Thursday, July 8, 2010

Interview with Óchá'ni Lele - Author of Teachings of the Santería Gods

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Óchá'ni Lele, the author of the soon-to-be published book Teachings of the Santería Gods: The Spirit of the Odu, to learn a bit more about his book, his perspective on spiritual topics and what wisdom the Santería Gods can teach us.

Dr. E.: First, I’d like to thank you for taking time to stop by my blog and chat with my readers. You’ve written a book titled Teachings of the Santería Gods, forthcoming by Destiny Books (an imprint of Inner Traditions International). It is a collection of short stories based on the ancient Lucumí and Yoruba myths, and they are paired with the root odu of the diloggún. What inspired you to write this book?

Ócháni: Dr. E., I’d like to thank you for hosting me on my virtual blog tour! When I first found this religion one of the things that intrigued me were the stories, the sacred myths known as patakís. They were vibrant, powerful, filled with drama and intrigue. I’d always loved mythology and folktales. I grew up reading about Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology, and when I was quite young I remember hiding in my bed with a flashlight (so my parents wouldn’t know I was up) reading the original tales from the Brothers Grimm. But these were stories from ancient times that had no connection with the present. The people who knew the Grimm tales were long dead, and the civilizations that worshipped the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods stood in ruins. The orishas, however, were alive and well; and their worshippers had an unbroken chain to an ancient past. I was amazed.

While other aleyos and aborishas were asking their godparents, “What ebós does Oshún like? What is Oshún like? Tell me how many roads Obatalá has?” I was asking my godparents (and any priest who would talk to me), “Why doesn’t Obatalá like palm oil? Why doesn’t Obatalá like liquor? Is there a patakís for that?” Sometimes they would look at me like I was crazy, but sometimes I would actually be told a story. I found that through those brief stories I learned more about the nature of the orisha than any amount of pompous dialogue could teach. And when I learned that almost each and every patakís was paired with an odu in the diloggún . . . well . . . that deepened my understanding of those patterns as well.

But knowledge of these ancient stories is severely lacking in this faith among both initiates and laity. Storytelling seems to be a dying art, and people are starved for this knowledge. I believe that if we don’t start writing down the stories we know about the orishas, the odu, and the people who lived and died following the orishas, one day these things will be lost. The death of each elder priest or priestess represents the destruction of an entire folkloric library that simply cannot be rebuilt if these stories are not shared.

Dr. E.: Which brings me to this: How did you do the research for your book?

Ócháni: Research for this book has been a lifelong process. It began with my first reading at a very small botanica in Miami, Florida, in 1989. The santero who read me that day preferred to recite patakís and let his client draw his own conclusions. I made copious notes of every session, and I must have taken the greyhound bus to Miami at least once every two months for a year and a half to be read – not because I needed to be read that much, but because I needed to learn and record the stories he told. Along the way I picked up a few poorly written Spanish pamphlets in the botanicas that spoke of the odu and gave a few poorly written patakís to go with the signs that were discussed.

With the opening of the internet to the public in the mid 90s came the various newsgroups and chat rooms dedicated to the religion. I made a lot of virtual friendships during those days, and I would spend hours online with various priests and priestesses discussing the myths and stories of this religion. Some of those became real-life friendships, and we traded notes copiously. But I think my greatest resource has been my own godfather. When we first met we spent hours discussing the orishas, the odu, and the patakís that spoke of both. We still do. I don’t think he realizes how much he has taught me since we first met online back in 2000 (or maybe it was 1999?). He is a living, breathing folkloric library.

Also, every time I work the religion, whether I’m divining in my home with other priests present, or if I’m working an ocha in someone’s house, or even if I’m doing ceremonies for my own godchildren (with either my godfather or grandfather in ocha working as the oriaté), each ceremony becomes a chance to not only ask questions and learn, but also to listen to the conversations of others and learn. Every single person in this faith has some knowledge, and when we come together and share we weave this wonderful tapestry of wisdom. I think, by working the religion, I have learned more than any applied study or research I’ve done.

