Correio da Bahia
Eshu, the most human of the orishas, has little resemblance with the fallen angel of the creation story
Adriana Jacob

Intermediary between the mortal Gods of the Candomblé and poor men, Eshú is the gentleman of destiny, guardian of the passageways and of the crossroads. He is the only one that can ensure communication with the orishas and is also the only deity to whom tribute must be paid when initiating any celebration in the terreiro. But the reputation that is attributed to him is unjust – Eshú has nothing to do with the devil of western culture. Owner of innumerable mysteries, this messenger of the gods conciliates force, creativity, power and cleverness, charitable and protective. In Africa and amongst the students of Candomblé, Eshú will be always synonymous with life, freedom and ashé.

Gentleman of the roads

The worship of Eshú indicates why the African god of freedom was syncretized with the devil in Brazil

Before night falls on the waters of the Bay of All Saints (Bahía de Todos os santos) one of the most mysterious rituals carried out in Candomblé terreiros begins: the padê of Eshú. In the traditional terreiros, the ceremony is executed with much pomp. At dusk, the filho-do-santo kneel down in a circle in the large barracão (great hall in terreiro) and bend their bodies on the mats, with their heads resting on both fists. On the ground, in the center of the barracão, a clay jar filled with water, a small jar with firewater (overproof rum), a clay dish with yucca flour, and a small jar with palm oil.

The drums begin to play and, from a distant spot, it is possible to hear the voices of the filhos-do-santo singing for Eshú. It is time to “dispatch” or send the offerings to the gentleman of the roads, the messenger orishá. The offering is an importante reverence, since only Eshú can pave the way so that men and orishás can communicate. For that reason, he is the first orishá that must be acknowledged, in all the celebrations, before any other divinity. So that the greeting to the other orishás can begin, it is necessary to count with the protection of Eshú.

It was thanks to that protection that Pedro Archanjo, one of Jorge Amado’s most irresistible characters, was able to escape from a great trap. One iyabá – a type of wicked entity – was transformed into a beautiful black woman and she drew up a plan to finish with Archanjo’s appeal: she would leave him impotent. What iyabá did not know was that Pedro Archanjo was a odson of Eshú.

Eshú warned him of his enemies’ plans and prepared a special charm for him, that included a a bath with special leaves and ebó. With the aid of Eshú, the result was that the witchcraft of iyabá did not harm him and she ended up madly in love with with Archanjo. She changed from being an evil entity and became the beautiful Dorote Preta. She became a daughter of Iyansán and “she ended up being the one that dances the padê of Eshú at the beginning of the obligations”.

But Eshú is much more than that. As Pierre Verger describes in his book “Orixás,” Eshú can make things extraordinary, like carrying in a strainer the oil that we buy in the market without spilling a drop. He can kill a bird yesterday with a stone he threw today. He causes that the lie becomes truth and that truth becomes a lie.

Adored by some and feared by others, Eshú is one of the most mysterious names of the pantheon of African divinities. His colors are red and black. His day is Monday. Many stories are told, and almost everyone has something to say when the subject is about the orishá syncretized by the Catholic Church with the devil. The ceremony of padê is an indicator that Eshú’s importance goes beyond what most people imagine when they speak of the “man of the crossroads”.

Some scholars, such as Dr. Julio Braga, anthropologist from the National University of Zaire, and retired professor of anthropology of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) and attached professor of the State University of Feira de Santana (UEFS), define Eshú as the most dynamic of the orishás. “He is the one who thrusts life forward and creates the necessary dialectic conditions for existence,” he says. Eshú is responsible for promoting the opposite perception and show the other side of a debate.

In addition to that, he is bound to the notion of sexuality, in charge of promoting the continuity of human existence. For this reason, in some ares of Africa he is represented by an earthen mound in the form of a small man, with a phallus of a very respectable size. That phallus represents his reproductive functions.

A not at all compatible function with which the Catholic Church associated him in the process of religious syncretism. According to Verger, “that detail (the turgid penis) gave rise to the scandalized or amused observations of numerous travelers who identified him erroneously as the god of fornication.” If the preconceptions of all things related with Candomblé are numerous, when the subject is Eshú, the proportions increase. This is evident when considering that not everyone knows the saint that corresponds with the syncretic version of Iyansá or of Omolu [Babaluaiyé], but when it comes to Eshú, it is a rare occurrence that anybody would not associate him with the devil.

In fact, Eshú is irritable and is also very astute, crude, vain and indecent, but if he is treated with consideration, he shows his good, helpful and charitable side. If, on the contrary, they forget to do sacrifices and offerings to him, one can come to expect catastrophes. “Eshú rebels in this manner, being the most human of the orishás, neither completely bad, nor completely good,” says Verger. Because they know Eshú’s protective qualities, there are people in Africa who proudly use names such as Éshubíyìí – conceived by Eshú – or Èshùtósin – Eshú deserves to be adored.

It is possible that because of his nature, he has been the most attacked of the orishás, associated with absolute evil. If here he is feared and undesired by many, in his place of origin it was somewhat different, since there was no concept of absolute evil. Eshú is the character that brings to life the notion of resistance. “He promotes the transparency of the evil that is contained in the notion of goodness,” says Braga. besides this, Eshú represents the notion of communication. He is the mediator of the orishás with each other, between orishás and human beings – and vise versa- and is also the mediator between human beings.

The religious system is based on communication, through the interchange of ashé, that makes possible the harmony of existence. Offering are the balance factor, and all imbalance is recomposed by supply. As Eshú is the mediator, it is through him that offerings are taken to the other orishás. In this system, Eshú is the key figure, since only through him can the interchange of ashé can take place.

In addition, all religious acts require his presence and, for that same reason, all religious acts in Candomblé are initiated with an offering to him. As explained by Volney J. Berkenbrock in his book “La Experiencia de los Orishás,” “Eshú is the spark that initiates the process. He is the principle of everything, the force of creation, the birth, the negative balance of the universe, the one that does not mean to say bad things. Eshú is the mother cell that generates life, the one that generates the infinite, infinite times.”

Because of everything that has been said and is still said about him, the image of Eshú at times seems close and clear. Other times it seems to be surrounded by fog. Possibly, all that mystery and all the confusion that has been created around his name are the reason that many academics and artists feel particulally inclined towards his personality.

No one will ever be as much of a lover of the mysteries of Bahia and Candomblé as was Jorge Amado. According to the writer, “Eshú eats everything that the mouth eats, drinks brandy, is a wandering gentleman, and a young king. He enjoys noise, gentleman of the roads, messenger of the gods, mailman of the orishás, an anxious boy. It is because of all of this that they have syncretized him with the devil: in reality he just the orishá of movement, lover of hoaxes, of confusion, yet, at heart, an excellent person. In some ways, he is the “no” where only the “yes” exists; the opponent in the way of the favor; the intrepid and the invincible one.”

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