Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sociedad Africana de Santa Bárbara: The Other Babalú-Ayé Tradition from Perico

Armando Zulueta—Omí Toké certainly put Perico on the map because of his active life traveling around Cuba and giving Babalú-Ayé to many, many people. However, just a block west of his house lies the Sociedad Africana de Santa Barbára. Founded by the Arará Ma Fementina Zulueta, the family’s religious tradition has deep ties to Babalú-Ayé.

Ma Fementina had a Babalú-Ayé and a full set of Arará drums. When she died, he stayed with her daughter, Victoria Zulueta. Victoria’s great-grandson, Aristites Angarica, still uses this Babalú-Ayé on the rare occasions that he he initiates others into the mysteries of this oricha.


Unlike most other Babalús, this one has one large, solitary stone. While he receives a single hand of cowries so he can speak, he usually speaks through coconut divination. He insists on having his own room, so he shares a building in the back yard of the family house with the drums.




Monday, December 28, 2009

Babalú-Ayé’s Exile: Promiscuity

There are many accounts explaining why Babalú-Ayé was exiled from the land of the Lucumí by the other orichas. In some versions, he spread disease after being mocked, and then Obatalá exiled him. In some, his exile is one of many tests sent by Olodumare, the Supreme God.

But in one story, he could not contain his desire for sex. The story goes that Obatalá blessed Babalú-Ayé with peerless sexual prowess. He was a great lover, and all the women wanted him. In exchange for this gift, Obatalá only asked for one thing in return: Babalú was forbidden to have sex on Obatalá’s feast day. Well, after many years of observing this taboo, Babalú was consumed with desire for a new woman he had been seducing. She finally admitted that she wanted to hook up with Babalú, and she told him to come back the next day. Despite the fact that the next day was Obatalá’s festival, Babalú returned and lay with his new lover. When he left the tryst, he realized that his body was covered in sores. Babalú went to Obatalá to seek relief, but instead the King of the White Cloth sent him into exile because he could not play by the rules.

Babalú-Ayé is endowed with an irrepressible desire to connect with others, and he engages with everyone that he can. This story shows his promiscuity: his sexual relationships are casual as is his relationship to the standards set down by Obatalá. He couples, guided only by whim or immediate desire. He does not stand firm but rather moves indiscriminately between partners and regulations. Starting from this place, he can only be confused. This random movement among various lovers repeats itself in his random travels from place to place in exile. Lacking a fixed focus, his promiscuity is almost Protean. (It is interesting how one god becomes the metaphor used to understand another.) From its Latin roots, “promiscuity” might be translated most simply as “intensive mixing,” and Babalú is no stranger to mixing, whether sleeping around or crossing the borders between different nations.

It is a truism that anthropologists are also promiscuous. We mix with every member of society we can. To others, we seem indiscriminate and lacking in standards, though to our own minds, we are simply trying to get a fullest possible picture. And, of course, many of us have loved people in the places where we work and from the cultures that we study.

By definition, anthropologists must mix the images from their culture of origin with those from the cultures they seek to understand. Promiscuity, then, is a necessary prerequisite to cross-cultural understanding and ultimately to translation.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Work to Obtain Favors from Obalú-Ayé

In his book, Ewe, the French photographer, ethnographer, and babalawo Pierre Fatumbi Verger describes a work to obtain favors from Obalú-Ayé from the odu Ogbe-Ogunda (p. 314-315). In Lucumí, whether in Cuba or its Diasporas, Ogbe-Ogunda is usually called Ogbe-Yono, and it contains the most famous story about Obalú-Ayé, in which he is exiled from the land of the Lucumí, spends years as a homeless wanderer, and then finally becomes king of the Arará.

Verger gives the following description:

Open a hole in the floor of the house. Inside the hole, place the unidentified herb called ewe ajade and ewe popo (Adenia lobata) along with seven hard stones. Kill a rooster and pour its blood into the hole. Also place its body in the hole. Draw the odu Ogbe-Ogunda in iyerosun powder and place that in the hole as well. Cover the preparation.

This work sounds a lot like like another variation on the secret of San Lázaro that Ña Octavia Zulueta--Jundesi planted in the house of Armando Zulueta--Omí Toké. Did she want to give Armando access to the favors of Obalú-Ayé? Had Ogbe-Yono come out for her or for Armando but no one knew about it? Or was it just an inspiration that she had? A message from her head?

Historians say the past is another country, and Cubans are fond of saying everyone is a world unto himself.

