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Posted Under Santeria & Brujeria

Hacking Life, the Universe, and Everything through Afro-Cuban Ifá, Santería’s High Priesthood

Santeria

The rain is slicing down in sheets and it has become difficult to see the road as my Padrino Miguelito and I slow to a crawl along the carretera, or highway, cutting through the Cuban countryside on our way to the Marianao home where I would be performing the deep divination to see what oddun my Orí would be born in.

A huge storm had suddenly made its appearance about half an hour before we left the casa particular (private home) we were renting for our visit. "I'm not going to say a word about what oddun I'll be coming with today," I said cryptically to my wife before leaving. Being a child of the oddun or Ifá sign Baba Eyiogbe I was more than a little familiar with the tempests that erupt when a major power such as Ifá, Olófin, or Orí is born in that sign. On the other hand, I did not wish to tempt Echu, the capricious Oricha who opens and closes all roads and doors in life at his whim, so I did not directly voice my suspicions.

The storm worsens and lightning strikes closer and closer to the carretera on which we are traveling. When the storm reaches the point of becoming a serious danger, Padrino Miguelito begins to recite the prayers for two Ifá odduns (signs) that would work in conjunction to calm the storm. Within five minutes the rain has completely stopped, the clouds have cleared, and the sun was now shining as if the storm had never existed.

"Padrino, can you teach me those rezos (prayers)?"

Padrino Miguelito paused for a minute to consider my request. Although I had more than seventeen years of experience as a babalawo, or high priest, in Santería, it didn't automatically mean I was ready to learn the information I had requested. Such power has to be used sparingly and wisely. Finally, he responded.

"Como no." Why not. With that, Padrino Miguelito accelerates towards the Havana neighborhood where we would perform the ceremonies.

I should now explain what I mean by the term "hacking" used in the title of this article, because the only kind of hacking that's usually talked about is the destructive kind. But hacking is simply discovering new ways to access and do things with a computer program, a system, or (in this case) a universe—often in ways that weren't originally intended. In other words, every time you figured out a way to get your word processing program (or your toaster) to do something you want that was not a regular feature, you hacked that program (or toaster). Thousands of years ago, ancient babalawos (literally, "Fathers of the Secrets") discovered an enormous secret: the underlying fabric of the universe is made up entirely of ones and zeros like an immense computer program, and that wisdom, knowledge, and thought are the forces that move the world. They not only discovered the universe functioned essentially like a computer, but they learned how to manipulate this binary information to cause changes in the world around them. This knowledge became the core of the system of knowledge and divination known as Ifá. Over the centuries, babalawos refined and distilled this knowledge in Africa, and after the collapse of the Yoruba culture in a perfect storm of civil wars, invasion, and colonialism, these secrets were brought with slaves to Cuba. Here in the New World these Ifá priests are considered specialists in divining the past, present, and future for their clients, their communities, and the world at large, as well as functioning as the high priesthood of Santería.

For these early babalawos, everything in existence is born in one or another of Ifá's odduns, the groups of eight ones and zeros that make up Ifá's version of a byte. They are archetypes of aché, or power, forming a matrix of power that includes every force and every being and every "thing" in the universe. Here is an example of one of Ifá’s odduns (this one is known as Oche Fun):

 +
0 I
I 0
0 I
I 0

As you can see, the oddun is made up of eight ones and zeros, giving us 256 possible combinations. These odduns contain totality of knowledge to be found, and babalawos spend their lives studying and pondering the wisdom contained within them. Each oddun has its own plants, particular offerings, workings, and an almost endless number of atakís (mythic histories) and refránes (proverbs) to aid in the process of divining for those who come to the babalawo seeking aid. Everything in existence was born in the oddun that rules over it, even the Orichas.

That life itself might be made up of strings of ones and zeros, as biologists now believe, is far more "user friendly" and comprehensible than the corresponding concept discovered by physicists: that the whole of the universe and reality, even matter, consists of binary information as well, although this may not console you the next time you bang your shin on the "information" making up the coffee table.

John Archibald Wheeler, the brilliant physicist who coined the term "black hole," put it this way:

"It from bit. Otherwise put, every 'it'—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits."

More than a decade before, when asked by Migene Gonzalez-Wippler about the similarities between Ifá’s odduns and binary code computer code for her book Santería: The Religion: Faith, Rites and Magic, Pancho Mora, the first Cuban babalawo to come to the United States, described it this way:

"It's the simplest system in the world, and the most complete. It's a combination-or series of combinations-between something, the one, and nothing, the zero. The entire universe is made of somethings and nothings. With those two ciphers, worlds can be made and destroyed. But we're now in Orula's province. I cannot tell you any more... All the knowledge that can be had lies between the one and the zero."

