Oshumare – The Sacred Serpent
While many folks are celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th, I thought it would be a fine time to share about serpents within a Candomblé and Yoruba religious context. The following is an original translation from Pierre Fatumbi Verger’s Orixás – Deuses Iorubás na África e no Novo Mundo.
“Oshumare in Africa
Oshumare is the serpent-rainbow; he has multiple functions. They say that he is one of Shango’s servants and that his work consists of gathering rainfall and taking it back up to the clouds…but in this definition we find a certain elementary-school tone of explaining and describing natural phenomena.
Oshumare is movement and activity. One of his duties is to drive the forces that produce movement. He is the lord of everything that is elongated. The umbilical cord, which is under his control, is generally buried with the placenta under a palm tree which becomes the property of the newborn, whose health will depend on the tree’s conservation. He is the symbol of continuity and permanence, and sometimes, is represented by a serpent that twists and bites its own tail. He wraps himself around the earth to keep it from falling apart. If he lost his strength, it would be the end of the world…this is an excellent reason to not be negligent with his offerings.
Oshumare is, at the same time, male and female. This dual-nature appears in the colors red and blue that surround the rainbow.
He also represents wealth, one of the most appreciated benefits in Yoruba worldview.
Some legends of Ifa tell that,
“He was once a babalawo, ‘son-of-the-owner-of-bright-colored-stoles’. He began his life with a long period of mediocrity and his peers held him in contempt. His eventual attainment of glory and power is symbolized in the rainbow, which, when it appears makes people exclaim, “Well, well, there’s Oshumare!” This shows that he is universally recognized, and like the presence of the rainbow keeps rain from falling, it also demonstrates his power.”
This same babalawo Oshumare was exploited by Olofin, the king of Ife, his main client. He divined his luck every four days, but the king paid him sparingly, and Oshumare struggled to get by. Luckily for him, he was called by Olokun, queen of a neighboring kingdom, whose son suffered from a strange illness: he wasn’t able to stand on his own legs, he has seizures, and in these moments, would roll over ardent leaves from a bonfire. Oshumare cured the child of his illness and went back to Ife with lots of presents, well-dressed in the most beautiful blue clothes. Olofin, shocked by this sudden splendor felt bad about his previous greed, he competed with Olokun’s generosity by also gifting Oshumare with valuable gifts and offering him fine red clothes. Oshumare became rich, respectable and respected, not imagining that even better times were on the way. Olodumare, the supreme God, had issues with his vision and called for Oshumare. He had once been cured by Oshumare, and vowed never to separate from him again. Since that time, Oshumare lived in the sky and was only authorized to walk on earth from time to time. On these occasions, the people became rich and happy.
The place of origin for this Orisha, along with Obaluaye and Nana Buruku, would be with the Mahi in the former kingdom of Dahomey, where he is called Dan. Blue beads, segi in Yoruba, are called Danmi (“serpent excrement”) in the Fon language. According to tradition, these beads are found under the earth, where they are brought to the surface by snakes; they say their value is equal to gold.
Among the Mahi and Fon, Dan plays a more important role than Oshumare plays for the Yoruba. For the Fon, Oshumare brings wealth to humans.
The Orisha of wealth is called Aje Shaluga in Ife, where they say she arrived among Odudwa’s 16 companions. It’s represented by a big shell.
Oshumare’s oriki are very descriptive:
Oshumare who stays in the sky/ controls the rain that falls to earth/ arrives in the forest and breaths like the wind. Father, come to us so we can grow and have a long life.
Oshumare in the New World
In Brazil, worshipers of Oshumare wear yellow and green glass beads; Tuesday is his sacred day. His initiates use braja, long cowry necklaces strung in a way that looks like snakeskin. They carry ebiri in their hand, a type of broom made with palm stems. They can also carry an iron staff forged like snakes. While dancing, his iyawos alternately point up to the sky and down to the earth. People scream “Aoboboi!!!” to salute him. Oshumare takes offerings of ducks, mixtures of black beans, corn and shrimp cooked in palm oil.
In Bahia, Oshumare is syncretized with Saint Bartholomew. He is celebrated in a small city bearing his name. The faithful gather there on August 24th in order to bathe in a cascade covered by a humid mist where the sun permanently gives light to Oshumare’s rainbow.
People of Oshumare wish to be rich; they’re patient and perseverant in their undertakings, and don’t worry about sacrificing in order to reach their goals. The tendency they have to be duplicitous could be attributed to the androgynous nature of their god. They easily become proud and pompous upon gaining success and like to show their new greatness. Their generosity is unstoppable and they don’t refuse to extend help to those in need.”