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.