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The Promise and the Practice: Story for All Ages
The Promise and the Practice: Story for All Ages
Time for All Ages

The Golden Chain: an Ife Creation Story

Notes: There are many versions of this creation myth, most with the same elements. These adaptations by Erica Shadowsong include most of these common elements, additional ones found in the version cited in the story below. 

This story also uses a neo-pagan version of the African American spiritual, “Wade in the Water.” Although much of African-American spirituality draws from Christianity, many descendants of the African diaspora draw wisdom from the traditional religions that came from Yorubaland, which are now followed all over the world by African and non-African descendants alike. 

The story reclaims the spiritual wisdom from these religions by invoking the orishas through this well-known spiritual, as a way for neo-pagans to reclaim a sense of connection with the sacred in indigenous beliefs. For some African descendants, this reclaiming is a resistance to the stereotypes of these beliefs as evil or primitive, stereotypes which continue to malign and be hurtful to follwers of these religions to this very day. 

For those who are not of African ancestry, this rewritten song allows neo-pagans to be introduced to and include the orishas, as a way to honor these cultural beliefs and widen the circle of neo-paganism for people of color. This inclusivity is especially relevant for Unitarian Universalists, as it expands our understanding and acceptance of world religions as one of our six Sources; more importantly, it offers the opportunity to be enriched by wisdom from these traditions so different from the dominant culture of our denomination.

Whether using the version below or adapting a different telling, it is strongly recommended that the storyteller/s spend some time gaining some familiarity with the religious concepts of African Traditional Religions (ATR), particularly of the Yoruba, such as Santeria, Lucumi, Espiritismo, Vodoun, Candomble, and others. It is particularly important to be intentional about this process in order to combat the deeply-embedded negative stereotypes that have persisted, including within communities of color.

It's also a good idea to learn some of the most well known patakis (stories) of the orishas to have a sense of who they are. Fortunately, this is not as difficult as it sounds:  There are a plethora of gorgeous artistic illustrations on the internet, which can be found with a simple image search using keywords like “orishas” or the names of the individual orishas. 

This may be a little extra work, but A) it’s a good practice for telling stories from other cultures in general, and B) it is richly satisfying and rewarding, and allows a more authentic engagement with the story to tell it from a personal place. One helpful source to start with is The Santeria Church of the Orishas. This is less about cultural appropriation than about making a personal, humanizing connection that makes these religions and their practices feel less foreign, strange, or scary.  It’s not necessary to understand the religious concepts inside out, for the sake of gaining a level of “expertise,” so much as it is to get a sense of how these religions serve and resonate with people.

It is also not necessary to tell the story exactly as I’ve written it here, word-for-word—personally, I prefer to tell stories from memory so they can take on my own voice. The less prior research done, however, the more important to not be too loose in modifying the story elements, to avoid unconsciously rewriting it through a white-biased lens.

Thank you for your interest in this story, the song, and the inclusion of African Traditional Religious concepts in your service, as a way to honor these cultures and their heritage; to reclaim the dignity of these wisdom traditions in a cultural context that still has a long way to go to make room for them.

—Erica Shadowsong​

Tips for Performance

Following are two versions of this story, one extended with descriptions of each of the orishas, and the other condensed. In written form, even condensed, this story may not fit exactly within the typical 5-8 minute block for a Time for All Ages, and to be told well, it would best take the place of a homily, or can be told in parts throughout a service.

The song is meant to be used with the extended version. There are several ways to incorporate it, and the teller and/or worship leaders are welcome to explore the way that best fits them. One option is to teach the listeners the chorus at the beginning, and invite them to sing the lines again later throughout the song.  (This is how I originally performed it, with the help of Matt Meyer, who accompanied the story throughout on drum and sang with me.) It could also be told first, and the song sung at the end as a way to close it. Both ways have the potential for fun participation from listeners.