Dreaming Babalú-Ayé

It turns out that my brand new daughter, Natalya, is a daughter of Babalú-Ayé. Yes, it is a bit daunting to think that this tiny baby embodies the god of infectious disease and healing, but the religion revolves in some way around these identifications.

Two days after we learned that she belonged to Babalú-Ayé, she was having some intestinal distress. Gas, and lots of it, was making it hard for her to sleep. As I held her in my arms and rocked her at 2:30 in the morning, I began to speak to Babalú about taking away her pain. In the process, surprise, surprise, I fell asleep. I immediately began to dream:

Babalú-Ayé was standing before me holding a very intricate já, a ritual broom covered in cowry shells. I held Nati in my arms, and Babalú said, "I will lead her on travels through the darkness."

This is one of those moments where the revelation is not entirely clear, but we have confidence from experience that it will become clear with time. Babalú certainly knows about traveling, as he wandered for years alone. He certainly knows about darkness, since he only eats at night. But here he is reinforcing his connection with my daughter and telling me something about what he has in mind for her.

May your travels be long and fruitful.

May you always have trustworthy companions.

May you always enjoy health.

May you always have God´s blessing and your parents´.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Shakuaná’s Secret Place to Eat

People know that Jundesi planted the secret of San Lázaro at Armando Zulueta’s house, but no one really knows what the secret is or why Jundesi planted it there. Many new compendia of religious information are being published these days, and in one of them, I found the following mythic narrative in the divination sign or odu called Oyekun-Ojuani:

In this road of the odu, Shakuaná—another name for Babalú-Ayé—did not stay in any single house, but when he arrived at the house of a priest called Oyekún for divination, the sign Oyekún Ojuani came out. The priest marked the following sacrifice: two pigs, sixteen fish, two pots of palm oil, and a hat. Shakuaná made the sacrifice, and since he had no secret place to eat, the priest sent him to leave the offering exposed at the entrance to the town. When Shakuaná arrived to leave the sacrifice on the Earth, he heard the voice of Elegba, the messenger of the orichas, from behind him: “The sacrifice that you placed on the Earth will be separated from you if you do find it here. You, seated in this place, will leave all your evil children here and you will call them each time you need them. You will do the following: open a hole, sacrifice a pig and a rooster, which you throw in there. You put earth from the ocean, the river, the lagoon, the forest, the plaza, the street, the house, the foot of a ceiba tree, and Asojano. You add herbs from all the orichas and divination powder marked with the sixteen major odus, making a little hill at a crossroads. On top, you plant a cactus and you place a pocked stone on top. Then you consecrate the stone by feeding it with a speckled rooster. You hang red, black, and white cloth around it. Cook the rooster and eat it. This was the birth of the first kiti of Asojano, destined to guard the evil children of Shakuaná.

Could this be the origin of the secret of San Lázaro that Jundesi planted? Did she want to give Armando access to the evil children of Shakuaná? Did she know this story and understand her actions as an extension of the godly precedent?

Or is this an invention by priests who gather information indiscriminately and package it for sale?

A very similar description for the kiti appears in Bernard Maupoil’s book La geomancie a la Côte des Esclaves on pages 357 to 360. This book was originally published in 1936, and it seems pretty clear that the description for how to make the kiti comes from here. If the “recipe” for the kiti story comes from this ethnography, how did the priest decide to place it in Oyekun-Ojuani and not one of the other 256 divination signs? Did he divine to find out where it went?

To my eye, this looks like a story about Shakuaná making sacrifice with a separate recipe tacked on the end. Why else would there be two similar but different sacrifices described? And who knit them together? When and why?

So the secret—its meaning, its internal form, its function—remains a secret.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Aliprete

Because Babalú-Ayé spent many years living as wanderer on the road, many people consider him to be one of the owners of the road.

Within the Regla de Ocha, better known as Santería, most deities have different manifestations, which people call caminos or roads. Old priests and priestesses say that the messenger and trickster Elegguá has more roads than any other deity. Some say he has 101 roads, but others say he has 256. After Elegguá, Babalú probably has more roads than any other divinity. I have documented more than sixty, but I am sure that future travels will reveal more.

Different people imagine these roads in different ways. My teacher, Ernesto Pichardo—Obá Irawó of Miami, uses a family metaphor: “Babalú-Ayé is like the last name they all share, but the road is like the first name.” Others conceive of the roads as reflections of different stages or etapas in the lives of the divinities. And many people do speak of the youngest and oldest roads of different deities.

