Thursday, December 29, 2011

How the Forest Spirits Gave People Their Gods




When working in Dahomey, Herskovits recorded a very interesting story:
When people came into the world, they had no medicine. No one knew that leaves could cure. When people fell ill, there was no knowledge of what to do to cure them.
Now there were hunters in those days who went into the deep, deep bush. One day a hunter came upon a mound of Earth in the bush. When he was about to pass it, a voice spoke from inside it. The hunter’s wife was a leper, and the voice said, “Hunter, I will show you a medicine to cure your wife. When you give it to her, she will become well again.” Then the voice said, “Turn your back to me and wait.” It was Azizan, the Forest Spirit, who was in the mound, and as the hunter’s back was turned, Azizan put the leaves beside him. When Hunter looked again, he saw the leaves. The voice said, “Take these leaves, crush them, and mix them with water. Then give some of this to your wife to drink, and use the rest to wash her sores.”
When the hunter came home, he did what Azizan told him to do, and his wife was cured.
Now Azizan had also told him, “When someone in your village is sick, come and tell me, and I will give you a cure.” So the hunter showed the way to all who were sick, and these came to the mound of Earth and told their troubles, and to each of them Azizan gave a medicine and explained its use. Those who followed Azizan’s instructions were cured.
One day a hunter brought a sick stranger to Azizan, and this stranger went to the king of his country and told him that there was a kingdom where the sick only needed to tell of their ailments before a mound of Earth, and they were cured.
The king said, “I will go there myself. I want to see.” So the king went to the bush where the mound of Earth was, and took with him a goat, a bottle of rum, and some palm oil. He killed the goat on the mound of Earth, and said, “In my country we have no vodun. I want to take you to my country to be a vodun. If someone in my kingdom is ill, I will send him to you for medicine.” And Azizan gave him magic and told him what vodun were to be worshipped so that his country might prosper. Azizan gave to this king various deities including Sagbata (Babalú) and told him to build a house for each of them. Azizan also said that if people wished to have any of these vodun, they had only to come for some dirt from this mound.
So the vodun and the magic that is in the world were all given to people by Azizan. (See Dahomean Narrative, pp. 217-218, and Dahomey, Vol. ii, pp. 261-262.)
This story raises intriguing links and interesting questions. I do think it is interesting that the hunter only finds the wisdom that heals in the “deep, deep bush.”  This reminds me of what the famous babalawo Hermes Valera—Otura-Sá told David Brown about the religion requiring us to go “monte adentro”—deep into the forest—to find the ingredients and wisdom we need to survive. (See The Garden in the Machine.)
Could it be that Nana Burukú in Dassa-Zoumé is a particularly primeval and powerful form of Azizan? Could the covered earth-mound on the mountain be the place from which all other vodun emerged? That would help explain Nana Burukú as the creator.
At the same time, this story seems to be very much related to Babalú-Ayé. The hunter’s wife has leprosy, the most illness most strongly associated with Babalú wherever he is found. The fact that the hunter encounters Azizan at a mound of Earth is fascinating. Here, the small forest spirits speak out at an Earth mound with a single voice that carries healing wisdom. In the story about the origin of the kiti from Oyekún-Ojuani, the wise voice of Elegba speaks to Babalú himself at a mound of Earth, where he can call and feed these spirits in secret.  Incidentally, I just found that in Dahomey, Kiti was described with Azizan as two of several classes of spirits “partly human, partly supernatural who live in the forest” (Dahomey, Vol. II, p. 260).
These small “forest people” have an interesting role in the West African-inspired world where it is localized. Johnson describes the ijimere in Yoruba communities, and in Cuba the odu Irete Meyi is still sometimes called by the nickname Elemere because of its link to these forest spirits. Bascom documented similar spirits called iwin, and in fact, some of his people suggested that the iwin will teach secrets (medicine?)  to hunters and tell them the future (Bascom Papers Carton 27, Folder 39). Other people told him that the iwin work with Osain and Babalú-Ayé specifically (Carton 30, Folder 6), and still others said that Babalú-Ayé is actually one of these spirits, who appear to a person when ill (Carton 27, Folder 37). These notions also bring to mind the ebó in Irete-Iwori where the person has to feed sixteen different places in the natural world to engage the spirits living in those places, all the while praise Babalú-Ayé-Dasoyi.  They also call to mind the sixteen positions that are fed in preparation for the New Year. While these forest spirits are no longer central to our practice in Cuban-inspired traditions, they continue to exert their influence and call out for praise.

The Work of Pilgrimage III


I continue to reflect on differing aspects of pilgrimage in the Yoruba and Dahomean worlds. The grounded elder Susanne Wenger in her book A Life with the Gods in their Yoruba Homeland writes about a wandering sort of pilgrimage:
If the god wishes it, a Shoponno priest goes from town to town as a mendicant, the living recipient of ritual gifts (formerly copper coins) which are means of atonement for the giver. He dresses in a short camwood-red smock, his hair finely plaited. On his frock, cowry shells and little bells are sewn as a warning of a dangerous god’s arrival. As he proceeds on his way, reciting the praise songs of Obalúayé and all the cult [sic] subsections, broom--straws are thrown at him together with the coins. In picking them up, he adds prayers on behalf of the donor to his recitations. The blossoming broom-shrub is his alter ego, but can be impersonated by the the broom of palmleaf stalks [known in Cuba as the ]… The mendicant uses the donated coins for a ceremony for the god; the broom-stalks he would bind together to sweep his shrine praising the god on behalf of the donors (pp. 173-175).
While Wenger is describing how people worship Babalú-Ayé in Nigeria in the 1980s, the African-inspired traditions in Cuba certainly still see him as a mendicant. This wandering somehow seems both related to and different from pilgrimage in its usual sense. The priest—and the god he is imitating—is not moving from a home place toward a specific destination thought to be the residence of some special manifestation of the divine, as is usually the case with pilgrimages. Rather he wanders from place to place, receives offerings, makes prayers, and gathers up his ritual broom. His place of departure and his destination are the same: his home shrine, where again he prays for everyone who has donated to his ceremony and his broom. With these prayers he sweeps out negativity of all kinds.
The overwhelming social aspect of this ritual wandering is intriguing. The priest encounters people in different towns, reminding them of the god and providing an easy opportunity to engage with him. While this pattern reminds me of the missionaries of San Lázaro in Cuba, it also recalls the story from Ojuani Meji where Babalú-Ayé, covered with sores, wanders from place to place. The random people he meets greet him only by throwing water on him and saying “Nlo burukú!” (evil be gone). Again, Babalú-Ayé embodies the unwanted reality of sickness and carries away the negativity for everyone he encounters.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Work of Pilgrimage Revisited



There are many small ceremonies in Oricha religion that could be thought of pilgrimages, where we travel out onto the land to connect with the divine, making an offering to a specific oricha. As part of giving Babalú-Ayé, many lineages carry Babá to a ceiba tree, a cemetery, and finally the egun altar in the home, giving him white wine, cigar smoke, toasted corn and other offerings at each stop.  Similarly, some lineages feed Nana Burukú at a spring or a place of stagnant water before giving her to a new devotee.  And, of course, the initiation of a new priestess always requires a trip out to feed the river with her favorite foods.  When someone is consecrated to one of the Warriors, there are extra ceremonies to feed them in the forest, offerings that cool them before they arrive in the house for the principal ceremony.


