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 já, 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.)