Eshu and Ananse: Liberation by Subversive Knowledge
Brian George, Figure with bow, lightning arrow, and descending sphere, 2003
The following article consists of sections 4,5,9 and 10 from "Eshu and Ananse; Liberation by Subversive Knowledge," an essay that explores the role of the trickster in West African cosmology, specifically in the traditions of the Ashanti and Yoruba. These excerpts will also be appearing in "The Immanence of Myth" anthology, edited by James Curcio, which is scheduled to be published by "Weaponized" sometime before the end of the month.
Let me begin this section on Ananse with a story that illustrates how he plays with normal expectations, reversing categories to keep the world fresh. The right result comes from what appears to be the wrong action.
On pain of death, Ananse has promised to cure the mother of Nyame, the high god. He fails. As he is no doctor, he never should have attempted the cure. Nyame demands that the Ananse too must die. The executioners prepare to carry out the sentence. Unknown to any, Ananse had instructed his son to burrow under the place of judgment. At the last moment, the son repeats what the father had instructed him to say:
"If you kill Ananse, the tribe will come to ruin! If you pardon Ananse, the tribe will shake with voices!"
Turning to the high god, Nyame's chief minister says, "This people belongs to you and Asase Yaa. You are planning to kill Ananse. The mother of the Earth says that if you let him go it will be a benefit for all." Nyame agrees, and so it is until today. This was the origin of the still current expression. "You are as wonderful as Ananse."2
For, in advance, without him, as in our sleep we would be able to determine the beginning of each circle, and the end of any story. Life would be boring, and the Earth flat. We would not have access to our supernatural weapons, or to the tongues inside our mouths, and would have no means by which to declare war on the gods-whose bad habits would, at length, destroy them. The storehouse of the infinite would be bare.
Was Ananse's alternate scenario a deception? In one sense, of course, it was. It was a deception performed in the service of truth, or at least of mutual benefit.3 There was wishful thinking but no malice in his behavior. It was his job, after all, to confuse existing roles, to overturn the established harmonies of heaven. He was no doctor, but only played one in the story. Due to his desire to try his hand at everything, to be all things to all people, and to activate the occult potency of each archetype, he had no choice but to break the rules. From all of his mistakes he has learned to make bigger and better mistakes.
Nyame acted from paternal judgment and Asase Yaa from maternal practicality. If Ananse had been put to death, they would only have had to invent a new "agent provocateur," one who might well perform his work with less of a sense of joy. Without Ananse, they would both be much the poorer.
Ananse can seem almost like a cartoon character. He is often described as a spider with an ugly, bulbous head, eight thin but enormously strong arms, and a knowledge of every language in the world. As reported by himself, his phallus is over 70 yards long.4 Yet it can be difficult to form any image of Ananse; he is simultaneously a human and an arachnid, a god and the recombinant DNA of all stories told about him. Is he monstrous? Yes and no; as there is no way to disentangle any one strand from the others. It is said that, in ancient times, he was the human ruler of a large part of West Africa. One day, he decided to climb higher than anyone else ever had. He climbed up and outward across the geometry of an inter-dimensional web, until he met Nyame-the arch masturbator, the first fossil-whose daughter he then married.
He is predictable only in that he does and says what is least expected. He has a talent for rearranging his body parts, and an insatiable appetite for food, experience, beauty, wealth, and intercourse.
For him, no behavior is too outrageous and no motive is too gross. If we had not heard of how powerful his magic was, it would be difficult to infer it from his image.5 As the confidant and first agent for Nyame, he is happy to let go of all of the tokens of omnipotence. He is the blind all-seeing eye, the deaf long-ear, the hermetically sealed big-mouth. What he says, goes!-But someone has forgotten to inform Earth's population. He does not mind playing dumb. We are all encouraged to blame him for our own unconscious actions. He does not mind being seen in a negative light, as there is no true opposition between "light" and "dark" at the higher levels of the Ashanti cosmos.6 The opposition is provisional, only.
