Tales from Madrina

Stories of the Orishas from Patricia “Ocha Weye” Althouse

March/April 2019

Orisha Oko, the Farmer Who Feeds All
He who is the keeper of agriculture, the Great Farmer, attendant of the Earth and giver of fertility to fields, is Orisha Oko. He is generally received by those of poor health or when dictated by divination through the Odu that states “If the rain does not fall the corn will not grow.”

He is one of the hardest working Orishas for it is his job to work the earth, to feed humanity and the Orishas and keep the cycles of growing working year-round. Orisha Oko gives his followers stability in life, health, vitality,
fecundity and is often petitioned for work, to keep death at bay, and for assistance with conceiving a child. Syncretized with San Isidro Labrador, his feast day is May 15th.

He is also the Judge of the Orisha, dislikes arguments, and will jump to the defense of females.

Orisha Oko teaches us the mysteries of life and death; he feeds humans in life, and we feed him in death when our bodies are buried in the earth. There is a pataki called “The Pact Between Orisha Oko and Olofi” – Orisha Oko was one of the first Orishas to discover his ashé (his powers) when they
arrived on earth but he was tired of working all day in the fields to feed humanity and the Orishas. He complained to Olofi, who explained that his children are like the fingers of the hand – when they work together they are stronger and get more done. But Olofi promised Orisha Oko that each of the other Orishas would discover their ashé and contribute to the world in time, and that it was Orisha Oko’s job to work the fields and feed humanity. In return for this work, humanity would feed the earth when they died. This way, Orisha Oko is rewarded at the end of all things.

Orisha Oko works with Oduduwa, an incarnation of Obatala that lives in the earth. Ogun, maker of farming implements and Osain, herb and plant worker also work closely with Orisha Oko. Orisha Oko has ties with Oshunmare, the rainbow; for where the rainbow comes out, peace reigns and abundance flows.
Orisha Oko is husband to Yemaja Agana in what many people consider the perfect union (of land and sea). He can be crowned by initiating the priest through a special ceremony called “Yemaya oro Orisha Oko”, where the Santero’s head is crowned Yemaya and the shoulder crowned Orisha Oko, thus Orisha Oko is speaking through Yemaya. However, initiation to Orisha Oko is rare. Many Santeros receive Orisha Oko after being crowned.

Orisha Oko is step father to Shango, and it was Orisha Oko who gave a kind of tuber called name to Obatala and then asked a favor; to give the gift of the tambores (drums) to his son Shango. Obatala granted Orisha Oko his wish and thus Shango is the king of drum, dance, and parties.

Orisha Oko is very, very male; this is in keeping with his fertility. Vegetation grows where he walks, as he drags his huge testicles over the ground. He is symbolized in the home with two coconuts in his terracotta plate with a roof shingle between, all painted red and white – his genitalia. One praise chant states: “Breath of the natural earth, life from which everything is born, maintained and kept on the earth. Everything that breathes is because he gives it life.” Thus, Orisha Oko is propitiated to bring
prosperity and good fortune and health to the one that is making an offering; and it is important to make offerings. We who take from the earth, must give back to the earth. So offerings to the earth are done by digging a hole and feeding it His favorite foods. These especially include roots like yams, sweet potatoes, name, and taro root, but any agricultural crop is good. He enjoys eating hearty foods that are seasoned with palm oil, smoked fish and toasted corn.

As the world’s population grows, so does our reliance on Orisha Oko. It is proper to give him praise –

Maferefun Orisha Oko! Ashe.

Obatala, Owner of All Heads

To speak of Obatala is to talk of the soul and spirit. It is to speak of the Father of Humanity. He is the manifestation of fatherly love and the guide to wisdom and justice.

Even the uninitiated are beloved of Obatala, as he is the Father that shapes all humans before Oludumare breathes life into them. In particular, Obatala owns the head, considered the seat of the soul inside one’s body. Thus, anyone can turn to Obatala in a time of need, no matter what initiations one has or does not have.

