Welcome to Kala’s Quick Five, where I chat with fascinating authors, artists, teachers and researchers and ask them five questions about their work. My guest today is Ócháni Lele, author of seven books, including the topic of our discussion here – Teachings of the Santeria Gods: The Spirit of the Odu.
Kala: Ócháni, many people are not aware of Santeria and what its philosophy and teachings share. Can you briefly explain to our readers the origin and core principles of Santeria?
Ócháni: While the Lucumí faith is a modern religion flourishing on American soil, it is heavily rooted in the past, a surviving, spiritual evolution of ancient Yoruba beliefs. The Yoruba were a proud nation of warriors who occupied southwestern Nigeria, an area in which their modern day descendants still thrive. These Africans developed a religious city-state system whose brilliance in some ways exceeded the systems of classical Greek and Roman empires, for while those ancient European civilizations are no more, the Yoruba culture lives on. History tells us that they were founded by one holy man, Odúduwa, the ancestor who established the first holy city at Ilé Ifé.
From his work they grew; the tribes flourished and a religious nation formed. As the ethnic group spread, entire city-states sprang around the worship of various orishas, the gods of the tribes. Ilé Ifé belonged to Obatalá, Oyó was governed by Shangó, Ilobu was Inle’s, Ketu to the orisha Ochosi, Inisa to the orisha Otín, and Ilesa (Ijesa region, Iwo and Edo) to the orisha Logun Ede. Each city-state had its own priesthood. To whom a priest served depended on the spirit protecting the city. Thus, initiates in Ilé Ifé were brought into the mysteries of Obatalá, while those who entered the priesthood in Oyó received Shangó. Ketu priests were bound to Ochosi. Overlapping of priesthoods did occur for political reasons when ties between sub-tribes needed strengthening. Uniting all these city-states no matter the god served were three concepts: that of Odúduwa, the common ancestor, Olódumare, the supreme God, and Elegguá, the orisha who opens the doors from our world to that of the divine. While each individual province had its own orisha to worship, with Odúduwa in their blood, Elegguá at their feet, and Olódumare in their heaven, all were one nation.
The religion, whether one speaks of the ancient Yoruba , the modern Yoruba, or the Cuban-American Lucumí (Santería), is a faith teaching that the ultimate creative force, Olódumare (“owner of the womb”), divided itself into innumerable aspects – the orishas. Each force is a living, spiritual personification of limited ashé (a word translating loosely into power, grace, and life). The ashé of an orisha depends on the aspect of Olódumare from which it spawned. Obatalá, a deity who can be either male or female, comes from the vastest and wisest aspects of God; he was known as the “King of White Cloth,” the cloth itself being the pure, white light from which all things coalesced.
Yemayá is the sweet, life-giving, mothering principle of unknowable deity; and like a mother, she is swift to protect and defend her children. Ochosi is the hunter, the one who not only hunts to feed God, but also to feed his people; he taught humans how to hunt for food, thus representing the aspect of Olódumare who created the concept that to live, life must feed on life.
Olokun, the hermaphroditic deity ruling the depths of the ocean, draws her ashé from the part of Olódumare that is secret, mysterious, and unknown; hence her home is in the depths of the ocean where none may descend while living in the flesh. Ainá, mistress of flame and constant companion to Shangó, is the limitless fire of Olódumare’s existence. Too vast to be known as a whole, Olódumare is made knowable through the religion’s myriad deities. We believe that it is only by worshiping and studying each force that one slowly acquires greater knowledge of the divine.
Kala: The ancient stories are called “patakís” and are connected to the 16 odu (principal creative forces of Santeria). They were originally shared by the Yoruba people of ancient Africa in an oral tradition. How are the patakís shared today, has the process evolved from ancient times?
Ócháni: Even today, the patakís’ main mode of transmission is oral; however, Santería is experiencing a geometric growth best described as explosive. My own godfather, for example, has 25 crowned heads (godchildren who are initiated as priests), and he cares for an ilé ocha that has about 200 uncrowned heads (aborishas – worshippers). In Orlando we have an incredible priestess with Oyá done, Nina, who has dozens and dozens of crowned heads, and probably hundreds of religious godchildren who are not crowned. It is impossible for any one person to instruct all these godchildren orally – there are not enough hours in the day. Faced with such explosive growth, oral training is strained at best.
