Friday, September 24, 2010

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Soyaya

As I have pointed out in other posts, Babalú-Ayé has many, many roads—perhaps more than any other oricha. Here is story from Oyekún Biká about a road called Soyaya.

In the land of Dassa, there was a bokono, as the Arará call their babalawos. This bokono was called Juanlani and his sign was Oyekún Biká. He was plagued by many struggles with other bokonos, and one day he divined for himself. His own sign came out, indicating that he should give Babalú-Ayé a goat, a rooster, a guinea hen, smoked fish with jutía, cocoa butter, cascarilla, rum, a coconut, and money. Babalú-Ayé, who was called Tokuen in Dassa, said his brother Soyaya could solve his problem. Soyaya lived with the oricha Olokun at the bottom of the sea, so Babá sent Juanlani to take the ebó to seashore and call Soyaya with a gongoli, a old-fashioned wooden bell. Three times Juanlani did this and Soyaya did not appear. At the end of the third day, as Juanlani was leaving, a beautiful green and gold fish leapt from the sea and landed at his feet.

Juanlani picked it up and put in it in a clay container with sea water. It turned out that the fish grew and grew, and Juanlani had to move it to a tinaja, a deep clay container. When it no longer fit, he carried it back to the sea and prepared to throw it back. But the fish said, “Climb on top of me, I will carry you to your salvation.” So Juanlani climbed on, and the fish carried him to the palace of Olokun, who gave Juanlani a secret to vanquish his enemies. Then the fish said, “I am Soyaya, son of Dasoyí and Nanú. I am the one no one knows but all respect. I am the spirit of that which gives life to the odu Oyekún Biká Biká, and that is why every time you go to war, my blood will revive and save you.”

The fish in this story is the Yellowtail Snapper, called rabirrubia in Spanish and eyá iñiru in Lucumí. When this sign comes out for people, they are often told that they must feed the head with a Yellowtail Snapper and then receive Babalú-Ayé-Soyaya.

This road of Babalú lives in a tinaja, rather than a cazuela like most Babalús. Some say he lives at the bottom of the sea, as this story suggests. Others say he lives in the waves as a young fisherman. The only other road of Babalú that I know who lives in a tinaja is his mother, Nanú.


While most obviously about Soyaya, this story touches on many different roads. First it says Babalú-Ayé is called Tokuen in Dassa. While I have never heard this anywhere else, I have heard elders speak of a road called Tokuo, who separates the land from the sea. I have heard people suggest that Soyaya is the twin brother of Someno Maya, another road of Babalú that seems to have nothing to do with fish or the sea. Still others says he is the father of Kalinotoyi, a Babalú who lives in the sea or on land and is often compared to the manati, an animal widely associated with Olokun. It fascinates me that the mysterious Babalú-Ayé, lord of the Earth, should have a road that turns back to the mysterious Olokun, lord of the bottom of the sea, who also traditionally lives in a tinaja.

It is very rare to have a story from a divination sign that quotes an oricha. It draws your attention to what he has to say. While specific to Oyekún Biká, I think to that Soyaya’s wisdom here can be said of Babalú-Ayé in general: he is the one that no one knows but all respect.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Echu Alabbony Dances Babalú-Ayé in Juanelo, Ciudad Habana




Check out this video of the young people of Juanelo dancing Babalú-Ayé in a folkloric performance. The opening scene shows the dancer rising up like the oricha. Later, he dances with a crippled leg and two jaces to clean himself.  He presumably enacts possession, as people call "Aso!"

The other dancers capture the subtle body movements, transforming from stiff to confident in their movements.

Notice that a dog just happens through.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Babalú-Ayé in the Public Eye, Babalú-Ayé in Private Life


Many people in Cuba have told me that after Changó and Ochún, Babalú-Ayé is the most popular oricha in the religion; it is true that those who know him definitely love him. Still I am always surprised by quickly people will simplify this complex character. I recently found a website about Cuban culture that suggests that “he has simple tastes and does not expect much.”

This contradicts directly what I know about Babalú-Ayé, both from my elders and from my experience. My elders have said over and over—and I have repeated it like a chorus to my own godchildren, “You can negotiate with any other oricha, but you cannot play with Babalú-Ayé.” With this, the elders imply that there is simply too much at stake: to play with Babalú is play with your health, and only a fool—a “moron” as one of my beloved godparents might say—would do that! I was taught that we have to be extra careful when we do ceremonies for Babalú-Ayé, because he is so demanding, exacting, what Cubans call “majadero.”

I once had a very vivid dream: in the darkness, I could feel the heat of a body close to me. I could feel this figure breathe on the side of my face, and the breath smelled foul. Then the figure spoke, “I am Babalú-Ayé, and I could possess you, but possession is the death of the ego.”

Here Babalú-Ayé reminded me of his true power. He could possess me, literally or figuratively, and he could destroy the me I know. He could kill me—in fact, when we sing Osain for Babalú, there is a special step in the ceremony so that death will always be present. The god appeared and reminded me you that he could take me out, kill me. But he didn´t. He just put me on notice.

He doesn´t expect too much? Really?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Babalú Blog: The Other One

Babalú is so much a part of the popular imagination in Cuba and the Cuban Diaspora that there is a major, and I mean MAJOR, site called Babalú Blog. It features news from Cuba and a "strong" anti-Castro perspective.

Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the religion known as Santería or the orisha known as Babalú-Ayé.

Where Babalú-Ayé Became a Diviner

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II II

The sign Ogundá Meyi includes this story:

Once in the land of the Arará, Asojano encountered Changó, who told him to sit on a large stone. Suddenly, the skill to divine came to Asojano and from then on he ruled over the Arará. This is why Asojano is made on a stone, rather than an overturned mortar like most orishas.

In this laconic explanatory tale, we see Asojano being guided to leadership by Changó, as in so many other stories. Here Changó directs him where to seat himself, a powerful move given the fact that “seating” the oricha is a major metaphor in both speech and ritual. The result is equally powerful: once seated, Asojano suddenly, inexplicably acquires the power of an oracle and can divine at will.

I love this image: Asojano is sitting on a stone, directly connected to the Earth, and he spontaneously becomes a spokesperson for the knowledge (or wisdom?) that comes up from the Earth. Speaking from this grounded place, he fulfills his natural authority and assumes his role as King of the Arará.

It reminds me of the Oracle of Delphi, where the priestess titled Pythia sat over a crevice in the Earth and spoke the truth for all who sought her advice.