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