Esu: A metaphor for social justice and reform
The stability of the cosmos depends on Esu (Devil).
Yet, he delights in mischief – Babatunde Lawal.
Once upon a time in a pristine African society, life was absurd at its best. Human life was largely devoid of meaning. Few succeeded with difficulties; the majority did not and didn’t know why. Many laboured but in vain. They gathered and watched things scattered for the cycle to begin again. The wise fail and fools prosper. The confusion (rudurudu) was far-reaching. Birds tweeted not like birds. Mouse squeaked in strange tones. Babies were not crying like humans. Dead trunks stood while saplings and trees in their prime fell. The villagers fasted and prayed to the gods. Rituals became a routine at road shrines and labyrinths. Almost everything they tried came to naught. Life was foul as almost everything polukumusu or withered without cause.
But newborns should not be malformed in the marketplace of elders. A few sort after Orunmila, the wise ones of the land and messenger of Olodumare. Akerefinusogbon too was as bothered as the people. Orunmila kept dicing on Ifa divination tray; day and night, one supplicant after another. Ifa kept telling them to appeal to their heads. It didn’t mean much to the petitioners. Nothing mortifies an elder like divination that proffers neither sacrifice nor remedy. Orunmila was like a doctor without the prescription; even if it is placebo. Restless supplicants offered sacrifices on their own accord. They called Ifa liar; Esu-Odara (Devil) thief. Orunmila looked to the heavens like the uninitiated.
Orunmila summoned courage one day and headed for ajule-orun (heaven) to inquire of Olodumare why life was bizarre. Crisscrossing between heaven and earth was possible for Orunmila as the primus inter pares among men and gods created by Olodumare. He met Esu, the messenger of Olodumare at the heaven’s gate. Esu was surprised to see him. He knew his time was not up, “what are you doing here, the wise one?” Esu inquired of Orunmila. The latter took a seat and narrated the troubles, travails, and meaninglessness that have literally taken over the earth. He explained his helplessness and how he was being ridiculed as a false messenger of Olodumare. Esu heard it all and fell sorry for Orunmila. He told Orunmila that he would allow him to have access to Olodumare, but before he does, he would want him to see why things are the way they are. Esu has a fair idea of why Ifa kept referencing that each supplicant should appeal to his or her ori (head).
As the myth goes, Esu took Orunmila to where human spirits choose their lots (yan ipin) at the nick of coming to the earth. He tucked Orunmila in a corner and urged him to listen to humans make choices of life paths before Olodumare. Earth-bound creations started filing to decide their own fate. Their sundry requests shocked Orunmila to his marrows. On the aggregate, very few choose goodness, success, and life of impacts. Majority volunteered to tag along with others in life. The preponderance of people opted to be spectators. And the Register of Destiny sanctions all choices.
The wise one thanked Esu for the revelation as they departed. Esu said all human beings on earth made choices and had been predestined with certain potential and pathways in life. The divine sanction enforces the will power to actualise potential, as much as their character would enable them over time. No amount of hurry or impatience will change anything for good. He urged Orunmila to always factor in predestination or potentiality, choices, and character in divining human course in life.
‘Dimeji Ajikobi, in Esu; Ta Ni i? recounts the foregoing allegory in Ifa Literary Corpus. Despite the inherent flaws, the story attempted to help Orunmila and the generality of human beings to make meanings of life’s absurdities and our reality. Important themes here are: (1) the dominant interplay of good and evil, even in the choices of men; (2) the uneasy interaction between predestination and free will; (3) the imperative of character and patience in the life journey; and the most central to this discourse, (4) the role of Esu in the scheme of social ordering, the making of a just society and its relevance to modern societies.
Let us make a sense of the character called Esu. He has about 200 appellations in Yoruba literature but otherwise called Devil or Satan in the English lexicon. He is so important that he readily features in everyday conversations today but for untoward reasons. He is regarded as evil, in opposition to God, and everything good in the dominant religions. The New Testament in the Bible clearly marks the Devil as evil and the enemy of believers. So, it is not usual for evildoers to blame their misdemeanors on Christian Satan. For instance, a serial killer, an armed robber, a pastor caught with the wife of his congregant, an Islamic cleric caught defiling minors, among others, all blamed it on Devil’s instigation.
But that Western perception is largely contrary to the traditional conception of Esu in Africa. Like the Biblical Satan in the Book of Job 1:6-8, Esu is the messenger of God. For the Yoruba, he is the next in hierarchy after Orunmila. In indigenous creation stories, Olodumare rarely interferes with the day-to-day affairs of man or earth, where he has already delegated 401 deities to superintend. Quite unique is the role of Esu. Bolaji Idowu, once described it as ‘a special relations officer between heaven and earth, the inspector-general who reports regularly to Olodumare on the deeds of the divinities and men, and checks and makes reports on the correctness of worship in general and sacrifices in particular.’
On behalf of the Supreme Being, Esu receives ebo or sacrifices – be it of supplication or appeasement. He presents cases before Olodumare. In turn, he punishes evildoers and recalcitrant persons. Overall, he is a balance between good and evil, creating stability in the cosmic interplay of good and evil forces. Indeed, that was our dominant understanding of Esu until the colonial interlopers brought foreign religion drawn from foreign cultures to Africa.
Esu is indeed a sticky character. Oral literature of the Yoruba shows that there are several myths surrounding Esu, some of which are inconsistent and sometimes contradictory. But the majority of them agree that Esu is a bewildering versatile character that is capable of all sorts of tricks, and deceits as he does both good and evil. All are unanimous that Esu is a dreaded fellow and each individual is treated according to his or her standing before Esu. He is worshipped for his benevolence. Even those that subscribed to other gods revered Esu. As the saying has it: A kii ru’bo, k’a yo t”Esu kuro (No one offers sacrifice without an extra portion for Esu). To do so is to render the sacrifice incomplete. This vital role, akin to the ministry of justice in modern settings, has significance in the making of a just and prosperous society.
To be continued next week.