Ẹni tó ńbẹ̀rù àti ṣubú, àti dìde á nira fún un.
Whoever is scared of falling, would find it difficult to rise.
As Ṣàngó, god of thunder, lord of the storms, commander of lightning itself, walked to his death in chained hands, chained feet and a heavy heart, a small thought prodded his back:
Who do the gods themselves pray to when the end is nigh?
The chains that bound him were made of pure Aru — the metal of The Above. They were forged for forty years in the heart of the sun and cooled in the eternal rivers of Yemoja, the goddess of the rivers. They would never dull, or weaken, or break. They bound his physical and metaphysical form, crisscrossing around his entire being. They were the perfect bonds for the criminal he had become.
He shambled through the halls of The Above, their home — this was the dreams of the mortals, made real, made true. It represented their city on Earth, Ile-Ife, but here, there were palaces made of gold, birds crowned with silver, rivers that flowed with the freshest honey. It was a place of true celebration, true bliss.
But, on this day, it was a place of mourning. Of punishment.
The rest of his brethren, the Òrìṣà, all watched as he shuffled past, slowly. Nobody spoke a word or made a sound, nobody dared. Even Èṣù, the trickster god, only looked on with his poison green eyes. He wore not clothes, and the sun reflected greatly off his bald head. Today, he looked like a young child, his favourite form to take. Beneath him, a gold-speckled green snake slithered between his legs. Ṣàngó sneered at Èṣù, and Èṣù…. Èṣù smiled.
He saw Ògún, the Òrìṣà of Iron, cutlass in one hand and sword in the other, along with one of his remaining allies, Yemoja, goddess of the waters. Ògún had his lips curled in disgust, while Yemoja had her eyes open with fear. Òrúnmìlà was there as well, with his grey eyes that saw nothing and saw all, and his face was stone as Ṣàngó passed. It is said that Òrúnmìlà had seen all that had ever happened and all that was to happen, and so, to him, this was already finished. He was the god of prophecy.
Obá stood beside him, Obá his first wife, and she bored holes into his soul with her eyes that screamed fury.
Oṣun was being held back by the others as she tried to reach him, just to touch his skin one more time. To feel the scars on his back from the wars he had fought, and won. To feel his hands on her hips, his lips on hers, just one more time. Tears of blood flowed freely from her eyes and Ṣàngó felt her anguish, her love.
He shook his head quietly, and he knew she understood. No, my love. No.
There are two laws in The Above: The first is to never lay hands on another, they are all offspring of Olodùmarè — the Orisa, all gods. And so, they are brethren. And brethren do not slay brethren.
The second is to never speak an untruth, for lies are stories, and stories have power. That is the domain of the humans, and the both cannot, can never, mix. For eternity and a day, these are the laws in The Above.
And Ṣàngó broke them both.
The punishment in The Above for crimes committed was simple. There needed to be no jury or council when Olodùmarè was present. He knew all. What need be for anything else?
Ṣàngó walked with shoulders that sagged and shimmied. He could feel the eyes of every god staring at him on either side as they made a row to the throne. All four hundred and one gods were present that day. There had not been a congregation like this since…since his coronation as general of all the forces in The Above. He could hear the whispers as they travelled to his ear. He could see the disgust on their faces. He could feel his own shame, curling and coiling in his heart.
With every step he took, he could see them, their eyes, lit with fear, he could smell their thick hair and then, only the smell of thick smoke, and lightning. And death.
But still, he tried to walk with his head high, his chin lifted. He was a criminal and had committed a heinous atrocity. But, he was still Ṣàngó, slayer of the three thousand, the one god to whom even the Ever-Storm bowed to, and though he was meeting his end, he would meet it with dignity and honour. The same values with which he lived his life. That is, of course, until the end.
Secretly, he wished this end, hungered it like a thirsty man in a dessert. After what he had done, he did not wish to exist another day. Now, he thought, his suffering would be over.
He had reached the edge of all there was and will be when he stopped and knelt. This was the edge of The Above, a cliff face that morphed and shifted with the dreams of the mortals and the gods. This was the meeting point of the gods, and where prayers of mortals could be heard. The gods could hear them now, the mortals weeping, crying, soliciting, praying. Worshiping them, them who did not change, who did not fall, the gods who were eternal.
All the gods gathered behind his back then, forming a semi-circle, giving him a wide berth. Like he was poison. They, as well as he, knew what was coming next.
