Home 9 Volume 2 9 The Religious System of Ocha-Ifá


Juan Mesa Díaz

RELIGION IS A CULTURAL REALITY that expresses human relations with a realm that has come to be known as “the supernatural.” This definition—and the extent to which we can improve on it—can bring us closer to the principles of a religious system that traditionally has been relegated to the condition of subaltern culture. For instance, the terms “Cuban Santería” point to a diasporic version of the religious practices of Yoruba peoples, as reinterpreted in Cuba. Known also as “Reglas de Ocha y de Ifá” (Precepts of Ocha and Ifá) and “culto a los Orichas,” it is subsumed under the category of “Afro-Cuban syncretic cults” or “magico-religious systems” of African origin.

Strictly speaking, “Santería” adds the connotation of superstition to the cult of images. “Cult” is a term restricted to offerings and ceremonial tributes; “Regla” (or rule) defines precepts and relationships among members of a congregation; “magic” is the conglomerate of supposedly effective practices that have little to do with either science or religion; and syncretism is a tendency to attach new meanings to preexisting structures, thereby fusing doctrines and rituals.

Clearly, these linguistic twists, however cloaked in scientific garb, aim at demoting a reality that contributed to shaping the cultural identity of the Cuban people. They degrade a religious system to the level of a purely anti-intellectual, affective, and pragmatic practice lacking theological substance and based on a vacant phenomenology that defies systemic logic.

The Eurocentric systems of thought inherited from the rationalism of the Enlightenment cannot accommodate either the dynamic vitality of this cultural reality or the fact that it came to exist as a culture of resistance in a hostile milieu, overcoming the process of deculturation to which it was subjected. By its sheer power to adapt, resist, evolve, and restructure its constitutive elements, this religious system became a living cultural organism which, qualitatively different from its African counterparts, retained essential tenets from the Yoruba religion that nurtured it. (In this context, Yoruba religion is understood as a core of basic principles that spawned numerous denominations in both Africa and the Americas.)

The same type of prejudicial mindset assigns this religion to the domain of folk culture, because the semantic subtext implies that these practices corresponded to historical junctures now surmounted by the triumph of “reason,” when the barriers between social classes of which they were purportedly a product were leveled. Consequently, the artistic forms inherent to the tradition (its music, dance, oral expression, and liturgical artifacts), purged from the “burden of ritual,” can be legitimized as displays of a static cultural patrimony recontextualized for public consumption.

The humanistic disciplines anchored in Eurocentric thinking do not reap a rich harvest when attempting to penetrate the religious system of Ocha-Ifá, succeeding in a majority of cases only to the extent of describing, with more or less accuracy, some of its externalized phenomenology. (Assessing the existing literature on Haitian Vodou, Gerdès Fleurant comes to a similar conclusion, proposing an approach to analysis of the literature based on the various degrees of initiation or “knowledge” of practitioners as criteria for evaluation of researchers; see “Haitian Vodou and Its Music” in this volume.) On the one hand, if we fail to consider syncretism as a tool of resistance and as one of the variables of reinterpretation within a process of affirmation, continuity, and expansion that empowered an organized regrouping of Africans and their descendants—obstinately holding on to their models of thought and religious roots—we might fall into the trap of considering this Cuban religion as an amalgam of regional monotheisms that, on the American side of the Atlantic, became a pantheistic cult devoid of its own theology, and—worse still—in need of borrowing essential codes from the dominant culture in order to become assimilable by certain sectors of the population. (See, for instance, Katherine Hagedorn’s misconception of Santería as a “polytheistic religious tradition” [2001: 253], possibly derived from the commonly misconstrued concept of oricha as “deity” [2001: 251] rather than as a form of selective divine energy.) On the other hand, the term “Afro-Cuban” suggests that the African element operated upon an already configured “Cuban” culture, when it has been proven that African components galvanized the configuration of this new living organism. Further problems stem from the fact that, by working from the perspective of observable reality, U.S.-Eurocentric visions more often than not identify materiality with objectivity, and objectivity with reality.

