Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ogbe-Yono: Where Omolú Rode a Goat and its Relationship with Ochún

Elders often stress the centrality of the odu Ogbe-Yono when they discuss Babalú. The sign is called Eyeunle-Ogundá by the babalochas. Here is a classic story from the sign:

In his travels toward the land of Dahomey, Omolú traveled with his guide Ogbe-Yono, and they took their own sweet time in arriving, slowing traversing the long, rough road. When they arrived at the town of Shaki, they encountered its queen, a woman named Ottanagoso. She had many large, bearded goats that were strong enough to ride in those parts. When she saw how tired they were, she offered a goat to Ogbe-Yono, so they could continue their trip, and she gave him a special insignia so that wherever they arrived, her servants would offer him gifts and fresh goat. The insignia was beads and beautiful stones from her kingdom in the form of a necklace that people would identify as the mark of the Queen of Shaki.

It took five days for Ogbe-Yono and Omolú to travel from Shaki to Saya, and each day they passed a new outpost. In each one, they showed Queen Ottanagoso’s insignia and received beautiful gifts of fruits and shells. From then on, the power and fame of Omolú grew, until he was crowned in Dahomey and given the title Asojano.

So in the purifying ceremony for Asojano called the awán, the beneficiary of the ceremony mounts a goat. Together they travel around a basket five times in memory of the five days that Ogbe-Yono and Asojano spent making the trip from Shaki to Saya.

I first heard this story from Pedro Abreu—Asoyanye when I attended my first awán in his house, but he always stresses that it was Ochún who gave Omolú the goat on which he traveled to Dahomey to become king. Abreu uses this story to justify the ritual action of mounting the goat and to explain the strong loyalties that often tie Omolú’s children and Ochún´s children. I have heard of some priests who understand that they must move to a foreign land to prosper, just as Omolú moved to the land of the Dahomey to become king.

It is interesting to note that Ogbe-Yono is also the birthplace of crutches, a common symbol of Omolú and where a person was initiated to Ochún for the first time.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Another Story about Ochún and Babalú-Ayé

The first time I ever got a reading in the religion, it was with Santiago Pedroso-Cálves, an Obatalá priest and orí-até who worked out of Philadelphia in the 1970s and 1980s. He told me a story about Ochún and Babalú-Ayé that I have never heard anywhere else.

Babalú-Ayé was sick and covered with open sores from smallpox. When he arrived in the land of the Arará, he arrived at the bank of a river, the sacred realm of Ochún. He wrapped himself in a special cloth and entered into the water. He came out and he sat by the bank until he was dry. When he unwrapped himself, his sores were gone. Pleased with this new development, Babalú rested in this place.

(At this point in the narrative, Santiago pointed to his Babalú-Ayé and said it was the same kind of cloth hanging over it--a square of sack cloth with a thick edging of purple cloth and four cowries in the middle, sewn in the shape of a cross.)

After a few days, a child appeared covered in same sores that had plagued Babalú. He explained that the town nearby was suffering from a terrible outbreak of smallpox. Crying out in pain, the child asked if Babalú could help him. Babá wrapped him in the same cloth and told him to bathe in the river. Then he sent the child home to his parents with instructions to unwrap himself in the morning.

When he arrived home, the child told his parents what had happened. In the morning, when they removed the cloth, he was cured. Together they went to find Babalú, and as they walked through town to the river, their friends and neighbors saw the healthy child and began to dance in celebration. By the time they found Babalú, the whole town was following the boy and his parents. They asked Babalú to heal them all, and when he had finished, they asked him to be their king.

As I said, I have never heard this specific story anywhere else, but like the other story, it shows a very intimate relationship between Ochún and Babalú--after all, he enters her. Here Babalú wanders into this other kingdom of his own accord, and led by his own wisdom, he is healed by the cleansing waters of Ochún.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ochún Transformed Olofi to Be with Babalú-Ayé

Just as we begin in one place but often end up somewhere very different, so it is with the orichas and even Olofi, another name santeros give to Olodumare, the Supreme God. In the odu Ofun-Ocana, the elders tell another tale of the death and resurrection of Babalú-Ayé. It has some similarities to the one where Obatalá told him to keep to himself, but it also has a lot to say about promiscuity and the movement of the orichas.

