UMBANDA: The Orixás
In the last Umbanda article, we covered a little bit about the origins of Umbanda, and that it is a miscegenistic religion made up of Traditional African, European, Native Brazilian religious/spiritual traditions.
Today’s installment is a general exploration of those aspects of Umbanda drawn from Traditional African Religion (TAR), practiced in Brazil since colonial times as a religion called “Candomblé” (cahn-dohm-BLAY.) Umbanda’s African elements are drawn from Candomblé.
THE ORIXÁS (oh-ree-SHAHS)
As the story goes, God (Olorum (oh-lo-ROOM)) created the world by emanating 7 energetic vibrations, called “Orixás.” Each of the 7 Orixás has a positive and a negative aspect, a masculine and feminine, a yin and a yang, resulting in a total of 14 Orixás.
The Orixás manifest as all the diverse natural features of our planet, and also as the non-physical realities that govern our lives – things like love, hate, life, death, rebirth, decay, etc. The fascinating benefit of studying the Orixás is learning how to connect nature to the inner realities of our lives. For example, in Umbanda a river, and its inevitable flowing to the sea, also describes the manner in which our hearts grow from the experience of loving our tribe, pour family, our lover, to loving all of creation and everyone in it without prejudice.
When the Portuguese brought the Africans into Catholic churches to be baptized and worship in the European manner, the Africans intuitively recognized the 7 Orixás in Jesus, Mary, and various the Saints. Hence, the Orixás also came to be symbolically aligned with Catholic saints, so that slaves could worship their deities under the guise of Catholic forms. This phenomenon occurred not only in Brazil, but in Haiti, Cuba, and some places in the American South.
Through reverence and worship of the Orixás, a person’s physical surroundings become symbolically linked to non-physical realities, and non-physical realities and physical realities seem to be reflecting one another. Examples of these congruencies appear below in the explanation of each Orixá and its significance*.
* The descriptions of the Orixás below follow the Umbanda belief system, which differ a bit from the understanding of the Orixás significance in Candomblé and other manifestations of Traditional African Religion in Africa and other New World cultures.
1. Oxalá (oh-sha-LAH) – The Vibration of Faith and Religiosity. Oxalá is the first of the seven Orixás. In the physical, Oxalá is light. In the spiritual/symbolic sense Oxalá is the light of faith.
The Old Testament describes how God created the world, and that it was dark until on the first day he said “let there be light.” So Oxalá appears. With light, life can begin, with light we are raised from the darkness. Faith is characterized as light because by having spiritual faith, an individual connects directly to their divine source, and without faith, or light, they are disconnected from that source. Wandering in the darkness. Faith is the light that connects us to our divine source.
Each Orixá has a negative aspect, or an opposite. Interestingly enough, the opposite of Oxalá is not darkness, because darkness is not considered a thing on its own, but simply the absence of light. The opposite of faith is time – the concept being that through faith we bask in the light of our timeless divine source, but without it we are wandering through the darkness of time. Eventually with the passage of time, through however many deaths and rebirths we require, we eventually return from the march through time into the time-less light of our eternal divine source. Faith is the bridge that gets us there.
In Umbanda, this negative aspect of the masculine Oxalá is the feminine Oyá (oi-AHH.) Those living in the world without faith march through time, protected by Oyá who gently brings them through time and back into the light of Oxalá.
2. Oxum (oh-SHOOM) – the Vibration of Love and Conception. Oxum is the vibration that finds physical expression as the freshwater streams, rivers and waterfalls of the world. She is characterized as a feminine energy that finds expression in the human experience as sexual desire and romantic love for another person. The most vivid example of Oxum at work is in the moment of conception, when the sperm fertilizes the egg in the ovary, setting the process of creation into motion.
Oxum is also the vibration romantic love itself, in all its features. Her negative aspect is the masculine Orixá called Oxumaré (oh-shoom-ah-RAY.) Oxumaré is the negative side of love – the lack of love, or sick love, obsessive, hurtful love. He is represented by the rainbow, the encounter of water and light. Whoever is suffering for love, or feeling hate, and other bad feelings, is being supported by Oxumaré, who in his vibration holds his sons and daughters and leads them back to the love of Mother Oxum.
3. Oxóssi (oh-SHAW-see) – the Vibration of Knowledge and Wisdom. In the physical, Oxossi manifests as vegetation and is represented by the forests of the world. Many Earth-based spiritual traditions honor trees and forests as being repositories of wisdom, because trees in the most literal sense are the proverbial watchers over the Earth. They see all, and stand right where they are.
Oxossi is characterized as a hunter with a bow and arrow, and is often identified with Indians and forest dwellers. Due to the presence of the Amazon rainforest and the particularly lush vegetation of Brazil, Oxóssi has a particularly strong presence. He is generally worshipped with more frequency in Brazil than in other places where Traditional African Religious worship took root, like Cuba or Haiti.
Oxóssi’s feminine counterpart is called Obá (oh-BAH), the Mother of Earth. She represents the concentration of elements, the concentration of knowledge, the solid floor that everything stands on.
