CONCEPTIONS OF IFA: OLD WORLD VS. NEW WORLD Where Theology, Methodology, and National Content May Have Differing Sources: An Opinion About the Relationship Between Ifa and Yoruba Religion From the Book "African Spirituality vs. The African American " © Alashe Michael Oshoosi (1997), All Rights Reserved
Introduction: Two Theses Arising From Reading The Works of Ifa Scholars and The Practice of the Ashe of Literacy.
ABSTRACT First Thesis: Whether fully conscious or merely implicit, there seem to be two views of the relationship of Ifa to the Orisha cults within the religion. The first view regards Ifa (and Orunmila) as "central" to the divinltory and "knowledge" base of the religion, but not "higher" nor primary in the concentration of ashe or authority than the other Orisha or ancestral cults. In this view, Ifa may be likened to the axle of a bicycle wheel; indeed at the center point but, more or less, on the same plane as the other manifestations of the religion (which exist on the "rim" of the wheel). I call this the ecumenical view of Ifa. By contrast, there are some elders and scholars who describe the reiiglon as it- self Ifism or Orunmilism with, among them, a minority that claims that Orun- mila Is virtually God Almighty and that Ifa Is his Word. For them, Ifa Orunmilism is not only the center of the knowledge of the religion, but is the central apex of the religion, i.e., Ifa is both the center and the "higher" ashe and authority of the Orisha and ancestral cult religion. The metaphor of the hand-held central stem or spike of an open umbrella is used here to connote the image of centrality and hierarchy. For this reason I call this school the Orunmilist hierarchical view of Ifa. Many Nigerian scholars openly or implicitly acknowledge this divergence. Some stating an opinion of what is correct in their view while others simply point to the differences as unfathomable and irreducible; but none dwell on it or speak of its implications. Indeed, there may not be much in the way of further Implications for the traditionalists of Nigeria This matter is taken seriously among the Afro-Cuban practitioners, is of handled by circumvention among the Afro-Brazilian Yoruba traditionalists (there are only three Babalawos in Brazil) [as of 1997], but is critical to the confusion sown among many newly emergent African American practitioners. They are often led by novice or self-edifying African American Ifa priests into believing that once they have received a single "hand of Orunmila" they are not only in the religion but are also coming in at "the top" of it (because, naively, they are led to believe that by coming to Ifa first they are practicing the religion "the African way"). These neophyte African Americans are not only often misinfor- med or irreverent vis. a- vis. the Orisha cults and its priests and priestesses in regard to etiquette, but more importantly do not have a clue as to why it is im- portant for them also to have their "Heads" crowned by the Orisha which rules their"Head," whomever that may be, and for them to fulfill the destiny which they chose in Heaven. Their ruling Orisha is most often not Orunmila. And while Orunmila service is imporant for those whose destiny requires it-- something which is not an option of personal choice--a serious error obtains when they are led by or led to practitioners who downplay the importance of them having their "Heads" crowned with their actual guardian or ruling orisha. During the 21st Century, this author is convinced that an African American school of Yoruba will emerge and we are best served by understanding found- ational issues and divergences now.
Second Thesis: Though we tend to speak of Ifa as one religious corpus, my reading suggests to me that Ifa has at least three historical components: ( 1 ) a geomancy methodology for the casting and notation of divination results, (2) an Egyptian or Kemetlc influenced theological and etymological source, and (3) a Yoruban (or other tribal) national content which makes up the parables, allegories, riddles, medicines, locations, etc. described in the Olodu(s) or Du(s) of the various Afri- can tribal cultures which practice some variant of Ifa. Over history, these three features were merged into what we now generally call Ifa. But, of necessity, one must concede that these actual histories have distinc- tion. (It is sociological, linguistic and anthropological history which concerns us here, not Orunmila or Oduduwa or Orisha'nla who was responsible for the found- ing or witnessing the birth of the Yoruba nation and eniyan dudu [black human- ity], per se.
Is Ifa the "Center" of the Religion or the "Apex-Center" of the Religion: Two African Views?
For some--perhaps the minority of Ifa practitioners it seems--Ifa, the body of universal and timeless knowledge which Orunmila articulates, is itself 'the whole of the traditional religion' and, by contrast, the other deities and. their priestly cults are but somewhat lower aspects of this religion. I will refer to priest of this persuasion as "Orunmila hierarchists." However, other traditional Africans--in cluding some authoritative ones--not to mention New World Yoruba practition- ers, do not see it quite that way. I shall call them "Ifa ecumenicals." This latter group concedes that Ifa has the widest scope of "knowledge" about destinies, about medicinal and sacrificial interventions, and about the laws of the universe, when consulted, but what they do not assert is that "knowledge" per se, or its messengers, have a total, permanent, and freestanding primacy in religious spirituality or that Ifa is the "father" of all of the world's major reiigions.
