Thursday, December 30, 2010

Themes in the Worship of Babalú Revisited

Yesterday I could not access Blogger so I posted this first on Wikipedia. Thanks to those of you who provided feedback on the first draft--you definitely helped me improve it.

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The narratives and rituals that carry important cultural information about Babalú-Ayé include various recurring and interrelated themes.

Earth: Babalú-Ayé’s worship is frequently linked to the Earth itself both in Africa and the Americas, and even his name identifies him with the Earth itself (McKenzie 1997:417). However, he also said to provide his followers with other material blessings as well. Taken as symbol of a large set of concerns, Babalú’s link with the Earth can be understood as an emphasis on the centrality of the material in human life.

Illness and Suffering: Long referred to as the “god of smallpox,” Babalú certainly links back to disease in the body and the changes it brings (Wenger 1983:168). Because Babalú-Ayé both punishes people with illness and rewards them with health, his stories and ceremonies often deal with the body as a central locus of experience for both human limitations and divine power. Similarly, his mythical lameness evokes the idea of living in a constant state of limitation and physical pain, while people appeal to him to protect them from disease.

The Permeable Nature of Things: In the Americas, Babalú-Ayé vessels always have various holes in their lids, allowing offerings to enter but also symbolizing the difficulty in containing illness completely. These holes are often explicitly compared to sores that pock the orisha’s skin (Brown 2003:263). This permeability also appears in the sack cloth and raffia fringe called mariwó used to dress the orisha. Things inside move out and things outside move in.

Secrecy and Revelation: The contrast between silence and speech, darkness, and light, and secrecy and revelation permeate the worship of Babalú-Ayé. According to the tradition, certain things must remain secret to sustain their ritual power or their healthy function. In turn inappropriate revelation leads to illness and other negative manifestations (Buckley 1985). Conversely, the appropriate revelation of information can provide important teaching and guidance.

Wickedness and Righteousness: Represented in sacred narratives as a transgressor in some instances, Babalú-Ayé himself is condemned to exile because he breaks the social contract . The physical pain of his lame leg transforms into the emotional pain of exile. Only after spending much time in isolation does he return to society. In other contexts, he is lauded as the most righteous of all the orishas. Similarly he is often referred to as punishing the offense of human beings (Idowu 1962:97).

Exile and Movement: Strongly associated with the forest and the road itself, the key stories and ceremonies related to Babalú-Ayé involve movement as an antidote to stagnation. In Lucumí and Arará ceremonies in Cuba, his vessel is ritually moved from place to place in important initiations. But through this movement through different spaces, Babalú-Ayé regularly appears as a complex, even liminal, figure who unites various realms. Strongly associated with powerful herbs used for poisons and panaceas, he is sometimes associated with Osain and the powerful acts of magicians. Strongly associated with the Earth and the ancestors buried within it, he is sometimes ritually honored with the dead (Herskovits 1938, Vol. 2:142). At the same time, he is widely included as an orisha or a fodun, as the Arará traditionally call their deities in Cuba (Mason 2009). Similarly, the dogs strongly associated with Babalú move from the house, to the street, to the forest and back with relative facility. In Lucumí traditions, Babalú-Ayé is said to have traveled from the land of the Lucumí to the land of the neighboring Arará. Babalú-Ayé transcends various domains, often separated in other contexts, and thus asserts a near universal authority.

Death and resurrection: Last but not least, Babalú-Ayé's own journey of exile, debilitation, and finally restoration addresses the cyclic nature of all life. While this theme of transcendence plays a much more prominent role in the Americas than in West Africa, it is also present there in narratives about epidemics befalling kings and kingdoms, only to find relief and remedy in Babalú-Ayé (Idowu 1962:99; Mason 2010).

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To see the refererences, you will need to click on the Wikipedia link above.

While all other material on this site is copyrighted, the material in this post has been shared with Wikipedia and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike.

Thanks again to Ian for helping to educate me on issues around this.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Babalú-Ayé and the Santo Parado

The elders say that Babalú-Ayé can possess anyone, because he is compared to an ancestor, and anyone can get possessed by an ancestor. Similarly, they say it is because all human beings are subject to illness. So it is no surprise that many people seem to pass Babalú-Ayé or ancestral spirits who serve him.

In fact, in Matanzas City, Chino Pérez is widely known as a horse of Babalú-Ayé, even though he is the keeper of the house of Ferminita Gómez, the home of one of the original Olocuns in Cuba. While he has received Babá’s fundamento, when last I visited him, he had not undergone the full initiation known as the asiento, nor was he inclined to. It seemed unnecessary as Babalú-Ayé came and went quite fluidly in possession, and he frequently did miraculous things when he did appear. In fact, when Saúl Fernández—Babá Ni Beleké made Lucumí Babalú-Ayé direct in Havana in the late 1990s, he called upon El Chino to create the secret that went inside. Justly or not, many people in Arará houses use this fact to disparage that initiation.

There is a long tradition in places outside of Havana of what people refer to as santo parado. Those people with santo parado usually get possessed quite easily, and the orichas who mount them give good, reliable information to the people they encounter—and often do reliable work as well. However, these individuals have not undergone any formal ceremony. This tradition contrasts sharply the asiento, so essential to modern practice in Havana. This tradition was reported to David Brown by Oswaldo García Villamil (Santería Enthroned, p. 142) as the oldest form of oricha worship in Matanzas. William Bascom found similar attitudes in 1948 in Jovellanos, where many people were mounted by orichas, but only about 40 had undergone the full initiation ceremony. Like El Chino, many in Jovellanos considered the asiento to be an unnecessary expense and entanglement (Bascom Papers, Bancroft Library, UCLA, Carton 26, Folder 3, p. 301). The well-documented reality of santo parado provides another example of the diversity of practices in the worship of the orichas.

The idea of santo parado is intriguing. García describes it as having the oricha “by your side,” but the word parado has a wide range of meanings. It also implies having the oricha “standing up,” an expression that is also used to describe a man’s sex organ at important moments. Oddly, it can also imply being “stopped,” "stunned," or “standing on end.” I particularly like this last one as it compares the oricha to your hair after a shower: it’s a little crazy because it´s still in process.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Iris Hernández-Salazar, Missionary of San Lázaro

Almost every time I have visited the Church of San Lázaro in Rincón around his feast day, I have encountered the same thin, reserved woman. After greeting her many times and leaving alms on her humble altar in front of the church, I finally sat down next to her and struck up a conversation.

Iris Hernández-Salazar has been a devotee of San Lázaro since she became seriously ill at age seven. Her mother had made ocha while pregnant with Iris, so there was always a special bond between Iris and the orichas. When she became ill, her father made a promise to San Lázaro: if the Old Man would cure Iris, her father would acquire a statue of the saint and place in the family’s living room in Rincón. Well, it worked, and Iris grew up with the statue in the house. “I speak to him as if he were a person. He gives me much peace, tranquility, and much love. He even responds to me. I feel him within me. But I have never made another promise. San Lázaro is very great.”

In a tradition of incredibly detailed traditions passed from generation to generation, there is also space for this sort of immediate, unmediated relationship with Babalú-Ayé. Though Iris was broken as child, San Lázaro made her whole again, and she has remained devoted ever since.  And in December, I am sure it also helps pay the bills.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Feast of Babalú-Ayé in the House of Armando Zulueta, December 17th

I am not sure that they have celebrated the Feast of Babalú-Ayé in this way since Armando Zulueta—Omí Toké joined the ancestors in 1990, but I have heard the descriptions again and again with little variation. The ceremony started on December 16th in the house of Octavia Zulueta—Jundesi with an Arará drumming. No one told me whose drums they were or who played. Perhaps they were from the next block over at the Sociedad Africana de Santa Bárbara. Perhaps they came from the Fernández house in Agromonte, though I did not see drums there. Perhaps they came from Jovellanos or Matanzas City. When orichas or fodunces, as the Arará sometimes call the deities, came down, they would leave Octavia’s house near the cemetery and walk to Armando’s, where they would salute his Babalú-Ayé.

After midnight, once it was in fact December 17th, the whole ceremony would move too. At Armando´s, they did the awán for Babalú-Ayé and then fed Afrá, Nanú, and the Old Man on the back patio, just outside the little house where the secret resides. After eating, the orichas would rest inside with the secret. Then they would start a Lucumí batá drumming that usually lasted till dawn.