For all the reasons outlined above, the lack of understanding of fundamental concepts, as mirrored in terminological misrepresentations, has conspired to deny legitimacy to this bona fide religious system. The use of inadequate terminology not only has distorted perceptions among academics, but also has altered perceptions among believers by denying them access to the dignity of practicing an unencumbered religion. Before turning to its basic tenets, we shall summarize the settlement patterns and mechanisms of transculturation that defined and shaped this specifically Cuban phenomenon.

In Cuba, the term “Lucumí” refers to a Yoruba-affiliated conglomerate of different ethnic nations from African kingdoms such as Oyó that already were important centers of cultural diffusion when the slave trade was established. Although Africans began to arrive in the early sixteenth century, massive waves of slaves from the region of present-day Nigeria did not reach the island until the heyday of the sugar plantation era spanning the nineteenth century up to 1867. Yoruba peoples, known generically as Lucumí (presumably because they were shipped from a location called Ulkumí), were assigned not only to sugar mills in western Cuba but also to the cities. Soon thereafter, urban centers in western Cuba became strongholds of Yoruba culture and religion. With the approval of colonial authorities, the cabildos de nación (or societies of mutual aid originally established by members of a single ethnic nation) functioned as cultural foci that enabled Africans to preserve and reconstitute their behavioral codes and symbolic systems. Urban slavery, despite the deculturative forces at play, could not block the greater social communication, prominent feminine presence, and fertile interaction with other cultural experiences that would have proved insurmountable within the constraints of the plantation setting.

By the time slavery was abolished in 1886 and the Republic was inaugurated in 1902, there were already a number of important house-temples in the principal cities of western and central Cuba, “casas-templos” being the name used for the homes of priests and priestesses of the then called “Lucumí religion” or “Santería.” Lorenzo Samá, Obalufadei, “Taita” Gaitán, and Adjay Latuán were among the most prominent architects of the earliest centers of diffusion of the Yoruba religious tradition. From then onward, a dynamic process of interaction among symbolic, ritualistic, linguistic, and other types of elements pertaining to material culture, progressively transformed African retentions into a specifically Cuban religious expression of African progeny.

Two diachronic stages can be identified in the overall process of transculturation. Historically, a process of adaptation was followed by a tendency to integrate constitutive elements. Adaptation ensued when African descendants were able to settle permanently into a stable new physical space—mostly urban suburbs—within an unstable society in formation that reviled their religious practices. This relocation to the suburbs of urban centers bred tensions with other social groups of a polarized colonial structure that viewed itself in terms of metropolis and colony, peninsular and creole, rich and poor, white and black, master and slave, and male and female. The subsequent process of integration was conditioned by a sustained and effective transformation of the social structure that eventually identified the demographic component of African descent as “Cuban,” not “Afro-Cuban.”

The internal mechanisms of transculturation in turn operated at three levels: reinterpretation, syncretism, and synthesis. African descendants reinterpreted both their socioeconomic status and the prevailing network of social relations according to their ancestral cultural referents. Syncretism implied an acceptance of codes, symbols, and elements from non-African cultural models, only to the extent of assimilating secondary aspects of such models while retaining the primary properties of African systems. Synthesis was conditioned by changes in social structure and thought that coalesced into the formation of a qualitatively different religious system; this new dynamic organism, imbued with properties of its own and capable of responding to basic human needs in the new environment, continues to evolve as a different configuration than the Yoruba religion of its roots. Through the mechanisms defined above, the religious system of Ocha-Ifá, also known as Santería and Reglas de Ocha, Arará, and Ifá, traveled the path from a socially reviled and clandestine practice subject to overt hostility, to an emancipated religion of African roots recognized as a living, coherent, and integral component of Cuban culture.

