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.)