Thursday, December 30, 2010

Themes in the Worship of Babalú Revisited

Yesterday I could not access Blogger so I posted this first on Wikipedia. Thanks to those of you who provided feedback on the first draft--you definitely helped me improve it.

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


Earth: Babalú-Ayé’s worship is frequently linked to the Earth itself both in Africa and the Americas, and even his name identifies him with the Earth itself (McKenzie 1997:417). However, he also said to provide his followers with other material blessings as well. Taken as symbol of a large set of concerns, Babalú’s link with the Earth can be understood as an emphasis on the centrality of the material in human life.

Illness and Suffering: Long referred to as the “god of smallpox,” Babalú certainly links back to disease in the body and the changes it brings (Wenger 1983:168). 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.

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. These holes are often explicitly compared to sores that pock the orisha’s skin (Brown 2003:263). 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.

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.

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. Similarly he is often referred to as punishing the offense of human beings (Idowu 1962:97).

Exile and Movement: 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. But through this movement through different spaces, 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 domains, often separated in other contexts, and thus asserts a near universal authority.

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 (Idowu 1962:99; Mason 2010).

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To see the refererences, you will need to click on the Wikipedia link above.

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

Monday, December 27, 2010

Babalú-Ayé and the Santo Parado

The elders say that Babalú-Ayé can possess anyone, because he is compared to an ancestor, and anyone can get possessed by an ancestor. Similarly, they say it is because all human beings are subject to illness. So it is no surprise that many people seem to pass Babalú-Ayé or ancestral spirits who serve him.

In fact, in Matanzas City, Chino Pérez is widely known as a horse of Babalú-Ayé, even though he is the keeper of the house of Ferminita Gómez, the home of one of the original Olocuns in Cuba. While he has received Babá’s fundamento, when last I visited him, he had not undergone the full initiation known as the asiento, nor was he inclined to. It seemed unnecessary as Babalú-Ayé came and went quite fluidly in possession, and he frequently did miraculous things when he did appear. In fact, when Saúl Fernández—Babá Ni Beleké made Lucumí Babalú-Ayé direct in Havana in the late 1990s, he called upon El Chino to create the secret that went inside. Justly or not, many people in Arará houses use this fact to disparage that initiation.

There is a long tradition in places outside of Havana of what people refer to as santo parado. Those people with santo parado usually get possessed quite easily, and the orichas who mount them give good, reliable information to the people they encounter—and often do reliable work as well. However, these individuals have not undergone any formal ceremony. This tradition contrasts sharply the asiento, so essential to modern practice in Havana. This tradition was reported to David Brown by Oswaldo García Villamil (Santería Enthroned, p. 142) as the oldest form of oricha worship in Matanzas. William Bascom found similar attitudes in 1948 in Jovellanos, where many people were mounted by orichas, but only about 40 had undergone the full initiation ceremony. Like El Chino, many in Jovellanos considered the asiento to be an unnecessary expense and entanglement (Bascom Papers, Bancroft Library, UCLA, Carton 26, Folder 3, p. 301). The well-documented reality of santo parado provides another example of the diversity of practices in the worship of the orichas.

The idea of santo parado is intriguing. García describes it as having the oricha “by your side,” but the word parado has a wide range of meanings. It also implies having the oricha “standing up,” an expression that is also used to describe a man’s sex organ at important moments. Oddly, it can also imply being “stopped,” "stunned," or “standing on end.” I particularly like this last one as it compares the oricha to your hair after a shower: it’s a little crazy because it´s still in process.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Iris Hernández-Salazar, Missionary of San Lázaro


Almost every time I have visited the Church of San Lázaro in Rincón around his feast day, I have encountered the same thin, reserved woman. After greeting her many times and leaving alms on her humble altar in front of the church, I finally sat down next to her and struck up a conversation.

Iris Hernández-Salazar has been a devotee of San Lázaro since she became seriously ill at age seven. Her mother had made ocha while pregnant with Iris, so there was always a special bond between Iris and the orichas. When she became ill, her father made a promise to San Lázaro: if the Old Man would cure Iris, her father would acquire a statue of the saint and place in the family’s living room in Rincón. Well, it worked, and Iris grew up with the statue in the house. “I speak to him as if he were a person. He gives me much peace, tranquility, and much love. He even responds to me. I feel him within me. But I have never made another promise. San Lázaro is very great.”