By the time I first saw this ceremony in 2001, Armando´s niece and goddaughter Aurora Zulueta—Omí Saidé was in charge, though gravely ill. Money was very tight, and I spent much of the day searching for an appropriate pig for Nanú and black goat for Babalú. That evening, as we prepared for the awán and the feeding, there was a drumming in another house down the block, and various orichas who had come down at the drumming arrived at the house to salute Armando’s fundamento and clean Aurora. Later we placed Armando’s orichas in the open space in front of the secret. After we fed Afrá and Nanú, Babalú was given toasted corn, white wine, honey, and ekó, the corn tamales used throughout the religion. While he feasted on his goat, roosters, and guinea hens, someone caught some of the blood in a gourd with white wine and rum. This mixture was then poured lovingly over the secret. At the end of the sacrifice, the fundamentos all went inside to rest with the secret.

(Unfortunately the one time I had the temerity to ask to photograph Armando’s altar, the photos came out very strange.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Preparing for the Feast of Babalú-Ayé

Last year I focused on the more public aspects of Cuban veneration for Babalú-Ayé at this time of year, writing about the spectacular festival celebrated at Rincón, but this year I want to draw attention to the more localized, more particular manifestations of that devotion.

At the house of Armando Zulueta--Omí Toké, they are already preparing. They are planning a trip to the cemetery to cool the graves of Armando and his godmother Octavia--Jundesi. They are organzing the Lucumí and Arará drummers they need to play at the house. They are certainly worrying about how they will feed the hundred or more people who will enter the house. They are looking for an old goat to give to the Old Man and they are looking for a large pig to give to Nanú. They are buying dry white wine and rum, and they are toasting dried corn.

The money they have in hand determines much of what is possible, but they do continue honor Babalú-Ayé with an elaborate set of ceremonies.

Later this week, I will describe these ceremonies in detail.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Secrets Revisted: Aizan as a model for the Secret of San Lázaro

The hidden and fundamentally mysterious nature of Babalú-Ayé is nowhere more obvious for me than at the secret of San Lázaro, planted in the house of Armando Zulueta--Omí Toké by his teacher Octavia Zulueta--Jundesi. While I have participated in the worship of the secret and Armando's people do engage it every year as part of their annual festival for Babalú-Ayé, there is little understanding of its particular use or the specific conditions that led Jundesi to mount it.

As I recently reread Herskovits's book on Dahomey, I came across his compelling discussion of the diversity of perspectives in the religious life there. He takes as one example a spirit called aizan. Some people say it is a vodou and some say it is not, but everyone seems to agree on a few ideas:
  • This translates as "mat of the earth." 
  • There are aizan for compounds, villages, lineages, markets, and vodou temples.
  • The aizan are treated like any other spirit, beseeched for support and rewarded for blessings.
The discussion continues with a man who himself "established" aizan, and his description for how to establish one of these shrines is remarkably similar to the directions for consecrating a kiti in Cuban tratados. Finally, he says the aizan for vodou temple is always honored before the vodou itself, because it represents all the ancestors who served the vodou while living (Herkovits, Dahomey, Vol. 2, p. 302). This echoes the understanding that Harvard art historian Suzanne Blier: Aizan is a vodou of markets, places, and ancestry (Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, p. 62).

Perhaps as Jundesi prepared to join the ancestors, she remembered this tradition from her Dajomé and consecrated an aizan to make sure that she and others tied to Asojano would always be honored as part of the annual ceremonies at Armando's house.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Themes in the Worship of Babalú

More for the Wikipedia entry on Babalú...

The narratives and rituals that carry important cultural information about Babalú-Ayé include various recurring themes.

1. Transcending different domains: Babalú-Ayé regularly appears as a complex, even liminal, figure who unites various realms. Strongly associated with powerful herbs used for poisons and panaceas, he is sometimes associated with Osain and the powerful acts of magicians. Strongly associated with the Earth and the ancestors buried within it, he is sometimes ritually honored with the dead (Herskovits 1938, Vol. 2:142). At the same time, he is widely included as an orisha or a fodun, as the Arará traditionally call their deities in Cuba (Mason 2009).  Similarly the dogs strongly associated with Babalú move from the house, to the street, to the forest and back with relative facility. In Lucumí traditions, Babalú-Ayé is said to have traveled from the land of the Lucumí to the land of the neighboring Arará. Babalú-Ayé transcends various ritual domains, often separated in other contexts, and thus asserts a near universal authority.

2. The centrality of the material: Because Babalú-Ayé both punishes people with illness and rewards them with health, his stories and ceremonies often deal with the body as a central locus of experience for both human limitations and divine power. Similarly, his mythical lameness evokes the idea of living in a constant state of limitation and physical pain, while people appeal to him to protect them from disease. However, he also said to provide his followers with other material blessings as well.

3. The permeable nature of things: In the Americas, Babalú-Ayé vessels always have various holes in their lids, allowing offerings to enter but also symbolizing the difficulty in containing illness completely. This permeability also appears in the sack cloth and raffia fringe called mariwó used to dress the orisha. Things inside move out and things outside move in. This relates directly to the next two themes.

4. Secrecy and Revelation: The contrast between silence and speech, darkness, and light, and secrecy and revelation permeate the worship of Babalú-Ayé. According to the tradition, certain things must remain secret to sustain their ritual power or their healthy function. In turn inappropriate revelation leads to illness and other negative manifestations (Buckley 1985). Conversely the appropriate revelation of information can provide important teaching and guidance.

5. Movement and stagnation: Strongly associated with the forest and the road itself, the key stories and ceremonies related to Babalú-Ayé involve movement as an antidote to stagnation. In Lucumí and Arará ceremonies in Cuba, his vessel is ritually moved from place to place in important initiations.

6. Wickedness and righteousness: Represented in sacred narratives as a transgressor in some instances, Babalú-Ayé himself is condemned to exile because he breaks the social contract. The physical pain of his lame leg transforms into the emotional pain of exile. Only after spending much time in isolation does he return to society. In other contexts, he is lauded as the most righteous of all the orishas.

7. Death and resurrection: Last but not least, Babalú-Ayé's own journey of exile, debilitation, and finally restoration addresses the cyclic nature of all life. While this theme of transcendence plays a much more prominent role in the Americas than in West Africa, it is also present there in narratives about epidemics befalling kings and kingdoms, only to find relief and remedy in Babalú-Ayé.

(I'll publish this on Wikipedia shortly. Please send comments and or suggestions.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Walking with Babalú-Ayé in San Francisco

I am still trying to figure out how to talk about my recent trip to San Francisco to lead a public awán for Babalú-Ayé. I am still a bit uncomfortable with the fact that I don’t have a big, overarching narrative that wraps the whole thing up, but I have a number of small stories that show how delightful it was to be in service to the Old Man.

I wanted to do something special for Babalú-Ayé at this awán, so several weeks prior I learned a new rezo, a fast-paced and verbally complex chant to invoke him. I had been practicing for several weeks. My plane arrived early, and as I waited for my ride, I practiced the chant outside in the arrivals area:

Ago yéme du quina quina su salva su gome du quina
Ago yéme du quina quina su salva su gome du quina quina

Mero goyeme dupe-un pe-un
Mero goyeme duquina
Mero goyeme duquina quina
Mero goyeme dupe-un

Gudun bite kodo kiodo ni sawa ni soniye
Gudun mite kodo kiodo ni sawa ni soniye mode ni amo emanoso ijenoso

Ella keleguesun keleguesun keleguesun kelewe mode ni amo emanoso ijenoso

As the last syllable echoed off the concrete, I turned to see a man limping toward me. His face was red and wrinkled from living in the open for many years. His open-toed sandals reveals his swollen feet, and his dirty clothes had a strong odor. He moved slowly past me and sat on the next bench, took out a cigarette, and proceeded to blow clouds of smoke in my direction. Here was Babalú-Ayé responding to my prayer.

Two days later, when we arrived at Heron’s Head for the awán, a man appeared out of nowhere and asked my goddaughter for change. Recognizing the presence of Asojano, she pulled out two dollars and wished him luck. As we began the ceremony in the driving rain and wind, a couple appeared at the head of the trail, and as they came closer, it was clear that they were accompanied by two dogs walking by their sides.

It's no surprise that Babalú-Aýé gave us strong blessings at the end of the ceremony.

These little gestures were not the only messages from Babalú-Ayé over the weekend, but they were perhaps the ones that touched me most deeply. I never tire of them, and I never tire of the gratitude I feel.

