Many Lucumí and Arará elders think and talk about the orichas and fodunces as having different stages, or etapas, to their life histories. Similarly, my godfather Ernesto Pichardo—Obá Irawó has long urged me to look carefully at the natural qualities of the orichas and the ingredients we use in ceremonies to deepen my understanding of the workings of the religion. Recently while contemplating Nana Burukú with my friend and godson Eguín Koladé, we realized that it is possible to think of the different stages of Nana Burukú as different moments in a specific water cycle.
Often referred to as the mother of fresh water, Nana Burukú is often fed at the spring, where water emerges out of the ground. A spring is usually located up on the side of a hill, so it does lead to a sense of elevation. In fact, some lineages begin initiations for Nana Burukú with a large cleaning with meat at a spring; after the cleaning the meat is dumped in a hole in the Earth. I have heard some elders suggest that she is all water courses that run under the Earth as well. This focus on fresh water links her directly to Ochún, who is sometimes referred to as her daughter.
Others focus on Nana Burukú as stagnant water and begin the ceremony of giving Nana Burukú with an offering of two doves to a pool of stagnant water. Here, the water has flowed down hill and gotten damned-up, and as it sits, whatever organic matter it contains begins to decompose. Here is an obvious link to Babalú-Ayé and his ability to break things down. A famous song reiterates this intimate relationship while pleading for gentility on the part of these two powerful deities:
Nana kuele, Nana kuele, Nana kuele, Nana ño.
Aso kuele, Aso kuele, Aso kuele, Aso ño.
But standing water is not always a negative. In much of rural Cuba, domesticated animals survive the dry season by drinking from ojos de agua, natural ponds that gather and hold rain water during the wet season and slowly evaporate. Here Nana Burukú stands a source of possible refreshment and sustenance during the long dry season, when Babalú-Ayé is thought to be most active.
In the 1940s in Jovellanos, Nana Burukú’s people said she carried water to Heaven, almost as if she were the natural process of evaporation. She then returned the water to Earth as rain. It is easy to imagine the rain soaking into the Earth or pooling in an ojo de agua, and the cycle begins again.
Some elders also say that she is associated with Yembo and Odudua, and as such she exists from the beginning of time, and it is true that these basic processes, like the water cycle, are truly ancient.