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OYA IN PRAISE OF AN AFRICAN GODDESS, Judith Gleason, Harper Collins, San

Francisco, 1992 (1987)

I was attracted to this book because it praises the goddess of the Niger
River, and one of the traditional ways of my people is to honour the
goddess of the local river. Indeed only a few hours after I bought the
book, and without me mentioning it, another raised the suggestion that we
greet and honour the river goddess here at our equinox festival.
Judith Gleason begins her book with an introduction, Bareback on the
Horse of the Wind" (pp 1-15), mentioning several aspects of this
significant deity who is also felt in the wind, who presides at edges,
including the threshold between this world and the next, whose number is
nine (from the mythical nine mouths of the river), who is seen in fire,
warmth and lightning, who speaks through cowry divination and assists when
speech is required with authority, in market, in arbitration. She helps in
childbirth. The concept of a single image does not apply. In short, while
the author mentions such Classical European correspondences as Artemis and
Hecate, this deity strikes me as no more easy to fit into her own
pigeonhole than the traditional deities of the Celts. This feeling is
heightened by the closing image of the intoduction which recalls its title.
At the conclusion of the original introduction I told how one of the
cowrie shell oracle's prescriptions to me was to bring a bit to put on
Oya's shrine. I figured that attempting to contain her within the
covers of a book was in effect to make such a long-neglected purchase.
Now I say there's no reason any more to rein Oya in. On the contrary,
now's the time to loosen up, grip the mane, and learn to ride her
bareback. p. 15
Part One, "Recalling the Elements" (pp. 17-67), begins by mentioning that
deities are natural forces, that only the controllable aspects of these
sits in a shrine and that Oya is wind, fire and river.
For millennia wind, fire, and water have been chanted as primary
constituents of an inhabited cosmos. Everwhere on earth they have been
symbolically oriented about the magic circle drawn to encompass that
space within which we seek to find ourselves. p. 21
There's a reference to bards and smiths being "technicians of the sacred"
(p. 23):
...words accompany the metalworker, too, words intoned by a
professional praise-singer, hired by the client to inspire the
goldsmith to ancestral heights of competence, and words soundlessly
uttered at the sacred moment of fusion in a silent forge by the master
himself. p. 23
Bards, who craft verbal praises rather than golden ornaments, are
elementally affiliated with water... the kora - a harp with a calabash
resonator whose twenty-one strings, rapidly plucked, sound like water
rushing over stones. It is an instrument considered consubstantial
with the river. In Mali they say the great river Niger, locaslly
called Djoliba, itself is a bard, harboring memories of heroic
achievements and ritual secrets. The kora player tunes his instrument
to these liquid whisperings. p. 24
The author proceeds to something very unusual in the climate, leastways as
it relates to me -- the tornado. She also uses this as a metaphor for
emotion and violence.
Of special interest to me, what first attracted me to this book, is that
aspect of Oya as a river goddess. The author provides fascinating material
on meteorology and climate, and also on the complex geological and
climatic features influencing the history and shifting route of this great
river. There is also mythology, the tale of the king's daughter tearing
black cloth (Oya - "she tore") from which came this river.
All along this river, rain magic and the prerogatives of transport
traditionally belong to a special caste of canoemen who, in the region
we are concerned with, are called Kede. (Upriver they are called Sorko,
and even further upriver, Marka). Upon these technicians of river
travel both the Nupe and downstream commercial kingdoms allied with
the Yoruba were economically dependent. Besides carrying trade goods
and transporting officials, the Kede also used to serve as tax
collectors for the Nupe and as carriers of tribute in which they shared.
p. 48
Throughout West Africa the dead are believed to be ferried in canoes
across three rivers separating this world from the other world. In
certain instances and locales the Yoruba, a people of the land,
actually bury their dead in canoes. As goddess of transition between
lefi and death, Oya owns this fleet plying her waters. pp. 48-49
The tearing of the cloth corresponds at all levels, and an analogy is made
to masquerade and to an octopus squirting melanin to ink threatened
waters. Her number is nine.