(Thanks to Artemis for the great image.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Soyaya Revisted

I have written before about the road of Babalú-Ayé called Soyaya, who is strongly associated with Olocun, the oricha of the bottom of the sea. While these two share deep mysteries and untold wealth, I have wondered about their connection, and this week I think I understand it a bit better.

Being in San Francisco for the Earth Medicine Alliance Conference, I decided to spend some time at UC Berkeley exploring the papers of the anthropologist William Bascom, who spent the summer of 1948 researching Africanisms in Jovellanos, Matanzas Province. He spent days discussing Lucumí and Arará traditions with the famous Esteban Baró, an African-born child of Ochumaré, the oricha of the rainbow, who is also known as Dan or Güeró. At some point, their conversation turned to Olocun, and Baró explained laconically, "Olocun is the Earth of the sea, oldest of all the orichas."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Working Babalú-Ayé

As I prepared to travel to San Francisco to teach people about Babalú-Ayé and lead a public awán, I had an interesting little dream: I was sprinkling fresh, green leaves on top of Babalú. Simple enough till you starting thinking through the associations and implications.

First, I should say this sort of thing actually happens. At the end of the awán, someone leaves the ritual (no pun intended) and carries the basket and the sack cloth bundle to the forest. After depositing the bundle with the offering, she gathers fresh, green leaves in the basket, and upon returning to the house, these are sprinkled on top of Babalú’s vessel. I was taught that this was to cool Babalú, who is sometimes called Ilé Gbona (The Hot Earth) by the Yoruba. It is not that Babalú is angry at the end of the awán, just that he is hot by nature. The whole exchange removes heat and negativity, only to replace it with freshness, coolness.

Most elders know specific ceremonies to cool other orichas, usually when they are angry. These ceremonies usually require a person to make a series of simple but specific offerings of foods favored by the oricha in question, and the ceremonies usually last for the number of days associated with the oricha. For example, Ochún is fed her favorite foods for five days, while Yemayá is fed for seven. Interestingly, I have never heard anyone explain or prescribe this kind of ceremony for Babalú, though it is possible to imagine giving him his favorite foods over seven, eleven, thirteen, or even seventeen days.

At a personal level, these ceremonies do change the disposition of the oricha to the individuals involved—people in the religion rely on that fact. Perhaps they only operate at this personal level, helping the individuals who make the offerings and providing them with access to the benevolence and blessings of the oricha.

Or perhaps they change the attitude of the oricha in more general terms. When much of Havana flooded in the mid-nineties, many olorichas there said it was because people had neglected to worship Olocun, the sometimes volatile owner of the bottom of the sea. Considered at a personal level, Olocun is seen punishing people for their lack of devotion. However, if we consider Olocun as a force of nature, this implies that our worship of the orichas plays a role in maintaining—or at least influencing—the dynamic balance of the natural world itself.

And so I go to San Francisco to lead a small group in publicly honoring Babalú-Ayé. We will do the awán and we will sprinkle levels on his vessel to refresh him. May he take mercy on us. Baba fiyedenu. May he heal all present. May he go easy on us. Babá pele pele.

And may we also cool the Hot Earth. May he also find solace in our devotion. May we ease his suffering, if only just a little.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Babalú-Ayé at Mending Our Relations With the Natural World Conference in SF

Next weekend, the Earth Medicine Alliance is holding its first annual conference in San Francisco. The conference unites many people involved in Earth-based spiritual traditions, ecotherapy, and advocacy for the natural world. With a remarkable diversity of speakers from different perspectives, the conference should result in an exchange of compelling dialogue and energizing ideas.

Together with goddaughter Phoenix Smith, I will be presenting an experiential workshop titled Babalú-Ayé: Healing Self and Earth in African Diaspora Orisha Tradition. Designed to help people get to know Babá, the workshop will include ritual, storytelling, reflection, and play.

The following day, Phoenix and I will lead an awán for Babalú at Heron's Head Park, an EPA Super Fund site.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Babalú-Ayé in Wikipedia

So I have set a new goal for myself: I have decided to rewrite the Wikipedia entry on Babalú-Ayé with the goal of making it more encompassing of the diversity of orisha religion's history and practice as well as rich in detail. I would love feedback on the proposed text.

In the religious system of Orisha worship, Babalú-Ayé is the praise name of the spirit of the Earth and strongly associated with infectious disease, and healing. He is an Orisha, representing the Supreme God Olodumare on Earth. The name Babalú-Ayé translates as “Father, Lord of the Earth” (Idowu 1962:95) and points to the authority this orisha exercises on all things earthly, including the body, wealth, and physical possessions. In West Africa, he was strongly associated with epidemics of smallpox, but in the contemporary Americas, he is more commonly thought of as the patron of leprosy, influenza, and AIDS (Thompson 1993:216). Although strongly associated with illness and disease, Babalú-Ayé is also the deity that cures these ailments. Both feared and loved, Babalú-Ayé is sometimes referred to as the “Wrath of the Supreme God” because he punishes people for their transgressions (Thompson 1993:217). People hold Babalú-Ayé in great respect and avoid calling his actual name, because they do not wish to invoke epidemics (Idowu 1962:97).

His worship is widely associated with the Earth itself, and his shrines are often separated from commonly travelled areas. His ritual tools include a ritual broom for purification (McKenzie 1997:70), a covered terra-cotta vessel, and abundant cowry shells (Brown 2003:262-263). Usually considered hobbled by disease, he universally takes grains as offerings (Thompson 1993:216). Through divination, he often speaks to his devotees through the Ifá signs (Odu Ifá) Ojuani Meyi and Irete Meyi, though as a sickness, he can manifest in any divination sign. In cowry shell divination, he is also strongly also associated with the sign called Metanlá (13 cowries).

Babalú-Ayé is often considered the son of Yemayá and the brother of Shango (Lucas 1996:112, Idowu 1962:99). However, some traditions maintain that the is the son of Nana Burukú (Thompson 1993:224), a Fon deity added to the Yoruba pantheon, and associated with fresh water moving underground and inscrutable female power, but others assert that she is his wife (Ramos 1996:68). However, some ritual lineages maintain that Nanú, a strong, mysterious orisha, is the mother of Babalú-Ayé (Mason 2010). Because of his knowledge of the forest and the healing power of plants, Babalú-Ayé is strongly associated with Osain, the orisha of herbs.


While it is difficult to identify a precise origin for Babalú-Ayé, he has a long history both in Yoruba and Fon communities in West Africa. Widely venerated in Yoruba areas, he is usually called Shopona and said to have dominion over the Earth and smallpox. He demands respect and even gratitude when he claims a victim, and so people sometimes honor him with the praise name Alápa-dúpé, meaning “One who kills and is thanked for it” (Idowu 1962:97). In one commonly recounted story, Shopona was old and lame. He attended a celebration at the palace of Obatalá, the father of the orishas. When Shopona tried to dance, he stumbled and fell. All the other orishas laughed at him, and he in turn tried to inflect them with smallpox. Obatalá stopped him and drove him in the bush, where he has lived as an outcast ever since (Ellis 1894:52). Some people use this story to suggest that Shopona went into exile among the neighboring Fon peoples to the West of the principal Yoruba areas.

In Fon areas of Benin, the deity is most commonly called Sagbatá. Here too he owns the Earth and has strong associations with smallpox and other infections. His worship is very diverse in Fon communities, where many distinct manifestations of the deity are venerated. Because the dead are buried in the Earth, the manifestation called Avimadye is considered the chief of the ancestors (Herskovits 1938:142). Because all people live on the Earth, which makes our existence possible, and because Sagbatá is considered by many to be the eldest child of the Supreme God (Herskovits 1938:131), he is considered the most senior deity (in stark contrast to Yoruba notions about the senority of Obatalá).

Manifestations in Diverse Traditions

Names of the deity, sacred narratives about his life, and ritual practices from both Yoruba and Fon origins travelled to the Americas with enslaved and free people. These differences play a significant role in the worship of Babalú-Ayé in the Americas today, where these ethnic and political identities are conintued as the Lucumí and Arará in Cuba and as the Nago and the Jeje in Brazil. Babalú-Ayé appears in most New World manifestations of Orisha religion..