These roads matter because they have implications for how people treated the gods and for how the gods will behave. Different roads take different bead patterns and sometimes even different foods. Sometimes they have whole stories about them, but usually they have only a laconic description of their characteristics. They take various attributes on their altars, and they often dance differently when they come to Earth in possession.

Take the road of Babalú-Ayé Aliprete. The basic Babalú necklace is white beads with light blue stripes, but Aliprete’s necklace takes a repeating pattern of seven blue beads with white stripes and then seventeen caramel beads. Aliprete is said to be the one who measures the roads in Babalú-Ayé’s kingdom and guides people along them. He is thought to be the one who weighs the value of different pieces of land. He is also said to be the brother of Alino, who lives in all rotting things.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jundesi Plants the Secret of San Lázaro


Ña Octavia Zulueta—Jundesi and her godson Armando remained close through the years. She admired his aché and his enthusiasm for the Babalú.

One day Jundesi appeared at the family house on Calle Juan Domínguez in Percio. She said she had something to give him. She said she needed to plant the secret of San Lázaro in the backyard. She went to the back corner of the yard, next to the latrine. From a basket she pulled a long object that was the size and shape of a piece of yucca. She dug a shallow hole and half-buried the secret. On top she placed a coral stone. There it remains.

Over the years, the family built a small house around the secret, and someone tried to protect it with a tin can. Every year, at the time of San Lázaro’s feast, they hold a big celebration that always includes feeding the secret of San Lázaro. As they feed Babalú-Ayé, they catch some of the blood in a gourd with white wine and rum. They pour this mixture over the secret.

No one really knows what the secret is or why Jundesi planted it there. In an uncharacteristic moment of uncertainty, one elder wondered out loud if Babalú-Ayé help people heal from illness and the secret helped to cause it. No one really knows, and so it remains, like so many things, part of the mystery of Babalú-Ayé.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Power of Promise: Redux


Often parents will make the most extreme promises when their children are sick and they need a miracle. It is not uncommon to see an adult moving along the ground accompanied by a child, who is also acting out her devotion: parents promise to go to Rincón on their backs, dragging themselves, or crawling, and they promise to take their children with them if they survive. They go to pay their debt to the spirit who has delivered them.


Within the Afro-Cuban world, all things have their origins in the spiritual and historical precedents laid out in the odu, the divination signs that contain proverbs, formulaic advice, prescribed ceremonies, specific offerings, allegorical folktales, and myths. The idea of the promise was "born" in the odu Oché-Odí. It says, "El que paga su deunda queda franco--the one who pays his debt is free."

The odu also includes a story that details how devotion can change the attitude of the gods: in the land of Otá, Oyá was the queen, but she had an irrascible character. She was always moving from place to place. All her subjects feared her, especially when she manifested as Iyanzan, the tornado.

One day she was preparing an assault on the city of Ilofla, but a drunk started talking and the king there, Adé Koyí, found out. The king consulted the diviner and the sign Oché-Odí came, indicating a threat to the city. The diviner marked the ebó, the sacrifice, with two dark hens, nine pigeons, smoked fish and jutía (a marvellous rodent), palm oil, honey, black-eyed pea fritters, money, Oyá's special cloth called bayana, and her favorite caramel beads called matipó. The king offered the two hens to Oyá, the nine pigeons to nine different places in the city, and the rest of the ebó at the gate of the city. With the cloth and beads, he festooned the city walls.

When Oyá arrived at the city gate and saw everything decorated, she was pleased, and when she saw everyone doing her ceremonies, she was ecstatic and became the guardian of Ilofla. The citý's inhabitants continued to hang her special cloth on the walls as a sign of their loyalty.

From that time on, people offer bayaya cloth to Oyá to make her happy and it remains one of her favorite offerings.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

La Caminata de San Lázaro, or the Imitation of Saint Lazarus


Tonight pilgrims are flooding the streets of Rincón. Some have flown into Havana from overseas and traveled the 39 kilometers to the little town. Some have walked from their homes in Santiago, and some have walked from Bejucal, the next town over. The police close the main road to cars around dusk, and so walking is the best way to arrive. But the walking is so central to the enterprise that no one calls it a pilgrimage. Rather they call it the "caminata," roughly the special walk.
It is important to notice that all the popular images of San Lázaro show him walking on his crutches on a road that leads toward a distant tower. All the stories about Babalú-Ayé also include his walking long distances. In the end most everyone in Rincón will walk to the church.
Some people promise to push a "carretilla," a little cart. Like the modest altar for alms, these improvised and portable points of praise ususally include a statue of San Lázaro. Often he wears a cloak made of burlap and red cloth--just like the famous "miraculous image" of San Lázaro within the sanctuary. The carretillas usually include offerings of flowers, candles, and coins for alms. Sometimes you can see people offering cigar smoke to the image--just like people in the Afro-Cuban traditions blow smoke onto their altars.