Ṣàngó had only ever witnessed one God-Death, two hundred years ago, and it latched to his mind and haunted him for decades like a wild horse, until he was finally able to drink the nightmares away. He had been present that day, at the very front of the crowd, still a very young god. And now, being in that same spot, the memories, like water, came rushing back. He could remember the pain, the anguish, the smell of burnt essence that filled the year. Until that day, he did not know an immortal could feel such agony. He could hear the god’s screams now. Her tears of ichor that flowed to the earth and burnt the soil, killing animals, burning the skins of humans. He remembered the look that was frozen into his memory, the look that he had tried to drink away. The look of complete, and utter fear.
The same feeling, he could now sense, bubbling deep within him.
Ṣàngó knelt on the ground that was made of clouds and dreams, and memories, and prayer. The sun rays spilt through the heavens in a kaleidoscope of different colours and spectrums, colours that no mortal had ever dreamed. And though Ṣàngó knew what his fate would be, he still found the space within himself to appreciate the beauty of the universe they experienced.
She had seen the beauty in all.
Even in a scarred general like himself, she had still found a way to see through the pain, the torture, and find beauty that nobody had seen before her. And it was that same love, perhaps, that led to her end.
Òrúnmìlà walked forward in his grey mist agbada, his garments, that blurred and mixed with the clouds, that shifted around him as he walked on the air itself, between his hands were the beads of Ifá — these were the beads that held the destinies of all in the world. These were the means of prophecy, of fate. He was rubbing them now, Òrúnmìlà, whispering as he spoke. He circled Ṣàngó sixteen times, and each time, Ṣàngó could feel his Aṣẹ, his godly essence, dimming, becoming subdued. His muscles were beginning to weaken, his eyes darkening to the colour of dead earth. But he would not fall, no.
He would not fall.
Òrúnmìlà stopped in front of Ṣàngó’s kneeling form, his brown and grey eyes staring deep into Ṣàngó’s, past his eyes and into his soul. And then he spoke with a voice that all in the universe could hear, in reality, or in their dreams, for Òrúnmìlà spoke to all.
“Let one conduct one’s life gently; that he may die a good death,” he said. “Let there be space in The Above for such a soul. Let one live life truly, and honestly, that one’s…” he paused here and looked at Ṣàngó before continuing, “children may stretch their hands over one’s body in burial.” He looked at all the gods gathered. “It is known why we are all here. The remaining wives of Ṣàngó. Come forward. Speak. So your husband may depart in peace.”
It was Obá, goddess of the river named after her, a turbulent water that crashed against the banks, who pushed past the crowd, her dark purple eyes meeting a challenge to everyone they laid on. She towered easily above some of them.
She came forward in front of Ṣàngó, and she paused.
Then she spat on his face.
“Ṣàngó, you were a bastard in life as an Aláàfin,” she said, “and a bastard when you became an Òrìṣà. And now, you will fade as you were always meant to: as filth.” She clenched her fists. “Her greatest mistake was loving you, and when you are gone, I will finally know peace.” And then, she transformed into a water buffalo with four horns and strutted away, the gods making a path for her.
And then, Oṣun came forward. The river she was the goddess of was calm, and tranquil, but it was strong also, and many a man had drowned in the waters. Her hands were clasped in front of her, her light blue eyes that were streaked with blood radiated a sadness that caught all their hearts. She took another step forward, bowed before Òrúnmìlà, and knelt at Ṣàngó’s front.
“My heart called to you all those years ago in that drum festival.” She said, cleaning her eyes with a white cloth that came away red.
“You gave my life meaning, and you accepted me, all those years when the others would not. You were my rock and my guiding star, and I know what you did is unforgivable but my heart will call on you for all eternity and a day, my husband.” She looked up at Òrúnmìlà who nodded gravely. And then, she kissed Ṣàngó softly on his right cheek, then his left, then his forehead. “Till we meet again.”
She stood up and brushed her knees.
“Oṣun,” Ṣàngó whispered, his voice speaking the first words since he had been bound. His voice was cracked, and strained, so very, very tired.
Oṣun held his chin in her hand. Her hands were warm, and Ṣàngó could smell the salt from her clothes, her smooth pale blue dress. “What is it, my husband?”
Ṣàngó let his head fall; this shame too heavy to bear. “I am not…I am not worthy of your love, Oṣun,” he said. “I was never worthy of it. Not in life, or in death.”
