“If we would listen to the teachings of odu, we would last like our ancestors lasted; if we would follow the teachings that odu has to offer us, we would grow old like the ancient ones did,” from Unle Irosun (8-4) in the diloggún.
It’s no secret that I’ve been studying diloggún and its odu for more years than I’ve been a priest. I learned of the religion in 1989, and my obsession with this sacred knowledge began around 1992. It was a strange time in my life, and I, I’m ashamed to say, was a divination addict. I grew up with tarot cards and crystal balls, and the first time I went to a botanica in Miami and had an elderly woman cast a handful of cowries on the mat I was hooked. Perhaps it was because the language she spoke was so exotic; and I loved the sound of the cowries clicking together as we sat at a table, she rubbing the shells in a circular motion on the mat in time with her chanting. Being involved in the process while she asked a series of questions in Lucumí, holding pieces of white chalk, stone, bone, seed, pottery shard, and shell in various combinations while she cast the diloggún on the mat before picking a hand which gave her an answer – I was entering an unknown world, something mysterious, something unique; and instead of merely shuffling cards or picking a rune-stone from a bag, I was involved in the process from start to finish. Every month or two I was jumping on a Greyhound bus in Orlando, and then from the station in Miami taking a cab to one of the many botanicas found in region. I took copious notes. I asked questions. More often than not I got answers.
But I got frustrated, because no matter where I went no one would offer initiation. One priest who made ebó for me told me, “This is not a religion for whites like you. The orishas will help you, yes, but you cannot be a santero.”
There was a magickal store in the Orlando area named “Enchanted Herbs and Oils,” and one day when I went there to buy candles and incense, staple supplies in my house, I saw an array of dry cement heads sitting on the shelf behind the counter. “Are you a santero?” I asked the store owner, Gary Klein (who is many years deceased now). “I’m not,” he said. “I’m a palero, but there is a Santería community here and I try to sell things everyone can use.”
Because I’d tried many times before to receive the elekes and warriors and been told, “This religion is not for whites,” that day I bought an ‘empty head’ for Elegguá. It was a simple cement figure with six cowries embedded for two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and two ears. In the bottom was a gaping hole. “That’s where they put the secrets,” Gary told me. A terra-cotta clay dish completed my purchase, but as I was walking out the door I saw a basket filled with uncut cowries. Many times I had counted the number of cowrie shells the diviners in Miami used, twenty-one in total. There were five that went face-down on a plate with a jícara of water, and sixteen used during the divination process. I bought about fifty cowries before leaving the store; and it was a good thing I did, because when I went home I had to figure out how to open them up. I crushed more than I opened. When I was done, I had twenty-one open cowrie shells sitting in a little bowl beside Elegguá’s empty head, and I had about five more cowries left that I had not crushed in the process. I was proud of myself.
That night before I went to bed I lit a red and black seven-day candle to Elegguá. I filled his clay dish with handfuls of butterscotch and peppermint hard candies; they were piled so high against him that he was covered with candy above his nose. I blew three huge mouthfuls of rum over him. “I’m not really sure what I’m doing,” I remember telling him, “and I don’t know if you can hear me, but I want to be a priest one day. And I want to learn how to divine. I want to learn all the secrets of the diloggún and its odu. I want to be a diviner.”
In hindsight, I still don’t think I was asking too much of my empty head!
I went to bed that night not knowing if Elegguá heard my prayer, but I had faith that one day I would find my way into the religion. And I knew that when I did, I would be a diviner.
I slept well. The next morning on my way to the kitchen to make coffee I glanced at Elegguá; he was still sitting beside the front door, his candle still burning brightly. I didn’t have my glasses on and at first I thought I wasn’t seeing him “right.” I rubbed my eyes and got down on the floor next to him. All the candy wrappers were empty. Some were on the floor. His image, once a chalky gray, was now black. Shaking, I touched him; the surface looked wet but it was dry. Of course in hindsight I know the rum melted the candy; and the cement, because it was dry, soaked up the melt. But the moment was magical. I knew Elegguá heard my prayers; and I knew that soon I would find someone willing to be my godparent.
More important: I knew that one day I would be a diviner.