Pronunciation Guide

Olorun (Oh-lo-ROON)

Obatala (Oh-BAH-tah-lah)

Olodumare (Oh-loh-doo-MAH-re)

Ellegua (Eh-leh-GWAH)

Ogun (Oh-GOON)

Ochosi (Oh-CHOH-see)

Yemaya (Yeh-mah-YAH)

Oya (OI-yah)

Shango (SHANG-goh)

Sankofa (Sang-KOH-fah)

Extended Version

(This adaptation draws primarily from a version found in The Origin of Life on Earth: An African Creation Myth, by David A. Anderson/Sankofa)

Long ago, before there were any people, all life existed in the sky. Olorun lived in the sky, and with Olorun were many orishas. They all lived by a young baobab tree, where they found everything they ever needed for food, work or play. In fact, they were all very creative and made things all the time, clothing themselves in beautiful robes and skirts, and gold jewelry. Now Olorun had told them that all the vast sky was theirs to explore, but all of the orishas seemed happy to stay near the baobab tree.

Except for Obatala.

Obatala was the curious orisha who wasn't content to live blissfully by the baobab tree. Like all orishas, he had certain powers, and he wanted to put them to use. As he pondered what to do, he looked far down through the mists below the sky. As he looked and looked, he began to realize that there was a vast empty ocean below the mist. Obatala went to Olorun and said, “I want to go down from the heavens to the dark seas below, and make something. Maybe beings, like you did, so I can share with them my knowledge and teach them.” 

Olorun, who himself had been made by Olodumare, the mysterious god beyond all things, understood Obatala’s desire to create, and was more than willing to say yes. 

“I suggest you talk to Orunmila,” he advised. “He can see far into the future how things will go.  And if anyone knows the magic you will need to do this, it is him.”

So Obatala consulted Orunmila of the far sight. Orunmila cast his seeds on his tray and frowned, looking at them thoughtfully. Finally he said that Obatala would need, among other things, three important things to take with him: a snail shell filled with powder, made from the boabab tree, some palm kernels, and the sacred golden egg that contained all of the spirits of the orishas. “You will also need a way to get down. Go to the goldsmith and ask him to make you a chain that reaches to the world below.” 

Even though Obatala did not know what everything was for, he did exactly as Olorun said. First, he went to all the other orishas and asked them for all the gold they had, which they gave him.

Then he took it to the goldsmith and said, “Make me a gold chain, that drops down into the world below, so that I can climb safely down.” He dressed in clean, white robes and packed his belongings, the snail shell with the tree powder, and the palm seeds. Last, he removed the sacred egg from the tree and held it carefully clutched to his chest. Then he began to climb down the golden chain, down to the dark, swirling waters. For seven days he climbed, as the dark waters got closer and closer. On the last day, when he got to the end of the chain, he found that it was too short! Obatala hung there, swinging gently on the golden chain from heaven, wondering what to do.

Then Orunmilla, who was watching, called to him from above: “Use the shell!” Obatala remembered the snail shell and pulled it out of his pack. But he was carrying so many things as he balanced in the air, that he did so, the powder in the shell spilled out onto the water. As the sand hit the waters, it formed masses of solid land: mountains, islands and plains. As he watched, Obatala did not notice how tightly he was holding the egg, until suddenly, it cracked against his chest! 

Out of the egg flew the Sankofa! The great, golden bird, who was always looking behind it into the past, to carry its wisdom into the present. And with the Sankofa bird came the spirits of all the orishas. 

First there was Ellegua, clad in red and black, and carrying a cane; he loved the inbetween places in the world, and because he was first, he would be known by the people as the orisha of the crossroads, and forever after, when calling to the orishas, they would call him first. 

Next came his two friends: strong and quiet Ogun, dressed in green and black, who carried an armful of tools, and immediately began clearing the forests and building a forge, and behind him the master hunter Ochosi, in his suit of blue and amber, who put his crossbow on his shoulder and disappeared into the forests, completely hidden from view. Since Ochosi always shoots perfectly straight and hits his mark, he would be known as the orisha of justice, ruler of those who keep the laws.   

The dark waters began to churn and bubble, and a beautiful orisha stepped forth, wearing skirts of flowing blue and white. Yemaya touched the water, and instantly millions of fish appeared, exploding outward to the corners of the earth as she plunged into the sea. In the winds that followed her came a dark tornado. In its midst was powerful Oya, wearing skirts of red, brown, and nine other colors. She spun around dancing with a machete in each hand, and so skillfully that she never even cut her skirts. 

