The Poet's Obligation Pablo Neruda

Poets Obligation

To whoever is not listening to the sea

this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up

in house or office, factory or woman

or street or mine or harsh prison cell;

to him I come, and, without speaking or looking,

I arrive and open the door of his prison,

and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,

a great fragment of thunder sets in motion

the rumble of the planet and the foam,

the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,

the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,

and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.

So, drawn on by my destiny,

I ceaselessly must listen to and keep

the sea's lamenting in my awareness,

I must feel the crash of the hard water

and gather it up in a perpetual cup

so that, wherever those in prison may be,

wherever they suffer the autumn's castigation,

I may be there with an errant wave,

I may move, passing through windows,

and hearing me, eyes will glance upward

saying 'How can I reach the sea?'

And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,

the starry echoes of the wave,

a breaking up of foam and quicksand,

a rustling of salt withdrawing,

the grey cry of the sea-birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea

will make their answer to the shuttered heart.

by Pablo Neruda




For the Yoruba, time is cyclical, everything that happens is a repetition and nothing is new. What happens to us today and what is about to happen in the near future has been experienced before by another human being, by an ancestor, by the orishas themselves. The Yoruba oracle, practised by the babalawos, who are the priests of Ifá or Orunmilá, the god of divining, is based on knowledge of a large repertoire of myths that speak of all kinds of events from the remote past and that happen again, involving personages from the present. It is always the past that sheds light on the present and the immediate future. 

To know the past is to have the formulas for control over events in the life of the living. This mythical past, which is remade at every moment in the present, is narrated by the odus of the Ifá oracle. Each odu is a collection of myths, and the babalawo must find out which one tells the story of what is happening, or is going to happen, in the present life of the consulter who seeks him looking for a solution for his afflictions. When the diviner identifies the myth related to the consulter’s present, which he does by using his magical objects of divination, he knows which ritual procedures (such as sacrifices, retreat and purification) should be used to heal the client’s afflictions. The prescribed formula is the same one applied in the past, when it was used with success according to the myth. Nothing is new, everything is remade. It is also up to the babalawo to identify, when a child is born, the reincarnation of a beloved person. One cannot name a child without knowing where it comes from, for a birth is not a tabula rasa. It is a return. The babalawo is also the guardian of the past and the decoder of the present. He uses the past to decode the present. His long and arduous training obliges him to learn thousands of verses by heart, the poems of Ifá which narrate the mythical past of his people, its gods and its heroes (Prandi 1996: chap. 3). 

There are no more babalawos in Brazil, but the iyalorishas and babalorishas operate the ancient oracular techniques. They do not learn the poems of Ifá as did the ancient babalawos, but their magic still consists in finding out the odu that applies to each present situation, as a way of revealing in the present the same causes of events in the past. And of healing them with the same prescriptions.


It is not unusual to find new followers of Candomblé or another traditional Afro-Brazilian religion who have been born and raised outside this religion and have joined it by personal choice (Prandi 2000a). Ever since Candomblé was transformed into a religion open to everyone, regardless of racial, ethnic, geographical or social origin, many followers, and even the majority in many regions of Brazil, have joined recently without any previous personal or family contact with its characteristic values and ways of behaving. In most cases, joining a religion also means changing many concepts of the world, life, and death. The recent Candomblé participant, going to the terreiro (the temple) and taking part in numerous collective activities indispensable to worship, is soon confronted with a new way of regarding time. He will have to undergo resocialisation in order to live with things which at first seem strange and uncomfortable. He will have to learn that everything has its time, but a time not determined by the clock but by the fulfillment of certain tasks, which may come before or after others, depending on the circumstances (some unforeseeable), which may accelerate or set back the whole chain of activities. But the terms “accelerate” and “set back” are out of place, because in Candomblé everything has its own time, and each activity lasts as long as necessary. The activity defines the time taken, and not the other way round.

In a Candomblé terreiro, practically all the members of the house take part in the praparations, with many of them doing specifically priestly tasks. Everybody eats, bathes and gets dressed in the terreiro. Sometimes people sleep in the terreiros many nights in a row, with many of the women bringing their small children. There are so many things to do and so many people doing them. There are guidelines to be followed and fixed times for each activity, such as “at sunrise”, “after lunch”, “in the afternoon”, “when the sun is cooling off”, “in the late afternoon”, “in the evening”. It is not customary to refer to or to respect clock time and many unexpected things can happen. In fact, it is common to take watches off in the terreiros, since they have no function. While slaughtering animals, the orishas are consulted through oracles to find out if they are satisfied with the offerings, and they may ask for more. So it might be necessary to stop everything and go out to get another kid or chicken or more fruit or whatever. The orishas can manifest themselves at any time, and then it will be necessary to sing for them or even dance with them. In trance the orishas may even alter the ritual. They may stay for hours “on earth” while everybody present pays attention to them and everything else has to wait. During the toque, the big public ceremony, the unexpected presence of orishas in trance means extending the cerimonial time, as they too must be dressed and must dance. The arrival of dignitaries from other terreiros, with their followers, means additional greetings and song and dance sequences. Although there is a minimum script, the festival does not have a fixed time to end. No-one knows exactly what is going to happen the very next minute, since all planning is upset by the intervention of the gods.

When going to the terreiro, it is better not to have other commitments on the same day, because no-one knows when one can leave and how long the visit, the obligations and the festival will last. In fact, Candomblé does not have a fixed time to start either. It starts when everything is “ready”. The guests and sympathisers arrive at a more or less expected time, but can wait for hours on end sitting down. So many prefer to arrive late, which may mean more delays. And one cannot complain, because then someone will say, “Candomblé doesn’t have a fixed time”. Once, after a long wait, I asked what time the candomblé would actually start. The answer was: “After the mãezinha (the mãe-de-santo, the high priestess) changes her clothes.” In short, time is always defined by the tasks which the group considers necessary, according to the formula: “when things are ready”.

This idea that time depends on events and on fulfilling necessary tasks can be seen also in the daily life of the terreiros outside the festivals. Researchers starting field work are surprised at the “lack of punctuality” of the mães-de-santo (iyalorishas, high priestesses of Candomblé) and pais-de-santo (babalorishas, high priests), having to wait hours, if not days, to do an interview they thought was scheduled for a fixed time. Clients who go to a terreiro for the jogo de búzios (divination with cowuries) or other magical services may also feel bothered by the way the povo-de-santo, the followers of Candomblé, use their time.