Eshu

            The first post on Yoruba mythology could not be anyone else's except Eshu. Just as in African traditions, an offering is made first to him, before making it to the other orisha, here he will be the first honored Yoruba's orisha of the blog. Before I start, I want to make a little observation, I will be dealing here with the orisha Eshu and not with the spiritual entities Eshu. They are completely different things, the first is an orisha ("African god") from the Yoruba pantheon, while the others (also called 'Eshus from Umbanda' or 'catiços') are spirits who help in spiritual works, many of them have already lived in our plan (already incarnated) and today they are in a different light level than ours. Having made this separation, I can proceed.

            Eshu is the messenger orisha, responsible for the communication between orishas and humans. He is also the owner of crossroads and the guardian of the front door of the house. It is also called 'Lagba', 'Bará' (name in the 'batuque' of Rio Grande do Sul, where Eshu is the name used in 'Quimbanda', which is believed to work for evil), and 'Eleguá' (name in the Cuban santeria, where Eshu is more related to negative aspects of the orisha). Without Eshu there is no movement, change, trade or reproduction. In addition, he was mistakenly identified by Europeans as the "Devil" (pure juice of prejudice).

Eshu and the Crossroads

Obatala and Eshu

            There are many, many tales about Eshu, but I selected four that well represent the importance and personality of this orisha. The first tells how Eshu gained power over crossroads.

            A long time ago, Eshu had no wealth, no profession, no mission, nothing. He just wandered around the world aimlessly. Then one day, he started to go to the house of Obatala (Great Orisha, creator of man, absolute master of the principle of life) every day to watch him making human beings. Others came to visit the old orisha, but they stayed for a short time and soon left without having learned anything. They brought offerings, saw Obatala, appreciated his work and soon left. Only Eshu remained.

            And so he stayed for sixteen years (a sacred number for the Yoruba), paying careful attention to modeling. He learned how Obatala made every part of men and women. Throughout this period he stayed there, helping the old orisha. Without asking questions, just observing attentively in silence, and so he learned everything (for the Yoruba, that was the profile of the ideal student).

            One day, Obatala told him to stand at the crossroads where everyone who came to his house was passing by. He should remain there and not let anyone who did not bring an offering to Obatala pass by. That's because there were more and more humans for Obatala to make, and he didn't want to waste time collecting the gifts that were offered to him. He didn't even have time for visits.

            Having learned everything, Eshu can help the old orisha. He collected the 'ebós' (offering) for Obatala, receiving and delivering the offerings to Obatala. Eshu did his job so well that the old orisha decided to reward him. From that day on, whoever came to Obatala's house would also have to pay something to Eshu, as well as whoever was returning from Obatala's house.

            In this way, Eshu always stood by, guarding Obatala's house. Armed with an 'ogó' (powerful club), he pushed away the undesirable and punished anyone who tried to circumvent his constant vigilance. Eshu worked too hard and made the crossroads his home. Now Eshu has become the lord of the crossroads and no one can pass one without paying him something.

Eshu Becomes Dean of the Orishas

'Ecodidés', the red feathers

            Eshu was the youngest of the orishas, and so he owed reverence to all of them, always being the last to be greeted. But he longed for seniority to be honored by the other orishas. To achieve this, he went to consult with the 'babalaô' (diviner and priest of Orunmila, orisha of the oracle) who told him to make a sacrifice. Eshu was to offer three 'ecodidés' (red parrot feathers), three fat-crested cocks, plus fifteen cowries and palm oil and 'mariô' (new palm leaf).

            Eshu made the 'ebó' and was instructed by the diviner to take one of the 'ecodidés' and wear it on his head, tied to his forehead. And that he couldn't use anything else on his head. One day, 'Olodumare' (Supreme God, also called 'Olorun' and 'Olofim') summoned all the orishas to find out if they were taking care of the missions assigned to them on Earth. 'Oxu', the Moon, went to get them.

            All the orishas prepare for this great event, preparing offerings, and making their bundles, their loads, to take to Olodumare. Each one went to the audience with a bundle of offerings on their heads, except for Eshu, because he was wearing the 'ecodidé', and with 'ecodidé' one cannot carry any load on the 'ori' (head). He was bareheaded, without a cap, crown, hat or cargo. And so, 'Oxu' took everyone to Olodumare. When they arrived at Olodumare's 'Orum' (heaven, world of the orishas; each of the nine parallel worlds), everyone fell down.

