In African myth, when the great All Father, Olórun, finished creating the world and everything in it, He retired to His lofty realm for a well-deserved rest. In His place He left certain lieutenants who exercised His will on the material plane. These divine intermediaries between God and man are called the Orixás. This is why in the Yoruba language the name means “minor god,” that is, a potency second only to the will of the All Father.
Actually, the Orixás represent the powerful vibratory forces of nature like wind, thunder, lightning, rain, and earthquakes. Their force is not crude, primitive, and aimless; they do not expend their energies by performing mechanical actions like the elementals in Western Magick. The Orixás are spiritual entities of a superior evolutionary plane. Their powers can be cultivated, and, by virtue of their consciousness and intelligence, they can attend the calls of the faithful.
Their dynamic power, which is called axé,1 can be captured and focused into certain objects by natural means, as in the cases of plants or natural formations in the landscape, like waterfalls and rivers.The faithful can also, in special rituals that rely on sacrifice, invocation, and prayer, direct the vibratory energy into certain stones and metals. These charged objects, known as assentamentos, are buried under the center post that supports the terreiro so that the vital force of the Orixás will continue to protect and energize the temple.
Most followers believe that the Orixás evolved without needing to pass through incarnations in order to achieve perfection. Nonetheless, many of these deities have been syncretized with the Roman Catholic saints who have led terrestrial lives. Syncretism occurs when two religions mutually influence each other to the extent that the characteristics of their gods intermingle and are confused, and eventually assimilate to form one entity. Before the Orixás were syncretized with Catholic saints, they suffered changes among themselves as the different African groups they represented found themselves thrown together as slaves in Brazil. Many Orixás from Yoruba and other Sudanese cultures, and the Bantu cultures, shared enough common attributes that the 400 to 600 original African Orixás were reduced to a couple of handfuls in Brazil. The assimilations are not always complete, which gives rise to the different, often contradictory myths surrounding the gods and shows why their characteristics vary from temple to temple.
The Orixás, as supreme lords of the elements of nature, exercise direct influence on humans, whom they are capable of protecting or punishing. Their powers can be manipulated through obedience, offerings, and incorporation (possession through the vehicle of a medium). Although the delegates’ powers are limited to exercising the will of the Supreme Creator through His son Oxalá, the Orixás are extremely influential because they govern the course of human life at their discretion. Each possesses a positive and negative side, as do human beings, and like humans, they can behave well or badly. They kill and cure, protect and punish, love and hate. The Orixás are cultivated through their symbols, colors, modes of dress, representative beaded necklaces, dancing styles, drum rhythms, sacred songs, stones, and salutations. They are feared and respected, but also loved by their followers.
The explosive music and dancing that occur during a medium session help invoke both the Orixás and spirit guides to enter into the bodies of mediums for the transmission of healing and higher knowledge. Devotees do not believe that the Orixá itself incorporates into a medium, but that some part of the deity’s powers is transmitted through a lesser evolved spirit that works for the Orixá. This is why a thousand Iansãs, for example, can descend into as many terreiros every night. (This concept is explained more thoroughly in chapter 5.)
The first time an initiate is possessed, he or she receives a spirit guide, and later, an entity of whom the medium becomes a filho-de-santo2 (a devotee). In some sects, only temple chiefs can be possessed by all entities. Most mediums communicate with one to three entities in Macumba and Umbanda. In Candomblé they are allowed to work with only one. Although an entity’s behavioral patterns vary according to the individual medium’s personality, the changes are slight, and the same entity is easily recognizable regardless of the individual medium or tradition.
You don’t have to be an initiate to “belong” to an Orixá, that is, receive the deity’s protection. Many Brazilians believe that every human being from birth is taken under the wing of one or more Orixás. You can discover who protects you by consulting a priest or priestess who will cast the cowrie shells for you, as I describe in chapter 5. It may be more useful than you know to find out about your guardian, as the following story proves.
When I learned of my protectors, Xangô and Iemanjá, I bought necklaces displaying their symbols to wear whenever I left home in Rio. One night, I donned my Xangô necklace before leaving for the movies with a couple of friends. This deity happens to be the highly respected thunder god of cosmic justice. It was such a pleasant evening that we decided to walk home after the show. We were strolling down a street a few blocks from my apartment when three men with guns jumped out from behind a parked car. The assailants who attacked me saw my necklace and started.
“You are under the protection of Xangô?” he asked.
Unable to speak, I nodded vigorously.
He muttered something to his companion that I did not understand, and the robbers took off into the night. We escaped, only forfeiting the loose change that they had pocketed at the beginning of the assault. Such is the power of the god in Brazil.