In Lucumí Santería with its origins in Cuba, Babalú-Ayé is among the most popular orishas (BLOG) . Syncretized by some with Saint Lazarus, and regarded as particularly miraculous, Babalú-Ayé is publicly honored with a pilgrimage on December 17, when tens of thousands of devoteess gather at the Church and Leprosorium of Saint Lazarus in El Rincón, in the outskirts of Santiago de Las Vegas, Havana Province. Arará communities in Cuba and its Diaspora honor the deity as Asojano and claim superior knowledge of his rituals (Brown 2003:138-139). Both traditions use sack cloth in rituals to evoke his humility. The deity also appears in the Afro-Cuban religious tradition Palo Mayombe as Pata en Llaga or Kobayende. Link to Babalú-Ayé in Santería

Called Omolu, “the son of the Lord,” or Obaluaiyé in Brazilian Candomblé (Verger 1957:248), the orisha’s face is thought to be so scarred by disease and so terrifying that he appears covered with a raffia masquerade that covers his whole body. He also manifests in other Brazilian traditions like Umbanda and Macumba.


Brown, David H. 2003. Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ellis, A.B. 1894. The Yoruba-speaking peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa. Their religion, manners, customs, laws, language, etc. London: Chapman and Hall.

Herskovits, Melville. 1938. Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom. New York: J.J. Augustin.

Idowu, E. Bolaji. 1962. Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Lucas, J. Olumide. 1996. The Religion of the Yoruba: Being an Account of the Religious Beliefs and Practicesof the Yoruba People of Southwest Nigeria. Especially in Relation to the Religion of Egypt. Brooklyn, NY: Athelia Henrietta Press. [Originally published in 1948 in London by the Church Missionary Society Bookshop]

Mason, Michael Atwood. 2010. “Nanú, the Mother of Babalú-Ayé. “ Baba Who? Babalú!

McKenzie, Peter. 1997. Hail Orisha! A Phenomenology of a West African Religion in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

Ramos, Miguel “Willie.” 1996. Afro-Cuban Orisha Worship. In A. Lindsey, ed., Santería Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art, pp. 51-76. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Thompson, Robert Farris. 1993. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum for African Art.

Verger, Pierre F. 1957. Notes sur le culte des orisa et vodun a Bahia, la Baie de tous les Saints, au Brésil, et à l’ancienne Côte des Esclaves en Afrique. Dakar: IFAN.

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While all other material on this site is copyrighted, the material in this post has been shared with Wikipedia and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike.

Thanks to Ian for helping to educate me on issues around this.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Babalú-Ayé in Sickness and in Health

I have an infectious disease. I have been sick for three weeks with what started as a nasty cold. Little Natalya started daycare in September, and by week two she had a runny nose. A week later I had a runny nose and a sore throat. Then a week after that I had a sinus infection, complete with a headache, a fever, pain in my teeth, and lots of discharge from my nose. After two visits to the doctor, lots of home remedies, a seven-day course of antibiotics and more decongestants than you can imagine, the mucus has turned from dark green to bright yellow. My colleagues will tell you it is isn’t pretty, and my very honest wife will tell you it’s just gross. It certainly has humbled me, as I try to maintain both my workload and my decorum through sneezing, coughing, sweating, and revolting nasal discharge. Ay, Babalú-Ayé, fiyedenu. Babalú, have mercy on me.

We all struggle to stay healthy from time to time, but we are not always successful. We slide from health—iré aicú, the blessings of health and long life—to sickness, osobo arun. It is this basic opposition between sickness and health that underscores Babalú-Ayé’s special role as the silent oricha within everything.

This is not just hyperbole. Every time a Lucumí elder prays—and I mean every time—she prays for health. The old timers say, “Oricha, give me health so I can go out and seek the other blessings.” Similarly every odu speaks of probable illnesses and potential blessings to be enjoyed in health. I learned this basic insight into Babalú-Ayé from my godfather, Ernesto Pichardo—Obá Irawó: Babalú-Ayé governs the fundamental polarity between sickness and health.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Giving Babalú-Ayé, Matanzas-style: The Presence of the Dead

There are many ways to give Babalú-Ayé, and I never tire of contemplating the ceremonies as a vessel for information about the oricha. One Matanzas lineage I know takes Babalú-Ayé on a journey as they prepare to give him to a new initiate. They take Babalú out to a cemetery and feed him with a guinea, white wine, and cigar smoke. Then they continue to the foot of a ceiba tree, where they do the whole ceremony again. Next they feed Babalú a rooster on the altar for the ancestors at the house where the main ceremony is to take place.

While I have thought about this imagery in terms of travel and the Earth, the ancestors play a strong role here as well. By taking Babalú to the cemetery and feeding him with the many ancestors there, the ceremony stresses his role as an egun. Similarly, the ceiba was historically where people in Cuba went to salute the ancestors and pray when the dead actually lay buried at too far a distance—the Africans used to feed their ancestors at the ceiba, so it worked as a kind of generalized cemetery for all. Finally, in case you did not get it before, they feed him with the ancestors at the house. Here they name their own ancestors and affinities spirits, calling them to participate in the initiation ceremony. The dead feed with Babalú, and he with them. I once participated in this ceremony in Municipio Playa in Havana, and while the master of ceremonies fed Babalú with the dead, the deity descended on an elderly priestess and cleaned everyone present.

The deep ancestral presence in these rituals is hard to ignore, and so I once described this ceremony to Pedro Abreu and asked if he ever fed Asojano with the egun. He said, “No, I have never done that, but I would not criticize it. It makes sense. Asojano is an oricha, a witch, and an egun. ”

I have heard of priests whose Babalús want to spend time with the dead at the spiritist altar, the bóveda. While I have never seen this, it makes sense.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Soyaya

As I have pointed out in other posts, Babalú-Ayé has many, many roads—perhaps more than any other oricha. Here is story from Oyekún Biká about a road called Soyaya.

In the land of Dassa, there was a bokono, as the Arará call their babalawos. This bokono was called Juanlani and his sign was Oyekún Biká. He was plagued by many struggles with other bokonos, and one day he divined for himself. His own sign came out, indicating that he should give Babalú-Ayé a goat, a rooster, a guinea hen, smoked fish with jutía, cocoa butter, cascarilla, rum, a coconut, and money. Babalú-Ayé, who was called Tokuen in Dassa, said his brother Soyaya could solve his problem. Soyaya lived with the oricha Olokun at the bottom of the sea, so Babá sent Juanlani to take the ebó to seashore and call Soyaya with a gongoli, a old-fashioned wooden bell. Three times Juanlani did this and Soyaya did not appear. At the end of the third day, as Juanlani was leaving, a beautiful green and gold fish leapt from the sea and landed at his feet.

Juanlani picked it up and put in it in a clay container with sea water. It turned out that the fish grew and grew, and Juanlani had to move it to a tinaja, a deep clay container. When it no longer fit, he carried it back to the sea and prepared to throw it back. But the fish said, “Climb on top of me, I will carry you to your salvation.” So Juanlani climbed on, and the fish carried him to the palace of Olokun, who gave Juanlani a secret to vanquish his enemies. Then the fish said, “I am Soyaya, son of Dasoyí and Nanú. I am the one no one knows but all respect. I am the spirit of that which gives life to the odu Oyekún Biká Biká, and that is why every time you go to war, my blood will revive and save you.”

The fish in this story is the Yellowtail Snapper, called rabirrubia in Spanish and eyá iñiru in Lucumí. When this sign comes out for people, they are often told that they must feed the head with a Yellowtail Snapper and then receive Babalú-Ayé-Soyaya.

This road of Babalú lives in a tinaja, rather than a cazuela like most Babalús. Some say he lives at the bottom of the sea, as this story suggests. Others say he lives in the waves as a young fisherman. The only other road of Babalú that I know who lives in a tinaja is his mother, Nanú.

While most obviously about Soyaya, this story touches on many different roads. First it says Babalú-Ayé is called Tokuen in Dassa. While I have never heard this anywhere else, I have heard elders speak of a road called Tokuo, who separates the land from the sea. I have heard people suggest that Soyaya is the twin brother of Someno Maya, another road of Babalú that seems to have nothing to do with fish or the sea. Still others says he is the father of Kalinotoyi, a Babalú who lives in the sea or on land and is often compared to the manati, an animal widely associated with Olokun. It fascinates me that the mysterious Babalú-Ayé, lord of the Earth, should have a road that turns back to the mysterious Olokun, lord of the bottom of the sea, who also traditionally lives in a tinaja.