The so-called “religious syncretism” that identified orichas with Catholic saints can serve as an example of the interfacing relationship between mechanisms of transculturation and diachronic stages. During an incipient stage of adaptation—and as part of a strategy of camouflage to secure the survival of the religious practice in a hostile environment—orichas were masked as saints, involving in the process mechanisms of reinterpretation and syncretism. Thus, Elebwa (Elegguá) took on the external attributes of the Santo Niño de Atocha or San Roque; Obatalá was reinterpreted and syncretized with Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes; Changó with Santa Bárbara; Yemayá with Nuestra Señora de Regla; and Ochún with the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron of Cuba. The Catholic guise remained cosmetic. As the stage of adaptation gave way to integration at the level of synthesis, however, the degree of identification became intensified to the point of creating a single entity of the oricha-saint pair. At this juncture, the Cuban Regla de Ocha also incorporated the Catholic baptism, Masses for the dead, the obligatory visit to churches as part of consecratory rituals of initiation, and other elements stemming from the dominant culture in ways congruent with the primacy of the African theology subtending religious doctrine and practice.

The religious system of Ocha-Ifá is monotheistic. At the core of its doctrine and practice is the belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, a primordial life source conceptualized as trinity: Olodumare rules over the path to eternity traveled by all human beings (Señor al que va nuestro destino); Olorun is the owner of “Orun” or eternity; and Olofi is the owner of the Palace or eternal dwelling (dueño de Palacio). Within this triunal conception of the Supreme Being, Olodumare is the source of divine vital energy that shapes all elements of the cosmos; inherent to its being is the actual act of constant creation. Olorun modulates the relationship between instability—in diversity or change—and the principle of harmony subtending all forms of life, regulating the dialectics of complementary opposition from the most general levels to the most specific. Olofi expresses the kinetic and anthropomorphic concept of celestial divinity.

The triunal Supreme Being, in its absolute freedom to manifest itself, both holds and emits the 601 forms of divine energy or imolé (divine light). Of these, 400 are irunmolé (conceived “from” the light of Orun), which are essential forms of the Aché (life itself). Among the irunmolé are Agba lodé (the infinity of space), Irawó (the stars), Oshumare (the rainbow), Poolo (music), Añá (drumming), and Orúnmila (“only Orun knows”), the oricha of wisdom who witnesses human destiny from the moment the unborn receive their chosen Ori from the Creator. The other 201 forms of divine energy are igbamolé (born “with” light); although created on earth (Aiyé), they are imbued with light in such a way as to fulfill an important role in the positive unfolding of events, cycles, and manifestations of life on earth that can reach high levels in eternity (Orun). The igbamolé—or forms of divine energy created on earth—include the Eggun (ancestors’ spirits); the founders of lineages such as Osain (the oricha who rules over the vegetable kingdom); Changó (the fourth Alafín or King of Oyó); Inle (the oricha of healing and fishing); and venerated priests and priestesses who stood as paradigms of religious thought and practice when they were alive.

The orichas are embodiments of these forms of energy. Etymologically, the term “oricha” stems from two concepts: orí, which means consciousness, head, and individuality; and sha (Aché), a selective type of divine cosmic energy, indivisible from its manifestations, and the impulse that breathes life into each and every manifestation of existence. Oricha is then at once a form of the Supreme Being’s freedom to manifest itself as well as the hierophant expressing the multiplicity of its facets.

The orichas are anthropomorphized in relation to the human condition and associate themselves with those elements of nature into which they breathe life and bestow meaning and consecrated status. They are also forms of the selective and individual consciousness of the Aché that take on attributes, shape, and value through their manifestations and representations, among which are human beings. Insofar as the believer owes the vital breath of existence to his or her Olorí (the tutelary oricha), a “genetic” relation of descendant–ancestor is established with this oricha because each person’s physical features correspond with the Aché received from his or her own tutelary Olorí. As a complement, the believer must receive another oricha of the opposite sex in order to complete the concept of primordial matrimony that begets a new human entity. In addition, at the time of initiation and during the course of a person’s religious life, the practitioner must receive the Aché from other orichas providing him or her with an awareness of difference and the concomitant ability to maintain harmony within the self and all other elements of creation.