The purpose of this chapter is to introduce you to the Orixás. I begin with descriptions of each of the major Orixás who are cultivated in most terreiros, then follow with a legend that shows the deity’s personality, origin, or philosophical significance.
In appendix B, you will find a list of attributes that contribute to the building of each Orixá’s persona, such as his or her characteristic dress, salutation for when he or she descends into the terreiro, and symbols. Elaborate rituals surround each deity, and the details of their expression must be followed to the letter. Nonetheless, inconsistencies plague these lists. For example, the colors, symbols, food, and modes of dress that are linked to each entity can vary slightly, depending on the sect or even the individual temple. This is because in the assimilation of the myriads of original Orixás, distinct traits have evolved for different denominations, and even within a sect, small variations can occur. Appendix B lists the attributes that surface most often.
When the wind rustles through the temple, agitating the raffia that decorates the walls, the drums pause, and everyone looks around for Iansã to burst upon the scene. Renowned as the Goddess of the Fire Sword, Iansã ranks as the most temperamental, passionate, and vivacious of all the Orixás. Her pure energy dominates the winds and lightning, and she manipulates this power to provide cooling breezes, control electrical devices, and also to conjure up cyclones and tornados. She personifies the element Air, and in this sense is similar to the elemental King Paralda of Western Occultism. Her scintillating sexual energy sparks unbridled passion, orgasm, jealousy, impetuosity, and free love. This haughty, demanding, irascible lady is the only Orixá formidable enough to handle the Eguns, the spirits of the dead, whom she cows with her flaming sword and iruexim, a whip fashioned from the hair of a horse’s tail. In Africa, she is so ferocious that she brandishes a short beard, which she conceals behind a small veil. This characteristic has not translated to her Brazilian persona.
The story goes that Iansã was a bright, intelligent, impetuous girl eager to know everything about the world. Because of her fervently sexual nature she chose to serve an apprenticeship (so to speak) by seducing all the male Orixás, and convincing them that in return for her favors, they should teach her their secrets. From Oxóssi she learned to hunt, and from his son, Logun-Odê, to fish. Ogum taught her to wield a sword, and Oxaguiã showed her how to use a shield for protection. Obaluaiê initiated her into the mysteries of the spirits of the dead. Even Exu let her in on the enigmas of fire and enchantment. When she set her cap for Xangô, however, she got more than she bargained for. Although he revealed to her the magic of thunder and lightning, she fell for him madly and irrevocably, and felt the burning passion and heartache of love. From their union were born the Ibêji twins.
I remember my astonishment when I first saw a medium incorporate one of the Ibêji, the twins of the Afro-Brazilian pantheon. I could not fathom why this middle-aged woman was squatting on the floor like a child playing a game with a little ball, occasionally squealing in delight. She approached and raised her innocent eyes to me, calling me tia (aunt), and in baby talk begged me to bless her and give her a piece of candy. I was shocked. It took me a long time to understand that the true purpose of these cosmic mischief makers is to remind us of the power of laughter. With their jokes, infantile behavior, and giggling exuberance, they are able to undo the most powerful binding spells. Through the Ibêji, we learn to value the innocence and purity of our childhoods, thoughts of which can still bring us happiness and contentment.
The twins watch over children from the time they are babies and guide them until adolescence, regardless of the Orixá’s authority with whom they are linked. Besides symbolizing happiness, childhood, and the lighter side of life, the Ibêji are associated with beauty, gracefulness, flowers, perfumes, and enchantments. Although they are syncretized with Saints Cosmus and Damian, the concepts they express really have no equivalent in the Roman Catholic belief system.
It is told that when the Ibêji were born, the last to leave the womb was actually the eldest. Quickly he assessed the situation, backed up, and pushed his sibling out first so he could learn from watching the experience.
Once a year on Iemanjá’s feast day, the peace and serenity of this mermaid goddess enfolds the beaches of Brazil in her loving, protective mantle. On December 31 in Rio (February 2 in Salvador) the entire city migrates to the beach. Families and friends gather and carve holes in the sand, which they fill with lighted candles and flowers. They also construct miniature wooden boats and trim them with flowers, combs, bars of soap, mirrors, and tiny perfume bottles. At midnight, as fireworks explode from atop the high-rise hotels to ring in the new year, the faithful holding vigil on the beach murmur prayers and launch the candlelit mini-crafts into the sea. Then they immerse themselves in the foaming surf for a purification bath. In this way, people—whether they are initiates or not—commemorate the feast day of Iemanjá, the lithesome Lady of the Vibratory Force of the Sea.
