Art & Poetry

In Oshun’s River

(A Prayer)

Original painting by
J.G. Bertrand

Poetry by
Becca Tzigany
(see below)

Artists’ Notes
Mythology Notes



by Becca Tzigany

Iba Oshun olodi!

Praises to Orisha of the River!

Spirit, clean me inside out

Flush through my veins till I’m flowing

Revive my body from a lonely drought

Singing across the river

Drum notes of my thoughts back and forth

Roil them till they’re smooth, white stones

Polish the mirror of my mind

Take out the knots with your comb

Iba Oshun sekese!

Praises to Orisha of Mystery!

Spirit, clean me inside out

I pour my sorrows into your waters

As my heart lets go of fear and doubt

Strong, brown, onrushing goddess

How do I dissolve my old habits

That charted my course till now?

Help me attach not to objects

But to the currents pure spirits arouse

Iba Oshun ibu kole!

Praises to Orisha of Seduction!

Join with me inside and out

Adorned with brass bangles shining

Making love in the depths and throughout

Artists’ Notes



Photo: Satyamo Hernandez

James:  After seeing the photo for this piece, I couldn’t wait to paint it.  The symbolism of the god-man being cleansed in the river by these two beautiful and sensuous goddesses was stunning for me.  I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario – although I’m not at all surprised, given the fact that this was such a high photo session in our project.  We all seemed to get charged up with the African spirit of water.  [See “Photo Shoot:  Water Spirits”]

The background scene is actually a combination of two different places:  the sacred palm grove near our beach in Puerto Rico, and Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.  It seemed like an appropriate combination for an Afro-Caribbean goddess.

Each of the deities are their traditional colors:  yellow Venus, red Mars, and dark brown Oshun.  The colors and shapes of the jewelry are inspired by the time I spent living as an artist in Jamaica, another Caribbean island infused with the African vibe.  Oshun holds a water pitcher made of brass, a metal associated with  her.

Rebecca:  This piece was for me a natural blending of tantric principles and Yoruban concepts, like the confluence of two rivers.  Fundamental to tantric practice is the process of purification;  without clearing the energy channels through the chakras, kundalini cannot flow unimpeded.  Without clearing the mind of illusions, we cannot deal with the world skillfully.  Without clearing the emotional body of its shadows, we are confounded in our quest.  The image of Oshun and Venus washing Mars was a perfect metaphor for an indispensable step on the tantric path.

The poem is composed of five stanzas of five lines each.  Five is a number sacred to Tantra as well as to the goddess Oshun.  It is written as a prayer for any devotee of Oshun.  In this case, either Mars or Venus could be chanting it.

Oshun is hailed with traditional phrases, followed by the translation in English.  Note that orisha means “spirit being”, or in this case, “goddess”.

The first stanza asks for purification of the body, comparing the bloodstream with the river.  The “lonely drought” might refer to a long time without sexual companionship, or to a period of low energy.

The second stanza describes purification of the mind.  Using the ubiquitous symbol of African communication, the drum, I describe thoughts bouncing through our mind like “drum notes . . . back and forth”.  White stones from the riverbed are associated with Oshun, so I compare them to thoughts that have been had their rough edges smoothed out, akin to our knotty ideas that need to be combed smooth.  The mirror, another of Oshun’s favorite possessions, echoes the tantric enjoinder to “polish the mirror of my mind”.

The third stanza deals with the purification of the emotions, of the heart letting go “of fear and doubt”.  Oshun is known to receive your sorrows, if you go to the riverbank and give them to her.

The fourth stanza begins with an oblique reference to TS Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” where he writes

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

      Is a strong brown god —  sullen, untamed and intractable . . .

One of the greatest obstacles to our personal transformation is our habits, so this verse acknowledges their need for reform.  Once cleansed of compulsions and addictions, we can let go of our attachments to things (a basic precept of Buddhist Tantrism), and instead strengthen our connection with Spirit.

The fifth stanza transcends the need for any further purification and goes straight to becoming one with the Divine.  “Join with me inside and out”.  With a reference to Oshun’s brass bracelets, the poem ends with a scene of making love “in the depths” of the soul/river and being infused with pure spirit “throughout”.

Instead of one consistent rhythm, this poem jumps around, not unlike the polyrhythms of African drumming.  The lines generally mark the following pattern:

Line 1)  trochee (/ᴗ) – iamb (ᴗ/) – rocking foot (ᴗ/ᴗ)

Line 2)  primus paeon (/ᴗᴗᴗ) – primus paeon (/ᴗᴗᴗ) – trochee (/ᴗ)

Line 3) trochee (/ᴗ)  – trochee (/ᴗ) –  molussus (/// )

Line 4)  dactyl (/ᴗᴗ)  –  dactyl (/ᴗᴗ)  –  iamb (/ᴗ)

Line 5)  various, with accented last syllable

The rhyme pattern is abcdc.


Excerpted from The Pillow Book of Venus and Her Lover – Reinventing the Myth by Becca Tzigany and James Bertrand
© 2004 Copyrighted material

Mythology Notes


(Ochún, Osun, Oxum, Ikolé,  Yoruban (West African),
 Erzulie-Freda-Dahomey,  Caribbean,
 La Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre)  Brazilian

Some time after Olodumare the Creator had finished making the world, Ogun, the God of Iron, Fire, and War was busy sculpting out different parts of the Earth, working ceaselessly swinging his machete and carving with his knife. Then he walks deep into the bush to rest and to swig rum. Without Ogun’s industriousness, however, no new cropland is cleared, and the jungle begins encroaching on what had been cleared. No new tools are given to the people. What a catastrophe for a the freshly-made world! The other orishas (spirit beings) try to coax him out, to no avail.

