This is the third of four posts in a series about the third annual “Going Deep: Long Traditional Stories Retreat” held in Bethlehem, Indiana, on March 19-22, 2009.
On Friday evening, the other retreat participants and I walked over from the Storyteller’s Riverhouse to the Schoolhouse to hear Marilyn Omifunke Torres share “The Paths of Osun: The West African Yoruba Epic Journey of the Goddess in Heaven and on Earth.” Barges drifted by on the Ohio River as we walked along the road next to it.
This time the back of the small stage area inside the Schoolhouse was draped in orange and gold, the swaths of cloth held in place by gourds and glittering eucalyptus sprigs. There was an African drum nearby. The table was covered with all kinds of interesting items that I learned later were either symbols of the West African goddess Osun (pronounced Oh-SHOON) and/or which paid homage to her. There were eggs and oranges and honey and other items that I couldn’t identify.
Liz Warren welcomed us and introduced that night’s teller. Marilyn Omifunke Torres is based in Phoenix, Arizona but is of a richly mixed heritage. Her extensive training includes western college degrees and certifications in anthropology, business, and education but also various forms of shamanic training and initiations as a traditional storyteller. She received two Chieftaincies from the Village of Imota in Nigeria. Her day job is teaching middle school social studies.
On Friday night she wore a pale yellow, gauzy skirt and a tight, white blouse that drew attention to her breasts. I learned later that this was to honor the voluptuousness and beauty of the goddess Osun.
Marilyn wore her hair rolled into a bun on top of her head and covered with a subtly sparkling, bright yellow scarf. A tiny, red-orange feather was tucked into a fold of the scarf. Gorgeous amber jewelry dripped from her earlobes and was piled around her neck.
Before she began telling her story, Marilyn drew our attention to the list of character names and other terms printed in our paper programs. She pronounced each of them and talked briefly about them so that they would be more familiar to us when we heard them in the story. The program also listed the titles of the five stories within the main story, the five concepts that they explored, and the five corresponding Yoruba laws that they evoked.
I referred to my program often during the evening. It did make it easier for me to follow a complex story that was completely new to me.
However, even though the story was complex, Marilyn’s telling of it was seamless. Each of the five parts flowed into the next as smoothly as…well, as smoothly as water flowing down the tributaries of a river.
She told in English but she delineated the story segments, and segments within those segments, by chanting in the Yoruba language. Her speaking voice was high-pitched and sort of whispery, especially at first, but later it became more forceful when the characters in the story demanded it. Her Yoruba chanting voice was immediately full and rich, making me think of the thousands of years of power and experience behind it.
She told with her whole body in a dance-like way, and used the whole performance space – sometimes standing, sometimes sitting on a chair, sometimes shimmying her shoulders and flicking her skirt. From my safe seat in the third row I smiled and imagined what this storytelling program was like for the men in the front row: Marilyn was not shy about leaning in to their personal spaces. I admired how completely confident she seemed in her curvaceous body, how completely unashamed of, and unafraid of, its womanliness.
It was also very cool to hear river goddess stories so near an actual river. Marilyn told us later that Osun priestesses see and honor Osun’s presence in any river, whether it is in West Africa or not.
I am sure that I missed many of the details of the story, even though I enjoyed it very much. I don’t think it is meant to be a story that anyone can fully absorb in just one hearing of it, anyway, and I am very sure that it is meant to only be shared orally, not written down in detail or trapped one-dimensionally on a page. I will therefore just share an image or two that I received from each of the five segments.
In the first segment – “When Osun First Comes to the Earth as Ibuakuaro” – we accompanied the goddess into a trap and found ourselves at the bottom of a tight column, deep inside the earth. It was a claustrophobic feeling, but also an informative one. The concept for that segment was “Containing.” Within that confined underground space, and with the help of just a touch of sunlight, the goddess’ tears turned into strands of gold that she could braid into a ladder to help her escape.
In the second segment – “Osun Brings the Light of Divining to the World” – each element of nature received a mystery (a gift or skill) and was now able to contribute something to the world. The concept for that segment was “Sensualizing.”
In the third segment – “Osun Brings Beauty to the World” – the goddess became pregnant, and we learned that the river binds all things in love. The concept for that segment was “Birthing.”