With her was Shango, accompanied by a flash of lightning, in his cloths of red and white. He was dancing, laughing, and pounding a great drum, and with each burst of laughter, fire blew from his mouth! Orunmila was next, wearing his best green and yellow suit and carrying his tray under his arm as he peeked out at the young world. He immediately sat down and began drawing in the sand to divine its future. 

Last but not least stepped Oshun, the youngest of the orishas, and often said to be the most beautiful. She flew singing into the forests, her yellow skirts flowing and her brass and gold jewelry flashing in the sun, where she found a home by the freshwater streams, where should gaze at her own reflection.

When all of the orishas had been released into the world, Obatala himself got to work. He dropped from the golden chain onto the ground and took a walk, dropping the palm nuts into the ground.  Giant trees burst forth and grew with great speed as he hummed and walked along. Then he sat down and began to mold shapes in the sand and water, until he had made many beings that looked a little bit like him, and like the other orishas.

Olorun happened to look down from the skies as Obatala finished the people, and seeing that they were not yet alive, he took a deep breath, and breathed their spirits into them!  Obatala was so happy! But he began to notice something was wrong: the bodies were all different. They were not perfect...and the way they talked and behaved toward each other was sometimes strange and unkind. 

Then he remembered: During his crafting, he had gotten thirsty and taken some of the juice from the palm trees. But the juice had been fermented into wine, and made him tipsy. He felt horrible! 

Obatala sat down and groaned into the earth. “I’ve been careless,” he cried to himself, “and now the people will suffer because I was not paying attention to how I made them.” Now the other orishas had heard their brother groaning in pain, and from the forests and streams, the ocean and the forge, they spoke. 

"Obatala,” they said, “didn’t you create these beings so you could share your wisdom in the first place? What does it matter that they aren’t perfect? Now not only you are here, but so are we! And we swear to you that we will also bring our gifts to help them. We will teach them all the things we know, how to take care of themselves, protect each other, and love each other as a great family, as we were. Wherever they go and whatever happens to them, we promise you that as long as your world exists, they will find us in it.”

Obatala smiled as he listened to his brothers and sisters, comforted. For now he knew that whenever his people found trouble, they would have help to see them through it. 

Condensed Version

Long ago, before there were any people, all life existed in the sky. Olorun lived in the sky, and with Olorun were many orishas. They all lived by a young baobab tree, where they found everything they ever needed for food, work or play. In fact, they were all very creative and made things all the time, clothing themselves in beautiful robes and skirts, and gold jewelry. Now Olorun had told them that all the vast sky was theirs to explore, but all of the orishas seemed happy to stay near the baobab tree.

Except for Obatala.

Obatala was the curious orisha who wasn't content to live blissfully by the baobab tree. Like all orishas, he had certain powers, and he wanted to put them to use. As he pondered what to do, he looked far down through the mists below the sky. As he looked and looked, he began to realize that there was a vast empty ocean below the mist.

Obatala went to Olorun and said, “I want to go down from the heavens to the dark seas below, and make something. Maybe beings, like you did, so I can share with them my knowledge and teach them.” Olorun, who himself had been made by Olodumare, the mysterious god beyond all things, understood Obatala’s desire to create, and was more than willing to say yes. 

“I suggest you talk to Orunmila,” he advised. “He can see far into the future how things will go. And if anyone knows the magic you will need to do this, it is him.”

So Obatala consulted Orunmila of the far sight. Orunmila cast his seeds on his tray and frowned, looking at them thoughtfully.  Finally he said that Obatala would need, among other things, three important things to take with him: a snail shell filled with powder, made from the boabab tree, some palm kernels, and the sacred golden egg that contained all of the spirits of the orishas. “You will also need a way to get down. Go to the goldsmith and ask him to make you a chain that reaches to the world below.” 

Even though Obatala did not know what everything was for, he did exactly as Olorun said. First, he went to all the other orishas and asked them for all the gold they had, which they gave him.

Then he took it to the goldsmith and said, “Make me a gold chain, that drops down into the world below, so that I can climb safely down.” He dressed in clean, white robes and packed his belongings, the snail shell with the tree powder, and the palm seeds. Last, he removed the sacred egg from the tree and held it carefully clutched to his chest. 

