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