For the "ecumenicals," rather, ashe, the power to effectively create reality, or to seal into existence new realities, with or without" full knowledge" is seen as the highest form of spirituality. And this power may be experienced by many indiv- iduals, especially priests and priestesses, and may be experienced at times when divining, as a practical matter, is irrelevant. One who cultivates, manifests (for example, in possession), enlarges and directs ashe, regardless of his or her id- entity, or the identity of the deities associated with his or her "Head" is, at that time, a great and effective person. And, in that context and at these moments, he or she is as much "at the top" of religious experience as is any diviner-specialist engaged in divination. Effective actions which channel ashe or mana, visitations or possessions by communicat- ing deities, as well as "knowledge" pulled down by divining methods, all reflect the word and the will of God. That is, they all reflect the containers or the "Odus" of God's words, will, and instructions.
In Old World Yoruba religion, Ifa, in a manner of speaking, serves as a theological center, an axis or axle around which most (but not all) of the social religious forms and concepts revolve. And among them the conceptual differences which appear between the Ifa "ecumenicals" on the one hand, and the"Orunmila hierar- chists," on the other, can be illustrated in this way. The axis or axle may be seen as the center of a bicycle wheel. Whether viewed laying on its side (a horizontal view) or rolling-along upright (a vertical view), the axis or axle, is for the ecumen- icals nevertheless, on the same plane with the other divine "inhabitants" which may be "living" out on the "wheel's rim"--e.g., the deity cults, in this metaphor. By contrast, on the other hand, think of an open umbrella. In this iUusfration, an open umbrella also has a center axis or stem (which one holds). But in this view--that of the--Orunmila hierarchists --for example, its center is slightly or signif- icantly higher than those ("the inhabitant," the orisha of the cults) living at the edge of the umbrella. The center of the umbrella, for them, is also an apex.
Applying the "equal dignities rule" of respect here (because the author is an Orisha priest and not a member of this Ifa divination speciality cult, it could be said that "an umbrella view will not get you anywhere, but if you should happen to go there anyway, it will get you there drier. The bicycle wheelview, by compar- ison, "will not get you to your destination in a dry way, but it will get you there faster." In this tortured metaphor, the ecumenlcil. one, is like a circle which rolls one along toward one's destination on the basis of strong axial support; but the hierarchists' view paternalistically or esoterically sees itself--like an open um-brella--as sheltering all of "the Knowing."
In these senses, Ifa may be seen as either the "center of the religion" or as the "central and highest" manifestation of the knowledge and the ashe of this rel- igion. Thus, in both African views, no one disagrees that Ifa is central to the rel- igion or its most comprehensive overview. Moreover, in the continental Yoruba tradition, the divining roles of the babalawos and Ifa priests and priestesses is almost always seen as relevant, and in a big way, to the practice of the religion even within the priest cult or natal family sub-groupings. From both perspect- ives, the ecumenical and the heirarchical, Ifa is the main integrator of the var- ieties of Yoruba religious experience in the Old World.
Some Ifa priests, at least some in the New World, speak as if they virtually equate the deity Orunmila with God Almighty and imply that they alone--Ifa priests---have the ashe, the "total intuitive submlssion," to divine effectively. Ifa's priests are thought to be regularly possessed by their spirit ideal or spirit-double, oke ipori, which gives their divination practices an extraordinary validity. And their position seems to have some support in the writings of continental African el- ders. We might find, e.g., Fagbenro Beyioko, Dr. O.A. (Short Catechism for Ifa Chil- dren, p.1 ) in this camp which asserts the primacy of Ifa/ Orunmila or, likewise, Abiodun, Rowland, (Ifa: Art Objects... in Abimbola, Dr. W., Yoruba Oral Tradition). These scholars exemplify the ones which either call the religion itself "Orunmil- ism" or speak of the primacy of Orunmila. This impulse was advanced by the el- der, Fagbenro-Beyioko, in a 1943 paper called "Orunmilism, The Basis of Jesus- ism," in an effort to prop up Yoruba religion to world class status. Proposing, as he did, that it, for example, was the basis of Christianity. Even his credo "The Orun- mila Faith" reads like a Christian prayer.
