Art and Ashe in the Yoruba Tradition
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 
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. 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.
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, the orishas too must struggle to interpret the strange language of ifa, of which Eshu is the only native speaker. Each throw results in either a zero or a one. These are written in two columns of four within a book, or if palm nuts are used instead of the opele, upon the table of ifa. Eight x eight links correspond to the 64 codons of the DNA spiral. Eight links x 32 give rise to the 256 oddus, or configurations of the binary code. Each complex oddu can be subdivided into another 16 subjects, forming a total of 4,099 oddus, and so forth, until we reach a temporary limit of 65,636 oddus. Furthermore, each oddu has 1,680 interpretations.
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.
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.
Ashe means literally it is so, or may it be so. It is sometimes defined as power, authority, command, scepter , a coming to pass … effect, imprecation. It is neither a moral nor an immoral force, but simply the force, by which all things are brought into manifest existence.
Ulli Beier explains: Yoruba believe strongly in the power of the word, or rather in a mysterious force called ashe…that quality in a man's personality which makes his words- once uttered- come true.9 Says Raymond Prince: It would appear that their background conception is that to utter the name of something may draw that something into actual existence…not only within the mind and body of he who utters and he who hears the word, but also in the physical world as well.
Without ohun, voice, the verbalization or performance or the word, ashe would not be able to operate. This formative action is the human being's contribution to the equilibrium of the worlds.[12 The Yoruba do not distinguish between the efficacy of the different forms of art. Music, dance, invocation, story, sculpture, costume, and myth interact as a dynamic whole.
A person who has learned to harness and to work with the force is referred to as an alaase. The sender aims his or her ashe at the targeted object. This is like the call part of a call and response chant. The initiator asks: Is it right that you should exist? Am I doing what my soul, at this time and in this place, demands? If the work of art is successful it will not just sit there on the ground, hang there on the lips, or project itself mechanically through space.
The living work is said to possess iluti, or good hearing. It does what it has been asked to do. It should not only inspire or satisfy the aesthetic appetite. It should be able to communicate with its creator(s) as an almost independent being, to answer, je, and to respond, dahun. The work of arts says: Yes. It is right that I should exist. This is no doubt the beginning of a beautiful relationship, for both the upper and the lower worlds. Here I am. It will be so.
Art allows the ashe of the upper worlds to become available for use. It sweetens the ambivalence of the trickster. It focuses the attention, so that the viewer is better able to withstand the influx of other-dimensional force. Ashe, however indispensable for any form of action, is also volatile. It is both the rocket fuel and the chariot of the gods. Eshu wears a hat that is red on one side, black on the other. The force he guards operates in many ways, in many places, and its action never looks quite the same to any two humans. Safe access comes only at the price of calm attention, if the law of unintended consequences is to be avoided. The work of art should possess the dynamic symmetry inherent in the structure of the cosmos from the start. It should act as a landing pad where the mind can luxuriate in coolness. At the same time it should expand the mind by stealth, test it, and provoke it to jump beyond itself.
Lawal asserts: To tame or pacify is to cool the face (tu l'oju). Thus, providing the non-figurative symbol of an orisha with sculptured face facilitates the pacification of that orisha, for what has a face is controllable. Steve Quintana, a Cuban santero and the godfather to my daughter, would laugh at the idea that an orisha could be controlled. One might just as well talk of controlling the currents of the sea, associated with Yemaya, the flow of lava from a volcano, associated with Agayu, or the precise tilt of a tornado, associated with Oya. If the energy of the orishas cannot be controlled it can, however, be invoked. A relationship can be established. Energy can be transduced, through the coils or ritual and art, from one state to another.
