Honor Babalú-Ayé, the Orisha of Epidemics and Healing

A report from the New York Latin Culture Magazine.

Babalú-Ayé is a West African, Central African and diaspora orisha of contagious diseases and epidemics, and healing from them. As the orisha of both sickness and healing, he is both feared and loved.

In New York, we mostly know the saints through Caribbean traditions, especially Yoruba (parts of Nigeria/Benin/Togo) traditions in Cuba. Actually there are many related faiths in West Africa, Central Africa and the African diaspora, just as there are many distinct, but related, variants of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Saint Lazarus

Under Catholic repression during the time of human enslavement, Africans preserved their faith by syncretizing (blending) their own traditions with the slavers’ Catholic traditions. In Cuba, it is perfectly normal to practice both Catholic and African traditions.

In the Americas, Babalú-Ayé is syncretized with the Catholic Saint Lazarus. There are actually two Saints Lazarus: Saint Lazarus of Bethany (John 11:18, 30, 32, 38) and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16).

Saint Lazarus of Bethany was raised from the dead by Jesus after he had been entombed for four days. In popular culture, Saint Lazarus has become a metaphor for the restoration of life.

The beggar Lazarus is a character in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In this story a poor beggar lived on the street outside a rich man’s house. Both died around the same time. Finding himself in hell, the rich man asked Father Abraham to send the beggar Lazarus to help him. Abraham declined saying that the afterlife balances out life.

Diaspora veneration of Babalú-Ayé conflates the two Lazarus characters.

Signs of Babalú-Ayé

Babalú-Ayé is often covered to hide his diseased skin. He uses a ritual broom for purification, earthen vessels, and cowry shells. The faithful offer him grain.

His number is 17 which is a prime number.

It’s interesting how the god of the earth, and of sickness and health is worshiped at this time. In the northern hemisphere, the Earth sickens through fall, dies in winter, and returns to health in spring and summer. The Earth is brought back to life like Lazarus in the bible story.

Babalú is also associated with movement. In the north, we are entering the slowest time in the cycle of life, but are about to get moving again.

La Caminata at the Church of Saint Lazarus in Rincón, Cuba

“La Caminata” is a famous Cuban pilgrimage to the Church of Saint Lazarus in Rincón, Cuba on December 17 every year.

People walk to the church. Some crawl. Some push little carts with a statue of Saint Lazarus dressed in burlap and wearing a red cloth. The devoted make themselves bloody and dusty crawling as they meditate on the harsh quality of life.

In Caribbean Indigenous tradition, people blow cigar smoke at images of the saint. In total, this is a rich representation of the Indigenous + European + African traditions.

The pilgrimage may be done in hope that a prayer will be answered or to give thanks for a prayer delivered.

Awán

In the awán ceremony for Babalú-Ayé, an empty basket is circled with plates of food. Practitioners cleanse themselves with handfuls of food which they throw into the basket. There are many local variations of this.

Ricky Ricardo’s Signature Song

For those old enough to remember the Ricky Ricardo character played by Cuban actor Desi Arnaz in the U.S. television show “I Love Lucy,” Ricky’s signature song was Babalú, a Cuban song about Babalú-Ayé.

The 2020 Letter of the Year

Every December 31st, faith organizations in Cuba tell the fortune of the coming year. It’s called the Letter of the Year. The West African tradition follows the yam harvest in June. In the Caribbean, this African New Year’s celebration is syncretized (blended) with the colonizer’s European New Year tradition.

The point of this is that the 2020 Letter of the Year foretold a year of terrible sickness. The Letter of the Year was right and Babalú-Ayé is the orisha to whom we pray for deliverance.

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