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The Backbone of an Egún Shrine

Opa Egún with cloth of nine colors
Opa Egún covered with cloth designed by Omimelli

The Lukumí, the Yoruba, and followers of the Rules of Orisha, the Egún are the foundation of our belief system. The Egún, or egungún in the plural, means bones in Yoruba. The Egún represents the ancestral bloodline spirits, whether that person is an olosha or not. If the person is an olosha, then the egún also includes the ancestors linked by ordination.

Globally, the popularity of the Lukumí religion continues to swell the ranks of neophytes. For the most part, newcomers earnestly seek a sense of community and spirituality. Some are trying to reconnect with their roots, be it afro-descendant or Caribbean, while others come from completely different backgrounds and countries. Some are lucky to find good reputable ilés or orisha houses in their towns or regions. However, some are not so lucky. Their search starts on the Internet, on social media sites, and reading blogs designed as lures to amass potential godchildren and clients for readings and workings.

Social media is a landmine of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I underscore the importance of being cautious. A neophyte solely relying on social media to learn will never truly experience the Orishas. The Cult of Egún is a community-oriented practice. It is not a make-as-you-go construct where a person can create altars and worship without a proper structure.

There are various ways to start learning about the Orisha; however, when a person starts from the ground up, understanding, and experiencing the foundations of the religion such as Egún, chances for success increase.

Elements of an Egún shrine

Egún veneration and worship require hands-on training. That is the short of it. It goes beyond setting up a pretty shrine. Beyond tools, although tools have their importance. It takes a community and worshiping together face-to-face (COVID-19 aside).

Overall, the Egún shrine is of simple structure. Traditionally it is set outdoors under a tree. Which tree? that would depend on the region where the person inhabits. When I lived in the Caribbean, my Egún shrine was under a Ceiba tree, the Ceiba pentrandra. However, in urban environments, I have had to make do with temporary indoor shrines. In the Caribbean, the use of banana trees is common but not exclusive. In the urban environment where outdoor space can be an issue, one can find temporary Egún shrines erected for particular Orisha rituals and then taken down. Those temporary shrines are often found in bathrooms or near a drain.

Egún Shrine set up, temporary
Temporary Egún Shrine

An established ilé will have a designated location, be it indoors or outdoors, and the shrine will be kept year-round and attended every week. In this shrine, you may find a glass of water and a bit of molasses, a glass of water and honey, a shot of firewater or overproof rum, cigars, flowers, candles, and food offerings, which can vary depending on many factors. A walking stick called the Opa Egún, often decorated with nine color ribbons and bells, is also used to call on the egún. There are other elements and tools necessary to offer blood sacrifices of pigeons, roosters, and hens, a practice that needs to be learned in person. Sacrifices need to be justified. Life is precious and offered only when necessary. Ifá centric houses will have a clay tile prepared by a Babalawo at the shrine, the odú Ogbe Juani speaks of its origin. Other houses will have a pashán, a bundle of nine twigs from the Espadaea amoena tree, autochthonous to Cuba. There is even a patakí that justifies the origin of the pashán.

That said, a very basic shrine will consist of simple elements, and, in the absence of a person to guide a neophyte in person, simplicity is a must.

In many Orisha houses, the Opa Egún or Egún stick is a tool prepared by a godparent and given to a neophyte so they can learn to call on the forces of their Egún by setting up a simple shrine and tapping on the ground to call upon Egún. Here is the point of debate, is a stick just a stick? Can any plain walking cane do for this purpose? Does a person need to go through an elaborate ritual to receive one? Is this ritual costly? Here are my thoughts on the matter:

Opa Egún or just a stick?

Colorfully dressed Egugun
Egún maquerade

Some people may see the Opa Egún as just a stick with the sole purpose to tap on the ground and wake up the dead. However, for others, it represents a rite of passage of sorts, and thus, the process of obtaining and consecrating an Egún stick acquires its own importance. For me, the Opa Egún is of importance, and I have gone through considerable effort to ornate it and dress it well beyond the customary nine ribbons and bells. I have created a cover with colorful fabrics and beads, which reminds me of the Egungun masquerade custom seen in Yorubaland.