Known as the Mother of Pearls Goddess, Iemanjá is perhaps the most beloved goddess throughout Brazil. Maybe this feeling stems from her great affection for and loyalty to the family, a general value shared by most Brazilians. Iemanjá is the Orixá of procreation, gestation, and the family, and holds absolute reign over the hearth fire. When a baby is born, she makes sure it will live the normal life of a thinking, reasoning human being. She educates and raises children and instills in them respect for their parents and siblings. She teaches parents to love and care for their offspring as well. She presides over family reunions, weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries, and gives a person a sense of identity, a feeling of belonging. The high value placed on kinship and group extends beyond family to friends, neighbors, and community. By analogy, many practitioners consider her to be the mother of all the Orixás.3
Iemanjá bore three sons: Ogum, Oxóssi, and Exu. All her children left home—Ogum to conquer the world, Oxóssi to pursue a meditative life in the forest, and Exu to see what the world had to offer. Only Exu returned. At first, his mother was delighted to see him. As they talked, he became agitated and finally blurted out that he had searched the planet in vain to find a woman to equal her perfection, and that because of his failure to discover one he knew he was destined to possess her and her alone. Then he grabbed his mother and tried to violate her. In the struggle, Exu ripped open her breasts. When he saw what he had done, he recoiled in horror and shame, and fled, banished from the kingdom of heaven, never to return. From the copious tears Iemanjá shed the oceans were formed, and from her torn breasts were born all the other gods.
If Iemanjá is the mother of the Orixás, then Nanã surely is the grandmother, because she embodies the First Great Force of the Supreme Law of Umbanda, which controls cosmic energy. Born of the tempest, she is known as the Mother of the Rain. Every time a devotee takes a bath, showers, swims, or in any way comes in contact with water, Nanã is remembered. When she incorporates, her mediums bend their bodies and walk slowly with frail steps supported on canes. This granny is a calm, ponderous, patient immortal whom it is difficult to annoy. Be advised, however, that anyone who really runs afoul of her temper had better watch out, as she goes blind with rage and strikes out at anyone in her path!
Nanã also merits the high rank of Guardian of the Portal of Death. In this exalted position, she reminds us that in order to experience life we must also understand death, for one cannot exist without the other. In this sense, she mirrors a teaching of Western Occultism that states that without darkness there can be no light. She is also the Goddess of Truth. Curiously, her cult was almost unknown in Brazil until this century, and she is gaining more followers every day.
Ogum was out roving the countryside when he happened upon Nanã’s land. He knew he should have asked her permission to pass through her territory, but since she appeared not to be around and this proud warrior Orixá feared no one mortal or im-mortal, he proceeded on through. By-and-by, he came upon a marsh he had to traverse before he could leave her property.
Suddenly, on the other side of the muddy expanse, Nanã appeared—an ancient, white-haired grandmother bent over a cane.
Her voice quivered as she spoke. “Ogum, as you well know, you cannot pass through my land without asking my permission.”
Ogum eyed the frail old lady and responded harshly, “Grandmother, you well know that I ask permission of no one about anything. I go where I please.”
Politely, she insisted, but he paid no heed. “Then,” her voice took on a threatening tone, “I promise you will suffer the consequences, for I guarantee you will not pass through my land.”
With a smile of derision, Ogum stepped into the marsh, but as he walked he sank deeply into the mire. Thrashing wildly with his sword, Ogum sunk deeper and deeper into the morass.
At last, to save his life, he swallowed his pride and begged the granny’s permission.
“Ogum,” she said, “You are so fearless, young, and strong, but too impetuous. She shook her head and helped him extricate himself. “You need to learn to respect your elders.”
Ogum, definitely a sore loser, hightailed it out of sight, but not before he threatened that one day he would return and fill her marsh with pointed steel so it would cut her to ribbons if she set foot in it. To this day, Nanã’s followers can wear no jewelry or anything else made from metal, for the goddess has banned that element from her kingdom.
Ogum, renowned as the Orixá of war, is a kind of Mars figure. In the great battle of life, he is the field marshall. He is syncretized in Roman Catholicism with St. George, the Dragonslayer.
The first time I saw a representation of this ferocious Orixá, I was changing money downtown at the Parallel Market (read “black market”) in Rio. This unprepossessing little storefront on the Avenida Rio Branco looked just like all the other exchange houses in the vicinity, only here you got substantially more Brazilian money for your dollar. Of course it was illegal—well, semi-illegal—during the last dictatorship. From time to time, the military police (MP), when they did not have anything better to do, “raided the joint” and closed it down just to keep the brokers “honest.” Typically for Brazil, the exchange house would bounce back into business the next day, and also typically, the MP would turn a blind eye, at least for a while. Nervously waiting in line to exchange travelers’ checks, wondering if “today would be the day,” I glanced around at the spartan decor and spied a statue of an Orixá in a niche high on the wall. Ogum, shining in the light of a votive candle, surrounded by flowers and other offerings, sat astride his white horse and brandished a sword at the door, defying the MP or anyone else with ill will to trespass the threshold.
