Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Themes in the Worship of Babalú

More for the Wikipedia entry on Babalú...

The narratives and rituals that carry important cultural information about Babalú-Ayé include various recurring themes.

1. Transcending different domains: Babalú-Ayé regularly appears as a complex, even liminal, figure who unites various realms. Strongly associated with powerful herbs used for poisons and panaceas, he is sometimes associated with Osain and the powerful acts of magicians. Strongly associated with the Earth and the ancestors buried within it, he is sometimes ritually honored with the dead (Herskovits 1938, Vol. 2:142). At the same time, he is widely included as an orisha or a fodun, as the Arará traditionally call their deities in Cuba (Mason 2009).  Similarly the dogs strongly associated with Babalú move from the house, to the street, to the forest and back with relative facility. In Lucumí traditions, Babalú-Ayé is said to have traveled from the land of the Lucumí to the land of the neighboring Arará. Babalú-Ayé transcends various ritual domains, often separated in other contexts, and thus asserts a near universal authority.

2. The centrality of the material: Because Babalú-Ayé both punishes people with illness and rewards them with health, his stories and ceremonies often deal with the body as a central locus of experience for both human limitations and divine power. Similarly, his mythical lameness evokes the idea of living in a constant state of limitation and physical pain, while people appeal to him to protect them from disease. However, he also said to provide his followers with other material blessings as well.

3. The permeable nature of things: In the Americas, Babalú-Ayé vessels always have various holes in their lids, allowing offerings to enter but also symbolizing the difficulty in containing illness completely. This permeability also appears in the sack cloth and raffia fringe called mariwó used to dress the orisha. Things inside move out and things outside move in. This relates directly to the next two themes.

4. Secrecy and Revelation: The contrast between silence and speech, darkness, and light, and secrecy and revelation permeate the worship of Babalú-Ayé. According to the tradition, certain things must remain secret to sustain their ritual power or their healthy function. In turn inappropriate revelation leads to illness and other negative manifestations (Buckley 1985). Conversely the appropriate revelation of information can provide important teaching and guidance.

5. Movement and stagnation: Strongly associated with the forest and the road itself, the key stories and ceremonies related to Babalú-Ayé involve movement as an antidote to stagnation. In Lucumí and Arará ceremonies in Cuba, his vessel is ritually moved from place to place in important initiations.

6. Wickedness and righteousness: Represented in sacred narratives as a transgressor in some instances, Babalú-Ayé himself is condemned to exile because he breaks the social contract. The physical pain of his lame leg transforms into the emotional pain of exile. Only after spending much time in isolation does he return to society. In other contexts, he is lauded as the most righteous of all the orishas.

7. Death and resurrection: Last but not least, Babalú-Ayé's own journey of exile, debilitation, and finally restoration addresses the cyclic nature of all life. While this theme of transcendence plays a much more prominent role in the Americas than in West Africa, it is also present there in narratives about epidemics befalling kings and kingdoms, only to find relief and remedy in Babalú-Ayé.

(I'll publish this on Wikipedia shortly. Please send comments and or suggestions.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Walking with Babalú-Ayé in San Francisco

I am still trying to figure out how to talk about my recent trip to San Francisco to lead a public awán for Babalú-Ayé. I am still a bit uncomfortable with the fact that I don’t have a big, overarching narrative that wraps the whole thing up, but I have a number of small stories that show how delightful it was to be in service to the Old Man.

I wanted to do something special for Babalú-Ayé at this awán, so several weeks prior I learned a new rezo, a fast-paced and verbally complex chant to invoke him. I had been practicing for several weeks. My plane arrived early, and as I waited for my ride, I practiced the chant outside in the arrivals area:

Ago yéme du quina quina su salva su gome du quina
Ago yéme du quina quina su salva su gome du quina quina


Mero goyeme dupe-un pe-un
Mero goyeme duquina
Mero goyeme duquina quina
Mero goyeme dupe-un

Gudun bite kodo kiodo ni sawa ni soniye
Gudun mite kodo kiodo ni sawa ni soniye mode ni amo emanoso ijenoso

Ella keleguesun keleguesun keleguesun kelewe mode ni amo emanoso ijenoso

As the last syllable echoed off the concrete, I turned to see a man limping toward me. His face was red and wrinkled from living in the open for many years. His open-toed sandals reveals his swollen feet, and his dirty clothes had a strong odor. He moved slowly past me and sat on the next bench, took out a cigarette, and proceeded to blow clouds of smoke in my direction. Here was Babalú-Ayé responding to my prayer.