Olofi gave Babalú-Ayé the aché to sleep with any woman he desired. One day, Orunmila approached Babalú-Ayé and said, “As you know, today is a holy day, and Olofi would like you to control yourself.”

But Babalú-Ayé answered, “If Olofi gave me the aché, it was so I could make use of it as often as I like.”

“Do what you like,” answered Orunmila before leaving. On Thursday evening, Babalú-Ayé went to bed with a woman, and the next day his whole body was covered in sores. In a few days he died as a consequence of the syphilis that Olofi had sent as a punishment. But the women on Earth could not accept such a loss. Even Ochún, the oricha of rivers, sensuality, and love, delighted in the embrace of Babalú-Ayé. Ochún and all the other women pleaded before Olofi, asking him to restore the life of Oluó Popó, another praise name for Babalú. Olofi refused to be indulgent, denying the petition made by the women.

So the women went to Orunmila and asked him to set a trap for Olofi. He agreed and spread sorcery throughout Olofi’s palace. It was based on honey, the aché of Ochún. Having spread it everywhere, Orunmila sat down to wait, but he didn´t have to wait long because Olofi felt possessed by strange and pleasing sensations. Olofi called his secretary and said, “Who has covered my house with this pleasing honey?”

To this, Orunmila responded, “I don’t know,” but Olofi insisted saying, “I want you to get me more of that pleasing honey.” But Orunmila did not answer him, intending to intrigue him even more. So Olofi, almost desperate said, “Who can get more for me?” Orunmila responded, “A woman.”

Olofi called for all women to come together and when they had gathered, he asked, “Which of you has covered my house with this pleasing honey?” and they all responded, “Not me.” Olofi looked carefully at them, and he noticed the absence of Ochún. So he said, “Bring Ochún to me immediately.”

When she appeared, Olofi asked her the same question, and Ochún responded, “That is my oñí, my honey.”

“I want you to get me more,” said Olofi.

“More?” asked Ochún. “You had the power to take the life of Babalú-Ayé, and I have the power to get more honey. If you have the power to take life, you must also be able to restore it. If you want my honey, you must bring Babalú-Ayé back to life." To this Olofi responded, “Deal.” Ochún produced more honey and smeared it on Olofi’s lips. Again he was possessed by strange and pleasing sensations. When Ochún kissed him, they intensified. Because Olofi had not previously known the pleasures of the body, when Ochún made love to him, he was never the same again.

After Olofi brought Babalú-Ayé back to life, Ochún immediately went to him. And in this way Babalú-Ayé returned to the world to enjoy the same privilege he had before.

In this remarkable story, Babalú-Ayé does not respect the limits that are set for him and steps beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable. Olofi punishes him with sickness and then death. But Ochún loves—or at least desires—him so much, that she goes to heaven and drives Olofi crazy with passion. Then she makes love to him, introducing him to the pleasures of the body and expanding his experience of the universe. She does all this so she can be with Babalú again.

(Photo (c) Robert Crandall)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Imitation of Babalú-Ayé: The Traveling Self

Key to understanding Babalú-Ayé is the fact that he moves: he moves out of the land of the Lucumí and into the wilderness. He moves out of the wilderness and into the land of the Arará. He becomes king of a foreign land. More simply, he moves from well-being to destitution and back to well-being.

In addition to moving physically from place to place, he moves people´s emotions with his suffering. It is impressive, unforgettable even, to see people imitating him in the caminata, as they drag themselves along the pavement. The sound alone sticks with you, but their bloody hands and knees remind you of the pain you have lived through. In Spanish, the verb conmover captures both this shared moving and being moved.

Even in the ceremonies that the now-dead elders taught to the living, Babalú-Ayé moves. In many houses, he travels to the ceiba tree and then again to the cemetery, eating at each stop. He then travels to the family shrine for the dead--the egun--and again shares a meal with them. From there he travels into the sacred room, where the principal ceremony takes place and sits on a simple altar. Even his signature cleaning ceremony, the awán, includes movement in most houses: he often leaves the altar and sits on top of a large basket filled with grains and bits of food that have been used to clean people spiritually. For this bit of the ceremony, Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye sings:

Aforo foro Asojano aforo foro yawe.

