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Babalú-Ayé and a Theology of Multiplicity

Babalú-Ayé’s world is rife with multiplicity. He is called by many names. Some people say he has 77 different roads, or avatars. He is honored by an enormous number of groups, and they make altar objects for him with many different forms. Even the secret medicines that go into these objects vary widely.
Babalú-Ayé is called by many names. In the Cuba countryside, some people call him Ayanu, and there are songs from Matanzas Province that reiterate this name as a generic praise name for him. The Ararat usually call him Asojano. In a common shorthand, many people simply refer to him as “the Old Man” or San Lázaro, the Catholic saint with which he is strongly associated. As I have explained elsewhere, these names are all really meant to protect us from speaking is true name, Shakuaná. To utter that name is to call sickness and death into your immediate surroundings.
My godfather Ernesto Pichardo taught me that Babalú-Ayé is like a surname for a group of deities, each of which has its own…

Babalú at Harvard

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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.

Lazarus and David Bowie

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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.



Check out my new Smithsonian article on the Feast of Babalú-Ayé!

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.


Sitala, Babalú’s Cousin in South Asia

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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 P…

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.

Itutu: Transformation, Rupture and Repair

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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 an…

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.

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Suvinengué

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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 p…

Dasoyí, the Father of Babalú-Ayé

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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 …