Over the years there has been a gradual transition from oral teaching to written teaching. One can see it on the internet primarily; in various newsgroups, priests and priestesses are instructing others about the orishas in written, electronic medium. This is a huge diversion from what has been, traditionally, an oral medium. A lot of my instruction for my own godchildren is done in a private newsgroup. And now we have books . . . well . . . a book (mine) that has moved from private online instruction into a more expansive form. I think this will be a future trend. As the years go by, more priests and priestesses will pen books of patakís and other teachings that have been primarily oral for centuries.
Kala: Your book is the first to chronicle these stories in English and shares over 100 of the ancient parables. What led you to the decision that it was the time to write about Santeria and the Odu?
Ócháni: Throughout my private studies I’ve been an avid note taker; and, as I took notes I catalogued everything I learned according to the odu of the diloggún. It was a process that took years. Before I knew it I was writing a book – it was a process that just snuck up on me! My first manuscript, The Secrets of Afro-Cuban Divination, almost got shelved. When it was done I read it and thought, “I can’t publish this!” It was a huge change from tradition. So I put it away.
Not long after I went to a tambour (sacred drum and dance party) for the orishas, and the orisha Oyá came down. To make a long story short, she demanded that I continue my work and she gave me a pen name to use. She promised that as long as I wrote to educate, she would protect me and bless my work. After that tambour I had a renewed sense of purpose, and since then I’ve been writing fearlessly and unashamedly about the orishas and our religion.
Kala: How has the spiritual practice of Lucumí graced you in this lifetime and what have you learned the most during this time?
Ócháni: The orishas gave me a life when I had none, to be honest. I was born into this tiny rural town, a “hick” by anyone’s standards. The religion opened my eyes to a greater world, one filled with light, love, magic, and infinite possibilities. It brought me wisdom and grace; and it led me to some wonderful people who I consider my spiritual family. It’s amazing the people the orishas bring together – writers, artists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, actors, and singers – people from all walks of life come together to work and worship and pray. That in itself is very magical, and very humbling.
Kala: Of all the stories you shared in the book, which is your favorite and why?
Ócháni: It’s very hard to pick a single story that I consider my “favorite.” As I brought the volume together, I picked stories that were my favorites, tales that moved me or inspired me in some way. Right now, however, I’m really into The Story of Iré and Osogbo found in chapter 10. I have a god-brother in L.A. named Andreas who has been having “Story Time with Uncle Stewie” nights with his godchildren (it happens right after Sunday dinner and the Sunday night airing of ‘True Blood’) and they’ve had hours and hours of discussions from just that one patakí. It teaches an essential truth of this religion, or any religion, really – we are not defined by how we act in the good times. Instead, we are defined by our actions in bad times; and those misfortunes we face force us to evolve, to become something greater than we once were. It’s a simple story, but one that has dozens of interpretations and practical applications in our lives.
Kala: Ócháni, thank you for joining me here on Kala’s Quick Five. More about Ócháni and the Teachings of the Santeria Gods book can be found at Destiny Books.
Ócháni: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure! And, please, check out my latest book Teachings of the Santería Gods. It’s a wonderful collection of short stories based on the patakís of Santería.
More about Kala Ambrose: Kala Ambrose is an award winning author, intuitive and talk show host of the Explore Your Spirit with Kala Show. Her thought-provoking interviews entice listeners to tune in around the globe! Described by her guests and listeners as discerning, empowering and inspiring, she speaks with world renowned authors, artists, teachers and researchers delving into metaphysical, holistic and paranormal topics. Kala’s book, 9 Life Altering Lessons: Secrets of the Mystery Schools Unveiled delves into the mysteries of ancient Egyptian mystery schools and explains their wisdom teachings. Kala Ambrose is a highly interactive teacher on a mission to educate, entertain and inspire. She lectures on the Ancient Wisdom Teachings of Egypt and the Mystery Schools, Developing Business Intuition, Working with Auras, Chakras and Energy Fields, and Wise Woman Wisdom.
Kala’s new book Ghost Hunting North Carolina will be available in 2011.
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