An even earlier variation on the theme of legitimizing Ifa as prominent or foun- dational to the world's other major religions may be found in the writing of Epega, Rev. D. Olarimwa, (What Is Ifa, Lecture #1, Univ. of lbandan, 1935, wherein he as- serts that Ifa is the African equivalent of Hinduism, Buddhism, Persian religion, Chinese Religion, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Ifa is the "seventh seal," refer- red to in the Bible of the Book of Revelations) and a basis of all ancient wisdom. "No one can define it; Ifa has seen it all" is, in essence, what he asserts in claiming for Ifa "world-class" status. However, an astute reader should suspect, if not discern, that to a curious extent it is Christianity, and the attempts to legitimize African religion to Christians, which is the tail wagging this conceptual approach. The reverend Epega also wrote in, for example, The Basis of Yoruba Religion (in which he is titled "a patri- arch") equates initiation with baptism (p.10), equates the Orisha of communicat- ions, polarities and paradox, Eshu Elegbara, with "the DEVIL," (p.1 7) and descri- bes Orunmila as the founder of Yoruba religion (p.25) who implicitly authored of all of the "430,080" total Odus of Yoruba religion. *********************************************************************************** IMPORTANT NEW NOTE ADDED TO THIS ORIGINAL 1996 ESSAY ON THE CONCEPT (OR LACK OF ONE) OF "THE DEVIL" IN YORUBA ORISHA-IFA RELIGION [New Note: It is often said that there is no "devil" in Orisha-Ifa religion. This is true (and if there was one it certainly was not Eshu). In reality, there was once a "devil" in the religion, but he was killed by the Ibeji twins and completely eaten by them. The itan (a legend in the odu Ejiogbe Meji) goes like this: "Abita" (or the "Ol- osin") was "the Devil" and was responsible for making the world into a place where all roads, including speech, were closed. No one could progress in any- thing. Whenever children grew up and took a road out-of-town, none ever came back. One day the Ibeji twins went in to woods and chanced upon "the Devil" sleeping in a pit on their path. They taunted him; and demanded that he let them pass. His terms were that they had to drum for him while he danced. If he got too tired and stopped dancing, he would let them pass. But if they tired first, he would kill them too. They drummed and drummed until he finally succumbed to fatique. When he did, they killed him and ate every bit of him. Hence, no more "devil" in the world and, therefore, there is no devil in Orisha-Ifa religion (anymore). This deity "Abita" (the) "Olosin," may have crept into Ifa as a "Christianism." (See Patakin, by David Brown, 2022, for the whole itan patakin (story of importance), p. 282-286). A hint toward supporting that speculation may be understood this way I am guessing (and not a person fluent in the Yoruba language). So , I stick pretty close to the definitions provided by the better among the Yoruba-English dictionaries). In Yoruba language the prefix "olo" often signifies the head or owner of some- thing. And "sin" 'is to rank high, to lead and to conceal.' (And in Judaic-Christian religions "sin" has the common meaning of a 'bad deed,' a "sin." The word "sin" originates in the ancient East African languages that were the precusors to of Sanskrit (that later made its way into India). In its original form it had to do with t "that which misses the mark" (as "sins" regularly do). It also made its way into Japan as a metaphysical idea called "Zen" as in "Zen Bud- dhism" or "Zen archery" as that type of archery that does not 'miss the mark.' In Greecian Euclidian geometry we observe its use in the terms "sin" and "co-sin"; something that helps find "the mark"). Thus, "Abita" (the) "Olosin" could be an idea imported into Ifa connoting the "lea- der who conceals and leads one to miss the mark" as in the Christian sense of fol- lowing a leader ("the Devil") who causes one to miss the mark of righteousness. Another version of "Abita's" departure from the world is in the account where he turns his power of misdirection over to Eshu, and then disappears forever. (Brown, op. cit. pp. 317-328). The "Olosin" (Olosi) is similar to the "Devil" in an itan ("legendary" story) told by elders: Olosi(n) had a bet with Olofi that he could make Babaluaiye denounce him by inflicting pain and hardship on him. He made him cripple and infested with sores (that his favorite dog licked clean). And then he caused wolves to kill the dog while promising to resurrect him if Shoponna (Baba- luaiye) would only denounce Olofi. The Olosin lost the bet with Olofi. (See "The Osha," by Julio Garcia Cortez, pp. 166-167). This is why in some places, like Brasil, Eshu is equated with "the Devil." But in the indigenous Yoruba mind Eshu is more associated with 'the ashe of powerful un- predictability' (even chaos); not "evil" nor the "devil," as is the case with the Judeo-Christian "devil." Dr. Brown informed me that "Abita" is, essentially, the fire that Shango uses or causes to be used to destroy things (or to heat processes up); even the 'fires' of the Christian "hell." Abita, for his part, is regarded as the brother of Olofi (God) who sat at a meeting table in Heaven with Olofi. The meeting at this table was served ((mediated) by Eshu. It is for this reason that I believe that this idea of the devil (and Eshu's association with him) is likely to be a "Christianism" imported into Ifa somewhere along the line for "legitimization" of Orisha-Ifa religion to the Western world by some of the original Ifa divinity students and scholars of the first half of the 20th century. *******************************************************************************
Many, if not most, orisha cult priests and Ifa priests do not care much about the tendency among many Christianized African n traditionalists to "legitimize" Af- rican religion in terms of other "world class" religions. However, given the history of missionary schooling and colonial subjugation, the attempts by the more scholastic among African theologians to "legitimize" traditional religion in the 1930's and 1940's was quite understandable as a form of resistance to colonial oppression. But at what price, if any? To what extent, if any, were the Orisha cult practitioners minimized in terms of their legitimacy by the elevation of Ifa to the level of orthodoxy reminiscent of the Catholic Church?
lncidently,Santeria in Cuba also has an element of accommodation, juxtaposition to and supplication of Catholic Christianity in it; reacting to and seeking recognit- ion and legitimacy from it. Santeria has not only functioned as a disguise for Yor- uba religion in an Catholic environment, for many Santeros Catholicism still has moral primacy and they regularly react to this conception by participating in Cat- holic services. It may be argued that this vestige is in respect of their Catholic an- cestors [which is fine].Many Cuban ancestors were also Catholics, so a certain amount of respect for that religion arises from that basis as well. Hopefully, they will give future African American practitioners the same respectful deference in respect of African American Protestant ancestors--and their biases.