A year later through my roommate I met a santera. She was an administrative assistant and her co-worker was a case manager, and she heard her on the phone talking about her padrino, the babalawo. Three nights later the two of us were at her house having dinner. She divined for me and offered to be my godmother, but something didn’t feel right. And then through a man I was dating I met another santera, a white woman, who had been made to Obatalá in Miami; and she had godbrothers and godsisters who were also white. Her own godmother was Puerto Rican and had few reservations about letting Caucasians into the religion. That wonderful woman stood up to be my godmother, and through her I received the elekes, warriors, Olokun, Ibeyi, and santo lavado (Obatalá). When the oriaté divined for my road of Elegguá (which turned out to be Eshu Aye) he told me, coldly, the empty head of Elegguá had to be thrown away. “But I’m attached to it,” I said, “and I believe that empty head has an Eshu tied to it, and that Eshu is what led me here, to this house.” The look on his face could have melted stone, but in Lucumí he asked Elegguá a few questions, each time handing me ibó to hold in my closed fists. Finally he said, “Very strange.” He looked at my godmother and told her, “That empty head does have an Eshu tied to it, Eshu Bi. He can keep it but it has to be packed and washed, of course.” Then he looked at me, picking up the small bowl of cowries that I had sitting beside it. “Why,” he asked, “did you cut open twenty-one cowries for this Elegguá?”
“It’s just something I felt I should do,” I told him. The look in his eyes told me he knew more than I was admitting to.
My godmother took the head from me and tied the twenty-one cowries together with a thick piece of cord. “You’re receiving Eshu Bi in addition to your warrior Eshu Aye,” she said. “But these cowrie shells are never to be cut loose until the day comes that you have santo made.”
And today, those are the same shells that I read my clients with. Eshu Aye speaks to me and my godchildren; but Eshu Bi is the Elegguá who speaks to everyone else.
Of course I’m not recommending that anyone reading this runs out to buy an empty head to worship. In truth, from both a physical and spiritual standpoint, such a thing can be dangerous. Another friend of mine who opened a metaphysical store in the Orlando area back in 1994 tried to replicate the work I’d done. She bought an empty head for Elegguá to worship privately in her back office. After three consecutive, mysterious fires began in her office she opted to get rid of that image. Perhaps I was just lucky. Or, perhaps it was, truly, my destiny to be a priest and learn how to divine. I do know that I owe my knowledge of odu and divination to the intercession of Eshu Bi; and I thank him almost every day for the gift he gave me – the gift of diloggún and odu.
Still, that says nothing about what “Project 256” is.
Every two years I devote myself to an intense, chronological study of the diloggún’s 256 odu. I begin each morning by reading all my notes on that day’s odu, much like most people begin their day by reading the morning paper or watching the morning news. Those notes are my daily companion, and at odd, random moments I pull them out and continue to read and study. By evening I’m sitting at my desk writing random notes and thoughts on what I studied that day. It’s amazing how much one can learn and remember when odu is your daily companion; and it’s equally amazing how much random information one forgets in a two year period. So every day for 256 days I return to the basics and refresh my memory; and, sometimes, I reach out to other olorishas (especially my godfather) to deepen my knowledge on odu that are significant to me. Sometimes I open up notebooks that contain records of past readings given, and I analyze both what I did right and what I did wrong. Learning odu is a lifelong process; and while I’m going through the process myself I’ll be sharing it with you, my readers.
Of course to study odu one must have something to study. For everyone going through Project 256 with me, I encourage you to purchase a copy of my book “The Diloggún: The Orishas, Proverbs, Sacrifices, and Prohibitions of Cuban Santería.” It’s a huge book; however, it’s still a basic volume, almost a survey, of 192 of the odu in the diloggún. As you study with me daily, use the material in that volume: As I study with you daily, I’ll be using the material in my private notes and archives. Between that book and my blog writings, you’ll learn a lot as the 256 days fly by. And please note – the study of odu is so fascinating that by the time we’re done, you’ll barely feel like you’ve begun.
Project 256 starts on Monday morning. Please, join me in what will be the most important course of study in your spiritual life – the study of odu.