This is the third in a series of posts on Africana religions and the comics.
Some remarkable images made their way around the digital space this week. Aficionados of black religion will immediately recognize these extraordinary renderings of the popular divinities in Brazil that are known as orixas. Worshipped throughout the Americas but especially beloved in Bahia, the orixas (called òrìsàs in Yoruba) first arrived in the western hemisphere during the 16th century, having secreted themselves in the hearts of enslaved black people, hidden but everlasting passengers in the long transatlantic crossing of Africans into the New World. Brilliantly conceived by artist Hugo Canuto, here the orixas are envisioned as fantastic avatars whose extravagant force and primordial energy are represented in images that pay homage to the kinesthetic stylings of legendary comics artist Jack Kirby. Similar to the rishis of India, it is said that these beings first appeared to humanity during the eternal time before written history. Distant emissaries of Light, the orisas brought knowledge to gods and kings, descended from heaven and deigned to reside in splendid fluorescent cities. Otherworldly yet eminently cosmopolitan, they took up earthly residence in locations that brought forth the great civilizations of West Africa. Ile-Ife! Oyo! Eligibo! Fluorescent cities indeed. Clothed in matter, these majestic entities dwelled in resplendence, bearing royal emblems and sigils by which they enacted the elemental principles of divine presence on this planet: Creation, Water, Wisdom, Justice, Thunder, War, Fire, Air. There are twelve orixas in Canuto’s dazzling recasting of these cosmic luminaries, but unlike the inhabitants of Kirby’s own Fourth World series of The New Gods, these gods are not new at all. The orisas show themselves right here, right now, through an essential energy called àse, the power-to-make-things-happen. As personifications of the One, the orisas appear continuously in hierophanies and ritual performances, and they are embraced by millions of adherents, even as they efface boundaries between liminal and profane space-time to become some of the most fabulous religious celebrities in contemporary Brazil, Cuba, Nigeria, and even the United States. How is it possible? To better understand we look to an ancient technology that scholars have euphemistically termed spirit possession. The phrase refers to an arcane process of manifestation, mysterious to outsiders, that utilizes sound and color to instill complex vibrational patterns by which these intelligent and benevolent powers activate within physical form. Spirit possession is something of a science that requires the artist’s imagination, the dancer’s stamina, and the individual’s selfless integrity in order to enable an orisa to occupy a human body. And while only committed adepts and priests are deemed worthy of this sublime blessing, it exists primarily for the benefit of the greater community. Look at this video of orixa trance possessions in a Candomble ceremony, in which the deities “mount” human vessels in a magnificent spectacle of drumming and movement. True virtuosi, religious initiates and mediums privilege the act of embodying Spirit as their service to humanity. And as we see throughout the black Atlantic world, whether in Afro-Christian Spiritual Churches or with Haitian Vodouisants, Africana religions elevate their celebration of embodiment to the status of a sacrament. This is to say that the incarnation of Spirit may be considered a kind of sacred magic, an action of profound significance, and not to be trifled with by dilettantes, those who are selfish, or those who are insincere.
In his graphic novel American Gods Neil Gaiman creates the United States as a place where forgotten and abandoned deities subsist in the desolate shadows of a darkened spiritual landscape, hungry for reverence and the satisfaction of human devotion. Not so in African America, where one needs only to look to the resplendent cities at the center of the world where the orisas return time and again to grace the earth and its people. For it is true that every sacred center is transformed into a microcosmic city when divine consciousness organizes physical and temporal space according to its unique vision. Where a pageant of black gods dances into the present – kings, queens, warriors, sages, storytellers, and doctors – each is welcomed with song and salutation appropriate to their purpose. And though it may be a mystery to those who will not enter these realms, for others it is a prerogative of magic and faith. The familiar Christian saga tells how God took on the burden of flesh in order to save humans from their own perishable existence. But what of gods who take form so as to make the human body divine? Such is the inspiration and power of the sacred life, where the deities come to earth to be with us, and to be us, at least for a little while. Inhabiting the body of the devotee, the orisas become as human and as divine as we are, in a brief moment. It is often stated that orisas are “mythological,” and that they only exist in made-up worlds that are not “real.” Still, we see that their real meaning is more than a fairy tale, a fantasy, or a legend; it is an expression of celestial sensibilites in earthly awareness; it is grounding and anchoring a certainty that skepticism and doubt can’t erode; it is the hope and the dream of the slave, and it is the recollection and memory of ancestral Africa. And it is not only through literature and art that we can experience narratives of celestial visitation, for such great spiritual wealth rewards our understanding through living teachings of morality and healing. May Spirit bring us to the shared pathway to eternity, by the recapitulation of constant creation that joins heaven and earth in our divine residence, orun aiye.
I am grateful to the artist for permission to reproduce these images. For more Orixa-inspired comics available for purchase go to HugoCanuto.com