However, back to the view of /fa hierarchists; the implication of their claim--thatIfa was the center and apex of African traditional religion, and somehow connec- ted to the foundations of the other "world class" religions--was not lost on the ot- her elder priests and scholars of the religion. For example, elder E. Bolaji ldowu (0lodumare: God in Yoruba Belief at p. 214), an ecumenicalist as the term is used here, described the special commission convened by the Nigerian Broadcasting Company in 1958, to investigate the controversy. He said that the consensus of elders in the religion rejected the proposition that the religion could be properly called "Orunmilism" or that" Ifa" was in its primacy. He urged that Orishanla was the most imporant Yoruba deity not Orunmila (see ldowu, op. cit., at p.71, and Abimbola, Dr. Wande Ifa: An Exposiiton of Ifa Literary Corpus, at p. 8). The implication of Babalawo ldowu's perspective, and that of ot- her African Ifa and Orisha priests, by contrast, is that all the Orishas, of which Orunmila is one, are co-equals in ashe but, in matters related to divination and oracular knowledge, Ifa, they acknowledge, remains the central repository.
Another example of this ecumenical attitude--that all of the deities including Orunmila, invoke God Almighty for their ashe-may be found in elder lbie, C.O., (lfism: The Complete Works of Orunmlla, p.12); and see Scott, Lionel, a Babalashe of Obatala, (Beads of Glass, Beads of Stone, p. 69) for the same point. For them, most priests, priestesses, and spiritists have the potential to divine effectively. Dr. Abimbola, op.cit., at p.3., couches the debate in proxy terms, for example, describ- ing the issue as whether or not Ifa and Orunmila are synonomous terms or whet- her Orunmila is God and Ifa is his Word--a view he ascribes to reverends Lijadu and Epega. He asserts, using Bascom as a support, that they are synonomous terms: both are deities and both are manifestors of the Word. This comes over as something of a compromise, if not circumvention of the issue of Orunmila heirarchism, but does tend to quiet the assertion that the religion is lfa and that God is Orunmila. Similarly, Awolalu, J. Omosade (see "Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificlal Rites") takes; a sort of middle ground in this matter; simply saying that 'some believe Orunmlla was a primoidal divinity who accompanied and instructed Obatala on the edific- ation of the earth' (or was a human being who was later deified), but "among ot- her sobriquets he is called Ibikeji Edumare' (next in rank to Olodumare)." "...All we can say is that his origin was uncertain and various myths were invented to rat- ionalise the origin of this primoidal divinity who is gifted with supernatural knowledge and wisdom" (at pp. 23 and 24). In contrast to Abimbola and Bascom, Awolalu suggests that Ifa and Orunmila are not synonomous terms. But is he suggesting an Orunmila heirarchist view, like elder Epega's, that the terms are different and that Orunmila is God or right next to God in rank (which, to me, is saying exactly the same thing!). And that Ifa is his Word.
The thought that occurs to this author is the risk that if, and when, humility weakens, the setting up "knowledge hierarchies" emerges as the first step toward orthodoxy and, perhaps, eventually toward "prophets" (folk who are, more or less, proffered to be permanently possessed), and this would be substantially unlike continental Afro-spritiualism. The setting-up of esoteric hierarchies of the "truly knowledgeable'' within rel- igions is also a truly Sun-god, royalist, even Grecian, and not populist, sentiment which leans in the direction of elitist theosophical biases--something which is more akin to the Mediterranean cultures, and less related to Black African tradit- ionalists than most of our religionists seem to appreciate. (Please see Book Two, supra for discussions about elitism and theosophy in religion). In retort, however, some hierarchists will be heard to say that only the pronoun- cements of the truly wise, stationed within the narrow circle of "the knowledge- able" elite is authentic. But, as a reprise, we might assert, "authenticity" is not the entire issue. For example, the divination systems of the indigenous hunters of Africa, e.g., the reading animal tracks and entrails, bones, and scat, etc., are truly authentic divination systems, among many others, if "authenticity" (defined as 'originality') is what one is seeking.
It is when philosophically wise or theological pronouncements called "wisdom and knowledge" takes center stage as ashe, as contrasted to the spiritual power to effect change (with or without elaborate "word knowledge"). that we may say a religion risks elitism and orthodoxy. Of course, for some, this leaning is what is desired; it is a sign of "sophistication" and respectability. But, in this author's view, as mentioned above, it is also a very Mediterranean approach-- one like Gnosticism or Hermeticism--that leans toward theosophy: "true knowledge is for the elites and 'religion' is for the ignorant masses." For them, "Orunmila hierar- chists" and for Eurocentrists I suspect and venture, "knowledge is power"; but for the truly traditional Black African which includes, arguably, the Cuban-African, "ashe-in-action is power, and power is knowledge" (whether or not, as a pun, one knows it). What they are not fully appreciating, I suspect, is that with Christianity and with attempts to obtain "world class respectability" to a Christian audience, they risk importing into Black African traditional religion Christian concepts which are not authentically nor validly African but, rather, stem from Grecian theosophy. This arises because they appear to be inadequately aware of the impact of Grec- ian, neo-Platonic, and Gnostic theosophy--with its "knowledge elitism"--on Christianity; the religion which still has seductive appeal. lfa's Methodology May Have A Source Divergent From Its Theology and National Contents: The "Geomancy" Factor.