Ogum represents the unstoppable force of movement. Although this warrior can be severe, rigid, and all-controlling (sometimes even to the point of cruelty), he is also the most responsible of the Orixás. He strives to keep his family safe and secure, and proves a compassionate, understanding father figure, and a noble lord. In this capacity he commands respect as the guardian of agriculture and the black volcano, the forger of steel and iron.
Ogum’s presence is felt at intense moments in life. His is the sharp cry of anger or pain, the clanging of the fire engine that shatters the stillness of the night, the yammering of jack hammers, the detonation of a bomb. He makes his home in automotive plants, barracks, arms factories, and workshops. He protects soldiers, construction workers, dentists, truck drivers, and anyone who must take a long journey.
One day after returning from a hunting expedition to feed his family, Ogum discovered his house in flames and his family threatened by warriors from distant lands. He flew into a rage, lunged at the attackers, and destroyed them all.
Then he proceeded to teach his younger brother Oxóssi how to hunt in the forest. Ogum said to his brother, “The battle for the lives of my family has awakened my fighting instinct. I feel warrior blood coursing through my veins, and I know I must soon leave you to conquer other worlds. For this reason I have taught you the secrets of the hunt so you can provide food for our family in my stead.”
As he turned to leave, he added, “Remember if you are ever in trouble, invoke me, and I will appear by your side in an instant to defend and protect you. No matter where you are I will fly to your defense.” And so, Ogum provides a paradigm for family responsibility and loyalty.
An Orixá of many “faces,” Omulu’s physical visage is concealed by the straw mask that covers his face and entire body. His different names reveal his fearsome, multifaceted nature. As the virile warrior, this Lord of the Earth is called Obaluaiê. As he personifies the heat of the sun and the energy of good health, he is called the Doctor of the Poor. On the other side of the coin, Omulu is an old man who covers his head with a straw hood called a filá to hide the smallpox scars that infected him as a child. It also shows that as the deity of death and contagious disease, he commands such respect that no one dares look upon his face. Those who seek Omulu’s advice when he incorporates in his mediums tremble in his presence, for they know he presides over the mysteries of death and rebirth. In the tarot, Omulu’s equivalent is number thirteen, the card of death and transformation. His precinct is the cemetery, and he is Chief of the Wing of the Eguns. His ancient name, Xampanã, is so feared that it cannot be pronounced aloud.
Although Xangô is the volcano, the earth cannot erupt without Omulu’s permission. His magic is so strong that only Nanã can contain him. Omulu visits illness, pestilence, and death on humanity, but he also works medicine to help people stay healthy in their daily lives.
When a person takes a breath, speaks, or feels pain inside, especially in the bladder, the presence of Omulu is felt. Although he can cause skin diseases, evil humors, putrid smells, and insanity, he is also merciful. When a person dies, he guides the soul to the world beyond. In this respect, he resembles Anubis of the Egyptian pantheon.
Omulu was abandoned by his mother Nanã in childhood because of the illness that scarred his face. Iemanjá took pity on him and raised him as her own child, teaching him how to cure infections.
One fine day while he was on a journey, he ran out of food and water. He decided to stop by a village and request sustenance. The residents, frightened by the specter swathed from head to foot in straw, ran him off. The disillusioned Orixá then slowly retired to a nearby hill where he sat silently watching the rising sun.
As the solar disc climbed higher into the heavens the town’s water supply dried up, crops shriveled, food spoiled, and the air hung heavy with putrid smells. Soon people began to feel nausea and were overcome by raging fevers. Some went insane; others died. After three days of searing sun and no night, the elders approached Omulu, who still sat in stony silence on the hill. Although they quaked in his stern presence, their need overcame their fear.
“Our crops have shriveled, our water’s dried up, and we are dying of hunger, thirst, and disease,” they lamented. “Oh, great Omulu, have pity on us!”
Suddenly Omulu stood up and without a word strode down the hill to the village. As he entered town, the water began to run pure again, the crops revived, and a cooling breeze lowered the temperature. The awesome deity moved through the lanes curing the sick, and even raised the dead from their shallow graves. The towns-people rejoiced. Then the Orixá again asked for food and water. This time the people feted him with the best they could provide. Because the god had taken pity on them, they learned to be merciful to others. Still, in some parts people are warned never to leave home in the heat of the day without covering their heads, so as not to incur the god’s fatal wrath.
