Day one of Project 256 is almost over; and I think it was a productive day. I’ve had dozens of emails from both olorishas and aborishas participating in the project. One olorisha wrote me to say, “I got your book “The Diloggún” on my kindle. I read it on the train while commuting to work early this morning. I read it on my fifteen minute break. I read it on my half hour lunch. And because we’re focusing on one odu each day, I didn’t feel overwhelmed as I read and finally I have a good grasp on what you wrote in your book about both the parent odu and the composite odu.”
I thought I’d close our first day out with some comments on a proverb found in Okana Meji (1-1): With one, the world began. Some people prefer to say, “The world began with one.”
Who is this mysterious “one” of which Okana speaks?
An understanding of God is important to one’s knowledge of Okana Meji; indeed, it is important to understanding the entire corpus of Okana, Okana Meji (1-1) through Okana Merindilogún (1-16). Everything we do in this religion begins and ends with God; we are, for lack of a better term, a form of diffused monotheism. We’re not polytheistic as many outside the religion label us. We believe in one God, one creative force that we name Olódumare; but because Olódumare is too vast to be known as a single entity, we approach God’s knowledge through the many faces of the orishas. Each is a river of consciousness, a select head representing some aspect of Olódumare’s existence. But even though we have hundreds of orishas, there is still only one God; and through the name we can learn much about the ultimate creative deity. The Yoruba/Lucumí never assign names to anything without giving much thought to the name used; and if we unravel Olódumare’s name bit-by-bit through its etymology, we get to the core of his nature.
Let’s break it down.
OLÓDÙMARÈ: Idowu insists that Ol results from the elision [the omission of a sound or a syllable] of the vowel ‘i’ from Oní, which means ‘owner of’, ‘lord of’, ‘one who deals in’. Oní, in one or other of its modified forms, is a prefix which occurs frequently in Yorùbá to denote ownership or one who deals in a trade or profession. In Lucumí dialect, however, Olo and Oní mean the same thing – owner. We say olobatalá for one who “owns” Obatalá, and oniyemayá or onishangó for one who owns Shangó. Ele in elelegba means the same thing – the owner of Elegguá. We speak of “owner” as one initiated to – he “owns” that ashé.
ODÙ. What word the three letters signify depends on which tone marks are placed upon its vowels. Thus is may be Odù which is a substantive meaning ‘a main heading of chapter’ as in the corpus of Ifá recitals, ‘chief head’ or ‘chief’ . . . Or it may be Òdù, also a substantive meaning ‘very large and deep not (container. Òdù is also used as an adjective with the meaning ‘very large’, ‘very extensive’, ‘very full’, ‘of superlative quality and worth’. . . Hence Òdù also means ‘superlative in greatness, size, quality, and worth (Idowu 31).
Olódumare can be defined, in part, as Olódù. He is the owner of all possibility, a supreme head among heads. He contains fullness, the fullness of all creation and he is “perfect in greatness, size, quality, and worth” (Idowu 32). He is the one who owns the realm of never-ending possibilities, and hints that everything is in a cycle of continuous creation, evolution. The name describes the repository of possibility and circumstance from which each moment is born. Olódumare is the receptacle for odu, which are the constellations of possibilities which contain all events; past, present and future. He contains odu, which in Lucumí thought are known as Olódù themselves, making Olódumare the container for the containers of all possibility. Throughout his work with the name, Idowu breaks it down further. Of the final part of God’s name, -marè, he writes that it might be two words: má and ré. These two words form a command meaning, “do not go,” or, “do not proceed.” Sometimes they can be used as an adjective implying that which does not go, does not move, or does not wander. The two words together imply that something remains, and it remains unchanged. Using the word-play of Idowu, the name Olódumare defines ultimate deity as the owner of all possibility, the supreme head among all heads who remains, and remains unchanged; he does not go (leave us); he does not move (away from us); he does not wander (from us). By the very nature of the name, Olódumare is with us always.
Note that the root odu, the 16 primal odu, are also known as olodu (with a small ‘o’) because they own all the odu of creation in their families.
Olódumare, as Olódù, the owner of all possibilities (already worked out with Idowu’s etymology) has further meaning, -mare can be broken down into mà (truly) and, iré (blessings). Olódumare, then, is the owner of all possibilities, the myriad possibilities of life’s blessings. One can consider the suffix mare in two more ways. Possibly it could be a contraction of mã (I am) and ãre (one who is first). This denotes Olódumare as the owner of all possibility, the one who is first. Finally, ãre itself is a contracted form of ãrekanfò (that which sees). This implies that Olódumare is the owner of all possibilities, the one who sees (possibility in all things); and, he is the one who sees all things. No matter how one breaks the name down, however, all imply an active interest in the affairs of the material world. Olódumare is the ultimate creative force; and, he is that which enlivens both the material and spiritual worlds. There is no part of this world that does not take part in Olódumare’s eternal, ineffable essence. He does so, however, through his next aspect, Olorún.