Each oricha owns a range of expressions of domain over certain forthcoming cycles and intersections of events, which the mythological literature has represented as “paths” or “roads.” By ruling over the vast diversity of levels of existence, however, there are junctures at which different paths or forms of the Aché overlap or cross and have to be shared, establishing among orichas an intimate relationship of harmonious complementarity. In cases of incompatibility, the confluences of energy gravitating toward negative outcomes engender proscriptions and taboos. However, negative confluences often are of a transitory nature. There are hundreds of examples of complementarity and incompatibility recorded in the sacred texts of the Ifá divination system, a corpus of knowledge structured in 256 ordu. For instance, the Ogunda Osá ordu (3.9) alludes to the legend of the pact between Oggún (the oricha of work) and Ochosi (the oricha of hunting and good fortune), whereby they decide to live together; work and fortune are compatible domains that complement each other in the course of living. However, the Obara Ogbe ordu (6.8) affirms that sons of Ochún cannot consecrate sons of Changó and vice versa because the domains of water (Ochún) and fire (Changó) must be kept carefully apart.

The religious system of Ocha-Ifá places the responsibility of self-knowledge and positive use of the received energies on the believer. From a conscious understanding of the interplay of energies, the believer must utilize the received Aché in positive ways in order to achieve a good life—understood in terms of inner and outer harmony—and seek a good death—understood in the eschatological sense of reaching eternity. Since humans are at the center of divine creation, they are cosmobiologically endowed with the capacity of conscious reception of the Aché, and with the concomitant ethical responsibility of guarding the harmonious interplay of forces that defines consonance within the self and its relation with all other manifestations of the cosmos.

The psychic capacity with which humans are endowed extends not only to the conscious and unconscious levels of existence, but also beyond these levels because each person carries a legacy of combined forms of the Aché—a figurative “genetic code” incorporating into a person’s character the awareness of difference. While the conception of the self is more social than individual and must be prepared to give and receive other dimensions of surrounding reality, the existence of the divine is perceived as natural, never as “supernatural.” Thus, from the premise that primordial forces of creation are a part of the natural realm, humans can approach them and, assuming a humble attitude, express themselves about them and establish communication with the sacred. According to Irete Untelú (Tratado enciclopédico de Ifá, ordu 14.8), “Nothing is more natural than the supernatural.” Yoruba thought accounts for every conceivable relationship, and any attempt to separate the parts from the whole would paralyze the energies flowing from all the structures in the universe.

The path of the believer’s life on earth (Aiyé) ideally should be directed toward the search for Iwa Pele (good character), because the capacity bestowed on humans to exercise a free will and shape their own destiny is an attribute that brings them closer to the divine. The main objective driving the search for Iwa Pele—which is both goal and path—is self-realization, not “salvation.” Iwa Pele means good health, fecund progeny, gratification in the performance of chosen tasks, elimination of character distortions, realization of individual potential, exercise of self-control, and adherence to ethical behavior. The destiny of each individual when he or she reaches Orun (eternity, a dimension of reality) depends on whether these goals were pursued and on the behavior through which they were achieved. Death, rather than the end of life, is the path from Aiyé (earth) to Orun (eternity). In Orun, those who journeyed through life on earth can become Khu, namely spirits endowed with light who materialize their spirituality in those about to be born, or can remain as orichas in the eternal dimension of reality; they also can become Ba, or spirits without light who obstruct the objectives of religious life among those still dwelling on Aiyé. Khu are the venerated ancestors who become an integral part of the community of the living and actively contribute to the protection and improvement of traditional society.

