Iyalocha Felicia of Habana Vieja with godchildren on the Playa de los
Chivos, 8 September 1999.
The well-known Iyalosha Felicia Omí Saidé
made a great offering (ebó) to Olokun on 8 September 1999
on the coral beach just east of Havana, called the Playa de los Chivos,
Goat Beach. Her goal was, through propitiating Olokun, a grand orisha
of the Creation who can set things in motion, in order to realize her
dream of founding a cabildo in her barrio of Old Havana.
The ebó functions to create solidity (firmeza), an push
upward from that foundation. In otherwords, she was working to ground
her position (fundamentarse) in order to build a housethe cabildo.
Historically in Cuba, a cabildo was a formalized African religious
institution with its own establishment, which, brought together many people
under one roof for mutual benefit.
The entire ceremony consisted of two principal
parts: the feeding of Olokun and a drumming and awán*
of cleansing and gratitude for the riches that Olokun provides. At waters
edge, four babalawos offered Olokun a young pig, a male sheep,
a swan, duck, two roosters, two doves, and a guinea hen (eledé,
abó, aboní, kuekuellé, akukó, ellelé,
and etú). A sacred batá drumming (batá
de fundamento) would provide a context for the awán
and the ceremonial honoring of Olokun and the orishas.
The Olokun of an orisha priest or priestess
is considered by Cuban babalawos to be a form of Yemayá,
called Mayeleo, who is close in ocean depth to Olokun, but is not Olokun
as such. Olokun is the master of the deepest secrets of the ocean and
forms one great consitutent of the Creation, another being the Earth,
which was created by Odudúwa. No one knows, except
Olokun, people say, what there is at the bottom of the sea (nadie
sabe lo que hay al fondo del mar). Olokun is central to the mysterious
questions of life, death, and great transformations, since the dark bottom
of the sea is the lowest point on the earths surface, the ultimate
grave, in a word. For this reason, the feeding of Olokun at the sea has
always been considered a dangerous, if not also mortal, undertaking. Until
a half century ago, babalawos fed Olokun from a boat out in the
water, often in preparation for the momentous ceremony of the masks of
Olokun, which were danced to a special set of Olokun drums.
In effect, the ceremony honored and invoked the ancestors, the egún,
and reflected aspects of Yoruba Egungun celebrations. A carved wood mask
covered the dancers face, while a cloak of burlap saco covered the
body. A babalawo was expected to die with the realization of each
The center of Olokun celebration in Havana was
the town of Regla. Over a period of years spanning nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, the ceremony and the dancing of Olokun were directed, in turn,
by the most famous babalawos, such as Adechina Remigio Herrera,
Tata Gaitán, Quintín García, and, finally, Quintín
Lecón Lombillo (Tín). Tins grandfather, Atandá
Ño Filomeno García, a babalawo, drummer, and carver, and
his father, Quintín, also a babalawo and drummer, were intimates
of Adechina and Tata Gaitan and central to the dynasty that guarded the
Olokun masking tradition. Tin directed the last Olokun mask ceremony in
1963 in Regla, where the Herrera and García families had lived
as neighbors within Reglas African Third Barrio since
at least the mid nineteenth century.
In order to realize the offering, the babalawos
gathered at the Playa de los Chivos fed both the Olokun-Mayeleo pot belonging
to Omí Saidé and the bottom of the sea itself, Olokuns
natural domain. Because Olokun lives not on the surface, but at the bottom,
of the sea, they were required to consecrate a messenger in order to communicate
prayers and offerings to Olokun. The messenger was an Eshú in the
form of a large rectangular rock, which was placed over a blue satin cloth.
Right at the shoreline, amidst the spray, each animal was offered, in
turn, over this temporary altar/Eleguá and then over Omí
Saidés blue Olokun pot. Each animal was first presented to
the body of Omí Saidé in order to symbolically identify
her with the animals offered and to connect her to Olokun. In the Lukumí
religion, animals are not killed arbitrarily; they are sacrificed--they
give up their livesfor a higher cause, such as to save the life
of, and substitute for--a person. For this reason, all the participants
must pinch their necks before the sacrifice in order to empathize with
the animal to be killed.
Each animal was killed, in turn, and then cast
into the sea. When finished, the babalawos bound up the rock Eleguá
in the blue cloth and dropped it into the sea, where it swiftly plunged
to the bottom. The ceremony had opened with a coconut divination (obí)
to Olokun to verify that the preparations were correct, and it closed
with another coconut divination to determine that Olokun had accepted
the sacrifices and required nothing more.
Meanwhile, two groups of batá drummers
had set up on a flat area in order to play for Yemayá
and Oshún, as the formal drumming of Olokun with special drums
is no longer performed. Not coincidentally, 8 September sat right between
the annual feast days for these two female orishas of salt and
fresh water, respectively (the 7th and the 12th respectively). Two batá
groupssix drums and 12 drumheads altogether--were needed to produce
an adequate level of sound out in the open air. Prior to the drumming,
Oshún was fed two hens, as she had requested, and then a guinea
hen was fed to the two of them.
Felicias family organized the large awán,
which would cleanse all of the participants and offer thanks to Olokun.
The awán consisted of many plates and bowls of grains, beans,
root vegetables, eggs, and other ingredients around a basket lined with
a burlap sack (saco de yute). All present, in order of seniority,
circulated around the awán, cleaning themselves with each type
of food and then casting it into the basket.
The drumming typically features two parts. By custom,
just prior to the awán, the drummers presented an oro
seco (rhythms without song) directly to Yemayá and Oshún,
including special rhythms for Olokun and the awán ceremony.
Then, following the awán, the second phase of the drumming
beganin which the drums would allow the orishas to come
down, dance, and counsel the participants. Priests and priestesses
danced joyously before the drums, as the soloist and chorus sang to praise
and invoke the orishas. Soon, Yemayá mounted one of her
priestesses. Olokun does not possess priests in Cuba, for Olokun is simply
too big to come into the head of a single person Olokun. In
coming down, Yemayá, the Mother of the Waters and owner
of the seas layers above its bottom, naturally responded to the
sacrifices. She would be the ideal vehicle to lead the awán
to the deep, where Olokun lives. Thus, Yemayá led a procession
to waters edge in order to deposit the awan directly in the
sea. The drumming then continued in a grand baile de santo.
Following the return of the procession to the performance
area in front of the drums, the orisha priests danced, and Yemayá
reappeared in regal blue satin clothes in order receive salutations and
dispense healing and advice.
* Technically, the term awán is used to
refer to a similar cleansing ceremony for Babalú Ayé (aka
Asojuano, San Lázaro), the deity of sickness and the worlds
Note: as the ceremony was considered publicheld
outside on a public beachthe babalawos permitted and even
encouraged the taking of photographs and video. Photographs were prohibited
after the mounting of Yemayá.