The contents of the holy Olodus, similar to "The Realms" described in Book One, and the indigenous religions of west and central Africa, appear to be effectively older than the current Ifa divination. Regarding Ifa methodology, the Fa (or F'al in Arabic) system of notating divination results is geomancy; the "casting, and mar- king or cutting, the oracle into the sand." This current method is probably of Med- iterranean origin and brought by Muslims into west, central, and east Africa 1,000 years ago. Many scholars indicate this to be true and none to my knowledge refute It. The Ifa theology, by contrast, probably has some of its oracular roots in the Taht/ Thoth/Tehuti "wisdom" theology of ancient Egypt. The word Ifa derives from the ancient Egyptian word Nefer (a title for Osiris), it has been said. Taht/Thoth/Tehuti, was the diviner deity in ancient Kemet (Egypt) to the royalist Ra-Amon/Ptah Sun god complex, on the one hand, and to the Nubian African, and more populist, Osiris-Isis-Horus deity complex (associated with the Apet/Anubis diviner pantheon) on the other. Hermeticism, i.e., post-dynastic "Egyptian" rel- igion (actually Grecian) for the "enlightened knowledgeable," c. 300 B.C.E. to 100 C.E., and recent Medierranean-basin sand-cutting geomancy (arising during the Common Era), are also likely contributors to what was to become Ila, Ifism or Or- unmilism practice and theology and its notational and structural methodology, respectively, as we know it today in west Africa.
"Orunmila" is the speaker of the Words of Truth in Yoruba/ Ifa religion and has his counterparts in the oracular systems of numerous other tribal cultures and rel- igions throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It is nothing short of amazing how con- sistently the scholars of Ifa seem to leave unaddresed questions relating to the origins of the theology, its national content, or of its spiritual-metaphysical methodology. However, the mytho-religious origins of Yoruba religion, of Ifa, and of the Yoruba nation are addressed in numerous stories: they involve the found- ing of the nation, "Knowledgeable" humanity, by Oduduwa and Obatala (Orish- anla).
If that is not complicated enough--and we have not even moved from the tradit- ional African context yet!--Ifa can also refer, at minimum, to three, different things: ( 1 ) it refers to a theological, probably Egyptian, conten' regarding some prominent deities and theological concepts, (2) it refers to a Yoruba or other nationality's historical content, myths, and legends (i.e., the names, places, herbs, and events contained in the stories which Ifa's diviners recite will differ among different nationalities), and (3) it refers to the method of geomancy and notation of the "Odus, 0lodus, Omo'du' which the diviners "pull down" in the course of divination and which "speak" and "teach." The Odus are theological poems and allegories containing broad "realms" of ex- perience, are considered the containers of the Words of God, and are also consid- ered deities in themselves. Moreover, they are considered to have "birthed" the many other deities which are worshiped in families and deity cults. And, finally, new ones, new "children" of the Odus (the "Omo-du"), i.e., new combinations and in vivo presentations of Odu are "born everyday."
In any event, whether the Yorubas got their arch deities and basic theological concepts from the Nubian-Egyptians, or vice versa, is anyone's guess, but it is clear that the connection of Ifa theology and ancient Egyptian religion is very old; probably pre-dynastically old. This is in regard to Ifa in the first sense; as theol- ogy. (Please be referred to the section in Book Two dedicated to Egyptian Kemetic religion for further interpretation on the subject of the Egyptian linguistic and conceptual contributions to Ifa theology.) Ifa, in the second sense, as Yoruba national historical experience and myth, is another matter. There is no telling how old the national-historical experiences of the Yorubas are, as reflected in the verses, stories, pataki medicines and cures of Ifa. But two things are for certain, they are very Yoruban and many of them are also very old ; pre-dating the Common Era and perhaps the Egyptian dynastic period itself (though legend has it that roots of the Yorubas which are that old, were "from the East" in Arabia or Nubia, not present Nigeria). Finally, Ifa considered in the third sense--as a divination methodology and not- ation system (dafa/ afa/ da/ Ifa markings)--to the extent that it involves sandcut- ting or geomancy 'is "relatively" new to west Africa, probably brought there by Arabic-Islamic diviners during this millennium, and--before them --has a hist- ory in places as far and wide as the Italy of the Estruceans and Romans, the Assy- rians, and in Ethiopia before the Common Era. (See La Geomancie a l'anceienne Cote des Esclaves, Maupoil, in Travaux et Memoires de !'Institute d'Ethnologie, lxii, Paris, 1943; "The Fon of Dahomey," Mercer, P., in "African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples," at p.211; lfa Divin- ation, Bascom, Wm., at p.8; The World Atlas of Divination, Matthews, J., at p.196; and "A Recitation of lfa: Oracle of the Yoruba," Gleason, J., at p.15). For example, the Romans had an "Ifa" system available to them but with, of cour- se, a different national content. Their sixteen "Olodu" were named Populus/ Via/ Career; Conjuctio/ Fortuna Major/ Fortuna Minor; Acquisitlo/ Ammisio/ Trlstltla/ Laetitia/ Rubea Albu Pue/la/ Puer; Caput Draconis/ Cauda Uraconls. (See The World Atlas of Divination, at p.200). Prior to them the Estruceans of Italy also had an "Ifa' cosmos with sixteen Realms--represented by various parts of the sky and also visual/zed on the livers of sheep like the hepatomacy of the ancient Assyr- ians and Babylonians (at p.195). This highly reputed and feminized culture, practiced divination by reading the activity of birds or lighting in the various parts of the sky, or by reading signs in the varying parts of the sheep's liver. In sub-Saharan Africa neither Ifa, nor its specialists, were originally considered "superior" per se to the existing religions upon which it and they served as an "organizing system" or "file manager" for the great Ifa national oral library which existed from millennia before "Fa" geoman- cy came to any of these places.