Two days later, when we arrived at Heron’s Head for the awán, a man appeared out of nowhere and asked my goddaughter for change. Recognizing the presence of Asojano, she pulled out two dollars and wished him luck. As we began the ceremony in the driving rain and wind, a couple appeared at the head of the trail, and as they came closer, it was clear that they were accompanied by two dogs walking by their sides.

It's no surprise that Babalú-Aýé gave us strong blessings at the end of the ceremony.

These little gestures were not the only messages from Babalú-Ayé over the weekend, but they were perhaps the ones that touched me most deeply. I never tire of them, and I never tire of the gratitude I feel.

(Thanks to Artemis for the great image.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Soyaya Revisted

I have written before about the road of Babalú-Ayé called Soyaya, who is strongly associated with Olocun, the oricha of the bottom of the sea. While these two share deep mysteries and untold wealth, I have wondered about their connection, and this week I think I understand it a bit better.

Being in San Francisco for the Earth Medicine Alliance Conference, I decided to spend some time at UC Berkeley exploring the papers of the anthropologist William Bascom, who spent the summer of 1948 researching Africanisms in Jovellanos, Matanzas Province. He spent days discussing Lucumí and Arará traditions with the famous Esteban Baró, an African-born child of Ochumaré, the oricha of the rainbow, who is also known as Dan or Güeró. At some point, their conversation turned to Olocun, and Baró explained laconically, "Olocun is the Earth of the sea, oldest of all the orichas."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Working Babalú-Ayé

As I prepared to travel to San Francisco to teach people about Babalú-Ayé and lead a public awán, I had an interesting little dream: I was sprinkling fresh, green leaves on top of Babalú. Simple enough till you starting thinking through the associations and implications.

First, I should say this sort of thing actually happens. At the end of the awán, someone leaves the ritual (no pun intended) and carries the basket and the sack cloth bundle to the forest. After depositing the bundle with the offering, she gathers fresh, green leaves in the basket, and upon returning to the house, these are sprinkled on top of Babalú’s vessel. I was taught that this was to cool Babalú, who is sometimes called Ilé Gbona (The Hot Earth) by the Yoruba. It is not that Babalú is angry at the end of the awán, just that he is hot by nature. The whole exchange removes heat and negativity, only to replace it with freshness, coolness.

Most elders know specific ceremonies to cool other orichas, usually when they are angry. These ceremonies usually require a person to make a series of simple but specific offerings of foods favored by the oricha in question, and the ceremonies usually last for the number of days associated with the oricha. For example, Ochún is fed her favorite foods for five days, while Yemayá is fed for seven. Interestingly, I have never heard anyone explain or prescribe this kind of ceremony for Babalú, though it is possible to imagine giving him his favorite foods over seven, eleven, thirteen, or even seventeen days.

At a personal level, these ceremonies do change the disposition of the oricha to the individuals involved—people in the religion rely on that fact. Perhaps they only operate at this personal level, helping the individuals who make the offerings and providing them with access to the benevolence and blessings of the oricha.

Or perhaps they change the attitude of the oricha in more general terms. When much of Havana flooded in the mid-nineties, many olorichas there said it was because people had neglected to worship Olocun, the sometimes volatile owner of the bottom of the sea. Considered at a personal level, Olocun is seen punishing people for their lack of devotion. However, if we consider Olocun as a force of nature, this implies that our worship of the orichas plays a role in maintaining—or at least influencing—the dynamic balance of the natural world itself.

And so I go to San Francisco to lead a small group in publicly honoring Babalú-Ayé. We will do the awán and we will sprinkle levels on his vessel to refresh him. May he take mercy on us. Baba fiyedenu. May he heal all present. May he go easy on us. Babá pele pele.

And may we also cool the Hot Earth. May he also find solace in our devotion. May we ease his suffering, if only just a little.