The Priests of Ifá (Babalawos) in Cuba have released their annual prognosis and recommendations about the energies of the year called La Letra del Año, or The Letter of the Year. The Letter is not just a statement, but rather an event that culminates in its release. Priests of Ifá gathered last week in preparation. As the new year enters, the priests, through castings and discernment, gauge the change in energies, and offer their guidance to maintain spiritual balance and strength.I thought it might be helpful to offer a brief glossary before looking at the Letter and describing its meaning. Lukumí is synonymous with Santeria; it is also called Regla de Ocha and Regla de Ifá (Rule/Reign of Orisha, Rule/Reign of Ifá, respectively). Those break down into two intimately connected but sometimes theologically and politically divided traditions. Lukumí or Lucumí also refer to the liturgical dialect of the Yoruba language that is used in those traditions. Some houses work with Ifá, while others only work with lines of Ocha. In Ocha lines, the senior priests, called Obá Oriatés, or the highly adept Olorishas (priests of an Orisha) will often discern the Letter recognized within their house.
Regardless whether the line is Ocha-centered or Ifá-centered, there is tremendous respect for the priests of both lineages and equally tremendous respect for the skill of the Babalawos who divine the Letter of the Year. For this column I’ll use the term Lukumí, but I feel I need to honor the fact that there is an important difference present, which perhaps I can return to in the future.
The Letter itself is a specific and direct revelation offered by Orisha Òrúnmìlà (also called Orunla), the master of divination and the most skilled of oracles. He speaks through Odu, the divination system he offered humankind, and as a result is considered one of the great benefactors and protectors of humanity. Òrúnmìlà was one of the Orisha that witnessed the creation of Ayé, the physical realm which includes Earth. From this witness, he understands the most intimate connections between the spiritual and physical. Orunmila is not a fortune-teller; he is the power that emerges when experience, wisdom and intelligence are combined.
Like other Orisha, Òrúnmìlà took physical form and developed a special relationship with Orisha Changó, who strengthened Òrúnmìlà with the gift of divination. Òrúnmìlà saw humankind’s strengths, weaknesses and follies. He could see not only the consequences of actions but also their magnitude, origins and reverberations into the world of Spirit. As he traveled the Earth, he observed how people would succumb to their own failings, their own limited understanding of the world around them and even to the ruses and traps sent forth by Orisha Elegua, the Great Trickster and Communicator. And with his knowledge, witness and prophecy, Òrúnmìlà gifted humankind the Table of Ifá that we refer to as Odu, the divinatory system through which he speaks.
The Odu are the 256 combinations of 16-by-16 square pairings that connect to stanzas and passages identifying the message sent by Orisha. To understand Odu requires years of formal study of Ifá, as well as experience in interpreting the very subtle differences across potential meanings. Babalawos train for years to become elder priests who are skilled at discerning the messages. The human ears have to be trained to listen and the eyes to see, but Òrúnmìlà speaks with clarity.
The Letter of the Year is a tradition within the Lukumí and Ifá community. While it is unclear if the tradition originated in Africa, it is well known within this community that the first of these letters was probably cast by Ño Remigio Herrera Adeshina Obara Meyi, a Nigerian-born freed slave and priest of Ifá (babalawo) in Havana, some time around the 1830s.
Since that time, the Letter has been cast in a variety of locations. Different cities were known to cast letters and different houses (congregations) also cast their own letters. However, since mid-1980s several hundred babalawos in Cuba formed an organization to conduct a common ritual and discernment. (There are actually two Letters, because of two houses; it boils down to politics.) And this Letter is released as close to New Year’s Day as possible as the ritual closes with consensus of Odu. Additionally, there is a Letter released by the Ocha/Ifá community in diaspora that occurs in Miami.
Both Letters are eagerly anticipated, and their release is one of the major events within the Ocha/Ifá community. But in June 2015, organizations in both Miami and Cuba announced that, due to the warming relations between Cuba and United States, they would discern a single and joint Letter. That first Unified Letter was released on January 2, 2016.
The 2016 Letter is below. The comments in parentheses are my translation and the explanation is added for the reader’s comprehension. But, and I want to underscore, these are not to be understood as a substitute for appropriate guidance from a godparent in the Tradition.