Many make these acts of devotion because they made a promise and they are keeping their word to the spirit after he granted their petitions. Still others do these things as acts of prayer, compelling gestures designed to get the god's attention. Some people dress in sack cloth and carry crutches. They walk "jorobado"--hunchbacked--just like Babalú-Ayé did when he was wandering the desolate places of the Earth.


But the imitations of San Lázaro and his alter ego Babalú do not end here. At his darkest moment, Babalú was completely crippled and could not even walk. But so urgent was his journey that he kept moving forward, dragging himself along the road toward his destination, or dare I say it, his destiny.  And people do just that: they lie down on the ground and drag themselves forward. Others lie on their backs and use their legs to propel themselves. Again some start in Havana, others in a nearby town, and some at the police barricade at the edge of Rincón: all of them are headed to the church and all of them seek to show their devotion to San Lázaro.

 When I took the following picutre in 2001, I walked with the pilgrims on the road through the darkness. Usually I could hear the sound of fabric and flesh against the pavement before I could see the people. I would drop a coin into their alms box, make the common if simple request "Health," and then ask if I could take a picture. Most people said "yes" and kept doing what they were doing. But these two young men were having a good time as they dragged themselves along the road, and they wanted to pose for the photo. They sat up, embraced, and put on their most bracing smiles.


When I asked them why they were doing the caminata, one of them replied, "San Lázaro is miraculous, and we need a miracle: "We want to get out of Cuba."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Humble Altar for Alms at the Church of San Lázaro


Here is an example of a humble altar for alms set up at the Church of San Lázaro. The base is sackcloth, the preferred fabric of penitents in general and Babalú in particular. On it sit four similar statues of San Lázaro, each with companion dogs, purple loin cloth, and crutches. This altar also includes an image of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad, Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba. Common offerings to San Lázaro include flowers and cigars. There are candles to light the way.

These altars line the sidewalk all the way up to the entrance of the church, and other pilgrims drop coins at each one as they pass by.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Sad Tale of Juan Carlos Montano-Sánchez


Already people have begun to arrive in Rincón and sit outside the Church of San Lázaro. They come, they create simple altars with candles, an image of the saint, and a candle, and they wait for people to leave them with alms. Juan Carlos was one such character I met in 2002. This is the story he told me:


In 2000, he had gotten very drunk. When the police were called, he got into a "bronca" with them--this word deserves its own book, but it can be translated roughly as a brawl. In the process, he punched a policeman in the face. While this is not a good thing to do anywhere, it is really short-sighted in Cuba. He was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in jail.

Juan Carlos became a resident of a prison ironically called "Innocence." The terrible food and hard labor were taking their toll on him, as you can see. He had bribed the warden 100 pesos to give him a pass for three days, and he spent the entire time seated in front of the church, waiting for alms. He would come every year. It was a promise, he said.

This notion of the promise plays a significant role in the worship of San Lázaro and Babalú-Ayé. It represents a very basic form of reciprocity with deep roots in both Roman Catholicism and Afro-Cuban religion. People make a promise that if they do something to honor the spirit, the spirit will in turn do something for them. Many people promise to sit at the Church of San Lázaro and humble themselves by begging for alms. However, others promise to make their way to the church by walking barefoot, crawling on all fours, walking on their knees, or dragging themselves. These are not usually seen as acts of penance so much as attempts to show the spirit just how devoted the person is.

When I asked Juan Carlos what he had requested from San Lázaro, he said simply, "Early release."

José González Pérez: Missionary of San Lázaro


Every year on December 16th, thousands of people descend on the town of Rincón to wait for San Lázaro at his namesake church. Fidel never cracked down hard on the San Lázaro festival, and like so many other strange anomalies of the Cuban Revolution, no one really knows why. Called miraculous, mysterious, and good, San Lázaro is known for healing the sick and rewarding the humble. Every year on December 16th, thousands of people travel past the AIDS sanitarium Fidel built to the little church in Rincón, where the leprosarium has sat since 1923. In the maddening crowd—the matazón, some go by horse cart, some walk, some have push-cart altars for San Lázaro. Some go on their knees, and a few extremists drag themselves. All of them seek transcendence of some kind—or at least a break in the monotony of life under the Revolution.

