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.)