Thursday, October 28, 2010

Babalú-Ayé at Mending Our Relations With the Natural World Conference in SF

Next weekend, the Earth Medicine Alliance is holding its first annual conference in San Francisco. The conference unites many people involved in Earth-based spiritual traditions, ecotherapy, and advocacy for the natural world. With a remarkable diversity of speakers from different perspectives, the conference should result in an exchange of compelling dialogue and energizing ideas.

Together with goddaughter Phoenix Smith, I will be presenting an experiential workshop titled Babalú-Ayé: Healing Self and Earth in African Diaspora Orisha Tradition. Designed to help people get to know Babá, the workshop will include ritual, storytelling, reflection, and play.

The following day, Phoenix and I will lead an awán for Babalú at Heron's Head Park, an EPA Super Fund site.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Babalú-Ayé in Wikipedia

So I have set a new goal for myself: I have decided to rewrite the Wikipedia entry on Babalú-Ayé with the goal of making it more encompassing of the diversity of orisha religion's history and practice as well as rich in detail. I would love feedback on the proposed text.

In the religious system of Orisha worship, Babalú-Ayé is the praise name of the spirit of the Earth and strongly associated with infectious disease, and healing. He is an Orisha, representing the Supreme God Olodumare on Earth. The name Babalú-Ayé translates as “Father, Lord of the Earth” (Idowu 1962:95) and points to the authority this orisha exercises on all things earthly, including the body, wealth, and physical possessions. In West Africa, he was strongly associated with epidemics of smallpox, but in the contemporary Americas, he is more commonly thought of as the patron of leprosy, influenza, and AIDS (Thompson 1993:216). Although strongly associated with illness and disease, Babalú-Ayé is also the deity that cures these ailments. Both feared and loved, Babalú-Ayé is sometimes referred to as the “Wrath of the Supreme God” because he punishes people for their transgressions (Thompson 1993:217). People hold Babalú-Ayé in great respect and avoid calling his actual name, because they do not wish to invoke epidemics (Idowu 1962:97).

His worship is widely associated with the Earth itself, and his shrines are often separated from commonly travelled areas. His ritual tools include a ritual broom for purification (McKenzie 1997:70), a covered terra-cotta vessel, and abundant cowry shells (Brown 2003:262-263). Usually considered hobbled by disease, he universally takes grains as offerings (Thompson 1993:216). Through divination, he often speaks to his devotees through the Ifá signs (Odu Ifá) Ojuani Meyi and Irete Meyi, though as a sickness, he can manifest in any divination sign. In cowry shell divination, he is also strongly also associated with the sign called Metanlá (13 cowries).

Babalú-Ayé is often considered the son of Yemayá and the brother of Shango (Lucas 1996:112, Idowu 1962:99). However, some traditions maintain that the is the son of Nana Burukú (Thompson 1993:224), a Fon deity added to the Yoruba pantheon, and associated with fresh water moving underground and inscrutable female power, but others assert that she is his wife (Ramos 1996:68). However, some ritual lineages maintain that Nanú, a strong, mysterious orisha, is the mother of Babalú-Ayé (Mason 2010). Because of his knowledge of the forest and the healing power of plants, Babalú-Ayé is strongly associated with Osain, the orisha of herbs.


While it is difficult to identify a precise origin for Babalú-Ayé, he has a long history both in Yoruba and Fon communities in West Africa. Widely venerated in Yoruba areas, he is usually called Shopona and said to have dominion over the Earth and smallpox. He demands respect and even gratitude when he claims a victim, and so people sometimes honor him with the praise name Alápa-dúpé, meaning “One who kills and is thanked for it” (Idowu 1962:97). In one commonly recounted story, Shopona was old and lame. He attended a celebration at the palace of Obatalá, the father of the orishas. When Shopona tried to dance, he stumbled and fell. All the other orishas laughed at him, and he in turn tried to inflect them with smallpox. Obatalá stopped him and drove him in the bush, where he has lived as an outcast ever since (Ellis 1894:52). Some people use this story to suggest that Shopona went into exile among the neighboring Fon peoples to the West of the principal Yoruba areas.

In Fon areas of Benin, the deity is most commonly called Sagbatá. Here too he owns the Earth and has strong associations with smallpox and other infections. His worship is very diverse in Fon communities, where many distinct manifestations of the deity are venerated. Because the dead are buried in the Earth, the manifestation called Avimadye is considered the chief of the ancestors (Herskovits 1938:142). Because all people live on the Earth, which makes our existence possible, and because Sagbatá is considered by many to be the eldest child of the Supreme God (Herskovits 1938:131), he is considered the most senior deity (in stark contrast to Yoruba notions about the senority of Obatalá).

Manifestations in Diverse Traditions

Names of the deity, sacred narratives about his life, and ritual practices from both Yoruba and Fon origins travelled to the Americas with enslaved and free people. These differences play a significant role in the worship of Babalú-Ayé in the Americas today, where these ethnic and political identities are conintued as the Lucumí and Arará in Cuba and as the Nago and the Jeje in Brazil. Babalú-Ayé appears in most New World manifestations of Orisha religion..

