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.