Reclaiming Quarterly Web Features Back Issues Subscribe Ads/Submissions Site Index Reclaiming Home

My Path to the Orisha

by Ethan Davidson

In a shelf in my room sits a sacred object. I purchased it in the public market in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Unlike the many beautiful images of the gods of Africa which are sold there in the shops that cater to tourists, this one looks crude. It is made out of rusty iron. It is five arrows, arranged in the shape of a tree. It symbolizes Eshu, the Yoruban god of doorways and roads. More specifically, it symbolizes a particular aspect, or path of Eshu, Tranca Rua, Eshu Roadblock.

Worshipers of the Yoruban Gods believe that the same deity who causes a problem is the one that can solve it. The god that causes disease is the god appealed to for curing the disease. The god that causes war is the same god that one prays to for peace. And so, it seems logical that Eshu roadblock would be the spirit that one would appeal to open doors and roads.

Much of my life has felt like a series of doors slammed in my face. But for every door that has been closed to me, one has been opened. I have had wonderful opportunities to do things that I could not have done if I had actually been successful at doing the things I tried to do.

In the Yoruban-based traditions, all endeavors traditionally start with an invocation to Eshu. So I, too, will evoke him. Eshu, Tranca Rua, open the way for my readers and myself. Let our understanding improve, and our communication be a fruitful one.

In my early 20s, while approaching my "bottom" with alcoholism and drug addiction, I saw a Brazilian movie called Bahia. This movie introduced me for the first time to the Gods of the Yoruba, the Orisha.

The Orisha mentioned were Ogun and Eshu. It was a hot night, and after the movie, I went to the beach, and shouted the name of Eshu to the waves.

Three years later, I was newly clean and sober, and I was searching for a spiritual path and a higher power I could relate to. I was working towards a bachelor's degree in social work and doing volunteer work counseling the homeless mentally ill in the Tenderloin. I was also living in an apartment across the street from a housing project. I had gotten clean and sober shortly after I had moved into this apartment.

Ironically, the apartment building had turned into a crack house just as I was sobering up. Noise came from both outside the building and inside. The lobby was filled with people smoking crack, and I literally had to hold my breath when I walked down the stairs in the morning. Gangs of violent youth sometimes harassed me on the street.

At the Tenderloin Self Help Center, I noticed a candle on the desk of a coworker, a Puerto Rican woman. It said on the top "Seven African powers," but it had pictures of Catholic Saints. The names under those saints were strange, except for one, Ogun, which I remembered from the movie as being the name of an Orisha.

I asked my coworker questions, and she directed me to a "Botanica," a Santeria shop where I was able to buy a number of Orisha candles, from which I constructed my own altars. When I got home from work or school, I lit them and stared at the images of the Orisha and the flames that invoked them. It was an island of calm. I also read many books on the subject.

But my requests to be invited to Santeria rituals led nowhere.

A couple of years after that, I attended a week-long Anarchist festival, at which I attended my first Pagan ritual (put on by the Reclaiming collective). I enjoyed it, attended more, and eventually went to my first Pagan festival at Harbin Hot Springs.

One of the rituals was a Bembe, a party for the Orisha, put on by a woman who practiced a form of an Afro-Brazilian religion called "Umbanda."

It rained heavily that weekend. By the time the Bembe began, I had been at Harbin Hot Springs for days, attended a number of rituals, spent a lot of time submerged in hot, cold, and warm water, and hadn't gotten much sleep. I was already in an altered state of consciousness.

Despite tracing the origin of her religion to Brazil, this woman, like most North American Orisha worshipers, referred to these gods by the names they are known by in Cuba, which are sometimes different from those used in Brazil.

The woman and a couple of her assistants, plus one drummer, arrived, dressed in white. She sang short songs to each Orisha, starting with Eshu, and as she did so, some members of the audience became possessed by these gods.

I now know that this is not done in the same way in either Santeria or Candomblé. In those religions, possession by Orisha is reserved for initiated mediums, who are only possessed by the particular deity they have been initiated into. On the other hand, in some Candomblé rituals, people are possessed by other kinds of spirits, and in these cases, possession is more casual and open to at least some members of the audience.

At the time, I knew none of this, but from my reading I did know something about most of the Orisha she called. I considered my dominant Orisha to be Obatala, god of purity, known in Brazil as Oshala.

I had read a myth about Obatala which, as an alcoholic in early recovery, I had related to a lot.

In the myth, the original creator God had given Obatala the job of molding the bodies of all humans yet to be born out of clay. He started out doing a fine job, creating strong, healthy bodies. Then, he started to drink a little palm wine. As he drank and worked, the bodies became more flawed, less perfect. Gradually, he became quite drunk and created people with all sort of deformities, hunchbacks, dwarves, albinos, and the mentally ill. The deformities became more and more severe the more he drank, until finally he passed out.

The next morning, he woke up and realized what he had done. He was horrified, and took two vows. The first was that he would always have a special relationship with the disabled. The second was that he would never drink alcohol again.

The result of this vow is evident to this day. Most of the Orisha are believed to drink alcohol of one sort or another. But Obatala drinks only water. People possessed by him won't touch alcohol. and people who are initiated as children of Obatala give it up for life.

It was pouring rain, but the ritual went on, and the Orisha were called, one by one.