The content of the Odu(s) varied according to whose national heritage the Fa sys- tem had been super-imposed because the people's Indigenous religions, deities, medicines and experiences were sui generis to them and kept in their own nat- ional ora/librarles. However, regardless of where Ifa appears, its wisdom and methodology will be, at least, similar. In Madagascar, e.g., the system is called Sikidy and the "Olodu(s)" are called Tale, Maly, Fahatelo, BiladY, Fianaha, Abily, Fahavalo, Fahasivy, Ombiasa, Hanina/Haja, Zanahary, Sorotany, Tovolahy, Lal- ana/Safary, Kiba/Trano. (See "Divination in Madagascar," in "African Divination Systems: Ways of Knowing"). Among the Dahomeans, the standard rules of geomancy, expressed as "Fa," also recognized sixteen basic ''du" and 240 combination "sons of Fa." (See "The Fon of Dahomey" in :African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Val- ues of African Peoples").
Old World and New World Traditions Have"Similarities and Differences
In recapitulation, for those who emphasize the hierarchical view of Ifa, the "Or- unmilist hierarchists," Orunmlla--who witnessed creation and "knows all"--is the "highest" deity; if not God Almighty outright. The religion is itself Ifa. For them, the ashe and the ritual knowledge of the deity cults is seen, for example, as somewhat lower or at least peripheral pieces of the pie of Ifa. Finally, then, when an African or African-oriented practitioner speaks of Ifa and Orunmila as being "the religion" or "the head of the religion," these are some of the background fac- tors and concepts and histories involved. Theirs is obviously a way to look at the role of Ifa theology, but, it is not the only valid way to look at the matter. It may be that only a minority of Ifa priests in Africa assert the hierarchical primacy of Orunmila (though all concede his cen- trality). By contrast, very few Cuban Lucumi/ Santeria practitioners and their loyalists in the United States hold to the Ifa primacy theme.
The Africans who were enslaved and settled in Cuba effected modifications in role of Ifa and re-organized the broader Yoruba religion in some respects. They, for example, eventually tended to regard the Orisha Obatala as the great integ- rator of the deities and ashe in day-to-day matters, and tended to reserve Ifa con- sultations for special parts of religious ceremonies or for special individual or "house" problems. They also, consistent with the Cubans' more populist and de-centralized view of ashe, began to rely heavily on the verbal Instructions of Oris- has speaking through possessed priests and priestesses who had been author- ized, with ofo ashe, to speak thusly. (The Ifa Odu in which the possessing deity is speaking or "coming in" is still im- portant, but its "coming," at all, is the result of possession, not divination. And the message is just as powerful and sometimes more specific to the identification of a problem--and its solution--than many divination and Odu recitation sesions, which can sometimes be quite circuitous and incomprehensible).
Additionally, there are settings where neither African Ifa "high priests" (Babal- awos) nor Cuban "high priests" ("Oriates" and Cuban Babalawos) function in any appreciable degree. Brazilian Condomble is an example of such a national Yor- uban religious tradition and, notwithstanding the scarcity of babalawos and Oriates in Brazil, ashe has still manifested there in the lives of the religious Af- rican traditionalists for the past 400 years. These national cultural differences, then, are hard to explain, but this author will try to offer some clarity on the religion and the role and status of Ifa in regard to the other versions of "the religion." First, there are practitioners all over the At- lantic diasporan world who are oriented to the traditional Nigerian versions of the religion (and the Africans themselves appear to be divided between the Ifa " cumenicals," on the one hand, or the Ifa or Orunmila "hierarchists," on the ot- her).
There are also practitioners all over the same diaspora who are oriented to the Cuban-African or "Lucumi"/ Santeria version of the religion. And as far as most of them are concerned, Ifa is regarded in the "ecumenical" sense--as an important part of the religion -·but not "the" religion per se. And finally there are practition- ers who are oriented to the Brazilian Condomble variant of the religion where an orthod- oxy based around Ifa is [was] largely unknown.
Thus, it is incorrect to assume that all Cubans, or all Africans, or all African Amer- icans, for example, see and practice the religion the same way or are oriented ne- cessarily to their own particular national traditions. Instead, their orientations and loyalties sometimes cross national lines and are usually based on the way that they were parented, trained, and "elevated" or in the way that they first con- sciously experienced the ashe of "the religion." Some African , Americans, for ex- ample, are loyal to the Cuban-Lucumi legacy; while others-- who may or may not even respect it--are loyal to what they perceive to be the "authentic" African way (and naively unmindful that there are sometimes differences in the views of Af- ricans themselves about theological questions in these areas). Or, there are some Cubans, or Puerto Ricans who have declared more confidence in what they perceive to be the "African" way, while there are some Africans who, through many New World interactions, have come to accept the differences in the Cuban-Lucumi approaches and perspectives as also valid manifestations of "the religion." The point is that people and "houses" within the same nationality, and of reasonable minds, do sometimes legititmately differ--especially when they use their minds and rely not only on the loyalties born simply of god-parental influence.
