Continuing on the theme of deities and disabilities, I want to share some neat information I’m learning in grad school about religions of the African diaspora throughout all of the Americas and how they view disability. These religions are rooted in Yoruba spirituality, and “hide” their gods behind Roman Catholic saints.
Masking their deities as Catholic saints is a brilliant strategy. Pious Yorubans get kidnapped, packed tightly in a fetid slave ship where many of them die, get baptized against their will, are subjected to unimaginable brutality, and yet still find a way to keep their religion alive. Right under the noses of their oppressors, pretending to be “good Christians,” they used the oppressor’s belief system to protect their own. And, unlike many other religions squashed by Christianity, these religions are alive and thriving.
The African diaspora religions are called by many names, and are part of the same religious system. Believers tend to call the religions Yukumi, Spiritism, or Voudoun. Outsiders and some scholars use names like Santeria.
We’ve all heard of Voodoo and most of us have heard of Santeria, and what we hear is dark and scary. This is mainly because it’s a very different faith than most Western religions, and because its believers have had to work very, very hard to keep it hidden.
Anyway, I digress.
While reading a book called “Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America” by Miguel de la Torres, I came across a very interesting passage about a deity, or “orisha” named Babalu Aye (yes, this is the guy Desi Arnaz sang to on “I Love Lucy.”) There are all kinds of legends about Babalu Aye, but long story short, he walked with crutches and his body was covered with sores. And he’s one of the most revered orishas in the Americas.
What’s cool about the African diaspora religions is they envision very human deities who know exactly what we go through because they often have the same experiences – plus, these guys aren’t perfect. So a disabled god covered in sores and who uses crutches is natural.
According to one of the stories about Babalu Aye, it’s his fault that disability and illness broke loose into the world. He was partying with some of his fellow orishas, just dancing away, when the host, a powerful orisha named Obatala, started making fun of how he moved with his stumps and crutches. This pissed off Babalu-Aye so much that he let loose all kinds of illnesses, diseases and disabilities. The other orishas recovered, but the people with them didn’t.
Over time, Babalu Aye regretted what he did and decided it was his job to look out for people with disabilities.
Another Yoruban story about how and why people have disabilities tells the story of how human beings were fashioned from clay. The first few batches were fine, but it was a very hot day and the orisha Obatala was thirsty. So he drank palm wine. After a while he was pretty drunk and some of the people he made didn’t come out the same as those in the first few batches. Thus were created the first people with disabilities. Ever since then, people with disabilities are to be respected as they are under Obatala’s protection.
I know this worldview is problematic when viewed through a disability perspective lens that says we are fine the way we are created, and disability is normal, not a mistake – and certainly not the doing of a drunk god. But bear with me for a minute.
I think this religious system’s attitude toward disability and illness is more disability-positive than negative, and possibly the most positive I’ve come across in any world religion. It teaches that for whatever reason, disability and illness are part of life. And in this religion, it really is God’s fault. Therefore, the gods bear responsibility to ensure that people with disabilities are treated well, with respect. Also, being cured or not cured is not a sign one way or another of a person’s purity or faith or anything. It just is what it is. I think many Western religions, including Christianity, could learn a lot from this attitude toward life with a disability.
For more information on the religions of the African diaspora, take a look at “Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America” by Miguel de la Torres and “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” by Karen McCarthy Brown.