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.