The next point to understand is that the social organization of the religions vary among the three large centers: continental Africa, Cuba (and the United States), and Brazil. The single best authority on the sociological evolution of the religion from the Old to the New Worlds is "Santeria from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories," by George Bradon.
Starting with Nigeria, it appears that the theology, the liturgy, the deity-cults, and the ancestral cults, as well as the social-religious societies (egbes or fratern- ities, sororities, or lodges, in a word) are culturally integrated in ways not true among the western hemisphere practitioners. Finally, deity and ancestral ashe, among other things, e.g. deep initiations, are not only cultivated in these cults and societies, but are also passed down in natal families, clans, and regions in ways which do not occur in the New World.
By contrast, in the African-Cuban 'Lucumi'/ Santeria version of the religion, bec- ause of slavery and the mixing of cults and practitioners, because of the initial scarcity of Ifa priests, and because of the scarcity of some of the societies and egbes that priests and priestesses enjoyed and functioned within in Africa, a maj- or re-organization of the religion took place. ltis key to remember that it was Af- ricans in Cuba who re-organized and practiced the religion for the first several hundred years of its existence there. What it appears they did was to deemphas- ize the Ifa priests' roles as the "integrators" of the various deities and ancestors, and the ashes associated with them, and effected a re-integration of these var- ious deities and their ashes in a new form of priestly organization: the "house," "ile," or fictive "family." As mentioned above, they also tended to rely on Orisha Obatala (and "Chango," in a sense) to serve as the great integrators of priestly and religious ashe, and they very much relied on the speech of priests and priestesses who were in a state of possession for guidance. Thus the active, controlling, and intervening role of the orishas, manifesting in family "houses," not in orisha cult egbes, and more often fosters ashe than the Ifa pronouncements of Orunmlla priests per se; though their revelations are highly respected as well.
The "house," "ile," or "idile" is a concept based on the model of a spiritual family, a fictive family with a mother, a father, and numerous priestli godchildren. Each practitioner has had "put to his or her Head" (and is considered the servant or the bearer of the ashe associated with) at least five different deities; and probably more. In this way, much horizontal integration of deity ashe, supplanting to some degree the vertical integration under Ifa, could be effected. This horizontal integ- ration of deities and deity priests allowed "for great flexibility and efficiency in performing initiations and integrating the ashe of the numerous deities." The great human integrator in this system became'' the "Oba Oriate," the skilled master-of-religious-ceremony; a person who was clearly a deity priest and clear- ly not a Babalawo nor Ifa priest. (lncidently, Oriates, carry the same awe and res- pect as do Babalawos because of their skills. As diviner specialists, the are called "italeros" (those who divine the "itan" stories of Ifa professionally). Accordingly, in this system, "Ifa" remained important, but was no longer "at the top" of deity integration except at the times when, and in matters of, serious divination prac- tice, remedies proper were the focus of attention. Finally, in a sense, all priests and priestesses practiced Ifa divination themselves, albeit in a simpler form cal- led "dilogun."
The price paid for this approach was that the orisha and ancestral cults and the egbes ceased to function in the full-blown traditional ways. An implication of this also was that continental priests were freer to associate, to grow, and to learn sequentially from other more experienced priests, within the egbe or cult societ- ties without being tied to an "orisha religious parent" in the manner of parens patriae. Additionally, a sort of juxtaposition, syncretization, and confusion was fostered by opening the religion up--in the absence of /fa and the ancestral cults--to a theological co-habitation with Catholicism and spiritism; a marriage which has proved to be exceedingly stubborn and even racist in its distortion of the cultural and "racial" history of the religion (as often exemplified in the anti African and anti-African-American attitudes of significant numbers of Cuban Santero and in some of the racist stereotypes they hold about their' remote African ancestors--rivaling "little Black Sambo" and "aunt Jemima" for debasing imagery in the His- panic mind).
On the positive side of the interpretation, however, the innovations and re-org- anization of the religion by the original, pre-Santero, Africans in Cuba was relig- iously valid. Their innovations not only worked, but there actually some preced- ents in Africa for many of the "innovations." It also wrought some improvements In the religion, e.g. Cuban dilogun divination--sort of a junior version of Ifa div- ination--when one considers the distribution of odds within the divination met- hodology--is actually more "even-handed" than the corresponding versions of dilogun and merindilogun in Nigeria. The approach used by the Africans in Cuba also fostered family re-establishment and the acquisition social skills among slaves, and provided newer forms of the social and economic organization for the religion, e.g., in the nature of botanicas (stores) which also served as religious centers and cabildos (or lodges) which served as beneficial societies. And, as mentioned in the text which gave rise to this Appendix, they actually maintained some songs, odus, and ritual knowledge which had otherwise fallen to the wayside in Nigeria. In this sense, then, there are a some examples of the religion as practiced by the Africans in Cuba which are more, not less, "authentic" than the vestiges which exist in Nigeria.