Everywhere people display the image of the saint on estampillas, prayer cards, posters, and statues. Everywhere people are imitating the saint in one way or another: an old man with a short white beard, he is crippled by leprosy or the plague. An outcast, he travels the open road on crutches. Two dogs—one light, one dark—lick his open wounds. He wears penitent garb, either burlap or purple cloth.

And that is just what José González Pérez wore when I first met him in 2001. Along with thousands of other people, he was in the churchyard in Rincón waiting for the midnight arrival of the saint’s feast day. His grey hair was wrapped by a burlap hair band, and his white beard showed against a purple cape. He sat on an ornate altar on wheels. When I greeted him, his face softened and he told me his story:

“In 1961, a car accident destroyed my left leg.” To prove his point, he pulls up his pants and shows me a long, red scar, stretching from his knee to his hip, and there is no way to argue.

“I spent fourteen years as an invalid. One day my mother—a devotee of San Lázaro—appeared and told me I could walk again. Well, I stood up and began my new life. Dressed in sandals and sack cloth, I have walked from one end of Cuba to the other. Since 1990, I am the only one.”

He shows me his journal and says proudly that he walked 4,500 kilometers in 2001. Every day he records where he begins his journey, and every night he writes down where he goes to sleep under the open sky. When he returns to Havana Province, he spends seven days in daughter’s house before setting out again.

“Sometimes I do not feel well when in a particular place, but after moving along, I recover. Sometimes children come out into the street and hit me. Sometimes people talk to me and offer me food and water.”

He pays attention and he acts upon his intuition. “I do what the saint tells me.” He explains the three rules that govern his life as a “missionary” for San Lázaro, “I never enter houses. I never ask for money. I never speak unless spoken to.”

Monday, December 7, 2009

Armando Zulueta, Founder of the Babalú-Ayé Lucumí


Perico, Matanzas Province

In 1932 when Armando Zulueta was nine, he began to pass Babalú-Ayé. Again and again the oricha would take his body in possession, and so one day the African-born Ña Octavia Zulueta initiated him into the mysteries of Babalú-Ayé. Known as Jundesi in the religion, Ña Octavia said she was Arará-Dajomé, meaning her ancestors came from Dahomey in West Africa.

In the ceremony, Ña Octavia gave Armando the spokesman and guardian, Afrá. She gave him an Osun with a rooster on top. She gave him a deep low-fired water pot with the sacred stones of Nanú, the mother of Babalú. “Nanú is the mother of Babalú-Aye,” they say in Perico, “and she lives at this side.” And she gave him a covered dish with the stones of Babalú-Ayé-Afrimaye, a specific manifestation of the oricha. She also gave him Babalú’s ritual broom—the já—with three times sixteen cowry shells on it. After that, Armando became famous for his knowledge of Babalú and his aché in possession: they say he could read your past like book. They say he could tell the future. They say he could heal almost anyone.

On April 29, 1948, Armando made his oricha in Matanzas City with Adela Alfonso—Odú Alá, a daughter of Obatalá. Despite his life-long devotion to Babalú, Adela insisted on making him to Yemayá in the name of Inle. It was a complicated ceremony where Inle was called down to Earth, but Yemayá was placed on the head. However, even after the ceremony, Babalú-Ayé continued to take Armando in possession, and the oricha continued to impress people with his power. “I tell you Armando was a legitimate child of Babalú-Ayé. When he made his oricha he got the divination sign Odí-Ojuani in his head. He was a legitimate child of Babalú-Ayé.”

Armando traveled all over Cuba, but he ended up sharing a house in Sancti Spiritus in Santa Clara with his lover. “They had no life here,” Armando’s favorite niece Aurora told me in Perico in 2000. He made twelve priests of Babalú-Ayés before he died on October 30, 1990: Catalino de Batabanó, Rigoberto Rodríguez, Joselito Arondo, Victor Casanova, and Juan Jimagua from Perico to name a few.

He also gave more than seventy Babalús out. Many people said Armando invented the ceremony, where Afrá and Nanú accompanied Babalú, and they all spoke through the cowry shells. Other priests in Perico gave only one stone for Babalú. In Matanzas City, the Arará-Sabalú gave Babalú in a sealed container, and he spoke through Ifá. When people wanted to make clear that they were talking about Armando’s Babalú-Ayé, they would call it Lucumí.

Armando’s Babalú-Ayé returned to the family house in Perico, where the oricha still presides over the same annual ceremony that Armando used to observe.