People usually gloss these trips into the natural world as preparatory ebós, little ceremonies that must happen before the “main” ceremony takes place. As Ernesto Pichardo recently said to me, “They are part of the alchemy of what we do when we give birth to a new oricha.” Still, each of these ceremonies requires that we travel out of our houses and find the oricha in a natural state to start the process. In this way, each of these ceremonies can be considered a kind of understated pilgrimage to connect with or engage the oricha.

This week in Havana (and Miami too, at least), small teams of babalawos are making these trips into the natural world to feed the “positions” before they gather to open the New Year on January 1. They feed the sea, the river, and many other positions, and after making the offering at each position, they divine to be certain that the ebó is accepted. They report back to the babalawos who coordinate the whole ceremony. Only once each position is fed they are ready to prepare for the New Year with other ceremonies on the 31st. Only after all this is completed do they take the odu for the New Year early on the 1st.  After reaching out to the whole natural world, they can mark the road for the coming year.

The ancestors have told us that Changó taught the 16 positions in Iroso Meyi, and the opening of the year comes from the odu Obara-Odí. As with most things, we know from the ceremonies that these two things are related, but exactly how and why remains elusive. The wise ancestors arranged them into the ceremonies we use today to make the most of the roads we travel.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Work of Pilgrimage

So today I am reflecting on pilgrimage. Partly I am trying to honor the major spiritual work of the festival of Babalú and the thousands of people who made the journey to Rincón last weekend. Partly I am trying to prepare myself, because this summer I hope to walk the Road of Santiago with my thirteen-year-old.
Moving toward the divine is a very old practice. The ancestors name its origin in the divination sign Ofún-Ojuani, and they taught us the value of this kind of prayer. In old Dahomey, the ancestors held an annual pilgrimage to Dassa-Zoumé. The ancestors said this was where Nana Burukú lived when she was on Earth, and each year those who worshiped her children Mawu-Lisa, the Obatalá-like sky deities, carried offerings to her special shrine there. Similarly, new initiates to Mawu-Lisa made a trip to Dassa to worship Nana Burukú. When they arrived, everything was provided for them. However, only the greatest and most powerful priests of Nana Burukú entered the temple because it was said that once a person entered the sacred precinct, he or she “learns how to speak a hundred languages at once” (Herskovits in Dahomey, Vol. II, pp.  102-103). While we don’t know much about how Nana was honored, we do have a sense that it was an important part of the annual cycle of rituals that knit together Dahomey as a society.
Still, I do wish we had more records of what those pilgrims were experiencing. I do wish we knew more about their inner lives. Did they contemplate the stories that explained the origin of the pilgrimage? Were their heads filled with prayers for the people they left behind in their home towns? Did they hope to learn something about themselves in the process? Did they have some sense of this pilgrimage as a way to honor Nana Burukú as the Creator?  Were any of them disappointed that they could not enter or when they saw the face of the deity resided in a mound of Earth covered by a straw covering? Did any of them go crazy when they accessed this whole new kind of knowledge? I am not sure we will ever know, but it is possible to imagine rich stories in response to each of these questions.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Babalú-Ayé Hits NPR's On Being!

While we were calling and feeding Babalú-Ayé as part of his annual feast, the great NPR show On Being posted a nice piece on the public festival in Rincón, Cuba.

Check out the mainstreaming of the Father of the World here!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye, Son of Asojano-Afimaye



I first met Pedro Abreu in 2001. David Brown had been telling me about him for a few years at that point and when David introduced us, I immediately understood David’s fascination.

The first time we met, Abreu outlined his whole history in the religion. He was born in Los Sitios in Centro Havana. He had a prenda from the African-inspired Regla de Congo from a young age, but he had not really believed in religion. In 1975, he received Asojano-Afimaye in Havana from Matilde Sotomayor—Asoninque, the famous Asojano priestess who worked with Pilar Fresneda—Asonsíperaco. The famous Ñica Fernández—Onojome and Victor—Quemafo were also there.

On February 20, 1992, Abreu made Asojano-Afimaye at the Cabildo Arará Sabalú Nonjó in Matanzas City. It had been 36 years since anyone had made Asojano there, but his godmother María Isabel Reyes—Asonsímeneco did have Asojano made direct as tradition required. At itá he given the oricha name Asonyanye, after the famous Havana priest known as El Abuelo (even Abreu does not know his real name). When Asojano spoke through Ifá, as he does in this lineage, he came with the sign Ogunda-Iwori. Abreu immediately added that this sign includes the proverb “El árbol que se podre retoña” (the tree that is pruned sprouts back again).

While Abreu did not go on about the implications of the proverb, he did recount the slow dissipation of both the Havana lineage and the Sabalú Cabildo in Matanzas. In Havana, Pilar Fresneda’s cabildo had been in the hands of Ofelia de Pogolotti, an Ochún priestess who used information to continue to honor Asojano. In Matanzas, the famous Michaela Ruiz had left things in the hands of Mayito, whose son Oscarito was now in charge. But neither Mayito nor Oscarito were Asojano priests. Abreu also traced the other towns where Arará folks lived: Perico, Jovellanos, Máximo Gómez, and Agramonte. But as he put it, “Much has been lost there.”

In this gentle, almost indirect way, Abreu positioned himself as the reblossoming tree of the Arará worship of Asojano, and in fact, it’s true. To date he has initiated at least 29 people directly to Asojano and he has given Asojano to thousands more. Like Afimaye, Abreu's vitality and charisma have motivated many people to work together in ceremonies large and small.

(Thanks to David Brown for the great portrait of Pedro.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Afimaye

Dasoyí, the father of all the Babalús, is the most common road of this oricha today, but the next most popular is Afimaye.  His white beads with blue stripes are perhaps the most commonly used for Babalú-Ayé . This path of the oricha is said to be the youngest of the Asojanos, and some say he lives in a pumpkin plant and works as a lawyer. Some say he also comes to find the initiates to Arará deities at the hour of their passing.
Afimaye’s youth evokes a physical strength and vitality for which he is renowned. When worshipped, he is famous for reinvigorating his devotees.  In the house of Magdalena Fernández in Havana, I once participated in giving Afimaye to an 84 year-old woman. At the beginning of the ceremony, she sat speechless and inert, slumped over in a chair watching the ritual.  After she was cleaned, Afimaye ate and then mounted her. After contorting for a few minutes, she rose and danced with great power for half an hour. Later she was a different woman, and the transformation was unforgettable.
Both the pumpkin plant and the work as a lawyer point to his role as a mediator. The pumpkin plant is famous for being planted in one place, but through its long running vines giving fruit somewhere else. As the proverb in the divination sign Obara Meyi says, “The pumpkin in planted in your house but enjoyed in the neighbor’s yard.” Similarly, the lawyer mediates between individuals or between individuals and the powers that be.  While some people talk about Asojano as a vengeful judge of our actions, Afimaye seems to act as an advocate on our behalf, keeping sickness and other negativity away while drawing health and other blessing to us. I do wonder this: before what powers is he advocating? Is he arguing for us before Olodumare?
Many people speak of Asojano finding people at the hour of death. Elders often say that he pushes a cart with the cadaver to the entrance of the cemetery, where he hands it over to Oyá. In fact, at his festival in December, many people push carts with altars honoring him. In this case, Afimaye is strongly and specifically linked to Arará priests, a sort of special leader of this group at the time of death.
This last role fascinates me, because in Dahomey, Afimaye was the pantheon´s dokpwega, the village leader of the young men’s cooperative work group called the dokpwe.  As dokpwega, he is also responsible for the burial of every member of his village. The strong link to the ancestors cannot be ignored. Similarly, he had to approve moving any earth for creating a farm, building a wall, or opening a grave. Having absolute authority over the use of the earth in his village, he was strongly linked to the indigenous pre-conquest owners of the land. (You can read more about this in Herskovits’ Dahomey, Vol. 1, pp. 65-72.)
Having explored some of the implications of this road, I want to stress that all these roads originally emerged in a specific place and time. Roads and praise names for orichas in Yoruba communities reflect the specific taboos and behaviors of the oricha as they manifest in individual priests and priestesses. The vodu in Dahomey earned their  “strong names” through their deeds and accomplishments.  While the roads do become traditional with time, the orichas certainly cannot be limited by them.  
However, the roads do act as a kind of resource for their devotees, presenting traditional ideas and options to organize both altars and offerings.  A child of Dasoyí may place his cazuela on a wooden divination tray over four skulls, and he may also place a cane on the altar for this fatherly road of Asojano.  A priestess of Soyaya is likely to place a wooden bell on her altar and make offerings of his essential food, the yellow snapper. In the same way, many initiates borrow images from the stories of their oricha when describing their own lives. These are not accidental or aggrandizing, but rather a powerful way to connect the gods to everyday life. It is this intersection between the eternal substance of the orichas and the human scale of individual lives that interests me most about the religion, and in future posts I hope to address it more fully.

