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Fundação Gregório de Mattos
Salvador, Brazil

A Yoruba myth recounted using clay images

These pictures are part of an Oshosi myth narrated by the artist using clay images.The work is titled “Oxossi, O Caçador Encantado (Oshosi, the Enchanted Hunter).”This collection was published in Salvador, Bahía by the Fundação Gregório de Mattos.Though the collection is undated, it may still be available directly from the Fundação. Anyone interested may contact them through their website: http://www.pms.ba.gov.br/fgm/

Captions: These captions are literal transcriptions from the English translations on the back of the cards in the collection.

An incredible collection of postcards from Bahía.

Artist Gil Abelha

Jesús Cárdenas is a veteran painter of Orisha jars and attributes in Cuba. His work is fairly well known in Havana and is now being brought to the United States by Olorishas who visit the island. Though he has been surrounded by the religion all his life, Jesús is not ordained. His mother, Magdalena “Chiquitica” Ruíz, Oyá Gadé, one of the oldest Iyalorishas in Cuba, ordained my grandmother Oshún Ilarí and Obá Oriaté Anibal Guerrero, Okán Tomí.

Part of an orishas paraphernalia includes metal or wooden implements that olorishas call herramientas, or tools. As implied by the word, herramientas empower an orisha. Although many elements encountered by the Lukumi in the New World were adopted and reinterpreted for and in their relationship to the orishas, this art form was not created in the Americas. Many elements that conform an orishas herramientas have counterparts in Yorubaland, for example, Oshun’s edan, similar to those used by the Yoruba Ogboni society; Shango’s oshe, a double-headed axe; and the ashabas, charm chains used by various orishas that are reminiscent of the shabas used by Yoruba hunters and hunting deities and the pencas used in Brazilian Candomble, Lukumi religion’s Brazilian sister.

Nonetheless, many Western aesthetic elements have been adopted and adapted by the Lukumi. For example, the Lukumi manufacture and use metal Western-style crowns, reminiscent of those worn by the colonial European monarchs. These crowns replaced the more traditional, cone-shaped, beaded crowns typical of the Yoruba. Instead of the beaded fringes seen in Yoruba crowns, different tools and attributes cling from the crown that are related with the orisha for whom the crown is destined.

Cunningly, the Lukumi appropriated and reinterpreted many symbols, some of which were markers of status, from the new society. The symbol for Orishaoko, the god of agriculture, thus became a replica of an ox-drawn plow, with a parasol in its rear section to protect the farmer from the insolence of the Caribbean sun. The chalice of the Holy Sacrament from the Catholic altar, usually depicted with bright rays stemming from the chalice, and the Eye of Divine Providence, similar to the Egyptian eye of Horus, were both attributed to Obatala and reinterpreted in terms that were acceptable and applicable to the Lukumi world vision.

Like the textile panels, beads bring out the beauty and magnificence of the orishas. In ancient Yorubaland, beads were considered a status symbol: a marker of power, hierarchy, and economic well-being. Many beads are highly valued for their specific relation with an orisha. Ivory and mother-of-pearl beads are status markers for Oduduwa and Obatala, the two most respected orishas in the pantheon because of their proximity to Olodumare, the Supreme Being. Coral, although attributed specifically to Oshun and Yemoja, is considered a symbol of prosperity, believed to bring luck and fortune to the wearer. Azabache (jet) beads are believed to guard the wearer from envy and the evil eye, a belief found among many cultures, including the Spanish culture encountered by the Lukumi in Cuba. Erinle, considered a refined orisha par excellence because of the often exquisite nature of many of his attributes, wears a necklace of coral, jet, and gold beads. Ibu Ikole, a road of Oshun, uses a necklace made of jet, coral, and amber.

Collar de mazo

Collar de mazo, usually abbreviated to mazo, literally means a necklace of clusters or bunches. The term is probably derived from the way glass beads are usually sold, strung in mazos, or bunches of about a kilogram or less. In Spanish, the term mazo refers to portions of items that are somehow strung, clustered, or bunched together.

A mazo consists of various strings of beads, divided into sections called casetas or casas (huts or houses) that are separated by larger beads called glorias. Once tied, a number of tassel-like strands hang from the front and sides of the necklace. Each of the strands’ strings are finished at the end with a smaller gloria and tied in a very discrete way so that the string and the knot are barely visible. Cowries can also serve to finish each string, especially for orishas such as Shango and the warriors. The color, number, and pattern of the of beads, as well as the number of the strings, are determined by the ritual number related with the orisha for whom the mazo is intended.