The Almighty God Olórun, known also as Zambi, created the earth, including man and woman, in four days. Then He made an alliance with humankind, which He expressed through the Orixá Oxumarê, the rainbow that connects heaven and earth. After that, He retired to his celestial realm to rest from His labors. He delegated the authority for solving the mundane problems of earth to His lieutenants, the divine Orixás, chief of whom is His son, Oxalá.
In the Brazilian sects, Olórun is only referred to in a general way during ritual prayers. He has no devotees, and is never incorporated.
More than an Orixá, Oxalá is canonized as the father of the Orixás, and Chief of Planet Earth. Like Omulu and Oxumarê, he possesses two distinct forms, and also manifests a third, puzzling characteristic.
As the young god Oxaguiã, a noble warrior, he carries a pilão (pestle) wherever he goes. His second aspect reveals a bent old man Oxalufã, who supports himself on a cane that he thumps three times on the ground to determine the fates of humans’ souls when they die.
Although syncretized with Jesus Christ, Oxalá typifies some ideas quite distinct from those symbolized by the Christian savior. He is the end of the road—the beginning of death. This is why he and his devotees always dress in white, the color of mourning. However, the end, as depicted by Oxalá in Afro-Brazilian doctrine, is not so terrible as some other religions would have us believe. Because death is inextricably bound up with life—life’s ultimate consequence—one concept cannot exist without the other. The death Oxalá offers is really the final rest, also known as peace. Peace, in turn, represents equilibrium in the universe, the ultimate synthesis of humankind with the forces of nature.
As the embodiment of sanctity, Oxalá presides over purification ceremonies and inaugurates the season of public feasts. His followers change the water at his altar each day, replacing it with the purest, most undefiled liquid they can find.
Oxalá’s puzzling trait is that although he is conceived of as the Father of the Gods and is married to Nanã in some traditions or to Iemanjá in others, he dresses as a woman. The following myth explains why.
As you know, Nanã is the guardian of the Portal of Death, and only she and her female followers are privy to know what exists on the “Other Side.” Oxalá was consumed with a burning desire to find out what lay beyond the portal, so he devised a plan. He dressed in a white skirt like a female acolyte and donned the adê, a traditional crown with beads to cover his face. Then he joined the procession of women wending their way to the portal. Just as he was about to glimpse beyond the threshold, Nanã discovered his identity.
“Aha!” she exclaimed. “Oxalá is so curious to learn my secrets he disguises himself as one of my followers! For your trouble, I declare that you indeed shall find out what exists in the realm of death, and moreover, with your cane you will decide the fates of all beings who pass this way. However, the price paid for gaining this knowledge and power will be always to dress as a woman and receive from your worshipers offerings of chicken and goat and other animals of the kind traditionally sacrificed to the female Orixás.”
So it was that Oxalá came to be portrayed as a woman. His presence is felt during moments of anguish. As a counselor and savior, he gifts humanity with an eternal, untroubled rest.
As you have learned, Iemanjá’s contemplative son Oxóssi left home early to become Lord of the Forests and King of the Hunt. Now he perambulates the dense jungle, often in the company of Ossãe, Lord of the Plant Kingdom. He searches for items that possess good axé (spiritual force) and delivers them to the altars of the Orixás. By analogy, he represents positive energy, prosperity, and abundance. He is always present at meals and wherever any agricultural activity such as planting or harvesting takes place. His vital force permeates cleansing and purifying baths and incense smoke, for he diffuses and neutralizes negative energy. His en-ergy can be so positive that he is often called the Lord of the Art of Living. He represents liberty of expression, optimism, and dynamism. As all the Orixás also express a negative side, Oxóssi’s is that of the dreamer. His laziness can lead to procrastination, shoddy work, inertia, and putrefaction. Although he bestows abundance, he also incarnates paucity and famine.
Because he is a dreamer, idealist, and lover of all things beautiful, Oxóssi is considered the patron of the arts. He presides over all creativity, whether it be expressed in painting, sculpture, singing, planting, or procreation, and his genius is often called upon to inspire fecundity.
Ogum taught Oxóssi to hunt, among other reasons, in order to shake him from his lethargic life. From the god Ossãe he learned the mysteries of the forest and the secrets of botanicals.
Legend has it that Oxóssi originally was not a god, but a human being named Odé, who was married to Oxum. One day, he took it into his head to go hunting for the serpent, Ifá,4 who actually was not a snake at all, but a divinity. Odé didn’t believe that story.
When he found the snake in a tree, it sang out to him, “I’m not a creature that you can kill, Odé!” The hunter paid no heed, slew the viper, and stuffed it into his leather pouch. However, it kept singing even though it was dead. When Odé reached home with his catch, Oxum recoiled in horror and fled. Odé cooked up the snake anyway and ate it for dinner.