(Special thanks to Folkcuba.com for the image.)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ogbe-Yono Where Babalú-Ayé Gave the Awán to Olocun

Two weeks ago, I was in San Francisco to participate in the good work of the Second Earth Medicine Alliance conference. As we did last year, my goddaughter Phoenix Smith and I led a public ceremony focusing the oricha’s energy on healing the Earth. Last year we did an awán for Babalú, and this year Elegguá directed us to perform an awán for Olocun along the edge of San Francisco Bay. Phoenix found an amazing little park in West Oakland, right next to the port facilities, and just before the ceremony began, she learned that people refer to this area as one of the points of the toxic triangle in the Bay. The area where we worked last year is also one point of the triangle, and next year we plan to work the third point.

The ceremony was beautiful. We had about fifteen people turn out on a gorgeous day. We set up an altar right on the beach for egun, Elegguá, and Olocun. To honor the spirits of that place, we sat on the beach with the ancestors for an hour or so, sharing messages from the ancestors and cleaning people. Then we moved into the awán, where we cleaned everyone present and honored Olocun.

People always notice the similarity between the awán we do for Babalú-Ayé and the awán for Olocun, and there are other deep connections between these two mysterious deities. As I was flying out to San Francisco, I stumbled across this story from Ogbe-Yono that suggests that our movement from Babalú-Ayé to Olocun reflects a much deeper pattern.

Awó Ikokó was a child of Ogbe-Yono and lived in the land of Awó Bonu. He lived well because he was always feeding Olocun. He would carry cooked food in a large clay vessel and uncooked food in a basket, singing to Olocun. Then Olocun would come out of the sea and bless him. But in Awó Bonu, no one had been initiated for a long time, and no one had time for religion. Awó Ikokó was growing old and he tried to convince people that they needed to get serious.

The next day as he went to the sea to feed Olocun, Awó Ikokó encountered Molocun and told him, “I am going to initiate you so you can help keep this land prosperous after my death.” He began to prepare everything, and on his way to the market to buy certain things, he encountered Elegguá and Oluó Popó. They were both carrying two new clay vessels and an awán in a basket filled with every kind of bean. They prostrated before Awó Ikokó and said, “We were looking for you to give you what you need to consecrate Molocun. So Oluó Popó gave him the awán, saying “Place everything in here that you need.” Oluó Popó taught Awó Ikokó the whole ceremony. Elegguá told Awó Ikokó  how to use the two clay vessels to honor his own head and Molocun’s head, and told him to place those in the awán as well.

So everything was ready for Molocun’s initiation, and they took the awán out. When Molocun was in the initiation room, Ogbe-Yono came out, and Elegba told him to maintain the tradition of the awán so that everything would go well.

Then many, many people began to come to Awó Bonu so that Awó Ikokó and Molocun could initiate them. Olocun was very pleased and sent a great deal of wealth to them so they would always live well. The people of Awó Bonu noticed this change and began to pay more attention to serving the orichas.

Babalú-Ayé is very active in this odu, and it seems Babalú-Ayé has taken pity on the people in the Bay Area and is trying to help them find more stability and well-being. It is interesting to note that since the ceremonies last year, the California drought has ended and water levels are in good shape, at least for now.

Next year we will see where Elegguá sends us and what that adds to the story.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Babalú-Ayé in Perico: The Arará-Dajomé


When Ña Octavia Zulueta—Jundesi gave Babalú-Ayé to the nine-year-old Armando Zulueta, she taught him that they were Arará-Dajomé, and he in turn passed this idea down to his family and godchildren. This is interesting because in common parlance today, Armando’s Babalú is commonly referred to as Lucumí. While the Lucumí label may have come from the fact that Armando made santo much later in a Lucumí house, it also provides a short-hand description of differences in form and practice that matter a lot to some people.
But I want to explore the idea that the Babalú-Ayé and the people who work him in Perico really are Arará-Dajomé. Aurora Zulueta-Omí Saidé was Armando’s favorite niece and goddaughter, and before she joined the ancestors in 2002, she told me that she had always known they were Arará-Dajomé. She reminded me that the Arará had their own language, and she explained that they did not “mojuba” the same way as the Lucumí. Instead of repeating “mo juba” to invoke each of the ancestors and gods, she had learned to say “sofalú.” After the names of each of the ancestors, they did not say “ibaye ibaye tonu.” Instead they said “jundeko” to pay their respects to the dead.  Even the founder of their lineage carried the Arará name “Jundesi.”
In fact, Romelio Pérez—Talabí also told Ernesto Pichardo—Obá Irawó that Armando’s lineage had a strong Arará link, and Pichardo remembers that Pérez always sang to Changó with an Arará song for Hevioso, the Arará fodun of thunder.
Nanú, the mother of Asojano, is another strong Arará element. There are whole lineages in Cuba that work with Babalú without ever mentioning, working, or giving Nanú. For the Arará, Nanú is an essential part of the family of Asojano, a strong and mysterious presence who is usually given with Afrá and Asojano.  In Armando’s lineage, even when Nanú is not given in an initiation, she is always remembered and honored along with Afrá and Babalú.  
Armando’s house routinely uses Arará drums to honor Babalú-Ayé. After Armando made Yemayá with oro for Inlé in a Lucumí house in 1948, the Arará drums were used to honor Octavia—Jundesi’s Asojano, before a batá drums honored Armando’s oricha. In 2003, at the honras ceremony a year after Aurora joined the ancestors, they played Arará drums, and the young woman akpon sang in Arará for close to four hours without so much as a break. The same year Armando made ocha, William Bascom visited his house for a drumming for Babalú-Ayé. Bascom said there were freshly painted Arará drums. Even more interesting is that Bascom said that in an inner room of the house there was an Arará altar (Bascom Papers, Carton 26, Folder 1, pages 101-103).
All these facts suggest that Ña Octavia—Jundesi and Armando—Omí Toké were grounded in the Arará tradition, one they referred to as Dajomé. This name could refer to the royal traditions of Dahomey as an important source for their practices or their ancestors, but it is just as likely that it allowed them to differentiate themselves from the Arará-Sabalú in Matanzas City, the Arará-Majino in Jovellanos, and the fabled Cuatro Ojos.
(The dark photo shows Armando's altar as it was in 2001.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Reflections on Water and the Different Stages of Nana Burukú