I would suggest that before any person agrees to receive an Opa Egún, there is a fundamental understanding of its role and process.

Opa Egún with ribbons and bells
Example of Opa Egún dressed with ribbons.

Finding and reading the stick. The first step is finding the stick. Not all oloshas have the same gifts. While it is perfectly acceptable and practical to have someone purchase a cane or find a stick in the woods, dress it and use it as is, there may be more than one way to obtain comparable and even more targeted results. A person who has a gift for understanding plants may be more suitable to find a stick with properties akin to the person who will own the stick. No one can debate the fact that plants have their ashé and attributes. It is a blessing to have an elder who understands nature and can use those skills to better others.

Reading the stick. The process of doing a reading to determine if a stick is or not appropriate may be an innovation done to provide grandeur or round up a process. However, for oloshas who do not have the grace and knowledge of flora, using divination to confirm that a stick may be effective for the future owner is not farfetched. It really reflects more on the individual’s knowledge of plants or lack thereof. Consider that Oloshas are brought up in a religious system where asking and having permission to do things is essential.

Sankofa bird and Egún Stick
A Sankofa bird adorns this Opa Egún by Omimelli

Intent vs. Necessity. Is going to the woods to select a stick, which is now for some elevated to a ritual, necessary? No. The purpose of the Opa Egún is to keep tempo with prayers as we wake Egún with rhythmical tapping on the ground. Thus, from a mechanical point of view, in my opinion, any stick can do, dressed or not, if other ritual items like the pashán or the teja are present in the shrine. However, suppose those elements are not available. Then, the intent behind the ritual of “giving” the Opa Egún acquires a different relevance as the Opa Egún may become the sole center of an Egún Shrine and in the absence of the pashán or a teja, the Opa Egún can be considered as a needful tool and its creation should be supported by intent.

Importance and significance. These are two very different things. It may not be particularly important for someone whether to use a broomstick or a walking cane to tap on the floor. They both accomplish making noise and keeping tempo with prayers. However, the significance of the Opa Egún can be heightened by various aspects. An Opa Egún increases in significance depending on who prepares it, the link to that person, the knowledge that person possesses at many levels, and what the tool will represent in the devotional practice of an individual.

Gateway tool. What does an Olosha seek to accomplish or bestow with the Opa Egún? For many, the Opa Egún maybe the only tool they have in their Egún shrine. It may be even the only tool they need for their spiritual development; we are not all called to become oloshas. Therefore, the Opa Egún acquires additional significance as a piece not just to tap on the ground but to lean on and focus during a ritual. For others, who are coming to Lukumí practices as converts, the Opa Egún can become an introductory or Gateway tool which will allow them to start a fundamental regime of prayer and devotion connecting them with the element which unifies us all: Egún.

Cost. “Poderoso caballero es don Dinero.” Mr. Money is a powerful gentleman indeed, but when it comes to Opa Egún and my godchildren, money is not a crucial consideration. It is part of my role as a godmother to pass on traditions and take care of Egún because they take care of us. All I have asked is that they contribute to whatever materials are needed. Part of the process of the Opa Egún includes a proper service to Egún with a large variety of food offerings that take considerable preparation time, resources, and knowledge. Do consider that I may be an exception to the rule and that most Oloshas may ask for remuneration, and I am not judging or imposing my point of view on how they conduct their affairs.

Hearty bowl of ajiaco stew
Sancocho or Ajiaco

That said, my godchildren are expected to help to prepare Egún offerings, which in itself is a crucial lesson and part of my process when giving Opa Egún. I derive personal satisfaction in spending time with my godchildren in the kitchen and overall, in a ritual setting. Food and the sharing of food are integral to this process. No ajiaco, no happy Egún; ajiaco is but one of many dishes to come out of my kitchen.

However, outside of my godchildren, if someone wants to have Opa Egún, that is a different manner. I see nothing wrong with charging fairly for time, materials used, and knowledge. And to quote Forest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”


Oní Yemayá Achagbá

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