Thursday, December 29, 2011

How the Forest Spirits Gave People Their Gods




When working in Dahomey, Herskovits recorded a very interesting story:
When people came into the world, they had no medicine. No one knew that leaves could cure. When people fell ill, there was no knowledge of what to do to cure them.
Now there were hunters in those days who went into the deep, deep bush. One day a hunter came upon a mound of Earth in the bush. When he was about to pass it, a voice spoke from inside it. The hunter’s wife was a leper, and the voice said, “Hunter, I will show you a medicine to cure your wife. When you give it to her, she will become well again.” Then the voice said, “Turn your back to me and wait.” It was Azizan, the Forest Spirit, who was in the mound, and as the hunter’s back was turned, Azizan put the leaves beside him. When Hunter looked again, he saw the leaves. The voice said, “Take these leaves, crush them, and mix them with water. Then give some of this to your wife to drink, and use the rest to wash her sores.”
When the hunter came home, he did what Azizan told him to do, and his wife was cured.
Now Azizan had also told him, “When someone in your village is sick, come and tell me, and I will give you a cure.” So the hunter showed the way to all who were sick, and these came to the mound of Earth and told their troubles, and to each of them Azizan gave a medicine and explained its use. Those who followed Azizan’s instructions were cured.
One day a hunter brought a sick stranger to Azizan, and this stranger went to the king of his country and told him that there was a kingdom where the sick only needed to tell of their ailments before a mound of Earth, and they were cured.
The king said, “I will go there myself. I want to see.” So the king went to the bush where the mound of Earth was, and took with him a goat, a bottle of rum, and some palm oil. He killed the goat on the mound of Earth, and said, “In my country we have no vodun. I want to take you to my country to be a vodun. If someone in my kingdom is ill, I will send him to you for medicine.” And Azizan gave him magic and told him what vodun were to be worshipped so that his country might prosper. Azizan gave to this king various deities including Sagbata (Babalú) and told him to build a house for each of them. Azizan also said that if people wished to have any of these vodun, they had only to come for some dirt from this mound.
So the vodun and the magic that is in the world were all given to people by Azizan. (See Dahomean Narrative, pp. 217-218, and Dahomey, Vol. ii, pp. 261-262.)
This story raises intriguing links and interesting questions. I do think it is interesting that the hunter only finds the wisdom that heals in the “deep, deep bush.”  This reminds me of what the famous babalawo Hermes Valera—Otura-Sá told David Brown about the religion requiring us to go “monte adentro”—deep into the forest—to find the ingredients and wisdom we need to survive. (See The Garden in the Machine.)
Could it be that Nana Burukú in Dassa-Zoumé is a particularly primeval and powerful form of Azizan? Could the covered earth-mound on the mountain be the place from which all other vodun emerged? That would help explain Nana Burukú as the creator.
At the same time, this story seems to be very much related to Babalú-Ayé. The hunter’s wife has leprosy, the most illness most strongly associated with Babalú wherever he is found. The fact that the hunter encounters Azizan at a mound of Earth is fascinating. Here, the small forest spirits speak out at an Earth mound with a single voice that carries healing wisdom. In the story about the origin of the kiti from Oyekún-Ojuani, the wise voice of Elegba speaks to Babalú himself at a mound of Earth, where he can call and feed these spirits in secret.  Incidentally, I just found that in Dahomey, Kiti was described with Azizan as two of several classes of spirits “partly human, partly supernatural who live in the forest” (Dahomey, Vol. II, p. 260).
These small “forest people” have an interesting role in the West African-inspired world where it is localized. Johnson describes the ijimere in Yoruba communities, and in Cuba the odu Irete Meyi is still sometimes called by the nickname Elemere because of its link to these forest spirits. Bascom documented similar spirits called iwin, and in fact, some of his people suggested that the iwin will teach secrets (medicine?)  to hunters and tell them the future (Bascom Papers Carton 27, Folder 39). Other people told him that the iwin work with Osain and Babalú-Ayé specifically (Carton 30, Folder 6), and still others said that Babalú-Ayé is actually one of these spirits, who appear to a person when ill (Carton 27, Folder 37). These notions also bring to mind the ebó in Irete-Iwori where the person has to feed sixteen different places in the natural world to engage the spirits living in those places, all the while praise Babalú-Ayé-Dasoyi.  They also call to mind the sixteen positions that are fed in preparation for the New Year. While these forest spirits are no longer central to our practice in Cuban-inspired traditions, they continue to exert their influence and call out for praise.