So great is his love for humankind, he saved humans from drowning when Yemaya grew so angry at the other Orishas she whipped up the oceans and flooded the world. When humanity ran to Obatala in terror, Obatala intervened and ordered Yemaya to retreat. Out of respect for him, Yemaya did.

A well known myth, or pataki, about Obatala speaks of his connection to mankind:

“Olodumare came to the earth and told Obatala to create some of the life forms to be on the earth. Olodumare said that he wanted mankind to walk the earth but did not want them to have the ashe (powers) that the Orishas have. Obatala bowed his head and agreed to create mankind. Olodumare told Obatala to form them and when he was ready to call Olodumare and he would come down and breathe life into them. Obatala agreed and with the sands of the earth he started to form and mold humans into what we are today. After a few hundred molds were completed, Obatala called Olodumare to come breathe air and life into the molds. Olodumare came and saw miles upon miles of human molds lying on the sands of the earth and proceeded to blow life into them. Once life was given, these humans stood up and were told to go forth and have prosperous and humble lives praising Olodumare as the creator. They went in different directions and started to live their lives.

This went on for days and Obatala worked hard making human forms. The sun was hot, supplying light and energy to the land, and it made the job hard to do. One day Obatala grew very tired and decided to take a break from his task. He walked over to a tree that was giving shade and sat
underneath it. He reached for his white pouch where he had his oti (liquor). Obatala sat under the tree and started to drink his oti to quench his thirst. Without realizing it, he drank all of his oti and he had none left. Obatala stood up and staggered over to where his molds were. He began again molding and shaping human forms. Without noticing, his molds and creations were turning out a little weird. He made molds that were missing limbs, he made deformed bodies, he made molds with no pigmentation
(albinos) and so forth. When he finished he summoned Olodumare to breathe life into them. Olodumare came to the earth and saw the molds lying lifeless on the sands and since he trusted Obatala and had reviewed his work in the past Olodumare did not notice that these molds were
different. Olodumare proceeded to breathe life into these humans. When life was given to them, they stood up and Olodumare noticed with chagrin that they all had different deformed bodies. Olodumare became upset and questioned Obatala on these creations. Obatala knew that he did something wrong and had disrespected Olodumare’s overall dream. Obatala confessed that he was drinking and it made hismind blurry and he had not meant to do this. He begged Olodumare for forgiveness and told Olodumare that from this day forward he would accept and look after all of his malformed creations as special and beloved children of his. He would take care of them and keep them from harm. Olodumare shook his head and accepted Obatala’s apology and request. Obatala also promised Olodumare that he
would never drink again due to what he did to some of the creations of man.”

From this story, it is common for initiated priests of Obatala to be forbidden alcohol out of respect. Furthermore, all people born handicapped, albino, or with deformities are recognized as “Obatala’s children”.

Obatala’s connection to heaven is strong, yet he walks on earth and can be prayed to and honored more easily than Olodumare. Obatala is Old; King of Kings, the Wise Sage, Elder and Judge, second in command to Olodumare the God and Creator of All. Obatala is calm, wise, understanding, and loves
peace and harmony. He was sent to earth from heaven by Olodumare to govern and dispense justice.

from Sophia Kelly Shultz’s upcoming publication, “Iron Pots and Sacred Sticks”

King of the White Cloth, he values physical cleanliness and purity of purpose and thought. When one wears white, one honors Obatala and is reminded to think before acting, lest an ill-considered move cause a stain that shows up easily on one’s white clothes.

The age and complexity of this Orisha are revealed through these different avatars, called caminos. Interestingly, while generally considered a male Orisha, he has some avatars that are female.

