(As published in: Sacred Hoop, 29, Summer 2000 by Susanne Iles)
The Divine Trickster born of ancient myth and found in many cultures across the face of the world, is sometimes known as the Coyote, Raven, Rabbit or Fox. His form changes depending on language and culture. The Yoruba peoples of West Africa, however, know him as Eshu, the divine messenger, who is both loved and feared for his mischief, generosity and hard lessons.
Eshu is considered the most important of the four warrior gods called the Orisa. Traveling through time in the hearts of the slaves taken to the Americas, the Orisa became known to the Portuguese as the Orixa and to the Spanish as the Orisha1. The ancient religion which devotes prayerful worship to the Orisa is properly known as Regla de Ocha, meaning "The Rule of the Orisha"2.
The name Santeria or "The Way of the Saints", was a colonial term introduced by the Spanish yet is a description commonly used today. Eshu himself went through a variety of changes as he travelled from culture to culture, being called Eleggua in Cuba and Exu in Brazil. No matter what his name, he is a powerful deity whose dual nature flickers with the nuances of day and night, light and dark, cruelty and kindness, creation and destruction - the Divine Trickster.
The Trickster Eshu can be a teacher most kind and cruel. One old story tells of him undertaking a mischievous journey wearing a tall hat, red on one side, white on the other. Making not a sound he walked between two friends, one seeing the white side of his hat, the other seeing the red. Later in the day the two friends spoke to one another about the mysterious man in the hat. Surprisingly, they began to bicker about the colour of the hat. White! Red! The bickering turned to blows, as each man professed to know the right answer and demanded to be acknowledged as the victor in the violent discussion. The Trickster Eshu chuckled at the sight and walked over to the men, now bloodied and angry, and showed them his hat - red on one side and white on the other. He was delighted by the fact they would fight about something as ridiculous as the colour of another man’s hat, ruining their long-standing friendship in the process.
Taking pleasure in testing the strengths and weaknesses of mankind, he provides the lesson of making the right choices in life. He can be found at the crossroads and can see in all directions, watching carefully those who do wrong. His punishment is swift but he can be kind as well, sitting judgement and viewing all sides of a situation.
Eshu is seen as sitting at the threshold, guarding the many doors and roads which make up the human journey through life. We move through the doors of childhood to adulthood, single life to partnerships, mundane to magic, despair to happiness, birth to death, all the while hoping we are taking the right door or right path which greets us along the way. In Yoruba spirituality, Eshu owns the roads and can provide opportunities and direction. When asked kindly Eshu can point the way but people must still decide for themselves which way to travel. Although Eshu can direct someone along a path, it may be a sunlit journey of opportunity or a dark, thorny trail if it is decided a lesson is to be learned.
As the messenger between Heaven and Earth Eshu communicates the prayers of mankind, not only to the ears of the other Orisa but to the Creator god. Spiritual tradition requires Eshu to be honoured first in any ceremony if messages are to be heard and blessings received. Gifts of toys, candies, rum and gin are much appreciated by Eshu. In many homes, a figure representing the god is created and placed behind the front door. A child’s toy representing youth and a walking stick symbolising old age are normally placed with him. The walking stick is painted in the two colours of the Trickster, either red and black or black and white, accented with eyes to remind people of his all-seeing nature. His presence as the gatekeeper ensures a balanced and safe home.
The Trickster archetype found in the deity Eshu reminds us of the care and respect we must have for all life. Life isn’t just black and white, but contains shades of gray and all the colours of the rainbow. Though careful consideration and respect must be maintained, we cannot forget to make room for a small amount of chaos, the creative wellspring from which beauty and delight flow, where passions arise and the spices of life are experienced. The magic of Eshu wakes us up and teaches us to live life to its fullest potential. Although we must remember to be wary of the Trickster with his many names and guises, it suits us well to welcome him as a most powerful ally.
1. Kathleen O'Connor, Africana, "Orishas," http://www.africana.com/tt_008.htm (6 May 2000)
2. B.A. Robinson, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, "Santeria, Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumi and Lukumi," http://www.religioustolerance.org/santeri.htm (6 May 2000).
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