Forms of Babalú-Ayé: Lucumí versus Arará

There are many forms of Babalú-Ayé found in Cuba. Some are common and some are unique. Perhaps the best known forms are Babalú-Lucumí and Babalú-Arará, who is sometimes called Asojano. On the surface the distinctions are quite simple. The Lucumí form has its roots in people of Yoruba descent. It is unsealed and speaks through cowry shells. The Arará form has its roots in people of Dahomean descent. It is sealed and speaks through Ifá divination.

If you look a little deeper, the distinctions become more complex. The Lucumí form is usually covered, but not always. It can have one stone or seven. It often carries a protective Osun, but not always. Sometimes it comes with the special Elegguá called Afrá, but not always. Sometimes it comes with Nanú, the mother of Babalú, but not always. In fact, there are a variety of ceremonies used to consecrate it. The most famous Lucumí lineage descends from Armando Zulueta—Omí Toké, but even that’s complicated. Armando’s favorite neice and goddaughter, Aurora Zulueta Soa , told me that Armando and his godmother, Ña Octavia Zulueta, always said they were Arará-Dajomé.

The Ifá-centric Babalú-Arará has its roots in the Cabildo del Espíritu Santo in Matanzas City. The famous Arará priestess Pilar Fresneda—Asonsiperaco carried their traditions to Havana in the late 1920s or early 1930s. These lineages identify themselves as Arará-Sabalú-Nonjó. Even within this one “group,” there are significant differences. Sometimes Asojano comes with Afrá and Nanú, but not always. Again, there is a good bit of variation in the ceremonies. As Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye says, “I do the ceremony as I see fit.”

There are two other widely recognized Arará groups: The Majino are located mostly in Jovellanos, Matanzas Province. The Cuatro Ojos (yes, that translates to the “Four Eyes”) have all but disappeared.

Still, if you mention Babalú-Lucumí or Babalú-Arará, everyone seems to think they know what you mean.

Babalú-Ayé and Exile: One Old Story

There are many stories that explain why Babalú-Ayé went into exile. This story has many versions told both in Africa and the Americas.

Obatalá invited all the orichas to come to a big party. Babalú-Ayé was lame with one leg badly damaged, but he covered his injury in fine cloth, supported himself with a crutch, and went to the party. Everyone was dancing and having a good time, but Babalú stayed to the side. At one point, various orichas asked him to dance, but he declined, afraid he would reveal his imperfection. Finally Obatalá ordered Babalú to dance, but because of his deformity, he stumbled and quickly fell. All the orichas immediately burst out laughing. Humiliated and enraged, Babalú-Ayé cast sesame seeds upon all present. In the morning, all the orichas awoke infected with smallpox and covered with red and weeping sores. Realizing what had happened, Obatalá commanded Babalú-Ayé to leave the land of the Lucumí. Cast out and cut off from the other orichas, Babalú wandered from place to place, living in desolate and isolated places.

This story highlights some of Babalú’s most important qualities. From the beginning, he is damaged, wounded, incomplete, and different from the other orichas. He is also secretive, trying to hide his imperfection. When his secret is revealed and then reviled, he responds in humiliation, rage, and vengeance, striking out at the others. Here he crosses a basic line in the life of the community, and this breaking of taboo leads to a further differentiation: he becomes an outcast. Here he moves into the territory for which he is best known, the desolate places of the Earth. It is no accident that the other protagonist in this tale is Obatalá. As the father of the orichas, Obatalá represents the cool and patient character needed to flourish in the center of the social world. As a vengeful and volatile oricha, Babalú-Ayé cuts a fine figure of contrast, but a figure who can only be allowed to survive on the periphery.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Babalú-Ayé and the Power of Images

Lucumí and Arará elders use many different names to refer to Babalú-Ayé, and they associate many different images with this oricha. There are ritual images: as with most orichas, a covered pot—the terra-cotta cazuela—houses the objects sacred to this deity in most lineages. The já, the ritual broom, cleans illness off the devout. There are two metal crutches and two metal dogs that come from the popular Roman Catholic image of San Lázaro, the poor man of Biblical fame.

Altars for Babalú-Ayé also include offerings: candles light the way and incense floats up from the floor, filling the air with smoke and smells. Toasted corn rests before him. Perhaps the most common offering is a gourd filled with black beans and topped with a red onion. As patron of life’s material necessities, Babalú is said to rule over all grains and beans. For Cubans, most of whom love black beans and eat them almost daily, black beans represent the staff of life—their daily bread. The beans’ dark color reiterates the mysterious qualities of Babalú. Over time, the red onion reveals its secret life and sprouts with new life—paralleling Babalú’s rebirth.