In the fourth segment – “Osun Teaches Oba to Listen” – Osun’s sister, Oya, the Goddess of Tornados and Winds, decided to teach Oba, the Wife of Songo and symbol of Sovereignty, a lesson because she was acting as if she had sovereignty over Oya and Osun. Oya tricked Oba into making a soup for her husband that included her own ear as an ingredient. Yikes! But Songo apparently liked it, because when Oya put her ear to the door of their room, she heard Oba and Songo relishing the soup…and each other. So Oya learned something, too: Don’t put your ear to the door!
The concept for that segment was “Teaching.”
(Update 3-27-09: This morning, Marilyn very generously gave me some more information about who did what in this segment. She also gave me permission to share it with you:
Oya complains to Osun
Osun agrees to mediate the teaching of sovereignty
Osun gives Oba the ingredient of putting her ear in the soup.
Oba puts her ear to the door listening to the King Songo and Osun in the bedroom chamber as he was celebrating her culinary skills (smile)
Oba cuts off her ear puts it in a soup offered to Songo
he of course is disgusted and rages at her….etc. etc.
I am very glad to have this clarification. Thank you very much, Marilyn!)
Vultures and their gifts played an important role in this segment, too. Its concept was “Transforming.”
These are just glimpses into the complex story of the journey of Osun, Goddess of the Rivers, into the human realm.
Marilyn ended by giving us a Yoruba song, different from the chants in the story.
I took the long way back to the Storyteller’s Riverhouse, savoring the golden, exotic (to me) images of the story for a while by myself under the stars before joining the other retreat participants for cake and conversation.
The next morning we all gathered again at the Storyteller’s Riverhouse for Marilyn’s workshop. She had used cloths and other items to set up a small, gold-and-orange altar to Osun in front of the window overlooking the river in the living room. I claimed a chair early and watched as she poured honey over five eggs on a plate, and peeled an orange and separated its sections into five pieces on another plate, quietly speaking words I couldn’t understand.
As other retreat participants entered, Marilyn invited each of us to take a glassine envelope in which were a yellow-and orange spiral notebook, five strands of golden thread tied together at one end with a small, dark-orange feather, and Marilyn’s business card. She also gave us each a handout that had a bilingual praise prayer and the morning’s agenda on it, carefully timed. She invited each of us to select a colored gel pen from her jar. “I thought you might like to write using Osun’s colors,” she said.
I selected a dark green one.
When everyone was settled, Marilyn said, “Alafia!” It means “Peace, welcome, blessings.” She explained in detail in English what she was going to do, and then invoked Osun in the Yoruba language, vigorously tapping a sort of rattle against her palm as she did so. At the end she said, “Ase!” (pronounced “ah-SHAY!”) It means “May it be so!”
Then she cast an “obi” – “a form of communication with nature” – to Osun using corn meal, because “we recognize that permission must be granted.” Osun gave permission, but if Marilyn had read “no” in the answer, she would have prayed and meditated and done some other things to find out how to get permission to be allowed to share with us the information and rituals that she wanted to share with us.
Then she told us in detail about her lineage and experience, and how she came to be telling stories about Osun. She grew up in both the continental United States and Puerto Rico, with “lots to negotiate” between her bloodlines, which were Puerto Rican (a mixture of bloodlines in and of itself, a people that move gracefully between black and white cultures), Spaniard, and African. I was surprised to learn that some of her ancestors were not Yoruba slaves but Yoruba slave traders.
She told us that she had spent a lot of time in the Motherland (Africa) as well, receiving training and initiations into Yoruba traditional storytelling.
One of the things she learned about was “adimu,” which means “offerings.” She took some time now to explain the significance of some of the items on the altar.
“We have an orange to cool us down from stress,” she said. “A coconut represents our hard head with its white, sweet, flesh and juicy milk inside. We ask Osun’s help to get clear (like that coconut milk) about what we need to be doing in our lives now.”
The honey, she said, was her favorite offering. “Put honey on your lips before you speak, especially if the situation is hot!”
I immediately thought of the on-going conflict I have with a certain neighbor. Maybe I’ll put honey on my lips the next time I go out to work in my garden.