Traditionally, mazos are made with cotton or other naturally produced string that will absorb the omiero (a ritual herbal infusion) that will later be used to consecrate it. Recently, fishing line has grown in popularity because of its durability and sturdiness, making it easier for the artisan to bead without the use of beading wires or needles.

The strings for the mazo are measured and cut to usually about a yard or more in length. A section of each string is individually beaded in a specific pattern of a determined length, usually averaging between three and seven or so inches. These patterns are determined by ritual as well as creative elements. Once all the strings have been beaded, they are conjunctly passed through a gloria that separates the sections into casetas or casas. A mazo typically has at least ten or more casetas. Once all these sections have been strung, the ends are brought together, crossed through glorias, and tied and sustained on each end of the glorias.

From the strings that cling from this knot, the artisan will make the central or principal tassel that will hang in the front part of the mazo. Once tied, the strings that cling from this junction of the necklace are double the number of strings that make up the body of the necklace. For this reason, this front tassel is considered the principal one. It is purposely ornamented more than the others. The tassels on the sides of the mazo will have the same number of strings as the necklace itself. For these, the artisan cuts separate strings and ties them between the casetas on the side of the mazo. The number of tassels is also determined by the ritual number of the orisha for whom the mazo is intended.

Ide

An ide or oshaide is a beaded bracelet worn on the left wrist that is meant to identify the olorishas tutelary deity. The iyawo is required to wear the ide for the entire year of his or her novitiate. Afterward, it can be worn for ritual functions and kept with other orisha paraphernalia when not in ritual use. Like the mazo, the ide consists of various sections of multiple strings of beads. These sections are also called casetas and are similarly partitioned by glorias. Because it is intended to be worn on the wrist, the ide is terminated with a brooch or lock of some sort.

Eleke

Elekes are the single-string necklaces worn by olorishas. They are strung in the preferred patterns and colors of the orisha whom they represent. Often, elekes will be ornamented with cowries, glorias, and semiprecious as well as precious beads. Coral, mother-of-pearl, ivory, and jet beads are most popularly used.

Maya-Bead nets

Mayas (literally, nets), are used to ornament the jars or tureens that contain the orishas attributes and paraphernalia. Often these replace the mazos. They are nets of beads and glorias in elaborate patterns. Because choice and size of jar or tureen varies tremendously from olorisha to olorisha, mayas have to be tailor-made.

Beaded Attributes

Much of the orishas paraphernalia is often entirely covered with beads. Most often, this is done to embellish the orisha and the item and is not necessarily in conformance to ritual dictates. Beads are strung in the patterns particular to the orisha for whom the item is intended and then wrapped and sewn into place. Depending on the item, a tassel may be placed at one of the ends. Often irukes (made with the hairs from a horse or ox tail), adas (machetes or scimitars), asheres (maracas), oshs (Shango axes), and many other items that are beaded have tassels hanging from the ends.

Ja

The ja is part of Babaluaiyes paraphernalia, though other orishas such as Nana Buruku and Oshumare also use a ja. With it, the orisha cleanses and protects devotees from sickness and negative energies. In possession, he dances with the ja as if it were his scepter.

Kashas

Kasha is a generic term that describes a type of bracelet that employs beads and cowry shells in its manufacture. They are usually worn on the left hand, but depending on the orisha, kashas can be fashioned for the forehead, waist, ankles, and upper arm. Various orishas use kashas. Babaluaiyes is made with goat hide and burlap over which seven cowries are sewn and ornamented with beads. Oshosis kashas are made from deer skin and burlap and cowries. Yewas kashas are made of either raffia or henequen (Agave fourcroydes, Lemaire-a natural fiber used to make rope), braided, and sewn over red or crimson textile. On these, the artist sews the cowries and beads.

Elena was ordained as a small child in Cuba. She is from Susana Cantero, Omi Toke’s lineage. Interestingly, Elena’s outfit was a dress and not the typical jacket and “bombacho” pants we are used to seeing today. The reasons for this are not clear.

In the close-up photo of the outfit, notice the beautiful simplicity which is in stark opposition to the more elaborate outfits currently made in the United States.

The use of garments, in almost all contexts ceremonial, varies according to the type of ritual performed. On the second day of an olorisha’s ordination, known as el da del medio, usually loosely translated into English as the middle day, the newly ordained iyawo (lit. wife of the gods; a novice) wears two outfits that are especially commissioned for the ritual. These garments are made in the specific colors of the person’s tutelary or principal orisha: red for Shango, blue for Yemoja, white for Obatala, and so on.