This multiplicity of images has many parallels in other religious traditions, and people have long wondered why people make religious representations and how they function in their lives. In 1915, Emile Durkheim published Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and expounded the notion of a religious image as a collective representation for a group’s identity. This idea continues to inform how people think about religion.

Rather than simply re-presenting reality, images can be understood as actions. These images are embodiments of social relations, cultural practices, desires, and ideologies: people create and use them for particular reasons. Because they embody important ideas, deeply felt values, and life-transforming experiences, people also love them. Each image is a visual signifier, often comprised of other visual signifiers, and each signifier that points to other signifiers—visual, verbal, and visceral. Thus, every image becomes a node within the web of signification, and its exploration leads to other representations, comprised of still more signifiers. Some of these representations will be other visual images, some objects, some narratives, some laconic remarks, and some practical actions. At some point these signifiers become grounded in the lives of individual human beings and the meanings they assign to them. It is here that the image spills over with the surplus of meaning that is not merely referential or iconic.

Taken individually these essays are quite humble, short, even common. Taken together, however, they might be conceived of as a gourd full of beans, offering an interrelated set of images, visual and verbal—all related to Babalú-Ayé. Because these images circulate within a particular community of people who use them to create and communicate meaningful relationships and actions, these essays are ethnography—writing about a people. Because the essays revolve around diverse but related images, they might be called iconography—literally writing about images. Because these images all cluster around this powerful figure thought to be a divinity, these essays could be described by the neologism “theography”—writing about the god.




The Origins of Babalú-Ayé


Most knowledgeable people in Lucumí religion agree that Babalú-Ayé was born in the divination sign called Odí-Eyeunle. This fact fascinates me, because I have never heard the story of his birth recited when that sign comes out. Instead people just say, “This is the sign where the drum was born. This is the sign where Babalú-Ayé was born. This is the sign where smallpox was born.” Here is another example of Cuban laconics.

But there is an Arará story about the birth of Babalú-Ayé. Dasoyi, the father of all the Babalú-Ayés, met Nanú, the mother of all the Babalú-Ayés, at the river in Dassa, Dahomey. They conceived a child, but when the child was born, he looked horrible. They named him Ason, meaning "sickness." He soon met death. They buried the child at the foot of a yamao tree at the edge of the water. When they conceived another child and the time of the birth approached, a bright red bird—a scarlet ibis—roosted in the same yamao where they had buried Ason. Every time they had another child, the bird would land in the tree and announce the birth. This ibis was the spirit of Ason.

Where is Babalú?

My teacher, Ernesto Pichardo--Obá Irawó, likes rhetorical questions, so one day he asked me, "What odu does Babalú-Ayé appear in?" I mentioned that people say that Babalú is born in the sign Odí-Eyeunle, along with vomit and smallpox. He said, "Yes, that is true, but there is sickness in every sign, and so Babalú is in every sign. In this he is like Elegguá, who appears everywhere." It is true. The sign Oché Meyi speaks of problems with the blood and diseases like leukemia. The sign Iroso-Ofún speaks of impotence. In the treatises that compile the wisdom about the signs, each one speaks to particular diseases or vectors of infection.

I have heard that some Yoruba babalawos always mark an offering for Eshu, and then one for Babalú-Ayé, who has immense power. "Always" is probably a figure of speech, but it does point to a pattern: Babalú-Ayé is offered something in every odu.

Babalú-Ayé is strongly associated with the Earth itself, and West Africans and their descendants in Diaspora fondly point out that we always stand on the Earth. Anthropologist Melville Herskovits found that Fon people in present-day Benin make oaths upon the Earth, precisely because it is everywhere and witnesses everything. To seal an oath, they make a concotion with water and crushed herbs, and then they add Earth to it. The parties to the oath then drink this concoction, invoking the Earth as the true witness to their commitment.

When Lucumí people make a Babalú-Ayé osain, a concoction made with white wine, water from coconuts, and herbs used to purify and empower the oricha, they too add Earth to the mix. (Osains usually take water, but Babalú has a deep aversion to water and so takes other liquids.) Armando Zulueta's lineage adds Earth from where the oricha was buried or from the inside of the oricha's pot. There are Matanzas lineages that take Babalú-Ayé and feed him at the foot of a ceiba tree and in a cemetary; they feed him a guinea hen and then pick up Earth, which they later add to the osain.

