I have probably reading and thinking a bit much of late, but I have been sick and unable to do the sort of ritual work that I’m itching to do, but to everything it’s season? I pulled Gẹlẹdẹ: Art and Female Power among the Yoruba off of the shelf and there is much here that resonates with the discussion of Moses, of the covenant, but in a quite different register, so I thought I would at least share a few bits of it.
I will start where the Drewals start:
Ojú to ba rí Gẹlẹdẹ ti de òpin ìrọn
Which they translate as “The eyes that have seen Gẹlẹdẹ have seen he ultimate spectacle.” That requires some unpacking. Gẹlẹdẹ is a masquerade held for the lineage mothers (the semi- to fully mythical sort) and at various points in the masquerade, the mothers themselves manifest, allowing those participating in the festival to glimpse them. That this glimpsing is so potent should indicate something of the potency of these mothers.
From there the Drewal proceed to walk through the richness of spectacle (ìrọn) in Yoruba. It has connections to:
“mystical visions…. remembrance…. storytelling…. otherworldly phenomenon whose worldly manifestations are temporary and periodically reintroduced or regenerated.” (1)
Of especial interest to me, following on the last post, ìrọn also refers to:
“A generation [that] consists of the members of a lineage who are born into the world at approximately the same time, whose children would make up the next generation….A generation is the worldly manifestation of a permanent otherworldly reality. Like spectacle, a generation is temporary, transitory, and cyclical.” (2)
The spectacle of the Gẹlẹdẹ has this complex relationship to visibility, the invisible otherworld, and the reproduction of life (double entendre on reproduction intentional and present in the Yoruba). This complex relationship mirrors the complexity of the beings they are intended to honor.
To get a sense of those beings, the Drewals report various Yoruba informants describing them. First, a king:
“If they [the mothers] are worrying somebody, they can hide under an idol. So when someone goes to the oracle—it may be Sango or Oya—it means that the woman [mother] is fighting through Sango or Oya. Then if something is offered through the idol, the woman will be satisfied.” (8)
Or an elder:
“All the mothers are the owners of all these gods.” (8)
Or a female Gẹlẹdẹ cult leader:
“No orisha can do good, without the mothers…. Oro and Egun cannot kill without the mothers.” (9)
All of this makes a lot of sense when we consider that the powerful spirits who depend upon the mothers are spirits that manifest within a lineage; they are lineage spirits and so depend upon the mothers of the lineage in order to be. It is the mothers who constitute the cultural, religious, and mythic sphere through which spiritual intelligences are able to manifest personas.
More profoundly, these accounts underline how the mothers sit at the foundation of ìrọn in all its forms, that they are the force through which all manifestations appear. The orisha, too, are forms of ìrọn. So, even as elders affirm that only Ifa is senior to the mothers, we have to keep in mind that this seniority derives from the mothers, too, from a pact with Odu/Gbadu, from a power gendered female. The authority of Ifa is a special sort of pact with the mothers (though not just that).
And the notion that the mothers are ‘hiding under the idols’ parallels the nature of representation more generally, of how a signified reality ‘hides under’ a word or concept, suggesting a connection between the nature of representation and praise, representation and religiosity, idolatry and signification, that invites further consideration, one that is also playing out in the Kabbalistic material under the auspices of Shekinah-Israel. And the mystery of a covenant and the word-image, whether the word-image be spoken/performed in praise or written/studied in contemplation, of keeping the word-image, of a distance and withdrawal inherent in that keeping, the distance of signifier and signified that makes the word-image possible….