“You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice.”
—The Wicker Man (directed by Robin Hardy), 1973
A fundamental principle in the West African indigenous religion of Ifá is that of ébo, or sacrifice. That which is offered is of great value both to the one offering as well as to the Recipient, be it one or more of the Orisha or the giver’s Ancestors.
Ébo is more than just a tangible, material object (anything from a glass of cool, pure spring water [omi tutu], to liquor [otí], to a white ceramic bowl laden with a variety of fruits and vegetables [an offering known as adiemu], to the more elevated forms of animal sacrifices of roosters, doves, and goats needed for initiation ceremonies and for extreme workings of apotropaic magic) lovingly given in a spirit of praise and gratitude. Ébo is also an intangible force, one that is needed in order to maintain a sense of cosmic right relationship between living humans to their beloved dead; humans and the Orisha; and even the Orisha among Themselves.
If you as a religious adherent or even as a non-initiated querent (aleyo) appearing before a Babalawo (“Father of Secrets”) have an Oracle of Ifá prescribe you a specific ébo that you must do within a certain timeframe in the context of a particular ceremony, and you fail to make your commitment and execute that ébo, things will not go well for you. Indeed, your life situation will have a very, very bad outcome. There are several patakí (didactic tales orally transmitted; Babalawo commit these to memory) that illustrate the importance of keeping your word when it comes to “making ébo” (to use the common parlance in the English-speaking Ifá community here in North America). Here is one that relates how even the Orisha are bound by the principles fueling cosmic harmony to make ébo when Ifá declares it, and the penalty for failing to do so is costly, indeed.
A Patakí Concerning the Orisha Shango
One day Shango, the Orisha of Thunder, War, and the sacred Batáa Drums, went to consult the God Ifá. For many months, Shango had been enjoying the companionship of the Orisha Oyá, Warrior Goddess of the Niger River and of Lightning, the Cemetery, and the Marketplace. Passionate lovers and fierce fighters, Shango and Oyá were becoming inseparable, both on and off the battlefield. She had born Him the Ibejí, the Sacred Twins. (And for this reason the Yoruba women of Nigeria continue to have the highest rates of identical and fraternal twin births of any people in the world!)
Shango wanted to know from Ifá the most auspicious time to marry Oyá. He also wanted to know the long-term future of this marriage: would things continue to be as good between Him and Oyá as they’ve always been? Can They count on a lifetime of happiness together?
Ifá cast the sacred ikin nuts on His straw mat, and, seeing the pattern that emerged, He traced the Holy Odu (Signs) named “Òtùrá Orìkò” on the dirt floor of His home. He informed Shango that He would have to make ébo to ensure that the marriage would be a mutually satisfactory one for decades to come. Shango would also have to make ébo in order to avert disaster from His enemies: a slew of diabolical entities who wanted very much to destroy His relationship with Oyá. They knew they could not defeat Shango outright in physical combat in order to claim Oyá for themselves, so they resorted to nefarious magical workings to split the Divine Couple up.
Enraged, Shango replied to Ifá that He was not afraid of anyone or anything, and He would gladly kill any of these black magic-slinging cowards if they dared to come near Him. He also confided to Ifá His plans for how He would destroy them. Shango refused to make ébo and went ahead and married Oyá two days later.
After some time had passed, the Divine Messenger and Enforcer of Karma called Eshu, tattle-tale to Olodumare, the Most High, went to pay Ifá a visit. He asked the Father of Wisdom if Shango had made ébo before His wedding to Oyá. When Ifá replied that He hadn’t, Eshu immediately sent sickness and death to Shango and He died.
Ébo Turns a Haughty King’s Fortunes for the Better
One day, a king near the holy city of Ile-Ifé (the Dwelling Place of the Orisha on Earth) sent his messenger to bring Ifá to him: he wanted to know what the Father of Wisdom would have to say about his kingdom’s fortune as the harvest season drew near. But Ifá dispatched Eshu to the king in return, letting him know that the king must come to Ifá’s House and not the other way around.
Eshu grinned widely and rather snarkily as He delivered Ifá’s message, making the king feel more than a little uneasy. Yet his haughtiness soon returned, and he barked at Eshu: “How is it that I, as a king, am being asked to lower myself to visiting a mere Babalawo’s home? Disgraceful! I won’t go!”
Eshu grinned even more disturbingly, so the king thought, as He saluted the king by doffing His half-black, half-white cap. He grabbed His walking staff and set out to Ifá’s House to swiftly bring word of the king’s insolence.
Three nights later, Eshu sent nightmares to torment the king in his sleep. One bad dream in particular forced the king to wake up in a cold pool of sweat; he was absolutely terrified: He dreamt that war would be visited upon his lands from enemies to the east and he would lose his crown. He hastily got out of bed and quickly bathed before dressing in all-white robes. He ran all the way to Ifá’s House in Ile-Ifé.