Like the Sufi figure of Nasruddin, he is both an incarnate joke and the most divine of fools. In listening to the stories about him, we do not know if we are being teased or instructed. Should we gape in horror, take notes, or laugh? The person who first hears the story is not the same one who will later understand. It is this freedom from mechanical response that is the trickster's gift to the human race.
It is due to Ananse that the sum of knowledge does not exist in any one location; it cannot be reinserted into the calabash that once held it-since, in a fit of anger, he has smashed it on a rock. Instead, it is spread out far and wide, and a piece has been entrusted to each one of us.
When Hates-To-Be-Contradicted visited the family compound, Ananse had instructed his children to say, "Our father cannot see you now. For, yesterday, his penis broke in 7 places, and he had to take it to a blacksmith to repair. As the job was very big, he has had to return today to have it finished." He was told, "Our mother went out yesterday to the stream, and her water pot would have fallen and broken if she had not caught it just in time, but she did not quite finish catching it, and has returned today to do so."
After a series of escalating absurdities, during which their guest is getting thirstier and thirstier, due to the hot peppers they have fed him, Ananse's son, Ntikuma, says, "The water belonging to my father is at the top of the urn, that of my mother's co-wife is in the middle, and that of my own mother is at the bottom. If I do not draw only the water belonging to my mother, it will cause a great dispute." Hates-To-Be-Contradicted shouts, "You are lying, you little brat!"
Ananse thinks, "Enough is enough. This is a breach of diplomatic protocol." He says, "Come, my children; beat this man until he dies!" Why should Hates-To-Be-Contradicted not be held to the same standard that he himself had created, and for which he had killed so many unsuspecting guests?
Brian George, Phallic artist with leaf brush, 2001
Eshu swings a club as an Ifa priest a divining chain.7
We are singing for the sake of Eshu, who used his penis to make a bridge. The penis broke in two. Travelers dropped into the river.8
In Yorubaland, an image of the trickster Eshu was traditionally set just outside of the compound. In the New World, due to a greater need for secrecy, Eshu, in the form of Eleggua, is set just inside the door. Where Ananse is present mostly through the stories others tell about him, Eshu is, or was, present throughout every aspect of Yoruba society.9 He takes part in every interaction, transforming paths into dead ends and dead ends into paths. In his primal form, he is the guardian of the crossroads.
The marketplace is consecrated to Eshu, and was traditionally located right next to the palace at the center of an extended wheel, so great was the importance of exchange.10 Cult officials would each day rub the market's "Eshu post" with palm oil. Beginning and ending with the opening of the market, the four day week revolves. Rhythm lifts the simplest of activities. Eshu does not acknowledge the difference between Ikole Orun, the House of Heaven, and Ikole Aiye, the House of Earth. If the drumming stops, he is often too excited to notice. He dances to the sound of mortars as women prepare food for the evening meal.
Eshu is said to have 21 paths, or incarnations, each with its own set of characteristics and mode of action. Eshu Laroye sits behind the door. Eshu Alabwanna lives in the woods. Eshu Aye works with Olokun, the Orisha of the ocean's depth. The buoyant Eshu Barakeno, youngest of the Orishas, delights in creating confusion. Eshu Elufe and Eshu Anagui are the most ancient of Earth's wanderers.11
It is said that, quite frequently, Eshu will appear in the form of a young boy or a beggar-figures without status, whom others might be tempted to disregard. For this reason, it is important to be generous toward strangers. This lack of power is a kind of "inside joke," in Nicholas de Cusa's phrase, a "coincidence of opposites."
For, out of nowhere, and with context-shattering force, it is Eshu who appears at the key moment.