The conscious reception of the Aché by human beings is mediated by the dialectics of sound (word) and silence. Words carry the Aché, link the individual to the social, can slay or save, and permanently regenerate the knowledge that informs image. Any ritual, or transformation, regeneration, and manipulation of energy is affected by the spoken word. In turn, words must be exchanged, because the Aché must be given as well as received. Through the appropriate forms of intonation, rhythm, and contextualization, words appoint, galvanize, consecrate, and regenerate. Silence, on the other hand, is the Aché’s coffer of riches guarding the meaning of secrecy and consecratory rituals, as well as the basis of sacrifice, proscription, and taboo. It is a virtue that implies modesty, integrity, courage, disengagement, stillness, and inner peace. Silence delimits the confines of the sacred. Word and silence complement each other and operate in harmony, weaving a solidaric web between the human domain, divine energy, and the centers radiating Aché. They are both essential elements of the temporo-spatial network of relationships enabling the confluence and proper use of vital energy to achieve self-control, which is the key component of ethical life.

The process of divination can be defined as the means through which the divine will manifests itself. In the context of the Cuban system of Ocha-Ifá, its principles are explained by the perception of divine existence as natural (not “supernatural”) and free to express itself. Divination is then the direct mechanism for the exercise of this freedom of expression. Conversely, divination offers humans the possibility of approaching the sacred, in turn predicated upon a conscious perception of the received Aché. The process can operate at an intellectual or emotional level. The act of intellection must grasp and apprehend, interpret, and predict the relationships between past and future events or circumstances, assessing the energies at work and their impact on human beings. These relationships are systematized in the sacred texts of the Ifá literature, or Igbi bogbo Fa (“where everything is contained”), which in essence analyze analogies between networks of events that took place in mythological time under circumstances similar to those taking place in chronological time. Reinterpretation also involves recreating cycles and crucial junctures implied in the predictions contained in the ordu (the divine word, as codified in the 256 ordu of the Ifá system), in order to apply them to the specific circumstances of the subject analyzed during the consultation. Divination relies on several methods: the Ifá system is the exclusive domain of babalawos (Chief Priests of Ifá or “guardians of the secrets” who occupy the highest rank in the religious hierarchy); the dilogún method in the Ocha and Arará forms of the religious system is utilized by oriatés (experienced babalochas who are consecrated masters of religious ceremonies), babalochas (santeros or priests), and iyalochas (santeras or priestesses); and the far simpler reading of the obi (coconut) is accessible even to the newly initiated.

On the other hand, the kinetic / affective level in the process leading to communication with the sacred generates the psychic energy enabling a medium to become the instrument through which the orichas or the ancestors speak to the living. Spirit possession can take place during ceremonies ruled by the power of the spoken word or by silence, as in Masses and consecrations performed without the intervention of drumming. In some traditional rituals, however, this level is the domain of the olubatá, the master drummer who modulates the flow of energies between the performative power of musical knowledge conducive to spirit possession and the “dancing prophets” (Friedson 1996). (See María Elena Vinueza, “Music in Festive Celebrations of the Regla de Ocha”; and Victoria Eli Rodríguez, “Güiros and Batá Drums: Two Instrumental Groups of Cuban Santería,” in this volume.) In the poetic terms of Robert Farris Thompson (Amira and Cornelius 1992: ix):

Batá are sacred machines for transubstantiation, moorings for lost vessels of the spirit, sources for percussive symphonies mysteriously generated in the complex interplay of six simultaneously sounding voices, six skins, three pair of hands, one god, many saints, all together, creative, creator-given. Aché!

At one level, prediction is based on the premise that the future will not differ substantially from the past. It is utilized quite frequently to make important decisions, to determine the Olorí (or tutelary oricha) of the person seeking initiation, and, in the Itá ceremonies, to identify the vital lines of the novice—or forms of the Aché received—according to the divine word. Only through a conscious perception of the received vital lines that configure destiny can a person modify them through behavior in the search for Iwa Pele.