It is very rare to have a story from a divination sign that quotes an oricha. It draws your attention to what he has to say. While specific to Oyekún Biká, I think to that Soyaya’s wisdom here can be said of Babalú-Ayé in general: he is the one that no one knows but all respect.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Echu Alabbony Dances Babalú-Ayé in Juanelo, Ciudad Habana

Check out this video of the young people of Juanelo dancing Babalú-Ayé in a folkloric performance. The opening scene shows the dancer rising up like the oricha. Later, he dances with a crippled leg and two jaces to clean himself.  He presumably enacts possession, as people call "Aso!"

The other dancers capture the subtle body movements, transforming from stiff to confident in their movements.

Notice that a dog just happens through.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Babalú-Ayé in the Public Eye, Babalú-Ayé in Private Life

Many people in Cuba have told me that after Changó and Ochún, Babalú-Ayé is the most popular oricha in the religion; it is true that those who know him definitely love him. Still I am always surprised by quickly people will simplify this complex character. I recently found a website about Cuban culture that suggests that “he has simple tastes and does not expect much.”

This contradicts directly what I know about Babalú-Ayé, both from my elders and from my experience. My elders have said over and over—and I have repeated it like a chorus to my own godchildren, “You can negotiate with any other oricha, but you cannot play with Babalú-Ayé.” With this, the elders imply that there is simply too much at stake: to play with Babalú is play with your health, and only a fool—a “moron” as one of my beloved godparents might say—would do that! I was taught that we have to be extra careful when we do ceremonies for Babalú-Ayé, because he is so demanding, exacting, what Cubans call “majadero.”

I once had a very vivid dream: in the darkness, I could feel the heat of a body close to me. I could feel this figure breathe on the side of my face, and the breath smelled foul. Then the figure spoke, “I am Babalú-Ayé, and I could possess you, but possession is the death of the ego.”

Here Babalú-Ayé reminded me of his true power. He could possess me, literally or figuratively, and he could destroy the me I know. He could kill me—in fact, when we sing Osain for Babalú, there is a special step in the ceremony so that death will always be present. The god appeared and reminded me you that he could take me out, kill me. But he didn´t. He just put me on notice.

He doesn´t expect too much? Really?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Babalú Blog: The Other One

Babalú is so much a part of the popular imagination in Cuba and the Cuban Diaspora that there is a major, and I mean MAJOR, site called Babalú Blog. It features news from Cuba and a "strong" anti-Castro perspective.

Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the religion known as Santería or the orisha known as Babalú-Ayé.

Where Babalú-Ayé Became a Diviner

I   I
I   I
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The sign Ogundá Meyi includes this story:

Once in the land of the Arará, Asojano encountered Changó, who told him to sit on a large stone. Suddenly, the skill to divine came to Asojano and from then on he ruled over the Arará. This is why Asojano is made on a stone, rather than an overturned mortar like most orishas.

In this laconic explanatory tale, we see Asojano being guided to leadership by Changó, as in so many other stories. Here Changó directs him where to seat himself, a powerful move given the fact that “seating” the oricha is a major metaphor in both speech and ritual. The result is equally powerful: once seated, Asojano suddenly, inexplicably acquires the power of an oracle and can divine at will.

I love this image: Asojano is sitting on a stone, directly connected to the Earth, and he spontaneously becomes a spokesperson for the knowledge (or wisdom?) that comes up from the Earth. Speaking from this grounded place, he fulfills his natural authority and assumes his role as King of the Arará.

It reminds me of the Oracle of Delphi, where the priestess titled Pythia sat over a crevice in the Earth and spoke the truth for all who sought her advice.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

More on the Wanderings of Babalú-Ayé: Iká Ogbe

This story is sometimes called “The Vengeance of Oluó Popó” but I think it really gets to the deepest motivations of this oricha.

In the land of Kowanilé there lived a diviner called Iká Bemí. He was a child of Changó and enjoyed great wealth. All of his lands were rich; he reined in tranquility, health, and economic growth. All of his businesses prospered and everyone lived well. One day a pilgrim arrived, leprous and dressed in sack cloth. It was Oluó Popó, who shook a conical bell made of wood and sang:

“Babá odire agolona e ago e mowanile."

He frightened all who saw him, and they fled from him. He knocked on Iká Bemí’s door. Hearing the song, the diviner was frightened and did not get out of bed. Oluó Popó continued to knock insistently, so Iká Bemí sent Elegba to find out what the beggar wanted. When Oluó Popó saw Elegba, he understood that Iká Bemí had belittled him. He became very angry and began to sing:

"Echichi abe ikú Awó kigbáru ikú arun kosi kode kilo mowanile."

Death and Illness responded, visiting the land. People and animals died in great numbers, and people began to flee, so business also dried up. Elegba told Iká Bemí that he needed to visit Orula to learn what was happening. When he visited Orula, the divination revealed the situation: Oluó Popó felt offended and undervalued by Iká Bemí, and Elegba and Ochún were the only ones who could convince the oricha to lift his curse. Following Orula’s directions, Iká Bemí returned to his land, took an herb called oporoporo and squeezed out as much liquid as possible. To this he added honey, smoked jutía and fish, and corn. He put all this into a lamp, lit it, and using traditional songs, called to Ochún for help.

When Ochún heard his chanting and smelled the lamp, she visited Iká Bemí, who prostrated himself and explained why he had called her. Ochún went outside and saw Oluó Popó hiding behind a baiyekú plant while observing the destruction of the land. Ochún moved toward the plant singing:

"Mowanile ea afiguerema Oshún adeo ilú odoyeo obalu aye afiguerema iyá yeo mowanile olu ogdo yeo ogbalu aye."

When Oluó Popó heard this song, he emerged to face Ochún. She approached him, and as she sang she passed her hand over his head with honey and palm oil. Oluó Popó calmed down, and Ochún gave him a stone that shined brightly, saying, “This is the secret you need to live peacefully in one place without wandering so much, but you must save this land.” Oluó Popó took off a necklace and gave it to Ochún, saying, “With this, the people of this place will save themselves, but they must respect me and remember me always.” With that, he began the return to his own land to seat his secret.

Ochún returned to Iká Bemí, gave him the necklace, and said, “Always wear this necklace. Now give three chicks to Elegba and a goat to Oluó Popó.” When he gave the chicks, Changó and Orula appeared and said, “Take the head of the goat and charge it, cover it with black and white beads, and place it with Elegba. From time to time, you must feed it with an old goat so you and your children can live many years on this Earth.”

I love this story because it shows the transformation of the oricha. Ochún rescues Babalú-Ayé from his life of constant movement and alienation. She seems to save him from himself, freeing him from his own abject life. Ochún often acts in this role of mediator, as she does in the stories in which she brings Ogún back from his self-imposed exile in the forest and in which she travels to heaven to convince Olodumare to end a draught. While we don´t know what exactly was in the secret that Ochún gave to Oluó Popó, we do know that it changed him. He takes this secret gift from Ochún—love perhaps?—and returns home, and this brings him peace of mind.

Similarly, when Iká Bemí honors Babalú-Ayé, he can enjoy long life. He must open the door of his life, wear Babá’s necklace, and make regular offerings. Rather than being rejected at the door, Babalú wants to be received, respected, and remembered.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Adú Kaqué and Ogundá-Obara

The divination sign Ogundá-Obara says that Adú Kaqué is the name that Asojano took when he arrived at Dahomey. He was cast out of Ilé-Ifé, and most stories include the fact that Changó took two dogs from Ogún and gave them Asojano as traveling companions. However, this sign says that Ogún presented Babá with a walking stick to aid him on his journey. It was in the form of an osun, a metal staff with a container at the top. Instead of the usual rooster, this osun carried a small dog, and Asojano used it to travel from Ilé-Ifé, through the land of Ibariba, and ultimately to his home in Dahomey.
This little osun with the dog on top is truly fascinating to me, because it is very wide-spread and short-lived. The Arará-Dajomé rama of Armando Zulueta does not give it in the United States, and my godfather, Ernesto Pichardo, told me that they used to give an osun with a rooster. When I visited Armando's house in Perico, Provincia Matanzas, I saw the rooster on top of his osun.

(It's not a great picture, but you can see the osun in the center rear.)

Similarly, the Arará-Sabalú give an osun called Sain when they give a new initiate Asojano, and this osun also has the much more common rooster. Still, many lineages give this rooster-topped staff, and I would love to know about its origin in the different lineages.