Many Lucumí and Arará elders think and talk about the orichas and fodunces as having different stages, or etapas, to their life histories. Similarly, my godfather Ernesto Pichardo—Obá Irawó has long urged me to look carefully at the natural qualities of the orichas and the ingredients we use in ceremonies to deepen my understanding of the workings of the religion. Recently while contemplating Nana Burukú with my friend and godson Eguín Koladé, we realized that it is possible to think of the different stages of Nana Burukú as different moments in a specific water cycle.
Often referred to as the mother of fresh water, Nana Burukú is often fed at the spring, where water emerges out of the ground.  A spring is usually located up on the side of a hill, so it does lead to a sense of elevation. In fact, some lineages begin initiations for Nana Burukú with a large cleaning with meat at a spring; after the cleaning the meat is dumped in a hole in the Earth. I have heard some elders suggest that she is all water courses that run under the Earth as well. This focus on fresh water links her directly to Ochún, who is sometimes referred to as her daughter.
Others focus on Nana Burukú as stagnant water and begin the ceremony of giving Nana Burukú with an offering of two doves to a pool of stagnant water. Here, the water has flowed down hill and gotten damned-up, and as it sits, whatever organic matter it contains begins to decompose. Here is an obvious link to Babalú-Ayé and his ability to break things down.  A famous song reiterates this intimate relationship while pleading for gentility on the part of these two powerful deities:
Nana kuele, Nana kuele, Nana kuele, Nana ño.
Aso kuele, Aso kuele, Aso kuele, Aso ño.

But standing water is not always a negative. In much of rural Cuba, domesticated animals survive the dry season by drinking from ojos de agua, natural ponds that gather and hold rain water during the wet season and slowly evaporate.  Here Nana Burukú stands a source of possible refreshment and sustenance during the long dry season, when Babalú-Ayé is thought to be most active.
In the 1940s in Jovellanos, Nana Burukú’s people said she carried water to Heaven, almost as if she were the natural process of evaporation. She then returned the water to Earth as rain. It is easy to imagine the rain soaking into the Earth or pooling in an ojo de agua, and the cycle begins again.
Some elders also say that she is associated with Yembo and Odudua, and as such she exists from the beginning of time, and it is true that these basic processes, like the water cycle, are truly ancient.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Babalú-Ayé as an Ancestor





I woke this morning from an unusual dream: My Asojano was on the floor, seated in an ancestor altar with nine glasses of water and nine candles. So today I am reflecting on the link between Babalú-Ayé and the ancestors.
One of the first things that Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye ever said to me was this: Asojano is a witch, Asojano is an ancestor, and Asojano is an oricha.  Unlike other orichas, Babalú-Ayé seems not only to be comfortable with his ancestral role, but to embrace it. In some stories he dies and is born again. In others, he visits the land of the dead and returns with important gifts. In fact, he is sometimes referred to simply as an ancient ancestor, thought to stand in for all those whose names are forgotten.
His attributes also have a strong connection with the ancestors.  When Abreu makes a secret for Asojano, he includes many things—and as he is fond of reminding anyone who will listen, no two are ever the same—but he always includes the relic of a specific ancestor.  He visits the cemetery often to enlist the support of these ancestors, and once ensconced in the secret, the ancestor becomes inseparable from Asojano. Similarly, the Dajomé lineage of Armando Zulueta adds earth from the cemetery to its jás, and, when the road of Babalú or divination demands it, they add a relic too.
Both of these dominant lineages use arrecifes (coral reef “stones”) as the foundation for the oricha. These stones are the bleached remnants of dead corals and when you see them it is hard not to think of the white bones of the ancestors lying in the tombs.
Babalú-Ayé also eats with the ancestors. In some lineages, he eats guinea hens with the dead in the cemetery before he is given to a new initiate. I have seen many people, including those linked to Margot San Lázaro, feed him on the egun altar before giving him as well. Abreu has told me that he has never fed his Asojano with the dead, but it makes sense to him and he understands why people do it.
Another curious fact connects Babalú-Ayé and the ancestors. My impression is that ancestral spirits associated with him manifest in trance more often than he manifests directly.  Commonly referred to as “missionaries of San Lázaro,” these spirits served or reflected the oricha in life. A good number of them were even initiated to him.  When they return in general spiritist misas or during ceremonies more specifically for Babalú-Ayé, they often bring powerful messages about how to handle illness and clean people, just as their father Babalú would.
Babalú-Ayé transcends physical death and lives on, and like all egun he reminds of the transcendental urge in each of us—hopes, desires, and missions that outlive our bodies and burn on in our souls.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Agrónika Revisited


The story from Irete-Otura says that Agrónika Omó Bitasa was a potter, a craft he had learned from his father, Asojano. When he is captured by the Iyesá, he is making plates. Often people refer to Babalú-Ayé as a warrior, a wanderer, a wounded healer and a king, but I can think of no other reference to the Old Man working as a potter. Two things about this idea intrigue me.
Art historian Suzanne Blier makes clear that in Benin shallow plates, called agban in Fon-gbe, are one of the sources that inspire vessels used to hold the sacred objects of the deities (in Sacred Arts of Vodou, p. 68). When the word agban evolves to follow the pronunciation commonly used in Afro-Cuban communities, the “gb” sound becomes a “gu” or “w” sound, and this produces the Arará word “awán,” the name given to the most important ceremony performed for Asojano, where plates are laden with offerings of food and dried grains.  So here Asojano the potter is honored through a ceremony with many plates.
In Lucumí, it is Obatalá who is most often referred to as a potter, famous for sculpting human heads from clay before they are given life. The idea of Babalú-Ayé and Obatalá practicing the same craft seems to link them in a surprising way. This shared role subverts the common notion that they are somehow opposed, as they are in the story of Babalú-Ayé’s exile. While Babalú does tend to excess and Obatalá to moderation, as potters both seem to play a role in creating and sustaining the human body, as clay vessels are common metaphors for bodies through West Africa and the Diaspora.
Another part of the story also sticks in mind. Omó Bitasa goes to a cave to create a , the ritual broom of Asojano. The image of him seeking out solitude in a darkened place within the Earth is a powerful one. He retreats into the dark Earth for several days so he can gather his resources and channel his aché into the já. When he emerges from the Earth, he has the king assist him in consecrating the já and then he cleans the Iyesá. This sequence of events parallels the famous story where he descends into a cave before becoming king.
(This já belonged to Rafael Linares-Emerego.)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Agrónika