If the orishas act on our behalf it is because, having first established a good rapport, having learned to speak a few words in the language of Ifa, having welcomed, fed and tended to them as beloved guests in our houses, we have then politely asked. A bow and the string of an instrument are brought together at cross purposes, as Heraclitus says. A human hand makes contact with the skin of the bata drum. The membrane of the interactive network vibrates like an ear. Feet stomp. Eyes pop open. Breathing swells. Some trauma from a past life bars full access to the hypersphere. Trespassers will be violated. The bald doctor who was old before the deluge pulls one’s hair. Our concept of what it is to breathe should then undergo an upheaval. Again, the mother drum breathes us. There is no self to fear death. The praise song can be heard at least as far as Saturn, beyond which interest in our baby steps becomes steadily more sporadic.
Our other-dimensional counterparts have business to take care of. Like us, they have worlds to make before they sleep. Thus, it is lucky that the influx of ashe is not required to make sense. Polyrhythms open the ecstatic body like a book. Its pages are the strata of the worlds before our own. Each participant in the bembe should feel free to bend or modernize the laws of nature.
The bond between the human and the other, brought into the present, grows. Since the Yoruba idea of hierarchy does not involve a lesser or a greater, it will at the end be a relationship among equals. Each can offer the other what is needed for a more complete fulfillment of the work at hand.
We can offer to the past an alternate history of our species. A glass of rum should be left to wash it down. We can offer an experience in biology to the powers who have almost forgotten the great promise of Pangaea. We can add one piece to the puzzles left unassembled by many an alien civilization.
It is ashe that weaves the threads of potential into the many colored fabric of existence. Clothes teleported from the upper worlds create a sensation on the Earth. Fashions lifted from the Earth provoke a corresponding stir above. The logarithmic spiral is in charge of a secret system of sizes; one superconscious dream fits all. Ashe connects. By fertilizing the separate, it creates both parts anew. Ashe builds a translucent bridge from the human to the orishas, from the Earth to the ancestors, from the ego to the occluded parts of the soul.
A scent of sacrificial blood has returned across the ocean to lap the star hub of the 8-spoked city. It is ashe that yokes the worlds in a constant wheel of communication, a reciprocal exchange of gifts.
Illustration at top: Eshu, Unknown Artist, 1880-1920, Museum of Science, London
1) James Hillman, The Soul's Code, Random House, Inc., New York, 1996, page 255
2) Migene Gonzales-Wippler, Santeria, The Religion: A Legacy of Faith, Rites, and Magic, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York/ 1989/ page 5
3) Reginaldo Prandi, Candomble and Time, Brazillian Review of Social Sciences, number 2, October 2002, pages 9-12
4) Santeria, pages 96-97
5) Judith Illsley Gleason, Clever Eshu, Parabola (Fall), Crossroads Issue, 1993, Pages 41-42
6) R.C. Abraham, The Dictionary of Modern Yoruba, University of London press, 1958
7) Samuel Crowther, A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language, Seeleys, London, 1852
8) Henry John Drewel and Margaret Thompson Drewel, Gelede, Art and Female Power Among the Yoruba, Indiana University Press,1990, page 5
9) H.U. Beier, Yoruba Poetry, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/ 1970, Page 49
10) R. Prince, Curse, Invocation and Mental Health Among the Yoruba, Canadian Psychiatric Journal 5, 1960, page 66
11) Richard Abiodun, Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics, The Concept of Ase/ African Arts, July, 1994, page 73
12) George Brandon, Santeria, from Africa to the New World, The Dead Sell Memories, Indiana University Press, 1993, page 17
13) John Drewel, John Pemberton III, Rowland Boiodun, Yoruba; Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, The Center for African Art and Abrams, Inc., New York/ 1989, page 16
14) Abiodun, page 74
15) Abiodun, page 73
16) Abiodun, page 73
17) Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, Random House, Inc., New York, 1984, page 12
18) Philip John Neimark, The Way of the Orisa, Harper, San Francisco, 1993, page 12
19) John Drewel, John Pemberton III, Rowland Boiodun, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, The Center for African Art and Abrams, Inc., New York/ 1989, page 18Tweet