Dr. E.: From what I’ve gleaned in reading your book, odu is a vast and rich volume of information. What tips do you have for someone starting to learn the meanings of each odu?

Ócháni: First, while it’s been said over and over again that one cannot learn anything of value in this religion by reading a book, I have to argue that those times are changing. They changed in the year 2000 when I published The Secrets of Afro-Cuban Divination – How to Cast the Diloggún, the Oracle of the Orishas. My book was the first one in English to speak in any depth of this oracular system; and since that book was published, I’ve tried to find other books in Spanish prior to my volume’s publication that give significant information regarding the mechanics of the diloggún as an oracle. There were a few feeble attempts in Spanish, but nothing that gives complete, working directions for using the diloggún as a system of divination. Nothing!

So for someone wanting to learn the basics of how to cast the diloggún, I would start with that book. It is a step-by-step guide to the process of divination. It shows the apprentice diviner how to properly manage the more heated signs of the diloggún; and, it gives detailed directions for closing the session and the odu so osogbo is not left behind in the diviner’s home. It is how I read; it is how my godfather reads, and it is how most responsible diviners read.

For a more in depth study of the diloggún and its odu, I’d recommend that students follow up with my volume The Diloggún: the Orishas, Proverbs, Sacrifices, and Prohibitions of Cuban Santería. It takes the novice diviner into a higher level of skill with the opening and closing manipulations of the oracle, and it gives more in depth knowledge of the root odu and their accompanying composites. If a student can master the material in both books, that person is ready to be a diviner in my opinion.

Beyond those two books, work a lot of initiations and attend itá, no matter how boring one might think that is. An itá is a life-reading of the iyawó just crowned, and oriatés tend to explore the odu very deeply during those sessions. They have to. During itá, an oriaté might be surrounded by dozens of priests, each with their own knowledge of the letters that have fallen, and an oriaté’s reputation at that point is balanced on his knowledge of the odu that have fallen. So it is at itá that the deeper secrets of the odu are revealed; and it is there that one learns the most.

Dr. E.: Which of the patakís in your book is your favorite and why?

Ócháni: It is difficult for me to pick one – so I’ll have to pick two stories. My second favorite is the story titled “The Story of Elegede.” Unraveling that patakís took a lot of work, and I detail that process in chapter six of my book: Obara – Six Mouths on the Mat. After the manuscript was edited and finalized for publication, my godfather taught me a second version of that patakís, and towards the fall I might offer that second version on my blog at

My most favorite story in the entire book is titled “Eshu at the Crossroads.” It is in chapter 11 of my book: Owani – Eleven Mouths on the Mat. Eshu has always been a problematic character in this religion, and with good reason. Of all the stories I’ve been told about Eshu (as opposed to Elegguá), I think this one best illustrates his nature.

Dr. E.: When is your book available for purchase and where should we get it?

Ócháni: There are two places online where it may be purchased:

Amazon buys in bulk and gets the best deals because of that, so if you’re looking for a bargain price check there.

Also, my book was scheduled for release on August 15, 2010, but it looks like it will be available on July 7, 2010. So if you preorder expect your copy a bit early.

And, as always, because I deal with a traditional brick-and-mortar publisher, this book will be available anywhere books are sold! Just walk into your neighborhood bookstore and ask for it. If they don’t have it, they can get it.

Dr. E.: Thank you so much for stopping by to speak with us.

Ócháni: Thank you for having me. If any of your readers have questions, I’ll be sticking around for about a week to field questions from them. So tell them to not be shy!

Dr. E.: Again, for my readers, that was Ócháni Lele, the author of quite a few books on Afro-Cuban folklore and spirituality. His latest book is titled Teachings of the Santería Gods, published by Destiny Books (an imprint of Inner Traditions International). It is available online from either his publisher’s website or The work is incredible; he is an amazing storyteller, and I encourage everyone who loves mythology, magick, or even a good story to pick up a copy of his book.

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