The sign Irete-Otura recounts the birth of a little known road of Babalú-Ayé called Agrónika.  The story goes like this:
There was a Potter named Omó Bitasa who was the favorite son of Asojano, and he was famous for making beautiful plates, a skill he had learned from his father. When he was small, his father had also initiated him with a partridge and dressed in the skins of his favorite animals, and this protected him from much suffering. In those days, the Iyesá declared war on the Arará. They surprised Omó Bitasa working on his plates and carried him away as a slave. One day there was a terrible epidemic in the land of the Iyesá, many people were dying, and no one could stop it. Egunmoko, the king of Iyesá, went for divination, and Irete-Otura came out.  The diviner said in the kingdom was a man initiated in Arará and only he could end the epidemic.  Reviewing the prisoners, Egunmoko found one dressed like Shakuaná with his purple cape and his necklace. The king asked what his name was, and he responded, “Omá Bitasa and I am the son of Asojano.”
The king answered, “You are the one I seek. I will give whatever you ask if you help me end the epidemic.” 
“I must consecrate an Arará to end the epidemic,” said Omó Bitasa, and he closed himself up in a cave in the forest for days to make it. When he came out, he was wrapped in the skin of a leopard, the skin of a goat, and the skin of a guinea hen. With the já in his hand, he went before Egunmoko and called for help to consecrate it. After singing and feeding it a goat, Omó Bitasa dressed Egunmoko and the people in the skins and thus saved them. From that day on Omó Bitasa received the name Agrónika.
I have heard of this road of Babalú-Ayé. Willie Ramos—Ilarí-Obá mentions him in his tratado on the Old Man, but I must confess I have never met anyone with this road. Ernesto Pichardo—Obá Irawó tells me that his oyugbona, Romelio Pérez—Talabí, often gave this road.  Pérez was from Perico in Matanzas Province; William Bascom found it very common in Jovellanos in 1948; and Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye says it is often mentioned in the town of Pedro Betancourt, so perhaps it is a Matanzas thing.  Pichardo says Agrónika is also called Mobitansa and takes the brown beads called matipó with black beads.  Abreu claims it is not actually a road but rather the name for Asojano in Iyesá language.
I love the image of Agrónika dressed in skins. This initiation from Asojano somehow provides him with an intimacy—a close connection—to the instinctual powers of these animals, and this in turn protects him from suffering. It reminds me of the fact that we dress the and the cazuela of Babalú-Ayé with guinea feathers, so that we are never forget the influence of this all-important bird. The leopard and his spots appear throughout Lucumí religion as a strong sign of independence, power, and authority. In fact, new initiates are painted with spots, and chiefs and kings in West Africa often use leopard skins in their regalia.  The goat´s strength, tenacity, and indomitability help anyone, and part of the Arará awán “transferring” these qualities to a person.  
Close to our animal nature, Agrónika Mobitasa is clearly good for whatever ails us.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Imitation of Babalú-Ayé: The Mysterious Self


Babalú-Ayé is always mysterious:  he is a stranger wandering in from somewhere else. He speaks in a voice that is hard to understand, so you can never be sure what he is trying to say.  And so much of the experience of illness and of the body in pain remains beyond our ability to articulate. Like the Old Man, we fall mute in the face of these things.  Of course, no one really understands how he can push on despite the many losses he has suffered. Few of us can fathom how he continues despite smallpox and his bad legs.
You sense this mystery when you witness Asojano being fed at night in a dark room lit only with a couple of candles. You sense it when you prostrate before Babalú enthroned in a cave obscured by vines or covered in herbs during ceremonies.  
In some lineages he lives in a sealed pot, so the people worshipping him never see the fundamento inside. The elders say that they sealed the pots to contain disease and keep it from escaping. Other lineages actually fabricate a secret for him that lives inside the vessel.  Still others hide offerings in the Earth to call upon his power. Armando Zulueta’s house even has a secret planted outside.
In addition to the secrets and the physically hidden aspects of his worship, he possesses an inescapably hermetic quality. He is hiding something behind his rough exterior—some knowledge, some power or some glassy essence that can never be completely revealed.  Some part of him never enters the house, some part of him remains always obscured in the forest.
If we take the image of mystery as somehow essential both to Babalú-Ayé and those who follow him, we come to something deeply unrevealed and unknowable within ourselves. Most of us carry precious things within us that we do not know how to express to anyone, even our most beloved. As human beings recognize our own mystery, we become less predictable—even to ourselves. Who really knows how she will react when the doctor announces cancer? Who can predict with total certainty how he will react to the slow decline of age or the loss of something precious like a parent or a child or a hand? Sometimes we shield ourselves from the world, taking refuge in the caves of isolation. Sometimes we rise to the throne of our own authority. Like Babalú, we touch our own hidden nature, and like Babalú, we become irascible and unique.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Power of Knowledge: Elders, Logic and Tratados

My conversations with knowledgeable priests and priestesses generate lots of interesting insights, but only occasionally do these elders cite their sources--something I try to do here. To be fair, Ernesto Pichardo--Obá Irawo often refers to things he learned from his oyugbona, Romelio Pérez--Talabí, who learned from Armando Zulueta--Omí Toké. Pedro Abreu--Asonyanye acknowledges that he learned a lot from Benito--Oché Paure, who studied Arará traditions deeply. Magdelena Fernández--whose oricha name I do not know--will sometimes credit Margot San Lázaro with certain ideas or ritual practices.

At the same time, Pedro is clear about the fact that he does not do ceremonies in the same way as any of his fellow Arará priests. He explains that he engaged in recopilación, a compilation of data, from Oché Paure and others before using logic to come to his own conclusions about how the initiation of Asojano "should" be.

This recopilación includes conversations with elders in the know as well as a review of tratados, those texts where people have tried to capture the knowledge they have about the religion. These tratados can be created by almost anyone. Many practitioners are currently using Nuevo tratado enciclopédico de Ifá as a major source of information. I know Pedro consults and trusts this source as an accurate representation of the different signs of Ifá. Similarly, there is a Tratado de Asojuano that many people have access to. These sources seem to be firmly grounded in Lucumí and Arará practice in Cuba, though the Nuevo tratado includes stories translated from Ibie´s book on Ifá from Benin City, Nigeria.

However, the last few years have seen the appearance of many new tratados that codify many practices that appear to be completely new. The most surprising ones suggest that a babalawo must create an osain for every oricha before it is made--a shocking innovation to most people in Lucumí and Arará houses.

On the other hand, the Oshumaré tratado I recently came across mixes up the small amount of remaining Lucumí knowledge about this deity, the still vibrant Arará traditions about Güeró, a bit of ethnographic data from Herskovits, and some ritual knowledge from Brazil, whose religious landscape I do not know well enough to identify a clear source. At any rate, it is just a terrible mish-mash, what Cubans might call a revolú.

All these sources raise many questions about the source and value of knowledge in the religion. For ease of reflection, we can imagine three sources of images for knowledge about how the practice of the religion: accounts and memories about the actions of the ancestors; the reflections and analyses of active practitioners; and written documentation. To which should we give the greatest weight? Serious critiques can be leveled at each of them. Some elders repeated mechanically what they had seen. While there are norms for logically analyzing our traditions and discussing them, even the most capable priest will have limitations in his vision. And who knows who complied these tratados and what sources they are based on?

In the end, I think it comes down to a deep tension built into the tradition between the authority of our ancestors and their actions on one hand and the authority of centralizing voices like tratados on the other. Less abstractly, practitioners marshal and deploy knowledge from these sources in specific ritual contexts, each with its own social dynamics. The knowledge is a currency, used strategically by senior priests and priestesses, in specific performances, which both demonstrate and generate their authority--one aspect of their aché. These elders must know how and when to bring their knowledge into play to have the greatest impact.

