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.