St. Lazarus’ Day: Babalu-Aye and Me
Dec. 17th is St. Lazarus’s feast day. This is not the St. Lazarus that Jesus was said to have raised from the dead; this is the St. Lazarus who had leprosy and was begging outside the city when a rich man ignored him every day. The rich man went to hell when he died, and Lazarus went to heaven; the parable means that one should always care for the poor and ill, something that some of today's so-called “Christians” who don’t believe that everyone deserves health care need to be aware of. He is depicted as an older man on crutches with obvious sores on his body and limbs, usually accompanied by a dog or two. In this the saint reminds me of many homeless people today who keep their pets; in the last few days here in Los Angeles, a homeless woman almost drowned saving her puppy until they were both rescued by firefighters.
In the early 1980’s I noticed a strange shop open up a few blocks from the library where I worked. It had been a cake decorating shop, and indeed cake decorating supplies were still available in the front of the store, but other things I saw there were mysterious to me. First and most prominent was a large statue of a man on crutches, who appeared to be some sort of saint. Not having been raised Catholic, although my father’s side of the family certainly is, I did not recognize this particular saint as he was not common in the form of Catholicism that I was familiar with. But the big statue—which I learned later was St. Lazarus—was appointed as a type of altar, and I later learned that this was a representation of Babalu-Aye, yeah, the orisha that Desi Arnaz sang about (we’ll come back to that), and an orisha who is both loved and feared.
The shop was called Botanica Ogun, located in Lennox, California, and it would become my first introduction to Santeria, La Regla de Ocha, Lucumi, Ifa, or whatever name you find most appropriate for it. To me it was Cuban magick and religion, for this was not long after the Mariel Boatlift, which brought lots of practitioners of Santeria to the United States.
I’ve been studying Santeria and related traditions ever since. They are similar to the traditions I know about in New Orleans—yet at the same time, very different if followed to the letter. I was curious about the legend of St. Lazarus/Babalu-Aye. Apparently, he is feared as the bringer of disease—specifically smallpox, but any deadly disease as well. Babalu-Aye became afflicted, as the legend goes, because he was an incurable womanizer and God wanted to keep him away from women. Another legend says he was laughed at as he clumsily danced at a party, and he got so angry that he afflicted humanity with smallpox. In the first legend, Babalu-Aye died, but the women who were his lovers begged Oshun, the love goddess, to restore him to health. She was able to bring him back to life with her magical honey, but was unable to cure his sores. Now humbled, he cares for the sick and prevents outbreaks of illness whenever possible. He is, not surprisingly, a patron of HIV-positive people.
So, now I understand the Desi Arnaz song. In the English translation, “Babalu” is listed as a love goddess, and presumably the singer is imploring her because of his loneliness. Now that we know Babalu-Aye’s record with women, I think the true meaning of the song is clear!
More about Babalu-Aye can be found in the award-winning book Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America by Miguel A. DeLaTorre.
Here are the English lyrics and a video of Desi Arnaz singing “Babalu”: http://www.streetdirectory.com/lyricadvisor/song/aaflc/babalu_english_version/