The Work of Pilgrimage III


I continue to reflect on differing aspects of pilgrimage in the Yoruba and Dahomean worlds. The grounded elder Susanne Wenger in her book A Life with the Gods in their Yoruba Homeland writes about a wandering sort of pilgrimage:
If the god wishes it, a Shoponno priest goes from town to town as a mendicant, the living recipient of ritual gifts (formerly copper coins) which are means of atonement for the giver. He dresses in a short camwood-red smock, his hair finely plaited. On his frock, cowry shells and little bells are sewn as a warning of a dangerous god’s arrival. As he proceeds on his way, reciting the praise songs of Obalúayé and all the cult [sic] subsections, broom--straws are thrown at him together with the coins. In picking them up, he adds prayers on behalf of the donor to his recitations. The blossoming broom-shrub is his alter ego, but can be impersonated by the the broom of palmleaf stalks [known in Cuba as the ]… The mendicant uses the donated coins for a ceremony for the god; the broom-stalks he would bind together to sweep his shrine praising the god on behalf of the donors (pp. 173-175).
While Wenger is describing how people worship Babalú-Ayé in Nigeria in the 1980s, the African-inspired traditions in Cuba certainly still see him as a mendicant. This wandering somehow seems both related to and different from pilgrimage in its usual sense. The priest—and the god he is imitating—is not moving from a home place toward a specific destination thought to be the residence of some special manifestation of the divine, as is usually the case with pilgrimages. Rather he wanders from place to place, receives offerings, makes prayers, and gathers up his ritual broom. His place of departure and his destination are the same: his home shrine, where again he prays for everyone who has donated to his ceremony and his broom. With these prayers he sweeps out negativity of all kinds.
The overwhelming social aspect of this ritual wandering is intriguing. The priest encounters people in different towns, reminding them of the god and providing an easy opportunity to engage with him. While this pattern reminds me of the missionaries of San Lázaro in Cuba, it also recalls the story from Ojuani Meji where Babalú-Ayé, covered with sores, wanders from place to place. The random people he meets greet him only by throwing water on him and saying “Nlo burukú!” (evil be gone). Again, Babalú-Ayé embodies the unwanted reality of sickness and carries away the negativity for everyone he encounters.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Work of Pilgrimage Revisited



There are many small ceremonies in Oricha religion that could be thought of pilgrimages, where we travel out onto the land to connect with the divine, making an offering to a specific oricha. As part of giving Babalú-Ayé, many lineages carry Babá to a ceiba tree, a cemetery, and finally the egun altar in the home, giving him white wine, cigar smoke, toasted corn and other offerings at each stop.  Similarly, some lineages feed Nana Burukú at a spring or a place of stagnant water before giving her to a new devotee.  And, of course, the initiation of a new priestess always requires a trip out to feed the river with her favorite foods.  When someone is consecrated to one of the Warriors, there are extra ceremonies to feed them in the forest, offerings that cool them before they arrive in the house for the principal ceremony.


People usually gloss these trips into the natural world as preparatory ebós, little ceremonies that must happen before the “main” ceremony takes place. As Ernesto Pichardo recently said to me, “They are part of the alchemy of what we do when we give birth to a new oricha.” Still, each of these ceremonies requires that we travel out of our houses and find the oricha in a natural state to start the process. In this way, each of these ceremonies can be considered a kind of understated pilgrimage to connect with or engage the oricha.

This week in Havana (and Miami too, at least), small teams of babalawos are making these trips into the natural world to feed the “positions” before they gather to open the New Year on January 1. They feed the sea, the river, and many other positions, and after making the offering at each position, they divine to be certain that the ebó is accepted. They report back to the babalawos who coordinate the whole ceremony. Only once each position is fed they are ready to prepare for the New Year with other ceremonies on the 31st. Only after all this is completed do they take the odu for the New Year early on the 1st.  After reaching out to the whole natural world, they can mark the road for the coming year.

The ancestors have told us that Changó taught the 16 positions in Iroso Meyi, and the opening of the year comes from the odu Obara-Odí. As with most things, we know from the ceremonies that these two things are related, but exactly how and why remains elusive. The wise ancestors arranged them into the ceremonies we use today to make the most of the roads we travel.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Work of Pilgrimage

So today I am reflecting on pilgrimage. Partly I am trying to honor the major spiritual work of the festival of Babalú and the thousands of people who made the journey to Rincón last weekend. Partly I am trying to prepare myself, because this summer I hope to walk the Road of Santiago with my thirteen-year-old.
Moving toward the divine is a very old practice. The ancestors name its origin in the divination sign Ofún-Ojuani, and they taught us the value of this kind of prayer. In old Dahomey, the ancestors held an annual pilgrimage to Dassa-Zoumé. The ancestors said this was where Nana Burukú lived when she was on Earth, and each year those who worshiped her children Mawu-Lisa, the Obatalá-like sky deities, carried offerings to her special shrine there. Similarly, new initiates to Mawu-Lisa made a trip to Dassa to worship Nana Burukú. When they arrived, everything was provided for them. However, only the greatest and most powerful priests of Nana Burukú entered the temple because it was said that once a person entered the sacred precinct, he or she “learns how to speak a hundred languages at once” (Herskovits in Dahomey, Vol. II, pp.  102-103). While we don’t know much about how Nana was honored, we do have a sense that it was an important part of the annual cycle of rituals that knit together Dahomey as a society.
Still, I do wish we had more records of what those pilgrims were experiencing. I do wish we knew more about their inner lives. Did they contemplate the stories that explained the origin of the pilgrimage? Were their heads filled with prayers for the people they left behind in their home towns? Did they hope to learn something about themselves in the process? Did they have some sense of this pilgrimage as a way to honor Nana Burukú as the Creator?  Were any of them disappointed that they could not enter or when they saw the face of the deity resided in a mound of Earth covered by a straw covering? Did any of them go crazy when they accessed this whole new kind of knowledge? I am not sure we will ever know, but it is possible to imagine rich stories in response to each of these questions.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Babalú-Ayé Hits NPR's On Being!

While we were calling and feeding Babalú-Ayé as part of his annual feast, the great NPR show On Being posted a nice piece on the public festival in Rincón, Cuba.

Check out the mainstreaming of the Father of the World here!