Teachings of the Santeria Gods: The Spirit of the Odu, by Ocha’ni Lele
Destiny Books, 9781594773327, 270 pp. (incl. glossary and index), 2010
Teachings of the Santeria Gods centres on the diloggun, a method of divination involving cowrie shells cast on a mat. The backs of the shells are filed down, but the important thing is the “mouths” of the shells—how many are facing upward gives the diviner the number of an “odu.” Each odu comprises an almost-endless array of stories (the pataki) about particular orisha, or cautionary folk tales. This is what makes this style of divination so interesting; the choice of the story to be told to the querent, and the ebo (sacrifice to be made in order to banish the querent’s ill-luck, avert disaster, or appease angry spirits, among other things) to be made gives a diviner near-infinite possibilities.
Santeria is an oral tradition. The odu are largely passed down by word of mouth, and mutate - not to mention multiply – prodigiously in the process. Lele is always careful to explain that there are several versions of particular stories, and also to explain that the ones he highlights are his personal choices. It’s rare to find such care in a book about Santeria, especially since most titles dealing with the religion (and its cousins) are mere excuses to shock the timid, titillate the jaded, or fleece the unwary.
Each odu is explained briefly, then the pataki are allowed to take centre stage. While the explanations often leave much to be desired, becoming bogged in the regrettable handwavey New-Ageisms that any simplification of complex metaphysical concepts is prone to, the stories are light and muscular, and overwhelmingly well-written. Lele is to be congratulated that he does not water down several of them—for example, “The Story of the Cat and the Rat”, a cautionary tale about the limits of friendship, is enough to give anyone chills, and his “The Loss of Ofun’s Daughter” is a brutal chain of mishaps with precious little redemption in sight.
Several of the stories focus on sexual morality, and it is not Lele’s fault that such tales have a deep layer of misogyny even when they have an overtly female-friendly message. The initial odu are lighter on the woman-hating, but the later ones—especially the twelfth odu, Ejila Shibora—take a dimmer and dimmer view of the female. I don’t know enough of the Yoruba culture that the germs of the stories are drawn from, or the rich overlay of Cuban society and culture accreting over them, to evaluate further. Lele is very clear that his book is not a scholarly analysis, since such an analysis would take multiple years and volumes devoted to nothing else. A quasi-exception can be found in tales of adultery, where the male half is usually punished along with the female, though (typically) the punishment meted out to men in these stories tends to be lighter.
Teachings of the Santeria Gods is a marvellous beginner’s resource for those interested in the diloggun, and they are a good initial source for those interested in Santeria as well. There are few more powerful ways of teaching magic or divination than with stories—narrative creates and sustains belief, and a well-told story can change consciousness with or without will. If this is representative of Lele’s other work, I’ll be picking up the rest of his books and devouring them avidly. While by no means a scholarly text or a beginner’s guide to Santeria, it is still well-written, informative, possessed of rare clarity, and a joy to read.