Nine brilliant streamers adorn her ritual standards propped on the
floor beside offerings to the local dead. p. 50
Her favourite colours are: "crimson, brown, and purple -- the hues of
flowing blood, vital animal spirits, and royal prerogative." (p. pp. 50
to 51) There's reference to the two floods, to the year-long, three
thousand mile flow from source to ocean, to the spiritual understanding
that the waters carried past the delta are purificatory. There is bathing
at New Year's Eve, and canoes bear sins out to sea. There's mention of a
dam and an unarrived flood, of the river as bard, of secrets remaining
unprofaned even when seen and of sacrificing female animals to goddesses.
Then comes a look at Oya's role as consort of Shango, god of thunder.
Part Two, "Of Masquerades and Woman-Power" (pp. 69-146), begins by
describing all Yoruba goddesses ("female Orisha" p. 70) as rivers and
wisewomen. It proceeds to duality:
All things were created double, they say in Africa. Visible/invisible,
male/female, the calm/the violent, the life-enhancing/ the
life-depleting, right hand/left hand; all phenomena partake of such
dichotomies. When it comes to the balance of social institutions,
there's masquerading for men/witchcraft for women. p. 73
There's discussion of massquerade ritual, traditionally by women and taken
over by men, though there remains feminine participation in the forms of
masquerade, in the women singing and dancing in the area of the public
performances, in the few older women who proceed to the male sacred space.
The Yoruba word for "theatrical performance" iron, also means "vision,"
that which can be seen with imagination's inner eye and which the
verbal and presentational arts, notably masquerading, can bring before
us. p. 76
The tapestry of this part continues with the divination tale of Oya and
the red cloth, with a glimpse of a masquerade coming to a house shrine
room, with reference to the cloth of a masquerade empowering the presence
of ancestral spirits, with relatives contributing cloth for burials, with
burial cloth absorbing anger at death, with the god Obatala
("King-of-the-white-cloth") who calms us and enhances our character, with
the divination tale of Obatala taking the cloth and urging women be
reverenced, with the concept of a veiled face symbolizing office
transcending individuality or conveying ancestral presence in the current
In Yoruba culture, the face of a "crowned" person is veiled. Though a
chief may be splendidly garbed, we see his face. But a fringed veil of
costly beads hides the visage of the sacred wearer of a Yoruba king's
crown. This is a metaphor for presence of more than person and signals,
beyond status, a transformed state of being. The image is a powerful
one, which proliferates itself. For example, a simple version of the
royal veil shades the faces of those possessed by the great female
Orisha (Oya, Oshun, Yemoja) in Brazilian Candomble. pp. 90-91
There is reference to Shango as king of Oyo and the role of his
descendant-successor still ratifying other Yoruba kings on their
accessions. Then comes Bayanni, Shango's sister in one version, and the
calabash containing his brother. There follows hunting fraternities and
Oya dressed in hunter's garb.
The great mask of Egungun Oya is kept in a shrine supervised by the
Onira, whom one might call the pope of Oya-worship, and tended by
women initiates. The mask is dressed in bright silk and satin cloths
and wears a headpiece of horns (not buffalo horns, although these are
kept in the sanctuary). This is the mask that is performed outside.
But it is not the guise in which Egungun-Oya is worshipped inside the
shrine house. In preparation for her weekly day of praise-singing,
the voluptuous fabrics are removed. Beneath, still horn-coiffed, the
goddess of death and regeneration is dressed like a hunter. p. 98
There is reference to the natural alterations occurring as a result of
movement to the Americas. One of the new situations was that the forests
of the New World already had hunters and the spirits of those people. She
mentions Babaluaiye, god of contagious wind-borne diseases and of madness,
derived actually it seems from Benin.
She continues with an account of a performance on Jebba Island of Ndako
Gboya, driving out evil and bestowing health, progeny, fat animals and
prosperity. The name attaches senior and great to Oya, although:
Unlike the neighboring Yoruba and the Fon, the Nupe have no pantheon
of gods. Instead, they have magical medicine and rituals with which to
control evils attribuatable to human malevolence. So this is how Oya
entered culture in Nupe: as a swirling windcloth empowered to
accomplish good-riddence. No more, no less. And it is crucial to our
understanding of her mode of being as a goddess. p. 105
She mentions legends and her interpretation that these indicate
alternating dynasties in Oyo of Nupe and Bariba rulers, as well as men
confining feminine activity. She looks at women's role in the market and
the impact of monotheism and Western imperialist concepts of male
superiority. She recounts meeting the fear of witchcraft in one place and
conversing with the excluded female counsellor in another. She mentions
the seagod Olokon. She provides a look at her reception of the title of
Ato and the performance at which this occurred, as well as her attendance
at another ceremony where she sat flicking a whisk of office. Among
evidences of the author's stated "Unified field theory" approach, besides
her presentation to the reader of fascinating pieces of meteorology,
geology and psychology, is her offering of items from the storehouse of
Classical Greek mythology and some Latin terminology.
The tapestry proceeds with the blend of traditional and modern in Lagos,
with tabloids interested in witchcraft and newspapers reporting how a
snake caused a nation wide power blackout, with a confused dialogue in a
cafeteria, with even the Ato backed by Ifa divination failing to pass the
door of male supremecy, with the tale of hunchbacks, delayed funeral
rights and the monkey child, and with consideration of this story and its
A mating of mad termite queens and monkeys in the sacred forest puts
the very concept of Egungun beyong the ideational bounds of a society
whose center of gravity stays in town and never goes beyond the pale --
except in the company of hunters or witches. p. 143
She mentions reincarnation in traditional Yoruba belief and gives a
glimpse of survivals in America.
Part Three, "Buffalo-Woman and the Hunters" (pp. 151-221), introduces Oya
as huntress. The author mentions the sacred nature of the hunt. Also:
Exploits that qualify hunters for heroic status are celebrated by
specialized bards who know what both hunting and exaggeration are all
about. In certain African societies hunting has given rise to its own
literary genre, which, expanded, becomes epic. Unlike European
literature about hunting, African oral recitations include praise-songs
of animals actually uttered by their trackers. p. 156
In addition, continuing, it seems, very ancient traditions, the hunt is
acted out afterwards. There is a fraternity of hunters. There are born
hunters and those who learn the craft. There is a link between hunters,
herbalists and diviners. The god of herbalism is Osanyin.
The active virtues of medicinal leaves are envisaged as birdlike.
Plants answer to the needs of the body as "witchcraft" responds to
situational exigency. On the wrought-iron ritual staffs of
diviner-healers the motifs of leaf, of witch-bird with prominent beak,
and of bell are almost interchangeable. (There is a type of Yoruba
bell-gong actually shaped like a curled leaf.) Bells suggest the
realization of vibrations as sound and are metaphors, I think, for the
animating chants said over herbal preparations. pp. 160-161
She mentions the similarity of hunting methods and aids across cultures
and millennia, specifically naming Xenephon. She criticizes stereotypical
American red-neck hunters. Perhaps. Yet, hunting is an ancestral autumnal
activity of my family, even if I chose not to pursue it. And, while my
father and my brother may have walked through the bush howling as would
dogs, or waited patiently in the bush for other relatives pretending to be
dogs to flush game, no kin of mine, I hope, would deem himself a hunter
shining powerful flashlights at deer.
These give off a light that can transfix a deer at two hundred meters,
Moussa Traore says. But fully initiated hunters can't carry lights.
p. 172
The good hunters, she adds, are supposed to go for bigger game than deer.
She provides a fascinating account of her seeking to join a hunting
fraternity in Mali, upriver along Oya's river. There is reference to an
invisibility amulet (dibi koro), to the importance of belief in the use of
such, to reverencing the spirits, including the spirit of an animal
killed, to her surprise on encountering the nocturnal nature of hunting,
to divination, to a sage asserting that those who called on the sun, as
the sun sees all, would be better calling on the earth which sees all,
night as well as day.
The heart of this part of the book is Oya as buffalo-woman, the tale of
the hunter in his platform in the bush seeing the transformation to
beautiful woman, of his marrying her on promise never to reveal her
origin, of his other wives getting him drunk to learn who is this fertile
co-wife with no known lineage, of her departure leaving a bit of horn with
her children so they can all on her, on Oya, in time of need.
There follow some words on Ifa divination: initially unaware of the
problem, the diviner casts lots indicating one of, "256 windows looking
out into Being" (p. 189), the configuration is praised by chanting and
telling tales, and the client perceiving a similarity speaks
specifically, drawing precise advice on offering to the divine.
There is commentary on the Oya as Buffalo-Woman tale, and on spiritual
reality in general.
To create cultural forms expressive of various natural forces that have
succeeded in calling attention to themselves is neither to invent nor,
be it repeated, ultimately to control them. It is to lend them
perceptual religious shape. p. 194
The author proceeds to the cross-roads, sacred also to Celts, to whom the
triad is also special.
