There is a famous pataki about the orishas Oyá and Changó. In the story, Changó had been in battle and fought continuously against his enemies, but despite his victories, many more of them came to attack him and soon he was overwhelmed. Changó called to his horse for help, but it never came, so he hid in the brush, moving from tree to tree and hammock to hammock to escape. His enemies were relentless, scouring and razing any area where they thought Changó could be hiding. He moved deeper into the brush and swamp. Still, they followed, undeterred by the dense wood. After many days, Changó began to tire. He had drank what he could but had not eaten or slept. Finally, deep in the heart of the bush, Changó came upon Oyá’s house. He hesitated getting closer — he was too proud to ask for help — but finally called to Oyá, and she brought him inside.
Oyá gave him food and drink and had him rest, but they both knew the enemies would soon find her hut, as they could hear them moving in the distance and getting closer through the swamp. Changó then said these enemies were different. They were immune to his strength, his thunder, his lightning and fire.
Oyá was unconcerned. She promised Changó that he would return to his kingdom where he would regain his strength and defeat his enemies. Changó thought she would cast a spell or summon a storm. Instead, she reached for her makeup, then one of her dresses. Finally, she carefully cut off all her hair.
Changó watched probably thinking, “SRSLY? WTF?”, only in Yoruba. Oyá then quickly formed a wig from her hair and told Changó to put it on with the dress. She put some makeup on him, and told him to walk to his kingdom at nightfall, right past his enemies.
That evening, Oyá lit no fire and told Changó to go. He did. He mimicked Oyá’s proud and careless gait, barely glancing and nodding at each of his assailants, and they let him pass, still looking for Changó.
Oyá is a complicated orisha with many spheres of control. Commandingly intelligent, she is a powerful witch and ruler of cyclonic storms. She is shrewd in business, controlling the markets because they too change and move like the weather, and she is unmatched as a warrior, skilled and fierce; Changó prefers her to all other partners in battle. All her nine children died, and so she became the protector of the dead and controls the gates the cemetery and access to ancestors. In a way, above all Oyá is the orisha of sudden, even chaotic change, the one unleashing transformative upheavals through destruction. When Oyá passes, things will not be the same.
The pataki with Changó also shows Oyá’s intelligence. She did not need to use witchcraft nor call a storm to help Changó. What Oyá did do, is what she does impeccably well: expose weakness.
Changó’s enemies were very powerful. They came close to defeating the great warrior orisha. Oyá focused on their weakness: their assumptions about who they were looking for, and how they should find him. She unleashed their prejudices, assumptions and pride to destroy them.
Across the Olosha community these past few weeks there has been a great deal of attention given to what orisha Oyá is saying these days. There were offerings, supplications, meditations and wemileres (rituals with drumming) to answer that question; it is something that every person impacted by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria is also asking. Those recent hurricanes have unleashed historic devastation in the Caribbean from Barbuda — now uninhabitable — to Puerto Rico to Cuba and the Florida Keys. Southeast Texas was overwhelmed by wind and floods, while Florida was engulfed in a weaker-than-expected but far more expansive storm. Some underestimated the power of the storms, others experienced their constant chaos, evacuating out of the path then into the path. In Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the storms have brought historic shock and grief. In the continental United States, the storms affected the area from Miami to Corpus Christi to Atlanta. Irma launched what may end up being the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history, slogging the major traffic corridors of the southeast for days. The breath of Oyá has been cataclysmic.
With her breath passing through, the basic question is simple: What has Oyá exposed?
She has, in my opinion, exposed our social and ecological hubris. Oyá overwhelmed many first responders and will teach them how to build better human systems. Her ashé openly revealed the motivations of some political and religious leaders. She showed how some communities that we think are important fell silent during the crises.
Oyá exposed the weaknesses of some hurricane codes, and the strengths of others. She exposed how some institutions recognized their duties to the community by offering free services, while others took advantage of the storm.
Oyá exposed that climate change is not an engineering problem, and she further unmasked our dependence on engineered environments solely for convenience and greed. Oyá reminded us that we cannot build without regard for the land. That we are addicted to electricity. That we confuse comfort, want, and need over and over again.
Oyá reminded us that we do not control water and that we have lost respect for it. She reminded us that water remains essential for our life and mocking its strength will bring only ruin. As people scrambled for bottled water, Oyá revealed collective obsessions and ill-placed faith in corporations. Water that is plentiful was instantly and unnecessarily commoditized.
She exposed how we consistently fail as international neighbors. How we let political borders dictate our sympathy and empathy. And how we become callously tribal when faced with chaos.
Most terribly, she reminded us that it is we who are the invading, exotic species obsessively choosing to live where we shouldn’t.
Perhaps above all, Oyá exposed that fear serves little purpose.
Oyá is also a compassionate orisha. She is the orisha of the last breath of life and sees the suffering that comes with it. She has lived through the death of all her children and intimately knows the pain. As she passes, she also unveils individual strengths to ease her aftermath.
She has exposed personal, social and psychic resilience while also teaching on a personal level. Every person assaulted by these storms learned — is learning — what they are each capable of, and what each personal weakness is. It’s now out there, for reflection, when life becomes more stable.
I saw many confront their own fears and memories in the storms. Some learned to balance their personal and professional roles and others learned their strength in the service of others. All of us learned who our family is. All of us learned that there are no wrong ways to feel our emotions about the dangers of the storm and the aftermath.
Some of us learned and some were reminded that being hot (hot as in “warm”) really sucks, and that humidity adds to the suck; we were also reminded that there is a sky full of stars when the power is out.
Oyá has also exposed community strengths. The members of Everglades Moon Local Council, for example, went into overdrive to support one another; and our covenant colleagues across the country checked in constantly. Many of us learned that our air conditioners are barriers to neighborliness. We even learned that some of the people we see every day can actually speak. We learned to say “hello” again.
On a personal level, Oyá can speak to each of us, and she has left each affected by the storms with a private message. For me, I got a toughen up and keep perspective as a lesson. I was so busy before the hurricane focusing on what I still can’t do after spinal surgery that I would paralyze myself, ironically the very thing my surgery was to prevent. In the aftermath of the storm, I’m coming to terms with what my limitations actually are based on my condition versus what I had led myself to believethey were from learned incompetence. Oyá also took the opportunity to point out that chain stress-eating mantecado (Latin vanilla) ice cream will only lead to insulin dependence and uninterrupted borborygmus, as well as new pants. I’m sure there will other lessons with more reflection.
Oyá has exposed our current relationships with ourselves, our neighbors and our planet. She has reminded us that we are both children and guests of the planet, both of which can become annoying, especially when the relationships are not nurtured, respected and reciprocated. She reminded us that we have a choice to live in harmony with the earth or hear our requiem; because one thing that is certain about orisha Oyá is that she will come again.
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