Sunday, November 6, 2016

Babalú at Harvard

Sent from my iPhoneThis Ernst Barlach sculpture is titled "Crippled Beggar" and reminds all who enter the Harvard Art Museum of our shared human condition.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Lazarus and David Bowie

In his last video, creative giant David Bowie made explicit reference to Lazarus. Shot in a hospital room, the scene opens with a dark room and then shows Bowie as a patient with his eyes bandaged. The opening line ("Look up here, I'm in heaven) coincides with an downward shot of Bowie lying in a hospital bed and clutching his covers like a small child. We are all like children before Babalú.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Reflections on the Feast of San Lázaro on Latin Pulse Radio Show

Check out this discussion of the Feast of San Lázaro and Babalú-Ayé. The conversation begins around 4:20.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sitala, Babalú’s Cousin in South Asia

I was recently in India for my job, and it turns out that there is a goddess in South Asia who resembles Babalú-Ayé and his mother Nanú in many details. Her name is Sitala, and a bit of quick research points to remarkable parallels.

Sitala means “Cool One” in Sanskrit, and she is imagined as the antidote to the burning fevers associated with smallpox and the dry season, when she is worshipped most commonly, again just like Babalú. In fact, in some stories and in some places, she must only be offered cool foods, just as only cool foods are given to the ancestors in oricha religion. 

She, too, has many names. She is called Shitala, Shitala-Ma (Mother), or Shitala-Devi (goddess).  Just as Babalú-Ayé means “Father, Lord of the World” and thought to rule the Earth, Sitala is sometimes called Jagrani, meaning “Queen of the Earth.” She may also be referred to as the Queen of Disease (Roga Raja), Lord of Pestilence (Vyadhi Pati), or Mother of Poxes (Basenta Raya). (These last titles come from Proggya Ghatak’s 2013 article “The Sitala Saga.”)

Just as Babá has different roads or avatars that reflect different illnesses and epidemics, Sitala is joined by a small pantheon of other disease deities: Jvarasura, the fever demon; Oladevi, the cholera goddess,; Ghentu-debata, the god of skin diseases; and Raktabati, the goddess of blood infections and the sixty-four epidemics.

Sitala’s iconography also resembles Babalú’s in many important ways. Both carry brooms to sweep away illness or spread it, as necessary. Sitala carries a vessel filled with beans, which her followers understand to be symbols of the germs she can spread, just as Babalú receives offerings of beans, which are called by the same name in Cuban Spanish as sores. She also carries herbs famed for healing skin diseases, in the same way that Babalú is strongly associated with the healing power of the herb cundeamor that is used to fight an array of diseases. Sitala wears a red sari, just as Babalú is associated with red, the quintessential color that denotes heat.

Even more incredible is the similarity in their mythologies. Like Babalú, Sitala is mistreated by the other gods and infects them. Sitala sets off the kingdom of Indra but presents herself as a crone. She is greeted with disrespect by the other deities, and so she orders the Fever Demon to possess the bodies of the gods. After the fever come the pox that cover their bodies. Shiva then reveals that their illness is caused by the “wrath of Sitala.” So they understand her in a new way and worship her. (This narrative comes from page 70 of Fruits of Worship: Practical Religion in Bengal
 By Ralph W. Nicholas.) See the similar story of Babalú here.  

There are other stories where she spreads her illnesses through her beans and then demands that people honor her far and wide. Similarly in some places, she is seen as a giver of good fortune, just as Babalú sometimes bestows wealth on his devotees.

These many parallels are remarkable precisely because they are so extensive, and they do raise questions that I find hard to answer: Did these similar divine expressions emerge independently from some shared layer deep in the human psyche? Was there some shared point of origin for these traditions in the distant past? Or is there some way that people in different cultures experience the arbitrary cruelty and burning pain of smallpox and similar epidemics that leads them to express these experiences through similar stories and images? While I cannot answer these questions, I can attest to the power of these images to express and contain one aspect of our shared human experience: No matter how grand our resumes, how big our families, or how generous our paychecks, we all carry some inescapable and painful place within us. This lived experience certainly transcends culture, time, and place, and reflecting on Babalú's stories can help us draw closer to it. 

