Tonight was one of those rainy nights where I had nothing to do and nowhere to go, so I sat back with my books and my notebooks and opened to a random page: Obara, six mouths. Just then the phone rang – it was a friend of mine bringing word of the latest “scandal” in the orisha community down south. I listened as he told me what was (allegedly) happening, and as he spoke my eyes went down the page to a patakí that seemed very appropriate to the conversation. “Have you heard the story of the ‘best food and the worst food’?” I asked him. “I haven’t,” he said. So with the rain and the wind rattling my windows, I sat back in my chair and read him the version of the story that appears in my book Teachings of the Santería Gods (Destiny Books, 2010). I thought, for my first blog post, it was an appropriate story to share here as well.
Obatalá sat on his throne, listening to the stories the orishas told him about his favorite son, Shangó. One by one each spoke in turn, and as the afternoon wore on, the stories became more outrageous. The elder orisha fought to keep his eyes open; the lies and embellished half-truths wearied him more than they angered him. “Obatalá! Obatalá!” Oyá shook his knee briskly. He realized he had nodded off. “It is obvious you are tired, Obatalá, but we need to know what you are going to do about Shangó.” He looked at her sadly. “I will speak to him.” It was all he said. The orishas left Obatalá’s palace early that evening. None of them were happy. When the last orisha left, Obatalá sent his servants to find Shangó. “Bring him to me quickly,” he ordered. “I need to speak to him tonight.” They went looking for the orisha as told.
It was late when his servants brought Shangó to the palace. Obatalá was pacing in his throne room, lost in thought; he was so distracted he barely noticed Shangó enter.
The young orisha prostrated himself at Obatalá’s feet. Gently, his aged hands touched Shangó’s shoulders and lifted him from the floor; the two orishas embraced like father and son. “Father,” said Shangó in his ear, “Why have you called me this late? Is something wrong?”
Obatalá grasped his shoulders firmly, holding him at arm’s length. “We need to speak.”
There was a touch of worry in Shangó’s voice when he asked, “Have I done something wrong?”
Obatalá sighed heavily, and still embracing the orisha with one arm, walked him to the window. Together, they watched the darkening world outside as Obatalá spoke. “Shangó, you were quite young when I gave you ashé and made you the king of a vast kingdom.”
He nodded his head. “I was. I didn’t think I was ready to be king, but with you at my side, advising me, I think I have done quite well.” He threw his shoulders back so his chest protruded proudly. “I have made Oyó the richest kingdom in the world. I have expanded our borders, acquired tributaries, and made treaties with kingdoms far beyond ours. Even our enemies respect us, and no king dares intrude on that to which we lay claim. I don’t think our people have ever enjoyed such wealth in the world.”
“There is more to being a king than expanding territory and creating wealth, Shangó.”
“What else is there?”
“Shangó, I gave you your ashé because, in my eyes, you were a noble young man above reproach. You did everything for not only your own good, but also the good of others. Something changed as you got older. You worry about money, war, and conquest. And you no longer care about your own reputation. All afternoon my chambers were filled with orishas, and each was complaining about you and your behavior. Without a good reputation, you won’t have the goodwill of others, and without their goodwill and respect, your rule will crumble slowly.”
“Obatalá,” Shangó said, his voice strained with worry, “What have the others said about me?”
Sadly, Obatalá told Shangó everything the orishas said.
“None of that is true!” Shangó roared, his voice shaking the palace walls. “Most of those things are lies, and those that aren’t lies are embellished half-truths. Father, I would do nothing to hurt this kingdom. I would do nothing to hurt you. Tell me you don’t believe them!”
“I don’t.” He looked out the window; it was dark, and his reflection stared back at him. “Shangó, I want you to prepare a huge feast for me as ebó. We will invite all the orishas as our guests.”
“What should I serve you as ebó, Obatalá?” “Prepare the best food in the world.”
A few days later, all the orishas gathered around Obatalá’s banquet table. Shangó stood at one end and Obatalá at the other, with all the orishas seated at the broad sides; they watched, hungrily, while servants brought huge, covered dishes to the table. With the feast assembled, the servants stood back, waiting for Shangó’s command. Obatalá said, “Shangó, there are so many covered dishes here. Just a few days ago, I asked you to prepare the best food in the world as ebó. On what do we feast tonight?”
Shangó nodded to the servants, and as they came forth to uncover the dishes, he said, “Roasted beef tongue, father.”
“We feast on beef’s tongue?” Obatalá asked. “Why do we feast on beef’s tongue?”
“Because good ashé is the best thing in the world, and the tongue is full of ashé!”
Everyone thought about Shangó’s words, and they all agreed: The tongue is full of ashé. “Ashé!” they all said at once, and everyone feasted.
A few days passed, and still, the orishas came to Obatalá with lies and embellished half-truths about the youthful Shangó’s exploits. Wearily, Obatalá called Shangó to his palace again. “The orishas still speak poorly of you, Shangó.”
“What am I to do? I cannot control their words.”
“No, you can’t,” the elder orisha agreed. “But you can make another ebó. Prepare a feast in my honor, but this time, prepare the worst food in the world.”
A few days later, there was another feast. As before, Shangó and Obatalá stood at opposite ends of the banquet table while the orishas sat at its broad sides; the servants brought great covered dishes of food, and waited for Shangó’s command. “Shangó,” said Obatalá, “tonight I asked you to prepare the worst food in the world for all of us to feast on.”
A cry rose up, Oshún’s voice rising about them all. “We are feasting on the worst food in the world?” she asked, exasperated. “We are kings and queens. Why would we feast on something so awful?”
Obatalá held his hand up to silence her. “Shangó, what are we feasting on tonight?”
“Roasted beef’s tongue,” Shangó said with a wry smile on his face. He was looking directly at Oshún. She held both hands over her heart.
“Shangó, did we not eat that just a few days ago?”
“Yes, we did,” he answered, smiling.
“And if beef’s tongue was the best food in the world, why, today, is it the worst food in the world?”
“Tongue is the best food, and tongue is the worst food. For a good tongue will save us all, and a bad tongue will destroy all that Olófin created!”
All the orishas hung their heads in shame: To themselves, each recounted the lies they told Obatalá about Shangó, and realized their own tongues, and not Shangó, were destroying the kingdom. In silence they ate; never again did they falsely accuse Shangó to Obatalá.
Just as the tongue is the best food and the worst food, so is the tongue the best tool we have and the most destructive one as well. Perhaps, instead of tearing down our communities with gossip and slander, we need to build ourselves up with kind words and praise. Because we are all we have, folks, and if we can’t love ourselves – who in Olódumare’s creation is going to love us?