The Seven African Powers
The Principal Gods of the Pan African Diaspora
In the Yoruba tradition that is parent to the Santeria, Lukumi and Palo traditions (and even to some degree Haitian Voodoo being that Yoruba and Ifa greatly influenced all of West Africa)), the Orishas are emissaries of God, ruling the forces of nature and the fortunes of mankind. Their aspects are generally determined by their elemental natures. Thus, the Orisha of lightning is also the Orisha of sudden inspiration, vengeance, and dance; the Orisha of the Ocean is the Orisha of motherhood, femininity, and creativity. In this way, they represent ancient archetypal forces, a concept reflected in the phrase “Siete Potencias,” or Seven African Powers, another way of referring to these powerful Orishas.
In Vodou, they are called Lwa or “laws.” In Yoruba myths, the stories of the Orishas are as dramatic and full of intrigue as those of the Greek gods- and in fact bear many eerie parallels to the Greco-Roman myths. Unlike the distant deities of many modern faiths, however, the Orishas frequently interact with humanity- in Lukumi, through the Bembe, a ritual drumming party (Similar rituals in Vodoun are called Tambors). During a Bembe, an Orisha may choose to ‘mount,’ or possess, one of his or her priests, and each Orisha has his or her own songs, colors, and sacrifices that are used to entice them into appearing. Once an Orisha has mounted, he or she may dance and sing, converse, or dispense advice and counsel. An initiate of Lukumi and most other sects is dedicated to one Orisha during a special ritual, and that Orisha will be his “Head,” and determine his spiritual destiny. Once a person is accepted by an Orisha and becomes a candidate for initiation, he enters a long and complex initiation period, which culminates in a large, expensive party-like ritual called an Asiento, where he/she is permanently dedicated to the deity. In the South American and Cuban traditions, each Orisha is associated with a Catholic saint.
Although religious strictures no longer force believers to conceal their faith, this syncretism is still popular. In South America and the Caribbean, representations of Santos (Saints) are more often representations of Orishas than objects of Catholic devotion- although they are often both!
The Seven African Powers The Seven African powers are the most well-known and celebrated divinities of the Yoruba Pantheon, and are common to all Yoruba faiths, although they are not always considered to be the same deities. In Macumba traditions (Candomble, Umbanda), they are called Orixa; in Vodoun, they are called Lwa (Loas); in Palo, Nkisi. In all of these traditions, the Orishas have many aspects (Caminos), which are often quite diverse.
Eleggua (Legba, Exu, Eshu) is the Orisha of crossroads, doorways, and gates. He is the messenger of the gods- no Orisha can be contacted except through him, and his dress and conflicting mannerisms reflect this double-sided nature (he is sometimes depicted with two faces, especially in Yoruba art). Eleggua is also the guardian of the doorway between the earthly and divine realms. He has been compared to the Greek God Hermes, with whom he shares many attributes, and to the Hindu Ganesha. In Brazil, he is sometimes equated with Baphomet, and his symbol is a pitchfork.
In Santeria, his colors are black and red, and he is associated with St. Martin de Porres. Of all the Orishas, he has the most aspects (forms), including Pombagira (Candomble), a wantonly sexual prostitute, and Papa Legba (Vodoun) an elderly man with a penchant for rum and cigars. He is considered a trickster, a player of pranks; in some traditions he is malefic, bringing harm to those who neglect their obligations.
In Lukumi, he is a guardian of doorways, and effigies of Eleggua are used to protect homes.
Ogun (Ogoun) is the chief of the warriors, the God of War, blood, and iron. He is the guardian of the forge, and the patron of civilization and technology. Not just a martial deity, Ogun is the archetypal force that drives technology. He is responsible for tools of progress like farming implements and surgeon’s knives. He is movement, impetus, force. Because of this, Ogun is associated with locomotives, and offerings are often made to him at railroad tracks. In Candomble, he is associated with St. George, the dragon slayer; in Lukumi, he is associated with St. peter. Because of his association with blood, Ogun is often petitioned for aid with blood diseases. However, because Ogun enjoys blood offerings, it is considered inadvisable to petition Ogun while menstruating or with a bleeding wound.
Chango (Xango, Shango) is a warrior, the Orisha of lightning, dance, and passion. He is the epitome of all things masculine, and the dispenser of vengeance on behalf of the wronged. Shango was likely once a Yoruba King. He is associated with St. Barbara. His colors are red and white, and his best known symbol is the oshe, a double bladed axe. He is sometimes associated with Voodoo’s Petro Loa, Erzulie Dantor.
Obatala is the creator God, of whom all of the Orishas are but aspects. His color is white, containing all the colors of the rainbow. He rules the mind and intellect, cosmic equilibrium, male and female. Obatala’s counterpart in Vodoun, Damballah, takes the form of the primeval serpent. Obatala is considered to be beyond the sphere of direct communication; however, Damballah does possess his followers in Vodou rites. Damballah and his wife Ayida-Wedo, the rainbow serpent, are often compared to alchemical and yogic concepts of kundalini.
Oya (Yansa) is the Goddess of Storms, Lightning, and cemeteries. She is a warrior, the wife of Chango. Her color is maroon, and her saint is Theresa. She epitomizes female power and righteous anger. In Vodou, Oya is called Manman Brigitte, the swaggering, rum drinking wife of Baron. She may be directly related to the Greek warrior goddess Minerva, through her Irish counterpart Brighid.
Yemaya (Yemoja, Iemanja) is associated with the Virgin Mary and the goddess Isis, and the most beloved Orisha in Lukumi. She is the Goddess of the Ocean and the moon, guardian of women, childbirth, fertility, and witchcraft. She rules the subconscious and creative endeavors. Yemaya’s counterpart in Vodoun is called Lasiren, the mermaid. She is related to Mamiwata (Mama Water), the African water-spirit. Lasiren’s symbols are a mirror and comb, giving her an odd similarity to the Pictish sea goddess. There is a common legend about Yemaya choosing her own students- that occasionally someone will disappear, sometimes for seven years, and return with tales of having learned the ways of magick and healing in her undersea abode. This trope appears in many cultures’ legends of sea goddesses. In Lukumi, Yemaya’s colors are blue and white; in Vodou, blue and green. Her offerings are often doves, but never fish.
Oshun (known as Oxum in Brazil) rules the ‘sweet’ waters- rivers, brooks, and streams. Oshun is closely related to Yemaya, and their aspects sometimes overlap. She is the goddess of love, passion, and sensuality, as well as money and prosperity. Her preferred offerings are honey, copper jewelry or coins (usually in multiples of five). She is most often associated with St. Cecilia, and in Lukumi, she is Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre, the protectress of Cuba. Her colors are yellow and gold. In Vodoun, Oshun is known as Erzulie. Erzulie’s colors are shades of pink. While Erzulie and Ochun are very much alike, Erzulie has a vengeful, implacable aspect when angered. Her aspect Erzulie Dantor is a fierce protector of women, an avenger of domestic violence, and a patron of lesbians.