Special thanks to Lina Vincent Sunish for introducing me to Sitala-Ma and for sharing this watercolor from the Wellcome Library.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Visions of Babalú from Different Places

I was recently contacted by an interesting radio producer named Emile Klien, because he was working on a story about Babalú-Ayé. He had already interviewed a lot of my favorite people, and he asked to interview me. He was surprised when I said yes, as apparently my friends had told him that I am usually shy. But how could I miss the opportunity to discuss the Lord of the Earth. You can hear the six-minute production here.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Itutu: Transformation, Rupture and Repair

Babalú-Ayé does not play a formal ritual role in the itutu, the funeral ceremony for those oricha priests that have passed away. However many elders contend that he delivers the body of the dead person to the cemetery on a cart, and so he is always strongly linked to death. Given the recent passing of friends, I have seen several itutus lately, and like most ceremonies in the religion, they invite reflection.

The itutu brings transformation, as the deceased moves from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Essentials from the priest’s initiation are placed in an open gourd on the floor within the egun altar. We sing oro egun, the nine songs to praise and move the ancestors. For first time, we name the spirit of our departed colleague as part of the invocation, and we sing to them as an egun. We also feed the new spirit with a bird. For those of us who regularly honor the ancestors, their presence is constant, but we never lose track of the fact that we are living on Earth and they are living in Heaven. The gourd contains many of the things placed on the head at the time of initiation, and by placing those things with the ancestors, we are helping to direct the spirit from Earth toward Heaven. It is chilling and unforgettable to stand before the ancestor altar and call the name of a loved one who has recently died. The songs we sing are full with the gravity of grief.  The process cuts through denial, and the reality of loss begins to set in. 

The itutu brings rupture. As we tend the spirit of the departed, we pull apart each of her oricha necklaces over the gourd. Because the strings stretch then snap suddenly, the beads usually scatter across the floor. What was whole, organized, and beautiful is now broken, chaotic, and formless. After the orichas speak their will, some depart with the deceased, and we must break their vessels once and for all. The presiding priest passes from one oricha to the next, striking their vessels with a hammer. The sound of shattering porcelain sends shivers through those in attendance. After all of this, it is impossible to deny that life for our fallen friend and for us has been shattered in some way.

The itutu brings continuity. Some of the orichas stay with blood family and ritual relatives. The elders teach that these inherited orichas stay because they want to guide and protect those left behind when the priest or priestess passes. We do not work these orichas but simply tend to them with simple offerings and candles. In tending them, we quite literally tend the memory of the egun from whom they came. For those of us already in the religion, these inherited orichas become reminders of the people who have passed. We cherish them as containers of the love that exists between us and the egun from whom they came.

The itutu brings new knowledge and new relationships. For blood relatives who are not in the tradition, inheriting an oricha is often the moment when they actually begin to learn about the religion in more detail.  The inherited orichas require additional ceremonies like “removing the tears” (quitar las lágrimas), and the process often creates new relationships with people in the religious community. Similarly those who inherit an oricha need to learn how to greet and tend the oricha, and this often opens the door to a deeper engagement with the orichas. Again many family members adore their inherited oricha and experience a deep sense of connection and continuity with the ancestor who left the oricha to them. (Sadly some family members resist the gift of this inheritance, because they perceive it as too great a responsibility or a burden.)

The itutu brings closure. The elders teach that the stones that become the core of oricha altars must come from a river, from the flowing waters of life. Similarly the new initiate visits the river and makes an offering to mark the beginning of her priesthood. In itutu, the gourd from the egun altar and the orichas who want to depart return to the river.  The cool water refreshes them, as they leave this world, but there is a deeper lesson here: We are born from the river of life, and the river of life carries us away in the end.

Maferefún Egun. Maferefún Ará Onú. Maferefún Oyá-Yansá.