Sacred Arts & Personal Transformation
Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with a friend about her recent visit to Cuba. “When I had exhausted my little Spanish and they had exhausted their little bit of English, we just walked the streets singing Bob Marley songs. And even if they didn’t sing it right we both knew what the song MEANT.” Everywhere in the world, Bob Marley and the Wailers are synonymous with peace, freedom and spiritual devotion. To a greater extent than any other 20th century art form, Marley’s music helps create a shared vision of the human experience. Of course, to some degree, most art communicates the human experience in some way or another. So, even if you’ve never even heard of Marley, there is very likely some art form that stirs your deep emotions, conjures meaningful memories and touches your very soul. For some it’s poetry or dance. For others, it’s visual art or theater. Whatever the case may be, take a few moments to recall a time when you were profoundly affected by the arts. Siddhartha V. Shah tells us that “Artistic expression is a means through which an individual can become in tune with the magic and mystery of the cosmos.” I have been privileged to personally experience the magic and mystery of the arts. About 14 years ago, I attended a West African dance class taught by the late cultural activist and teacher,Dadisi Sanyika. “You have to understand where this dance comes from.” Although Dadisi’s attention was focused on a single student, my attention – as well as that of everyone else in the studio – was immediately focused onto the story we knew he was about to tell.Dadisi continued demonstrating the dance, but now in slow motion, as he told us, “For generations this dance had been performed the same way. But one day, the legendary dancer was doing this movement that you’re doing right now.” Then he paused with his arms outstretched, one leg firmly planted, the other slightly bent at the knee; his heel raised so that only the ball of his foot remained on the floor. He looked like a winged horse, carved in ebony at that moment. He went on to tell us how it was that particular pose that transported the legendary dancer into the ancestral realm. In a single instant, the dwellers of heaven taught him an entirely new choreography, then returned him to the 3rd dimension to teach the new movement to the people. . In Yorùbá symbolic language, eiye ororo (the bird of descent) represents individual capacity for astral travel. Placed atop the king’s crown, it communicates female spiritual authority, organized around what might be termed the birds’ society. Similarly, the bird that tops the staff of the divinity of herbal wisdom, Osanyin, denotes medicinal potency. Likewise, ilé orí, the shrine dedicated to the divinity within, is completely covered in bird symbolism. Covered in cowries, and topped with a bird, ilé orí “conceals an allusion to a certain bird, whose white feathers are suggested by the overlapping cowries.” (Thompson Page 11) In this instance, the bird symbolizes the emblem of the mind that God places in the head of every human being at the time of birth. Everywhere this mystic bird appears in Yorùbá sacred arts, it seems to signify spiritual elevation and divine consciousness.