Hence, a practitioner born, raised, or initiated in the traditions started by Af- ricans in Cuba and Brazil can also rightly claim that Ifa (and Orunmila) is not the end-all and be-all of 'the religion.' Orunmila prays to Olodumare for ashe just as do all of the other deities, and in some patakin or parables, Orunmila is among the younger not elder of the orishas. But most accept that Orunmila was here "at the beginning," but so was "Eshu"--the deity of polarities, communications and chaotic disruption. Why is he not "the head of the religion" by virtue of the fact that he too "was here at the beginning?" Is he "next to God In rank?" (lncldently, what constitutes "the beginning" is itself variable; for example, the beginning of the universe, the beginning of earth, the beginning of the town lie lfe, the begin- ning of modern Yoruba nationality at Ile lfe?).
The role of integrating, throughout the religion, all of the various manifestations of deity and ancestral ashe was relegated back to the priests and Oriates who, no longer stuck in narrow cults, were crossed-trained and cross-initiated so that they could work together much more effectively. While divine knowledge was considered important, divine ashe was considered to be (and proved to be) slight- ly more important. It seems to this author that the essence of what the Africans in Cuba did was to de-emphasize the centrality of lfa de-emphasize the centrality of Egungun, de-emphasize the centrality of natal family orlsha lineage, de-em- phasize the centrality of the orlsha cults and egbes and, instead, in all of their places, re-emphasized orisha clans' which they called "lies' or "houses" (that contained many different kinds of orisha priests in one pseudo or active family form of organization). Thus, among Cuban loyalists, there is no reason whatsoever to change this trad- ition; because it was a rather brilliant condensation of many religious social for mats or forums, into something "simpler," and more effective under conditions of slavery where natal family lineages had been ripped-off from orisha family linea- ges. Orthodoxy is not important; demonstrated ashe Is. Their method had the ad- ded benefit of being the truth; it worked and works until this day very well.
In conclusion, it is arguably the case this the following hierarchical and central visualization, the "umbrella view," Is not the most "valid" representation of Yoruba religion: IFA / ORUNMILISM ORISHA DEITIES/CULTS FAMILY ANCESTORS/ SPRITITISM INDIVIDUAL'S ORI IDEAL & DESTINY And it is also arguable that even the ecumenical visualization, with Ifa as the center of the religion (but not its apex), is not the most valid: ORISHA DEITIES / IPORI (SPIRIT IDEAL)
OLODUMARE ARA (BODY /CORPUS) IFA / ESHU EMI (BREATH) OLODUMARE ORISHA DIETIES / ORI INU & IWA (CHARACTER) & DESTINY LIFE PLOT (RESOURCES, IMMUTABLES, AND LIFE PLOT) But it may be that the most accurate visualization, a holistic view, or the religious cosmology looks something like this: TOTAL ORI & ANCESTRAL SPIRITISM OLODUMARE ORISHA DEITIES IFA / ESHU OLODUMARE EARTH SPIRITS (ONILE) This author believes that It is the task of the practitioners loyal to the various traditions to, therefore, understand and appreciate the histories of the religion among various types of African and African-derived peoples; not to--as sectar- ians--get involved in polemics over who is the head of the religion, etc. Historical religious practice, when it occurs at the mass level, is always self-validating; reg- ardless of the setting or the variations in 1ractice. It would not have survived at the mass level if it did not work. ti there was ever a case for the application of "the equal dignities rule" of reciprocal respect, this is it--because if one is forced to make a choice-· validity is more important that authenticity.
There are many other differences in emphasis between Old and New World prac- titioners (and peoples). For example, Africans tend to be implicit in the holding on to religious 'secrets'; while New-Worlders tend to be explicit talkers. And Africans do not emphasize quantity in the ways that we Afro-Latino derived practitioners do. For example, the New Worlder is quite accustomed to explicidy asking a con- federate how many years does he have "o'cha" (orisha) made?, how many God- children does she have?, or how many orishas has he or she received? This is mar- kedly inappropriate in conversations with our implicitly styled African brothers, sisters and elders. This example also shows what a wonderful op- portunity for learning and mutual appreciation that cross-cultural differences provide; not- with standing the habit among many naive persons or prima donnas to turn dif- ferences into irresistible opportunities for uninformed polemics.
Clarifying the role of Ifa and Orunmila is very lmporant for the development of an African American center in this religion during the 21 st Century because great room and mischief may obtain if Yoruba religion comes to us as orthodoxy, as a two-tiered religion of 'knowledgeable elites,' on the one hand, and religion for the dumber masses, on the other. And there is little doubt in my mind that, drawing on the best and most useful elements from the three well-established traditions of Yoruba, a fourth--an African American tradition--will and must emerge in the upcoming century. This author believes that It is the task of the practitioners loyal to the -various traditions to, therefore, understand and appreciate the histories of the religion among various types of African and African-derived peoples; not to--as sectar ians--get involved in polemics over who is the head of the religion, etc. Historical religious practice, when it occurs at the mass level, is always self-validating; reg- ardless of the setting or the variations in 1ractice. It would not have survived at the mass level if it did not work. If there was ever a case for the application of "the equal dignities rule" of reciprocal respect, this is it--because if one is forced to make a choice-· validity is more important that authenticity.
Jenner-By-The-Sea, California by Alashe Michael Oshoosi (1996)