4. Ogum (oh-GOOM) – the Vibration of Law and Order. Ogum is the vibration finds expression as air. He is the Lord of the Paths, commander of the Law and Order of God, very related to the Archangel Michael. He awakens in all beings the sense of balance, order and law that is to be followed in life. He is the ordering principle of Life. He is called “the relentless,” “the implacable,” because he is Law. Connected to Xangô, the Orixá of Justice, Ogum and Xangô work together because there is no Justice without the structure of Law and no Law without Justice to enforce it. In Umbanda it is said that “The sword of Ogum brings the Law and the ax of Xangô affirms it.”
The African slaves in Brazil considered Saint George the Dragon Slayer a manifestation of Ogum.
The feminine counterpart of Ogum is the feminine Orixá called Iansã (ee-ahn-SAH), the “Queen of the Winds.” Ogum commands and Iansã acts. She is the worker Orixá, as we might say. She, with her sword, cutting through the wind, brings storms, rain and thunder. She executes Ogum´s Law as the herald of chaos; she flips over the proverbial tables and smashes the proverbial dishware, destroying everything to make way for the new order – the new order that is in accordance with Ogum´s Law.
In this function of the leveler, or destroyer, Iansã is the cosmological equivalent to the Hindu deity Shiva. In Catholicism, Iansã is connected with Saint Bárbara.
5. Xangô (shawn-GOH) – the vibration of Justice. Xangô is manifest on Earth as rocks, minerals, mountains and fire. Xangô is the Orixá of Justice, awakening in sentient beings a sense of balance and equity. He is known as the Lord of Thunder, with a scale in his left hand to measure our actions, and his ax in his right hand, ready to judge and execute Ogum´s law. The fires, mountains, and rocks of Xangô are just like his justice – immovable, impartial, and absolute.
In Catholicism, he is considered to correspond with St. Jerome, but others relate him to St. John the Baptist as well.
He manifests in the spirit-channeling sessions of Umbanda as Indian spirits (Caboclos) whose names end in “Pedra” (rock) – for example, “Caboclo da Pedra Preta” (Caboclo of the Black Rock).
His feminine counterpart is the Orixá called Egunitá (ay-goon-ee-TAH,) related to Kali, the Queen of Fire. She is the fire of purification that brings all beings back onto the path of Xangô´s Justice when they stray off.
6. Line of Evolution – Orixá Obaluaê (oh-baloo-ai-YAY) is the vibration that manifests as wet soil, and cemeteries. He is the Orixá who manages the passage from one evolutionary stage to the next – meaning all of them: birth, evolution in life, death, and reincarnation.
Obaluaê establishes the energetic cord that connects the spirit to the body (in this case, while the body is still a fetus), as the spirit prepares to be received by the mother´s uterus as soon as the fetus has reached a certain level of cellular development. When the spirit descends into the fetus, Obaluê is there to reduce the size of the spirit to fit the proportions of the human body placed in the mother´s uterus. In this process, the spirit assumes all the features of its human body.
He is the Lord of the Passages, from a plain to another, from one dimension to another, from the spirit to the flesh and vice-versa, but he is also known as the Healer. Legend has it that Obaluaê, son of Nanã Buroquê, as a baby had wounds all over his body, and Mother Yemanjá covered him in straw and took care of him. Because of that, he became the Orixá of diseases and the healing of them.
His feminine counterpart is called Nanã Buroquê. The Orixá called Nanã (na-NAH) is related to Saint Anna, the mother of God. She embodies the wisdom of the mother, the grandmother, and so on. Because of this, Nanã and Obaluaê are the Orixás who protect the line of spirits called Pretos-Velhos (elderly black slave spirits.) They are very present in a person’s life when that person is getting older, after their 40s or 50s. At this stage, a person prepares their spirit for a more mature and wise life – before they reach the vibration of Omulu (oh-moo-LOO), who is the Orixá that manifests as Death. Omulu works together with Nanã and Obaluaê in the cemeteries.
7. Line of Generation – Orixá Yemanjá, the vibration that manifests as the Earth’s ocean. Yemanjá (yeh-mahn-JAH) is the Mother of Creation. Life on our planet begin in the ocean, in the “lap of Iemanjá.” Yemanjá represents Life itself, and several things deeply associated with capital “L” Life – divine, transpersonal love and compassion, creation, and birth.
Yemanjá is related in Catholicism to Our Lady of Aparecida (a variant of Immaculate Conception), as well as the female Buddha Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Divine Compassion. Like Guanyin, Yemanjá also protects sailors and fishermen, and in Brazil is considered their protector.
In Brazil everyone celebrates Yemanjá on February 2nd, throwing flowers in the sea and offering special foods and songs.
As Yemanjá represents life, it is fitting that her counterpart is Omulu (oh-moo-LOO), who represents Death. Yemanjá is the ocean, and is present in the ocean. Omulu, the lord of death, is present in the ocean as well. It is said in Umbanda that the sea is also a cemetery, and so Omulu is there too. They also say that Obaluaê is above the cemeteries, on the upper soil, while the person is still alive, we might say, and Omulu is under, connecting the world of the living to the world of the dead.*
*It is worth noting that life and death do not refer only to the life and death of a person, but to everything in creation. The birth of an idea, for instance, is helped by Yemanjá. The ending of a cycle and the beginning of another, is helped by Omulu. The Orixás are universal forces.
*This article was a collaboration between Alan and Nathália Dias de Moura of the Umbanda Center of Pena Verde, in Rio Vermelho, Florianópolis – Brasil.
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