Ohun Sees Birth
© 2007 Lili Bernard
Ochun is the Orisha of love, matrimony and motherhood. Orishas are spirits who are manifestations of Olodumare, meaning God, in Yoruba faith (Ifa). The Yoruba religion found its way from Africa to the Caribbean and other neighboring colonies, on the slave ships. To avoid persecution by the Spaniards, the slaves disguised the names of the Orishas, with masks of Catholic Saint names. Ochun, for example, was referred to as Santa Maria de la Caridad (La Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre: Cuba’s Patron Saint). Chango, the Orisha of thunder and lightning, was called Santa Barbara, and so on. This practice of concealing the Orishas behind a facade of Catholic Saint names gave rise to the religion known as Santeria whose language is Lucumí, where elements of Yoruba and Catholicism are mixed into one synchronistic faith. (PHOTO: Ochun Sees Birth, Oil on Canvas 48“ x 48” © 2007 Lili Bernard, Collection of Marcia Lewis.)
Ochun’s early life was riddled with poverty and tragedy. In her impoverished state, she became a prostitute in an attempt to sustain her hungry children. When the other Orishas found out that she was prostituting herself, they took her children away from her and Ochun became temporarily insane. During this unfortunate time in her life, Ochun owned only one dress and it was white. Out of self respect, Ochun went to the rivers everyday and washed her only dress. Eventually, all of the washing and wearing turned the dress yellow. It is therefore that Ochun is associated with the color yellow and is often depicted wearing a yellow dress.
Another Orisha, named Aje’-Shaluga, lived near a river, where he saw Ochun washing her yellow dress. Aje’-Shaluga fell in love with Ochun. On one occasion, while Ochun was washing her dress, Aje’-Shaluga sprung out of the water and bestowed to Ochun cowries, gold and jewels, that he had found at the bottom of the river. Cowrie shells, in some ancient African cultures, were considered to be very valuable and were hence used as currency. This expression of love resulted in Ochun receiving back her children and her good reputation. Ochun then became associated with wealth and good fortune, her metal being copper and gold. In Santeria, Ochun’s synchronistic pairing with La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre was also influenced by the mutual existence of copper in both of these matriarchs’ legends. “Cobre” is Spanish for “Copper.” El Cobre is a copper mining region in the Sierra Maestra of Cuba’s Oriente province, where I was born.
The butterfly in the middle of the painting, camaflouged in the flowers, is symbolic of the metamorphic nature of birth. The butterfly I painted is the White-barred Chraxes (Charaxes brutus), found in the forests of Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Botswana. The branch, upon which the butterfly rests, and the network of veins inbetween the belly of the peacock and the belly of the lady, are symbolic of umbilical chords, that beathe life to life.
In my painting, I have Ochun appearing as a peacock, to a woman birthing a child. I did this because Ochun is also affiliated with peacocks, as well as with birth. In some ancient cultures, peacocks are associated with wealth and good fortune. In many African cultures, even today, expectant women will go out into the wilderness alone and give birth by themselves, by hanging on to a tree, near water, if at all possible. In my painting, I made the woman giving birth in front of a waterfall. Ochun is is the Orisha of the sweet waters and is affiliated with waterfalls, which are symbolic of the rushing of water from the womb, during birth. Ochun is also sometimes characterized as a pregnant lady. Therefore, the pregnant lady in my painting is also an embodiment of Ochun.
The words on the medallion-like halos around the peacock and the pregnant lady are from the begin of a prayer that is recited for Ochun. It says, “Ade Ochun, Mori Yeye O,” which in Lucumí means, “Crown of Ochun, I see you, mother.” The peacock who is Ochun is seeing the birthing mother who is symbolic of herself. Therefore, I made the belly of the birthing woman glowing yellow. The result is that Ochun (the peacock) is watching herself (the woman) give birth, as if looking in a mirror. Ochun, being vein, is often depicted looking at herself in a mirror. I painted the halos in metallic gold to symbolize gold coins, for wealth. They are symbolic of the gold coins that Aje’-Shaluga gave to Ochun at the river. I chose a jungle for the setting of Ochun, watching herself give birth at the waterfall, to reference the jungle of the Sierra Maestra mountains in El Cobre in Cuba. The white flowers by Ochun’s foot in the river are Mariposa Flowers. The Mariposa is Cuba’s national flower.
In the Caribbean and in Africa, and other places where people practice Santeria and Ifa, offerings for Ochun are often left at riversides and waterfalls. Ochun’s offerings include honey and any type of sweets, such as candy. She also likes pumkin, spinach, shrimp, turtles, white chickens and neutered goats.
In Yoruba and Santeria, every Orisha is represented by a certain dance with specific movements characteristic to that Orisha. Ochun’s dance is very sensual and sexual. While dancing, Ochun extends her hands enticingly and shakes her arms, jingling her gold bracelets, while she thrusts her hips. Dance moves for Ochun mimic the rowing of a boat, as if in a river. Ochun is also known to be a good cook. Her dance moves therefore also involve pantomiming grinding in a large pestle, as if preparing food for a family. The vain Ochun, is also portrayed in dance as combing her hair while gazing in a mirror in self admiration. Therefore, an offering for Ochun can also include a hair comb and a mirror, as well as peacock feathers.
Ochun is also known as Osun or Oshun. She is married to Chango (the Orisha of sky and thunder). Her number is five and her day of the week is Saturday.