This is a really interesting article on West African spirituality, still alive and well there. I’m breaking the article into 2-3 segments over the next few weeks, simply because it is so long….If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to overstuff your brain! If you have come here from the email you received, scroll down a bit to pick up where you left off.
West Africa’s God of Messages, Sex and Deceit
by Erik Davis
Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring, 1991
When we think of tricksters, we generally imagine folk characters and culture heroes, not gods. Tricksters either tend to be associated with animal spirits (such as Coyote), or are Promethean figures, archetypal “humans” who interact with and upset the world of the gods. But one of the world’s greatest and most interesting trickster figures is not only a god, but a god of high metaphysical content. He is Eshu-Elegbara, one of the orisha, the West African deities that are worshiped in many related forms across African and the African diaspora in the New World.
While he embodies many obvious trickster elements— deceit, humor, lawlessness, sexuality—Eshu-Elegbara is also the god of communication and spiritual language. He is the gatekeeper between the realms of man and gods, the tangled lines of force that make up the cosmic interface, and his sign is the crossroads. In the figure of Eshu-Elegbara, the West African tradition makes a profound argument about the relationship among spiritual communication, divination, and the peculiar chaotic qualities of the trickster. But before we investigate Eshu-Elegbara’s character, we must first place him in the general context of orisha worship.
Meet the Living Gods.
The orisha, the gods of the Fon and Yoruba peoples of West Africa, are some of the most vital and intriguing beings ever to pass through the minds of men and women. The orisha are profoundly “living” gods, if by this we means archetypes, or constellations of images and forces, that actively permeate the psychic lives of living humans. On the simplest level they are alive because they are worshiped: orisha are prayed to, invoked, and ritually “fed” by many millions of people in both Africa and the Americas. Not only are the gods alive, but they are long-lived; unlike contemporary Neo-Pagan deities, which have basically been reconstructed from the inquisitional ashes of history, the orisha have been passed through countless generations of worshipers with little interruption.
More profoundly, the very nature of the orisha is to be alive in the most fundamental sense we know — though our own human lives. Though they possess godlike powers, the orisha are not transcendent beings, but are immanent in this life, bound up with ritual, practice, and human community. They are accessible to people, combining elements of both mythological characters and ancestral ghosts. Like both of these groups of entities, the orisha are composed of immaterial but idiosyncratic personalities that eat, drink, lie, and sleep with each other’s mates. Though West African tradition does posit a central creator god, he/she is generally quite distant, and the orisha are, like us, left in a world they did not create, a world of nature and culture, of sex, war, rivers, thunder, magic, and divination. The orisha are regularly “fed” with animal blood, food, and gifts, and during rituals the gods frequently possess the bodies of the faithful. Their behavior draws from the full range of human experience, including sexuality, mockery, and intoxication.
That the orisha remain outside the scope of many Western students of esotericism and even polytheism is understandable, given the historical domination of Africans by the Europeans of the New World. Black Americans were forced to hide their deities or dress them up in Catholic garb, while whites cut themselves off from all but the most superficial appreciations of those African cultural values that managed to survive. To even graze the heart of the orisha, white Westerners must overcome two obstacles: the storehouse of Hollywood’s cartoon representations we carry in our subconscious, and the more pernicious underlying Western prejudices against traditional African worship, which run the gamut from the denigration of blood sacrifice to the absurd notion that polyrhythm is somehow less sophisticated and more primitive than European musical forms.
But why bother? As one esotericist I spoke to put it, “Why be interested in these grotesque and parasitic deities?” One could answer that these gods are fascinating, vibrant, and unique, and serve as a window onto the spirit and culture of Africa and the black traditions that have had a major influence on New World culture. More to the point, however, they are not grotesque but rich in character; they are not parasites, but entities deeply and reciprocally bound up with the daily lives of their worshipers. When we look on West Africa, we must keep in mind that our “instinctive” sense that these alien practices are primitive, savage, and even demonic is the lingering afterimage of thoroughly European and colonialist images of tribal Others dancing in the hot jungles of sexuality, atavism, and perversion. Looking toward Africa, the first thing the West encounters is its own dark mirror.
The fact that people tend to simplify images of pre-colonialist Africa — for example, imagining simple villages where there were vast, cosmopolitan city-states replete with bureaucrats, poets, and sewer systems — is only one indication of the lingering tendency to see Africa as the repository of the primitive. Even when looking seriously at West African spiritual traditions, white Westerners run into two potential traps: the error of seeing such systems as purely traditional and not historically dynamic; and the temptation to idealize tribal peoples and project onto them some prelapsarian harmony with Nature, a condescending and overly romantic error rampant, for example, in the New Age embrace of Native American spirituality.