When you become a priest, you are given ewo - taboos. These ewo are things that are taken away from you as part of your agreement with the Orisha. Everyone’s ewo are different – for some people, they can’t have fish anymore, for others they can’t wear patterned clothing anymore. The things taken away from us are things that are bad for us, and there’s often a reason for it. One thing that was taken away from me was polyamory.
It’s a strange thing to take away polyamory in a religion that comes from a polygynous culture. Men in Yoruba culture typically had multiple wives (and sometimes women had multiple wives, which is another story entirely). But there’s a pataki that illustrates why polyamory is bad for some people, like me.
One day, Shango the great king of the Orisha had a wife named Oba. He loved her very much, but Shango, like many men, had a wandering eye. First, his eyes settled on Oshun, the Orisha of love and beauty, and she agreed to be his concubine. At first Oba was fine with this arrangement, because Shango divided his time equally between them. Oshun could satisfy Shango’s sexual needs, while Oba remained his queen and confidante.
Soon, Shango’s eyes began to wander again. This time they landed on the fierce Oyá, warrior Orisha of the whirlwind. He seduced Oyá away from her husband Ogun, and brought her home with him.
Oba, too, was a fierce warrior. In fact, she taught Shango how to fight with the short sword, and even taught Oyá how to fight with the cutlass. But with three wives, Shango was so busy giving his affections to Oshun and Oyá that he began to forget all about the brilliant Oba. And she worried that she couldn’t compete. For though she, too, was an Orisha of sensuality like Oshun, Oshun was clearly more powerful in that arena. And though she was also a fierce warrior, Oyá was the only woman Shango would allow to ride with him into battle (allow is a strong word here, I think it’s more like Oyá decided to go and he didn’t have a choice) and she wore pants.
Oba cried to Oshun that she didn’t know what to do to bring back Shango’s affections, and Oshun comforted her. Oba begged Oshun to teach her how to cook better, so that she might get Shango’s attention that way. Oshun went to Oyá and mentioned this to her, and Oyá, being a very cunning woman, told Oshun that she had just the ebó (spell) for Oba to use to win back Shango’s heart.
Oshun went back to Oba and helped her prepare a soup. As with most ebó, it came with a sacrifice.
When Shango sat down for dinner, Oba brought him the soup. She set it down in front of him, and stood, watching. He barely looked up at her and set about eating it. Part way through, he noticed something strange in the soup. He fished it out with his spoon, and, to his horror, discovered that it was a human ear.
He looked up at Oba and before he could shout at her, he saw that her head was bandaged underneath her headwrap. She had cut off her own ear and tried to feed it to him. Shango became enraged, both because she had tried to use witchcraft on him, and because she had mutilated her own head. He banished her from the kingdom. Oyá had betrayed her in order to win all of Shango’s affections for herself.
Oba ran away, crying, and kept running until she found the one place he would never go. She went to live in the cemetery, where she kept records of the dead (incidentally inventing writing, libraries, and maps). When she comes down in possession now, we cover her ear.
If only Shango had appreciated his wife, all of this tragedy could’ve been averted.
And that, kids, is why I’m not allowed to be poly. I went into my initiation in a poly relationship, and sure enough, I was Oba. In poly situations, I’m often under-appreciated and ignored, treated as second best or third best to whatever shiny new person comes along. Oba’s story has continued to have a profound effect on the relationships I have. She is very special to me, and I hope to learn from her errors, as well as from her triumphs. I must always remember that no man (or woman) is worth cutting off my own ear.
THE WOMEN OF CHANGO
Legitimate wife of Shango is Oba, majestic Queen of his Castle (home).
It is that no woman can satisfy the God of virility, Sango needs fire and the passion aroused in the his two lovers, OSHUN and OYA.
OBA provides Shango perpetual devotion and stability, because she is the Orisha, patron saint of home builders.
OSHUN-Yoruba Aphrodite gives Shango the sensual pleasures that he craves, while OYA is probably his favorite is the only woman who takes her to the war because she is as good as the Shango Warrior.
As a culture we are quite use to the artistic treatment of religious, spiritual, and mythical entities from Greek ancestral lore, various world religions, and other cultural heroes, yet rarely is the fascinating world of the Orisha the topic of discussion. These images are gorgeous, shocking, and of course the artist James C Lewis’s interpretation, but hopefully this images remind you of the the power, complexity, and richness of Yoruba spirituality.
Oba - Yoruban Goddess of Rivers. Oba is an West African goddess, worshiped primarily in Nigeria, and also in the Santerian and Yoruban New World traditions. She forms a triad with Oshun and Oya. Oba is the power of flowing water, representing the inevitable flow of time and life, and the movement of energy. She is the dutiful wife who shows honor and loyalty to her husband, even when it is undeserving.