The Conjure Woman

The Conjure Woman
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Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Mythos of Santeria, an Interview With Ochani Lele


The recording of oral tradition is something that has always fascenated me, both as a Religious Studies student and folklorist. In Richmond, Virginia native Ochani Lele's new book, Teachings of the Santeria Gods some of the mythos of Santeria are put into writing for the first time. This important and doubtless daunting task has been admirably undertaken and beautifully translated for us by the author. Learn more about him and his other books at his Amazon Page.


Q: First, Ócháni, I would like to thank you for taking time to talk to both myself and my readers. You’ve just released a book titled Teachings of the Santería Gods through your publisher Destiny Books. It focuses on the sacred stories of the religion Santería. Before we talk about that book, I’m hoping you can educate us about that religion.

A: Santería is a misnomer that has stuck over the past century or so. We know ourselves as Lucumí. It is a religion that comes from the Yoruba territories of Nigeria, specifically ancient Oyó and its surrounding tributaries. Slavery decimated that region in the 1800s, and the bulk of Oyó natives came to either Cuba or Brazil in chains.

They brought with them the worship of their Orishas, or demi-gods for lack of an adequate English word, to the New World. Through Cuban Cabildo Societies the worship of the Orishas was saved in Cuba, although it was hidden behind the worship of the Catholic Saints. It is this Catholic facade that led to Yoruba Orisha worship being called “Santeria;” the slave owners thought their slaves were worshipping the saints, when in fact they were just using those icons as masks for their own gods.

Q: So many people have a scary perception of Santería and what Santeros do. How different is the religion from the perception people have?

A: The uneducated perceptions and the reality of the religion are as different as night and day. For some reason people portray us as “chicken killers.” Of course they say this after gorging themselves on more meat in one sitting than any one person needs to eat in a week! But forget the hypocrisy of the “chicken killer” statement by people who use modern medicine, eat meat-laden diets, and carry leather handbags while wearing leather shoes!

The truth is that sacrifice is only a very small part of the faith, but it’s one that feeds fear so it’s given too much emphasis. The reality of the religion is that it’s quite beautiful. I like to compare things unknown to things known, so think of the Hindu faith but with Afro-Cuban flavor – take away the curry and add sofrito with plenty of sazón!

We are a religion with a very intricate pantheon that many refer to as diffused monotheism: We believe in one God, Olódumare, with many smaller extensions, known as the Orishas. Our shrines for each Orisha are so elaborate that it is not unusual for a priest to have one or more rooms dedicated to their Orishas; and even then, they still spill over into the rest of the home.

We also have an extensive catalogue of songs and prayers used to worship each Orisha, and a sacred drum known as the Batá. Did you know that the African batá rhythms influence almost every genre of music in Latin American culture? I bet you didn’t!

More importantly, we have two intricate holy books, oral though they may be, known as the Diloggún and Ifá. My work as a writer focuses on the Diloggún. Sometimes the two overlap, but more often than not they diverge. While the Diloggún can be used as a system of divination, it is also a system that catalogues thousands upon thousands of Patakís, sacred stories that tell us of creation, the Orishas, the Odu, and men and women who lived and died by their worship.

Q: And your current book, Teachings of the Santería Gods, focuses on them – the Patakís, or sacred stories of the Diloggún?

A: Yes, it does.

Q: What inspired you to write it and how did you chose the stories?

A: It was a difficult process. When I planned my work initially, I envisioned a set of 16 books, each dedicated to one family of Odu. I wanted to write a book of Patakís for the parent and composite Odu of Okana, one for the parent and composites of Eji Oko, one for the parent and composites of Ogundá, and so forth. Each volume would have been the size of my previous work, The Diloggún, which was roughly 400,000 words, (give or take a few thousand). Even in a work of that size, I would have to be selective. The number of Patakís found in each Odu is legion.

Unfortunately, I presented my proposal and sample manuscript after the recession hit. Publishing models were changing and works the size of The Diloggún no longer fit in with those models. The publisher really wanted the books, but asked me to start by writing a single book. That single book had an allotment of roughly 65,000 words. I was devastated.

When the contract arrived the devastation didn’t last long. As I rewrote within the publisher’s contracted length, I discovered that there was both wisdom and beauty in brevity. I reread both works dealing with diloggún as a system of divination, The Secrets of Afro-Cuban Divination and The Diloggún. In the pages of both books patakís were mentioned but not detailed, and those were the first ones I included in Teachings of the Santería Gods.

After transcribing those, I went back through my collection of notes and picked the ones best illustrative of themes I wrote about in my previous two books. Following that logic made inclusion of appropriate patakís simple, and when I was done I was proud of the collection. Not only do I feel that they are best illustrative of the parent odu, but also I feel it is some of my best work. Even better – most of the stories are not well known, so the book will be a process of discovery and learning for readers.

Q: How do the parables relate to life today?

A: At their core the stories speak of ethics, ethical behavior, and morals. They speak of a nation’s search for God and the divine; and they represent a culture’s yearning to make sense of the world around them. They are also entertaining, dramas reflecting conflicts we still face in the modern world. I don’t think any of these stories, while ancient, can be referred to as out of touch with the modern world. Truly there is nothing new under the sun—everything is recycled as each generation evolves.

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