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.






Saturday, August 24, 2013

Babalú's Authority

As a dear friend struggles with debilitating illness, I remember a truth I have recognized before: as long as we are incarnated, as long as our spirits reside in these human bodies, we are subject to the authority of Babalú-Ayé.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Suvinengué



In both Cuba and Benin, the road of Babalú-Ayé known as Suvinengué is strongly associated with the vulture.  His name can be translated as “vulture-child of Dasoyi.”  The elders in Cuba say that Suvinengué is a vulture with the head of human being, and in Benin they also say he is bald and gray, like the vulture.  Some Dahomean elders say Suvinengué flies from Earth up to Heaven carrying messages from human mouths to God´s ears. They say he indicates whether an offering has been accepted or not. When an offering is left outside and then disappears overnight, it is thought that Suvinengué has taken it to the deity it was intended for.  Still others say simply, “He eats the dead.”
This link between Babalú and the ancestors is quite profound, and other roads of the deity revolve around this link. Afimaye is said to seek out Arará priests at the hour of their deaths, but in Benin, he is seen as the overseer of a collective workforce made up of the spirits of the dead. Similarly, the kiti is a place where the spirits who are children of the deity gather to eat.

Obviously there is a strong link between the dead and vultures. As carrion-eaters, vultures circling in the sky are a sign of the impending death of some poor creature below. When vultures eat, they often end up covered with the blood and tissue of the dead animal. The vulture is the largest raptor in Cuba and as such is often seen as the dominant animal in the sky. So powerful is this association that generals and high-ranking state officials in Cuba are still called mayimbes, meaning  “vultures” in the Congo language spoken on the island.
In Cuba, the elders put boniato to Suvinengué, and often decorate it with five vulture feathers. Suvinengué takes white beads with blue stripes and jet beads as accents.

It is interesting to note that there is a road of Ochún called Ibú Ikolé that also takes the form of a vulture, and is famed for carrying messages from Earth to Olodumare in Heaven.
(References on Benin can be found in Herskovits’ Dahomey, Volume 2, page 140.)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dasoyí, the Father of Babalú-Ayé


Perhaps the most common road of Babalú-Ayé in Cuba is Dasoyí, who is also known as Asoyí, and Dasojí Kajua. People commonly refer to him as the father of Babalú-Ayé, and really this just suggests his authority and generative power. Together with Nanú, the mother of Babalú, he brought forth all the other roads of the Earth deity. He is commonly imagined reclining against the trunk of a ceiba tree surrounded by his children.  
In some very traditional houses, Dasoyí can be seen resting on a divination tray supported by four skulls. The tray symbolizes the Earth, and seated on top of it, Dasoyí rules the world. The skulls tie him to the ancestors, who are buried in the Earth he rules, and they could stand for the generic dead of the four cardinal directions. However, they also allude to a time when he placed his throne on the skulls of the four vanquished kings of a legendary place called Igoroto. The skulls could represent these kings or royals from the Dahomean dynasty, who banished the Earth deities from the capital city because they could brook no competition for their authority.
Dasoyí sometimes takes a cane because of his age, though I have never seen this. Some lineages mark his ritual broom with a single red parrot to show his authority. He usually takes the caramel-colored beads that Cubans call matipó. After seventeen of these, he takes one jet bead.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Sickened Speech of Babalú-Ayé




In 1992, when I first visited Cuba, an elder told me a simple story about the ritual broom of Babalú-Ayé that is usually called the . He explained that when Babalú was wandering the Earth, at some point he was so sick that he could no longer speak. In the laconic Cuban style, he said, “So that’s why Babalú-Ayé has 16 cowries sewn to his já and why he does not speak through the shells.”  Throughout the stories of Babalú, speech is contested and fraught with difficulty. Common to all aspects of Lucumí religion, different accounts provide explanations and justifications for who has the authority to speak for Babalú-Ayé and in what contexts. These accounts are of intense relevance because speech is usually homologous with knowledge in the religion, and knowledge is perhaps the most potent currency that moves between people.

The classic tale from the sign Ojuani-Odí explains how Babalú-Ayé united with Orula. No one could stop Death except Orula, and so Babalú-Ayé made a long-term alliance with him. From that point forward, Babalú-Ayé is said to have only spoken through Orula and the Ifá divination he governs. 

There is a story in the sign Irete-Oyeku that also links the shells on the já to the troubled nature of Babalú’s speech. The story offers the classic tale of his exile: Babalú did not play by the rules, and so the Lucumí expelled him.  But this story explicitly states that when the Lucumí exiled Babalú, they also forbade him to speak through the shells, which were thereafter sewn to his já as a reminder of this taboo. It seems they sought to silence him and thereby limit the impact of the ruptures he causes and suffering they imply.

For contrast, it is interesting to note that there is another story that explains the origin of the já as a healing tool. Babalú-Ayé-Agrónika-Omobitasa entered a cave to consecrate a já that he then used to heal the Arará. 

The sign Ogunda Meyi contains the most complex and seemingly opposite accounts of Babalú’s access to speech. First, it is worth noting that Ogunda Meyi is where leprosy was born and spread around the world, so from the outset it is inseparably linked to Babalú, who was historically associated with the scourge of leprosy. This divination sign also includes a powerfully simple story where Asojano, exhausted from his travels, sits down on a stone in the land of the Arará, and is immediately given the gift of being able to divine: He is connected to the Earth and he speaks the truth. No shells, no third-party, no nasal voice. He speaks, and what he says is true. 

At the same time, Ogunda Meyi contains a story that explains the birth of the okpele, the divining chain made with eight seeds that babalawos use, and in that story Babalú-Ayé is a major player. While wandering the Earth, Babalú comes to a place where he recognizes the language being spoken by the local diviner. It turns out the local diviner is a long-lost godchild of Babalú’s. The diviner tries to heal Babalú’s leprosy but in the process contracts the disease himself. As he lies dying, he hands Babalú an okpele, explaining that it is a secret Messenger for Ifá.  The godson also explains that a tree will grow from his grave, and from the nuts of that tree, Babalú can make more okpeles.

Pedro Abreu-Asonyanye, the leading Arará priest of Asojano in Havana, categorically maintains that Babalú does not speak when he possesses people because in his opinion, he only speaks through Ifá divination. As Abreu points out, when Asojano comes down into people’s bodies and tries to speak, he speaks in a strange and nasal voice that is hard to understand, a voice the Cubans call fañosa. Abreu does take this as an explanation for why Asojano must speak through Ifá, but it actually opens the conversation to the intelligibility of the sickened speech of Babalú-Ayé, the theme of my next post.

(Thanks as always to Eguín Koladé for clarifying conversation. The já pictured above belonged to Rafael Linares--Emerego.)