Babalú-Ayé and a Theology of Multiplicity

Babalú-Ayé’s world is rife with multiplicity. He is called by many names. Some people say he has 77 different roads, or avatars. He is honored by an enormous number of groups, and they make altar objects for him with many different forms. Even the secret medicines that go into these objects vary widely.

Babalú-Ayé is called by many names. In the Cuba countryside, some people call him Ayanu, and there are songs from Matanzas Province that reiterate this name as a generic praise name for him. The Ararat usually call him Asojano. In a common shorthand, many people simply refer to him as “the Old Man” or San Lázaro, the Catholic saint with which he is strongly associated. As I have explained elsewhere, these names are all really meant to protect us from speaking is true name, Shakuaná. To utter that name is to call sickness and death into your immediate surroundings.

My godfather Ernesto Pichardo taught me that Babalú-Ayé is like a surname for a group of deities, each of which has its own character, history, and preferences. Soyaya is the earth at the bottom of the sea and eats yellow snapper. The road called Agrónika is said to have retreated to a cave to create the já, the cleansing broom that figures in many of Babalú’s ceremonies. Young and energetic, Afimaye is said to be the youngest road of Babalú. Bound by a family connection to the earth, sickness, and healing, each road expresses a different face of the deity.

Individual devotees may even end up receiving or inheriting multiple manifestations of Babalú-Ayé over time. Raquel Fernández—Obá Kedún inherited six different Babalús, including the Arará deity that had crowned her husband, Rafael Linares—Emerego.

The fundamentos, or consecrated altar objects, that people use to honor Babalú also vary widely. The so-called Babalú-Ayé Lucumí takes coral stones and cowry shells, like other Lucumí deities. Most communities cover the vessels that contain these things, but some do not. Some Arará lineages give a sealed vessel with nothing in it. While some people find this objectionable, others argue that it makes perfect sense: Babalú-Ayé is spiritual and therefore cannot be contained in a vessel. The Arará Sabalú give Asojano in the same kind of vessel but with a large “secret” within it. While no one really argues about the validity of the multiple names of the deity, people can become quite polemical about the morphology of the altar objects, claiming that one is real while the other is an “invention.”

This mass of cement contains a wide range of medicines. Some priests have shared their “recipes” for these secrets with me, and some people use these as a schema from which to improvise or consult the deity. My godfather Pedro Abreu says that he makes each one unique, even if they are for the same road. Why? Because the medicine that will heal one person is not the same medicine that will heal another, even if they have the same ailment.

So how do we make sense of this extensive multipilicity? How do we describe a deity whose identity, names, and very form vary so widely? How do we understand these phenomena as anthropological, sociological, or psychological? When discussing the use of plates to decorate the altars of water goddesses in the Diaspora, the famed art historian and praise singer of Yoruba classicism Robert Farris Thompson describes how some priestesses claimed the plates were only for dressing the goddesses up, some shared a more calculating and meaningful use of the plates to identify the goddesses, and still others articulated a direct cosmological significance. Celebrating this diversity, he says, “A range of elaborative and interpretive discretion confronts us.” We might extend this idea to formulate a notion of “interpretative multiplicities”—the various if simultaneous meanings and uses that people ascribe to the same symbols and actions with the African-inspired religious worlds of oricha and fodun worship. This notion embraces the fundamental multivocality of symbols and symbolic action, while at the same it recognizes that pluralistic and indeterminate nature of the social and psychological universe, just as William James argued. Despite the sometimes-vehement protestations of individual practitioners, it is possible to say that all of these interpretations, however varied, express some truth for specific people.

Note: The Thompson quote comes from page 215 of Faces of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and The African Americas (New York: The Museum of African Art, 1993).