When Oxum returned the following day, she found her husband dead on the floor and the trail of a snake leading off into the woods. In tears, she ran to Ifá and pleaded for mercy. The God of the Ineffable considered the case, and decided to make Odé’s body disappear. Seven years later the hunter reappeared as the Orixá Oxóssi. Sometimes confusion arises between Oxóssi and his son Logun-Odê be-cause of the similarity in the names given in the legend.
Ossãe (also Ossaniyn or Ossaim), the son of Nanã and brother of Obaluaiê, Oxumarê, and Euá, was a pensive, introverted boy, who loved to study plants, take care of animals, and experiment with the curative powers of botanicals. Soon he left his home for life in the jungle, which he inhabited with Oxóssi. So thoroughly did he learn the mysteries of the axé of plants he became known as the Master of the Green and Father of Homeopathy. The axé offered by plants is indispensable to all rituals because it makes it possible for humans to call upon the Orixás and for them to descend to the terreiro. Without the benediction of Ossãe, no ceremony can take place.
The sacred verse that is chanted at many ceremonies in the Yoruba tongue sums up this great god’s powers: Kosi ewe, kosi orisà, “Without leaves the Orixás cannot exist. Without leaves, there is no axé!”
As the Father of Homeopathy and the guardian of the axé of plants, Ossãe is a chemist and alchemist, the original witch doctor. His presence is felt wherever healing takes place—the temple, hospitals, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, pharmacies—and he protects all healers.
This omnipotent Orixá of the wild dresses in a green, white, pink, and brown calico skirt, and wears a red leather cap or plumed helmet. In one hand he carries a pestle with which he crushes herbs, and in the other hand he holds an iron or brass diadem with seven upward-pointing shafts and a bird at the center. His blue and white sash is belted in back, and his beads are milky white, red, blue, and green. He, of course, knows which herbs are best for humans to use in divination, but prefers to divine by ventriloquism. He is most often syncretized with St. Benedict. In his work he is sometimes helped by Dudu Calunga, a short, merry, one-legged Black man, reminiscent of a gnome, who plays a kind of harp called a kora. Anyone who hears the music falls under its spell and is transformed into a botanical, thereby enriching the fabulous world of the vegetable kingdom. Ossãe’s salutation is Ewê ô, which means “leaf.”
That Ossãe was privy to the secrets of botanicals irked Xangô, so the Lord of Thunder convinced Iansã to try to wrangle the secret out of the herbal divinity. The Goddess of the Winds went to Ossãe, and pleaded with him, but he remained impassive. In a fit of pique, she grabbed her skirt and shook it so hard that all the leaves of the forest blew off the trees and scattered to the four kingdoms. Ossãe stood by watching her, still not uttering a word. In this way, vegetable life was spread to the four corners of the world.
Triumphant, Iansã returned to Xangô to brag about her success. Ossãe, however, was unimpressed, because he knew that though Iansã had physically disseminated the vegetation, he still was the only one who knew how to unlock the secrets of plant life.
Thus, Ossãe, whose name in Yoruba means “glorified morning light,” confers healing, peace, tranquility, and harmony on the world. If his kingdom is devastated by those who would attempt to harness nature, he fights back by destroying the land. He would make an appropriate guiding spirit for present-day environmentalists.
The youngest and most beloved wife of Xangô, Oxum is portrayed as the Orixá of sweet water, waterfalls, and brooks. Her energy is feminine and mild, sensitive and charming. When possessed, her mediums often behave like teenage girls, coquettish and endearing. They demand mirrors, little bells, combs, golden-colored objects, and conch shells—small vanities as rewards for their magic.
On her negative side, Oxum likes to provoke envy, gossip, intrigue, and deceit. She is so vindictive that in some myths she is accused of cutting off the ear of another of Xangô’s wives, Obá, because she thought she was losing her husband to the new favorite. Not surprisingly, she is considered the most capricious and vain of the Orixás. This aspect of her energy sometimes approximates that of the Pombas-Giras (see chapter 3).
As all the Orixás possess multifaceted natures, Oxum also stands for true love sanctified by marriage. She is capable of calming the passions inflamed in men by Iansã, and makes them loyal, responsible husbands. She also oversees the development of the fetus in the womb and makes it strong and healthy.
In the state of Bahia, she has become the goddess of petroleum, because the known bulk of the nation’s precious oil supply lies offshore. Altars to her are erected there at the edge of the sea. In some contemporary, nontraditional cults, Oxum is confused with Oxumarê, the rainbow. It is said that originally Oxum was Oxóssi’s wife, but he treated her so shabbily she left him to live with Xangô. Her gratefulness to this stern god for becoming his favorite compensates for her jealous nature. Interestingly, of all the female Orixás, she alone is privy to the mysteries of the divinatory cowrie shells, as you will see below.
