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As he had for centuries, he woke early, and his mortal body was weary. Flesh had many advantages, but weariness was not one of them. Day after day, he worked on the earth directing the orishas in their affairs: He nurtured them as they created; he calmed them when there was chaos; and he judged them when there was conflict.
He held up his withered hands, turning them to look at the back and the front. “They are old. They are tired.” He sighed. “I am old. I am tired.”
Something changed in Olófin that morning, just before the sun began its daily ascent in the eastern sky. Exhaustion overwhelmed him, and he knew he was done. With a deep breath, and a tear in his eye, he lifted his arms to heaven, calling Olódumare to bring him home.
All creatures great and small felt Olófin’s departure. In the twilight before dawn, the air grew thick, oppressive with its weight, and a great wind swept over the earth. The world shuddered; then, everything was quiet.
Olófin was gone, but no one panicked at first. Travel between heaven and earth was an easy thing for an orisha; for them, the wise one was only a footstep away. Unknown to anyone but Olófin, however, Olódumare closed and locked the gates between the realms.
“How will they come to me when they need me?” Olófin complained to God.
“You are retired from earthly work now,” Olódumare told him. “You will pick another to lead them on earth.”
“How do I choose?”
“That is up to you. When you have decided, I will reopen the gates so you can make your announcement.”
It took many days and many nights for Olófin to decide, and during that time, the earth fell into chaos. Like a slaughtered and dying beast with no head, the orishas worked blindly on the earth, exhausting their collective strength. Without Olófin’s guidance, they all fell apart. Only the most aged among them, Obatalá, continued to toil in spite of his exhaustion, and while he worked, the other orishas argued about who should be the new king.
“I should be the new king,” Shangó announced. “I am a warrior, and have the strength to protect us all!”
“Why can there not be a queen?” asked Oyá. “I wield the machete as well as you, Shangó. I carry the flywhisk that frightens Ikú and all osogbo. I control the first and the last breath, bringing life, or death!”
Yemayá put her hands on her hips. “My waters cleanse the world of everything. There is no force on earth more powerful than my oceans. Because of my strength, I should be the queen.”
“But I control everything that makes life worth living!” insisted Oshún. “I should rule this world.”
Their arguments became feverish, and Olófin heard them all. Watching the chaos unfolding on the earth below, he made his decision quickly and invited everyone to a formal dinner for his announcement.
Olódumare unlocked the gates so the orishas could cross into heaven to Olófin’s palace. They travelled quickly, and only Obatalá remained on the earth. He continued to labor in everyone’s absence. “There is too much work to do,” he lamented. “It is better that I stay behind, and work.”
As the evening began, elaborate place settings waited each orisha at the banquet-table. Shangó found his spot in front of the red and white bowl and plate, feeling special because his seat was at Olófin’s right hand. “This is a good sign!” Shangó thought to himself, “to be seated at Olófin’s right hand. He has picked me as the head of all the orishas!”
The other men found their places quickly, and stood politely as the women wandered around the table, finding their assigned seats. Yemayá stood in front of the blue and white china; and across from her stood Oyá, her place setting a deep, rich burgundy. She smiled a coy smile at her sister, and nodded to her in respect as Oyá bowed her head in acknowledgement.
As Oshún made her way to the table, she breathed in deeply, crossing her hands over her heart and smiling warmly at Olófin. Her plate and her bowl were made from deeply polished brass, so smooth she could see her reflection, and her utensils were pressed from fine gold. “Olófin!” she said, almost a whisper but full of delight, “you honor me with your graciousness.”
“Beauty such as yours deserves the best,” he said. Shangó rushed to her side, holding her seat and pushing it close to the table as she sat. They exchanged a lustful glance. Oyá shuddered, and Yemayá pretended not to notice. Following Shangó’s lead, the men pulled the chairs out from the table, offering the women their seats, and gently pushed them close to the table. When all the women were seated, the men seated themselves. Everyone looked to Olófin, as he was the eldest at the table.
“Where is Obatalá?” he asked. A murmur rose as everyone questioned everyone else to the orisha’s whereabouts, and everyone looked to the vacant seat at the head of the table, across from Olófin. His white plate, bowl, and cup were untouched; his seat remained tucked in at the head of the table. “Has anyone seen Obatalá?”
No one answered. After several moments of confused conversation, Olófin called to his servants. “We eat without him.”
Servants removed the empty place setting, and brought huge serving trays of food to the table. One-by-one, each server served the orishas, offering a wide array of meats, vegetables, and desserts. Hungrily, the piled their plates with food, and when everyone’s plates were full, they looked towards Olófin, the eldest at the table.
The elder stood. Looking at the guests individually as he spoke, he addressed them. “You all know that tonight is a special night. I have put a lot of thought into this dinner. Why? I have retired from the earth, and in my absence, one of you must serve as the head of all the orishas. I know you are all anxious to hear my decision, and I am anxious to make it. First, we feast. After dinner, I will tell you all who rules in my absence.” Olófin sat; he looked around the room one more time, frowning a bit when he saw Obatalá’s seat still empty. With dozens of hungry eyes watching him, he lifted his fork, and took his first bite. With that formality over, everyone began feasting.
