The Significance of the “Letter of the Year” from Cuba

Every year about this time I pull this blog from my archives and repost it. In my opinion it is essential to understand the work of the Organizing Commission. Only then can one appreciate the breadth and depth of the letter released January 1st each year.

Ochani Lele

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As the New Year opens, there is much talk among santeros on the internet, and in real life, regarding the letter of the year and its significance to our religious practice. Unfortunately, while there is much talk, there is little solid information available regarding this custom, which began in Cuba on January 31, 1899. It seems that every ile ocha in the United States with more than a few members pulls its own "letter of the year;" and, various babalawos in different regions of this country gather to pull letters that they regard as their own "letter of the year" for their area and beyond.

While these practices are helpful on personal levels, it is my opinion that the fledgling rituals done by these people pale in comparison to what olorishas and babalawos do in Cuba. To understand the significance of the Cuban letters, one must understand the process that the two commissions go through to establish a "letter of the year."

First of all, to pull the Letter of the Year, Olofin must be present. It is Olofin who marks the pattern. But not any Olofin will do; the oldest Olofin on the island is called upon to mark the Letter of the Year. Do not confuse the oldest Olofin with the eldest babalawo. A babalawo with 50 years of Ifa might have an Olofin that is only 10 years old, while a babalawo with 30 years of Ifa might have an Olofin that is 20 years old. In this case, the 20 year old Olofin of the 30 year old babalawo is used, and not the 10 year old Olofin of the 50 year old babalawo.

To cast the letter of the year, to perform atefa, the youngest babalawo on the island is used. Priests assume that in the ways of Ifa, the newest initiated babalawo is innocent; and, even if he knew how to manipulate Ifa and "cheat" when casting the letter, he would be too new, too innocent, and too afraid to do such a thing.

So from the beginning of this practice, we have the oldest Olofin artifact on the island being used by the youngest Ifa priest on the island. Already, we see a difference between what is done in Cuba to cast the letter of the year, and what is done by the various ile in the United States to cast the letter of the year.

The differences, however, don’t end there.

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* Beginning in December, at least three babalawos at a time will gather frequently to perform ebos to ensure that the old year ends cleanly, and the Letter of the Year opens without carrying any remaining osogbo from the old year. Since these rituals are secret, and in the province of Ifa, I have no idea what is done. But they gather, and they do them.

* This leads up to Atefa and Ifa ita on December 31. The ceremony for the Letter of the Year can draw the physical support of 500 or more babalawos, with the presence of olorishas as well. Again, the oldest Olofin is used by the youngest babalawo.

* Required sacrifices are done immediately.

* An ebo is done to seal the ita.

* This is followed by seven secret ceremonies to seal the ita just given. Again, since these ceremonies are only in the grasp of Ifa, I have no idea what is done. But babalawos insist that there are 7 that they must complete to seal the odu.

* Those who were present at the rituals are free to leave. With all the proper rituals completed, any osogbo from the letter has been sealed and soothed, and those who were present do not carry that osogbo home with them.

* In their respective homes and ile, the babalawos and olorishas perform the ebos marked by the letter of the year for their own godchildren.

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* After completing these ceremonies, the eldest babalawo of each house, with his own Olofin, pulls down the letter of the year for his own ile and godchildren. If the eldest babalawo does not have Olofin, but has knife, he will use his own Odua, or, if he does not have Odua, his own Ifa. This letter is for his own house only; it is not a letter for the world. Ebo is done immediately.

* Babalawos are then free to do their own personal readings for the year. After that, they do personal readings for their apetebis for the year. Then, they do personal readings for the rest of their godchildren for the year. Ebos are done in each case.

* Finally, an olorisha can have an ita for the year with his or her own orisha, normally Eleggua, and sometimes followed by having an oriate put his or her crown on the mat (not always done). After that, the olorisha can divine for his or her own godchildren for the year.

