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.