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This is the hundredth post on Ferrebeekeeper! Hooray!  Thank you so much for reading!  In celebration, today’s topic features a twist: instead of dwelling on the underworld deities who personify evil, death, mystery, and the world beyond (although, admittedly, they have the best stories), I’m going to highlight a deity devoted to joy, happiness, love, and success.  Don’t worry though, “deities of the underworld” and all things gothic will be heavily featured here in the run-up to Halloween.

To the uninitiated (i.e. our writers and editorial staff) it has been difficult to make sense of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the various Afro-Brazilian religions. The Orisha-based faiths of the Yoruba blend together with South American religions like Candomblé, Santería, Lukumi, and Umbanda to such an extent that only a devout practitioner could separate them all apart correctly.  One figure however seems to be universally worshiped–although she goes by many names. Naturally that figure is the goddess of love and sex. She is known variously as Oshun, Laketi, Oxum, and Ọṣhun.  In addition to fertility, romance and marriage, Oshun is the goddess of wealth, harmony, ecstasy, and fresh water (particularly rivers–which have a special place in Brazilian and Yoruban culture). Oshun’s favorite day is Saturday (my favorite as well!) and her sacred color is yellow. Oshun is portrayed as a beautiful black woman wearing gorgeous golden raiment and jewelry…or nothing at all. 

Oshun, as beautifully painted by Carla Nickerson

In Yoruba myth Oshun was one of the 16 spirits sent by the enigmatic genderless supreme-being, Olodumare, to create the earth.  Of the 16, only she was female (Yoruba culture seems to have had some gender issues).  Predictably, the 15 male demiurges proclaimed superior status and placed undue demands upon Oshun, who thereupon withdrew her support from the whole “building the world” project.  Creation became impossible.  Everything the male orishas tried to make fell away into dust. They had to petition Olodumare and then fervently apologize to Oshun herself before she agreed to bequeath life to plants and animals.  A different version of this myth (occurring after the world was populated by men and women) reads like the Lysistrata or the tale of Eros and Psyche: Oshun withdrew desire from the world–and hence the impetus for all rebirth and renewal–until her chauvinistic fellow-deities apologized.

According to various myths and differing faiths, Oshun has many husbands and lovers.  Most often however her spouse is Shango, the sky god of thunder and drumming, or Ogun, the god of smithing and warfare.  While this seems like a recipe for epic disaster, the Afro-Brazilian religions are not canonical and frequently overlap and contradict each other, so there is not necessarily an insoluble marital problem (also the ways of love goddesses exceed human understanding!).

Although possessed of a temper and vanity, Oshun is renowned for her great kindness.  Her alternate name “Laketi” means “she who has ears” for, unlike the other figures of the Afro-Brazilian pantheon, she is portrayed as a compassionate deity who regularly answers prayers.  Oshun’s endowments (other than her beauty and obvious womanhood) are peacock feathers, gold ornaments, a mirror, a fan, the color yellow, honey, and water.  She is said to be partial to chamomille tea and white chickens. When her followers are taken by trance they dance, flirt, and laugh but then grow solemn–for Oshun knows that the world is not as beautiful as it could be.

Eshu

Eshu is a deity worshiped in West Africa, the Caribbean, and South America (particularly Brazil).  To his followers, he is the god of choice and change.  He goes by many names, being known in different places (by people of different faiths) as Exu, Eleggua, Esu, Kalfu, Elegbara, Elegba, Legba, and Eleda.  The mayhem and creative tumult which accompanied the conquest and development of the new world spread his worship far beyond the lands of the Yoruba and the Gbe (the area around the gulf of Benin) where he was first venerated.  To the Yoruba he was a powerful and beautiful young man with magnificent endowments, however, his appearance varies from place to place.  In Louisiana, as “Papa Legba” he is a wise old black man with a staff (who loves toys).  In Haiti, as Kalfu, he frequently takes the form of red demon.  He is imagined as a red youth with a trident by Umbanda practitioners in Brazil.

Exu

Perhaps Eshu’s protean nature has been responsible for his success in many different religions and faiths.  These multifarious guises certainly suit his nature, for Eshu is a trickster and a shapeshifter.  When the Supreme Being, Olodumare, apportioned power to the respective gods and spirits, it* asked each one where they would go.  The various deities answered in accordance with their nature: one said “the air,” another answered “the sea,” some asked to be allowed into the human heart, while others clamored for battle and war.  Only Eshu had the intelligence and temerity to answer “I want to go wherever I will.”  His insightful answer meant that there is no place he is denied.  He speaks all languages of both gods and mortals and is free to break any rule.

Papa Legba kit--available online!

Eshu’s symbols are the crossroad, the gate, the key, the trident, and the door.  He is associated with the colors red and black.  Sometimes he is shown with a red feather or a nail in his forehead.  He is in charge of divine communication and must be called on first if one wishes to have contact with the numinous.  Eshu’s voodoo manifestation, Papa Legba is very specifically a gatekeeper to the spirit world.  In Brazilian Cantabile, Eleggua controls all doors and must be appeased so that he doesn’t open up your home to outsiders.  His fluid, omnipresent nature is most apparent in stories from the Yoruba and Gbe faiths of Africa.  To his African worshipers, he is the deity of traveling, fate, fortune (and misfortune), and of death.  His harsh lessons were one of the few true paths to illumination and positive spiritual transfiguration for the Yoruba and the Gbe.

My favorite story about Eshu illustrates his nature as clearly as it can be explained (and reveals a great truth about humankind).  Eshu painted half of his body black and half red.  Half of his garments were crimson, and half were pure black.  Thus attired, he walked down a street running through the lands of his followers.  Half of his people saw him as a powerful red deity, while the other half saw him as a beautiful black god.  Soon the worshipers were arguing about what they had seen, then they were fighting, and finally the machetes came out and they were killing each other.  Neighbors hacked apart former neighbors in a holy war about the nature of their god.

Appropriately the myth has two endings.  In one, Eshu returned to his followers and showed them what he had done.  His lesson was a harsh but effective way of teaching humans that their beliefs are dependent on their perspective.  His worshipers learned that failure to keep an open mind can lead to violence and tragedy.  In the second version of the myth, he looked down on the carnage he had caused and laughed at how easily humans are led astray.  Then he turned his back and went elsewhere, leaving his followers to their slaughter.

(*Olodumare, the supreme being of the Yoruba religion, stands beyond and above gender.)

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