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.