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Ashó Eleguá: Initiation Garments as Art, Ritual Object and Textile Codex

Gala hat for an iyawó Eleguá.

June 1st was a day of transformation for my youngest son. He completed his initiation ceremony as an olosha at the hands of his godfather, Ogún Addá Araí and his Oyugbonakán Yegedé. The months leading to the kariosha were busy with preparations and planning. There are many elements that must be carefully sorted out to have a smooth kariosha. The initial steps involve coordinating dates for officiating oloshas, then come sorting out materials, planning meals, inviting participants, and then comes my favorite part, planning for the ashó orisha or the initiatory garments.

The ashó orisha varies depending on the orisha. However, in the New World initiatory clothes have become a textile codex. The ashó orisha can narrate a story, represent the symbols associated with the orisha or be a simple garment depending on the level of skill and imagination of the seamstress or tailor. For me, beyond a textile codex, the ashó orisha is an opportunity to prepare a spiritual armor for the new initiate. This armor will have elements sacred to the orisha, the appropriate colors and will indeed surround the iyawó with all the energy and good wishes I will imbue in them. In a sense, the ashó orisha is a ritual object of importance because it shows the stately position of the iyawó and it represents the presence of the orisha, the history and tradition behind the orisha and it becomes the focus of attention during the Throne Day.

Vest and pants for the crowning of an iyawó Eleguá

I am particular about who I work an ashó orisha, when and why. Since being a seamstress is not my occupation, but rather a devotional activity and it involves a great deal of my personal time and energies, then I select carefully when and who I create for. Also it is crucial for me to know the iyawó, to be able to study their body, the way they move and their own sense of style. If the iyawó is to wear the ashó orisha properly, then she or he needs to be able to move well in it, to be free to dance in them and to feel comfortable to for one day, be the embodiment of an orisha on earth. In the case of Eleguá, there are various pieces that need to be produced. For Eleguá there is a set of clothes that are made with burlap for the crowning process, and then there is the set of clothes that the iyawó wears on the Throne day for lunch and the gala dress. Most other iyawós get crowned on plain white clothes, but not the warriors.

Here are the clothes I made for my little one. I will explain the symbols and process of creation behind each piece.

Burlap pants with red and black highlights influenced by medieval fashion.

Working on burlap is not an easy process, it tends to fray easily and as you cut the lovely rough burlap it releases a bit of dust which causes the skin to itch. Yes, working on a piece of unrefined material and making it look like art is challenging. In this case, you can see the use of arrows which represent roadways, direction and destiny. Furthermore, all elements are arranged on series of 3 and Eleguá’s favorite tool was incorporated on the design as per the godfather’s suggestion. Oggún Addá Araí contributed his ideas for the design as every godparent-to-be should do.

Vest shows elements of Eleguá’s: Garabato, Cowry shells and arrows representing destiny and pathways.

The next set of clothes the iyawó would require is the luncheon clothes. These clothes are work by the iyawó as soon as he or she is bathed in the morning. The clothes are worn until midafternoon when then iyawó must then wear his stately clothes to welcome guests. Once again, these are made of burlap, and like the prior they are lined. While the crowning clothes were lined on simple cotton fabric to match the color of the burlap, the pants for the lunch outfit are lined in gingham fabric either black and white or red and white, or perhaps using both on alternate pattern. The shirt is made with gingham and it is normally not ornate like the next set of clothes would be. However, in this case I decided to combine piping in three colors, red, white and black. It is interesting, although there are avatars of Elegua that use the color white, for some reason I kept having the nagging feeling to incorporate white as much as possible on the work I was doing, rather than sticking to the traditional red and black with occasional gold trimming

Shirt for lunch.

Interestingly enough, this is not unusual for me. I mentioned that I like to meet the future iyawó and to study the person. This process allows me to tune myself to their energies and a most unique connection emerges. As I start to work on their clothes I get flashes of inspiration and I listen to it, let it unfold in the design elements. In this case, like in others it paid to listen to this inner guide. My son’s orisha mother turned out to be the female path of Obatalá: Oshanlá. Thus the nagging persistence I had to use white in the design.

Lunch pants in burlap lined with gingham. Notice the pant’s peaks as they represent virility.

There are things that out of modesty some people do not like to point out. However, the fabric codex we create when we work for the orisha should be accompanied by the proper explanations. Eleguá rules over the phallus and as such this element is modestly represented in the pants of the initiate by means of peaks. In some clothing used in Nigeria, this element can be seen on the elongated hat associate with Eleguá. For some reason, here in the New World mentioning that Eleguá rules over the penis makes people feel squeamish.

