The Sickened Speech of Babalú-Ayé

In 1992, when I first visited Cuba, an elder told me a simple story about the ritual broom of Babalú-Ayé that is usually called the . He explained that when Babalú was wandering the Earth, at some point he was so sick that he could no longer speak. In the laconic Cuban style, he said, “So that’s why Babalú-Ayé has 16 cowries sewn to his já and why he does not speak through the shells.”  Throughout the stories of Babalú, speech is contested and fraught with difficulty. Common to all aspects of Lucumí religion, different accounts provide explanations and justifications for who has the authority to speak for Babalú-Ayé and in what contexts. These accounts are of intense relevance because speech is usually homologous with knowledge in the religion, and knowledge is perhaps the most potent currency that moves between people.

The classic tale from the sign Ojuani-Odí explains how Babalú-Ayé united with Orula. No one could stop Death except Orula, and so Babalú-Ayé made a long-term alliance with him. From that point forward, Babalú-Ayé is said to have only spoken through Orula and the Ifá divination he governs. 

There is a story in the sign Irete-Oyeku that also links the shells on the já to the troubled nature of Babalú’s speech. The story offers the classic tale of his exile: Babalú did not play by the rules, and so the Lucumí expelled him.  But this story explicitly states that when the Lucumí exiled Babalú, they also forbade him to speak through the shells, which were thereafter sewn to his já as a reminder of this taboo. It seems they sought to silence him and thereby limit the impact of the ruptures he causes and suffering they imply.

For contrast, it is interesting to note that there is another story that explains the origin of the já as a healing tool. Babalú-Ayé-Agrónika-Omobitasa entered a cave to consecrate a já that he then used to heal the Arará. 

The sign Ogunda Meyi contains the most complex and seemingly opposite accounts of Babalú’s access to speech. First, it is worth noting that Ogunda Meyi is where leprosy was born and spread around the world, so from the outset it is inseparably linked to Babalú, who was historically associated with the scourge of leprosy. This divination sign also includes a powerfully simple story where Asojano, exhausted from his travels, sits down on a stone in the land of the Arará, and is immediately given the gift of being able to divine: He is connected to the Earth and he speaks the truth. No shells, no third-party, no nasal voice. He speaks, and what he says is true. 

At the same time, Ogunda Meyi contains a story that explains the birth of the okpele, the divining chain made with eight seeds that babalawos use, and in that story Babalú-Ayé is a major player. While wandering the Earth, Babalú comes to a place where he recognizes the language being spoken by the local diviner. It turns out the local diviner is a long-lost godchild of Babalú’s. The diviner tries to heal Babalú’s leprosy but in the process contracts the disease himself. As he lies dying, he hands Babalú an okpele, explaining that it is a secret Messenger for Ifá.  The godson also explains that a tree will grow from his grave, and from the nuts of that tree, Babalú can make more okpeles.

Pedro Abreu-Asonyanye, the leading Arará priest of Asojano in Havana, categorically maintains that Babalú does not speak when he possesses people because in his opinion, he only speaks through Ifá divination. As Abreu points out, when Asojano comes down into people’s bodies and tries to speak, he speaks in a strange and nasal voice that is hard to understand, a voice the Cubans call fañosa. Abreu does take this as an explanation for why Asojano must speak through Ifá, but it actually opens the conversation to the intelligibility of the sickened speech of Babalú-Ayé, the theme of my next post.

(Thanks as always to Eguín Koladé for clarifying conversation. The já pictured above belonged to Rafael Linares--Emerego.)