In a tradition of incredibly detailed traditions passed from generation to generation, there is also space for this sort of immediate, unmediated relationship with Babalú-Ayé. Though Iris was broken as child, San Lázaro made her whole again, and she has remained devoted ever since.  And in December, I am sure it also helps pay the bills.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Feast of Babalú-Ayé in the House of Armando Zulueta, December 17th


I am not sure that they have celebrated the Feast of Babalú-Ayé in this way since Armando Zulueta—Omí Toké joined the ancestors in 1990, but I have heard the descriptions again and again with little variation. The ceremony started on December 16th in the house of Octavia Zulueta—Jundesi with an Arará drumming. No one told me whose drums they were or who played. Perhaps they were from the next block over at the Sociedad Africana de Santa Bárbara. Perhaps they came from the Fernández house in Agromonte, though I did not see drums there. Perhaps they came from Jovellanos or Matanzas City. When orichas or fodunces, as the Arará sometimes call the deities, came down, they would leave Octavia’s house near the cemetery and walk to Armando’s, where they would salute his Babalú-Ayé.

After midnight, once it was in fact December 17th, the whole ceremony would move too. At Armando´s, they did the awán for Babalú-Ayé and then fed Afrá, Nanú, and the Old Man on the back patio, just outside the little house where the secret resides. After eating, the orichas would rest inside with the secret. Then they would start a Lucumí batá drumming that usually lasted till dawn.

By the time I first saw this ceremony in 2001, Armando´s niece and goddaughter Aurora Zulueta—Omí Saidé was in charge, though gravely ill. Money was very tight, and I spent much of the day searching for an appropriate pig for Nanú and black goat for Babalú. That evening, as we prepared for the awán and the feeding, there was a drumming in another house down the block, and various orichas who had come down at the drumming arrived at the house to salute Armando’s fundamento and clean Aurora. Later we placed Armando’s orichas in the open space in front of the secret. After we fed Afrá and Nanú, Babalú was given toasted corn, white wine, honey, and ekó, the corn tamales used throughout the religion. While he feasted on his goat, roosters, and guinea hens, someone caught some of the blood in a gourd with white wine and rum. This mixture was then poured lovingly over the secret. At the end of the sacrifice, the fundamentos all went inside to rest with the secret.

(Unfortunately the one time I had the temerity to ask to photograph Armando’s altar, the photos came out very strange.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Preparing for the Feast of Babalú-Ayé

Last year I focused on the more public aspects of Cuban veneration for Babalú-Ayé at this time of year, writing about the spectacular festival celebrated at Rincón, but this year I want to draw attention to the more localized, more particular manifestations of that devotion.

At the house of Armando Zulueta--Omí Toké, they are already preparing. They are planning a trip to the cemetery to cool the graves of Armando and his godmother Octavia--Jundesi. They are organzing the Lucumí and Arará drummers they need to play at the house. They are certainly worrying about how they will feed the hundred or more people who will enter the house. They are looking for an old goat to give to the Old Man and they are looking for a large pig to give to Nanú. They are buying dry white wine and rum, and they are toasting dried corn.

The money they have in hand determines much of what is possible, but they do continue honor Babalú-Ayé with an elaborate set of ceremonies.

Later this week, I will describe these ceremonies in detail.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Secrets Revisted: Aizan as a model for the Secret of San Lázaro

The hidden and fundamentally mysterious nature of Babalú-Ayé is nowhere more obvious for me than at the secret of San Lázaro, planted in the house of Armando Zulueta--Omí Toké by his teacher Octavia Zulueta--Jundesi. While I have participated in the worship of the secret and Armando's people do engage it every year as part of their annual festival for Babalú-Ayé, there is little understanding of its particular use or the specific conditions that led Jundesi to mount it.

As I recently reread Herskovits's book on Dahomey, I came across his compelling discussion of the diversity of perspectives in the religious life there. He takes as one example a spirit called aizan. Some people say it is a vodou and some say it is not, but everyone seems to agree on a few ideas:
  • This translates as "mat of the earth." 
  • There are aizan for compounds, villages, lineages, markets, and vodou temples.
  • The aizan are treated like any other spirit, beseeched for support and rewarded for blessings.
The discussion continues with a man who himself "established" aizan, and his description for how to establish one of these shrines is remarkably similar to the directions for consecrating a kiti in Cuban tratados. Finally, he says the aizan for vodou temple is always honored before the vodou itself, because it represents all the ancestors who served the vodou while living (Herkovits, Dahomey, Vol. 2, p. 302). This echoes the understanding that Harvard art historian Suzanne Blier: Aizan is a vodou of markets, places, and ancestry (Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, p. 62).

Perhaps as Jundesi prepared to join the ancestors, she remembered this tradition from her Dajomé and consecrated an aizan to make sure that she and others tied to Asojano would always be honored as part of the annual ceremonies at Armando's house.