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?