What is an Orisha?

by Shloma Rosenberg

Within the body of God, all things, both abstract and concrete, are cells. Each and every animal, vegetable, mineral, thought, feeling, idea, emotion and concept has its own ashe (energy) and therefore contributes to the whole that is Olorun.

Certain constellations of energies bear within their structure an assortment of related cells that together create a force of divinity called an Orisha, which can be best defined as a facet of God. Each of these constellations of energies, while made up of many different individual components, has its own, for lack of a better word, personality. The term Orisha can be broken up into two parts--Ori, which means "head" or "consciousness," and sha, which means "selected." Therefore, an Orisha is a selected consciousness within the great consciousness known as Olorun.

The primary forces associated with each Orisha are usually either those found in the natural world or those that are related to the human condition. In the natural world, individual Orishas are associated with such forces as fire, water, earth, air, atmospheric phenomena, the animal kingdom, and so on. These same Orishas also have their associations with some element of day-to-day human life: such as love, wealth, sickness, or health.

Most Orisha worshipers relate to the Orishas in the form of anthropomorphic demigods who bear very human characteristics. They are referred to in familiar terms, as parents, friends, and advisors. Patakis (tales) are told of their exploits; these explain natural phenomena and illustrate proper ethical behaviour.

The Orishas' physical appearance and the behavior or personality traits associated with them are indicative of the mental, physical, emotional, and natural domain with which they are associated. For example, Yemoja, the Orisha of motherhood, is seen as a large-breasted and matronly woman, loving but also strict and demanding. Within her domain are the oceans and the waters of the world, from which the first life on Earth issued forth. She is the warrior who protects her children, the distant queen who must be approached humbly, the loving but stern mother who must stand firm and say no for her children's own good (no matter how much it may break her heart), and the indulgent grandmother who coddles the children of others.

Each Orisha has a range of expressions, or "roads." When one speaks of the multiple roads or paths of an Orisha, one is referring to the diverse forms in which the Orisha shows him- or herself to the world. Through examination of and interaction with these various roads, we gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the Orishas in all of their forms, rather than the static, two-dimensional archetypal representations of divinity found in the mythological remnants of dead cultures. No force of nature or facet of the human condition has only one state of being. Skies can be clear and blue or black and menacing; love can be so sweet as to be intoxicating, or it can kill. The various roads of the Orishas portray the diversity in every facet of life, as the Orishas themselves portray the diversity inherent in the nature of God. We must remember, however, that even though an Orisha's roads might express the complexity of existence by means of very distinct manifestations of divine power, the fundamental nature of the Orisha does not change. An understanding of the characteristics of any given Orisha's roads can add flavour to our awareness of his or her essence, but the roads are merely facets of the gem that is the Orisha. The gem remains the same regardless of which facet you encounter.

Orishas' domains often overlap, and many may share in another (usually elder) Orisha's domain. For example, even though Yemoja owns every drop of water on Earth, from the teardrop to the torrent, other water Orishas share her domain in more specific, concentrated areas. Oshun, for instance, is the owner of rivers, and Erinle lives where the river spills into the ocean. Orishas who have such intimate relations are frequently associated romantically or by blood relation or are in some other way closely linked.

Conversely, Orishas whose domains often clash, or whose elements, when mixed, have turbulent consequences, are found to have volatile relations. Orishas of water and wind often cause trouble when they come together in legend, as they do in the natural world, as in storms, hurricanes, and waterspouts. Pairs or groups of Orishas whose energies do not mix well are sometimes referred to as "enemies." This, however, does not do justice to the truest nature of these relationships. Orishas whose energies do not blend harmoniously often do, in fact, support each other in other ways. As each part of our ecology is necessary to the whole, so are these Orishas essential to each other's existence.

The patakis that relate the stories of the Orishas and their relationships with each other form the basis not only for our models of ethical behaviour but also for the very ritual system we practice. Virtually every ritual act we perform, no matter how minor, has its origin in one of the thousands of patakis in the corpus of Odu Ifa.

On the human level, each person has one specific Orisha who corresponds to the fundamental essence of his or her being. This Orisha is often referred to as the individual's "Guardian Angel" or the "Orisha of the head." The Ori of the individual is seen as a part of his or her patron Orisha's energy. Although one may have a strong affinity for many Orishas, only one can truly be called the Orisha of the head. The individual will show characteristics, in their personality as well as in their physical appearance, that correspond to their tutelary deity.

The relationship between a worshiper and his or her patron is viewed as familial, with the worshiper being referred to as a "child" of his or her patron Orisha. In addition, according to the sex of the primary deity, a second "parent" of opposite sex exists. The individual's Ori thus overlaps into the domain of a second Orisha and will often show both physical and personality traits of that Orisha as well.

To integrate the energy of one's tutelary Orisha into one's being is one of the fundamental tools of the alignment of Ori with Ipori. To assimilate and move with the essence of one's patron deity is to put oneself into balance with one's source in nature.

Too often Orisha worshipers begin to confuse themselves with their patron Orisha. Priests will explain away the flaws in their character as archetypal behaviour. Yemoja eats too much, Shango sleeps around, Ogun is rude and abrupt, and Oshun is a bitch. It is true that because character flaws exist, they must indeed fall under the auspices of a specific Orisha. The point, however, is to be aware of these flaws as pitfalls within the realm of one's Orisha and move beyond them rather than rationalize that because they are part of the domain of one's guardian divinity, they should be embraced.