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West Africa’s God of Messages, Sex and Deceit
by Erik Davis
Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring, 1991
Because the West is such a text-oriented culture, there is an understandable tendency to equate civilization with the technology of writing, and the sort of reflective interior consciousness that that particular machine apparently constructs in human beings. West Africa did not possess writing as we know it, and the orisha disclose themselves not in books but in shrine, ritual, and memory. For today’s text-oriented seeker, there are no great Yoruba books to commune with, no Gita or Genesis. Though the Yoruba system of divination, Ifa, compares to the I Ching in terms of complexity, structure, and poetic sublimity, few know about it outside the tradition, partly for the simple reason that the “writing” of Ifa is carried in the heads of the diviners, the babalawo. (A complete edition of the Ifa has recently been published by Harper SanFrancisco).
But the images of West African spirituality that come most immediately to mind in Western culture are images of ritual possession. Though many esotericists have a sympathy for invocation and strong ritual, the performance of West African possession remains bracing, far different from the bloodless, “spiritualized” rituals of monotheisms, or from the almost literary rituals of modern, reconstructed Neo-Paganism. Possession by the orisha is a visceral fact. To the intensely exciting yet coolly controlled beating of drums, the possessed person (usually a dancer; in Haitian parlance, the “horse” who is to be “ridden”) shakes, falls on the ground, rolls his or her eyes, perhaps froths at the mouth, and speaks in different voices. The particular orisha is recognized by his or her mannerisms, is costumed appropriately in ritual rooms, and proceeds to prophesy, dance, ask for food or booze, and if it’s Eshu, may start pawing the ladies. I have attended Haitian voudun rituals, but even from photographs and film it is clear from the eyes of the possessed person that a qualitatively different order of consciousness and personality has momentarily annexed the everyday persona, which invariably recalls almost nothing of the experience.
In its rituals, the West African tradition has learned to plug people directly into the realm of archetypes, archetypes which are strengthened by interfacing with the “lower” traits of ordinary human personalities. One clue to the nature of this interchange lies in the fact that possession often seems to be triggered by the master drummer playing particular patterns within the complex web of polyrhythmic drumming. Haitians calls these jarring, rhythmically “dissonant” patterns cassés (or “breaks,” a phrase used in a similar musical sense in today’s hip-hop culture). Possession may result from the cognitive dissonance of the cassé, the alien beat that enters from another plane and shakes up up the rhythms of the everyday. In any case, possession is a magnificently strange act, a radically immanent embracing of spiritual being that is both magical (a worldly invocation of spirits) and religious (as a selfless release to godhead). Possession by the orisha concretizes spirit and ties it to the cycle of ancestors and blood and the rhythms of sex and family.
So too is blood sacrifice, the “feeding” of the orisha, an acute acknowledgement of the material dimension of spirit, of the fact that it is humans, not gods, that keep gods alive, and that our being is bound up with the excesses of mutual contract and exchange. Molly Ahye, an important scholar of Trinidadian dance as well as an orisha worshiper, speaks about how one “must have the blood, which is a life force, which spirit lives on. You think that spirit doesn’t need sustenance, but spirit needs sustenance” (Ahye admitted, however, that she did not kill animals herself).
Even if we cannot accept possession or animal sacrifice, we err in seeing the orisha as being merely superstitious products of animism, or as folk heroes elevated to the level of gods. The orisha are highly evolved archetypal patterns, and they work out metaphysical problems in the heart of life. They form a network, a living and evolving system of forms and forces that from certain angles resonates deeply with the perennial philosophy of the West.
And at the interstices of this network is the Yoruba deity Eshu-Elegbara (or Eshu for short), perhaps the world’s most sophisticated Trickster figure (a very similar figure, Legba, exists among the Fon in neighboring Benin). More than a well-hung culture hero (though he’s that too), Eshu is a divine mediator of fate and information, a linguist, a crafty metaphysician. Eshu is a trickster not just because he fools people and creates chaos, but more profoundly because he’s always escaping the codes of the he simultaneously reinforces. He gives the world the divination system of Ifa, but does not rule over its poetic prophecies, because he is always flowing through the cracks of fate. Eshu fully embodies the sophisticated metaphysics of West Africa, a metaphysics of change and communication, of the copulation between being and world, of the complex power of the crossroads. Eshu expresses a spiritual principle of connection, and the chaos and trickiness of exchange. That he is a god, with stories and moods and lusts, only shows that in the West African tradition, spiritual principles are most real when they’re brought into the fabric of daily life, of the recognizably human patterns of money, family, sex, power, and language.