Friday, June 17, 2011

More Reflections on Güeró, Oshumaré the Rainbow in Arará


So why write about Güeró on Baba Who? Babalú!?  Simply put, because the Arará-Sabalú consider him an important elder for Babalú-Ayé, or Asojano as they usually call him. Güeró is often thought to be married to Nana Burukú. For Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye, Nana is the mother of Ogún, Ochún, and Nanú, who in turn is the mother of Babalú-Ayé. By this logic, Güeró is the grandfather of Babalú, though we do not want to be too literal when discussing the paternity of the gods.
In fact, Pedro is fond of pointing out that it is Güeró—and not Asojano—who is the patron of the Cabildo Arará Sabalú Nonjó in Matanzas City where he was initiated. And Milagros Sequiera Palma, one of the oldest living members of the Cabildo, told me the same thing in 1998, comparing Güeró to Odudua rather than Oshumaré and describing how they used to celebrate his festival  each year in June with Arará drumming and a procession through the streets of the city.
These days, Pedro decorates the white vessel for Güeró with small details in red for Changó and blue for Olocun, small visual gestures he uses to allude to a deep relationship. I just recently encountered a tratado that claims that Güeró is a servant to Changó, guarding his thunderstones in Heaven and later traveling to Earth as rain. Honestly, I have never heard that anywhere else, so take it with a grain of salt. The relationship to Olocun comes from a long story in which Güeró divines for Olocun, cures his children, and is rewarded with outrageous wealth in the form of money and rich blue fabrics. Again, I have only heard this once. Still, it is interesting that in one story, Güeró makes the ocean, and here the owner of the ocean blesses him with wealth.
Changó and Olocun do represent the heavenly and earthly poles of Güeró’s existence. This polarity also is expressed in his two forms, serpent and rainbow, and in a pair of vessels on the altar for a person initiated to Güeró. In 2001, I traveled to Matanzas City with Pedro, where he introduced me to his oyugbona, his second godmother. Her grandson had just made Güeró in the Cabildo, and the altar had two tinajas, one painted blue with a black snake and the other unpainted terra cotta. It is interesting to note that Herskovits says that in Dahomey, the rainbow serpent Dan was seated in two vessels, one for the masculine Dan and one for the feminine Dan, an expression of the dynamic polarity necessary for creation.  
The Arará creation story in which Güeró gathers the waters so the world—ayé in Lucumí—can emerge from beneath it contrasts sharply with the traditional Yoruba story in which Odudua descends and sprinkles soil upon the waters to make the world. In the Arará story, the Earth apparently rises up, revealed when the water is gathered. Here Babalú-Ayé as the Earth was present and waiting to be revealed by Güeró’s actions. In the Yoruba story, often told in Lucumí communities, the solid Earth clearly descends from Heaven with Odudua. These fundamentally different notions about the origins of the world where we humans make our lives could represent deep cultural differences between the Arará and the Lucumí, or their antecedents in West Africa. They could point to very local understandings of creation in Cuban communities, recorded in different divination signs. Or they could reflect different groups seeking to create and assert different claims in the hotly contested religious field. It is true that only the Arará-Sabalú can give Güeró and generate the resulting benefits of cash, godchildren and aché. They are the only ones who have him to share.
(Thanks as always to Eguín Koladé for discussing these ideas with me. The vessel and the fly whisk for Güeró above are by Pedro Abreu.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Güeró, Oshumaré the Rainbow in Arará


A couple weeks ago, I was back in the streets of Havana chasing down friends, asking obtuse questions of subtle people. As usual, I spent some long afternoons in conversation with Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye, the most renowned Arará-Sabalú priest of Asojano to date. He was a bit tired and very busy: he had just crowned his 33rd Asojano and was in the middle of giving Asojano to a Puerto Rican woman from Florida. We talked about Asojano, but we spent a lot time talking about Güeró as well.

Güeró, also known as Danda-Güeró or Jueró, is the rainbow serpent. Born in Ogbe-Oyekú, the rainbow links heaven and earth. The proverb in that sign says that the rainbow only occupies the piece of the sky that God permits. Given that Echu Emere came to Earth with Güeró, it is easy to imagine that he is given at the same time, but I never got a chance to ask Pedro about that.

According to Pedro, Güeró actually came to earth in Osá-Ojuani. This sign includes is long story where Olofi created the world covered in water. However, he asked his children to do all they could to gather the waters so people could have a place to live on Earth. Since Güeró was a majá—a snake—and had no hands, he was worried that he could not do his part. So he visited the diviner, who told him to make a niché-Osain in a long-necked medicine gourd to help himself. Then the diviner set him afloat in the water atop the gourd, and Güeró did not climb down till he had created solid ground. After sixteen days, all the deities had to report to Olofi. Other orichas had created rivers, but Güeró had created the Earth and the great oceans that surround it. Olofi gave gold and jewels to other orichas, but to Güeró he gave a deformed woman with reddish hair.

When Güeró complained about that, the diviner Orula explained that Olofi had given Güeró his daughter. Orula said he should add some things to the long-necked gourd and he did. Güeró and his wife lived together, but one day they were broke, and Güeró began a conversation with his wife. She said that he should not worry, that he would have a fortune. She asked him to turn his back, and when he did, she whistled loudly. In that instant strong winds began to blow from the north, south, east, and west, and living things—plants, animals, human beings—appeared all over the world. And his wife, who was Aida-Güeró, became very beautiful. Then Güeró understood the great prize that Olofi had given him, and he too became very beautiful. Together they became the rainbow. Since then, they have lived on high and other orichas envy them. Ochosi even tried to kill the rainbow, but Güeró lit it up with his light, and the Orichas said, “Güeró is like Olofi himself.” And Güeró continued his path through the skies.

There is so much to say about this story that I am not sure where to begin. Danda-Güeró and his wife Aida-Güeró reiterate the Dahomean inclination to seeing the beginning of things in twins, a powerful way to image the dynamic polarity necessary for creation. And what could be more opposite than the fearsome, earthly snake and the beautiful, celestial rainbow.

In this story Güeró is none other than the creator of the Earth, and Pedro is fond of remarking that “Güeró is a kind of Obatalá.” The comparison of Güeró to Olofi also strikes me as particularly fascinating. In 1948, Esteban Baró waxed poetic about Güeró, saying that the rainbow is supreme because it cannot be measured and that the other orichas worshipped him (Bascom Papers, Carton 26, Folder 3, page 247).

More on all this later.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Babalú-Ayé Basics

The elders say that Babalú-Ayé stalks the night accompanied by his dogs and the spirits of his children. He is immediately linked to the world of the spirits. During the day they rest in shade, leaning against the shade of large trees. He is especially fond of the yamao, the jaguey, the flamboyán, and the ceiba, and all are used in ceremonies of the oricha. They say Babalú lives in the heart of the forest during the rainy season, but in the dry season he enters the city, bringing epidemics. In fact, some people say when there are epidemics, you should not play for him, you should not call him. Instead, you should placate him with food and simple offerings.


People also link him to epidemics of every kind: bubonic plague, yellow fever, the Spanish influence, AIDS. Historically, though, he was thought to control smallpox. By extension he has dominion over all skin sores and diseases. Since smallpox leaves visible scars, any transfiguring disease comes under his purview.

Many people fear him, but everyone respects him. He rules over the health of each and every individual, and thus he determines the quality of life of each and every one of us. In this way, he is so important that Lucumí elders say, “You can play with the other orichas, but you cannot play with Babalú-Ayé.”

Flies, mosquitoes, bumble bees, botflies, and beetles are his messengers.

Thought to rule the Earth, Babalú-Ayé also has dominion over the spirits of those buried in the Earth. When Babalú-Ayé is present, sickness and death are also present, and his secrets often link him to the ancestors. At the same time, many lineages require him to take a secret filled with crushed herbs and other ingredients. This resembles one common form of witchcraft. As Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye once said to me, “San Lázaro is an oricha, San Lázaro is an egun, and San Lázaro is a witch.”

He is called the wrath of Olodumare, because his illnesses are so devastating.

There is another side to Babalú. He is famous for healing people. In fact, Lucumí people make a big deal about his cleaning ceremony, his awán. People wear a strand of the cundeamor plant around their necks and clean themselves with beans, tubers, fruits, meat and other kinds of food, casting their maladies into a basket lined with burlap. The elders say Babalú possesses a capacity for rebirth. They say he can even provoke a resurrection.

