In the religious system of Orisha worship, Babalú-Ayé is the praise name of the spirit of the Earth and strongly associated with infectious disease, and healing. He is an Orisha, representing the deity Olorun on Earth. 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, but in the contemporary Americas, he is more commonly thought of as the patron of leprosy, influenza, and AIDS.[2] Although strongly associated with illness and disease, Babalú-Ayé is also the deity 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]

Origins in Africa

While it is difficult to identify a precise origin for Babalú-Ayé, he has a long history in West Africa among the Ewe, Fon, and Yoruba.


Widely venerated in Yoruba areas, 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 Obatalá, 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 inflect them with smallpox. Obatalá stopped him and drove him in the bush, where he has lived as an outcast ever since.[9] Some people use this story to suggest that Shopona went into exile among the neighboring Fon peoples to the West of the principal Yoruba areas.


In Fon areas of Benin, the deity is most commonly called Sagbatá. Here too 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 deity are venerated. Because the dead are buried in the Earth, the manifestation called Avimadye is considered the chief of the ancestors.[10] Because all people live on the Earth, which makes our existence possible, and because Sagbatá is considered by many to be the eldest child of the deity,[11] he is considered the most senior deity (in stark contrast to Yoruba notions about the seniority of Obatalá).


Among the Ewe people of Ghana and Togo, there is a similar figure with the praise name Anyigbato (Ewe for "Owner of the Earth") 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]

Manifestations in African diaspora traditions

Names of the deity, sacred narratives about his life, and ritual practices from both Yoruba and Fon origins travelled to the Americas with enslaved and free people. These differences play a significant role in the worship of Babalú-Ayé in the Americas today, where these ethnic and political identities are continued as the Lucumí and Arará in Cuba and as the Nago and the Jeje in Brazil. Babalú-Ayé appears in most New World manifestations of Orisha religion.

In Lucumí Santería with its origins in Cuba, Babalú-Ayé is among the most popular orishas.[15] Syncretized by some 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 Province. Arará communities in Cuba and its Diaspora honor the deity as Asojano and claim superior knowledge of his rituals.[16] Both traditions use sack cloth in rituals to evoke his humility. The deity also appears in the Afro-Cuban religious tradition Palo Mayombe as Pata en Llaga or Kobayende.

Called Omolu, “the son of the lord,” or Obaluaiyé in Brazilian Candomblé,[17] the orisha’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. He also manifests in other Brazilian traditions like Umbanda and Macumba.

In Ifa and Diloggun divination

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 (Diloggun), he is also strongly also associated with the sign called Metanlá (13 cowries).[18]

Relationship to other orisha

There are several, sometimes contradictory, accounts of Babalú-Ayé's genealogical relationships with other orisha. Babalú-Ayé is often considered the son of Yemayá and the brother of Shango.[19] However, some traditions maintain that he is the son of Nana Burukú,[20] a Fon deity added to the Yoruba pantheon, and associated with fresh water moving underground and inscrutable female power, but others assert that she is his wife.[21] However, some ritual lineages maintain that Nanú, a strong, mysterious orisha, is the mother of Babalú-Ayé.[22]

Some lineages of Candomblé relate myths that justify Babalú-Ayé being the child of both Yemaya 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. Yemaya 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 (a Cuban oriate in La Regla de Ocha) describes the two orisha as two aspects of a single being,[24] while William Bascom noted that among the Yoruba some connect the two through their mutual close relationship with the spirits of the forest called ijimere.[25]

