Have you heard of the orisha Elegba? Chances are you know someone who has, for he is one of the most popular avatars in the African diaspora today. Perhaps you have glimpsed him while walking through a doorway, by the threshold, or near a corner. Or you might have seen him in action, directing the illuminating flow of light into divination spaces. His energy is compounded in works of magic, since he coordinates access to ashe, the essential ingredient and subtle impetus that makes things happen. He is called the opener of roads, the guardian of gates, the master of crossroads. And while there are many, many, stories about the personifications of Elegba in this world, it seems that he operates both within and outside of the realms of time and space, for he attains status as a force, a principle, a concept – even though he looks just like a bodyless head.
Eshu, as he is also known by practitioners in the traditions of Santeria, Regla de Ocha, Ifa, and other Lucumi styles in the United States, is a compelling image. Unadorned, he is aniconic, but we have imagined him in multiple designs over the ages, most recently rendered as a dense, concrete mound, with a cone shaped face and cowrie shells for eyes and mouth. While his basic physical form is abstract, his representations reflect a prism of varied characteristics and attributes. As Eshu Laroye, he governs messages and communication. As Eshu Alabwana, he is a lonely hermit and guide of souls. As Eshu Beleke, he is the divine but sometimes naughty child. And so it goes. For Eshu, there are as many aspects to his personality as there are paths to the energy he embodies, all reconciled in this spare, material habitus. Archeologists have discovered laterite versions of Elegba dating back some 400 years, and legends of his replication into two hundred parts of himself circulated widely in nineteenth century Cuba, where he was venerated by enslaved Yoruba and creole devotees. I have been collecting internet images of Eshu for a much shorter time period. I like the solidness of these compact, wonderful beings, the way they exhibit a kind of endogenous artistry that gives expression to vast meanings and metaphysical qualities, depending on whether and how they are brought to life. In ceremonial contexts Eshu is often the first to be saluted, and in religious rituals he is a powerful and essential spirit ally. But Eshu is not sectarian, by any means. Easygoing and gregarious, he can be found mingling with Christian saints, hanging out with New Age icons, slumming with Pagan deities. In the home, he holds a place of honor on family altars, and always near openings and passages, because as the saying goes, he makes the way. It is remarkable to see how fluidly Eshu travels across the margins of ethnicity, faith, and spiritual orientation. And why not? He rules all boundaries, so it is well within his purview to cast himself as a border dweller. We have seen him displayed as a valuable work of art on auction websites, for sale at online botanicas, and exhibited with museum pieces in places like Oslo, Norway. He might be the odd fellow amidst other religious idols, but I believe that his stone faced itutu, or coolness, perfectly complements the serene asceticism of the Buddharupa or the wheeling kinesthetics of Shiva Nataraja. Today, Eshu is something of a household god in all domains of necessity, be they cultural, educational, medical, judicial, or magical, for he is unassuming, as content on a living room altar as he is in the grandest of shrines. Ibarago Moyuba, Eshu.
I am grateful for the awesome scholarship of Patrick Polk and heartily endorse his book on material religion, Botanica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels (2005)