Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Art and Ashe in the Yoruba Tradition/ First Half

By Brian George

“Why do we believe angels prefer angelic persons? Why assume that the genius (activating spirit) wants only to be with geniuses? Maybe the invisibles are interested in our lives for the sake of their realization and as such are inherently democratic: Anyone will do. Maybe they do not recognize the concept mediocre. The daimon gives importance to each, not only to the Important. Moreover, they and we are linked in the same myth. We are divine and mortal twins, and so they are in service to the same social realities as we. Because of this linkage, the angel has no way of descent into the streets of the public common except via our lives. In the film Wings of Desire, angels fall in love with life, the street life of ordinary human predicaments.”—James Hillman, from “The Soul's Code”1

According to the Yoruba, Ashe is the foundational energy of this world and the other, existing from a time before the worlds themselves were created. Without Ashe the Orishas—the gods or active powers of creation—would be shadows hovering on the edge of nonexistence, the human body would be a corpse, words would be random noises, the greatest work of art would be a shell. When Oludumare spoke the primordial names, by which the Orishas and the stars and planets were conjured into the first light of visibility, without the power of Ashe the body of creation would have been unable to stand or move.2 It would have remained trapped in the memory of worlds before our own, a sad and impotent idea. The great Oludumare himself, eldest of the Orishas, would have less importance than an ant.

Millennia came and went like days, whole ages like weeks. The one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged keeper of the secrets, Osanyin, asked, “Does your mouth open? Do you speak ifa?” The first man answered, “Yes, I understand the code. My body has chosen the head it is to wear. I sweat with joy. Oludumare breathes me. It is necessary that I pour my own blood on the work.”

In Yoruba thought, cosmology and aesthetics go hand in hand. Each clarifies the half-seen purposes of the other. Time moves in cycles, in which species and the stage sets they inhabit may evolve, yes, in that patterns grow from earlier versions of the same, but the Rorschach blot of creation is not at all a random accretion. It is, from its inception, a work of conscious art. Human art is a much later variation of the prototypes. The light inside the void speaks. The myth gets physical. An act of interpretation opens the key signatures, collapsing the wave function and altering time/space. Ashe turns the kaleidoscope of a-causal correspondences. The planets dance. They explode with songs of celebration.

Nature collaborates with the energies of supernature to complete each task that she is scheduled to perform. The world is beautiful. It is almost certain, however, that any ultimate perfection of the artwork would be death. No story would have a beginning, a middle, or an end. It would not be possible to keep any gift in circulation.

There would be no wound to heal. Ashe would not have a catastrophe to remove. The lightning that once transported us would not be cooler than the sun, or as slow as the year is long. Earth with all her oceans would not be bigger than a pinhead. Wave upon wave, birth would not have contracted the full range of our superconductive memory, as hands cut us from an earlier but still beating state of connection. A chicken would not have descended with Obatala on a chain, to then scratch from the ocean the lost continent of Pangaea.

A bata drum summons the other bodies we inhabited. A piece of seaweed must be taken from one’s hair. Such an evolution of live memories is not distinct from repetition, as rerouted by the principle of uncertainty, and is perhaps governed by a return of the repressed. Says Reginaldo Prandi, “What happens to us today and what is about to happen in the near future has been experienced before by another human being, by an ancestor, or by the Orishas themselves… The mythical past, which is remade at every moment in the present, is narrated by the oddus of the Ifa oracle.”3

Aimed like weapons at the navel of the Earth, the concepts of chance and chaos do exist for the Yoruba, but each plays a role that is integral to a process. Without these subversive agents of the trickster, there would be no split between the future and the past. There would be no opening through which our language could emerge. The method by which order and disorder interact is the very thing that makes divination possible, that generates the occult potency of Ifa.

The Yoruba say: “It takes a little bit of everything to make the world.”

By a casting of the opele, the eight-linked iron chain that joins eight pieces of a coconut shell, the Orishas too must struggle to interpret the strange language of Ifa—the system of divination of which Orunmila is the master, but to which Eshu lends his catalytic energy. Each throw results in two columns made up of one or two line units—I or II—arranged four down to a side. At the end, you are left with a single pair of oddus, or configurations of the binary code. Eight x eight links correspond to the 64 codons of the DNA spiral. Eight links x 32 give rise to the corpus of the 256 oddus. Each complex oddu can be subdivided into another 16 subjects, forming a total of 4,096 oddus, and so forth, until we reach a temporary limit of 65,636 oddus. Furthermore, each oddu has 1,680 iterpretations.4

Our view is necessarily partial. To act is to remove one’s full attention from the whole. The most complex of equations are contained within the zero and the one. In the eight-spoked wheel of the city, we should always leave at least one gate open to fresh energies from the bush. Movement gives form to the story that is waiting to be spoken. It is our lack of knowledge that potentiates the fixed signs of the time-cycle.

When the movement of the worlds had once ground to a halt, Oludumare went to Eshu, the Orisha of the crossroads, the trickster who is the guardian of Ashe, to beg him to unblock the circuits, to reestablish the connections between each of the Orishas, between Orishas and their human  vehicles, between the upper and the lower worlds. Eshu saw his chance. He who would often appear as a young boy or a wandering beggar would remind others of his importance. He would become ubiquitous, as honored in art and ritual as he was indispensable in fact. He agreed to carry out the task, on condition that he be granted a portion of the offerings made to each of the other Orishas. Since that day, all rituals must begin and end with an invocation to Eshu, that is, with the generation and integration of Ashe.5

Ashe is the power to connect. Imagine the state of a human being before he or she is born: a sperm, an egg and a human soul each exist in their separate dimensions. Human DNA can be seen as one version of the chain by which a race of primogenitors had once descended to the ocean. Its links connect Ikole Aiye, the House of Earth, to Ikole Orun, the House of Heaven. It is not so much that Ashe creates something out of nothing. It rather brings what separately exists into a new and pregnant conjunction. A rhythm is generated, a meeting place opened, information is translated into form, a system of exchange established, a work of art, first almost inert and then more and more alive, produced.

The human being erupts, loud and kicking, as a three-dimensional object into the world. In the same way a ritual sculpture allows the Orisha a window that opens onto the Earth, a fuel depot, a base of operations from which it can carry out its agenda.

(Illustrations: Sculptures of Eshu, Yoruba, artists unknown)

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