Some lineages even reenact his travels through five different lands before he arrived at the land of the Arará.

All journeys, including pilgrimages, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And in this way, they resemble narratives of all kinds.

If we take the image of movement as somehow essential both to Babalú-Ayé and those of us who follow him, we come to something deeply restless and motile within ourselves, what the French existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel called “metaphysical uneasiness,” a drive for something which might be called true or authentic. As human beings give into—or even embrace—our uneasiness, we move toward something truer. Like Babalú, as we move, we encounter our own limitations and imperfections. Moving with our own wounds, we limp along till we cannot move any further. Stripped of everything, perhaps even humiliated, still raw, we find new energy to face to a new occasion. We rise again. This new strength grows from the whole experience. It encompasses both a realistic appreciation of our imperfections and our ability to move forward. It stems from our recognition of ourselves as travelers in this life. We begin in one place but often end up somewhere very different than we expected.

As Gabriel Marcel said, “Perhaps a stable order can only be established if man [sic] is acutely aware of his condition as a traveler, that is to say, if he perpetually reminds himself that he is required to cut himself a dangerous path across the unsteady blocks of a universe which has collapsed and seems to be crumbling in every direction.”

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Nanú Reveals a Secret

Lázaro de la Caridad Zulueta Soa had just recieved the final installment of the derecho, and Concepción was going to undergo the initiatation for Babalú-Ayé and his mysterious mother, Nanú.

A few days later, Lázaro had a dream: Standing before the altar for the Earth Dieties, he was packing the underside of the lid of Nanú's container with "carga"--the herbs, oils, earth from various places, and other natural objects. He sealed the ingredients in place with molten beeswax. Then he turned over and placed it on top of Nanú's pot, a secret source of aché no one would see.

After the dream, Lázaro went before Nanú and asked her if he should pack the lid of Concepción's Nanú with carga, imitating what she had showed him in the dream. Naturally he would follow her advice.
(Photo (c) 2007 David Brown/

Friday, January 1, 2010

Revelation from the Earth Deities

When I was a young priest, I was preparing to give Olocun, the mysterious oricha of the bottom of the sea, to one of my godchildren. We had the vessel, the tools, the shells, and the beaded necklace. As we waited for the date of the ceremony to arrive, he dreamed that he was wearing a bracelet for Olocun on his left wrist. It was like the multistranded idé that priests get when they are initiated but it had only one strand of blue and clear beads. I was a young priest, so I asked my teacher, Ernesto Pichardo, how to deal with this dream. He explained to me that the Earth Deities often communicate through dreams; furthermore, they often suggest more variations in their ceremonies than other orichas. His advice was to divine with Elegguá’s shells to see if the dream really was a revelation that should be followed. I no longer remember what sign came out, but when I divined for the addition of this bracelet it was approved by Elegguá. So we made the bracelet and when the ceremony came, we washed it and fed it with the eleke. My godson still wears it.

Now in a tradition where some people claim that we should always do ceremonies in the same way that they were done for us, this raises some questions. Certainly no one would say that every aspect of a ceremony is open to this kind of revision. In fact, the addition of a simple adornment is a relatively minor change. But how do tradition and revelation interact? Was this revelation meant for my godson’s ceremony and no other? Or should he institutionalize this change and give the bracelet each time he gives Olocun? Or should this become some kind of optional element that requires divination each time he gives Olocun?

This situation also points to the hierarchy of revelation. Dreams often serve as a vehicle for revelation, showing people specific dynamics at play in the spiritual world that oricha people call orun. However, people also recognize that dreams are not always a perfect reflection of the spiritual as they can be clouded by emotion or desire. So the simple solution is to use cowry shells or Ifá divination to verify revelations from dreams.

Some people say that this practice reflects the hierarchy of the spiritual world. They say that dreams come from the ancestors, some of whom are evolved and some of whom are not. So dream revelations must be checked with the orichas, who are by definition more evolved.

All this begs the question of what to do with a dream revelation about an oricha who could not be considered an Earth deity. Would Obatalá never communicate via a dream or is it just much less common? While many houses agree that all orichas communicate through dreams, it seems to be the special purview of the Earth Deities.