The zigzagging pattern on the shirt for me represents that life is filled with choices, choices represented by the endless roads over which Eleguá rules.

Working on the clothes for the crowning and the lunch took approximately two weekends since I have to work on the little spare time I have between work and household obligations. I am never in a rush when I work on ashó orisha. It is important for the process to unfold, to have peace and quiet as one works. It is not just cutting and sewing, I like to sing to the orisha I am working for, or at the least I will be reciting oriki orisha as I work, it is a mantra of sorts what gets repeated over and over as to imbue the energies of the orisha into the creation.

For some people, sewing for the orishas is a way of life, a business. I respect that. For me it is an unique expression of art, history and faith. I do not do it for the money; I do it because it makes me happy. I want each iyawó dressed from my creations to be unique. I will not repeat models. Each person comes to be an iyawó for their own very reasons, with their unique story, unique needs. Thus, each deserves to have part of their being manifested in these ritual garments.

There are elements that were worked on both the crowning clothes as well as the gala clothes for the Throne Day. I will leave you to observe the photos and draw your own conclusions about the commonalities.

The design for the Throne Day ashó orisha was a joint project where my elder son and future godfather helped along. I am blessed to have a son who is artistically inclined and had his own vision that he wanted reflected.

Top front of Gala outfit. Notice the Garabatos, cross and Eleguá.

The garabato or walking stick that Eleguá carries was important for my son, thus we found a way to incorporate it. From it three pieces of trim hang and at each of their tips you can see cowry shells. On one of the sides of the top there is a cross with Fleur de Lis which has been used in many royalty coats of arms.

You may wonder, why incorporate a European symbol? Well, the tradition to have a throne is borrowed actually from the great houses of Europe, it is an adaptation of what for the Lukumí in the Americas was a symbol of wealth, power and nobility, all characteristics as well of the Orishas. As a matter of fact, most of the basic garments used nowadays for female orishas are based on European fashions of the times of the Colonies. In any case, the cross represents the crossroads which permeates all of Eleguás stories. If you look closely at the first photo included in this article, you will notice that you can actually see the full cross underneath the representation of Eleguá. This is done quite on purpose. Also the trim used to represent the clay dish where Eleguá rests is a piece left over from the ashó orisha made nearly a decade ago for the initiation of Oggún Addá Arai as balogún. The white cloth used to create the representation of Elegua actually is a piece of fabric saved from the cloth used to design the ashó orisha or my husband (who is initiated to Obatalá).

View from the back with hat.

Full outfit ready to be worn by the iwayó

As you can see, clothes are indeed a textile codex, they carry tradition, pieces of family history and most important they are filled with good wishes and prayers to become a spiritual armor for the new initiate, at least such is the intention on the ones I make.

Now, it is important to mention that the selection of fabrics for most ashó orisha is centered on satins and shiny heavy materials. Once again, these materials are representation of wealth and royalty; they are fancy and gaudy at times. However, what they are not are very practical in the Caribbean due to the heat and humidity levels. This time, knowing full well that the iyawó-to-be dislikes gaudiness and things that are ostentations, I decided to select Irish linen instead of silks or satins. Linen breaths and it more closely match the heavier weight of the burlap fabric that is used for Eleguá and other warriors. Of course, the plain appearance of the linen will be offset by the strategic use of some sequins and appliques.

There are also some nods to the figure of the jester, as Eleguá is associated with trickery. Thus the alternate patterns of red and black in the pants and the absence of elastic at the end of the pants, as usually the pants for warriors are done, to the knee and ballooned as in medieval times or the times of Conquistadors.

View of the pants, notice the similarity with jester pants. Eleguá is a true prankster.

Now the hat for Eleguá usually has the tail of a rooster on it, here in these photos you do not see it as it was not finished just yet. But of course, I am including one of the hat fully trimmed. It is simple, but I did not want for the hat to take away from all the work done on the rest of the outfit.

One more word about ashó orisha, there is nothing that I would have wanted more than to be able to take photos of my son dressed in his crowning clothes, on his lunch and gala clothes. However, I happen to think that those are moments of spiritual transformation that require privacy. Yes, it would have been wonderful to have photos, but I hold the best of memories in my mind. I can close my eyes and see him dressed, his face transfixed in the process of re-birth. Photos could not have done justice to all I witnessed.

I do understand that some people have no issues snapping photos left and right of the iyawós under the throne, so be it. I will not do it and that is the end of it. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this creative process and if you have any experiences you want to share about your own journey (if you have made Osha) and how you felt under the Throne wearing your ashó orisha, by all means, share.

Omimelli Oní Yemayá Achagbá

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