Without Eshu, the complex of relations that activate a ritual would cease to function. It would be like trying to cook food without a fire, by the power of human thought. It would be like trying to cross between two continents without a boat. For it is Eshu who is the guardian of Ashe-or primordial energy. Ashe means literally "It is so," or "May it be so." Ashe is not moral, nor is it yet immoral. It is no more conscious than it is unconscious. It originates in a world before such a split existed; the one law it follows is that of unintended consequences. Uncoiling, as from the future, and yet simultaneously thrusting into present from the past, it is the force whose action takes us by surprise. Ashe is the means by which one's vision or intent must be projected into manifest form.12
When the movement of the worlds had once ground to a halt, Olodumare-the high god-went to Eshu, to beg him to unblock the circuits between one Orisha-or activating power of creation-and another; he should also reconnect the world of the Orishas with that of their human "vehicles." He agreed to carry out the task, on condition that he be granted a portion of the offerings made to each of the Orishas. Since that day, all rituals must begin and end with an invocation to Eshu, that is, with the generation and integration of Ashe.
According to the priest Awolalu, "If (Eshu) did not receive the elements needed to fulfill his constructive function, he would retaliate by blocking the way of goodness and opening up ways that are inimical and destructive to human beings. Hence he is both feared and revered."13
In the ritual of divination, when shells are cast by the Oriate, it is the face of Eshu that looks back at us from the straw mat. Eshu's energy creates an organizing field, suspending time and space so that information can reveal itself. The Oriate then interprets the Odu-or signals-in a form that is appropriate for human use. Any blockage or imbalance is diagnosed. For a new pattern to be created, it may very well be necessary to break apart an old one. It is for this reason that Eshu destroys.
To say that Eshu is destructive is like saying that fire is hot. It is a function of his volatility, his mercurial power of transformation. He liberates trapped energy. He keeps things moving.
In Brazilian "Candomble", where he is called Exu, Eshu is sometimes associated with the devil. The first Christian missionaries to Yorubaland lost no time in condemning him as the very image of the prince of darkness. A few Yoruba share in this distrust, echoing an ambivalence which seems to go back many centuries, whose origins are lost to view. The majority approaches him with an attitude of carefully crafted affection. Is this split the aftermath of an outside influence, or does the split occur within the Yoruba tradition itself? How a figure as indispensable as breath could come to be viewed as evil would be a fascinating subject to explore in a separate essay. It is not relevant to the figure as I present him here.
Joan Westcot, in "The Sculpture and Myths of Eshu-Elegba", says: "(Elegba) tricks men into offending the gods, thereby providing them with sacrifices. It is said that without Elegba the Orisha would starve...Elegba's two-way involvement prompts men to offend the gods on the one hand and aids the gods in their vengeance on the other. He is the force which makes men turn to the Orisha both in expiation and propitiation...The Yoruba say... Eshu is the anger of the gods, and that Eshu is the first to visit the victim of an Orisha. When...a man's house is struck by lightning, the Yoruba say that Eshu provoked the sin that resulted in the man offending Shango...He is thus the agent provocateur, and, in a sense, a messenger of the gods...He is superior to the others in cunning, and many myths tell of the battles he has won at their expense."14
In the most famous of the stories about Eshu, there are two farmers who are good friends, who have known each other for years. Their compounds and fields are side by side. One day, deciding to test their friendship, Eshu puts on a hat that is red on one side and black on the other. After he has walked along the boundary between the two fields, the friends begin to argue about who went by and what color hat he was wearing. Eshu then turned the hat around and walked facing backwards along the same route. Ever eager to jump to conclusions, the friends reversed their earlier opinions, and now could not even agree on which way the figure was walking. The confrontation quickly escalated towards violence. Punches were thrown.15
Should we blame Eshu for creating trouble where none earlier existed? If the two farmers were really friends, then why were they so quick to assume the worst about each other? Their apparent harmony would appear to have been a mask for deeper discord. They did not, in fact, see the figure that was right in front of them, but only what the figure had intended for them to see. They were mounted from behind-as they stared at their own subjection in the mirror. You could argue that each was 50 percent right, yet they were both almost 100 percent wrong-dead wrong-since it was the part that they did not see that was by far the most important. If the two had stepped outside of their limited perspectives, perhaps Eshu would have turned the boundary into a path.16
Like a Zen koan, the most famous of which is, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Eshu provides us with one half of what we need to know. It is up to us to provide the other half through a leap of association.
