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.)