When we think of tricksters, we generally imagine folk characters and culture heroes such as Coyote, not gods. But one of the world's greatest trickster figures is a god of high metaphysical content, Eshu-Elegbara, a West African orisha.
He is the gatekeeper between the realms of man and gods, the tangled lines of force that make up the cosmic interface, and his sign is the crossroads. While he embodies many obvious trickster elements— deceit, humor, lawlessness, sexuality—Eshu-Elegbara is also the god of communication and spiritual language.
When we look on West Africa, we must keep in mind that our "instinctive" sense that these alien practices are primitive, savage, and even demonic is the lingering afterimage of thoroughly European and colonialist images of tribal Others dancing in the hot jungles of sexuality, atavism, and perversion. Looking toward Africa, the first thing the West encounters is its own dark mirror. Because the West is such a text-oriented culture, there is an understandable tendency to equate civilization with the technology of writing, and the sort of reflective interior consciousness that that particular machine apparently constructs in human beings. West Africa did not possess writing as we now it, and the orisha disclose themselves not in books but in shrine, ritual, and memory. For today's text-oriented seeker, there are no great Yoruba books to commune with, no Gita or Genesis. Though the Yoruba system of divination, Ifa, compares to the I Ching in terms of complexity, structure, and poetic sublimity.
In its rituals, the West African tradition has learned to plug people directly into the realm of archetypes. One clue to the nature of this interchange lies in the fact that possession often seems to be triggered by the master drummer playing particular patterns within the complex web of polyrhythmic drumming. Haitians calls these jarring, rhythmically "dissonant" patterns cassés (or "breaks," a phrase used in a similar musical sense in today's hip-hop culture). Possession may result from the cognitive dissonance of the cassé, the alien beat that enters from another plane and shakes up up the rhythms of the everyday. In any case, possession is a magnificently strange act, a radically immanent embracing of spiritual being that is both magical (a worldly invocation of spirits) and religious (as a selfless release to godhead). Possession by the orisha concretizes spirit and ties it to the cycle of ancestors and blood and the rhythms of sex and family.
The orisha are highly evolved archetypal patterns, and they work out metaphysical problems in the heart of life. They form a network, a living and evolving system of forms and forces that from certain angles resonates deeply with the perennial philosophy of the West.
Eshu is found at the crossroads of this network. A divine mediator of fate and information, a linguist, a crafty metaphysician, Eshu is a trickster not just because he fools people and creates chaos, but more profoundly because he escapes the codes he simultaneously reinforces. That he is a god, with stories and moods and lusts, only shows that in the West African tradition, spiritual principles are most real when they're brought into the fabric of daily life, of the recognizably human patterns of money, family, sex, power, and language.
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As the hermetic linguist, then, Legba knows the cosmic language as well as the earthly language. He allows us to speak with the gods and for them to speak with us; and peril, because he tends to play tricks with the information he has, to keep us perpetually aware that he oversees the network of exchange. His nickname is Aflakete, which means "I have tricked you."
In many tales, Legba both causes and solves a power play among the orisha, and he does so by conveying information. At one point, Shango the thunder god asks him, "Why don't you speak straightforwardly?" "I never do," Eshu responds. "I like to make people think." [4 ]
Perhaps the most famous Yoruba story about Eshu concerns two inseparable friends who swore undying fidelity to one another but neglect to acknowledge Eshu. These two friends work on adjacent fields. One day Eshu walks on the dividing line between their fields, wearing a cap that is black on one side and red (or white) on the other. He saunters between the fields, exchanging pleasantries with both men. Afterwards, the two friends got to talking about the man with the cap, and fall to violent quarreling about the color of the man's hat, calling each other blind and crazy. The neighbors gather about, and then Eshu arrives and stops the fight. The friends explain their disagreement, an Eshu shows them the two-sided hat—all this to chastise the friends for not putting him first in their doings.
So Eshu is a master of exchange, or crossed purposes, of crossed speech. This is why his shrines are found both at crossroads and at the market, for he is master of such networks of desire. For example, he uses his magician's knowledge to make serpents that bite people on the way to the market, and then sells them the cure.
this god "finds in all biological, social, and metaphysical walls doorways into a larger universe."[Pelton 8]
Eshu is young, small, and spry, and has a ravishing sexual appetite. When Mawu punishes him for some transgression by commanding that his penis remain always erect, he smiles and immediately begins groping the nearest female. In another episode, after tricking many suitors out of deflowering the daughter of a king, he has sex with the woman himself. The happy king commands that Legba may sleep with any woman he chooses, and names him "the intermediary between this world and the next. And that is why Legba everywhere dances in the manner of a man copulating." His priests, the legbanos , even mimic copulation with wooden phalluses.
Sexuality expresses the trickster's need to always go beyond boundaries: new order is always created out of the partial collapse of a previous structure. More profoundly, copulation is the most fully experienced of connections, Legba's pet project everywhere. These two functions are deeply related, and Legba puts sex in the heart of spirituality, not as transcendent tantra, but as the more immanent principle of connection. Of course, Legba's sexual appetite causes just as much trouble as his propensity to tinker with data, as in the following:
Eshu makes us recognize the fundamental relation between sex and the evolving, continually reconnecting cosmos. As Pelton writes, "He is the living copula, and his phallus symbolizes the real distinction between outside and inside, and the wild and the ordered."
