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Proyecto Orunmila Texts




 The Proyecto Orunmila Texts of Osha-Ifá in Regla, Cuba[1]

Henry Lovejoy

            The collection of religious documents on Osha-Ifá, which is commonly associated with Santería, consists of 61 books in six volumes. The data was collected by a research team of anthropologists called Proyecto Orunmila. Ernesto Valdés Janet has been the director since 1972. From their home in Regla, Havana, Proyecto Orunmila has compiled the data, edited, and published Los documentos para la historia de Osha-Ifá en Cuba. Proyecto Orunmila is named after the Yorùbá god of divinationwhich has many names including Ifá, and Orunmila. These religious documents are used by followers, and especially babalawos (priests), of the Osha-Ifá cult throughout Cuba, and in the United States. The six volumes are entitled Cartillas de Ifá (First-readings of Ifá), Tratado enciclopédico de caminos (Encyclopaedia of Pathways), El libro blanco mitológico-sapiencial de Osha-Ifáen Cuba 1972-1998 (The white book of Osha-Ifá wisdom in Cuba, 1972-1998), Manuscritos de viejos afrocubanos (Manuscripts of Afro-Cuban elders), Magio y hechizos (Magic, and Witchcraft), and Deidades, cermonias y ritos de Osha-Ifá (Deities, ceremonies, and rituals of Osha-Ifá). These books are generally restricted to practitioners because they contain many ritualistic secrets associated with the cult. These books can be bought online at www.proyectoorunmila.com.

            The six volumes can be divided into two sections. The first section consists of the following volumes: Cartillas de Ifá, Tratado enciclopédico de caminos, El libro blanco mitológico-sapiencial de Osha-Ifáen Cuba 1972-1998, and Manuscritos de viejos afrocubanos. These volumes fall into a similar category because they have systematically categorized the complex divination system of Osha-Ifá.In Osha-Ifá divination, sixteen cowry shells, or a necklace of sixteen palm nuts, are cast onto a divining mat. Depending on how the shells or nuts land (much like heads or tails) the result can be considered even or odd and will determine the odun. On a diving board, the babalawo will record the results with an “I” or an “O.” The babalawo will throw for a total of eight times until the odun is obtained. What the babalawo etches into the sand of the diving board (usually with his finger) can look something like this:

 

I           O

I           O

I           O

I           O

 

Of the sixteen possible combinations in each colums of four, there are a total of 256 odun possibilities in total. Each combination of the columns has a different name (such as, Irete, Oshe, Ogbe, etc…). Proyecto Orunmila’s books are organized according to the odun which can be located at the top of each page. With the aid of these books, babalawos are able to study the different odu, and have easy access to the pwataki (myths or legends) associated with each divination. These books are an essential part of the education that is normally passed on orally in Osha-Ifá traditions, which derived from Yorùbáculture in West Africa, and were brought over to Cuba during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  

           Cartillas de Ifá consists of four books which are probably the most interesting for anthropologists, and historians, because Proyecto Orunmila has duplicated and re-published documents from the early-nineteenth century. According to a synopsis from www.proyectoorunmila.com, these books examine each of the 256 odun of Ifá in relation to their character, and the orishas (deities) they encompass. These books lay out the practical foundations of the Regla de Ifá (rules of Ifá)in Cuba.  

The first three books of this volume are called Los tratados de odun de Ifá (The odun treaties of Ifá). Proyecto Orunmila has been carefully investigating these sources to determine when they were written, and under what circumstances. For the most part it seems that the babalawos Ramón Febles Padrón Ogbe Tua,and Benito Rodríguez Oshe Paure were responsible for the originals. They were compiled, and shared as homemade notes among their respective house-temples. These books are important because these two babalawos were the students of the African-born babalawo No José Akonkon omo ody Ifa Oyekun Meyi. Valdés told me that No José arrived in Cuba in the late-19th century from Nigeria.  

            The second book, entitled Awo de Orunla: Dice Ifá is equally important. It is commonly referred to as Dice Ifá (Ifá says). This volumehas become essential in terms of the education of babalawos in Cuba because it is one book with all 256 odu. Pedro Arango was the “author,” and it first emerged in 1948. Arango was one of the first anthropologists from Cuba of Afro-Cuban decent. He designed this book for babalawos as a reference book which can be easily be carried from place to place. According to www.proyectoorunmila.com, “Dice Ifá functions within the context of religious systems inherited from the Lukumi peoples.” Unfortunately, the reproduction, and distribution of Dice Ifá frequently took place from house-temple to house-temple, and as a result, many unauthorized changes were made. It has therefore been next to impossible to determine which version or edition was the original. Proyecto Orunmila’s ongoing research has sought to correct some of those unauthorized changes in their re-publication of Dice Ifá.  