Brian George, The lightning directs everything, 2003
How do we reconcile the contradictions found in the figure of the trickster? Perhaps we should not attempt such a reconciliation. It might prove difficult to accomplish without turning the figure into something else-something cuter and less volatile no doubt, like Brier Rabbit. Always, our reflex will be to underplay the primal threat that he poses, and this we should never do. We can, however, by means of a leap through the Abyss, begin to see his contradictions as the parts of an interactive whole.
Ananse and Eshu are not general figures who act from general motives, such as lust or greed, to produce a general outcome, such as chaos. They are particular figures, initiates of the most ancient of traditions, who encompass all forces but are bound by none. They act, in response to an ever shifting network of connections, at one moment to produce a particular result.
By complex mathematics the trickster has aimed a symbol from the circumference. What to us it looks like an accident was intended as an ultimatum. Time suddenly runs out. The past is over. With no good alternatives we must consent to transformation.
Ananse's knowledge is as encyclopedic as that of an anthropologist, as focused as that of a computer programmer. Eshu's touch is as quick and sure as that of a jazz virtuoso. From behind his mask, the trickster employs randomness as a weapon in his arsenal, or as an instrument in his hands, but in no way is he arbitrary in his goals.17
It is not that one result or another is preferable, that one abstract truth would be better for us all-as a Christian true believer or a Marxian theorist might argue-but rather that a particular force demands to manifest its until then occult potency, and to do so in a fixed rhythm at that one particular time. A particular individual, or less frequently a group, is the target at which the weapon will be aimed. For each of us has his/her own role in the story, and the small is far easier to penetrate than the large,
If a question is to be interpreted, it must first of all be heard; it must be turned by the intellect as it registers in the bones. The signs at the crossroads point in a multitude of directions; a particular choice is correct. The answer must be one that comes as a surprise, even as it bears the imprint of necessity. To grow is to expand the context of one's actions. There can be no argument if there is no one left to argue.
In his efforts to disrupt the status quo, the trickster does not "change" the world, but rather he substitutes a new world for the old one. "Death is the solution to all problems," said the catalyst Joseph Stalin. "No people, no problems." But even if the victim of such instruction proves obtuse, the stage set spread around him/her will look irrevocably different, as will each tiny detail of the props.
If the trickster is decapitated by the magic of the knife he set in motion, as was Ananse, he does not protest for long.18 Though not a hero, he is nonetheless determined. Who can say that he had not planned all along to project himself towards death? A different story is just now searching for its not yet opened mouth. There is a kind of safety net at the bottom of catastrophe.
Says Mary Douglas, "The trickster exploits the symbol of creativity which is contained in the joke, for a joke implies that anything is possible".19
As modern empiricists we may follow Einstein in speaking of a Unified Field Theory, or as monotheists speak of the one God, but at its roots our thinking is profoundly dualistic. We cannot think without opposing "true" and "false," "self" and irreconcilably "other," "subject" and "object." Our categories multiply like hydras. Firm in our faith, we have imagined a beginning for the wheel, instead of looking for the entrance that leads from center to circumference.
The gods of West Africa are relegated to the cases of a museum, in which their images are stripped of content while being celebrated for their form, as though the Ashanti and Yoruba were children who took their pantheons apart but could not put them back together.
West African polytheism may appear to twist and turn in all directions. As though drunk, the gods wander randomly across the coordinates of a long out of date map. The playful tolerance for destruction found in these traditions points to an underlying unity. The world cannot be broken. The high god acts through intermediaries. He does not take sides. Oshun and Asase Yaa are reluctant to choose between their children.