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In spite of all these personal rituals, one can see that the Letter of the Year coming out of Cuba has greater depth, and more weight, than the personal rituals and readings done in each case. It is a month-long process begun the first of December, and ending with the actual atefa done on December 31.

In my next blog, when I get time, I’ll discuss the two factions in Cuba that pull a letter of the year, and which one, in my opinion, holds more weight.

I’ll give you a hint: It’s not the Yoruba Cultural Association.

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3 thoughts on “The Significance of the “Letter of the Year” from Cuba

  1. Thank you for this informative article. To add to what you say here, I would mention the following details that your readers might not know:

    The Letter of the Year done at the Sociedad el Cristo in Palmira Cuba is not as famous as the one done in Havana, but this is the rama founded by the Sevilla family, and they have done the letter of the year as an organized ceremony such as you describe every year since 1917. Some in Cuba say the letter done in Palmira is the “original” one in Cuba, because there has been such continuity and tradition in there, whereas in Havana there have been periods when it was disrupted and not practiced in an organized way. Miguel Febles Padrón and Cundo Sevilla were contemporaries and both connected to Tata Gaitán, and there was a lot of collaboration between the Rama in Havana and the one in Palmira all during the 1920s-50s. The Sociedad de Cristo has always been recognized in Cuba as one of the oldest and most traditional ramas of Ifa on the island, but because they’re in a small provincial city, they don’t get as much “press buzz” or attract a lot of outside attention. They don’t publish and circulate the letter of the year outside their community. But, that’s not to say they don’t know what they’re doing. Most Babalawos in Cuba would say that the letter done at El Cristo is done correctly and with great expertise. The Comisión Miguel Febles Padron didn’t come into existence until 1986, the year that Febles Padrón died. Naturally Febles Padrón did the letter of the year before that, but the letter was not widely circulated back in those days, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that it started to gain fame, after Febles Padrón died. In part the wide acceptance and popularity of the letter done by the Comisión Miguel Febles Padrón is due to the fact that they publish it internationally on the internet, and many Cuban-Americans prefer it to the other one, which has government ties. I’m not taking sides on this issue, I’m just saying that for me, since I belong to the Palmira branch, that’s the letter of the year for me, it’s done in the same way that you describe, the Babalawos who come to do it are very highly respected and know what they’re doing. I suspect that in other places where the religion has historical roots, there are “local” groups who know what they’re doing and do it well. I was taught to go by the Letra del año that my godfather in Ifa had participated in, and that’s what I do. It has always been accurate and helpful to me, and I feel a closer connection to it than I do to the one in Havana. For people who don’t have these kinds of ties, I agree that the letter done by the Comisión MFP is well done and general enough to apply universally. Certainly this is not the kind of ceremony to be taken lightly by people who don’t have the skill and preparation to do it well.

    Here’s an interesting article about the history of the letter of the year:
    etnocuba.ucr.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/81.pdf

    It helps people understand why there’s so much debate about which is the “correct” letter of the year. In my opinion, there’s more than one correct letter, people can choose the one they identify most with, as long as they know it has been done properly by Babalawos they trust. There’s no need to fight about which one is right or wrong; live and let live, everyone can decide for themselves which letter makes the most sense, as long as they understand what they’re seeing.

    I’m glad you’re educating people about this important ceremony, it’s important to understand it in order to interpret it and apply it to our own lives. Blessings to you.

  2. First, my apologies: when you posted this reply I never got notification. WordPress glitched on me! I just found it tonight while going through my blog’s dashboard.

    Second: thank you for offering this. Later in the year when I get some free time, if you’re open to it I would like to discuss the history of your rama and their practice of this ceremony in depth. I’m not an expert historian, but opportunities like this don’t come around too often, so, at least for my own education, I would love to know more about your lineage.

    Maybe I should just come to Washington State and spend some time with you! I’d love to visit as my schedule opens up!

  3. I just skimmed the paper — it’s wonderful. I’ll be doing a deeper read soon. Again, thank you!

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