Macchio as Eugene Martone, Willie Brown, played by Joe Seneca, stood at the crossroads and demanded to see ‘Legba. The next thing he knew he was transported into a world of varying shades of black and bright reds, Esu’s colors. Eugene was about to go head to head with ‘Legba’s best guitarist in a contest where the winner takes all the souls on the table. Crossroads is a modern interpretation of the story of Robert Johnson who sold his soul to the devil in order to become the best blues guitarist in the world. Robert Johnson became the best. But in classic irony he was the best at the blues because he suffered so much pain in his life. A classic example of being careful of what you wish for. But the point I wanted to make is that this story is just propaganda. Baba Esu, Elegba, or ‘Legba, doesn’t collect souls.
In the Ifa spiritual tradition, Esu is the Orisa that opens the door to our spiritual path. He is the first step for spiritual enlightenment. Why would such an entity charged with such a responsibility work to lure us off our path to make us fall short of our spiritual goal? Like many aspects of spirituality that are handed down through the traditional processes of Ifa, it doesn’t make much sense.
While it is true that he is the first Orisa on our path he is far from being some trickster or some devil. Like all Orisas Baba Esu takes his job very seriously. He isn’t about to lead someone through the doorway that leads to their spiritual development only to lure people off that path later on. All he would be doing is making more work for himself. And trust me, Baba doesn’t need more work. There are so many people who are in so much desperate need to find their spirituality it’s ridiculous. All of the Orisas are here to help us in this struggle for enlightenment in this physical world. How Baba developed this reputation is beyond me. It might be beyond Baba himself.
Most Orisas are aspects of nature. Baba Sango is associated with thunder and lightening. Iya Oya is the Orisa of wind. Baba Olokun is the Orisa of the ocean depths while Iya Yemonja is the Orisa of the upper ocean. But Baba Esu is one of the Orisas that isn’t so easy to recognize in our natural environment. For lack of a better way of putting it, he’s more flexible in his physical manifestations in our level of existence. Baba has the ability to make an appearance in more ways than we can count. I seriously doubt if he’ll lead you off path. But Baba can surely make you regret going the wrong way if you do cross him. What will he do? The better question is what wouldn’t he do? Those minor accidents people suffer that cause really big headaches are a pretty good example of the mischief he could cause if he so desired. Good thing Baba isn’t here to cause mischief for mischief’s sake.
Baba Esu has a wonderful sense of humor. But it isn’t exactly devilish. He likes a good joke and can appreciate a good laugh just as much as anyone else. And Baba is the quintessential chocoholic. That part of his character that the tradition teaches is very true. He likes a variety in his chocolate. And things with caramel are a favorite. Snickers are cool, but he can appreciate a Twix and an Almond Joy every now and then. I’ve discovered what works best for Baba is to invest in one of those big bags with a variety of little chocolate bars. And Baba loves cigars as well. And it’s always cool to give Baba an ebo with rum.
You can never have too many Esu/Elegba statues. We have about a dozen in our house. One for each room, the car, and everybody has their own pocket Esu. Baba likes to get around. Baba is playful but he is also very respectful of others. He is not to be feared. I suggest you open your own dialog with Esu and learn for yourself what he is like. But do yourself a favor and leave all the baggage you may have already learned about him at the door. Baba doesn’t have time to sit around and make plans to lure the unsuspecting. People are more than capable of falling off their path without any interference from anyone else, especially an Orisa. If we fall off of our path it is only because when we were presented with an option of what path to take, most of us are more than willing to stray off path. Staying on path takes hard work and many of us don’t have the fortitude to do what’s right. No one has to be tricked into straying.
People blaming Baba for their own bad choices is just one of the ways we stray off path. When we take responsibility for our spirituality, the good and the bad, Baba, like all Orisas, will be there to help us. He doesn’t have time for tricks. Tricks are for kids.