Oṣun smiled, and she bent low, so her head was level to his. “You never learnt, did you? Everyone is worthy of love, Ṣàngó,” she said. “Even you.” She kissed him one more time, and then she too left, transforming into a blue dove with eyes of gold, flying over the clouds.
Òrúnmìlà, once again, took his place, at Ṣàngó’s side. “And now, with the wives of Ṣàngó gone. Who else would — ”
“I will!” A voice shouted from behind Ṣàngó. And the bulking mass of Ògún walked forward. He was drinking palm wine now from a calabash in one hand with his black-iron sword in the other. The smell of alcohol clung to him like a ghost. His eyes were drunken, but they were focused. They were deadly His Aru spear was strapped tightly behind his back with leather made from the hide of a wild boar that had terrorised Oyo in the days of old.
Ògún bounded to the front of Ṣàngó and smiled. He lifted the calabash to his lips and took a swig of the wine. “I told them all you would be a useless general,” he said. “I told them you would fail us. I told them you were a disgrace. But, they insisted on replacing me, the god of war, of carnage! With you,” he spat on the ground. “And now,” his smile widened, and as he looked at the others present, “the fool has proved me right. And put all of you idiots to shame.”
Nobody could meet his eye, and nobody could challenge his words. The bitter taste of truth sat heavy in their throats.
He removed his spear and held the tip with his hand. His dark gold-red blood spilling on the clouds. “I swear that you will never return to The Above,” he said, his voice darkening and warping as the words took shape, “I swear it on the Ifá and my Aṣẹ.”
And with that, he transformed into a boar with blood-streaked fur, and rode through the crowd.
Òrúnmìlà looked at Ṣàngó with his mismatched eyes that had seen the past, present and future, and Ṣàngó could swear there was pity there. “Live your life so that no tongue shall rise against you. So that no life will be in conflict with yours.” He looked at Ṣàngó now. “Brother,” he said. “Are you ready?”
Òrúnmìlà pursed his lips and spread his arms. Then, “May the will of Olodùmarè fall on you with favour,” he said. “And if not, may you be strong enough to bear it.” He looked at Ṣàngó one last time, and strangely, he winked.
And then, the whole world blinked away into a sea of white clouds, and Ṣàngó was alone, kneeling on the ground that was air, but solid. This was the void, the space within worlds. This was the domain of Him.
This was the part that sent fire ants across his back, the part that he dreaded the most. The moment where he would, finally, come face to face with —
“Lord of thunder!” A voice bellowed from all around him. It reverberated through his entire being, shaking him down to his very core.
Ṣàngó tried to move around but the chains held him fast and tight and he could only move his head. But there was nothing around that he could see. There was no one.
He was alone.
“Commander of the storms!”
Ṣàngó struggled against the chains, but he knew it was a fruitless endeavour. The chains could hold a thousand Òrìṣà without trembling.
“Wielder of lightning!”
Ṣàngó managed to stand in the chains turning and spinning, trying to find where the voice was coming from.
Then he dropped to his knees again. “It was a mistake,” he said, sobbing. “I swear it. It was terrible and abominable, but it was a mistake. I…I lost control.”
The voice came back angrier this time, like it was raging against nature itself. The rage washed over him in a wave of pure primal energy that crackled and shifted all around him. It bellowed.
It rose to heights that no being in the world had ever known.
A little boy walked through from nothingness with eyes that were shut, he was naked except for a piece of cloth covering his privates. A simple white necklace of Ifa beads rested on his neck, there were gold markings wrapped all over his body in a language even Ṣàngó did not know. He had no way of knowing; these were words written before the beginning of time. Words that only one in The Above knew.
“My child,” said the boy, with the voice of a man.
Ṣàngó quickly let his head hang low as he prostrated. “My Lord,” he said, to the great one Himself.
There was reverence to be shown when He was present.
Olodùmarè, the god of gods, the lord of lords, ruler of all, deserved nothing less.
“Rise,” He said.
The boy’s eyes remained close but Ṣàngó could feel his gaze on him still. He could feel his bones shaking and his essence quivering. This was not simply fear; just being near Olodùmarè was not an advisable task. And the Òrìṣà all knew why.
To be so close to creation itself, as a being who was created, was to bring the beginning close to its end. It tore apart at his being and it took all of his strength, all of his will, just to remain in Olodùmarè’s prescence.
“You have committed a crime against the heavens,” the boy said in the old voice of his. “You have broken the laws that I myself laid down. You have slaughtered your own blood. Without caution, without reason, blinded by your own rage. You have told lies. You have told stories.”
