Friday, November 18, 2011

The Many Roads of Babalú-Ayé: Afimaye

Dasoyí, the father of all the Babalús, is the most common road of this oricha today, but the next most popular is Afimaye.  His white beads with blue stripes are perhaps the most commonly used for Babalú-Ayé . This path of the oricha is said to be the youngest of the Asojanos, and some say he lives in a pumpkin plant and works as a lawyer. Some say he also comes to find the initiates to Arará deities at the hour of their passing.
Afimaye’s youth evokes a physical strength and vitality for which he is renowned. When worshipped, he is famous for reinvigorating his devotees.  In the house of Magdalena Fernández in Havana, I once participated in giving Afimaye to an 84 year-old woman. At the beginning of the ceremony, she sat speechless and inert, slumped over in a chair watching the ritual.  After she was cleaned, Afimaye ate and then mounted her. After contorting for a few minutes, she rose and danced with great power for half an hour. Later she was a different woman, and the transformation was unforgettable.
Both the pumpkin plant and the work as a lawyer point to his role as a mediator. The pumpkin plant is famous for being planted in one place, but through its long running vines giving fruit somewhere else. As the proverb in the divination sign Obara Meyi says, “The pumpkin in planted in your house but enjoyed in the neighbor’s yard.” Similarly, the lawyer mediates between individuals or between individuals and the powers that be.  While some people talk about Asojano as a vengeful judge of our actions, Afimaye seems to act as an advocate on our behalf, keeping sickness and other negativity away while drawing health and other blessing to us. I do wonder this: before what powers is he advocating? Is he arguing for us before Olodumare?
Many people speak of Asojano finding people at the hour of death. Elders often say that he pushes a cart with the cadaver to the entrance of the cemetery, where he hands it over to Oyá. In fact, at his festival in December, many people push carts with altars honoring him. In this case, Afimaye is strongly and specifically linked to Arará priests, a sort of special leader of this group at the time of death.
This last role fascinates me, because in Dahomey, Afimaye was the pantheon´s dokpwega, the village leader of the young men’s cooperative work group called the dokpwe.  As dokpwega, he is also responsible for the burial of every member of his village. The strong link to the ancestors cannot be ignored. Similarly, he had to approve moving any earth for creating a farm, building a wall, or opening a grave. Having absolute authority over the use of the earth in his village, he was strongly linked to the indigenous pre-conquest owners of the land. (You can read more about this in Herskovits’ Dahomey, Vol. 1, pp. 65-72.)
Having explored some of the implications of this road, I want to stress that all these roads originally emerged in a specific place and time. Roads and praise names for orichas in Yoruba communities reflect the specific taboos and behaviors of the oricha as they manifest in individual priests and priestesses. The vodu in Dahomey earned their  “strong names” through their deeds and accomplishments.  While the roads do become traditional with time, the orichas certainly cannot be limited by them.  
However, the roads do act as a kind of resource for their devotees, presenting traditional ideas and options to organize both altars and offerings.  A child of Dasoyí may place his cazuela on a wooden divination tray over four skulls, and he may also place a cane on the altar for this fatherly road of Asojano.  A priestess of Soyaya is likely to place a wooden bell on her altar and make offerings of his essential food, the yellow snapper. In the same way, many initiates borrow images from the stories of their oricha when describing their own lives. These are not accidental or aggrandizing, but rather a powerful way to connect the gods to everyday life. It is this intersection between the eternal substance of the orichas and the human scale of individual lives that interests me most about the religion, and in future posts I hope to address it more fully.

(Special thanks to Folkcuba.com for the image.)

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