The first of the two outfits, called traje del almuerzo(lunch outfit), is usually made of gingham. It consists of a calf-length dress for women and a shirt for men, usually riveted with white serpentine. For the most part, lunch outfits for the so-called warrior orishas (Elegba, Ogun, and Oshosi) are made of burlap, ornamented with serpentine in their ritual color. These outfits typically consist of a shirt and pants regardless of the iyawo’s gender. The second outfit used by the iyawo is called traje de gala-the coronation outfit-for it is while wearing this outfit that the iyawo is “crowned.” This outfit is much more elaborate and complex than the almuerzo outfits and is the most telling exhibition of the artist’s dexterity and creativity. This art form has evolved tremendously in the United States over the past twenty years. This is immediately apparent when you compare Elena Alfonso’s ordination outfit to Eusebio Escobar’s or Nayla Llanes’ more contemporary work.

The outfit used for the female orishas is usually a midsleeve, calf-length dress, in a style reminiscent of nineteenth-century Cuban colonial era, with a waist band that is tied in the back. Often kerchiefs of the same material as the dress hang from the waist band. Garments for the male orishas typically consist of a high-necked, long-sleeved jacket with a belt or strap tied around the waist. Often bombachos, baggy trousers that are sustained by elastic at the knees, similar to the knickerbocker pants of days gone by, accompany the male’s outfit. Still, a normal pair of white trousers may also be used. Many of the male orishas’ garments also have bantes clinging from the waistband that are made of the same material as the outfit. These sword-shaped bands of cloth, originally of a phallic nature, accentuate the orisha’s masculinity.

When a man is ordained to a female orisha, the outfit consists of a jacket and pants in the appropriate color of the orisha, but a woman who is ordained to a male orisha will wear a masculine outfit regardless. In the case of the latter, the lunch outfit is a dress, though, except only when the ordination is to the warrior deities, then it will follow the burlap shirt-and-pants tradition. Some oloshas argue that male orishas do not recognize their daughters as female but rather as males.

Textile Crowns

When dressed in the traje de gala, the iyawo also wears an elegant and embellished textile crown, normally made from the same materials as the coronation outfit. The ordination of a Lukumi olorisha is considered analogous to the coronation of a king or queen. Once the iyawo has been dressed in the coronation outfit, the ordaining olorisha will ceremoniously place the crown on his or her head, symbolic of the newly acquired status.

The ornaments on the crown vary according to the iyawo’s tutelary orisha. Typically, crowns for the female orishas are adorned with rhinestones, whereas those for the male orishas also may have cowries. Additionally, all the crowns except Shango’s are adorned with the red tail feathers of the African Grey parrot in the ritual number related to the particular orisha (e.g. 7 for Yemoja, 5 for Oshun, 8 for Obatala and so on). These feathers are highly valued by the Lukumi/Yoruba and their New World descendants.

The warrior orishas do not wear crowns. Elegba and Ogun typically wear a hat ornamented with cowries and rooster and parrot feathers. Oshosi uses a Robin Hood type cap, also ornamented with cowries and feathers. A second option for all three is a band of goatskin, ornamented with beads and cowries.

In the majority of the lineages, the crown is worn only at the ordination ceremony and when the olorisha passes away. Still, some lineages do use the crown for the ritual of presentation of the iyawo before the bata drums.

Other Garments

Garments worn by Orishas in possession

For the most part, these garments follow the same pattern as the traje de gala. They are specially made for the individual specifically engaged as a mount (i.e., to be possessed by the honored orisha) at a wemilere. These outfits do not require a crown. Instead, the mount will typically wear either a kerchief (for a woman) or a textile cap (for a man) ornamented in the same fashion as the outfit.

Head Coverings

Olorishas tend to cover their heads for most of their ritual activities. This serves two purposes. Primarily, head coverings are seen as a means of protecting the olorisha from negative energies that are being withdrawn from a person afflicted by them in cleansing rituals. In this case, they protect the head (considered a receptor and entry point of energy into the body) and, by extension, the olorisha from harm.

The second purpose is one of identification and embellishment. Many head coverings reflect a level of devotion and commitment on behalf of the olorisha who takes pride in wearing something that reflects his or her orisha’s colors or attributes.

