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.

1 comment:

  1. That's very Ochun-esque response to promiscuity, is not? But then again, Ochun loves mixing it up with others just as much as anthropologists are passionate about other cultures. I am amused by the thought of Ochun and Babalu being the patron saints of anthropology...

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