So I wonder: Was Jesus a child of Babalú-Ayé?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Naná Burukú, Elder of Babalú-Ayé


Linked again and again to the kiti are praise names for the elusive oricha Naná Burukú:
Okitikatá aparamalobe
Okitikatá akparamanyin
Referred to alternatively as the wife, elder sister, or grandmother of Babalú-Ayé, Naná Burukú is widely considered an ancient and important deity. She is often referred to as the mother of sweet waters, both under and above the ground. For this reason, she is sometimes fed at springs and pools of stagnant water. She is considered primordial and even primitive, older than iron, and so people make sacrifices to her using a wooden knife, usually fashioned from bamboo—a plant strongly associated with the ancestors and Naná.  
There is much respect—even fear and danger—associated with Naná Burukú. Ernesto Pichardo has told me that few of his elders wanted to get close to her.  Like Odudua, Boromu, Brosia, Yewá and Iroko, Naná Burukú is an earth-bound force associated with the night. Old timers acknowledged that these forces exist, but nobody wanted to get too close. Similarly, one priest told Lydia Cabrera that few people wanted to serve “such severe and imperious divinities” (El Monte, p. 58). This respect is coupled with mystery, as little is known of Naná.
In Dahomey, people considered Naná Burukú to be the creator and both male and female, according to Herskovits (Dahomey, 101). This idea of her being both male and female did make it to Cuba (El Monte, p. 307), but Naná is more widely considered female in Lucumí traditions.
In the 1940s in Jovellanos in Matanzas Province, people agreed that she worked with ferocious animals, especially snakes. Speaking with William Bascom, some priests explained that as a snake she carried water up to heaven to make rain. Similarly, some thought her responsible for bringing oricha stones down from heaven and placing them in rivers. Here she is almost inseparable from Ochumaré, or Güeró as the Arará call him, the rainbow serpent who travels constantly between Heaven and Earth.  This dynamic presence manifested regularly, as there are many reports of people made to Naná Burukú and possessed by her.
Aside from her own priests, it was especially common for children of Babalú-Ayé to be mounted by Naná. This link to Babalú goes deeper, as Naná takes a já-like broom and is credited with healing in many cases as well.  Her cleaning ceremony resembles Babalú’s awán but contains important differences. At a lake, a spring, or a pond, she takes a pig that is cut up on the spot and burned, either in a basin with alcohol or over an open fire. A person is then cleaned with this charred meat that is sometimes cast into a hole in the earth (like a grave) or into the water.
This link to Babalú has a much deeper history as well. In 1862 at Otta, Nigeria, an observer reported on death and rebirth of an initiate entering the service of Naná Burukú (McKenzie, Hail Orisha!, p. 183). The initiate fell into a deep, passive trance and was covered with mats like a corpse. After three months in this state, the initiate was brought back to life with great fanfare.
Even today, the Sabalú-Arará carry their Asojano initiates into the ritual room laid out on a mat like a cadaver.
(The vessel, necklace and já for Naná Burukú above were made by Pedro Abreu.)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Kiti in Benin

The bakonos, as Fon-speaking babalawos in Benin are known, regularly deposit their sacrifices in the natural world. But oricha people everywhere know that it is sometimes difficult to make it to the sea or the forest or another natural location to hand over an offering to an oricha. So the bakonos have devised a remarkable solution: they have something called Kiti where they can deposit any offering. (It is called  Ñawo in Fon-gbe.)

At a crossroads, a bakono opens a hole in the earth and offers a goat and four chickens. To the hole, he adds Ifá herbs, a wide variety of earths from different locations, a bit of money, and other secrets. He closes the hole, places a rock sacred to Sakpata on top, and plants a special tree. (Sakpata is a name for Babalú.) On the tree he hangs red, white, and black cloth. After offering a chicken to the stone and making the standard prayers for protection from death, sickness, and evil, Kiti is ready to work: from then on, the bakono leaves his offerings at the foot of Kiti.

It is interesting to note that the bakonos address Kiti as they do any other fodun, and when leaving offerings, they divine with obí to make certain they are received. It is also considered a dwelling place for the ancestors.

The bakonos make a special Kiti for Sakpata called Yesu. While there is little information on how it is different, the name can be translated either as “Soul of the Forest” or “Dangerous Clod of Earth,” both of which speak to the nature of Babalú-Ayé.

I have Yoruba dictionaries that say okiti and akiti mean "heap or mound." Kitikiti is an adverb meaning "abundantly."

This is the picture of life in Benin in the 1930a painted by Bernard Maupoil in his book La géomancie à l’ancienne Côte des Esclaves (pp. 357-360). While the Kiti is known in Cuba as the secret place for Shakuaná to eat, you can bet some things have changed and some have stayed the same.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ofelia de Pogolotti--Alidémi


After Pilar Fresneda—Asonsiperaco joined the ancestors in the early 1960s, the Havana Arará cabildo passed to Ofelia Calixta Martínez Bonilla, who led the community from her home in the Pogolotti neighborhood of Havana. She had been made to Mase or Ochún by La Chata--Onojome and Matilde Sotomayor--Asoinque, who also gave her Asojano-Alua.  Although Ofelia--Alidémi had Ochún made, her elders had given her permission to give Asojano-Arará--a novelty to the Sabalú in Matanzas. She also received Nanú from both the Arará and Lucumí lineages. Although Ofelia's son, Octavio Hernández-Martínez--Ogunda Meyi has no explanation for this intriguing fact, her daughter-in-law Olga says she always attended to them differently and according to the way she had been taught.


Ofelia de Pogolotti maintained the traditions that Pilar had established. With her extended family, she "took out" the cabildo every year on December 16th, parading through the streets with its symbols: a white flag and a large white plaster dove. Ofelia also became the keeper of the cabildo´s drums that still live at her house.  The elders say that when they took out the cabildo, many people became possessed by Asojano.


When Ofelia joined the ancestors on February 26, 2004, she had lived 76 years. At her honras, the funeral performed a year after the death of priest or priestess, Andrés Chacón and his group played for the egun and then for Ochún. To this day, she is remembered as a knowledgeable and influential priestess.


Since then, Octavio and Olga maintain many of the traditions in their house in Repart Martí near Mazorra, where they give Asojano in Olga's style with three awáns, a tradition I have encountered nowhere else in Cuba or its diaspora.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pilar Fresneda—Asonsiperaco



In the early 20th century, the legendary Pilar Fresneda—Asonsiperaco carried the dynamic traditions from the Cabildo Arará Sabalú Nonjó in Matanzas to Havana City. The stories about Fresneda are many. Some say she was born in Africa, consecrated to Asojano-Alua, and came to Cuba at age seven. Others say her mother was freed from slavery in Africa, and still others claim it was her father who was African-born. Some say she went to Havana as a child, and others claim it was much later. Similarly, some say she was 80-something when she died, but her son El Bate said she was 102 or 103 when she died.

As Arará elder Milagros Sequiera Palma tells it, Fresneda left the Matanzas cabildo in a conflict over the emerging community in Havana. Fresneda wanted to carry the cabildo’s sacred drums to Havana to play at a drumming ceremony, but cabildo powerhouse Michaela Ruiz would not allow it. Fresneda then sponsored the creation of new set of sacred drums, and these were recognized by the Matanzas drums and drummers as legitimate.

A capable and charismatic priestess, Fresneda worked closely with her goddaughter Taurina Montalvo—Enujere, serving the babalawos of Havana and initiating hundreds into the secrets of Asojano Arará. In fact, her children Bartolo and Victor were both active babalawos in Havana.  Matilde Sotomayor—Asoinque sang when they played the Arará drums, which were played by Victor—Quemafo. Together they built a new Arará cabildo in Havana until Fresneda joined the ancestors in the early 1960s.