Olorún is much simpler to unravel than the name Olódumare. It contains a simple prefix, ol, which means owner, and a suffix, either õrùn, which means sun, or orún, which means heaven. The concept behind his name is that he is the owner of the sun or the owner of heaven. Note that Lucumí dialect makes no distinction between those two words.
Perhaps the division between Olódumare and Olorún can be summed up this: Olódumare is the primal essence, the quantum summation of all things seen and unseen, the core of all creation, while Olorún is the active creative force in the universe. Olódumare is the dot, the single point within the circle, and Olorún is the circle itself. As the owner of the sun in the daytime sky, Olorún is the dispenser of Olódumare’s ashé (life force) on earth. Olorún is the incomprehensible source of all creation, the dispenser of aché on the earth. Just as the sun provides the heat, warmth, and energy to support life on this planet, so does Olorún supply the ashé to support life on this planet. We cannot know Olorún directly; his force is too great to be known by humans, just as the sun is too bright for us to stare into directly. However, all spirits recognized in this religion are the knowable aspects of Olorún.
With Olódumare and Olorún is another aspect much simpler in interpretation: Olófin. Olófin’s name is simpler in interpretation, etymologically speaking. Again we have the prefix ol, which means owner; and the suffix ofin can have various meanings depending on how it is used. Ofin is the Yoruba word for laws, prohibitions, commandments, or disciplines. It signifies sovereignty and sovereign rule. Olófin, then, is one who has sovereign rule; he is concerned with the laws, prohibitions, commandments, and disciplines of natural law, the laws of Olódumare.
While we’re on the subject of Olódumare (the one who began the world), let’s take a few moments to examine the natural extension of Olódumare’s ashé known as the orishas. By studying the etymology of the word orisha, we can learn much of their nature as well.
The original Yoruba spelling for the word orisha is òrìsà. We can break down the word thus: Orí, meaning head, and sà, a verb meaning to select with reflection or to choose (Mason 4). In physical terms, orí denotes the head; it is the main sensory organ of the body. In mental terms, orí denotes the mind and the millions of thoughts, facts, and memories it stores and processes. Spiritually, orí speaks of the immortal soul, the essence of humanity surviving death. It alludes to the individual’s spiritual counterpart in heaven, the deepest, most eternal part of the self that never incarnates fully in the flesh. Orí, however, carries other shades of meaning beyond that of a physical or spiritual head; it denotes a special faculty or a talent, and it represents the first and highest point of that special skill. When defining the word orisha, all these concepts and definitions are implied. Also, sà carries the connotation that the orí was chosen by God, Olódumare, to be the highest representation of its traits in creation. Each of these spiritual forces is a selected aspect of consciousness in the mind of Olódumare; and, they are individual containers of Olorún’s ashé.
John Mason carries his etymological study of the word orisha further. In addition to the word sà, he believes that the Yoruba word àsà has bearing on the meaning of òrìsà. Àsà denotes tradition, and sacred traditions are the cornerstone of the faith. The Lucumí faith is orally transmitted; it is maintained by the consciousness of each individual priest and passed down to each priest’s godchildren.
So now how do we define orisha? Considering all these etymological roots, the orishas, then, are orí àsà and orí sà, traditions of the head and selected heads. More than just goddesses or gods, a more accurate definition of the orishas would be this: they are selected heads, spiritual beings chosen by Olódumare to represent the first and highest manifestation of their traditions – special skills, faculties, or talents; and, they are primal, personified manifestations of his ashé.
Well, that was John Mason’s breakdown, and it is a brilliant breakdown. Now, let me give you my breakdown. In my opinion the meaning of the name gets deeper.
In my own studies of the etymological roots of the word orisha, I found that there is more to the word than John Mason alludes to in his brilliant study. Its etymology does not end with the roots orí, àsà, or sà. Another way to break down the original Yoruba spelling, òrìsà is into the roots orí and ìsa. When broken down thus, we have a head (orí) which is a container for conveying water (ìsa). Ìsa can also mean the ebb tide, the movement of water away from the land and deeper into the sea. Another word related to ìsa is ísan, which denotes a current. Òrìsà, then, can mean the head which is a container for conveying water, the ebb tide that flows to the sea. Water is a spiritual metaphor; just as water is the conduit for life, so is water the conduit for spiritual activity on the earth. The action of the orishas is ìsan-omi, the flowing of the river to the sea; each is a river, a stream of consciousness, and a spiritual tide. Truly, the ashé of each orisha is born from water, and they carry the ashé of this water to the heads of their priests and priestesses. Understanding these meanings requires more than literal examination; one must know and internalize the spiritual metaphors implied. They key to unravelling it is found in two odu of the diloggún, the odu Oché (5) and the odu Metanlá Ejioko (13-2). Oché provides a patakí essential to this metaphor, and Metanlá Ejioko gives birth to a song canted when the sacred implements of the orishas are consecrated for priests.
