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.)


  1. This blog has become such a valuable resource for deepening my understanding of this complex orisha. Thanks again.

  2. Thank you for continuing to serve Babalu-Aye in this way; I continue to learn a great deal from your ministry about a great mystery.

    A few questions as a reader:

    I don't understand this statement: "At the same time, he is widely included as a vodou or orisha (Mason 2009)." Do you mean to say vodou loa? Because I don't quite understand what "a vodou" is on its own.

    Earlier in that paragraph, you state that Babalu-Aye is associated with the dead because of his connections with the ancestors. Do you discuss this connection elsewhere in the article (I can't recall)? If not, I find myself wanting more information to support that statement--how is he associated with ancestors across the Atlantic? Is his connection to the dead limited to those who died in the Atlantic?

    Finally, though this may not be appropriate Wikipedia material, what about Babalu-Aye's movement from afflicted wanderer to king of a new land? It seems to this novice that Babalu-Aye says something thematic about authority and personal evolution.

  3. Thanks for the useful questions. I have edited the post to make clearer the relationship between Babalú, the Earth, and the ancestors buried there. Similarly, I have added another theme: As you rightly pointed out, the theme of death and resurrection is perhaps the most important aspect of Babalú worship on this side of the Atlantic.

    The more personal observations about Babalú-Ayé's exile and coming into his own authority are quite to the point, I think. I believe this archetypal pattern of transcendce, with its affliction, introversion, and coming into one's own authority, is particularly evident here. It is no accident that Babalú comes into his own when he sits upon a stone and suddenly has access to knowledge of a different kind. (There is short post about this moment some where on this blog.)

  4. Found it:

  5. I like the thematic approach, it puts a lot out there concisely. A few thoughts:

    1) More sources would strengthen the presentation. Even if several are just pointers back to the work you are doing here, it seems like each theme should have at least one source backing it up.

    2) Why no mention of the earth and exile? Those seem like two of the most pervasive topics you have discussed (rites done on different kinds of earth, the taboo of water, the movement over the earth as he is driven out of and into different regions, the close association of the earth's fertility and Babalu aye's diseases, etc.).

    3) I can't pick it out quite yet, but some of these thematic distinctions seem to overlap a little too much, like there may be some more fundamental patterns at work. Like:

    -Permeability and materiality: The ways material things interpenetrate being the basis for permeability, that permeability also being the basis for the sense of limitation Babalu aye brings.

    -'Transcendance' and 'movement' seem intimately related in the way you describe them. You describe that transcendence as a function of him having traveled from place to place, being a part of it all but exceeding them all.

    Which suggests, too, that his capacity to break up stagnation is, in part, rooted in having knowledge from 'outside' (both that of the bush and that of the foreigner).