The trickster launches the observer through a maze of transformation in order to create the world as it is, to return him to the world with new and deeper knowledge. Is his behavior unthinking or his motivation gross? Acting upon his own agenda, he defines the human race against the arrogance of gods or the dreams of monsters.20 He does not preach, and has no use for the self-righteous. Since we do not like those who do not like us, it should come as no surprise that he has been demonized by the Calvinist elect and their corporate descendants.
Driven by some obscure resentment of our way of life, hateful towards freedom, jealous of any wealth some portion of which has not been shared with him as tribute, the trickster is after all a kind of terrorist, who has nothing better to do with his energy than to destroy. If destruction were the intent of the guardian of Ashe, of course, the planet could not long survive. The problem is that the ego resents the disruption of self-knowledge, that the mind confuses order with dead habit, and that the body feels itself inadequate to the demands of perpetual motion.
To suggest that an encounter could be simultaneously both beneficial and destructive would be to engage in an act of ontological subversion. It would be to open oneself to the influence of the gatekeeper of non-ego centered reality. It would be to overthrow the Ptolemaic model of the solar system. A new reality- based community would discover at its center the paradox of primordial energy.
If the cosmos is a wheel that is not different from a sphere, a calabash whose upper and lower halves are each the image of the other, transcendence need not move only upwards. Any movement upwards must not only be counterbalanced by a movement downwards, it is, in a sense, that very movement downwards. Kaleidoscopic flux is integrated by the spokes of an unbroken wheel. If the cosmos is whole, darkness is not a threat but an energizing potency.21
Any movement on the surface of a sphere becomes its own opposing movement. The world traveler approaches himself or herself from behind. "Up" becomes "down." "In" becomes "out." "Then" becomes "now." What appears to be contradiction is the great kaleidoscopic turning of the sphere. Movement activates the agents of the invisible, as the sphere moves from abstract into living form.
Brian George, Head with primordial sphere, 2003
Let us imagine that the trickster is an agent of involuntary initiation. Does he victimize those who ignore the signals, who do not honor the synchronistic now, who refuse to realign their consciousness by choice?
The victim as novice might appear to be harmed at random, but perhaps his or her guardian spirit made some arrangement before birth. In the novel "The World at Evening" by Christopher Isherwood, a jaded Hollywood writer is almost killed in a car accident. During the year of his recovery he is at first unable to see or move. In a liminal state of consciousness, he drifts back and forth to revisit every period of his life. By the end of the year a kind of rebirth has taken place. The mummy is unwrapped to pursue a new and different career, far away from the hallucinatory intrigues of the court. The self has cracked open. The world is fresh.
Perhaps accident and disease perform the same service for the average person that ritualized discomfort does for the novice. Theatrical props may vary; the underlying pattern is consistent. Fear serves as a catalyst for awakening. If we do not embrace the fact of suffering we might easily short circuit or prolong the process, thus sentencing ourselves to a limbo of un-integrated trauma, whose only release is through the accusation that we direct against our helpers. Too often, we may unknowingly deny ourselves the gift that the hand of the mystery extends to us.
The severity of the process can, of course, vary. Initiation throws the sometimes hard to detect pattern into high relief. "Again and again we notice a coercive element in initiations all over the world. It is perhaps a universal trait", writes Evan V. Zuesse in "Ritual Cosmos."22
Picked up and dragged off to be tested and transformed, the novice is treated more like an object than a person. Fierce guards, silent so as to demonstrate their contempt for human language, from out of nowhere appropriate the body of the novice, and remove it, forcibly, from his or her control. There is something perhaps a bit familiar about the guards; they are also alien. Irreducibly. In this replay of the first act of abduction. They stare from behind the large eyes of their masks. Supports are removed from the ego, which is treated as if it were not there, scrambling the world like the parts of an incomprehensible puzzle.