There was silence as the clouds passed by between them.
“I see, and hear, and know all.” The boy cocked his head to the right. “And yet, there is something dark that even I cannot discern. Something that is being hidden from me, the Great One.”
Ṣàngó shook his head. “I do not know what you mean, Lord.”
The boy moved like light, and then he was in front of Ṣàngó, a hair’s breadth away, looking down at him, his eyes still closed.
“You tell the truth,” he said finally, “but your atrocities must still be punished.”
Ṣàngó did not speak, did not shake, did not move. He simply bent his head low and waited for the end. This was what he deserved; he knew.
The boy shook his head. “You think that I will end you,” he said, a small smile playing on his lips, like he just heard a joke. “You think that I will allow you walk into the night of nothingness.”
Ṣàngó’s eyebrows furrowed. “But, my Lord,” he said, “God-Death is the punishment for — ”
“What good is a punishment if it is craved for?” the boy asked. “What good is a poison if it is enjoyed? What good are lashes if they feel sweet?” The boy came even closer to Ṣàngó and he could smell the stars. “No, my child, your punishment will be far worse, far harsher than death.” He touched Ṣàngó’s arm with one finger. And Ṣàngó sagged as he felt his Aṣẹ start to ebb away, leaking through him like a river.
“My Lord,” Ṣàngó said, his voice weak, his vision fading, as he fell to his back. “What is this?”
“Your punishment, young god,’’ Olodùmarè said, “is simple. For the crimes you have committed against your kind, and your own blood, you will not die, but live instead. You will live out your days as a mortal, until you understand the Truth, only then will you be allowed to die.”
Ṣàngó groaned as his dreads started to turn grey at the roots and his bones and muscles began to atrophy. He did not have enough strength to even speak, and yet, he managed to utter what would be his last words as a god. “But… what Truth, my Lord?”
The boy smiled and looked down at Ṣàngó. “That is up to you to find out.” He held his free hand outstretched and Ṣàngó’s axe appeared in it. “With this axe, you cut down scores upon scores of enemies, you were feared as a warrior. You controlled men, and thunder alike with it. I cast it down to the earth now, for someone more worthy to wield.” He threw the axe downwards and a loud boom was heard through The Above.
Ṣàngó felt it in what was left of his teeth.
Olodùmarè flexed his hand again. And a red and white necklace appeared in it. “With this necklace, you were revered as a man, and all who knew you knew that Ṣàngó was a man of honour, and bravery, and strength. You were once powerful and I now cast it down to the earth, for someone more admirable to wield.” He cast them down to the earth and the roar of a man shook the skies. Ṣàngó knew well that roar.
It was his.
Ṣàngó felt his gold-red blood start to lose its lustre and godly essence. He felt his life force burn away, to leave only mortality behind.
The boy once more held out his hand and the lightning stones he wore around his belt appeared. “With these lightning stones, you were worshipped as a god, you struck fear into the hearts of god and man alike. But it was also a symbol of hope in the skies, the rain you would bring. These are the weapons you used to slay your blood in mindless rage, and I cast them now to the earth, for a person more temperate to wield.” He threw the lightning stones to the ground and the screams he heard shook his heart and made his soul weep. The screams would follow him until the end of his days, he knew. And he would never escape them, no matter how long or how well he tried.
The boy looked at Ṣàngó who was now on the ground, a grey, weak old man.
“You became a god,” the boy said, “not out of my power but out of yours. I saw something in you, a spark I had never seen in any mortal. A spirit so strong and untenable that even I could not resist. But you were a proud, angry man, and you became a proud, angry god. You have brought shame on your name and legacy. But maybe you can redeem yourself.
“Or rather, you must.”
The boy bent down to Ṣàngó whose eyes were beginning to dim. “Because if you do not…then it would mean something more terrible has happened.”
The boy stood, opened his eyes and the glory of the universe spilled through them and unto Ṣàngó, warping reality itself, and he felt the primal magic take over him, in a way it hadn’t in hundreds of years, since he first became a god.
“It would mean,” Olodùmarè said in a voice that bore thousands and reverberated a thousand more times, “that the Great One himself, the Creator, has made a grievous error.”
The lights of the heavens covered Ṣàngó’s mortal body and carried him elsewhere.
And then, the great god of lightning, commander of the storm, prince of lightning, Ṣàngó, was no more.