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.