Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pedro Abreu—Asonyanye, Son of Asojano-Afimaye

I first met Pedro Abreu in 2001. David Brown had been telling me about him for a few years at that point and when David introduced us, I immediately understood David’s fascination.

The first time we met, Abreu outlined his whole history in the religion. He was born in Los Sitios in Centro Havana. He had a prenda from the African-inspired Regla de Congo from a young age, but he had not really believed in religion. In 1975, he received Asojano-Afimaye in Havana from Matilde Sotomayor—Asoninque, the famous Asojano priestess who worked with Pilar Fresneda—Asonsíperaco. The famous Ñica Fernández—Onojome and Victor—Quemafo were also there.

On February 20, 1992, Abreu made Asojano-Afimaye at the Cabildo Arará Sabalú Nonjó in Matanzas City. It had been 36 years since anyone had made Asojano there, but his godmother María Isabel Reyes—Asonsímeneco did have Asojano made direct as tradition required. At itá he given the oricha name Asonyanye, after the famous Havana priest known as El Abuelo (even Abreu does not know his real name). When Asojano spoke through Ifá, as he does in this lineage, he came with the sign Ogunda-Iwori. Abreu immediately added that this sign includes the proverb “El árbol que se podre retoña” (the tree that is pruned sprouts back again).

While Abreu did not go on about the implications of the proverb, he did recount the slow dissipation of both the Havana lineage and the Sabalú Cabildo in Matanzas. In Havana, Pilar Fresneda’s cabildo had been in the hands of Ofelia de Pogolotti, an Ochún priestess who used information to continue to honor Asojano. In Matanzas, the famous Michaela Ruiz had left things in the hands of Mayito, whose son Oscarito was now in charge. But neither Mayito nor Oscarito were Asojano priests. Abreu also traced the other towns where Arará folks lived: Perico, Jovellanos, Máximo Gómez, and Agramonte. But as he put it, “Much has been lost there.”

In this gentle, almost indirect way, Abreu positioned himself as the reblossoming tree of the Arará worship of Asojano, and in fact, it’s true. To date he has initiated at least 29 people directly to Asojano and he has given Asojano to thousands more. Like Afimaye, Abreu's vitality and charisma have motivated many people to work together in ceremonies large and small.

(Thanks to David Brown for the great portrait of Pedro.)

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 for the image.)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ogbe-Yono Where Babalú-Ayé Gave the Awán to Olocun

Two weeks ago, I was in San Francisco to participate in the good work of the Second Earth Medicine Alliance conference. As we did last year, my goddaughter Phoenix Smith and I led a public ceremony focusing the oricha’s energy on healing the Earth. Last year we did an awán for Babalú, and this year Elegguá directed us to perform an awán for Olocun along the edge of San Francisco Bay. Phoenix found an amazing little park in West Oakland, right next to the port facilities, and just before the ceremony began, she learned that people refer to this area as one of the points of the toxic triangle in the Bay. The area where we worked last year is also one point of the triangle, and next year we plan to work the third point.

The ceremony was beautiful. We had about fifteen people turn out on a gorgeous day. We set up an altar right on the beach for egun, Elegguá, and Olocun. To honor the spirits of that place, we sat on the beach with the ancestors for an hour or so, sharing messages from the ancestors and cleaning people. Then we moved into the awán, where we cleaned everyone present and honored Olocun.

People always notice the similarity between the awán we do for Babalú-Ayé and the awán for Olocun, and there are other deep connections between these two mysterious deities. As I was flying out to San Francisco, I stumbled across this story from Ogbe-Yono that suggests that our movement from Babalú-Ayé to Olocun reflects a much deeper pattern.

Awó Ikokó was a child of Ogbe-Yono and lived in the land of Awó Bonu. He lived well because he was always feeding Olocun. He would carry cooked food in a large clay vessel and uncooked food in a basket, singing to Olocun. Then Olocun would come out of the sea and bless him. But in Awó Bonu, no one had been initiated for a long time, and no one had time for religion. Awó Ikokó was growing old and he tried to convince people that they needed to get serious.

The next day as he went to the sea to feed Olocun, Awó Ikokó encountered Molocun and told him, “I am going to initiate you so you can help keep this land prosperous after my death.” He began to prepare everything, and on his way to the market to buy certain things, he encountered Elegguá and Oluó Popó. They were both carrying two new clay vessels and an awán in a basket filled with every kind of bean. They prostrated before Awó Ikokó and said, “We were looking for you to give you what you need to consecrate Molocun. So Oluó Popó gave him the awán, saying “Place everything in here that you need.” Oluó Popó taught Awó Ikokó the whole ceremony. Elegguá told Awó Ikokó  how to use the two clay vessels to honor his own head and Molocun’s head, and told him to place those in the awán as well.

So everything was ready for Molocun’s initiation, and they took the awán out. When Molocun was in the initiation room, Ogbe-Yono came out, and Elegba told him to maintain the tradition of the awán so that everything would go well.

Then many, many people began to come to Awó Bonu so that Awó Ikokó and Molocun could initiate them. Olocun was very pleased and sent a great deal of wealth to them so they would always live well. The people of Awó Bonu noticed this change and began to pay more attention to serving the orichas.

Babalú-Ayé is very active in this odu, and it seems Babalú-Ayé has taken pity on the people in the Bay Area and is trying to help them find more stability and well-being. It is interesting to note that since the ceremonies last year, the California drought has ended and water levels are in good shape, at least for now.

Next year we will see where Elegguá sends us and what that adds to the story.