The Letter of the Year
From the Priests of Ifá: The Unified Letter of the Year 2016
This section refers to the specific elements of Odu; they are symbols (runes might be a better word) and proverbs that help us understand the world of 2016.
Signo Regente (The Reigning Sign): Ogbeyono
1er testigo (The First Witness) : Ogbeate
2do testigo (The Second Witness): Odditauro
* * *
This section also refers to activities and offerings to be done to limit the influence of Elegua’s trickery or bad energy.
Oracion Profetica (Prophetic Proverb): ire oma oyale lese elegba (un bien de inteligencia firme al pie de Elegua)
Onishe Elegba: Eyegbale, otan
Onishe Ara: Sarayeye jio jio meta y ebbo misi con atiponla y opolopo efun, otan
* * *
This section refers to reigning Orisha of the year and the appropriate offerings to those energies
Orisha Regente (The Reigning Orisha): Ogún
Orisha Acompañante The accompanying Orisha: Oshún
Bandera (Flag): Green with Yellow trim
Ebbo (Offerings): 1 white chicken, 1 sprig of watercress with more ingredients.
* * *
This section contains cautions related to health
- Digestive Disorder, particularly of the pancreas.
- Neurological disorders
- Outbreaks of epidemics and mass poisonings.
* * *
This section contains statements of social concern
- Bursts of migration
- Increases in foreign invesments
- Developments of agreements between countries.
- Social unrest because of desperation.
* * *
This section contains the proverbs from Odu
“El gandido agranda el vientre y achica su cabeza.” (The thief grows his belly and shrinks his head)
“La Paciencia te hace Rey.” (Patience will make you a king)
“El dinero en el mundo lo encontramos, y en el mundo lo dejamos.” (We find money in the world, and we leave it in the world)
“Cuando tenemos guerra con nuestra propia cabeza, siempre salimos vencidos.” (When we fight our nature, we always lose)
“La orgullosa laguna se aparta del arroyuelo, como si el agua no fuera lo común entre ambas.” (The proud lagoon thinks itself different from the stream forgetting the two have water in common)
* * *
The Letter also contains a series of recommendations
- Avoid pollution
- Ensure the collection of garbage and community sanitation
- Be hygienic to avoid the spread of disease
- Create favorable immigration policies
- Honor and preserve the moral and religious traditions of their practitioners
- Be cautious of manufactured products particularly in the handling and distribution of food.
- Dialogue is an important tool in solving conflicts.
- Work toward a balance between wages and the cost of necessities.
- One sign suggests a danger of war.
- One sign suggests turmoil in economic negotiations.
- There is a dangerous rise in terrorism.
- Encourage procreation and the health of infants.
- Always seek the guidance of godparents to clarify these signs and recommendations.
* * *
In Lukumí, “luck” doesn’t quite exist, or perhaps a better way to understand it is that you make choices that change what comes to you. Lukumí handles luck as an issue of Balance. Elegua also plays a role, testing us to empower us. He is the powerful Orisha of the crossroads, the opener and closer of ways the great communicator. Without him, there is no way to communicate with Orisha. He is always propitiated, for he conveys messages. He enjoys trickery and confronting us with obstacles so that we can surmount and progress as individuals and as a society. We honor him because he is present when we decide, when we speak, when we act and when we overcome.If you are balanced spiritually by reflecting on your growth, living through your strengths and recognizing your limits and understanding your choices, then you are living fully, prepared for opportunities and able to focus on relationships that will strengthen you and your community. In other words, carrying a rabbit’s foot won’t help, but if carrying that rabbit’s foot reminds you how you must conduct yourself before an Orisha, that will help.
That does not mean that there are no spiritual energies at play around you, but your Balance, through meditation, divination and offerings, allows you to navigate those energies successfully. You live fully by becoming better at who you are with each passing day.
When I describe those energies I always end up focusing water. In South Florida, when the tide turns on Biscayne Bay it is more a change of water than it is a change in height. The shallow waters surrounding us do not produce the dramatic heights of tidal changes that are seen in areas like the Bay of Fundy. (Though, if you ever find yourself in the beautiful Atlantic Provinces, add Hopewell Rocks, New Brunswick to your must-see list.)