In Oché we have the following sacred story:
It is said that when creation stood at its final threshold, Olódumare looked down on the earth from heaven and wondered, “What more can I give the world?” He looked at its vastness and beauty. His love poured forth, a sacred river of blessings that began with his heart. As the blessings gathered throughout the land, they formed the mighty, coursing rivers; sources of fresh water swelled across the globe and Oché was born. God smiled, for only when were all things complete. (Ócháni Lele, The Diloggún, 212).
Note that if the odu Oché teaches us that the first rains on the earth were emanations of Olódumare’s love for the world and all creation, it follows that those rivers, flowing to the sea, carry God’s primordial love back to the ocean where it gathers; and then, when the light and heat of the sun (the symbol of Olorún in the sky) cause that water to evaporate, form clouds, and travel across the earth, the rains that fall are Olódumare’s love and ashé spread over the earth once more. Rain nourishes us; rain refreshes us; rain renews creation just as love is essential nourishment for the soul. Metaphysically we often say that as above, so below; the spirituality of heaven is reflected in the world’s natural forces.
A spiritual metaphor used by Lucumí priests is that Olódumare himself rests at the bottom of a primordial sea, an ocean of ashé spreading through the universe. He is a great, solid stone; it is a metaphor for that which does not die. In nature, stone is the most durable of all earth’s creation, never truly destroyed but transformed through natural actions into the forms of metamorphic, igneous, and sedimentary rocks. The odu Metanlá Ejioko (13-2) alludes to this nature of God, that he (or she) is a great indestructible stone resting at the bottom of the heavenly sea of ashé. Born in that odu is a song canted when creating this omiero; the sacred elixir cannot be consecrated without the ashé, the power, these words bring forth:
Call and Response: Oyigiyigi otá lomio! Oyigiyigi otá lomi. Oyigiyigi iyá okuma. Oyigiyigi otá lomi.
Translation: God in heaven is the immovable stone resting in water! God in heaven is the immovable stone resting in water. God in heaven is the mother who does not die. God in heaven is the immovable stone resting in water.
Call and Response: Oyigiyigi otá lomio! Oyigiyigi otá lomi. Oyigiyigi baba agbado. Oyigiyigi otá lomi.
Translation: God in heaven is the immovable stone resting in water! God in heaven is the immovable stone resting in water. God in heaven is the father of all who go to the river. God in heaven is the immovable stone resting in water.
Those who have been through ordination know well the mysteries that occur in the river before a iyawó is initiated; the postulant is taken to the river, and secret ceremonies are done at its edge. And then, the iyawó is immersed in its waters; because the intentions of the ceremony invoke specific spiritualities to its current, the river becomes a stream of all possibilities; at that moment, metaphysically, it is the accumulation of all the world’s ashé, which is Olódumare’s love, and instead of all of it flowing back to the primal sea from which it came the current is interrupted – part of that ashé returns back to the igbodu where it is forever locked into the orí of the iyawó, and the sacred stones and shells of the soon-to-be born orishas.. While there, the iyawó finds a secret, an otá through which the ashé of the orisha will be connected to his orí. River water fills the river pot; and the stone goes back to the igbodu, surrounded by the ashé of God’s love. Once back at the godparent’s home, another special set of songs are canted to acknowledge the great ashé the iyawó has in the calabash carried on his head, an ashé that will soon be a vital part of his own life-force.
This song, born in Metanlá Ejioko, expresses a core spiritual truth about what these spiritual forces are, and those secrets are exposed through the etymology of orisha in the roots orí and ìsa. The related words ìsan and ìsan-omi reveal more about their natures. The orishas become containers, sacred vessels for these waters guiding the iyawó back home, to heaven, to the primal ocean and to the immovable stone in the water which is Olódumare. The orisha, as a vessel for this spiritual current, is installed in the iyawó’s orí, both his physical and spiritual head; and it becomes a part of the great, sacred river that flows back to Olódumare, the spiritual, primordial sea from which all emanates. It is a metaphor for this spiritual truth: just as all water flows back to the sea from which it came, so do the orishas flow back to the primordial sea from which they came, Olódumare. Only now that they are installed in the iyawó’s head, they carry the priest’s orí with them as they travel. The orishas, when examined in this light, are the sacred forces that carry us back home, to God in heaven, to the God Olódumare who is envisioned metaphorically as an immovable stone resting in water, the primordial sea of heaven’s ashé. When interpreted in this light, one sees that the orishas are, indeed, containers of heaven’s ashé.
So, again, Okana Meji teaches us that, “The world began with one.” It all began with Olódumare, who himself is Olodu – the container for all the containers of existence. With each sacred letter we study in the diloggún we are, ultimately, learning more about the existence of God in the world.