This daughter of Oxalá was a pampered young miss accustomed to getting her own way. She took it into her head to learn to throw the cowries, a mystery jealously guarded by Exu, the only entity allowed to work with them. When she went to him and tendered her request, he laughed in her pretty face.
Determined to seek revenge, Oxum struck out into the deepest, wildest recesses of the forest where she found the witches who abide in the dense jungle. When she told them her story, they readily agreed to help her trick Exu. They gave her a magic potion, and she thanked them and left the forest, going directly to her nemesis.
“Oh dear Exu,” she called in her most mellifluous voice, “would you like to see the exquisite treasure I found in the forest?”
Ever curious, Exu bent over her closed hand to see what she was carrying. In one swift movement, Oxum threw the magical powder into his eyes, blinding him. In pain, he dropped the cherished cowrie shells he always held so close.
“Ay! Ay!” he screamed.“My dear little búzios shells are lost forever!”
“Not necessarily,” the girl replied calmly. “Here, let me help you look for them. How many did you say there were?”
“Sixteen, sixteen,” the entity quickly answered.
“How big is the biggest one, and what does the smallest one look like?”
In his desperation, Exu readily gave her the names, sizes, and shapes of the shells and their meanings in divination. At last, when each cowrie was restored to his palm and his vision had cleared, Oxum was long gone.
She hurried back to her father Oxalá, who was so impressed with the intelligence and artfulness with which she had wrested away Exu’s secrets that he conferred on her the power and right to divine the future with the shells. When he asked her why she wanted so passionately to know about the shells she answered, “Out of love for you, dear Papa, only because I love you.”
To this day in traditional sects, the only female mediums allowed to throw the cowries are the devotees of Oxum.
If you want to win the lottery you should make an offering to Oxumarê. An Orixá with no Roman Catholic counterpart, Oxumarê is the rainbow. He is the shining celestial symbol that presages good things, the emblem of prosperity, money, prizes, and happiness. This aspect of the rainbow finds a parallel in Celtic/Druidic symbology. When this Orixá appears in the sky it is to affirm the continuation of life. Oxumarê makes his presence felt wherever financial negotiations take place, such as banks, markets, the stock exchange, real-estate offices, and where bills are paid.
He also presides over financial loss. People invoke the androgynous god’s mighty powers when planning to buy or sell stocks, businesses, dwellings, and dealing with the taxman.
Oxumarê is also associated with Dã, the cobra of the Voodoo pantheon, but he does not exercise Dã’s wide powers. As the sky cobra, Oxumarê arches his body to drink water from the earth, immersing his head and tail in the water to form a rainbow. This entity stands for the hypnotic power of the cobra and the shimmering beauty of the colorful rainbow. In some traditions, Oxumarê is seen as female. The deity’s mediums seem like contortionists when they perform the sinuous, contortion-like dance after they incorporate him.
When Oxumarê seduced Oxum, Xangô flew into a terrible rage and killed him. Nanã took pity on the poor fellow and resuscitated him as Lord of the Stars. Yet in this capacity he was not allowed to touch the ground, which saddened him.
One day, Oxalá happened to ask Oxumarê if he knew where to find the most brilliant precious stones on earth.
The keen negotiator replied, “Of course. Why don’t you make an investment with me of 6,000 cowries, and I will take care of you.”
“Done!” Oxalá exclaimed and eagerly handed over the shells.
Then Oxumarê told the Orixá to search the seabeds of the world where he would uncover the most beautiful stones on earth. Oxalá did, and discovered impossibly stunning, shimmering gems there. He was so grateful that he turned the unhappy Orixá into a snake who could arch his tail and touch both the earth and sky, and once again connected both worlds.
When thunder rolls and lightning crackles, the power of Xangô flashes through everyone. The thunder god is the most respected and cultivated of all the Orixás because he was the first African deity to set foot on Brazilian soil. He represents the “force of the stone” or cosmic justice. The patron of writers, judges, senators, administrators, investigators, monarchs, leaders, and reformers, Xangô symbolizes pure ideology, initiative, decisiveness, the power of the will, the voice of the people.
A proud, fire-breathing, dominating, blue-blooded monarch, he sits aloof on a craggy rock with an open book by his side and a lion at his feet. He causes the volcanos of the earth to erupt in lava as an expression of the ire of Olórun, and metes out absolute justice to humankind.
