Powerful African Lessons: The Gift of Oshun
Oshun is an African Goddess of love, beauty, fertility and sensuality, but she is also associated with diplomacy and social justice. She is present in all the sweet waters on the earth. I'd like to share with you a story about Oshun I learned from Lucumi priestess and author, Luisah Teish. Some twenty years ago I spent a fabulous weekend listening to her talk about her life and learning the basics of storytelling, which in the right hands is a ritual as much as it is an entertainment.
Teish told a number of stories that weekend, but this particular one touched me deeply. She is a priestess of Oshun, so perhaps she tells the stories of that Orisha with more passion. But there is also a part of me that responds to the energies of Oshun. And I didn't know it at the time I first heard the tale, but I would later fall deeply in love with a man who is favoured by Papa Legba. So I guess maybe that's another reason this story calls to me...
This is my telling of this traditional tale.
The Sacrifice of Oshun
One day Obatala, king of the White Cloth, was bathing in the river when Papa Legba happened along. The Trickster seized upon a moment of inattention, and he stole away with the white robe Father Obatala had left on the river bank. When it was time for Obatala to leave the water and make his way home, he found he couldn't. For he could not allow himself to be seen without his white robe. Some time later when Oshun was passing by, she noticed that the elder God was uncomfortable and stopped to see how she could help.
When she learned what happened, Oshun knew immediately who was responsible. She assured Obatala that she would help, and he promised her a boon if only she would hurry. He wanted to get his robes back on before anyone else should see him in this vulnerable state!
Oshun made her way to the home of Papa Legba moments later, knowing what she must do. When she arrived the Gatekeeper met her with a swagger and a lascivious grin, welcoming her inside and asking for her a taste of her sweet honey, as he had often asked before. Oshun had always rebuffed him in the past, never allowing him to taste her sweet gift. But this time, she promised Legba that she would lay with him if he would give her the white robe.
And so the deal was struck.
When the Goddess returned to the river later, she did not immediately return the robe for she was shrewd. Remembering the many times she had asked Obatala to share with her the secrets of divination, she also recalled the God would always find some excuse to put her off. She determined that he would no longer stall, but instead she would trade the robe for his wisdom.
Obatala was hesitant, but he was also honourable and without being told what had transpired, he knew the price she had paid for the return of his robe. He granted Oshun's request, expecting her to keep such a hard-earned treasure to herself. What would it hurt if one insignificant girl knew the secrets of the cowrie shells? So he acquiesced, and put his hands out to reclaim his white robe.
Oshun laboured long to gain the wisdom of the cowrie shells, and to learn the art of divination. But the Goddess was selfless, and she did not do as Father Obatala had expected. She had paid dearly for this boon, but she understood that shared its value would be multiplied rather than diminished. So the wise and beautiful goddess shared the gift with the people of the earth.
True Meaning of Sacrifice
When I first wrote this story down we had just come through the Lenten season, which is a time of sacrifice. We often think of sacrifice as giving something up, but the linguistic roots of the word remind us that it means “ to make holy .” Any mundane act can be made holy if it is done for the right reason.
Sacrifice and the Sins of Sodom
Similarly, any giving can be a sacrifice if the gift is made out of altruism, without expecting anything in return. The recent kerfuffle over same-sex marriage had me reading over some scholarly notes on the story of Lot in the land of Sodom.
Many devout Christians have been taught that this story was intended to teach the followers of Yahweh that homosexuality is a sin. But the scholars often say that the true sins were greed and total disregard for the Jewish tradition of hospitality. Another sin that is not as often mentioned is that of paying lip service to God. The Sodomites were wealthy people who carried out elaborate rituals and made lavish sacrifices to the Divine. But God saw all their rituals as empty and insincere, because they were conducted more like a business transaction or a legal transaction, than a truly religious act.
True Religion Binds Us Back Together
Religion – true religion, practices that honour the original spirit of the word – binds us back to the Divine, to Creation, and to our communities. It is a celebration of life and of our interdependence. And whether it is Anne of Green Gables simply “feeling a prayer” when she is out basking in the glory of nature, or whether it is the act of caring for a widow or an orphan, it is the desire to connect and share that makes an act holy.
I have often wondered why any god would create people a certain way, and then forbid and condemn the urges and behaviours that he gave them. Science has proven that sexual orientation is not a choice: it is something we are all born with. To be gay may be rather akin to being a cygnet amongst all the pretty ducklings, but does that mean that God loves one less than the other?
In Isaiah chapter 1 God rejects rituals and burnt offerings, and tells the people rather to seek justice and to care for widows and orphans. He compares Jerusalem to a harlot, and speaks of the city harbouring murderers. It is in seeking justice and caring for one another that we find the most profound rituals.
Gay Marriage in America
Was not the Obergefell decision a matter of ending discrimination and enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment ? God wants us to treat one another with kindness and to respect one another's rights. He wants us to seek justice, not to rebel against laws that strike down prejudice and restore equality.
This is why I cannot say that I particularly respect those who say they will act on their own conscience in this matter, even if it means quitting a job to avoid breaking the law. Perhaps some believe they are respecting the letter of God's law as they have received it through a preacher or a written translation from which they cherry-pick which commandments to follow, and which they feel they can safely reject. But could these acts be empty rituals?
Who do they help? How do they bring people closer to one another? And if they don't is it possible God might reject these much applauded acts, just as He did the elaborate rituals of the cities He condemned...
Image credit: Cowrie shell divination by Toluaye/Wikipedia (public domain)
Note: This content has been adapted from an original piece by the author, which has since been removed from Bubblews
Image Credit » https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Odu_Irosun,_Merindilongun.JPG