The realm of Osaín or Osayin encompasses all flora, fauna and the land. Osaín is at the very heart of the Orisha practices. Those of us who are initiated as Olorishas know that we are born with herbs and go back to Olofi aided with the power of herbs.
Osaín lives in the woods, el monte. He is represented as an old man with one eye, one leg, one arm, a large ear which is deaf and one small ear that allows him to listen to the faintest of sounds in the woods. Why is Osaín mishappen? There are at least three patakís (Orisha folk stories) that describe conflicts between Osaín, Oyá, Shangó and Ifá. Ultimately, the patakís all end with Osaín being maimed and the secrets of herbs scattered on the ground for the use of all Orishas.
Learning the secrets of Osaín requires a lifetime of dedication. It is not enough to memorize the plants and to have general knowledge of how they are used. The powers of plants are only fully understood when we learn not only with Osaín, but also taking into account the world of spirits and listening to the plants themselves. It takes an open and empathic mind, a blessed memory and learning to see and feel beyond the what our five senses allow us to perceive.
Understanding the power of plants is a personal journey, however, it is also a community experience. Each person has a unique relationship with nature and with their own spiritual framework. Knowledge is shared and that is an intrinsic part of the lessons we learn when we study the world of Osaín.
Learning about Osaín is a personal journey
When a person devotes time to learn about the world of Osaín, a personal journey begins. This journey can have a head start depending on multiple elements. For example, a person raised in a rural environment may have a deeper understanding of the cycles of the land and be better in tune with them than a person raised in the inner city. Factors such as education, upbringing, cultural biases, and even access to learning foreign languages, to name a few, all play a part in how we learn.
Regardless of what makes us be ahead or behind on the learning curve, the most important part is the desire to learn. You can have some with a head start who may not have the desire to learn and those who have less availability of resources, but a great heart and mind to dedicate to the pursuit of the knowledge of Osaín. What is truly important is to recognize that it takes an open and calm mind to listen and tune in to the energies of plants. They have no other way of communicating than through scent, color, taste, and yes, the energy patterns they convey which we must be attuned to understand.
Learning about Osaín is a community experience
Oddú Ogbe dí tells us that knowledge is shared. Shared knowledge is power. When a community comes together to share what it knows, it is empowered together, grows, and thrives together. When we learn about Osaín as a religious community and share our personal knowledge and background, we grow without selfishness and without unfounded fear. How many times have I not heard as an excuse for not sharing knowledge, "I can’t teach everything I know"? That is called insecurity and selfishness. A person who possesses knowledge will not face death the same way that the person who lacks that knowledge. Don't be afraid to share what you know, after all, Osaín himself learned the hard way and at a great personal cost that knowledge must be shared and selfishness is rewarded with loss.
Sharing our interpretation and collection of experiences about a given plant and the things that plant can do allows us to create better ebbó. Moreover, when we come together to share experiences, we incorporate an additional crucial element: What we learn with our spirits guides and with Osaín and other orishas—all in direct communication with the energies of nature because of their fluid state of being.
Is learning about Osaín a gender-based role?
As an Olosha I struggle with gender-based roles in our religion. Although Osaín possesses no heads and it is not crowned, there is a preponderance of men as the keepers of Osain’s knowledge. Do women have an official role in the Lukumí tradition with regards to herbs, plants, and animals. How about with regards to Osaín? When do women play a role directly related to Osaín?
Osaín is the orisha that represents the totality of nature, he has the power and domain of the totality of vegetation (herbs, vines, plants, trees, and nature or “el monte”), he also rules over animals (insects, reptiles, fish, birds, mammals) as well as minerals (rocks, metals and different kinds of the earth). In some houses, receiving Osaín is reserved for male oloshas. There is even a pakatí in oddú Iwori Yeku which refers to the disobedience of an Osaínista who thought his secrets to his woman and Osaín punished both of them by transforming the woman to a man and the Osaín priest with impotence, loss of hearing and sight. Is this a cautionary patakí or is a coded message among men to simply keeping women from learning?
I wonder if the patakí where Oyá and Shango help to gain the calabash of Osaín full of herbs and secrets and share it with the other orishas is not a way to balance the score of hoarding knowledge.
One observation, Osaín is represented by a male figure and again this orisha is not crowned but received, however, other orishas associated with masculinity—all crowned—are Shangó, Obatalá, Ogún, Ochosi, Babalú Aiyé, and Aganyú and I have met countless females who are initiated to them.
When I posed the question to my elder Jorge Puig Kaiser, Iwori Oddí, who is 91 years old, he said to me in his calm and slow voice, “Do always as your own Orisha alagbatori allows you. Consult with your orisha and also count in with your own orí and you will not fail.” I leave everyone to count on the guidance of their elders and their orishas to make their own choices.
In any case, there is no denying that female oloshas play an integral part in the cult of Osaín. From growing the herbs, to healing and creating ebbó with them, the hands of women have always been present in our practices. There is nothing that compares to the fellowship and the energy that is raised when iyaloshas and babaloshas lend their voices, hands, and hearts to the process of creating omiero. It is in this process that the fruits of Osaín have transformed with prayers and songs into the lustral waters to birth an iyawó and his/her Orishas.
My question to you each of you is, why refrain from learning about herbs, fauna, flora, and minerals when that knowledge can be the very thing that helps us as oloshas to heal, protect ourselves and even save others?
I will continue this conversation about Osaín in upcoming posts where we will talk about general concepts and practices related to the world of Osaín.
As always, your thoughts and comments are appreciated.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá