Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Imitation of Babalú-Ayé: The Traveling Self


Key to understanding Babalú-Ayé is the fact that he moves: he moves out of the land of the Lucumí and into the wilderness. He moves out of the wilderness and into the land of the Arará. He becomes king of a foreign land. More simply, he moves from well-being to destitution and back to well-being.


In addition to moving physically from place to place, he moves people´s emotions with his suffering. It is impressive, unforgettable even, to see people imitating him in the caminata, as they drag themselves along the pavement. The sound alone sticks with you, but their bloody hands and knees remind you of the pain you have lived through. In Spanish, the verb conmover captures both this shared moving and being moved.

Even in the ceremonies that the now-dead elders taught to the living, Babalú-Ayé moves. In many houses, he travels to the ceiba tree and then again to the cemetery, eating at each stop. He then travels to the family shrine for the dead--the egun--and again shares a meal with them. From there he travels into the sacred room, where the principal ceremony takes place and sits on a simple altar. Even his signature cleaning ceremony, the awán, includes movement in most houses: he often leaves the altar and sits on top of a large basket filled with grains and bits of food that have been used to clean people spiritually. For this bit of the ceremony, Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye sings:

Aforo foro Asojano aforo foro yawe.

Some lineages even reenact his travels through five different lands before he arrived at the land of the Arará.

All journeys, including pilgrimages, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And in this way, they resemble narratives of all kinds.

If we take the image of movement as somehow essential both to Babalú-Ayé and those of us who follow him, we come to something deeply restless and motile within ourselves, what the French existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel called “metaphysical uneasiness,” a drive for something which might be called true or authentic. As human beings give into—or even embrace—our uneasiness, we move toward something truer. Like Babalú, as we move, we encounter our own limitations and imperfections. Moving with our own wounds, we limp along till we cannot move any further. Stripped of everything, perhaps even humiliated, still raw, we find new energy to face to a new occasion. We rise again. This new strength grows from the whole experience. It encompasses both a realistic appreciation of our imperfections and our ability to move forward. It stems from our recognition of ourselves as travelers in this life. We begin in one place but often end up somewhere very different than we expected.

As Gabriel Marcel said, “Perhaps a stable order can only be established if man [sic] is acutely aware of his condition as a traveler, that is to say, if he perpetually reminds himself that he is required to cut himself a dangerous path across the unsteady blocks of a universe which has collapsed and seems to be crumbling in every direction.”

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