It is small but powerful. It can help you spice up a nice cup of tea or add personality to a gourmet dish. It can open the way to communicate with the Orisha and your Egún, it is the key ingredient in countless ebós prescribed by oddú Ifá and literally there is no major initiation that can proceed without having a bit of its ashé. It can also be used for protection and even to set wrong doings.
Its flavor is like no other, you can describe it as a blend of ginger, cardamom and pepper. It is hot but not terribly so. In the Orisha community ataré is also known as pimienta de guinea, alligator pepper and grains of paradise; however its scientific name is Aframomun meleguetta. Being so widely use by oloshas it comes as no surprise that ataré originated in the marshy coastal area of the Gulf of Guinea off Western Africa. Its flavor akin to ginger has a reason; it is part of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae).
But the Lukumí are not the only ones who cherish the pimienta de guinea, the Obro tribesmen have long known the meleguetta pepper as Yoruba; the Chitta call it Hausa. Other local names include efom wisa, and apokuó. Its use is far and wide not limited to the people of Africa but extending to most African Traditional Religions arrived to the New World during the slave trade days. Other far places like Italy and the rest of the European continent learned about ataré due to trade routes through the African desert dating from the 13th century.
Those who are initiated as oloshas know that ataré is vital in the process of consecration of a new priest and its implements and that it is a key ingredient of omiero. Its power helps us send messages to the Orisha and Olodumare during the process of feeding the Orisha in the Igbodú and after Kariosha the iyawó is meant to wake up its senses every morning by ingesting ataré. However, the meaning of its use is seldom explained to practitioners because few oloshas stop to ponder upon the uses of the various afeferés (ceremonial items) at their disposition during a main ritual.
Ataré is important because its energy makes our bodies awake spirit, it increases our ashé semilenú (literally the ashé in our tongues/words), it makes our words carry the heat of creation and it opens doors to the realm of the Egún and the Orisha.
However, the value of ataré goes beyond the spiritual reasons our bright ancestors recognized centuries ago. Blessed be our Egún for being so in tune with Osaín and harnessing the power of ataré.
Nowadays, the mystical Grains of Paradise are being studied because their chemical properties can be applied to drug development as a powerful anti-inflammatory and pain relieving agent to rival current medications out in the market. The cosmetic industry has recognized that ataré extract can help reduce blemishes and injuries to the skin. Furthermore, there are pending patents based on Grains of Paradise intended for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and cardiovascular diseases, all thought to be triggered by the immune system’s response to inflammation.
In botánicas one rarely sees ataré as it is in nature, inside of a pod. When I turned 7 years in Osha I had the blessing of welcoming an awó from Nigeria into our celebration, he brought with him a pod of ataré as a gift for me. It thought it was a most curious item to bring, as we are so used to the traditional candles or to having a few dollars placed on our baskets at the foot of the Orisha. Babatunde instead said, “Sit with me and let me show you how to use this beyond what you know.” He then proceeded to place a few pieces in his mouth and to start invoking the Orisha in my room with songs to the Orisha and prayers. The air became electrified; those in the room could feel a ripple of energy emanate from the shrine outwards reaching out with invisible tendrils to all present.
After all these years, I still remember this moment with clarity because it touched me. I felt blessed to have this awó who traveled from half across the world taking the time to open my eyes and appreciate the mystery locked into such small thing as a grain of guinea pepper. My words to you are my way of sharing Babatunde’s gift for we all need to stop and think of the many blessings our elders have left behind for us to enjoy.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá