The following was written by a co-worker of mine in response/addition to the Chaos of Death blog. She is currently working with a group in Chicago on a performance project dealing with Afro-Cuban responses to death.
Most recently, after two weeks of scrambling, furious writing and serious proofreading, my colleague and I were awarded a large grant to produce my 2008 “dream performance.” It will use personal accounts about death, loved ones’ deaths, violence, catastrophe and aging tied into a narrative about a family that uses traditional Afro-Cuban spirituality to grapple with their heritage, family history and death of an important matriarch. Yet this post is not to explore performance ideas, but instead proposes examining the feminine orishas that will be main characters of this piece and how they might challenge our ideas of Western perspectives of death.
The Museum of Mourning Photography intrigues me as a Chicago resident. It seems very unique, how do you create a museum around mourning? In this case photography is the answer, which documents events in a way that is comforting to our contemporary society. Many envision death as the ending of a human life, and our memories and mourning center around the life of the dead. While we capture moments through photographs that we believe genuinely speak to people’s character, their essence, we still have the need to piece it all together. Thus the museum creates narratives that we hold as truth (supported by other documentation of course), which can be comforting. Marrying narratives and photographs transports us into the past, connecting our present to a not too distant past.
Perhaps this explains Catholic and Afro-Cuban (Caribbean) religious aesthetics concerning imagery of the divine. Afro-Cuban Lucumi religious images are undoubtedly influenced by Catholic saint imagery. There are great debates as to the degree that enslaved Africans syncretized these Catholic saints with their own “deities”. Without rehashing cultural anthropology from its American beginnings with Afro-Americanists like Boaz and Herskovits, and drawing on extensive field-work in Afro-Cuban religious communities in the U.S. and abroad, a narrative emerges. Africans and Afro-descendants were and are not as concerned with representing their deities with Catholic imagery as with recognizing the divine everywhere. And thus building altars, ritual costumes, statues, photographs commemorating the (divine) dead and other artistic expressions are just as important as the divine themselves for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren (etc.) of these enslaved Africans; the last of which arrived to Havana around 1886.
Yet the academic, primarily anthropological, narratives we have created around New World Afro-Cuban (Brazilian, Trinidadian, Puerto Rican, Haitian, etc.) religious aesthetics and imagery have become incredibly problematic. Like many “indigenous” religions of the world, Afro-Cuban Lucumi (Yoruba derived from Nigeria) divine forces are characterizes as a pantheon. In this “pantheon” the “gods” have clothing, attitudes, divine “powers”, colors, numbers, foods, etc. that define who they are.
The orishas become syncretized with “gods” in scholarship and in national folklore; casting Changó as a King and the “god” of thunder, lightening, masculinity and strength complimented by the Queen orisha, Oshun, “goddess” of the rivers, sensuality, sweetness, and femininity. And in this light, how do we conceptualize obscure orishas in the “pantheon” that do not have Changó and Oshun superstar status? We have to rethink the ideas of pantheon and static identities that too often characterize these Afro-Cuban divine forces.
Orishas are like many indigenous concepts of divinity where God can be seen in many divine forces of nature that concur with human nature. On this level Afro-Cuban beliefs become concur with Western Judeo-Christian monotheistic perspective on divinity. There is one God and the orishas simply help us in dealing and communicating with this complex force that interacts directly with humans.
Oyá, Obbá and Yewá are Afro-Cuban orishas of the cemetery. They govern death just as the female orishas Yemayá, keeper of the oceans and mother to humans, and Oshún, keeper of female sex organs, sexuality and reproduction, govern birth. The fact that female energies are responsible for life and death is our first departure from ancient European pantheons, which characterize the underworld as a world of men, just like the world of the living. Perhaps more importantly, it forces us to rethink Oshun and stereotypical depictions of femininity in the West and in Afro-Cuban culture and religion.
After all, Cuba, like all former European colonies and former transatlantic slave trade societies, is in the West. However, the Judeo-Christian views of death as the end of the human life and transition into Heaven or afterlife in these faiths still marks death as a departure from the human life. In fact, the human life in Christianity is what determines one’s eligibility into the type of afterlife, a somewhat unique view of death compared to indigenous cultural worldviews, which propose death itself as the token into one afterlife—usually connected to the world of the living.
In Afro-Cuban patakines or mythology, Oyá, Obbá and Yewá are not just female, they are warriors. They are among the few women who can go to battle with the men and critique male orisha power and dominance while at times even rejecting it. Oyá is the storm and cemetery gate-keeper. She is the hurricane that accompanies Changó’s thunder and lightening. Obbá, the cemetery grounds keeper, is the first and faithful wife of Changó to the extent that she cuts off her left ear as a show of devotion, only to find that another wife had tricked her into doing so. Yewá, a pristine virgin, is seduced by Changó and then aborts her child, finally fleeing to the underworld after rejecting the harshness of life among humans and orishas. She lives in the grave and is the decomposition of the body.
What powers do these divinities hold outside of their correlation with forces of nature? And are they positive? They do not bring life, but death. They do not love men endlessly yet become bitter, suffer from jealousy and envy, and are taken advantage of because they are vulnerable. They bring destruction in storms so that things may grow anew. They allow anger and bitterness to fruition into new loves and the dead to pass so that life may take its course. In Afro-Cuban mythology and religion, the human body transitions through death through the “hands” of these divine women. The spirit does not journey to an afterworld unknown to living men, yet dwells among the living: family relatives, loved ones, friends and all that they knew while alive. They continually work on earth to better humanity, using their wisdom as older spirits to enlighten the flawed world of men. Oyá, Obbá and Yewá are the keys to this transition into pure spirit, in which we still enjoy the same card games, jokes and rum that we did while alive. In mourning a practitioner might suggest that you pour the favorite drink of the loved one you miss, light a candle and sing along to their favorite tune while it plays on the stereo. And in doing so, you might crack a smile and not dread your own transition into death. Mourning is about narratives and documentation just as much as it is about the unseen, the spirit, the difficult things that are hard to write, to record or even remember. Mourning is about sadness but it is also about ritual celebration as Western Afro-Cuban culture illuminates, where divine energies and the dead are celebrated alike with dance, song, food, drink, smiles and tears continuously throughout our lives. There is a saying among practitioners: “el muerto pare el santo” meaning the dead give birth to the saints or the divine. Without the dead there is no divine, no rebirth, no living. Afro-Cubans and Afro-descendants are survivors of enslavement, injustice, oppression and continued psychological and physical violence; too many tears are shed during life to celebrate death in sadness, and so death is met continually with smiles.