Naná Burukú, Elder of Babalú-Ayé
Linked again and again to the kiti are praise names for the elusive oricha Naná Burukú:
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.)