During my lunch break today, I swear I spotted an avatar of the Orisha Eshu. A young man skateboarding downhill on Adams Street in the shadow of the Sears Tower (yes, you read that right: as a native Chicagoan, I refuse to call it by any other name), weaving in and out of hordes of slow-moving tourists on this gloriously sunny and summer-like Monday. He sported a t-shirt that looked like a modified version of the Chicago flag: instead of the iconic series of four red, six-pointed stars, however, the word “Character” was emblazoned in large cursive script.
Ashé, ashé! I mentally affirmed as I read the t-shirt’s message and silently blessed the youth that whizzed past me. I pulled down on the collar of my shirt to expose my newly acquired elekes, and I said a prayer of thanks to each of the Orisha whose energies find manifestation in the individual necklaces ringing my neck, the necklaces I received this past Saturday night (the timing was interesting: Dark of the Moon and right on the cusp of the onset of a Mercury Retrograde period) in an initiation ceremony that lasted nearly four hours.
Generally, in the indigenous Yoruba religious tradition of Ifá (which is also the name of that tradition’s divination system as well as the name of the Orisha presiding over that system; He is also known as Orunmila or Orunla, though) and its New World offshoot of Santería, when an individual receives counsel through divination performed by trained clergy (e.g., a babalawo or santero) stating that the individual’s own Orí (individual Destiny residing in one’s own head; ceremonial magicians and Thelemites would equate it with one’s own Holy Guardian Angel) and the Orisha Ifá require that the individual undergo initiation, the ceremony of receiving the elekes is usually the first level undertaken. Subsequent initiations would be receiving one’s Warriors (Los Guerreros), acquiring the Hand of Ifá, and fully receiving one’s Guardian Orisha and being completely initiated into His or Her Mysteries–a life-altering event that takes an entire week to perform.
My case is a curious one because I’ve undergone all the other initiations but the final, major one of fully being initiated into the Mysteries of my Guardian Orisha. Starting in 2008, Ifá revealed through divination that it was time for me to receive my Warriors; my Hand of Ifá kept coming up in readings a year later, and I was initiated to receive my Hand in December of 2009. I know the final initiation is inevitable, as it’s been stressed repeatedly in virtually every Ifá reading I’ve had in the past few years. It’s also been prophesied what path of clergyhood in Ifá my Destiny will entail once I’m fully initiated in my Guardian Orisha’s Mysteries. But the initiation of receiving the elekes has never come up for me in an Ifá reading until last month, actually–when the Oracle spoke through the main sign or odu of Oshe Oturopon–a sign that talks about the blessings of one’s life coming about as a result of her Orí and the active involvement of her ancestors in her life, as machinations in the Spirit World affect one’s earthly well-being.
“It’s time to receive your elekes,” my oluwo or godfather in Ifá told me during my April 22 divination session. “These blessings are coming about in your life because you’ve been using your head wisely, trusting your intuition and following the counsel of your Orí and Ifá. Also, your ancestors are making the rounds [EDITORIAL NOTE: My 43-year-old cousin lost her battle to breast cancer a mere four days later, so my other ancestors have been preparing a welcome for her; I’ve since acquired a new and powerful guardian spirit in the form of my cousin] and seeing to it that the seeds you’ve planted will grow well. Ashé!”
When I received my Hand of Ifá initiation, I also received the eleke of the Orisha Ifá, Who also is called Orunmíla. His trademark colors are green and gold, the colors of earthly abundance as well as spiritual wisdom. So, as the featured photo accompanying this blog post shows, I now have six of the elekes: the five main Orisha of Obatala, Shango, Oshun, Yemaya, and Eshu plus the green-and-gold bead Ifá eleke I’ve had since 2009.
Obatala is the Orisha of purity; fittingly, His eleke is comprised of all-white beads. He keeps heads cool. Shango’s necklace alternates red and white beads; some say this reflects His ability as the regal Orisha of Thunder and War to end conflicts through violence/by going to battle (red beads) or by diplomatic means/cool reason (white beads). The Orisha of sensuality and the golden goodness of life, known for the sweet honey pot dangling from Her hips, is Oshun; Her eleke has gold-yellow beads interspersed by honey-colored ones. Initially the lover of Ogun, the reclusive, deep woods-dwelling Master Craftsman of Iron, Oshun became Shango’s lover and this is why there is bitter enmity between these two renowned male fighters–so much so that They can’t be fed in proximity to each other (via Their shrines). Shango’s Mother is the Great Queen of the Sea, the Orisha Yemaya; fittingly, Her eleke has alternating groups of blue and white beads, which are evocative of white-capped ocean waves. Last, but certainly not least as He is the Alpha and the Omega of all Ifá sacrifices, as well as the Cosmic Opener (and Closer) of Doors to Possibility, is the wondrous Orisha Eshu, sometimes known as Elegbara in Yoruban. His beads are alternating black and red ones to showcase the dynamism of potential and kinetic energy. However, in Nigeria His beads may be alternating black and white ones to really highlight His dual nature as bestower of weal and woe.