Now the door to Ifá’s House is actually rather small and as the tall king stooped down to enter, his crown fell off his head. As he bent down to retrieve it, Ifá declared: “Obo oto achuero guani.” (“First crown, then life, if you fail to make sacrifice.”) Ifá cast the sacred ikín nuts on His straw mat and the Odu named “Ìrosùn Ìretè” that surfaced confirmed the dire warning. The spiritual prescription of èbo to prevent the king losing his life and his kingdom in the upcoming war consisted of akuko kan (the largest, finest rooster from the king’s pens), etu meji (two dried rats), one arrow, one rope, and owo (money). The king did as he was told and from that moment onward, he became a regular visitor to the House of Ifá and brought the Father of Wisdom various and diverse goods from his kingdom, freely given in friendship. Ashé!
In Praise of Eshu
You’ll notice a common thread woven into these patakí: the pivotal role played by Eshu, Orisha of the Crossroads, the Road-Opener, the Bringer and the Remover of Obstacles. He commands the 209 Orisha at the Right Hand of the Creator, and He commands the 209 Agojun (Witches) responsible for all humankind’s suffering at the Left Hand of the Creator. Eshu the Cunning, Eshu Who Partakes of All Ébo, Eshu Who Throws a Stone Today and It Strikes the Bird’s Head Yesterday!
In my House of Ifá, we have a lovely Yoruba orikí (song of praise to an Orisha) dedicated to Eshu, and part of it goes like this:
“É dúró, e kí Èshù
Eni dúró kí Èshù
Èshù ni yó ò tún ti won se
É dúró, e kí Èshù.”
“Stop and greet Eshu
Those who stop to pay respect to Eshu
Eshu will look out for their goodness
Stop and greet Eshu.”
One of the first prayers in English my Babalawo taught me, as a Child of Eshu, was this:
Eshu, the city’s Benevolence
Praise to You!
It is the person who makes ébo who receives Eshu’s blessings,
The Great Dancer,
The Indulgent Child of Heaven!
To enjoy one’s wealth, one must give Eshu His due,
Which is a way to avoid big problems.
For one’s happiness to last, one must give Eshu His due,
Which is a way to avoid big problems.
To hold onto one’s blessings, one must give Eshu His due,
Which is a way to avoid big problems.
Eshu, I give You praise!
Eshu, do not undo me!
Eshu, undo whoever fails to make sacrifice and
Refuses to appease and respect You!
Last winter, as an ébo prescribed by Ifá, a Misa Espiritual (Spiritual Mass) was held for me to get in touch with my ancestors, especially my dead brother, Mark, courtesy of the intense trance- and spirit-possession work done by an acclaimed Espiritismo medium from Puerto Rico, one who is very good friends with my oluwo’s/padrino’s/Ifá godfather’s Cuban-born wife. It was not only the dead, but the Orisha Who came down through Julía the Medium that cold winter’s night, and, fittingly, Eshu came first and gave me a series of messages, letting me know first and foremost that not only am I His Child, Whom He loves dearly, but I am Him as well: the Child Spirit (One of His Avatars) is playfully shadowing me everywhere I go, giggling and having fun, goading me to constantly eat candies (Eshu has a sweet tooth, for sure!). She looks like me at age 7. She accepts the ébo I make to Eshu, which means, She takes the sacrifices I offer to My (True) Self.
My heart absolutely melted as Eshu said these things, and I wept with tears of giddiness when He ambled across the room to enfold me in a tight, long hug. He kissed my forehead and said we would be in Cuba soon: He can’t wait for me to receive my crown!
I do feel sorry for people, whatever their religious beliefs, who feel that the act of praying is an inert exercise, and they have severe doubts ballooning in their minds about their Deity or Deities “hearing” them; that no action taken in this world motivated by spiritual sensibilities could ever engender a positive effect in their lives. Ash-coated words barely escape their lips. Jaded and plagued by self-doubt or even self-loathing, they wind up rejecting all religious pursuits as follies for the easily duped.
Those people can’t be found in the Houses / spiritual communities of Ifá. Or Vodoun. Or Candomblé. In all African Diaspora Religions, believers know that their Powers are engaging with them. The evidence is confirmed by sensory input—concrete reality of the here and now—not just abstract faith in Who or What is “Out There.” The Gods are immanent, They love this world and welcome opportunities to experience its pleasures through the sensory vehicles of human conduits: the taste of a cigar, the fabric of layered skirts twirling in ecstatic dance. As a character in an H.P. Lovecraft novella (The Shadow Over Innsmouth) states:
“Never was nobody like Cap’n Obed—old limb o’ Satan! Heh, heh! I kin mind him a-tellin’ abaout furren parts, an’ callin’ all the folks stupid for goin’ to Christian meetin’ an’ bearin’ their burdns meek an’ lowly. Says they’d orter git better gods like some o’ the folks in the Injies—gods as ud bring ’em good fishin’ in return for their sacrifices, an’ ud reely answer folks’s prayers.” (Chapter 2, paragraph 12, available in the public domain from WikiSource.)
I know Eshu “reely” answers my prayers! May He be ever praised!