            Olodumare had nothing to ask, because what he wanted to know, he read in the minds of the orishas. He then said that the one who uses the 'ecodidé' was the one who brought everyone to him. That everyone brought offerings except Eshu. That Eshu respected the taboo and brought nothing on his head. Olodumare stated that Eshu was right, as he had accepted the sign of submission, and for having respected the 'euó' (taboo) he would become his messenger. From that moment on, everything they wanted from Olodumare, should be sent through Eshu. In addition, Olodumare determined that because of his mission, Eshu should be honored before his elders.

            And so the youngest of the orishas became the first to receive compliments and to be honored. Eshu had become the dean of the orishas. A curiosity is that in the Yoruba traditions, the children of Eshu are forbidden to carry anything on their heads. In addition, those who use 'ecodidé' in the Candomblé initiation ritual cannot wear anything on their heads for a certain time.

Eshu Eats Everything

Eshu

            Eshu was the youngest son of 'Iemanjá' (in Africa, orisha of the Niger River; in Brazil, lady of the sea; mother of the orishas) and Orunmila, brother of Ogun (orisha of metallurgy, agriculture and war), Shango (orisha of thunder and justice) and Oxóssi (hunting orisha). And he ate everything, his hunger was uncontrollable. He ate all the animals in the village where he lived. He also ate cereals, fruits, yams, peppers. He drank all the beer, brandy and wine. But the more I ate, the more hungry I felt.

            First, he ate everything he liked best, then he began to linger on trees, pastures, and threatened to swallow the sea. Furious, Orunmila realized that Eshu would not stop and could even eat Heaven. He then asked Ogun to stop his brother at all costs. And to preserve the Earth, human beings and orishas, Ogun killed his brother.

            However, not even death appeased Eshu's hunger. Even after he was dead, it was possible to feel his devouring presence, his infinite hunger. Pastures, seas, the few animals left, crops, and fish were being consumed. The villagers had nothing else to eat, and after everyone got sick, they were starving one by one.

            A priest from the village then consulted the oracle of 'Ifá' and alerted Orunmila that Eshu, even in spirit, was asking for his attention, it was necessary to appease his hunger. Orunmila obeyed the oracle and determined that from that day on, so that Eshu would not cause more catastrophes, whenever they made offerings to the orishas, they should first serve him food. In order to have peace and tranquility among men, it is necessary to feed Eshu in the first place.

            This is one of the tales that explains why in all Candomblé ceremonies, Eshu is always the first to receive honors and offerings.

Eshu and the Two Friends

Eshu's hat

            But just as Eshu is benevolent and helps those who respect him and pay due tribute, he is also very strict and incisive in his punishments. This last tale is an example of what happens when the orisha is provoked to fury.

            Two peasant friends woke up early to work on their respective fields. However, both had stopped praising Eshu, even though he was always giving them rain and good harvests. Eshu was furious and decided to punish the duo. He wore a pointed hat, one side white and the other red, and walked along the border of the two friends' wheels, with one on his right and one on his left.

            He passed between the two friends and greeted them emphatically. The two peasants looked at each other in confusion. One said, "Who is the stranger in the white hat?"

The other asked, "Who is the stranger in the red hat?"

            "The hat was white."

            "No, it was red."

            And so they started arguing about the color of the stranger's hat (throwing one against the other is one of Eshu's tricks). The discussion evolved into a fight with hoe blows, and they ended up killing each other. And so Eshu was avenged. In another version the two friends do not kill each other, but are judged by the king for the fight.


Source:

  • Prandi, R. (2001). Mitologia dos Orixás. São Paulo, SP: Companhia das Letras.

Images:

Alexandre Souza

Alexandre Souza is a Brazilian novelist that writes dark and supernatural stories, and also explores fantasy and historical fiction. He’s earning a BFA in Creative Writing at Full Sail University. He has flash fictions published at Adelaide Magazine and Scarlet Leaf Review. He’s a mythology and supernatural geek and uses this knowledge to enhance his work.

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