As mentioned above, ancient babalawos took this knowledge a step further when they discovered that not only can this information or knowledge be accessed, it can be manipulated to great effect through the use of relatively simple tools.

It becomes quite possible that the universe is essentially what amounts to a massive cosmic computer, with everything in it: the planets, stars, and even animals and people functioning as part of an immense database and/or as RAM. It is as if we live in an immense computer simulation that we are actually a part of. Over time these ancient babalawos found ways to access and manipulate that information that makes up the universe, not only to gain knowledge and to learn about the past, present, and future, but to make changes to the reality and universe around us—thus effectively hacking the universe and life itself.

The babalawo is given access to this power during their initiation by being in the presence of Olófin, who is the source of the power of the odduns. Through Her power the babalawo is able to mark and activate these odduns as well the facets of the universe which these oddun control. Some of the prayers are simple, generalized calls to the oddun. Other rezos or prayers, like the one used to halt the storms, are very specific to the task at hand.

Consciousness, Quantum Theory, and Reality
In Afro-Cuban Ifá, our Orí (literally, "head"), or consciousness, is a power that is even greater than that of the Orichas and in its role as Eledá is considered to be a Creator in its own right. In Afro-Cuban Ifá, your Orí is your destiny, the talents and resources you were born with, as well as your personality. Your Orí also interacts with the world to create the reality around us and consciousness is the other component in the makeup of the universe and plays a key role in bringing about changes in it.

As disturbing as it was to physicists such as Schrödinger and Einstein, consciousness is a key concept in quantum theory and a central component in what has become popularly known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. This view was devised largely in the mid-1920s by the pioneers Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who believed measurement registered in the mind of an observer was a necessary factor of quantum mechanics.

On the other hand, it appears the idea that has been proposed that our consciousness creates reality when we interact with the world at the quantum level misses the mark. I believe the best-known thought experiment in quantum mechanics shows why:

Stephen Hawking is quoted as having said that whenever he hears the words "Schrödinger's Cat" he reaches for his pistol but, at the risk of having a dead cat AND a dead Llewellyn author I will bring Schrödinger's famous Cat into the argument. And I believe this cat tale also illustrates how our consciousness interacts with reality exceedingly well.

In the thought experiment, a cat is put into a box with a vial of poison that will be released if a certain piece of radioactive material decays, giving us a 50/50 chance that the cat will die. But, according to quantum theory, we have a kind of "ghost cat" who is neither alive nor dead (or both alive and dead) until someone (a conscious being) opens the box. Unfortunately, the story doesn't say by looking in the box with the right attitude that we will necessarily get a live cat, no matter how many bags of Meow Mix we bought to reward the cat for surviving and to rejoice. But what the thought experiment does say is our consciousness can choose the subject of the question and the universe will respond in one way or another. We simply can't get away from the fact that we have a reciprocal give and take relationship with the universe around us. In other words, we CO-CREATE our reality. Otherwise it's like trying to have a perfect marriage without a Significant Other; it's just not going to work. Not to mention the fact that there are certain rules everything in the universe must follow.

This kind of reciprocal relationship with the world around us is a fundamental concept in Ifá and is the basis for almost all of the rituals, offerings, and sacrifices we make to the Dead and to the Orichas in Santería.

It is through the interaction of consciousness, the knowledge and information contained in Ifá’s odduns and the cosmos that allows babalawos to hack the universe. And in a refrán (proverb) from the oddun Baba Eyiogbe, Ifá manages to distill this immense secret into just one sentence: "Wisdom, comprehension, and thought are the forces that move the world."

And while the book Babalawo, Santería's High Priests goes into more detail, the space here does allow me to introduce some of the core concepts involved.

Less than a week after Padrino Miguelito stopped the storm through the power of those two odduns, I was forced to use these newly learned rezos (prayers) myself when another storm threatened to ground all the planes at José Martí airport outside of Havana. Again, the tempest cleared completely within minutes, allowing the sun to reappear and flights to resume as if there had never been a storm in the first place. I have not had to make use of that particular bit of knowledge since.

 

  • John A. Wheeler, 1990, "Information, Physics, Quantum: The search for Links" in W. Zurek (ed.) Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information. Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Gonzalez-Wippler, Migene. 2002. Santería: The Religion: Faith, Rites and Magic. Minneapolis: Llewellyn Publications.
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About Frank Baba Eyiogbe

Frank Baba Eyiogbe has been practicing Santeria for over twenty-seven years: twenty-three years as a santero (Orisha priest) and eighteen years as a babalawo (initiated in Cuba). Frank has achieved the highest level of ...

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