Themes in the worship of Babalú

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

  • Earth: Babalú-Ayé’s worship is frequently linked to the Earth itself both in Africa and the Americas, and even his name identifies him with the Earth itself.[26] However, he also said to provide his followers with other material blessings as well. Taken as symbol of a large set of concerns, Babalú’s link with the Earth can be understood as an emphasis on the centrality of the material in human life.
  • Illness and Suffering: Long referred to as the “god of smallpox,” Babalú certainly links back to disease in the body and the changes it brings.[27] Because Babalú-Ayé both punishes people with illness and rewards them with health, his stories and ceremonies often deal with the body as a central locus of experience for both human limitations and divine power. Similarly, his mythical lameness evokes the idea of living in a constant state of limitation and physical pain, while people appeal to him to protect them from disease.
  • The Permeable Nature of Things: In the Americas, Babalú-Ayé vessels always have various holes in their lids, allowing offerings to enter but also symbolizing the difficulty in containing illness completely. These holes are often explicitly compared to sores that pock the orisha’s skin.[28] This permeability also appears in the sack cloth and raffia fringe called mariwó used to dress the orisha. Things inside move out and things outside move in.
  • Secrecy and Revelation: The contrast between silence and speech, darkness, and light, and secrecy and revelation permeate the worship of Babalú-Ayé. According to the tradition, certain things must remain secret to sustain their ritual power or their healthy function. In turn inappropriate revelation leads to illness and other negative manifestations.[29] Conversely the appropriate revelation of information can provide important teaching and guidance.
  • Wickedness and Righteousness: Represented in sacred narratives as a transgressor in some instances, Babalú-Ayé himself is condemned to exile because he breaks the social contract . The physical pain of his lame leg transforms into the emotional pain of exile. Only after spending much time in isolation does he return to society. In other contexts, he is lauded as the most righteous of all the orishas. Similarly he is often referred to as punishing the offense of human beings.[30]
  • Exile and Movement: Strongly associated with the forest and the road itself, the key stories and ceremonies related to Babalú-Ayé involve movement as an antidote to stagnation. In Lucumí and Arará ceremonies in Cuba, his vessel is ritually moved from place to place in important initiations. But through this movement through different spaces, Babalú-Ayé regularly appears as a complex, even liminal, figure who unites various realms. Strongly associated with powerful herbs used for poisons and panaceas, he is sometimes associated with Osain and the powerful acts of magicians. Strongly associated with the Earth and the ancestors buried within it, he is sometimes ritually honored with the dead.[31] At the same time, he is widely included as an orisha or a fodun, as the Arará traditionally call their deities in Cuba.[32] Similarly the dogs strongly associated with Babalú move from the house, to the street, to the forest and back with relative facility. In Lucumí traditions, Babalú-Ayé is said to have traveled from the land of the Lucumí to the land of the neighboring Arará. Babalú-Ayé transcends various domains, often separated in other contexts, and thus asserts a near universal authority.
  • Death and resurrection: Last but not least, Babalú-Ayé's own journey of exile, debilitation, and finally restoration addresses the cyclic nature of all life. While this theme of transcendence plays a much more prominent role in the Americas than in West Africa, it is also present there in narratives about epidemics befalling kings and kingdoms, only to find relief and remedy in Babalú-Ayé.[33]

Appearance in popular culture

  • Babalú-Ayé is honored in the highly syncretic and extraordinarily popular Feast of Saint Lazarus each year in El Rincón, Cuba. The festival coincides with the feast day of the saint, but many people honor Babalú with acts of devotion and penitence.
  • The Church of the Lukumí Babalú-Ayé prevailed against the City of Hialeah, Florida, in case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993. The Court struck down a city ordinance forbidding animal sacrifice, because it targeted Santería rituals.
  • "Babalú", a song by Margarita Lecuona, was a Latin American music standard recorded by many musicians but especially associated with the Cuban singer Miguelito Valdés, who recorded several versions starting in 1939 and who was known by the 1940s as "Mr. Babalú" throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.
  • "Babalu" was the signature song of "Ricky Ricardo," the character played by Desi Arnaz in the classic 1950s television series I Love Lucy; in the show the character was sometimes referred to as "Mr. Babalú.". In its sixth and final season, Ricky becomes part owner of the fictional "Tropicana" nightclub, where he was a regular performer, and renames it "Club Babalu."
  • This same song was performed in the 2008 Victoria's Secret fashion show by Jorge Moreno in the show's second segment.
  • Paul Simon makes reference to Babalu Aye in his song "Rhythm of the Saints", which first appeared on the 1990 album of the same name. The lyrics enigmatically state: "Balalu-aye spins on his crutches/ Says leave if you want/ If you want to leave." Simon also used Saint Lazarus/Babalu Aye as a character in his Broadway show, "The Capeman"
  • The theme song of 1960s New York City radio disc jockey Bob Lewis (WABC-AM radio) was "Babalu-ay-e".
  • Panamanian singer Ruben Blades wrote a song about "Babalu-Aye" called "Obalue" (misspelling of Obalu Aye), which appears on the album Caminando. In the song, he briefly narrates the deity's origins and healing powers.
  • The group LatinXpress included "Babalu Aye" in lyrics and subtitle of their song "Meregwotimbo", on their 2003 CD "Oye" CD.
  • I love Lucy - Episode:"The ricardos visit cuba", Song title:"Babalu", Artist:"Desi Arnaz, Richard Keith".
  • Babalu's Wedding Day is a 1959 "Doo Wop" era song by The Eternals.



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  • Ecun, Oba. 1996. Ita: Mythology of the Yoruba Religion. Miami: ObaEcun Books.
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  • Herskovits, Melville. 1938. Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom. New York: J.J. Augustin.
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  • McKenzie, Peter. 1997. Hail Orisha! A Phenomenology of a West African Religion in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.
  • Ramos, Miguel “Willie.” 1996. Afro-Cuban Orisha Worship. In A. Lindsey, ed., Santería Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art, pp. 51–76. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Rosenthal, Judy. 1998. Possession, Ecstasy, and Law in Ewe Voodoo. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
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Further reading

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