He is the Orisha available to all, and is deserving of honor. And so I include a prayer for Him:

Praising the Chief of the White Cloth
Chief of the White Cloth never fears the coming of Death.
Father of Heaven forever rule for all generations.
Gently dissolve the burdens of my friends.
Give me the power to manifest abundance.
Expose the mystery of abundance.
Father of the Sacred Grove, owner of all blessings, increase my wisdom.
So that I become like the White Cloth.
Protector of White Cloth, I salute you.
Father of the Sacred Grove.
So be it. Ashe.
Maferefun Obatala!

Patricia Althouse, Ocha Weye, daughter of Obatala


Opener and Closer of Doors

Elegua’s place in Santeria is unique. He has the privelege of being first fed and first honored before the other Orishas whenever ceremony is performed. The reason is told in a story, called a Pataki, passed down orally over many generations from Godparents to Godchildren. I think it’s fitting to begin the new year with a story of One who always comes first.

“One day Olofi was greatly ill and depressed. He was doing so much work in the universe and on Earth; creating life, giving Orishas their Ashe (powers), and in general overseeing everything that he became tired and frail. All of the Orishas were summoned to see if they can help cure Olofi. They gathered in the great hall where the supreme being sat on his throne with a lost look in his eye. You could tell his mind was going a mile a minute and due to this he wasn’t feeling very good. As he sat slumped on his throne, the Orishas gathered around and were conversing amongst each other. Obatala tried to clean him with his white cloth, but Olofi remained the same. Orula prepared him a tonic to drink, but Olofi remained the same. Osain tried to rub a medical herb and the great Olofi stayed the same. Inle tried to clean Olofi with his staff and still nothing happened. Every Orisha tried and tried but they were all unsuccessful.

Elegua was amongst the Orishas but since he was a child the other Orishas ignored him. He tugged on Yemaya’s skirt to get her attention and asked if he could try, Yemaya told him to behave and be quiet. He then tugged on Oya’s skirt, but the look that Oya gave him was so fierce he ran under the legs of the other Orishas that were standing nearby. He then tugged on Agayu’s pants and Agayu told him to go outside and play; that this was for the elder Orishas. Elegua got upset and ran to Obatala and asked him why he couldn’t try to help and revive Olofi. Obatala looked at Elegua and began to tell him in a soft voice that the Ashe that Elegua contained could not heal Olofi. He went on to tell Elegua that all the other Orishas were trying their best to do what they could. Elegua looked at Obatala and asked to please let him try; if he was also an Orisha then he should be able to try as well. Obatala, who contains the Ashe of peace and knowledge raised his staff and ordered silence among the Orishas. He told them to step aside and let Elegua try and revive Olofi. All the Orishas began to whisper under their breath.

Elegua walked slowly to Olofi’s throne and looked at him from head to toe. Olofi, still with a weak look in his eyes didn’t even pay attention to Elegua’s presence. Elegua put his garavato (crooked staff) on the floor, reached into his knapsack and pulled out 3 herbs. You see, Elegua was always roaming the woods and he saw Osain work with the different herbs of the forest. So with the herbs that he picked up he grabbed a leaf from each branch and placed them gently in Olofi’s mouth. Now all of the Orishas saw this young child on the lap of Olofi and wondered how long Obatala was going to allow this mockery to last.