(Thanks to David H. Brown and for the image at the top.)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Dogs and Adú Kaqué

Again and again, Babalú-Ayé appears in close association with dogs. But he is not alone, as other orichas also include these universal animals. We deliver scraps to the curbside after major ceremonial meals, where dogs feast, thus placating Echu so “he will give us food,” as an elderly priestess once explained to me. Ochosi, the hunter, also includes two small dogs in his tools, and Ogún is said to eat dog in Nigeria. I have even heard Cuban elders recount a ceremony no longer performed, where Erinle eats dog.

The natural habits of the dog are instructive. Living in the house in close relationship with people, the dog always wants to go into the street. Beyond the street and into the forest, the dog senses what cannot be seen to chase down game or lead its owner back to town. Crossing domains and capable of great aggression when necessary, the dog also licks open wounds on itself and people around it. In many places, people believe that the saliva of dogs actually heals in some way.

When unwanted, the dog is a perfect image of the abject and wretched life on the streets. After all, it is a dog-eat-dog world. Conversely the proverb in Obara-Odí says, “The dog has four feet but takes a single path.” The dog is focused, fierce, and aggressive, and the dog is rejected. The dog heals through contact and is capable of seeing the invisible and guiding people.

In fact, both Arará and Lucumí lineages recognize a road of Babalú-Ayé that is a dog. Called Adú Kaqué or simply Kaqué, elders say he is a dog or has the head of a dog on a man’s body. They say that he lives naked in the forest. When he possesses someone, he nips at the people he encounters. Naturally, he likes to have bones and rubber toys set down in front of him as offerings he can chew on. He takes black beads with white stripes, and his altar is sometimes crowned with a dog skull.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Crutches and Joto Sojuca

Most Lucumí lineages give Babalú-Ayé with very simple “tools” inside his vessel. Usually, he takes two metal dogs and two metal crutches. These items are washed along with the other fundamentos and stay inside the vessel, forming an important part of the altar. Although most Arará lineages seal their Asojano vessels, they too see the crutches as one of his most common attributes. While the imagery seems to come directly from the chromolithograph of Saint Lazarus, it does open up a new way of understanding the deity.

The road, or manifestation, of Babalú called Joto Sojuca is said to be responsible for illnesses in the legs. Elders say he is the ancestor of the güira, a kind of gourd tree, and he lives in two closed gourds. Naturally, he takes crutches too.

Unable to move unassisted, Babalú-Ayé must support himself externally to stay upright and mobile. He can march forward confidently. Casting the crutches forward, his shoulders ache as he lifts his weight up. His feet drag as he swings them forward. He cringes as he shifts his weight back onto his feet. He props himself with external supports because otherwise he would fall.

This inherent weakness is inescapable in Babalú.

(Special thanks to and David H. Brown for the image at the top.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Broken Again

On the way to Rincón, pilgrims move along the road in the dark. Often you cannot see them, but the sounds they make are unforgettable, if hard to describe. People drag themselves across the asphalt, scraping their clothes and their flesh against the hard pavement as they lurch forward. The huge effort of dragging their own dead weight makes them pant or gasp when they rest. Bleeding from open wounds on their hands and legs, they sometimes moan as they push on. The groaning in the darkness makes your skin crawl.

The mute and private quality of this pain is hard to escape. The body suffers mutely or at least without words, as author Elaine Scary has pointed out in her book, Bodies in Pain. Because pain is an internal experience, it is impossible to make reference to shared or objective features. Words for this pain or the suffering of illness are hard to find, but not impossible. People do talk about what is happening to them, if only in short sentences: “It hurts.” “My knees are bleeding.” “I suffer from a bad heart.” “I cannot go on.” Later these sentences become part of longer narratives that unite people who travelled together and pull others into some kind of relationship with the raw sensation.

There are many secrets in Lucumí religion in general, and because Babalú-Ayé is particularly hermetic, mysteries abound in his worship. There are ritual acts that point to the centrality of brokenness to Babalú, but as a priest, these are facts that I am not at liberty to share.

Still, a return to the surface of the tradition might be helpful: the image of Saint Lazarus depicts him walking on crutches. Broken to the point that he cannot walk unaided, Lazarus supports himself as best he can and painfully pushes on, perhaps on sore or broken limbs. The pain does not “unmake” him, as author Elaine Scary suggests. Rather the pain mixed with other qualities makes him who he is. Enduring the pain, he carries his broken self toward some distant destination. You can almost hear his feet drag as he stumbles on.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


My wife had a karate teacher who was diagnosed with AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic. As he lay dying in the hospital, unable to discuss how he contracted the disease that was draining the life out of him, he turned to her and said, "Everyone is broken somewhere."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More Reflections of Echú Afrá

As with most things in the Lucumí tradition, there is a good deal of variation when it comes to Echú Afrá. In most houses, he is simply the guide, guardian, and spokesman of Babalú-Ayé, and most—but not all—lineages do give Afrá when they give Babalú. He is usually attended and fed with Babalú and not worked on his own. However, Afrá is also given separately in some houses, particularly as the Echú Elegguá associated with the divination sign Obara-Irozo or in preparation for receiving Babalú.

The stories give a sense of how this oricha works. In Oyeku-Ojuani, he speaks to Shakuaná, guiding him in the creation of secret place to feed his most difficult children. In Obara-Irozo, he shows Asojano to the herbs that would cure the Anai. Here you see his most fundamental qualities: Afrá is active, Afrá provides superior knowledge, and Afrá assists Babalú on his path to restitution and kingship.

As I said before, most houses give Afrá as a simple coral stone. Some add a mixture of “medicines” to empower and direct him, and some even do a separate ceremony at the crab’s cave. However, the coral stone is interesting in its own right. These “stones” are actually the skeletons of dead corals. Like the bones of a human skeleton, they last and last even after death, apparently indestructible. Their small, round openings resemble the sores created by smallpox, and so they evoke one of the original aspects of Babalú-Ayé. Once fed, Afrá becomes like an open wound that neither disappears nor heals.

Afrá reminds us of the insurmountable rawness that we all carry within us. It is painful, sore, secret, and unprocessed. That unfinished quality may be result of forward movement or intractable incompleteness. If we live with it and interact with it long enough, Afrá will provide us with valuable and hard-won wisdom. And if we listen carefully and push on, step by step, he will lead us to a new place where we may find healing and new sense of plenitude.

Still, the open sore may never go away completely.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Where Oluó Popó United with Orula

A loyal reader in the Caribbean recently asked me about the relationship between Asojano and Orula. As I have said in other posts, the Arará-Sabalú insist that Asojano only speaks through Orula, that is, only through Ifá divination. When Pedro Abreu-Asonyanye gives Asojano, Orula eats in the ceremony; in the divination for Afrá, Nanú, and Asojano, all three speak through Ifá. Here is one account from the odu Ojuani-Odí that explains the origin of the partnership between Oluó Popó and Orula.

Once upon a time in the land of Lodoni, everyone owed Oluó Popó and no one paid him. In fact, they made fun of him. So Oluó Popó went to the house of Death and made a pact to do in all the people in nine days. When the people found out, they rushed to Orula’s house to see how they could be freed from this curse. Orula pulled this sign and said: Death through OIuó Popó. Then he explained the ebó they needed to make. The people made the ebó and then hung up the dead animals, and the odor of the rotting meat spread through the city. When Death arrived at the city to do his work, he was very happy because of the smell of rotting flesh. Laughing he said, “Look at me. All these people have died because they are afraid of me.”

With this boast and without entering the city, Death turned around and went to tell Oluó Popó that everyone in that land had died. But Oluó Popó went to see if Death was telling the truth, and he was surprised to see the people well. Angry, he returned and said Death was a liar and Orula had more power than Death because Orula had made ebó and nothing had happened. From then on, Oluó Popó united with Orula.

This story begs the question: are Asojano and Oluó Popó the same? Are they names for different stages—or etapas—in the life of the same deity? Might he have spoken through the shells at one point and then changed over later?