Then Obatala began to climb down the golden chain, down to the dark, swirling waters. For seven days he climbed, as the dark waters got closer and closer. On the last day, when he got to the end of the chain, he found that it was too short! Obatala hung there, swinging gently on the golden chain from heaven, wondering what to do.

Then Orunmilla, who was watching, called to him from above.  “Use the shell!” Obatala remembered the snail shell and pulled it out of his pack. But he was carrying so many things as he balanced in the air, that he did so, the powder in the shell spilled out onto the water. As the sand hit the waters, it formed masses of solid land: mountains, islands and plains. And as he watched, he did not notice how tightly he was holding the egg, until suddenly, it cracked against his chest! 

Out of the egg flew the Sankofa! The great, golden bird, who was always looking behind it into the past, to carry its wisdom into the present. And with the Sankofa bird came the spirits of all the orishas, in a crowd of colors, carrying tools and musical instruments, machetes and crossbows, for they all had their own powers and knowledge; they were hunters and fighters, dancers and diviners, and they brought the powers of nature and the elements as they explored the new world, and each found a  home where they were most comfortable.

When all of the orishas had been released into the world, Obatala himself got to work. He dropped from the golden chain onto the ground and took a walk, dropping the palm nuts into the ground.  Giant trees burst forth and grew with great speed as he hummed and walked along. Then he sat down and began to mold shapes in the sand and water, until he had made many beings that looked a little bit like him, and like the other orishas.

Olorun happened to look down from the skies as Obatala finished the people, and seeing that they were not yet alive, he took a deep breath, and breathed their spirits into them! Obatala was so happy! But he began to notice something was wrong: the bodies were all different. They were not perfect. And the way they talked and behaved toward each other was sometimes strange and unkind. 

Then he remembered: During his crafting, he had gotten thirsty and taken some of the juice from the palm trees. But the juice had been fermented into wine, and made him tipsy. He felt horrible! 

Obatala sat down and groaned into the earth. “I’ve been careless,” he cried to himself, “and now the people will suffer because I was not paying attention to how I made them.” Now the other orishas had heard their brother groaning in pain, and from the forests and streams, the ocean and the forge, they spoke. 

"Obatala,” they said, “didn’t you create these beings, so you could share your wisdom in the first place? What does it matter that they aren’t perfect? Now not only you are here, but so are we! And we swear to you that we will also bring our gifts to help them. We will teach them all the things we know, how to take care of themselves, protect each other, and love each other as a great family, as we were. Wherever they go and whatever happens to them, we promise you that as long as your world exists, they will find us in it.”

Obatala smiled as he listened to his brothers and sisters, comforted. For now he knew that whenever his people found trouble, they would have help to see them through it. 

Wade in the Water—The Orishas

(Song adapted from a version developed by Earil Wilson and singers from the community of Four Quarters Farm)
 
Chorus:
Wade in the water / Wade in the troubled water
Wade in the water / Orishas gonna' trouble the water

Who's that down at the crossroads today?
        Wade in the water
Papa Ellegua will open the way.
        Orishas gonna trouble the water

Who's that down by the railroad tracks?
            Wade in the water
Papa Ogun, he is comin' on back.
            Orishas gonna trouble the water

Who's that there, hidin' out in the woods?
            Wade in the water
Papa Ochosi hunts spiritual food…
            Orishas gonna trouble the water

Who's that there down by the sea?
            Wade in the water
Yemaya's mama to you and to me.
            Orishas gonna trouble the water

Who's that there with the angry eyes?
            Wade in the water
Mama Oya's storm is sure to surprise…
            Orishas gonna trouble the water
 
Who's that there, dancin' in the sky?
            Wade in the water
Papa Chango, he is flashin' on by.
            Orishas gonna trouble the water

Who's that there, drawin' on the ground?
            Wade in the water
Orula's got the answer if it's there to be found...
            Orishas gonna trouble the water
 
Who's that lyin' by the riverside?
            Wade in the water
Mama Oshun, she is lookin' so fine.
            Orishas gonna trouble the water

 

About the Author

  • Erica Shadowsong is a multidisciplinary artist who discovered storytelling through her graduate studies in English, folklore, and music. Unitarian Universalism has been a professional home since 2011, where she enjoys being able to bring her deep love of all things spiritual,...

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