Xangô materializes when a person receives an important message by letter, telephone, fax, telex, or telegram. As lawgiver, he presides over courts, ministries, prisons, associations, law offices, syndicates, police stations, and forums. He also inhabits dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias, and code books, and he hovers wherever contracts are signed. The only place he does not frequent is the realm of the Eguns, because he abhors death. The many concepts this powerful lord embodies are so all-encompassing that he has come to be syncretized with several Catholic saints. Certainly elements of both the Norse thunder god, Thor, and the Egyptian goddess Maat comprise part of his makeup.
Troops from foreign lands suddenly appeared to war against the forces of Xangô. Taken aback by the affront, the god retired to his rocky cliff to oversee the battle. He watched while left and right his soldiers were mowed down. The aggressors showed no mercy to the captured troops, slaughtering everyone.
As the carnage continued, Xangô’s blood rose until he could no longer contain his anger. He hammered on his rock, and the sparks ignited by the contact flared up into gigantic lightning bolts that flew to destroy the oppressors. When the divinity’s troops, renewed by their leader’s wrath, rose up against the foe and conquered them, some of Xangô’s officers demanded the right to kill all prisoners as vengeance for their comrades’ deaths, but Xangô’s raised hand stopped them in their tracks.
“The enemy troops are not to blame for the destruction of our men,” he pronounced. “They are good soldiers who only followed the orders of their generals, as you do mine. I command you to set them free. We will content ourselves with annihilating their leaders, who are the only ones to blame.”
In this way, the people of Xangô, including the pardoned soldiers who now became the Orixá’s most loyal followers, learned to temper justice with mercy.
Although the following deities occasionally appear in myths and sometimes are incorporated by mediums, they do not command a wide following in Brazil.
Euá or Ewá
The daughter of Nanã and female twin of Oxumarê (whenever this Orixá is not considered androgynous or female), this lady of the African river by the same name is the goddess of beauty, harmony, and enchantment. She represents all that is fragile and sensitive. Her precinct is the white end of the rainbow. Euá was so beautiful that men would fight to the death to possess her. In order to stop the carnage she changed herself into a puddle of water that evaporated to the sky, condensed into a cloud, and fell as rain. Thus she is known as the deity of transformation. Euá is syncretized with Our Lady of Montserrat, and represents the element Water.
The god Iroko, who is also known as Loko in the Gegê tradition and Time in the Angolan rituals, symbolizes the ever-changing seasons. Time is always in movement because if it stood still, all species would perish. Iroko is syncretized with many saints including Francis of Assisi, Lawrence, and Good Jesus of the Sailors. Interestingly, his visage is represented by the jurema tree, which followers adorn with ribbons, rather like the ancient Celts of northern Europe decorated their sacred trees and wells. Food offerings are also often left at the foot of the trees, especially sacrifices of cock and she-goat. Iroko’s dance is performed on the knees. The dancer makes movements with his or her hands as if to dig for gold, and then points to the sky as if to say, “God is in the sky and also on the earth.”
This god of fish and fishermen is the son of Oxóssi and Oxum. Sometimes he is portrayed as a female carrying a stringed musical instrument similar to a lyre with which she enchants all who hear her music. This Orixá’s colors are green, blue, and yellow, and he is syncretized with the Archangel Michael. Some legends confuse him with Oxóssi.
The third wife of Xangô is a warrior goddess syncretized with Joan of Arc. In some legends, Iansã persuades her to cut off her own ear and cook it to please Xangô, while in other stories it is Oxum, who in a fit of jealous rage, lops off her ear with a sword. In any case it is clear that, like Vincent van Gogh, she loses an ear to love.
While the Orixás are the primary figures in the Afro-Brazilian pantheon, other formidable characters also fill the stage of life and help negotiate humans’ destinies on a daily basis. You will meet these powerful entities in the next chapter.
1. Axé literally means “so be it,” or “so mote it be,” but usually refers to the powers of the divinities that are concentrated in the sacred objects of the cult. The sacred objects are then also called axés, and they protect, revitalize, and concentrate the energy of the temple’s devotees.
2. A filho-de-santo, filha in the feminine form, is literally a “child of the saint,” meaning a follower. The temple is considered the home with the leader being a mãe-de-santo (“mother of the saint”) or a pai-de-santo (“father of the saint”) of the family. The principal helpers to the mother and father are the “little mother” or “little father.” The “sons” and “daughters” are the mediums and worshippers.
3. Some practitioners believe that the older goddess Nanã is the mother of the Orixás.
4. Ifá is the god of destiny and divination, sometimes syncretized with the Holy Ghost. If Exu is the Messenger of Darkness, Ifá is the Bearer of the Light. He is not incorporated in the temple.