2013 and the Letter of the Year: Part Two

To not learn from one’s mistakes – this is the biggest mistake. – From the olodu Unle

Truth and falsehood were arguing between themselves. Truth argued that he was more powerful than falsehood. On the other hand, falsehood argued that he was stronger than the truth. Olófin told them that the power of falsehood is transient and ephemeral and that truth, although slow and weak, overcomes falsehood in the end. – From the olodu Otura.

The man who is capable of great things but does not do them is king of the useless men. – From the odu Ogbe Otura.

We must be properly prepared if we are to survive and live well; this was the quail’s issue when he went to see the diviners – he was not properly prepared. He had not put away money; he was broke. He had not put away food; he was starving. He had not listened to the orishas or their priests and now he was suffering, but he had no one to blame but himself. The quail, not wanting to suffer, sought correction. Because he had neither money nor food his health was not good when he sat at the mat to be seen by the wise diviner. Because he had neither money nor food, the diviner did not get paid; still, he marked odu. “Your problem is that you are not prepared,” said the diviner. “You need to save money. You need to store food. You need to listen to advice and be prepared. And now, you must make ebó.” With what little he had, the quail made his ebó. The earth gave him food and drink; there was no more hunger in his life.

If, by making ebó, the orishas provide for the tiny, insignificant quail, how much more will they provide for us if we show them love and make ebó? – From the odu Ogbe Otura.

If I told you the world is in turmoil, it would be well-worn rhetoric. One cannot open a newspaper or turn on the news without catastrophe broadcast into our homes. I haven’t turned on the television today; I haven’t opened a newspaper; I haven’t opened my internet browser to look at any news sources but I can tell you what has happened already, and what will happen soon: a random shooting, a missing child, another case of domestic violence, political corruption, corporate corruption, global warming, acid rain, murder, robbery, arson – and all that probably happened while you were reading this paragraph. On December 31, 2012, the babalawos of the Organizing Commission sat down with Ifá (after a month of massive ceremonies) to close out the old year and open a signal of Ifá to identify the New Year rushing in. Ogbe Otura opened in the world; and with it came osogbo. Tragedy was the prediction for the coming year.

For well over a decade, through odu Ifá the orishas have been warning us that things are not good, nor will they go well unless we make some sweeping changes in our lives and the world. They warned us that we lived cacophonous lives when we should be part of a natural harmony. Instead, the world was filled with noise. Before the millennium, orishas were coming down at tambours to warn us that bad things were coming; the world was unbalanced, and spiritual forces were mounting to bring it back into balance. Again and again we were told, “Get prepared.” Now we find ourselves like the quail; unprepared, broke, and hungry. But Ifá was opened and the diviner gave us a simple message: make ebó. Just as the small quail made ebó and found all he needed in nature to sustain him, so will the orishas sustain us if we make ebó. The diviner determined that Shangó rules this year accompanied by Oshún; and as ebó to him we are to offer amalá ilá (cornmeal with okra); and then we are to take baths with white and purple flowers to which cane rum has been added to cleanse ourselves.

While this is ebó, and it is the ebó marked by the babalawo who cast Ifá, this is not all there is to ebó. Ebó is more than a material offering; ebó is symbolic; it is a prayer; it is a promise, and when we make ebó under an odu’s direction we promise that our lives will change. Our actions will change. The changes we make must be in accordance with the odu and orishas directing us to change.

What changes does Ogbe Otura demand of us; and what significance does this have on a global level?

When I teach my students to divine, I teach that their most basic level of interpretation comes from the first evolution our oracle went through in Cuba; we went from a single cast of the cowries to a double cast of the cowries, and we read the sign according to the strict rules known as tonti. For me to pull apart this letter as an olorisha, I have to return to the odu’s roots and look at it through those rules: Unle (Ogbe) tonti Merindilogún (Otura). Even at its most basic level, the sign’s spiritual implications are huge; they teach us how to change ourselves individually so that collectively, we can change the world.