There are cases in which people have made up stories and inserted them into the odus to justify some particular point of view. Could it be that someone made up this story and inserted to emphasize the connection between Asojano and Orula?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Earth as Symbol in the Unconscious

I was recently reading Marie Louise von Franz, the grand dame of Jungian analytical psychology. In her book The Puer Aeternus, she analyzes images of the Earth in Saint-Exupery's book, The Little Prince, saying,

Earth is the will to live and the acceptance of life.
 This little gem seemed like it could find a place in this conversation.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Nanú’s Stories

There are few specific stories about Nanú, but here are the ones I know. Among Yoruba- and Fon-speaking people in what is Benin, Nanú is thought of as the granddaughter of the Creator Goddess, Nana Burukú. In Arará-Sabalú communities in Cuba, Nana Burukú survives and is linked to the divinity known as Güeró. They in turn gave birth to the twins, Nanú and Dasoyí, the “father of the Babalú-Ayés.” These two met at the Agbogboji River in Benin and gave birth to the other roads of Babalú. (Below is a Sabalú vessel and já for Nana Burukú by Pedro Abreu.)

Similarities in the names and iconography of Nanú and Nana Burukú have created confusion, and some people see them as the same divinity with different names. However, careful attention to their iconography and the ceremonies used to honor them show that they are really very different. Nanú is very much of the earth, while Nana Burukú is an ancient water deity. In most houses where Nanú is known, people give her white wine like Babalú, while Nana Burukú usually takes water.
Another story locates Nanú in the crown of the ceiba, the huge silk-cotton tree. Because of their deep shade, these trees are thought to shelter the spirits of the dead. Similarly, because they are so tall, they are considered to be a meeting place between heaven and earth. It is also important to note that ceibas lose their leaves in the dry season and appear to be dead, only to spring to live again in the rainy season.

Perhaps most important is the fact that Lucumí and Arará elders agree that Nanú usually lives with her son, Babalú. She plays some of the more mysterious, if generative, role to his more active presence. While there were many people made to her in the 1940s, especially in Matanzas, I have never heard of a person being made to Nanú in any of the contemporary Lucumí lineages, and neither have my elders. (There are plenty people made to Nanú in Candomblé lineages.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nanú, the Mother of Babalú-Ayé

So little is known about Nanú that many elders refer to her simply as “the mother of Babalú-Ayé,” “the mysterious one,” or “the stronghold” or “strength.” She is related to the other roads of Babalú-Ayé and has many of the same functions. She comes to remove obstacles to health and well-being, and she is treated in much the same way as other manifestations of Babalú: she is treated with great respect because of her awesome power. She is feared because death is always with her, and she too rules infectious disease. She is secretive, but provides important revelations. She is wealthy beyond our understanding. She lives in the wilds and wanders on the road. She struggles with how to express moral ideals in an imperfect world. She seems to be dead, only to rise again. Nevertheless, her iconography and ceremonies are slightly different from the other Babalú-Ayés.

Nanú has a broom, which is received by her devotees the first time she eats goat. The já points to her work as cleansing agent in the lives of her followers. Like the other roads of Babalú, she cleans negativity. The broom, which is by definition dirty, sits on her altar. Thus, we bow before what is dirty and infectious. Unlike the other Babalús, her broom is bent over at the top to form a loop. She uses this loop to “hook” things for her devotees. This form also evokes female gentials and differentiates her from the other Babalús, whose brooms take a phallic form. (In fact, some elders link her explicitly to the vulva.)

Like other roads of Babalú-Ayé, Nanú is associated with the dry earth and her secrets often include earth from 7 different places. However, Nanú always lives in a tinaja, a low-fired terra-cotta vessel that clearly evokes depth. Ochún Ibú Ikolé, Yemayá Aganá and Olokun all live in this same kind of vessel. The vessel suggests that Nanú lives in the deepest part of the earth. Her tinaja is usually painted black and the lid is often decorated with cowry shells. The color black points to the unknown, again drawing attention to her mystery. Cowry shells that were used as currency in much of West Africa show her great wealth. Cowries, also used in divination, point to her ability to provide revelations to her followers.

When we invoke Nanú, we usually call a grander set of powers. We generally start by calling Elegguá Echú Afrá and whatever male road of Babalú-Ayé we have. We follow these invocations by calling upon the aché of the moon, the stars, the comets, and the dark, surface layer of planet Earth. Again, this links her to the complex of divinities associated with the Earth and with the mysterious darkness and powers of the night. Unlike other roads of Babalú, Nanú only eats female animals.

(Thanks to David Brown and for the image of this fabulous Nanú pot. This post goes out to my goddaughter in Baltimore.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Echú Afrá, the Messenger and Guardian of Babalú-Ayé

The odu Obara-Irozo contains both references to how Babalú-Aye made his way to the land of the Arará and to the role of cundeamor.

Changó was returning from war and passed a garbage dump on the edge of the town of Osá-Yekú. There, he found a ragged, sick, old man. Changó sent his lieutenant to bring food and water to the old man. After installing his enormous army at the town of Obara-Koso (a nickname for Obara-Irozo), Changó returned to the place where he left the old man, who was none other than Asojano, and directed him toward a narrow pass. Changó told him to go through the pass and put on a cape made of tiger skin (some say leopard skin) that Asojano would find at the other end. Changó also told him that he would find a boy who would give him water and point out certain herbs that Asojano could use to heal sores and other illnesses. The boy was none other than Elegguá Echú Afrá, and he pointed out cundeamor, aguedita, zarzafrán, mangle rojo, and hierba de sangre, among others.

While Asojano worked hard to go through the pass and find the boy, Changó took another road to the land of the Arará and gathered together the people, who had dispersed and fallen ill because of the war and the loss of their beloved king. When Changó arrived among the people called the Anai, he told them that through the narrow pass would come their new king. He would be wearing a tiger-skin cloak and would cure all their ills. Since they loved and respected Changó, the people went to meet their king. Asojano had come through the pass, but he was so weak that he had laid down in a wooded place. Changó threw a lightning bolt and split open the top of palm tree but nothing happened to Asojano.

The people were in awe, and Asojano expressed his gratitude to Changó, who explained that even he himself did not know the extent of curative powers. Asojano began to use the herbs that Afrá had given him, healing people and proving his aché. The people carried him to the throne and crowned him king of Dahomey. Changó was preparing to leave and enjoying a last meal of ram. Asojano said, “As long as the world is the world, I will respect the ram and leave it for you. You will always eat before me in homage and gratitude for all that you have done for me.” Changó responded, “I am very grateful and as long as the world is the world, I will respect give you the goat and leave it for you.”

This is an important story for many reasons—and curious too. It is interesting to note that many tratados summarize this odu by saying “Where Obatalá visited the land of the Anai.” And in some versions, Changó sends Obatalá ahead of Asojano to prepare the Arará. Some elders also state that this sign explains why Asojano has a crown with tiger or leopard skin; this is the birthplace of the frontíl of Asojano, his beaded and cowry-encrusted tiara. The centers of the fronds of the corojo palm, Acrocomia crispa, are used to manufacture the já. Obviously, this sign also explains the tradition of feeding Changó before Asojano whenever the latter is given to a person.

Babalú is usually given with Afrá, who is also born in this sign. I have heard elders describe a special ceremony to consecrate Afrá alone: They take the coral stone that is the fundamento of this oricha to a crab’s cave, where they feed it with a chick and gather some of the Earth from the mouth of the cave. They cement this Earth, 24 cowries, and a lot of standard ingredients—like aché de santo–to the stone. I have only seen this ceremony a couple times. While it did include Earth from the crab’s cave, I have never seen anyone go there to make sacrifice.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Working with Substances: Cundeamor

Perhaps no other plant is more closely associated with Babalú-Ayé than cundeamor. Not only do many people cover his vessel with this herb, some houses wrap cundeamor around the horns of the goats they offer to Babalú. In fact, as part of the awán, everyone present must place a strand of this climbing vine around their neck. At the end of the ceremony, these necklaces are cast off and into the basket.

Cundeamor grows aggressively at the end of the rainy season, fruits near Babalú’s feast day on December 17th, and then dries up and disappears completely. The fruits have a distinctive brilliant yellow-orange color and bright red seeds. Cundeamor acts just like the deity: emerging at the beginning of the dry season, he grows toward his feast only to disappear again.

Not only does its growing habit mimic Babalú, both the leaves and fruits of the cundeamor have a long and well-documented history as a medicinal herb. In Cuba, both Momordica charantia and Momordica balsamica are called cundeamor. It was traditionally used as a salve for wounds and a cure for gastritis, colitis, and other digestive disorders. However, it was also used to remedy eczema, herpes, and even leprosy. Indigenous knowledge systems in Asia and other parts of Latin America suggest that it is useful for fighting malaria and diabetes. In fact, recent research has shown that it has strong antibacterial and antiviral properties, and there are currently clinical trials testing its effectiveness against HIV. Similarly, some evidence points to cundeamor as a strong regulator of the immune system, and there are researchers looking at it as an aid to cancer patients.

