Saturday, March 20, 2010
Las Siete Potencias Africanas
The "Seven African Powers" as shown on this prayercard is one of my favorite syncretic images. This card is easily found in Botanicas in New York City, as are glass-encased candles bearing a similar image. It's not exactly Santeria, in that actual Lucumi/Yoruba religion as practiced in the houses of initiatory tradition doesn't really have much to do with this old-fashioned mixing of saints and orishas. It's more a spiritual touchstone, recognizing the centuries of ancestors who kept alive African traditions of worship beneath the surface of Catholicism. There's a sort of parallel tradition of spiritualism, espiritismo, that has largely replaced Yoruba style egungun worship as ancestor reverence in the new world. It's a mix of European Kardecian spiritualism and all sorts of folk traditions, and more likely to be eclectically ecumenical in its symbolism and iconography. Lighting up a 7 African Powers candle isn't gonna make you an initiated priest of Chango, but it can start you on the path of getting in touch with your spirit guides and ancestral spirits.
Anyway here are seven of the major orishas portrayed as Catholic saints; surrounding Olofi, one of the identities of God, portrayed as Jesus. It's all very complicated, each facet of each illustration telling a complicated story of spiritual meaning in both its original Catholic myth and its Santeria correspondence.
My favorite of these syncretic combinations is Saint Barbara at the top: ironically a teenaged warrior princess armed with a sword and a chalice is shown to represent Chango--Shango, Xango, Sango--the most passionately male orisha there is. Chango radiates raw masculine strength and sexuality; when he mounts his initiates, male or female, the very air in the room changes, filled with an almost animalistic heavy male magnetism. Its a beautiful experience to be blessed by Chango, who rules fire and lightning. This syncretic image reveals something to me so profound about inner passion and gender; it's a kind of visual shorthand for what could be an extended theological treatise.