Not surprisingly, when Oya, goddess of storms, was called, I felt her presence. I heard the words "Oya, Oya, down from the sky, on her wings, I will fly." This referred to the fact that she is also believed to be the goddess who carries our spirits away when we die. When I heard these words, I felt my arms begin to turn into wings. I felt myself becoming possessed, but I resisted.

The last Orisha to be called was Obatala. I heard the words "Oh come down from the mountains. Oh come down from the mountains. Oh snow white king, oh snow white king, come down from the mountains."

Harbin Hot Springs is located in the mountains. I turned and faced a mountain, lifted my arms in the air, and felt a calm white presence settle on me. I stood like that until I heard a voice say, "there's another one."

The ritual had ended. They were taking everybody out of trance by various methods such as blowing in their ears and throwing cold water on their heads. I was taken out. But I could still feel his presence.

A couple of months later, the woman who had led the ritual held an Umbanda weekend at Harbin Hot Springs, where an "Umbanda House" (a religious organization) was formed, and I joined.

Most Orisha worshipers believe that each person is born with a god that "owns your head." This deity is the most dominant force in your life. It is the one whose personality most closely resembles yours. It is the one that you will be initiated into should you choose initiation, and the one who will possess you (or, in some traditions, possess you most often). It is the one to whom the largest part of your devotion and the most space on your altar should be given.

But the process of determining who owns your head varies. In many traditions, the "mother" or "father" of the organization will make that determination, either based on a hunch, or by throwing Cowry shells, or some other form of divination.

This woman's approach was different. She allowed anybody to experience possession that wished to. The deity who possessed you most often was, gradually, determined to be the owner of your head.

She did not believe that the owner of my head was Obatala.

I attended another Bembe, and there, I experienced possession by a young path of Eshu. I ran around, smoked cigars, ate candy, played with toys, but did not (unlike the others possessed by Eshu) drink rum. The Orisha knew that nobody in my body was ever allowed to drink alcohol.

My next experience with possession was more intense. It was during the Persian Gulf War, and I had been heavily involved with protesting. When Oya was called, I allowed her to descend. I fell to the floor, and lay on my back, dancing furiously like a break-dancer. I ate raw eggplant and rubbed hot pepper in my face. Somebody said "Oh mama, your horse eyes will burn for that." I replied in a high pitched voice, "they always do."

Sure enough, after my head had been dipped in water to bring me out of trance, my eyes started burning.

My subsequent experiences with possession were never as intense as that one.

The woman said that Oya was definitely the owner of my head.

It is always difficult to describe a spiritual experience. A lot of people will wonder what the point of all this was.

To me, it was fastest way to have a direct and very intense experience with the divine. I felt like other religions were describing the ocean, while I was swimming in it.

The Orisha are a personification of the forces of nature, which exist inside all of us and also surround all of us. So if you ask me if I believe that they really exist, I say yes, as surely as the forces of nature exist. And if you ask me if I believe that possession is real, I will say yes, as much as it is possible for a human being to fully experience the forces of nature, which exist inside us at all times.

In the Orisha religions, one finds that everything is sacred to one god or another. And so one eventually arrives at the same place that many other religions take us, which is the realization that everything is sacred all the time.

It became clear that the Orisha that "ruled my head" was Oya Iansa, goddess of hurricanes, tornadoes, cemeteries, and the death passage. Obatala Oshala, my father, also exerted an influence over me, but it wasn't as strong.

After three years in the Umbanda House, I left, because I became heavily involved with other projects and couldn't give it the time it required. I maintained altars to the Orisha, and continued to work with them on my own and at public rituals. I also continued to dream of visiting Brazil.

I had one very intense experience in which Oya Iansa visited me while I was under hypnosis. I had asked my hypnotist to help me figure out why I was so restless.

I had a vision in which I was sitting on a boat on the ocean. A small tornado emerged from my body. Gradually, it became bigger and bigger, until it was much larger than I was. It was larger than me, but was still part of me, and I was part of it. It spun around and around, as tornadoes do, but slow enough that I could see it spin. And each time it turned it said, "Time for a change. Time for a change."

What I got out of that vision was that if I were not so restless, I would have settled comfortably into some sort of routine. And if I had, I would not have had the many fascinating experiences that I have had. My restlessness is as inseparable from me as Iansa herself. And though it has caused me to suffer, I have also derived benefits from it that have been incredibly rich.

Seven years later, I found myself once again at the crossroads. I had, within a few months, completed the three certificates I had been simultaneously working for, broken up with both my girlfriends, been fired from one job and quit another. My remaining activities had large gaps in them where I was not required to do anything. In fact, I had seven and a half weeks coming up with nothing to occupy my time at all. I also had some money saved up. I decided that the time was right to go to Brazil.

I called my travel agent and the trip was arranged. It was for seven and a half weeks. The ticket could neither be canceled nor changed.

Eshu had opened the door for me, and now I had little choice but to walk through it.

Ethan Davidson spent part of his childhood in Belize, on the Caribbean Coast of Central America, where he first came into contact with Nature Religion. Since discovering the African gods known as the Orisha, he has kept alters to them continuously for 13 years. He has been involved with the Northern California Neo-pagan community for 12 years, and has taught classes at Pagan gatherings.