The mind returns to infancy. The body becomes as passive as a corpse. The soul is a toy turned in the hands of powerful unseen forces. Evan V. Zuesse again explains, "Initiation destroys the self-centered world of childhood, at least this is its primary intent. The adult produced by initiation is a person whose self and entire life is defined by a center outside of himself or herself."23
Is each initiate, in fact, a perfect citizen of the larger cosmos? Although one is a reflection of the other, the ego is not the soul. The wheel of society is not the cosmos. A spell intervenes. The surface of an ocean divides them.
The initiate has become aware of the larger order but does not at every moment embody it. The god's image both is and is not the god. The material must be energized and the subtle given roots. Signs do not interpret themselves. There is nothing fixed about a relationship. Its terms must be continuously renegotiated.
In the Ashanti and Yoruba traditions, the gods too can make mistakes, act foolishly or fall into a stupor. The worlds decompose. Energy fades. The omnipotent must be fed and the dead removed. Even incarnations of the highest consciousness must be shaken up now and then to be kept awake.
The gods, because of their great power, can be arrogant, and must be reminded of their place in the scheme of things. If the gods themselves can be subject to the lowest of impulses, should a human being be any less divided? Kicking and screaming, the god or the human is pulled back into relation with the signals of Ifa, the instructions of Nyame.
Since he exists at a perpetual beginning, it is possible that for the trickster no initiation is complete. Habit always reasserts itself. If he does not spare himself from embarrassment or harm, should he do any less for others? The gods must be fed. Humans must be shaken out of ego-bound myopia. Centered but open to fresh energies from the bush, society must be provoked to reinvent the wheel.
(New posts every 2-3 days on my blog Masks of Origin. http://masksoforigin.blogspot.com/)Endnotes
1) Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa, A Study in Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980, pages 25-27
2) S.G.F. Brandon, Trickster, A Dictionary of Comparative Religion, Scribner's, New York, 1970, page 623
3) R.S. Rattray, Akan-Ashanti Folktales, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1916, pages 265-267
4) R.S. Rattray, Akan-Ashanti Folktales, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1916, pages 107
5) Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa, A Study in Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980, page 27
6) Migene Gonzales-Wippler, Santeria, A Legacy of Faith, Rites and Magic, Harmony Books, New York, 1989, page 28-30
7) Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa, A Study in Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980, page 68
8) John Pemberton, Eshu-Elagba: The Yoruba Trickster God, African Arts 9, 1975, page 26
9) Joan Wescott, The Sculpture and Myths of Eshu-Elegba, the Yoruba Trickster, Africa 32, 1962, page 352
10) John Pemberton, Eshu-Elagba: The Yoruba Trickster God, African Arts 9, 1975, page 21
11) Eva Krapt-Askari, Yoruba Towns: An Inquiry into the Nature of Urban Phenomenon, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1969, pa ge 47
12) Henry John Drewel and Margaret Thompson Drewel, Gelede, Art and Female Power Among the Yoruba, Indiana University Press, 1990, page 5
13) Migene Gonzales-Wippler, Santeria, A Legacy of Faith, Rites and Magic, Harmony Books, New York, 1989, page 27
14) Joan Wescott, The Sculpture and Myths of Eshu-Elegba, the Yoruba Trickster, Africa 32, 1962, page 337
15) John Pemberton, Eshu-Elagba: The Yoruba Trickster God, African Arts 9, 1975, page 68
16) Leo Frobenius, The Voice of Africa, Benjamin Blom, New York, 1913, pages 240-242
17) Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa, A Study in Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980, page 268
18) Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa, A Study in Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980, page 60
19) Mary Douglas, The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception, Man (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute) 3, 1968, page 373
20) Mac Linscott Ricketts, The Structure and Religious Significance of the Trickster-Transformer-Culture Hero in the Mythology of North American Indians, University of Chicago Press, 1964, page 343
21) Clyde W. Ford, The Hero with an African Face, Bantam Books, New York, 1999, page 9
22) Evan V. Zuesse, Ritual Cosmos, The Sanctification of Life in African Religions, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1979, page 144
23) Evan V. Zuesse, Ritual Cosmos, The Sanctification of Life in African Religions, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1979, page 145Tweet