As I mentioned earlier, my elekes initiation on Saturday night took four hours–but that only reflects the span of time that directly involved me. The ceremony itself began days before with the selection of the plethora of fresh herbs and other ingredients that would comprise the omiero, or sacred bath, and the untold time spent preparing the herbs and activating their ashé through call-and-response prayer and singing (the two are indivisible in Yoruban culture) and sacrifice (ebo). When I was asked to arrive at my oluwo’s house, the sacred singing and omiero activation was still underway. I ceremonially saluted my Iyalorisha (the ritual facilitator of the elekes initiation; in my case, she happens to be a powerful priestess of the fierce Orisha Oyá) and her attendants and went to go to my appointed place of preparation. As I quickly scanned the long white cloth on which the tied bundles of fresh herbs and plants were arrayed, I could only identify less than half of them. Herb lore is something I would love to delve into more deeply in the context of Ifá; I’d love to compare and contrast the associations with certain plants to what I’ve been taught in my own Slavic culture.
All initiations enact, to some degree or another, a death of the old self and the birth of the new. My elekes initiation ceremony was no different. While I am not at liberty to discuss certain particularities, I am pleased to report that at the very dramatic moment when I watched my old self literally fall apart, I felt an instant immersion into a feeling of deep, blessed peace. It became the hallmark of everything that transpired afterwards in the ceremony–and well beyond it, as I told my fiancé upon coming home just before midnight that night, that I now move and have my being in the Numinous. He understood; we both actually uttered the biblical phrase of “the peace that passeth all understanding.” Yes, that’s the effect the ceremony gave me.
About two years ago, I had a rather unexpected bout of Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) concerning the goddess Hekate Khthonia at the conclusion of a major ritual I’d done for Her. She informed me that I would come to understand the way of peaceful power, and for the longest time I had no idea what that could mean. But now I do.
For when the Iyalorisha and her chief attendant presented me with each of the elekes, I felt what could only be best described as peaceful power. It had a visceral component; as soon as the first of the elekes–the one for Obatala, the Orisha of Purity–was placed around my neck with a blessing, I not only had a wave of goosebumps pass through my arms, but it felt as though my entire central nervous system was inundated with pulsing waves of energy, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet. A very powerful ripple of the Numinous. I exhaled loudly through my mouth as that energy wave passed out through my feet.
I didn’t want to set myself up for expectations only to be disappointed, so I told myself to regard that reaction as a novelty and to not expect it with the subsequent elekes--but I wound up feeling very distinct, visceral reactions to each Orisha’s energy as it was laid around my neck. (Not surprisingly, the moment Oshun’s golden eleke was placed around my neck, I felt a ping! of energy in my clitoris!) I was amazed and supremely grateful–grateful to the Orisha, grateful to my own Orí, grateful to my oluwo and his wife–the Iyalorisha–as well as her attendants, all of whom took time out of their busy schedules to do this work out of a strong sense of love for the Powers they serve as well as love for me as a goddaughter initiated into their house. They’re all exceedingly happy to see me walk the path of my Destiny with peaceful power, and I love them with all my heart for being such loving, selfless, pious people.
Of course, with power comes responsibility so I naturally have tenets/taboos to uphold in the care and service of the ashé of the Orisha as embodied in these elekes. I know I won’t have any trouble adhering to such precepts. Best of all, I get to have the ashé cemented with my own life force for the next 19 days, as I’m supposed to be wearing all the elekes at once for a 21-day period. Today was my first day back at work, and I wondered if anyone who saw me either during my subway commute or walking around the Loop was able to discern the meaning of the beaded necklaces visible from my shirt at the nape of my neck. Interestingly, just last week while taking the bus home I came across several individual Latino men who sported their elekes, tucked under their shirts just like me but visibly protruding from the collars and at their necks. I smiled slyly; discretion is a Witch’s prerogative, after all.
One isn’t supposed to sleep with their elekes on so the removal of mine before bed is becoming a treasured practice of expressing gratitude, the Yoruban equivalent of Buddhist mindfulness. So, a few moments ago, I removed Obatala’s necklace and held it up in both hands as I faced east and said, “Thank you for allowing me to keep a cool head today when the temptation was great to act otherwise.” Then I kissed the beads and laid the necklace in the white silk cloth I had prepared for it prior to my initiation. I then held Shango’s beads aloft and thanked Him for coming to my aid in the day’s various battles (after all, Mercury Retrograde began today!). Kiss. I thanked Oshun for infusing my day with unexpected sweetness: compliments from strangers on my summer skirt with its flowy, gauzy texture and eye-popping shades of blue (Gods bless African-American women for never failing to say a kind word to me when I’m wearing bold prints and/or colors on a workday; our shared fondness for bold aesthetic choices just confirms my view that we’re strong, confident women). I thanked Yemaya for washing away the carpal tunnel pain I felt creeping up on me around three o’ clock in the afternoon. Kiss. And last but not least, I burst out in praiseful song for the best and greatest of the Orisha, my own Baba Baki, Father of Miracles, Eshu. Monday is Eshu’s day of the week so He gets fervent praise from me, especially when I’m feeding Him and my other Warriors. Huge kiss with quite a pronounced smacking sound as my lips touched the black and red beads.
But now as I get ready to log off my computer and settle into a quiet frame of mind, a meditative space, before sinking into my pillow, I thank my Orí, my Indwelling Power, the Locus of my Destiny and Fount of my Character, for Its manifold blessings. Yoruba legend says that one kneels before one’s own Orí, one’s own Head, in Heaven, prior to incarnating on this Earth. In each person’s Orí are all the experiences, people, situations, problems, victories, heartaches, epiphanies, and markers of evolution we agreed to have as part of our lessons on this schoolhouse of a planet before our mothers shot us out of their birth canals. In Ifá it is said that no person can receive the blessings of the other Orisha without permission from her or his own Orí.
I think on that proverb and my heart swells in gladness, echoing into the inky canopy of night above me, Ashé! Ashé!