Babalu Aye

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Babalú-Ayé is an Orisha strongly associated with infectious disease, and healing. The name Babalú-Ayé translates as “Father, lord of the Earth”[1] and points to the authority this orisha exercises on all things earthly, including the body, wealth, and physical possessions. In West Africa, he was strongly associated with epidemics of smallpox, leprosy, influenza, ebola, and HIV/AIDS.[2] Although strongly associated with illness and disease, Babalú-Ayé is also the spirit that cures these ailments. Both feared and loved, Babalú-Ayé is sometimes referred to as the “Wrath of the supreme god” because he punishes people for their transgressions.[3] People hold Babalú-Ayé in great respect and avoid calling his actual name, because they do not wish to invoke epidemics.[4]

His worship is widely associated with the Earth itself, and his shrines are often separated from commonly travelled areas. His ritual tools include a ritual broom for purification,[5] a covered terra-cotta vessel, and abundant cowry shells.[6] Usually considered hobbled by disease, he universally takes grains as offerings.[7]

In Africa[edit]


Venerated by the Yoruba, he is usually called Shopona and said to have dominion over the Earth and smallpox. He demands respect and even gratitude when he claims a victim, and so people sometimes honor him with the praise name Alápa-dúpé, meaning “One who kills and is thanked for it”.[8] In one commonly recounted story, Shopona was old and lame. He attended a celebration at the palace of Obatala, the father of the orishas. When Shopona tried to dance, he stumbled and fell. All the other orishas laughed at him, and he in turn tried to infect them with smallpox. Obatala stopped him and drove him into the bush, where he has lived as an outcast ever since.[9]


Venerated by the Fon, the spirit is most commonly called Sagbata. He owns the Earth and has strong associations with smallpox and other infections. His worship is very diverse in Fon communities, where many distinct manifestations of the spirit are venerated. Because the dead are buried in the Earth, the manifestation called Avimadye is considered the chief of the ancestors.[10][11]


Venerated by the Ewe, there is a similar figure with the praise name Anyigbato who is closely associated with sickness [12] and displaced peoples.[13] He is believed to wander the land at night, wearing a garment of rattling snail shells; the snail shells are also a key feature of his fetish.[14]

In Latin America[edit]

Omolu, in candomblé of "Ile Ase Ijino Ilu Orossi".

In Santería, Babalú-Ayé is among the most popular orishas.[15] Syncretized with Saint Lazarus, and regarded as particularly miraculous, Babalú-Ayé is publicly honored with a pilgrimage on December 17, when tens of thousands of devoteess gather at the Church and Leprosorium of Saint Lazarus in El Rincón, in the outskirts of Santiago de Las Vegas, Havana. Arará communities in Cuba and its diaspora honor the spirit as Asojano.[16] Both traditions use sack cloth in rituals to evoke his humility. The spirit also appears in Palo as Pata en Llaga.

In Candomblé, Obaluaiê's face is thought to be so scarred by disease and so terrifying that he appears covered with a raffia masquerade that covers his whole body.[17] He also manifests in Umbanda and Macumba.

In Ifá and Dilogun divination[edit]

Through divination, he often speaks to his devotees through the Ifá signs (Odu Ifá) Ojuani Meyi and Irete Meyi, though as a sickness, he can manifest in any divination sign. In cowrie-shell divination (Dilogun), he is also strongly also associated with the sign called Metanlá (13 cowries).[18]

Relationship to other Orisha[edit]

There are several, sometimes contradictory, accounts of Babalú-Ayé's genealogical relationships to other orisha. Babalú-Ayé is often considered the son of Yemoja and the brother of Shango.[19] However, some religious lineages maintain that he is the son of Nana Burukú, while others assert that he is her husband.[20][21][22]

Some lineages of Candomblé relate myths that justify Babalú-Ayé being the child of both Yemoja and Nana Burukú. In these myths, Nana Burukú is Babalú-Ayé's true mother who abandons him to die of exposure on the beach where he is badly scarred by crabs. Yemoja discovers him there, takes him under her protection, nurses him back to health, and educates him in many secrets.[23]

Because of his knowledge of the forest and the healing power of plants, Babalú-Ayé is strongly associated with Osain, the orisha of herbs. Oba Ecun (an oriate in La Regla de Ocha) describes the two orisha as two aspects of a single being,[24] while William Bascom noted that some connect the two through their mutual close relationship with the spirits of the forest called ijimere.[25]

Themes in the worship of Babalú[edit]

The narratives and rituals that carry important cultural information about Babalú-Ayé include various recurring and interrelated themes.


  1. ^ Idowu 1962:95
  2. ^ Thompson 1993:216
  3. ^ Thompson 1993:217
  4. ^ Idowu 1962:97
  5. ^ McKenzie 1997:70
  6. ^ Brown 2003:262-63
  7. ^ Thompson 1993:216
  8. ^ Idowu 1962:97
  9. ^ Ellis 1894:52
  10. ^ Herskovits 1938:142
  11. ^ Herskovits 1938:131
  12. ^ Friedson 2009: 214n27; Lovell 2002: 73-74; Rosenthal 1998: 68
  13. ^ Lovell 2002: 73-74
  14. ^ Friedson 2009: 214n27
  15. ^ Mason 2010
  16. ^ Brown 2003:138-39
  17. ^ Verger 1957:248
  18. ^ Lele 2003: 492-93
  19. ^ Lucas 1996:112, Idowu 1962:99
  20. ^ Thompson 1993:224
  21. ^ Ramos 1996:68
  22. ^ Mason 2010
  23. ^ Voeks 1997
  24. ^ Ecun, 1996
  25. ^ Mason 2012
  26. ^ McKenzie 1997:417
  27. ^ Wenger 1983:168
  28. ^ Brown 2003:263
  29. ^ Buckley 1985
  30. ^ Idowu 1962:97
  31. ^ Herskovits 1938, Vol. 2:142
  32. ^ Mason 2009
  33. ^ Idowu 1962:99; Mason 2010