From Tales of Yoruba Gods and Hero’s
By Harold Courlander


            The great orisha Obatala, who had dried up the watery wastes and shaped human beings out of clay, decided one day to visit Shango, who ruled in Oyo.  “Prepare things for me,” he said to his wife, “so that I can make a journey.  I want to see my friend Shango, the Stone Thrower.”

          His wife prepared food for Obatala to take with him on the journey.  She instructed that Obatala’s clothing should be washed and made spotless.  Obatala had no drummers to go ahead of him and announce his coming.  He was known everywhere by the white clothing he wore, and thus he was called the King of the White Cloth.  But when his wife slept that night she dreamed that although Obatala’s white clothing was washed again and again, dark spots appeared on it whenever it was dry.  When she awakened she said, “Obatala, do not go to Oyo.  In my dream the white cloth would not become clean.”

          Obatala answered, “But the cloth is indeed clean, whatever you dreamed.  I will begin my journey to Oyo.”

          Nevertheless, before he started the journey Obatala went to the house of Orunmila, the orisha of divining, and asked him whether the visit to Oyo would be a good one.  Orunmila brought out his divining tray and cast his palm nuts.  When he had finished he said, “Do not go to Oyo, for misfortune will meet you there.”

          Obatala said, “How can misfortune meet me in Oyo?  It is my friend Shango who rules in that place.”  He returned to his house.  He put on his white clothes. He began to the walking.

          On the road to Oyo he met the orisha Eshu sitting under a tree.  They greeted each other.  Obatala said, “Why do you sit here waiting?”

          Eshu said, “I am waiting for someone to place this bowl of palm oil on my head so that I can carry it.”

          Obatala helped Eshu lift the bowl, but as he did so the oil spilled over and stained his white robe.  Seeing this, Obatala did not continue toward Oyo but returned home and changed to fresh clothing.  After that he began the journey again.

          On the road he met Eshu once more, and again Eshu asked for help in getting the bowl to his head.  Obatala, whose good deeds were many, could not deny help to Eshu.  So he helped lift the bowl of palm oil.  Just as before, the oil spilled and made spots on Obatala’s robe.  For the second time Obatala turned back and went home for fresh clothing.  Once again he met Eshu waiting at the roadside.  This time the bowl of palm oil was larger than before.

          Eshu said, “Obatala, help me raise the bowl to my head.”

          But the soiling of his white clothing had been a bad omen, and Obatala answered, “No, this time I can not do it.  Twice already my white robe has been stained.”

          Eshu became angry.  He said, “You refuse?”

          Obatala said, “Yes, put the bowl up by yourself.”

          Eshu said no more, but with his hand he splashed oil on Obatala’s clothes.  Because Eshu was known to do violent things when angry, Obatala did not make an argument.  He kept silent and departed.  This time, however, he did not turn back but continued on toward Oyo, thinking now of his wife’s dream and of the warning given to him by Orunmila.

          When he traveled far and was nearing Oyo he saw a white horse grazing nearby.  He thought, “This horse lost in the bush can only be Shango’s.  I will take him along.”  He took the horse with him.  As he approached Oyo, Shango’s servants came looking for the horse.  When they saw Obatala they seized him and beat him, saying, “This is the thief for whom we have been looking!”  They continued beating Obatala all the way to Oyo, and there they threw him into a prison yard without listening to his explanation.

          Time passed.  Obatala remained a prisoner.  Shango knew nothing of the affair.  Many weeks went by, yet no one came to release Obatala.  In the beginning Obatala had thought, “Surely someone will come to undo this evil.”  But no one came, and at last Obatala was overcome with anger.  He caused a drought to fall upon Oyo.  No rain fell.  The fields dried up.  The crops did not grow, and the people of Oyo began to feel hunger.  Still no one came to release Obatala.  So he caused sickness to come into the city.  It traveled from one house to another and people began to die.

          Seeing the disaster that was overtaking Oyo, Shango sent for his diviners.  They cast their palm nuts, their cowry shells and their divining chains, and when they were finished they said to Shango, “An exalted personage wearing a spotted white robe has been imprisoned in Oyo.  It is he who has sent us drought and disease.  Unless he is released there will be no rain, no food, and no life remaining in the city.”

          So Shango began a search of his prison yards, and in one of them he found Obatala, King of the White Cloth.  Obatala’s whiteness was soiled with dirt, his beard was unkempt, and his skin was covered with dust.  Though he considered himself the greatest of all rulers, Shango prostrated himself before Obatala like an ordinary person, saying, “You, Obatala, who made all things possible, what terrible fate brought you here?”

          Obatala replied, “I came only to visit Shango, Ruler of Oyo.  On the way I first met Eshu, who soiled my clothing and twisted accident into my journey.  I found your horse in the bush and led him to the city.  But I was treated as the lowest of criminals, placed here and forgotten.”

          Shango said, “Great Obatala, it was not known to me.”

          Obatala answered, “Can a ruler be said to truly rule if he does not know what his servants do with the authority he has given them?”

          Shango said, “A thing like this will not happen in Oyo again.”

          Because Obatala was the creator of humans it grieved him to see them suffering.  He caused the rain to come again and the crops to grow, and the sickness fell away from Oyo.

          It was Eshu who caused things to go badly with Obatala.  Misfortune came to the King of the White Cloth because Eshu stained his clothing with oil.  And in memory of this event people who are going on a long journey still say:

          “Eshu who splashed oil on the clothes of Obatala,

          Please do not soil my white clothing with oil.”

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