Olófin ate very slowly, so they spent hours at the dinner table.
It was late when Obatalá finished his day’s work; his hands were soiled and his clothes lightly stained when his stomach made its first hungry rumble. The old man rubbed it lightly, straightening and stretching his stiff back. “I am done with my work, and I am hungry!” Then, he remembered, “I could go to Olófin’s banquet, but I am very late.” He looked down at himself, sighing. “I am a mess.” He looked up at the sky, and saw the sun sliding down the western horizon. “I have no time to clean up.” His hunger outweighed the embarrassment of his soiled cloths, and he left for Olófin’s palace.
Nervous chatter filled the dining room; all the orishas were stuffed and sleepy, but no one could leave the table because Olófin still nibbled from his plate, slowly. Mindlessly he chewed, staring at Obatalá’s empty chair. Everyone thought he was sad that Obatalá did not come.
Little did they know that he was simply waiting for him to arrive.
Shangó was the first to grow impatient, “Father?” He touched Olófin’s arm gently. “We have been sitting here for many hours. May we get up?”
As if awakening from a deep sleep, Olófin looked at Shangó. He sipped from his water glass and swallowed before speaking. “What did you ask, son?”
Yemayá interrupted. “He asked if we might be excused, Olófin,” she said, impatiently but politely. “We have been here a long time.”
They were silent, waiting for Olófin to kiss his fingertips and touch the table, excusing everyone. The servants lined up against the wall, each ready to remove the plates, two at a time.
The elder put his fingertips to his lips, about to kiss them, when another servant escorted Obatalá into the room. “I am so sorry. My apologies to you all,” the aged orisha said, bowing his head humbly. “Olófin, there is so much work to do in your absence, and I was so caught up in it that I almost forgot tonight was your special night.”
Quickly, a servant brought Obatalá’s place setting back to the table, and offered him his chair. “There is no need to apologize, Obatalá. But we have been feasting for hours, and I am afraid there is not much left to offer you.”
“I am grateful for whatever you give me, Father. You are always a generous host.”
The server who seated the orisha brought a tray of meat; everything had been picked through except the delicately roasted heads. “This is all we have left?” asked Olófin.
“Father, it is enough.” The men sat back in their seats, arms crossed over their chests as Obatalá ate; the women pushed their chairs back and to the side, crossing their legs impatiently. Olófin kept them all trapped at the table while Obatalá ate, and everyone talked among themselves as Olófin watched them all.
The meat found in the head is a delicate meat, sweet and delicious; but it is a difficult meat to eat because of all the tiny, razor-sharp bones. In spite of his hunger, Obatalá ate slowly and carefully to avoid cuts and scrapes. When he was sated, he kissed his fingertips and touched his plate.
“May we be excused now?’ Shangó asked, impatiently. “It is time for you to tell us who will rule during your absence!”
Olófin looked at Shangó as he kissed his fingertips and touched his plate; the servers came quickly, gathering the plates two at a time. Shangó was the first to stand; he was pushing his chair under the table when Olófin grabbed his wrist, gently, and held his other hand up to silence all the orishas. “Shangó, tell me – what did you eat today? Of all the meats that I served, what did you choose?”
“I ate the beef-tongue, Olófin. It was delicious.”
“And why, out of all the food I served, did you choose the tongue?”
Shangó smiled; he felt that Olófin was testing his wisdom, and he wanted to be wise. “I ate the tongue because tongue is the best food and the worst food in the world. With the tongue, once can create a kingdom or destroy the world! It is full of ashé!” He smiled and puffed up his chest proudly. Shangó was sure Olófin was about to appoint him head of all the orishas.
Instead, Olófin released his gentle grip on Shangó's wrist, and turned his attention to Yemayá. “What did you eat this evening, Yemayá?”
She smiled at Olófin. “I ate the liver. Just as my life-giving waters cleanse the earth of evil, so does one’s liver cleanses the body of impurities. It is full of ashé!”
”You are very wise, Yemayá!” Shangó glared at her; Yemayá only smiled at him. “And you, Oshún, what meat did you enjoy today?”
Oshún smiled sweetly, folding her hands over her heart as she looked at the floor humbly. “I ate the heart, because without the heart no one can live. No one can love. Without a heart, life itself . . . is meaningless.” A single tear slid down her cheek.
“Of all Olódumare’s creations on this earth, you, Oshún, are the most exquisite. You are lovely, and you are loved by all things great and small!”
Olófin turned to look at Oyá. “What did you enjoy from the feast today, Oyá?”
“I ate the tail, because with the tail you can scare things away, and I ate the lungs, for without those we cannot breathe.”
Finally, Olófin turned to Obatalá. “What did you enjoy today, Obatalá?”
“When I arrived, all that was left were the heads of the animals. I was late; no one waited for me, so I ate those.”
“Without the head, no one can live: Without a head, the orishas cannot function. The head you ate, and the head you will ever be,” said Olófin. The orishas were all stunned; this was his decision, his choice for their new king. Everyone prostrated themselves before Obatalá, one-by-one, and humbly, Obatalá blessed them and bid them to rise.
That is how Obatalá became the king of all the orishas, and that is why we say, “Obatalá eats heads!”