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.