Textile Panels

Panels are used by Olorishas to dress their Orishas attributes on special occasion such as religious anniversaries or other festive celebrations. Often olorishas may keep these panels on their deities for indefinite periods and change them yearly. Panels vary according to the olorisha’s financial resources. They can be as simple as a piece of metallic brocade or a piece of satin, riveted with lace, sequins, or other metallic trimmings. The so-called mantones de manila, embroidered silk shawls imported from Spain, have been very popular with some olorishas since at least the Republican era in Cuba. In the past, many olorishas also embroidered their own panels and orisha garments by hand.

The most elaborate of the panels are unique to Lukumi religion and may have originated (and lately evolved a great deal) as an orisha art form in Miami in the 1980s. Generally, they are specially made and richly decorated, with the artist making use of a multiplicity of aesthetic elements to bring out the nature and predilections of the orisha for whom the panel is intended. Rhinestones, beads, cowries, pearl, different types of cloth, and various sorts of metallic trimmings have become the preference. Playing on orisha-related themes and motifs, using textiles of the colors associated with the orishas, their attributes, and elements related to their earthly domains, their relationship with nature, their totemic animals, their emblems, all or some of which may be selectively depicted on the panels, artists mark their work as an exclusive creation for the Olorisha who commissioned it. The panel is to be used solely by the orisha for whom it was made. Shango’s panel cannot be used for Yemoja, and neither can Oshun’s be used for Obatala. Each panel is unique, like the orisha for whom it is intended.

Panels can also be used at wemileres to dress the orishas who possess their priests or priestesses. Typically, the female orishas wear one over their shoulders as a type of shawl. Oshun takes pride in dancing with her ala (shawl) and uses it to entice and lure Shango and Ogun by throwing it over them and pulling them toward her. The male orishas tend to wear the panel tied to their waist. When mantones are used by an orisha in possession, the female deities tend to place the manton (and often the panels as well) over their shoulders and then open it as if it were a large caul, often taking a devotee under it, symbolically sheltering the person from evil.

Frequently the orishas use the panels to pass over the bodies of the attendees at a wemilere to cleanse them of any negative energies. At times, the orishas may also choose to give these panels as presents to a special devotee present at the ritual.

To dress orishas

Olorishas will also use textile panels to dress, or adorn, the jars containing the ritual implements and attributes of the orisha. The use of these will vary in context and meaning, according to the specific situation. For the most part, their function is ornamental, meant to please the orisha and exhibit him or her in an attractive fashion. At other times, the use of panels or textiles on an orisha may be ritualistic in nature, especially if recommended by the oracles to cover a deity with a specific piece of cloth. In some of these cases, an olorisha may use the panel of one deity for another, but it must be determined in divination and not by whim.

The color of cloth that is used is often revealing: white, the “coolest” color, is meant to soothe or calm an irate orisha, upset with a devotee for an offense; red, a “hot” color, is often used to energize and revitalize, as well as to reject negative energy. Yellow saddens Oshun, reminding her of the most difficult period in her life when she was so poor that she owned a single dress, a white one, that turned yellow and ragged from washing it at the river’s edge. Oya is often covered with multicolored cloths that stress her close ties with the Egun (ancestors) and other spirits.

To hang in thrones

When used in thrones, panels represent the orisha for whom they are made. In this context, they are considered the orisha’s flag and are hung only on thrones intended for the ordination of an olorisha. Typically, four panels are used, and their place in the throne is ritually dictated. The panel representing the orisha for whom the throne was built is placed at the center. In the front, clinging to the ceiling, is hung the panel representing the orisha of the ordaining priest or priestess. On either side of the throne are the remaining panels. In the past, pillows were also used for the throne.

Jorge Ortega, Ewín Sholá is a priest of Obatalá who resides in Miami. Ewín Sholá was ordained to Obatalá as a teenager by Conrado García, Odurosinmí, during the early repressive days of the Cuban revolution when ordaining minors was forbidden. Anyone caught doing so would face imprisonment and have their orishas confiscated and destroyed. Ewín Sholá arrived to the U.S. via the 1980 Mariel boatlift and soon after, began manufacturing orisha garments and panels, and installing thrones for his Babalorisha, and eventually for the community.

Currently Ewín Sholá specializes in orisha garments, panels and thrones. His work is among the most coveted in Miami for its beauty and grace, combining tradition with innovation and gusto. Much of Ewín Sholá’s work appears throughout the pages of Eleda.Org, including the throne for Shangó on the website’s home page. He was also one of the artists featured in Miami’s “At the Crossroads. . .” exhibit in 2000.

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