Here in Miami, the waters change from rich green to crystal blue. It is the ebb and flow of estuary and ocean water. When estuarine water pervades, the tide is darker, full of nutrients and moving to low. Sandbars appear and fill up with boaters and birds. Bottlenose dolphins begin their hunting and island-dwelling raccoons look for shellfish. When the ocean water prevails, the tide is clear and high. The dearth of nutrients common in tropical waters produce clear conditions giving bay waters the clarity of a swimming pool.
If you remain in Balance, you are able to see the benefits of the murky water: the nutrition. You are also able to navigate its dangers. You can’t see well and low tide can leave you beached. The same is true for the ocean water. It may clear, but it is also deeper.
The Letter is composed of three main parts followed by recommendations describing health, community, economics, politics and general welfare. The first part are the Odu. They are the proverbs, statements of offerings and symbolic identifiers that are marking the coming year. This section is really for priests and how they can offer support both to their community and their godchildren. While the Odu applies to all people, the use of Odu for spiritual purposes is done with the assistance of a priest. However, the recommendations found later in the Letter will describe proverbs related to the Odu in more detail.
The second part of the Letter marks the governing Orisha and the accompanying Orisha. The governing Orisha of 2016 is Ogún. He is the first Orisha to choose to enter Ayé, the Earth, and ultimately became the patron of civilization. He is the great crafter of tools and the Orisha of technology. It is through him and his tools that humans cleared the wild and built their cities.
He is also a skilled warrior yet cautions on weaponry. He offers, for example, a blade that can be used by assassins to kill or surgeons to heal. He is both brooding and industrious disposed to anger and creativity. He lives in the wild but enjoys visiting train tracks and is proud of the technological and artistic achievements of humans. He is the husband of Oyá and understands both his children and hers. To summon his energy in abundance, offerings including fried green plantains, smoked fish, grapes and cigars. He is partial to rum-soaked watermelon. But most of all, he likes big — big— meals.
The second part of the Letter will also identify the accompanying Orisha, and it is here that the Letter does get unusually complicated and requires guidance from priests. Not only does this part represent a presence of a second energy to support the first, but the two in combination are important. And the Odu will identify fables (patakis) about the relationship between the Orisha that describe how the governing energy must be managed.
This year, the accompanying Orisha is Oshún. She is the Orisha of beauty, love and sweetness. She is flirtatious and sensual yet serious and generous. She brings attention to the power of women and strengths to serve and lead. Her energies will be present and possibly tempering the dominant Orisha. Oshún is the essence and mystery of femininity. She loves gold, both the color and the metal. She is partial to honey but enjoys anything that is sweet. She also loves baked yams in brown sugar and butter. Offerings to her will call her energy.The remainder of the Letter describe precautions and proverbs noting aspects of life and health that would benefit from careful attention or observation over the year.
I think it also important that the Letter not be understood as a prophecy, so to speak. it’s not meant to forecast the future, and certainly not in the way we might see in psychic predictions. Divination is not about the future. It is about us. It is about our place in the now; how we move through time; how we can build that better future free of scourges and vices that weaken our human community.
The Letter in this regard might best be understood as calibrating us to the unseen environment around us. While the governing Orisha may set processes in motion that can impact future events, those events are not typically identified. It’s a spiritual weather report. Something like how conditions in the Western Pacific suggest the formation of a powerful El Niño. We know — all too well right now — what weather an El Niño event disposes us to, but we can’t say exactly where there will be a thunderstorm, flood, landslide or tornado. We can plan, prepare, observe and act.
Ultimately, the underlying point of Odu is that we can manage our luck. We do so through offerings and understanding. This year, the Letter speaks to how intelligence and reflections will be critical to how we work the year. It also speaks to how we approach our acceptance and understanding of our own behavior; whether through science, reflection, offerings or rituals, they bring forth opportunities to make profound changes, take charge and even start fresh. Recognizing the energies around us, helps us use them to strengthen ourselves and our community.
In that sense, the Letter is a vehicle for empowerment. In many ways, our collective Pagan space evolved from a demand for self-determination. It is a resource to fortify us as we engage the world around to eliminate sources of personal and social oppression. Like the returning sun that we celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere a few days ago, we can build a bright, inclusive and safe future for our community. That is how Lukumi demands we act: as repairers of world restoring Peace and Balance. And knowing the weather helps, to sow and harvest, even in winter.
¡Feliz Año Nuevo! Eku odun tuntun! And many blessings in the New Year.