Appearing in every divination sign--every imaginable situation--and linked inexorably with the Earth itself, Babalú-Ayé is ubiquitous and witness to all of our actions.

Praise-poems in Diaspora, or Cuban Laconics

Many Cubans extol the virtues of the Baroque—in architecture, music, and personality, and they celebrate the tension and movement embodied in this tradition. This passion for profusion does come out in words—just think about Fidel’s eight-hour speeches. At the same time, many of the most important things in Cuba are said in single, laconic sentences.

“Babalú-Ayé. Aso se dice.” Babalú-Ayé. Sickness they say. “Babalú-Ayé. Ajañajaña.” This has no real translation, but people use both of these phrases regularly as a kind of greeting.

“Babalú-Ayé, el mendigo.” Babalú-Ayé the wanderer. “San Lázaro Obispo.” San Lázaro the bishop. These two refer to specific Roman Catholic images of the saint.

“Babalú-Ayé es un santo milagroso.” Babalú-Ayé is a very miraculous saint. “San Lázaro es muy bueno.” San Lázaro is very good. “Babalú-Ayé es muy lindo.” Babalú-Ayé is very beautiful. The student of Santería hears these remarks again and again. They point to something, but their meaning is not primarily referential. Rather they point to what kick-ass art historian David Brown has termed “a surplus of sense and meaning”—that experiential meaning that lies beyond decoding iconography, analyzing ritual instrumentality, and exploring artistic forms. This meaning is local, subjective, and, frankly, hard to explain.

In Lydia Cabrera’s compendium of information on Afro-Cuban religion, El monte, she quotes a santero, “Babá bilonga con ajonjolí” (p. 297). Babalú-Ayé does witchcraft with sesame. This utterance captures the abiding association of the deity with a particular seed, but the verb bilongar casts a long shadow over this relationship. That verb could give birth to a good, long essay or perhaps even a dissertation. Needless to say, the god works both healing and destruction, but when he uses sesame, he is working to destroy. Now that’s a surplus of sense and meaning.

What's in a Name?

Pedro Abreu-Calvo—Asonyanye is the leading figure among the Arará-Sabalú in Havana these days. The Arará-Sabalú call their divinity of illness and healing Asojano. Initiated in 1992 in the Arará Cabildo in Matanzas City, he continues their tradition of making Asojano direct. He usually refers to Asojano as San Lázaro. When I asked why, he said it was a habit, a routine adopted from the people around him who use that name. He became very direct, “When I say San Lázaro, I mean Asojano.”


When I received Asojano from Pedro in 2003, he insisted that I feed my Babalú-Ayé Lucumí with the newly born Asojano. He also told me that when people come to him and they already have Babalú-Ayé Lucumí, he always asks if the Asojano has the same road as Babalú-Ayé. So now I have a Babalú-Ayé and an Asojano, and they have the same road. He always insists that they eat together. Clearly they are not the same. Clearly they not entirely different either.

Both Yoruba and Lucumí religion place a good deal of emphasis on names. Like many other cultures, they imagine that living beings will respond when their names are called. Naming creates a relationship between the namer and the named: calling a name gives a person some influence of the being named, and calling a name activates the named individual, whether it is a human being or divinity. We know language has power: just think of the child who has mastered the word “no.”

Babalú-Ayé may have more names than any other oricha. Like Pedro, many people use the Roman Catholic name and simply refer to him as San Lázaro. He is called Obalú-Ayé, “King, Lord of the Earth.” The name Babalú-Ayé means “Father, Lord of the Earth.” In Brazil, they also call him “Omolú”—the son of the lord. People call him simply “Babá”—father. Others greet him as “Aso”—the Arará word for sickness.

Many people say these names are epithets, used to avoid using his “real” name—Shakuaná. Calling that name invokes illness and death, so naturally people try to avoid it.

In the same way that Babalú-Ayé has many names, there is a lot of confusion about what to call the orichas. Many people call them “santos” as they are often thought of a faces of divinity in service to the Supreme God Olodumare, and it makes sense to outsiders. In London, I once met a young Cuban palero who had also made ocha. He told me that he could help me learn about the npungu, as the paleros refer to the spritis that resemble the orichas. In English, oricha is often translated as “divinity,” “deity,” and “god.” Like all translations, they are imperfect, and like Pedro, I would say I use these words out of habit and a desire for some variety.

For the record, I spell oricha the way Cuban Lucumí priests say the word in Spanish. With this I acknowledge their tenacity in maintaining the religion and their generosity in teaching me what little I know.