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Ecotherapy and Ecospirituality: A Video Presentation on Oricha, Nature & Healing

 Last fall, my goddaughter Phoenix Smith—Olá Otón Adélele asked me to participate in first activities of the Alliance for Ecotherapy & Social Justice . She asked me to explore how oricha religion provides us with a robust model for nature religion and healing as part of a video series called Ecotherapy for Everyone: Healing with Nature for Peace and Justice.   My presentation focused on three major aspects of oricha religion and how it links individuals to the natural world. First, the presentation explored the idea of the sacred forest as the source of divinity within the religion and how different ceremonies channel that divine energy back into human life. Then, it looked at many of the ways that specific religious ideas and practices link individuals to ecosystems or natural phenomena; this section of the talk also explores how the Arará deity Dandá-Jueró can be understood as a model for ecological connections that lead to wellbeing. Finally, the presentation introduces Babalú-
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Babalú-Ayé and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Reflections on Humility in a Difficult Moment

“Babalú-Ayé wants everyone to place his altar directly in front of the main door of the house,” a friend texts from Perico , Cuba. “He wants everybody to place seven gourds in front of him, each with a different kind of grain, a red onion, and cigar. And most importantly, he wants everyone to light two candles and pray to Him to scare away the pandemic.” This admonition is followed by another prescription for a cleaning at the foot of the Old Man. In this moment, the coronavirus pandemic has killed thousands of people, paralyzed whole countries, and quarantined millions. So oricha communities around the world are naming ways to acknowledge his impact and pray that he go easy on us. As one traditional praise song says: Ason kuele, Ason kuele, Ason kuele, Ason ño Sickness, be gentle with us Babalú is sometimes said to “rule” infectious disease, but in fact, he is infectious disease and its antidote. So at this moment, we are becoming intimately acquainted

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 o

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. Simil

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 ba

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 já . 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 m

Termite Hill in the South Rift Valley

Large and noticeable on the low, flat floor of the Rift Valley in Kenya, it is easy to appreciate why people see termite hills as both an eruption of the underworld into this world and as an access point to that unseen land. The termites move comfortably between the worlds, and we can only hope to emulate their chthonic wisdom.

Judith Gleason--Oyá Lola Has Joined the Ancestors

A couple weeks back I had to go to New York City for work, and I called Judith Gleason to see if she wanted to have dinner. No answer, so I left a message. The next day, her son left me a message explaining that she had joined the ancestors on August 5th after having a stroke. I have "known" Judith since 1987, though I doubt anyone really knew her. In all honesty it is terribly difficult for me to separate her from Oyá, the oricha of her devotion, the oricha of lightning and winds, whose unpredictable movements shake up the status quo and reveal new opportunities. So here I am cleaning up after this storm. When I was twenty-one, I found Judith´s book, Oyá: In Praise of the Goddess. I read it again and again, as I tried to follow the shifting currents of its prose and as I worked to digest the world it depicted. I still have the original copy whose binding has been broken by wear and double taped for reinforcement. The book is a masterpiece of original, synthetic

Pilgrimage: The Soul in Search of Itself

Just this week I got a flyer in the mail from the New York Center for Jungian Studies, advertising their 2013 Jung in Ireland program. One program was titled "Pilgrimage: The Soul in Search of Itself," and the copy gets to the heart of much of what I have tried to evoke in my writings on Babalú-Ayé and pilgrimage. "Pilgrimage, an archetype representing the search for spiritual centeredness and wholeness, compels us to separate ourselves from ordinary life and place, and to embark on a meaningful encounter with what C.G. Jung calls the “Self.” Throughout the ages, people from all walks of life and every religious tradition have embarked on pilgrimages, explorations that mirror a spiritual journey inward to reflect on our life’s meaning and purpose. Just as no two people are the same, no two pilgrimages are the same. Some necessitate a concrete and literal destination, while others consist of an inner, self-directed goal. But all pilgrimages have in common a restl

The Imitation of Babalú-Ayé: The Sacred Stranger

        For whatever reason, I find myself intrigued today by a certain set of parallels in the material I have been laying out here: there are many aspects of Babalú-Ayé that live outside the house and cannot be brought in.   The Zulueta house in Perico has the secret that lives in an outbuilding in the patio, planted mysteriously by their founding ancestress, Octavia—Jundesi. Irete-Oyekún calls for the consecration of Ajuangan , a powerful and destructive force who also lives in the patio. Oyekún-Ojuani describes the kiti , the secret place for Asojano to eat and call his disruptive children. Each of these seems to move against the major ritual pattern in Lucumí initiations for warrior deities, where the oricha is first fed in the forest and then, once placated, brought into the house.   These powers seem to point to aspects of divinity that cannot be civilized enough to bring into everyday life. These powers are always external and remind us of the power of the bush or th