“The eggs represent ovaries and procreation. Fertility. Easter is a great Osun time, too.”
After all of this preparation and accompanying explanation, Marilyn opened the floor for questions about, and responses to, the previous night’s story. We asked questions to clarify our understanding of the story but also to deepen our connection to it. Marilyn spoke of “the Law of Five” in the Osun stories and how it had to do with the evolution of DNA code. “Story is medicine for stuff that we carry in our DNA code from way back,” she said. “…You come before Ifa – the Law – to change the time of death.”
Some parts of the discussion went over my head, but it was all interesting. The time flew by.
After a short break, we came back and talked some more, but Marilyn also wanted us to develop more intimate relationships with three of the story segments she had told the night before. She had three rituals for us to do so that we would “walk away with the stories fully in you, in your body.”
She spoke about the first story, the story of Containment, and said it had “landed somewhere in your body. Where?” To find out, she asked each of us to reach into a bag and draw out a tiny scroll (strip of paper) tied with a golden ribbon. Each scroll contained a grouping of questions that had come to her through her meditations and discussions with Osun. Contemplating the questions on your scroll and writing about them in your journal would show you where the story had landed in your body.
The scrolls had patterns of light and dark on them, sort of like an I Ching reading.
My group of questions was about being stuck. I wrote about the questions in my yellow journal with my green pen. I’m not sure I learned where the story had landed in my body, but I learned some other important things, so it was all good. When we came back together as a group, those who wanted to could tell what they had discovered during their contemplation of their scrolls.
Then Marilyn gave us each a “honey pot” – a tiny clay pot, barely bigger than a thimble, on which she had glued three honey-colored beads. She told us to roll up our scrolls, tuck them inside our pots, and set them aside.
Next Marilyn reminded us of the Birthing story. She passed around a tray and invited each of us to take a small slab of modeling clay. She told us to close our eyes and make the clay into the shape of a hole while we asked ourselves, “What are you birthing at this time?”
She said the Yoruba people love to process. (Me, too!) She suggested we keep the clay and from time to time, take it out and mold it again, asking “What do I need to give birth to?’ The key is to not be afraid of making the opening.
And finally, she reminded us of the closing story, the story of Transformation from peacock to vulture, and taught us a special ritual that she does only rarely, maybe once every few years.
She gave us a handout that explained how to make a special omelet. She had gotten up early that morning to make the omelet for all of us to offer to the river. It was there on the altar, beautifully presented on a plate rimmed with spinach.
But first we each wrote a letter asking for Osun’s help.
Marilyn told us to write quietly. “Where do you want to dream yourself? Ask Osun to fly through the sun for you.”
Now I want to stop describing the mechanics of the workshop for a moment and confess that I had never felt much affinity towards, or even much curiosity about, the African continent before this year’s “Going Deep” retreat. But at one point during Marilyn’s workshop, while people were molding clay or writing or talking with partners, or maybe it was during one of the breaks, Marilyn answered someone’s question with, “Well, you just never know (about the boundaries of reality and the space-time continuum.) Maybe this (room full of Americans) is really a room full of Africans.”
A room full of Africans.
The thought opened something deeply peaceful in me.
When we all had our letters ready (“And you can add to them later,” Marilyn said, “Osun will always recognize you”), we took turns lifting the omelet plate, tapping it on the altar three times, and then placing our letters beneath the plate. Our letters would stay there overnight, and at sunrise the next morning, Marilyn would give the omelet to the river and give us our letters back.
Now, though, it was time to carry our little honey pots down to the river and put them in. We stepped to the edge in groups of five. Marilyn poured honey over our cupped hands. We tasted its sweet stickiness, and then washed our hands in the river, letting the water take both the honey and our honey pots and scrolls.
I think this was one of the most sensuous AND sensual workshops I have ever been to! It was a real pleasure.
After another delicious lunch, free afternoon, and yummy supper, it was time to hear the third and last story. More about this in the next post (which I will probably not have ready until this weekend, so please check back!)…
Marilyn Omifunke Torres will be performing and conducting workshops as part of “Strings, Rhythm, and Song: African American Roots,” June 28-July 3, 2009 at Mars Hill College in North Carolina. To learn more, please visit http://www.mhc.edu/aaroots/index.asp.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com