Monday, December 7, 2009

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.

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