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.