Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Sango Festival in Osogbo

This may be the most ambitious blog I've ever tried.

I'd mentioned earlier that Ajala Sangosankin, a Yoruba living in Osogbo, Osun State, Nigeria, offered to teach me about the orisa, or deities, personified forces of nature sacred to the Yoruba people who are devotees of the religion indigenous to that country. I am thrilled to have a teacher with first-hand experience, after studying the phenomena in books over 20 years, mostly as described by ethnologists, not practitioners. One of the amazing effects of our digital age is that tribal people around the world are beginning to show the world how they view their own traditions, unmoderated by anthropologists trained in an alien system of beliefs, and often having a condescending assessment at best.

I remember in my teens reading in the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology that Africa HAD nothing, really, that qualified as a genuine mythology, only a hodge-podge of barely formed stories and some crude "fetishes". But then, no one really wanted to believe that anything good could come out of "The Dark Continent" in academia in those days. I was skeptical of the Encyclopedia's dismissal, and my hunch turned out to be right. Of all the mythologies I've studied, and that would be several, none are more exquisitely complex and subtle than the Yoruba.

With that said, I'll wade into describing what I think is going on in the photographs that Ajala sent to me of the recent Sango festival in Osogbo. He sent these to me so that I could look, learn, and ask questions, and he has assured me that I may share them if I wish. I'll admit to some hesitation, since some of the images are of Ebo, or sacrifice, and for some strange reason our culture doesn't mind bloodshed much as long as it isn't seen, and isn't considered sacred. So if you blanch at such, you may want to back out of this blog now.

As we began to talk on the phone, and email back and forth, I described for Ajala a series of lucid dreams that I've had over the years that conform to the complex of images associated with the orisa Sango. Before the rationalists attack, I would like to make it clear that in the world of the orisa it doesn't matter a whit which came first, the metaphysical chicken or the breakfast egg ~ so whether my dreams were influenced by what I read about Sango is beside the point. The point is that I found the imagery attractive enough to engage with it in my dreams. Ajala spoke with his father, also a Sango initiate, (and coincidentally a fine artist) about my dreams, and about the stone axehead I have, found on the Dutton farm, both indications that a person may be a "child of Sango", a potential initiate.

Sango is the orisa of lightning, dance, drumming, justice and male sexuality; all things that strike with force. As a metaphor, the idea is that Sango Ase is the effect of great force wielded with great precision. Red hot balanced by White cool. Yorubaland has more lightning than any place on earth, around 40 earth strikes per square mile a year, so there's plenty of opportunity to witness what great force striking with great precision can do. Sango's symbol is his double-headed axe, thrown in the thunderbolt, and sometimes found where they hit the earth, in the form of neolithic stone axe heads. Such a stone is a poetic and literal connection to the orisa, and are treated as such by the children of Sango.

Sango priests, and on a more intimate scale, all initiates, keep an altar for Sango. There's a simple poetic concept at work, and that is that things, power included, can be contained, and that metaphysical things are contained where you put them. Basically an altar to the orisa is an arranged accumulation of containers that effectively contain what you consider to be sacred.
These objects are tended to, and the tending, involving both thought and action, constitute an important aspect of your relationship with the sacred. How you do it is how it is. The first and most important orisa that you should pay attention to is your own head, since all of your understanding, and thus all your relationship with the universe and everything in it, depends on the nature of your thoughts. So you should strive to have good character. The consequential good thought will result in good deeds. Anyone who knows the procedure could go through the motions of ritually tending the orisa, but what is worth doing, as my Aunt Marguerite used to say, is worth doing well.

Ajala's father advised him that the oracle, Ifa, should be consulted to discover what might be done about someone on another continent having both Sango dreams and a Sango stone. If I had been born Yoruba, there would have been little doubt as to where these signs were headed, but the Ifa diviner would have been consulted in any event, to find out the Odu, or destiny path involved from the orisa point of view (Ifa ~ the divination ~ is the interface between the orisa and human affairs) and what the prescribed sacrifice should be. The procedure of divination is carried out on an Opun-Ifa, a divining board, typically a wooden plate with a carved rim. The rim usually has a face of Esu, the boundary crossing messenger orisa. The board is spread with a little wood dust from a tree sacred to the orisa, for the diviner to make marks in. The diviner taps the board with a carved tapper, to attract both human and orisa attention, goes through a series of picking up handsfuls of the ikin, a kind of nut, to arrive at a sequence of 8 double or single marks arranged in two columns. These two columns together indicate an Odu ~ all 256 of them have names (the mathematical permutations will give 256 possible combinations), and all of them have associated proverbs and prescribed sacrifices. It is the diviner's job to memorize an entire set (there isn't a SINGLE set of 256, since these are passed on orally, but many, and a diviner may know more than one proverb for any particular odu.) Traditional cultures are known for amazing feats of memory, but the Ifa diviners may well take the cake in that regard. Imagine memorizing and being able to recite, from any verse point, the bible and you get the picture.

Sango initiates tend their own altars when the time is right, some more often than others. The objects need to be refreshed at times by interacting with them. This could be weekly (the traditional Yoruba week is 4 days) or monthly, but once a year each community with Sango initiates will likely have a Sango festival with dancing, storytelling, ritual cleaning and renewing of altars, sacrifice, and feasting. This happened last week in Osogbo, and that was the occasion for Ajala to not only make the Ebo (sacrifice) recommended by the odu which indicated that I should be initiated to Ifa and Sango, but also to document the event with digital photographs. Someone else may have done this, but if they have, I've never seen it.

Here are the photos, in something like chronological order. In some cases I know pretty much what is being shown, because Ajala has explained it, or it conforms to what ethnologists have described in the books I've read. But no single individual "knows" all about Ifa, or Sango ~ like all belief systems, it is a community affair. I'm keeping in mind that the sole reason I'm being admitted into this experience is because the oracle has confirmed my status in relation to the orisa. I feel honored that Ajala and his family have welcomed me so warmly.

Picking the orisa medicine leaves

Picking Sango's bitter kola nuts

The collection of orisa medicine leaves

Washing the Sango thunderstone in orisa medicine

Ajala and the Ifa diviner

Ajala's family altar

The Ebo


The Elders of Osogbo assembled for the Sango festival

Ajala's sister dancing at the Sango festival

Ajala's father dancing at the Sango festival