Father of the Earth
Also known as:
Obaluaiyé; Sagbata; Sakpata; Omolu; Soponnon; Asohin; Asojano
Feast: 17 December
The simplest explanation of Babalu Ayé is that he is the spirit of smallpox, but that does not do him justice. Babalu Ayé transcends being a disease spirit: he is a powerful deity who is as adored as he is feared. He is a dread spirit who is simultaneously beloved.
Babalu Ayé protects against the disease he embodies and carries. He is smallpox, and he is its vaccine. Smallpox has become something of a disease of the past, but Babalu Ayé remains relevant. He has dominion over all skin ailments, major and minor, as well as infectious and viral diseases. He controls all illnesses that manifest on the skin, like measles or chicken pox. Babalu Ayé has emerged as the spirit of AIDS and the patron who protects those suffering from this illness. He owns all secrets of death, disease, and cemeteries.
Babalu Ayé is a title meaning “Father of the Earth”—not his real name. It is considered dangerous to call him by his true name, no need to attract his attention needlessly, no need to get too familiar, lest he become familiar with you, too. Euphemisms are used to address him. Babalu Ayé is the most famous and well-known, but there are others:
• Babaligbo: Father of the Forest
• Ile-Gbonon: Earth Heats Up
• Olode: Lord of the Outside
• Oluwa: The Lord
• Omo-Olu: Child of the Lord (from whence derives his Brazilian manifestation, Omolu)
He is venerated throughout Western Africa and, unlike many orishas, is shared by several spiritual traditions, so it is unclear exactly from where he derives. In one myth, he was a handsome, amorous prince punished with smallpox by the Creator for breaking a spiritual injunction. Because people cried so much for him after his death (or because Oshun, his lover, mourned so deeply), the Creator resurrected him, giving him dominion over the disease that felled him. Another legend describes him as a lame beggar. Unsympathetic people mocked and abused him past his point of endurance. He took a broom and, sweeping some sesame seeds into the air, magically created fever, pestilence, and especially smallpox. No one mocks him anymore.
In 1917, British colonial authorities in Africa banned devotion to Babalu Ayé when his priests were accused of deliberately spreading smallpox. The religion went underground with Baba worshipped as Oluwa, “the lord.”
Babalu Ayé strikes down the immoral, arrogant, and wicked. He fells the insolent. Always be kind and polite to even the most decrepit, pathetic beggar: it could be Babalu Ayé testing your character. Babalu Ayé strolls with an entourage all dressed in red in the heat of the noonday sun. Sometimes he cloaks himself in raffia to hide the ravages of his disease. People are cautioned against walking alone at noon, especially wearing red, lest Babalu add you to his entourage. Babalu Ayé delivers the wrath of God—but he also has the power to save you from it.
He is syncretized to Saint Lazarus—not the Lazarus who was raised from the dead, but the poor leper whose dogs lick his sores, mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. When African devotees saw the chromolithograph of Saint Lazarus, they recognized Babalu Ayé in his suppurating sores and the faithful, loving dogs.
Those who suffer from any of the illnesses under Babalu’s dominion may consider themselves under his dominion. He is the patron of the humble, outcasts, and those who truly suffer.
A broom with which he removes illness or sweeps it into the air; a club to fell his victims; a lance or spear with which he pricks victims to cause pustules, spots, or pox; arrows that cause rash
Babalu was the signature song of Cuban singer, actor, and television producer Desi Arnaz (2 March 1917–2 December 1986). According to legend, Desi requested three things from Babalu: professional and financial success and a beautiful wife. In return he promised to spread Babalu’s name around the globe, or so the legend says.
Depending on tradition, he’s associated with brown, red, purple, yellow, black, and/or white.
Days: Sunday or Monday
Scorpions; dogs. Shango stole the dogs, who are his constant companions, from Ogun to give to Babalu Ayé so that he would not be so lonely.
Odan (a kind of banyan native to West Africa)
In Africa, he’s venerated alongside Nana Buruku and Oshumare, who may be his parents; in the African-Diaspora, he is closely allied with Shango.
Altars: In general, only Babalu’s true devotees maintain permanent altars for him. Others erect them as needed (for a petition, spell, or gratitude), but then promptly remove them. No need for him to feel too much at home. Place offerings atop a raffia cloth; decorate with pottery shards, dry leaves, and perforated objects (believed to resemble smallpox pustules or measles spots). Soak some bread in milk and put it on the altar to feed Babalu Ayé’s dogs, his ever-present companions.
The shrine of Saint Lazarus in El Rincon, Cuba
Popcorn, roasted corn, sesame seeds, candy, cookies, cigars, cowrie shells. If you wish to cook for him, he likes chicken; Babalu drinks good white wine: don’t offer water; it irritates his sores. Offer him small milagros when you request healing. Present larger, even full-sized ones if he answers your petition.
A SIMPLE Ritual REQUESTING THAT BABALU AYé REMOVE ILLNESS
• Create a simple shrine by laying down a raffia cloth.
• Place a glass of white wine on the cloth, together with a bowl of milk in which you have placed a slice of bread.
• Pour palm oil over a bowl of dry popcorn and place this on the raffia, too. The wine, milk, and bread may be removed after twenty-four hours, but the popcorn must remain for seventeen days.
• Use this shrine as a focal point for prayer and petition. Invoke Babalu; negotiate with him; plead with him; always speak very gently and politely to him. (Some spirits tolerate bullying and threats, but not Babalu.)
• When the seventeen days are over, completely dismantle the shrine. Take the popcorn to the park or beach and feed it to birds.
- Nana Buruku
- T’ou Chen Niang Niang
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.