Elegua grabbed the mouth of Olofi and manually moved it so the supreme being chewed and swallowed the leaves. After Olofi swallowed the herbs, Elegua took out a feather from his knapsack and passed it over the body of Olofi. After this was done he jumped off Olofi’s lap and walked away from the throne. Obatala’s eyes were full of grief because Olofi was still the same. All of the Orishas started to talk about how Elegua’s tactics were unforgivable and he should be reprimanded for them. While they talked, a small glow grew from Olofi’s chest. The glow got brighter and brighter until the great Olofi sat tall and mighty on his throne with a light so powerful that all of the Orishas fell to their knees in respect . In a loud deep voice called Olofi called Elegua to the throne and thanked him, saying that Elegua had succeeded in reviving him where all the other Orishas had failed. He then asked Elegua how he knew what to do. Elegua looked at Olofi and told him that he studied every part of the forest and its secrets. He saw how every Orisha worked differently with their elements. He went on and told Olofi how he had wanted to try to heal him but none of the Orishas would let him except for Obatala. Olofi smiled and told Elegua that from this day forward he would have the Ashe to open all gates and doors and pathways. He gave Elegua a gold key that unlocked Olofi’s house and every door in the universe. He also blessed his feather and told him that with this feather he could walk through time forward and backwards, through light and dark, through evil and good. Then Olofi proclaimed in front of all the Orishas and the universe that Elegua would be his personal messenger, because he knew and saw all that the Orishas did on Earth. He told them that they will always have to consider Elegua first in all that they do. If Elegua wasn’t appeased, then their work and messages would not reach Olofi’s castle. He then went on to say that Elegua would also be the first to eat in every ceremony and the first to be prayed to in every ceremony. With all said and done, Olofi touched Elegua’s head and a inner light shone from within Elegua.”

Elegua is the master of the paths, crossroads and gates of this world. He is the god of luck, but also of accidents. He is found at the intersection between humanity and the divine, and is the intermediary between Olofi and human beings, whose offerings and messages he takes to the Orishas and Olofi. Elegua is a major Orisha who holds the keys to destiny and opens the doors to happiness or disgrace. He personifies chance and death. He is seen as a child, which is why he is mischievous, mocking, and somewhat foolish, often playing tricks on people; but a hard worker for those who have him in their house and believe in him.

Elegua is way beyond good and evil, although he walks in both realms. Only Elegua knows the past and the future without need of a divination system– o his actions may not make sense in the moment or are difficult to understand, but you must remember that he is always just. Thus, he is the symbol of destiny and perfect balance in nature. He will bring luck and joy to those who honor him and act with good character. He can and will create havoc in the lives of those who behave improperly; Elegua’s punishments are usually like a child being mischievous much like in a game a child would play, but when very angered he may cause a person to be robbed or have a accident. He is the child of Obatala and Yemu and is first in a group of four warriors: Elegua, Oggun, Oshosi and Osun, whose task it is to protect those who receive them.

Elegua’s colors are red and black. All the objects that children use in their games are attributed to him. His number is 3. His day of the week is Monday. If you are looking to give him an offering, he loves candy, cigars, coconuts, toasted corn, strong alcohol (aquardiente), white cooking wine (vino seco), smoked jutia meat, smoked fish, and red palm oil.

Modupue Elegua!


Extra note: Letra del Año

On the last day of each year in Cuba, Babalawos and Santeros join together to cast a divination for the year to come and to give overall advice for the year. This is called the “letter of the year” or “letra del año”.

The letter for 2019 is Oshe Ogunda, accompanied with warnings of death (iku)–which can also refer to loss, both material and symbolic. This iku is brought on by war, bad intentions, and malevolent actions. It sounds very gloomy, and it can be. The silver linings to look for this year are the blessings that can come with loss and unwanted change.

The ruling Orisha this year is Oshun, the Orisha of survival and the expression of love and the blessings of sweet water. She defends us this year with the support of Ogun, the remover of obstacles and Orisha of iron and the tools of war and peace. Practitioners of Santeria will hang a square flag made of yellow cloth trimmed with a green border to signal their welcoming of these Orishas’ presence and intercession in their lives this year. A yam cut in half and rubbed with red palm oil plus a coconut split in half plus two candles are the recommended offerings to place in your Orisha shrine.

Other warnings of the year include an increase in STD infections, so take proper precautions. This letter also speaks of less productivity in agriculture as well as flooding, erosion, increased conflict over migrations, and the need to take precaution in the face of natural disasters. Mitigations include being mindful of wastefulness, look to work together rather than compete, seek balance in one’s actions, and for parents to give much care to their children’s education while also not to give in to your children too much.

Some sayings to think about this year:

* The knife itself does not cut.

* You don’t get the arrow without first going to the battlefield.

* What is left is not picked up again.