Garbling the Book of Fate
Eshu receives ashé when all the gods journey to the supreme god to find out who is the next most powerful. Each brings a huge sacrifice, carrying it on his or her head. But Eshu consults the oracle before he goes, and finds that all he needs to bring is a bright red feather set upright on his forehead. When the supreme being sees this he grants Eshu the power of ashé, because Eshu had shown his unwillingness to carry burdens, as well as his sensitivity to the power of information. (To this day, Eshu figurines often have a large phallic plume or nail on the head.) As Thompson says, Eshu shows us that one must "cultivate the art of recognizing significant communications...or else the lessons of the crossroads—the point where doors open or close, where persons have to make decisions that may forever effect their lives—will be lost."
Of course, these moments of crisis, of significant communication, are oracular moments. The process of the divination itself is eerily similar to that of the I Ching: The babalawo, or diviner, quickly passes sixteen palm nuts between his hands, and depending on how many are left, he draws either a broken or solid line in powder. He (and the babalawo is always a he) draws two groups of four lines each to create one of 256 possible patterns. He then recites from memory the numerous verses associated with that odu, and he and his client will settle on those verses which seem relevant. (Like the hexagrams of the I Ching, the verses are often ambiguous and enigmatic.)
Because Eshu is the ties between cosmic pattern and daily life, it is
obvious why he would be associated with divination. Like the kabbalistic Tree
of Life, Ifa is described as having "roads," "pathways,"
or "courses," resonant linkages of images and meanings — obviously
For the Fon, whose system of Fa divination is very similar to the Yoruba's Ifa,
Fa is destiny, the pattern of the day, the individual and the cosmos. Each
person has an individual Fa, just as each person has an individual Legba.
Because Legba is the only god who knows the "alphabet of Mawu," he
is "sent by Mawu to bring to each individual his Fa, for it is necessary
that a man should know the writing which Mawu has used to create him."
Sometime before Ifa existed, a Yoruba myth goes, a declining human race had stopped sacrificing to their gods, and the gods were hungry. So Eshu decided to give humans something that would make them want to live. He journeyed to a palm tree, and there the monkeys gave him sixteen palm nuts and told him to go around the world so that he might hear "sixteen saying in each of the sixteen places." He did so, and then gave the knowledge to men through Ifa, the "sixteen places" being the sixteen primary odu and the sixteen palm nuts.
This myth again demonstrate the reciprocal relationship between man and gods; it is said that without Eshu, the gods would always go hungry, for he tricks men into disastrous defiance so that they will then need to sacrifice to win back the gods' favor. But it also emphasizes Eshu's character as a mediator and a speedy messenger, who places himself between different perspectives and collects messages.
Eshu's relationship with Ifa, shows an extremely subtle and lively understanding of divination and destiny. Eshu gives the world Ifa, and on the babalawo 's divining tray, twin Eshu statues stare out at each other (again, like Hermes, Eshu is linked to twins). But he is not Ifa's master. In one Fon tale, Fa, the god of divination and fate, sneaks into Legba's home and sleeps with his wife. Legba asks her why and she says that his penis wasn't big enough for her. Challenged, Legba eats an enormous amount of food and swears to have sex with her until she tires, all the while calling out "the path of destiny is large, large like a large penis." Legba then made Fa stay in the house, while Legba takes his wife and hits the road, vowing that he will always be first, and will always be ready to fuck.
As Pelton writes, "Fa keeps a certain dominion over destiny, or inner space, but Legba's elasticity gives him mastery over destiny's paths...Legba can roam as he chooses, going in and out to bring men to their destiny, but never ceasing to widen the path for them." By knowing the whole system, Eshu can escape, slipping through the cracks of fate. Eshu's Ifa odu is the seventeenth, the first one outside the system.
When the orisha were smuggled to the New World on slave ships, the world's most vibrant form of syncretism emerged, where Catholic saints and the orisha blended into one another, The wisdom of West Africa continued disguised in song, drum, and celebration. Eshu himself went through many changes, and while different geographical groups of African descendents took him in opposite directions, all of his varied faces nonetheless further extend his peculiar multivalent being.
In Brazil, Exu—as his name is written in Portuguese —becomes a darker being. In condomble, Brazilian orisha worship, Eshu rules over sexual intercourse and is still served before any other god is invoked. But this is not so much to open up a divine communications channel as to placate the irascible deity and make sure that he does not spread confusion.
Eshu's emphasis on trickery and vengeance made him an ideal orisha for slaves, who imagined him as the saint of revenge against the whites. Under these conditions, his more malevolent aspects were emphasized, as his various aspects were multiplied to cover a range of nasty magical acts. In umbanda, the urban, highly eclectic revision of condomble that relies heavily on nineteenth-century spiritualism, Exu quite simply becomes the devil.
In Haiti, where the orisha are known as the loa and the
practice is known as voudun, Legba went through other drastic changes.
He is still lord of the crossroads, the grand chemin, whose channel
between earth and the gods is contained in the ritual house's peristyle, or
The crossroads is seen in Legba's vévé (a complex cosmic diagram
drawn with white flour that represents the loa). But in Haiti Legba has
become an old, withered peasant, bent and crippled on his cane. In her superb Divine
Horsemen, the American avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren tells how terrible
and twisted the possessions performed by Legba are. In Haiti Deren describes a
Legba who comes full circle, like the answer to the riddle of the sphinx, no
longer the virile child of the morning but the impotent old man of evening. He
is still the omniscient observer—as one Haitian told Deren, "We do no
see him, he sees us. All those who say the truth, he is there, he hears. All
those who speak evil, He is there, he listens."
But his omniscience has become the knowledge of death.
ZOMO THE RABBIT: A TRICKSTER TALE FROM WEST
AFRICA at Barnes & Noble
RING OF TRICKSTERS:
A Little Eshu in Us All
In his book Count Zero , science fiction writer William Gibson put the orisha in the heart of cyberspace, his computer-generated
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