What is written is not forgotten

“What is written is not forgotten,” from the odu Osá Irosun (9-4) in the diloggún.

Why do you write? One of my readers asked me in a recent letter. We are a mystery tradition, and we’ve been existing secretly in Cuba for hundreds of years now. Why do you write?

It’s a question I get asked many times from both avid fans and rabid critics. The easiest answer is this: I write because I have no choice; if I’m not writing, I’m not happy. But I also write because it is how I think; it is how I empty out the contents of my mind, on paper, and then I discover not only what I know but also what I believe. Finally, I write because after I see what I know, I realize how much I don’t know; and then, I go off seeking more knowledge.

Still, those aren’t the only reasons I write.

Many years ago I was reading the works of an elder priest named John Mason, and in one of his books (I can’t remember which), he compared the mind of each olorisha to that of a folkloric library. The past, the present, and even an idea of the future is contained in each head; and the longer that olorisha lives, the more life-experience he gains, the more valuable that library becomes. But just as a fire can wipe out an entire collection of books, so can death wipe out the olorisha’s entire life-experience unless . . . there are more copies of that “book” in existence. In other words, unless the olorisha has taught his knowledge to his godchildren or peers, there are no other copies of his knowledge in existence. Death wipes it out.

I’ve learned a lot over the years. I don’t want to risk death destroying it all. My entire life has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: the accumulation of Lucumí lore and wisdom. Should that belong only to me, and be destroyed once I’m no longer in this world?

I don’t think so.

This is a problem that olorishas and oriatés have been addressing since we first came to Cuba. In my most recent book, Sacrificial Ceremonies of Santería, I quoted from one oriaté who was also a writer, Nicolas Angarica. Of course his writings were in Spanish, but when translated into English, this is what he had to say about the transmission of religious knowledge:

Present day priests and priestesses cannot have forgotten the persecutions and absurd accusations that we have been made to suffer in a fully free Cuba. Even recent events such as occurred in the year 1944, when there was the case of Juan Jimaguas in the Perico; the author of this book himself has been the victim of ignominious accusation. There were the trampling . . . of those little old people, their ochas [orisha shrines or altars] hurled out into the street, many so embarrassed, so shamed that they sickened and died. These outrages and buses that the Africans and their closest descendants suffered infused such fear and heaviness into their souls that they chose not to teach the religion to their own sons. (Angarica qtd. in Brandon, Santería, 94-95.)

He continued to write about elders in the faith, olorishas with as many as 30, 40, and 50 years in ocha who had very little knowledge of our ritual practices. In the same essay, translated into English, Angarica wrote:

For these reasons brother Iguoros, we find that, as a rule, the majority of contemporary elders suffer from a defensive superiority complex about their years of consecration and yet are ignorant of many of the basic points of our consecration. I will enumerate here a case of ignorance or bad faith on the part of an elder that was encountered at a ceremony where the officiating Orihate was as a disciple of mine. This was a Nangare and there was the singing, as is natural, mentioning all of the dead elders of the family. Calling, getting his attention was a woman, an elder, with forty or forty-five years of consecration saying to him, ‘In the Nangare it is not necessary to invoke the dead.’ My disciple informed me, with great sadness on his part, that he had affirmed, and I had to agree to this damning affirmation with as much pain, that this woman, in spite of having forty or fifty years of consecration, did not know or was not acquainted with the origin of the Nangare. The Nangare, in distinct tribes of Yoruba territory as in Arataco, Egguado, Takua, Chango, etc. had a particular application: in these places it is employed uniquely and exclusively to refresh the Egun [the ancestors] . . . All this was made in those territories or tribes because of the constant warfare the Yoruba sustained with other regions and with the purpose of pacifying the ancestral dead. It is for this purpose that they are mentioned in the song: to all the ancestral dead, relatives, acquaintances and the rest. (Angarica qtd. in Brandon, Santería, 94-95.)

Finally, Angarica summed up his essay with the words:

We are turned back in a dizzying way in our religion in Cuba. One of the basic points on which it rests or assents is to listen to, obey and respect the elders, it being understood that the eldest in consecration [to the orisha] by his condition as such, has seen, labored, and learned the most; therefore he must have more experience in the matter than younger people. In reality this is the logic, but unfortunately in our religion in Cuba . . . here there is not one Lucumí who teaches anyone, not even his own son. They set aside the things of the religion because they fear what might happen: the continuous mistreatment aimed at them on the part of the Spanish authorities (and to which they submitted). With the advent of the Republic they were equally mistreated by their own countrymen who, forgetting that these Africans and their descendants poured out their blood for the liberty of this bit of earth, made false accusations against them and in many cases imprisoned them unjustly so that some influential personage could be pulled out of jail only afterwards to hold him against his will at the favor of politicians. (Angarica qtd. in Brandon, Santería, 94-95).

And here we have the reason for so much secrecy, even about the basic tenets of our faith: fear. At the other end of it, at least in today’s manifestation of the religion, there is this: power. Olorishas are afraid to either write or teach because they are afraid to give up their secrets, afraid because these very secrets give them power. And once they give up their secrets to a younger generation, they feel their power is gone. But what happens when they die, taking their folkloric library with them to the grave? Are not all those secrets gone? And where does that leave the religion.

So this is what we are left with: This is what we’ve been left with since Nicolas Angarica (a student of Lorenzo Octavio Sama, trained by Timotea Albear) first wrote about his problem in the 1940s: If the elder teaches, his teachings last into the next generation, if the student has absorbed his knowledge well. If the elder does not teach, or if the student does not learn, the entire library is destroyed with the death of that one priest.

Not only does this religion need good teachers, but also it needs good writers. Knowledge, like books, can only be preserved when it is studied by many and assimilated by many.

So I study. I learn. I write (privately for myself) and I write some more (for publication). And, I teach. When the day comes that Olofin sends Yemayá Ibú Achabá to make the eggshell cross on my forehead, I might go with Ikú to be with God, but I will leave behind a legacy that will, hopefully, leave us all in a better place than before I began my work.

And that, my fans and critics, is why I write. I want to leave things better than how I found them.


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