Given Babalú’s long association with skin disorders and infectious diseases, it is no wonder that an herbal remedy for these ills would be used again and again in his rituals.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Babalú and Caves

I have been thinking a lot about caves lately. In Cuba, Babalú-Ayé is thought to have lived in a cave at his nadir; in fact, the rare road of Babalú called Kujunú is said to always live in caves and emerge at night with a lantern: Babalú as the light in the darkness.

Many altars recreate this terrestrial abode. When giving Babalú, most lineages make a special, low-slung altar in a corner and cover the front with the climbing plant called cundeamor. Babalú and his family rest in this manmade cave during much of the ceremony, emerging only to work or eat. Many people keep their Babalú vessels tucked away and covered with plants or cloth, hidden from view. Some, like Rafael Linares and his widow, cover the vessels themselves in cundeamor.

Of course, there is more than one story about how it is the Babá came to live in a cave. There is the story of his exile that I have already told, and many people simply fill in the detail of the cave when they are trying to imagine or explain the desolate places. Having lived large and exalted his masculinity, Babalú is then thrown back into the dark, unknowable body of the Earth. Having indulged in his own hubris, he is reduced to utter humility. The story of his rehabilitation describes Changó finding him in a trash heap or a cave, depending on who tells it.

The cave itself is an interesting thing, linking the Earth where we live to the dark inner life of the Earth, like a bibijagua colony. In fact, some lineages use the earth from the entrance of a crab´s cave in the já. These crabs live by the water, come charging up on land and then disappear into the Earth. They move effortlessly from the water, to the world, and into the Earth.

(Special thanks to Erik Daugaard for the great Cuban crab photo.)

Revelation: Light in the Darkness

Lázaro de la Caridad Zulueta Soa went to sleep, exhausted by the trials and tribulations of everyday life. The quotidian was tiresome, indeed, and he saw no way out. As sleep overtook him, he fell into a dream: the landscape was dark, illuminated only by starlight. Out of nowhere, Babalú-Ayé appeared emitting a soft, yellowish light. He spoke plain as day, "I will be your light in the darkness."

Friday, May 7, 2010

Working with Substances: The Bibijagua

The secrecy so common to the religion takes on even greater intensity when it comes to the worship of Babalú-Ayé. In addition to secrets installed in the earth, most lineages also give Babalú-Ayé with a secret inside his vessel. Most also add secret ingredients to empower the já. These secrets almost always include either a bibijagua or earth from a bibijagua colony. Priests routinely travel to these nests to harvest bibijaguas or collect the soil, leaving a small offering in exchange. Bibijaguas are often used to make Elegguaces as well. Because these ants are in constant motion, they resemble both Elegguá and Babalú.

Their name comes from combining two indigenous words: bibi means “a small creature,” and jagua translates as “great damage or harm.” These ants belong to a species found only in Cuba, Atta insularis, and their more common name, hormigas cortadoras, identifies them as “cutter ants.” The Spanish-language Wikipedia site refers to them as a plague: they are famous for their speed and destructiveness, because they cut round holes in the leaves of a wide range of plants. Interestingly, they also usually make their homes in bright red soil, emerging at night to travel long distances and completely defoliate many plants in an area. The strongest workers cut out large, round pieces of the leaves and pass them to others, who carry them to the ground and back to the colony. If they have not stripped an entire plant by dawn, they leave it to die and move to others the following night.

Here it all comes together: emerging from the red Earth, the bibijagua is nocturnal, tireless, overwhelming, and destructive. You could think of it as one of Babalú’s most challenging animal manifestations.

But like all of nature’s creatures, the bibijagua does these things to feed its colony and reproduce. Linked to the sign Irete-Iwori, the bibijagua also ensures that the food and energy necessary to sustain life enter into the colony. In fact, the elders say that in Irete-Iwori it is oricha that brings everything to the house. The ant models the ceaseless movement, strength, and endurance of Babalú-Ayé as he provides for our material lives and sustains us. Here it all comes together, with a difference: grounded in the Earth, the bibijagua is irrepressible, energetic, organized, and prolific.

(This post is dedicated to my goddaughter in Oakland.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Margot San Lázaro

My comadre Raquel Fernández (left) was made by her older sister, Magdalena (center), in 1964. Raquel's oyugbona was José María Hernández-Arioza--Omi Niqué, who had been made by Margot San Lázaro, the famous Havana priestess. Magdalena had been made the year before, and her oyugbona was another of Margot's godchildren, Irene Zúñiga--Ochún Bí.  Magdalena tells the story of how Margot became identified with Asojano:

Margot was being made to Yemayá in a Lucumí house, but as she sat in the initiation and the elders called down the orichas, it was not Yemayá who came down but Asojano. In those days, Pilar Fresneda--Asonsiperaco from the Sabalú cabildo was the undisputed expert in such things, and Margot's elders reached out to her. When she arrived at the house, she found Asojano speaking in his famously froggy and hard-to-understand voice. She sang to Asojano in Arará, and he responded just as he was supposed to. This was a beautiful Asojano, an unforgettable manifestation of the deity. Asonsiperaco was so impressed by Margot's Asojano that she decided to give her an Arará name. Asonsiperaco called her Anujamen, and the elders had to virar el oro--"turn around the order" of the ceremony and finish it in a way that was fitting for Asojano.

From then on Pilar took Margot under her wing and trained her in the religion; the two women worked together until Pilar joined the ancestors in the 1960s. So prevalent and powerful was Margot's Asojano that she became known as Margot San Lázaro.

All this happened a long time ago, and so the story has some loose ends.  Every time Magdalena tells the story, she insists that the elders changed the order of the ceremony, but she also reports that Margot had a Yemayá name as well--Tinomí. When asked about this, Magdalena is very frank about the fact that these things happened before she was made. In fact, Margot had died before she was made.

(Thanks to Willie Ramos for this photo of Margot.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Earth Deity for Earth Day

Elders often refer to Babalú-Ayé as the oricha of the Earth, and his name alludes to this fact. Ayé means “world” or “earth,” so the whole name translates as “Father, Lord of the Earth.” The Earth supports us in all we do and is thought of as the universal witness of our actions. Forbearers of the Arará in Cuba, the West African Fon, traditionally made oaths with one hand on the Earth. In fact, husbands and wives would promise to be loyal to each other as they drank an herbal mixture with Earth mixed into it, knowing that the Earth would see if they broke their promise and in turn punish them. This bit of West African tradition intrigues me, because most lineages in Cuba include a bit of Earth in the herbal mixture called osain, which is made to wash and cool the oricha when he is born.

One Matanzas lineage I know focuses on travel and Earth as they prepare to give Babalú-Ayé . They take Babalú out to a cemetery and feed him with a guinea, white wine and cigar smoke. Then they pick up Earth from cemetery and continue to the foot of a ceiba tree, where they do the whole ceremony again. The Earth from both locations ends up in the osain.

The Arará-Dajomé lineage of Armando Zulueta—Omí Toqué actually starts the ceremony by doing a simple cleaning over an open hole. The fundamento goes into the hole wrapped in sack cloth and is fed with a rooster. The following day, just before being washed, the fundamento comes out of the hole. A priest proceeds to transport the fundamento from the hole to the oricha room, led by someone burning incense and others throwing toasted corn.

This last ceremony recollects the relatively common ceremony of feeding the Earth. Here a hole is opened, the person is cleaned with an animal—usually a rooster—and the animal is fed to the Earth and then buried in the hole. The ceremony ends with the person standing on top of the closed hole. If the hole is an analogy for the grave, the person thereby stresses her standing upright and reaffirms her victory over death. You can imagine that every step they take on the Earth in some way reconnects to that place and time, since the Earth is ubiquitous.

These ritual reminiscences only index one aspect of Babalú as an Earth deity. His praise names and roads reveal his link to wilderness. In Nigeria he is called Olodé, the owner of the wilderness. He is also called Ilé Gbona, the hot Earth, to underscore his vengeful character. In Cuba, elders say that Asojano-Agrozumeto rules the untamed places of the Earth. They say that Adu Kaqué lives in the middle of the forest and Lumue rules the spirits of dry forests.

As the ubiquitous witness of human acts, as the ground on which we stand and make our journey through the world, as source of our firmeza or solidity, and as the unknown wilds within us, Babalú is an Earth deity extraordinaire.