In the Ifá and dilogún divination methods, the process unfolds in three phases: prologue, narrative, and epilogue. During the prologue, the babalawo, babalocha, or iyalocha invokes (moyugba) orichas and ancestors, seeking their consent and entreating them to open the doors of communication. During this initial phase, means or instruments are used to determine the ordu or divine word ruling the destinies of the consultation’s subject. The iré (benefice) and osogbo (damage) are probed on the ordu’s proclivities and, in both cases, it is necessary to identify the types of iré and osogbo, as well as the oricha defending and assisting the subject, and the type of sacrifice required.

The narrative phase highlights the dignity of the religious practice, as it unfolds an explanation of the preceding inquiry and presents its results, referring in depth to the characteristics of the ruling ordu and to the mythological precedent in legends and cycles of events relevant to the situation at hand. The discursive presentation thus links mythical time to the circumstances of the specific consultation and justifies the work required, itself based on the principle that reward is predicated upon sacrifice, as stated in the sacred texts.

The epilogue consists of the prescribed sacrifice (ebó). These ebó usually involve plants, animals, and other components configuring a system, as well as vital elements (earth, fire, water, air, word, and silence) that recreate an ambience analogous to that described in the ordu ruling the work performed. The sacrifice—which can be an ebó etutu (to the Eggun), ebó omisí (purifying baths), ebó sisún (to fire), or ebó sisí (to water)—aims at efficiently and effectively attracting the energies summoned to solve the identified predicament.

At the affective level, the kinetic process of summoning the divine presence through spirit possession of a medium is used frequently in invocations to the Eggun (ancestors), and, occasionally, in certain ceremonies of initiation or tribute in which the presence of the orichas is summoned. During this transformative process, a human being takes on the role of augury, receives the spirit of the ancestor or oricha through the power of performance and, after possession has taken place, the Eggun or the orichas speak through him or her. In some of these instances, the drumming materializes the presence of energies as well as the psychic capacity of humans to cross the liminal boundaries of conscious and unconscious levels of existence with which they have been endowed by the powers they have received, and by the strength and spirituality of their religious training.

We have barely touched the surface of the cosmogony, philosophy, structures, hierarchies, and phenomenology of the religious system of Ocha-Ifá in this essay. Scores of researchers have been seduced by the subject, undoubtedly driven by the human need to unravel the mysteries lurking in manifestations of the power of psychic energy. Verbal renditions of doctrine and practice can remove misconceptions about the canonic coherence of this religious system, yet remain inadequate to convey the visceral experience of catharsis, or living with the sacred, or feeding from a wealth of mythologies that enrich the capacity to poeticize reality. The legendary vibrancy of Cuban culture owes a great deal to a religious system that, presently extending over the entire Cuban territory, attracts an ever increasing number of practitioners and has influenced a vast range of cultural expressions. Writers, poets, composers, and painters have feasted for decades on the storehouse of literary, visual, and kinetic forms engendered by this religious tradition.

From a different perspective, the socioeconomic changes introduced in 1959 prompted an exodus of thousands of Cubans to the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Spain, and other latitudes, creating what some specialists have called a “second diaspora” of this and other religions of African roots in places where they had been practically unknown. Vitality and growth, however, came hand in hand with contradictions. As the nation’s pride in its Yoruba traditions flourished, it also led to a certain commodification of objects and religious services that, along with the exploitation of some folklorized resources to satisfy the demands of the touristic boom in Cuba, have created an environment of pseudoreligiosity that neither helps the community of believers nor does justice to national culture.

Far from waning or languishing, however, the religious system of Ocha-Ifá continues to reaffirm its strength because it contributes viable models for structuring reality. The power to objectify the sacred and render metaphysics concrete in dialectically formulated networks of hierarchical relationships harnesses knowledge as well as experience in transcendental ways. Grounded in faith, it accounts for a philosophy of living and fulfillment in death through the performative act of constant recreation. In ordu 11.11, Ojuani Meyi affirms: “Water can extinguish fire but cannot efface the red in the parrot’s feather.”


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