Saturday, December 04, 2010
In Praise of Sta. Barbara
The story goes that St. Barbara was a teenage Pagan princess who converted to Christianity in the third century. She was imprisoned in a tower by her jealous father; when he found out she was a Christian he tried to have her killed. Many attempts at martyring her failed until her loving father finally cut off her head, for which crime he was promptly struck by lightning and burnt to a crisp. Because of her royal stature, her red vestments, and her relationship to this avenging lightning, she came to be syncretized with the Yoruba deity Shango (Chango in the new world), "god," or orisha, of war and fire and lightning. Despite the fact that Santa Barbara was a virginal innocent maiden, Chango represents a fiery, masculine force of raw sexuality. The young Santa Barbara is shown carrying her father's sword, the one he used to decapitate her. But it makes her look like a warrior, and the sword compares easily to Chango's legendary double-headed axe. Today, December 4, is Santa Barbara day.
The photo above is my shrine to Santa Barbara ca. 1994, before I was initiated into Santeria and received the actual sacraments of the orisha Chango. I loved my spiritual shrine to Sta. Barbara/Chango! That's the traditional Catholic image of Sta. Barbara on the left that has been adopted by syncretic Santeria; and the statue of the young saint (dwarfing the tower in which she was imprisoned) is there in the center. Those are unconsecrated red and white Chango beads, the kind you buy in a botanica, rather than receive in a ceremony. That's a handcarved wooden mortar, also a symbol of Chango, a little Santa Barbara scapular, and the traditional 7-day Seven African Powers candle showing her at the top.
The statue on the right of my old shrine is one sometimes used to represent Chango; it's a terrible several-generations removed copy of one of the blackamoor statues of Baroque German sculptor Balthasar Permoser shown here. More delicious irony that a deity synonymous with fierce pride and dignity should be represented in part by a statue rooted in antique renaissance-era European racist fascination with black servitude. Santeros, that is, initiates of the Lukumi tradition rather than generic Latin American spiritualists, tend to recognize this statue as an image of the powerful Congo spirit from the Palo tradition, Siete Rayos. Siete Rayos is similar to Chango, a spirit/deity of lightning, thunder and fire. While Santeros might have spiritual shrines to Siete Rayos or Santa Barbara, including statues or metal pots, our actual reverence is directed to the consecrated wooden vessel we receive in which reside the stones containing the essence of Chango's power. Some Santeros throw parties for Chango on Saint Barbara's day.
There's nothing more inspiring than seeing a dancing priest of Chango mounted by the diety: it begins with a sort of pantomime of reaching to the sky for thunderbolts and flinging them to earth, and ends when the orisha himself fills the priest with divine energy. Priests or priestesses of Chango are usually sturdy, beefy people: when possessed with their orisha they radiate strength.
I still have some of these altar pieces, though the extended spiritual altar that this was part of was consumed by a fire when I was a Iyawo, a new initiate of the religion. The first lesson Chango teaches you is never, never, be careless with fire. So that's how I'm going to celebrate the day, by staying away from matches. Kabiosile! Oba ko so! The King is in the house! The King does not hang!