Oshun observes their attempts, and thinks, “I know how to get him.” While people wail and the orishas argue over the unfolding crisis, Oshun bathes herself in the river, reveling in the sweet water. Upon the brown riverbank, she braids orange blossoms into her hair, dons a necklace of large golden chunks of amber and bracelets of brass and copper. Draping her voluptuous body with five orange-dyed scarves, she treks into the bush, her hips swaying as she walks. She brings a gourd filled with honey, her favorite food.

When Ogun hears the jangling of bracelets and catches a whiff of the flowers’ perfume, he peeks out to see who is intruding into his forest. Oshun, accustomed to men’s adoration, feels his eyes on her but pretends not to notice. Laying the gourd on the ground, she begins to hum a tune and undulate her body, like waves upon a slow river. As the divine woman pulls the orange scarves across her breasts, Ogun can see her nipples are hard. Leaning out from his hiding place, he stumbles into plain sight and quickly steadies himself alongside a large tree trunk. Oshun continues dancing with her eyes closed, as if she were unaware of him. Her quivering movements shake her breasts and when she turns around, her buttocks tremble. Ogun’s heart is pounding like drums in the jungle, buckling his knees so that his back slides along the tree trunk. He is hypnotized by the erotic dance. Reaching for her gourd, Oshun puts a fingerful of honey into her mouth, and then smears honey onto her full lips. Ogun opens his mouth, so that Oshun bends over him and dabs honey on his lips. He can smell the fragrance of her sweat as he licks the sweet goo off his mouth. When her dance swirls away from him, he follows her. Now she sings her song aloud:

 We are Orishas –  Orishas – Orishas

 We are here to help the world

Twirling around as she sings, she keeps dabbing his lips with golden honey, and so entices the Iron God back into the world.   The people rejoice that his machete resumes its work, and that his tools would be there to build a civilization.  And they know it is thanks to Oshun.  Without her ever-flowing love, they would not have survived.
It was only natural, after all, for the God of Fire to become inflamed with passion, and for the Goddess of Love and the River to be able to seduce him with her flowing dance.

((( )))

In another tale of Oshun, there was a time when the orishas, feeling quite smug with their position above humans, turn their backs on Olodumare, thinking they can get along without the Supreme Being. In order to teach them a lesson, he withholds the rains. Crops wither in their plots, the earth cracks in the hot sun. The people pray to the orishas to fix the trouble, but then the gods and goddesses realize they have no way of reaching Olodumare’s heavenly abode. They enlist all the flying spirits and creatures to take to the sky, but one by one, each fails. No bird can fly so high.

“I shall go,” exclaims Oshun, who takes her bird form, which is a peacock.

“You?” everyone laughs. “All you can do is primp and preen! No way will you reach Heaven!”

Undaunted, Oshun flaps her awkward wings and takes off.  Higher and higher she flies, and though suffering from overexertion, she does not give up.  She knows the people are depending on her.  She flies so near the sun that her beautiful blue and turquoise feathers are singed and her head is bald and badly sunburned.  By the time she reaches Olodumare’s palace in heaven, the peacock has scraggly blackened feathers and is hunched over with exhaustion;  she has become a vulture.

The Creator takes pity on the pathetic creature and nurses her back to health.  So impressed is He with her love of humanity that he sends her back to Earth with the rains.  Before long, life on Earth is green and growing again.

From that day forward, she becomes known as Ikolé (“vulture” in Lacumi tradition), in honor of being the messenger of Olodumare.  So when the people want their prayers to reach the highest heaven, they first call upon Oshun.

((( )))

Oshun is an African counterpart to Venus, whose domain is love, beauty, art, sexual intimacy, and motherhood.  Both goddesses are associated with the planet Venus, and love to adorn themselves and their surroundings.  As Goddess of the River, Oshun sustains moisture rising from the Earth, gathering and raining from clouds, and flowing in the rivers to the sea.  Though originating in the mythos of the Yoruba people of West Africa, Oshun travelled to the New World in the African diaspora of the 15th-19th centuries, giving faith to the slaves and transforming herself into adaptations of the Virgin Mary in order to fit into the mandatory Christian religion.  Hence she plays a role in contemporary Santería, Vodou, Vodun, Macumba, Quimbanda, Lucumi, and Candomblé.   She is known as Oxum in Brazil and Erzulie-Freda-Dahomey in Haiti.  As Nuestra Señora (or la Virgen) de la Caridad or La Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity of Copper), she was declared the patron saint of Cuba in 1916 by the Catholic Church.
Practitioners of Afro-Caribbean religions may commune with Oshun by letting her possess their bodies while dancing.  Drumming and trance dance are ways of healing, praying to God or the orishas, or receiving advice for the community.  People know Oshun has possessed the dancer if she strokes as if she is swimming, jangles her bracelets, or moves seductively.
In Nigeria, where the Oshun River meets the Oba River,  there is much turbulence.  It is said that the roiling waters are due to the fact that Oba and Oshun were the two jealous wives of the god Chango, and where they meet, they struggle and wrestle with each other over their husband.

From New Orleans (USA) to Benin (Africa), from the Dominican Republic (Caribbean) to Brazil (South America), Oshun is part of the religious devotion of millions of people.  For them, she is a goddess who is alive to this day.
§§ For further contemplation of the African diaspora to the Caribbean, see  “Mama Africa Sets Sail” in The Birthing of Venus and Her Lover.
Appears in: In Oshun’s River

Excerpted from The Pillow Book of Venus and Her Lover – Reinventing the Myth by Becca Tzigany and James Bertrand
© 2004 Copyrighted material

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