Saint Roque as Babalú-Ayé

All along the Way to Campostela there are allusions to San Lazaro. In many towns, including Cacabelos where we are right now, there was a special hostel dedicated to San Lazaro located at the edge of town so pilgrims with the plague or leprosy would not have to mix with others. Imagined as a lame man on crutches with two dogs traveling with him, San Lazaro is a classic icon of suffering, isolation, devotion, and dynamism. Another similar figure is San Roque. Son of French nobles, Roque became a mendicant. On pilgrimage to Rome, he came down with the plague. With open wounds he walked to Campostela, attended by a faithful dog that licked his sores clean and brought him food to eat. He is always represented as a pilgrim with sores on his legs and a dog at his side. He caught people's imagination in the Middle Ages, and there are churches for him all along the Way. Yesterday I was already thinking about a post about San Roque, who in Cuba is often linked to Babalú-Ayé, the

The Work of Pilgrimage IV

I woke up this morning with my thoughts squarely on the pilgrim’s road. I love the image of moving out from a town and into the largely asocial and empty space. This middle place is outside of usual relationships. This middle place is neither here nor there. It is the betwixt-and-between space that many associate with rites of passage.  You know another town is over the horizon or over the next hill, but you spend most of your time between specific places. Similarly, the image of walking between more fixed social worlds intrigues me deeply. The pilgrim’s body literally moves out of one space and into the middle ground. It is the work of the body that propels the pilgrim forward, and it is the body that is marked by pilgrimage. The pilgrim sweats and drenches his clothes. With time, the sweat mixes with clothes worn day after day, and the pilgrim begins to reek. The pilgrim’s feet strike the Earth again and again. Her legs again, and her feet begin to swell.  Most pilgrims end up

Tending Babalú-Ayé in the Sabalú Style

In the religion, there is a long tradition of honoring the spirits once a week with simple offerings. The most famous of these offerings is tending the Warriors on Mondays. Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye taught me to tend Asojano and his family every Thursday.   Since Asojano only eats eat at night, so it has to be in the evening after dark. After placing a mat before Afrá , Nanú , and Asojano, you kneel and press your forehead to the floor. Then you do the Arará version of the invocation of God, the fodunces (orichas), the ancestors, and the living.    Unlike the Lucumí version that relies on the repeated use of the phrase “ mo juba,” the Arará invocation revolves around the phrases “ sofalú ” and “ emí chelé .” You can light incense if you want to. Next you make the simple offerings.   You spray Afrá with white wine or aguardiente (cane liquor, like rum). He also takes cigar smoke. Nanú and Asojano take white wine, rum, and gin. When you blow the alcohol from your mouth onto

Antolín Plá, the first Babalú-Aye Made in the US

When Antolín Plá needed to make Babalú-Ayé in Miami in 1976, the community leaders turned to Josefina Beltrán and Romelio Pérez—Talabí. Beltrán had received Babalú-Ayé Arará and was one of the elders on the scene at the time. Pérez grew up across the street from the house of Armando Zulueta —Omí Toqué, and he had worked Babalú with Zulueta for many years. Beltrán maintained that there was no way to make Babalú-Ayé direct in the US at that point. Direct meant Arará , and it was simply impossible from her point of view. First, there were not enough Arará people to make it direct. Arará tradition said there had to be at least seven people with Babalú direct who were also possessed by the Old Man. There was also concern around the language of the invocation and the songs. Again, Arará tradition dictated that from the first prayer to the last song, the whole ceremony had to be in Arará language. To make matters worse, there were no obaces in Miami who had officiated in a direct Bab

María Isabel Reyes—Asonsimeneco

Late last week as I sat with the ancestors, I had a very clear image of María Isabel Reyes—Asonsimeneco.   When I met her in 2004 with David Brown, she was all heart. Never a star, María Isabel was content to live in her small house and offer coffee to those who visited. Just as in life, she appeared warm, grounded, unambitious and just grateful for the attention. Until her passing a couple years back, she was the senior Asojano priestess at the Cabildo Arará Sabalú Nonjó in Matanzas.   Born on April 16, 1944, she was initiated on July 6, 1954 at age ten.   Amelia Mora—Chiarré was her oyugbona, and Dolores   “Lola” Vinajera—Juniko had Asojano made and served as her godmother. Lola had been made by Flora Heredia, who had made Towosi (the Arará Yewá). María Isabel waited 36 years to initiate her first priest, and that was Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye on February 20, 1992.   In time she gave other Asojanos and even made a young man from Miami.   While a legitimate defender of the Saba