            The volume called Tratado enciclopédico de caminos contains 17 books, which are based according the sixteen names of the odun. The enciclopédico maintains the same structural configuration found in Cartillas de Ifá in that a diagram representing the odun is located at the top of each page. In this volume Proyecto has combined all the similarities, and differences found in the different books of Cartillas de Ifá. Proyecto Orunmila claims that these volumes are, “the most valuable anthropological works ever done on the Cuban religions of African origin.” On their website, Proyecto Orunmila has provided a summary for each book in this volume.  

           El libro blanco mitológico-sapiencial de Osha-Ifáen Cuba 1972-1998 is based on the work Facundo Sevilla Mollina who was a babalawo/botanist, and son of the Ossain, the òrìsà of herbs, and healing. He was rumoured to have cured many skin ailments. He built a shelter which served as a hospital in c. 1917 for black people who were sick. It was called La Yagussa. This collection of documents relates to the knowledge of this famous babalawo, and focuses on the traditions associated with the orisha Ossain.  

           Manuscritos de viejos afrocubanos consists of six books. This series attempts to systematize, via texts originally produced by elders, all of the knowledge about the odun liturgy of Osha-Ifá. The material in this collection comes from very trustworthy sources that are very old or have recently passed away. These elders wished to contribute to Proyecto Orunmila’s cause in order to have their knowledge transcribed in order to pass it on to ensuing generations.  

            The last two volumes in this series take on a different form than the other section of volumes related to Osha-Ifá divination, and odun. Magio y hechizos,and Deidades, cermonias y ritos de Osha-Ifá is mainly comprised of the ritualistic knowledge called fundamentos. These two volumes are primarily for babalawos who would consult them prior to performing rituals of sacrifice, whether for health, and protection. Babalawos are the only people properly trained in being able to decode the complex hybrid Yorùbá-Spanish dialect. For example, these are the ingredients for wanting “Good from Elegua:”  

 

Para bueno (de Elegua)

Se cicubab tres pescaditos en su salsa de tomate y se le ponen arriba de Elegua con siete Atare, se mastican y se le sopa Oti.[2]

 

            The Magia y hechizos volume is divided into two books, Tratado de Ossain, and Tratado de Eshe-Eleguara. Both books are similar in that they are, in theory, the fundamentos of Osha-Ifá witchcraft. In essence, they provide the ingredients for whatever needs to be sacrificed to the orishas depending on the context or the odu,and suyeres (songs, and prayers). The difference between the two books is that the first is dedicated to the orisha Ossain while the second book is devoted to the diverse nature, and many faces of Elegua. These two books are commonly used by most babalawos because Elegua and Ossain are the two orishas most commonly sacrificed to. Elegua is the orisha of the crossroads and is always the first orisha addressed in any ritual.

            The books included in Deidades, cermonias y ritos de Osha-Ifá is comparable to Magia y hechizos except that include the ritualistic instructions, and ingredients for the many other orishas. This volume consists of 33 books and each book is named after specific orishas, such as Chango, Ogun, Yemaya, Oshun, etc… It is perhaps no surprising that aren’t more volumes because there are an infinite number of orishas. Nevertheless, this series attempts to catalogue as many descriptions, character traits, and ingredients needed for the numerous rituals intended for the 33 orishas included.  In essence, these books contain the fundamentos or knowledge which is required in sacrifices to the orishas.

            The work of Proyecto Orunmila is impressive in that they are attempting to document living history as it unfolded in the past and continues to unfold in the present. The numerous volumes demonstrate the difficulty of the task at hand. I suspect more books will be added to this impressive collection in the years to come. However, I fear their ongoing research since 1972 has not been properly documented especially since they have intermittently sought advice from numerous babalawos in Regla and Guanabacoa, Havana. More research is therefore required into Proyecto Orunmila because, upon review of the documents, it is not always clear when they have referenced the copied information and when they have implemented their own views and beliefs.


  

[1] This summary of Proyecto Orunmila’s documents was the result of a trip to Cuba in 2001 when I lived with Proyecto Orunmila for a period of three months. I put together this summary under the guidance of Dr. David Trotman and my father. It was submitted to SHADD in 2002. This summary was revised in 2006.   

[2]Magia y hechizos: tratado de Eshu-Eleguara. (Habana: Proyecto Orunmila, 1992), 74. “You cook three small fish in your tomato sauce and put it above Elegua with seven Atare, [then] you chew Oti soup” (my translation).