As an olodu and as the root of this odu, Unle is a letter that speaks about ethics and ethical behavior; it requires . . . no . . . it demands that each of us take responsibility for our actions in the world, and that each of us contemplate the ethics behind what we do and how we live our lives. There is a patakí I love to tell my students in conjunction with the olodu Unle that brings up the concept of ethics and ethical actions; the story seems simplistic, twisted, and bizarre, but in the end when the orisha Obatalá teaches Unle a great lesson, we discover the core of ethical behavior in the world:

When he was younger, Unle liked to travel a lot, and he was living in a town in which he had gone to work. Disgusted with the ungratefulness in which he was being paid, he decided to leave. At the gates of the town, he met Elegguá who asked him, “Where are you going, Unle?” And Unle told him, “I am going far away from these people. After all my hard work, my sacrifice, and my time, these people treat me poorly and pay me even worse. That is why I am going away.” And he kept on walking.

Soon he came to Ilé Ifé. The people in that town treated him well and Unle asked them, “Do you always treat people this way?’ They told him, “Yes, we treat everyone this way.” And he thought to himself, “This is where I want to live.” Unle settled in Ilé Ifé.

Time passed, and he felt as if he was being mistreated again, and Unle decided to leave this place as well. Upon leaving he met Elegguá in the gates again, and Elegguá asked him, “Where are you going?” Unle told him, “I am leaving this town . . . the people here are treating me badly.”

Hearing this, Elegguá told him, “Look, there is a butcher. I am going to cover you with blood. And I want you to go door to door and say that the son of the King tried to kill you. Let’s see if anyone offers to help you.”

Unle did as Elegguá instructed him. He went door to door. Everyone turned him away. Just when he was tired of knocking on doors, he came to Obatalá’s house. He told Obatalá the story just as Elegguá had told him to do.

And Obatalá said, “Come in Unle.” Unle went in and stayed 16 days in Obatalá’s house. He was eating, drinking, and being entertained. At the end of the 16 days, Unle said to Obatalá, “My father, I am leaving, and I will travel to the east.”

Obatalá said, “Unle, you may stay all the time that you wish in my home. There is no need to rush off. I am a person of honour and I am respected in all of Ilé Ifé. No one will try to harm you here.”

Unle was ashamed. “Father, I have lied to you to test the people that live here. Elegguá told me to do this. No one tried to kill me, and certainly not the son of the king.”

Obatalá thought for a moment. “My son: when you are not going to do a good thing, do not do a bad thing as well. There are people everywhere who will do you wrong, but everywhere you go there will be someone who will do good for you. Leave the world as it is, and don’t try to fix it. Try to evolve yourself.”

And it is with Obatalá’s words that we learn an important lesson regarding ethics and ethical behavior: While you may not want to do a good thing, it is important that in its place, you don’t do something bad. Do good things or do nothing at all. That is a core teaching of Unle.

When we bring the odu Merindilogun (Otura) in the mix with the rules of tonti, we learn something else essential about the ashé of this odu: when Merindilogun occupies the second position of the entoyale, it insists that the client seek out knowledge of God, Olódumare, actively; and it points to the opening odu of the entoyale as the lens through which one will come to see God. Otura himself was a hermit who did little more in life than wander the world and study all religions, for he realized that God was vast and he was small; and just as one human could contain only so much knowledge, a single religion could only contain small parts of the knowledge of God. He spent his youth wandering the world and when his head was full, he spent his middle age in a cave contemplating his studies. When he was an old man near death his first disciple came to him; and he began to teach all he knew about Olódumare and his divine nature. But the student taught the teacher as well, for while he sat in the cave removed from the world, the world continued to grow and expand; and his disciple helped him look at his studies again with fresh eyes. Merindilogún assures us that there will always be mystics in our ranks, gentle men and women who will study the nature of God by synthesizing the knowledge of all religions. It is and will be an eternal quest.

In Unle Merindilogun (Ogbe Otura), one seeks to know Olódumare (Otura) through the study of ethics and ethical behavior (Ogbe). It’s not a simple study by any means; Ogbe Otura demands long, deep, lifelong commitment to study. And it is through this study and the active applications of our studies that, slowly, we change ourselves and the world around us.

Part three can be found HERE


One thought on “2013 and the Letter of the Year: Part Two

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