Obatala Chooses his Helpers

As we close day two of Project 256, I thought I’d share a patakí from the odu Okana Ejioko (1-2). Read the story and think about its theme; it presents yet another side to the odu Okana Ejioko rarely discussed or thought of.

Obatalá stood before all the orishas. A quiet murmuring filled the room as they whispered among themselves. Silently, he counted all their heads, and when he was sure everyone was present, he raised a hand to silence them. Bit-by-bit, the murmuring died.

“This world is a world of laws, of ethics, and of morals!” Obatalá said, speaking loudly so everyone could hear him. “Olódumare made me the orisha of laws, ethics, and morals. But the world is a big place, and I cannot do my job alone.”

He looked at each orisha with questioning eyes. “Who here shares my love of laws? Who here shares my love of ethics? Who here shares my love of morals, and lives his own life in accordance with all three qualities? I want to know who, among you, is fit to help me guide this earth as it evolves over the centuries.”

Like preschool children wanting to impress their teacher, hundreds of hands went up in the air; and as Obatalá refused to acknowledge any of them, their voices rose and spoke over each other. “Silence!” Obatalá demanded, raising both hands. Quickly, the noise died. “All of you will remain here for eight days. On the eighth day I will return. Among yourselves, decide who is best suited to help me.” No one said a word. “That is all.” Obatalá dismissed himself.

The moment Obatalá closed the doors behind him, the arguments began. Each was convinced that he, or she, was best suited to work at Obatalá’s side; and before the day ended, all the orishas were warring with each other. Only two remained calm, and removed themselves from the debates, Elegguá and Ochosi.

“They have all gone mad!” Ochosi said to Elegguá.

“I agree,” Elegguá replied. He thought for a moment, and then turned to his brother, “Ochosi, you are a wise man, and a just man. You should help Obatalá keep order in the world.”

“No, brother, I disagree. You are the one orisha who knows everything that happens in the world. You can see everything. You are the one who should help Obatalá.”

Both orishas went quiet, and sat side-by-side, watching the others argue. No one knew that Obatalá was outside the door listening, and he heard every word said, even those spoken by Elegguá and Ochosi. He considered their words carefully.

On the eighth day, Obatalá opened the doors and entered the room. The orishas were still arguing among themselves, and he noticed that Ochosi and Elegguá still sat off to the sides, staring at the others in disbelief. At first no one noticed the elder orisha, but as he moved to the front of the room, everyone went quiet.

“What have we decided?” he asked.

Everyone spoke at once; it was overwhelming. “Silence!” demanded Obatalá. “In eight days were you all unable to reach a consensus?”

Ochosi raised his hand insistently. “Yes, Ochosi?” Obatalá asked.

“Father, I think you should choose Elegguá to work at your side. Of all the orishas here, only Elegguá knows everything. He knows the past; he knows the present; he knows the future. With his ashé he knows what every living thing does at every moment on this earth. He would be your best helper.”

Another argument began among the orishas; everyone taunted Ochosi for his words. Obatalá noted that only Elegguá remained quiet. “Enough!” Obatalá demanded again. When they were calm, he asked Elegguá, “What do you have to say about that, Elegguá?”

He looked around the room at all the anxious faces, some angry, some nervous, and some anxious. “I don’t think I am your best choice, father. I think Ochosi is the orisha who needs to work at your side. For he is a just man; and he follows all your laws himself. And his arrows . . . nothing escapes his aim, and no evil-doer would ever escape him. He is the orisha you need, not me.”

Again the arguments began, only this time everyone was angry with Elegguá. Obatalá took a deep breath, and in a booming voice said, “Again, enough!” All eyes turned to the elder. “In eight days none of you could come to any decision about who you would like to have working with me, no one except Elegguá and Ochosi. And neither of them picked themselves; they each picked the other.”

All the orishas hung their heads in shame.

“There will not be one orisha working at my side, there will be two. I will make the laws. Elegguá will find those who break my laws. And Ochosi will judge those who break my laws.”

That is how the three orishas became inseparable; and since that day, we say that Elegguá is both the eyes and the ears of Obatalá, and Ochosi is his justice.

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