Matlide Sotomayor

(Thanks to David H. Brown for images of Pilar and Matilde, and for the info on Bartolo and Victor.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Cabildo Arará Sabalú Nonjó

The Cabildo Arará Sabalú Nonjó played a key role in sustaining Arará traditions in Santería. Unlike most Santería traditions that have their roots in Yoruba culture in Nigeria, Arará traditions have their origins primarily in Fon speaking communities in what is now Benin. In fact, Sabalú comes from the Savalu in the Mahin area of central Benin. It is not entirely clear when the cabildo was established. Careful calculation by David H. Brown suggests sometime between 1880 and 1895 (Santería Enthroned, p.74), but current cabildo leader Oscarito Rodríguez claims it was founded in 1862.

Located in Matanzas City where many outlying communities also have Arará cabildos, the Sabalú cabildo—also known as the Cabildo del Santo Espíritu—forged a strong sense of identity and commitment to the knowledge of the oricha Asojano, Arará language, and Arará drumming. The cabildo continues to honor an enormously diverse set of fodunces, oricha-like deities with different names and some variable characteristics:

Jevioso resembles Changó, but he has many roads, whereas the Lucumí Changó does not.
Mase resembles Ochún.
Añoro is “a young Obatalá.”
Afrikete is Yemayá.
Sobó is like Aganyú.
Towosi is Yewá.
Alapalowosi is the ceiba, but he is not received.

However, other fodunces are unique to the Arará: Nadodó and Naejuno are river spirits that resemble Ochún. Güeró is the rainbow and a serpent, and while he resembles Ochumaré, he is sometimes referred to as a road of Obatalá. Asojano and Nanú remain themselves, as the Sabalú claim that they eminate from the Arará.

Cabildo-founder Ta Moises Arzuaga was born in Africa and founded the cabildo with María Merecedes-Domínguez, Rerico Arzuaga, Catalino Arzuaga, and “Cecé.” Ta Moises made the famous creole priestes Flora Heredia, who had Towosi with Jevioso as her second fodun, while Micaela Ruiz had Makeno with Mase.

The cabildo also gave birth to Pilar Fresneda—Asonsiperaco, who carried their traditions to Havana. More on her another day.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Where Lázaro de la Caridad Zulueta Soa Invokes Babalú-Ayé for the First Time

After Lázaro received Babalú-Ayé Lucumí and was warned about the end of his marriage, he took Babá home and installed him in the oricha room. And there he sat. Like many people, Lázaro was frightened by his powerful new roommate. Lázaro honored Babá every morning in his mojuba and wore his cachá from time to time, but for months he did not have the courage to approach Babá directly.

As domestic life became tenser and new challenges presented themselves, Lázaro finally turned to Babalú. One night he turned out the lights, lit candles and pressed his head to the floor before the shrine. He poured out his frustration and confusion. He explained that he loved more than one person. He cried that he was not ready to be a father, especially not with his wife. He cleaned himself with the , prayed for clarity, and went to bed.

Just after midnight, Lázaro woke up vomiting. He vomited twelve times in the next ten hours, and before it was all over he was hunched over the toilet heaving.

I guess Lázaro needed a cleaning. Or maybe Babalú-Ayé just wanted him to humble himself.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Where Lázaro de la Caridad Zulueta Soa Received Babalú-Ayé

When Lázaro de la Caridad Zulueta Soa traveled to a distant city to receive Babalú-Ayé Lucumí, his new wife did not want to be excluded. Nor did she want to be implicated in the ceremony. So she timed her flight to arrive just after the awán, when there would be little danger of the oricha still mounting her husband or his ritual family.

On the day of the itá, Lázaro had a terrible stomach—he was anxious to learn what Babalú had in store for him. Again his wife did not want to be left out or too involved. Thinking (naïvely) that a little distance would keep her out of harm’s way, she sat in the next room and read a bestselling novel, as the diviner read the shells:

Afrá said that everything sweet turns sour, and Babalú-Ayé said that marriage is a palace with two doors, the true one and the false one.

But Lázaro’s wife did not get to hear those messages. In a little more than a year, the bitterness of a false marriage had become intolerable: Lázaro, Afrá, and Babalú-Ayé moved out.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Keleweye Kuto: Another Power Associated with Babalú-Ayé

In Oché-Osá, the elders tell this story that introduces yet another little-known companion of Babalú-Ayé.

Once, in the land called Osun Irawo, there lived a powerful royal couple named Oduaremu and Ekubijegan. These two indicated to the citizens of that land how to adore the ancestors. They had a child who was born deformed and with rickets, and so they named him Ason, meaning “sickness.” Ason was always wandering through his parents’ kingdom, but no one wanted to recognize him. But one day he happened upon Death who said, “Since no one understands you, why don’t you ally yourself with me and then you will be great in my kingdom?

So Ason dressed in Death’s clothes, and with his black suit he visited Death’s kingdom, where he received honors, including the title “Keleyewe Kuto,” a secretive man recognized in the land of the dead. When Ason returned to his parents’ kingdom, it was racked with calamities, and Death began to dominate its residents. Oduaremu and Ekubijegan visited the king of Ifá in that country, who was called Babá niye Awó. The diviner saw Oché-Osá, and said that they would see the loss of a great secret, and about the nature of the curse that had been sent upon them in the form of their son. They explained that Ason has left years before and that they did not know where he was. Babá niye Awó responded that only Changó and Alawama knew where Ason could be found.

Babá niye Awó marked the ebó and sent them to the river to finish their ceremony so Changó and Alawama could show them the way to find Ason. When Oduaremu and Ekubijegan arrived at the river, they saw how Alawama and Changó did their ceremonies, in which a man dressed all in black emerged when they offered food and sang. When the king and queen approached, the dark shadow hid itself. After the royal couple explained their situation, Changó and Alawama agreed to help return their kingdom to prosperity. But to accomplish this, they would never meet Ason again, because he was not longer of this world. Rather, he lived with Death, where he was made king and had the name Keleyewe Kuto, he that can live among the dead and be felt among the living. So the king and queen agreed.

When Ason appeared dressed in black and his parents paid homage to him, they swore on a great secret, bojomonosi, and a castrated goat, which they fed to him and thus formed a pact. Ason returned to their kingdom but never revealed his true name. As he entered the kingdom, he began to touch everyone, returning them to health, and so everyone called him “Asojano,” meaning “medicine that heals.” From this time forward, which was the birth of Asojano, Ason and illness are gathered in a vessel to protect people, and Asojano together with Ekubijegan and Oduaremu are the three rulers of the land of Osun Irawo, which is also the land of Oché Osá.

The elders say children of this sign must receive Ekubijegan, and I have seen recipes for constructing this oricha, who is sometimes referred to as the mother of Elegguá in Arará. What fascinates me most about the direction to consecrate this power is that she plays such a small role in the story. I should add that here is another power that I have never knowingly seen, nor have I heard others talk about making her. Moreover, the same elders have said that you have to receive the vessel of Asojano in the sign and call it by yet another special name to indicate that it is the one that lived in the land of the dead.

On the other hand, I know Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye (yes, it’s the same Ason as in the story) does confect Keleyewe Kuto for his godchildren, and I have heard him describe the process in great detail: after charging a piece of cactus with medicine, it must spend the night in bed with a blind man. To add veracity to the story, Pedro even told me the blind man’s name. In fact, I once heard Pedro’s first godson tell a story of using Keleyewe Kuto to get a stolen object returned, and I have seen tratados that state that this power is most effective at identifying thieves.