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.


  1. Ashe! Many times over, Ashe!

    I left this post feeling enlivened, inspired, and deeply rooted. Which is as it should be.

  2. In Chinua Achebe's book Things Fall Apart, the Igbo characters greet each other by touching the Earth and saying, "My hand is on the ground, Father." I sometimes find myself doing this in front of Asojano.

  3. Modupe Michael this is great. We also touch the Earth when greeting a priest of Ifa saying as I'm sure you know Aboru Aboye. It's interesting to me that you referenced he is known as the wilderness, which is what I've been told about Aganju. And we did a ritual in which we prayed on nails to concretize our goals and put them in a pot of earth and elders told me that by swearing on the earth if you don't move towards concretizing your goals the Earth would eat you.

  4. The idea of the Earth eating you reminds me of the retribution that Asojano brings as the wrath of Olodumare. And, yes, you are right that we greet babalawos by touching the earth.


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