At such intersections Malian hunters' communal mound-shaped altars are
established. And it is at similar three-pronged forkings of trails in
the bush that their portable individual altars are taken out of their
leather bags and set upon improvised sacred surfaces of green leaves
when they wish to communicate with their tutelary divinities,
Sanene-and-Kontron. The leaves serve as a temporary plate upon which
to serve Sanene-and-Kontron with water, fine millet meal, and red kola.
p. 196
She then relates a tale disturbing in surface content, and, to this pagan
reviewer, in the interpretation that has it reflecting monotheistic
conquest. Among the details raised is that the seven day week is an
Islamic replacement of the traditional four day market cycle and that to
farmers those venturing into the untilled bush to hunt, though really
having wives and children, are symbolically sterile.
There follow more folktales about the huntress Sanene (Sanin) and her
husband, son, or whatever, Kontron. Then there comes the tale of the
Buffalo of Do and two hunter brothers. She speaks of balancing spiritual
agencies within local Islam, of doubles and of cycles.
The Bambara, like the Dogon, gauge accomplished epochs according to
the revolutions of an all-but-invisible star, the relatively miniscule
companion of brilliant Sirius. The word for "buffalo" in Bambara is
sigi. Sirius is called "Buffalo-star," but it is the cycle of its dark
companion that is called sigi. This cycle takes sixty years to
complete. (The fifty-year cycle of Sirius is not considered
metaphysically important.) p. 215
There is then more account of masquerade, including Buffalo and Python,
as well as consideration of prehistoric (European cave and Saharan) art
and of polytheistic awareness of the significance of the feminine.
If the truth be known, in traditional African societies generally, as
Glaze points out for the Senufo, the closer that spiritual leaders of
both sexes move to critical situations vis-a-vis the unseen world, the
"more secretive objects and events become, and the greater the role of
women (real or mythological)." p. 219
The fourth and final part, "Observing the Passage" (pp. 229-296),
considers beads, Santeria and the Oya personality type. An account is
given of a Brazilian axexe (severing of a recently departed) with
flasbacks a year previously to an axexe in New York. There are details
such as agreement with the Chinese that white is the colour most
appropriate for such an occasion, and the telling of prosaic and
spiritual circumstances connected with these events. And, there are beads
-- the beads separated in New York, Oya's ruunjebe necklace in Brazil and
the royal necklace in ancient Dahomey.
Oya is the only Orisha to arise out of the animal. And only she is
willing to assume a mediating position between the living and the dead
at funerals, because her animal nature protects her. Of the
contamination of the dead the animal is "forever healed" because Death
stands somewhere behind it, or inside it, not out there in a projected
future. p. 250
There are interviews showing Americans feeling they have retained some
cultural and spiritual elements perhaps forgotten in Africa. The author
states that their Yoruba language is influenced by Spanish. Among the
interesting details is this on ritual gatekeeping:
Here one must hasten to say that the first Orisha to be saluted, no
matter what the occasion, must always be Elegba: intermediary between
everyday and spiritual worlds, the one who opens the way, but who
without proper recognition may block it and cause all manner of
confusion. p. 255
On page 305, the Glossary has this to say of Elegba:
the Orisha of thresholds and crossroads, the intermediary, the
messenger, the trickster, associated with the obligatory sacrifice and
also with regressive behavior. Indespensible and primary presence to be
invoked and placated before ritual occurrence or crucial personal
decision making. p. 305
Pace Elegba, it reads as if the function of gatekeeping is permanently
entrusted to one containing Loki's disposition, and this reviewer, a more
mercurial northerner, is content our rituals are not so inflexible in this
regard and there are those such as Heimdall and Manannan Mac Lyr who
sometimes may be called upon to do this.
These interviews provide insights from accomplished musicians and ritual
performers, and there are songs in both Yoruba and in English.
The final chapter is an interesting consideration of the issue of the
personality type of one carrying Oya and the encouragement by Oya of the
individual's balanced identity. It also mentions the place of community in
an individua;'s life, and living in the greater society outside.
This book is thoroughly fascinating, and its author of very high caliber.
She has woven a very rich tapestry, strung an intricate round of beads,
brightly informative at many levels. She has performed a very valuable
service to all interested in this topic. She and the goddess she carries
merit high honour.
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