In Lucumí Santería with its origins in Cuba, Babalú-Ayé is among the most popular orishas (BLOG) . Syncretized by some with Saint Lazarus, and regarded as particularly miraculous, Babalú-Ayé is publicly honored with a pilgrimage on December 17, when tens of thousands of devoteess gather at the Church and Leprosorium of Saint Lazarus in El Rincón, in the outskirts of Santiago de Las Vegas, Havana Province. Arará communities in Cuba and its Diaspora honor the deity as Asojano and claim superior knowledge of his rituals (Brown 2003:138-139). Both traditions use sack cloth in rituals to evoke his humility. The deity also appears in the Afro-Cuban religious tradition Palo Mayombe as Pata en Llaga or Kobayende. Link to Babalú-Ayé in Santería

Called Omolu, “the son of the Lord,” or Obaluaiyé in Brazilian Candomblé (Verger 1957:248), the orisha’s face is thought to be so scarred by disease and so terrifying that he appears covered with a raffia masquerade that covers his whole body. He also manifests in other Brazilian traditions like Umbanda and Macumba.


Brown, David H. 2003. Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ellis, A.B. 1894. The Yoruba-speaking peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa. Their religion, manners, customs, laws, language, etc. London: Chapman and Hall.

Herskovits, Melville. 1938. Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom. New York: J.J. Augustin.

Idowu, E. Bolaji. 1962. Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Lucas, J. Olumide. 1996. The Religion of the Yoruba: Being an Account of the Religious Beliefs and Practicesof the Yoruba People of Southwest Nigeria. Especially in Relation to the Religion of Egypt. Brooklyn, NY: Athelia Henrietta Press. [Originally published in 1948 in London by the Church Missionary Society Bookshop]

Mason, Michael Atwood. 2010. “Nanú, the Mother of Babalú-Ayé. “ Baba Who? Babalú!

McKenzie, Peter. 1997. Hail Orisha! A Phenomenology of a West African Religion in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

Ramos, Miguel “Willie.” 1996. Afro-Cuban Orisha Worship. In A. Lindsey, ed., Santería Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art, pp. 51-76. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Thompson, Robert Farris. 1993. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum for African Art.

Verger, Pierre F. 1957. Notes sur le culte des orisa et vodun a Bahia, la Baie de tous les Saints, au Brésil, et à l’ancienne Côte des Esclaves en Afrique. Dakar: IFAN.

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While all other material on this site is copyrighted, the material in this post has been shared with Wikipedia and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike.

Thanks to Ian for helping to educate me on issues around this.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Babalú-Ayé in Sickness and in Health

I have an infectious disease. I have been sick for three weeks with what started as a nasty cold. Little Natalya started daycare in September, and by week two she had a runny nose. A week later I had a runny nose and a sore throat. Then a week after that I had a sinus infection, complete with a headache, a fever, pain in my teeth, and lots of discharge from my nose. After two visits to the doctor, lots of home remedies, a seven-day course of antibiotics and more decongestants than you can imagine, the mucus has turned from dark green to bright yellow. My colleagues will tell you it is isn’t pretty, and my very honest wife will tell you it’s just gross. It certainly has humbled me, as I try to maintain both my workload and my decorum through sneezing, coughing, sweating, and revolting nasal discharge. Ay, Babalú-Ayé, fiyedenu. Babalú, have mercy on me.

We all struggle to stay healthy from time to time, but we are not always successful. We slide from health—iré aicú, the blessings of health and long life—to sickness, osobo arun. It is this basic opposition between sickness and health that underscores Babalú-Ayé’s special role as the silent oricha within everything.

This is not just hyperbole. Every time a Lucumí elder prays—and I mean every time—she prays for health. The old timers say, “Oricha, give me health so I can go out and seek the other blessings.” Similarly every odu speaks of probable illnesses and potential blessings to be enjoyed in health. I learned this basic insight into Babalú-Ayé from my godfather, Ernesto Pichardo—Obá Irawó: Babalú-Ayé governs the fundamental polarity between sickness and health.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Giving Babalú-Ayé, Matanzas-style: The Presence of the Dead

There are many ways to give Babalú-Ayé, and I never tire of contemplating the ceremonies as a vessel for information about the oricha. One Matanzas lineage I know takes Babalú-Ayé on a journey as they prepare to give him to a new initiate. They take Babalú out to a cemetery and feed him with a guinea, white wine, and cigar smoke. Then they continue to the foot of a ceiba tree, where they do the whole ceremony again. Next they feed Babalú a rooster on the altar for the ancestors at the house where the main ceremony is to take place.

While I have thought about this imagery in terms of travel and the Earth, the ancestors play a strong role here as well. By taking Babalú to the cemetery and feeding him with the many ancestors there, the ceremony stresses his role as an egun. Similarly, the ceiba was historically where people in Cuba went to salute the ancestors and pray when the dead actually lay buried at too far a distance—the Africans used to feed their ancestors at the ceiba, so it worked as a kind of generalized cemetery for all. Finally, in case you did not get it before, they feed him with the ancestors at the house. Here they name their own ancestors and affinities spirits, calling them to participate in the initiation ceremony. The dead feed with Babalú, and he with them. I once participated in this ceremony in Municipio Playa in Havana, and while the master of ceremonies fed Babalú with the dead, the deity descended on an elderly priestess and cleaned everyone present.

The deep ancestral presence in these rituals is hard to ignore, and so I once described this ceremony to Pedro Abreu and asked if he ever fed Asojano with the egun. He said, “No, I have never done that, but I would not criticize it. It makes sense. Asojano is an oricha, a witch, and an egun. ”

I have heard of priests whose Babalús want to spend time with the dead at the spiritist altar, the bóveda. While I have never seen this, it makes sense.