Photography: Will Coleman, Ph.D.
As I mentioned the opening section of this chapter, this divination board is not plate. On the contrary, it conceals a multidimensional universe of time, space, social arrangements and psychological orientations.
The following description and accompanying diagrams by Awo Fa'lokun gives a good overview of what I mean by cosmogenesis, cosmogeography, sociology and psychology from a holistic Yoruba viewpoint.
THE IFA CONCEPT OF CREATION
Cosmology is the study of the· structure of the universe which attempts to discover the principles of unity that sustain Creation. The Cosmology of Ifa is based on the belief that the microcosm (immediate environment) is a reflection of the macrocosm (the universe).1 This means that the forces that created the stars and the galaxies also created the earth, including the plants and animals that evolved on the planet. Because of this continuity, Ifa teaches that every problem faced by humans has an analogous counterpart in every realm of Being. If a scripture frequently describes the problems encountered by animals and plants with the underlying assumption that the human condition encounters the same struggles for survival.2
One of the functions of divination is to identify the ways in which universal forces manifest in everyday life. This is done through the use of myth. Because myth makes use of symbolic material, an understanding of symbols makes it possible for the diviner to relate myth to a given situation. The fundamental cosmological paradigm that Ifa uses to interpret symbols is the belief that manifestation in the Universe is the result of balancing polarities.3
Most systems of metaphysics are based on the belief that the primal polarity that sustains the physical universe is the tension between expansion and contraction.4 In Ifa this polarity is usually described as the relationship between darkness and light. This relationship is not considered a conflict between the forces of "good" and the forces of "evil." The polarity between expansion and contraction is understood to be a fundamental quality of dynamics and form as they exist in Nature.5
Using the divination system of Dafa, expansion or light is represented by a single vertical line (I). In Dafa contraction or darkness is represented by a double vertical line (II). Using the divination systems that make use of cowries, light is represented by the open concave side of the shell and darkness is represented by the convex side of the shell. The convex side curves to form a mound. Usually the mound is removed, exposing a single column down the center. This side of the shell is called the "stomach" or "inu" in Yoruba. The concave side has two lips that curve inward with an opening down the middle. This side of the shell is called the "mouth" or "enu” in Yoruba.6
If a cosmology teaches the principle that light comes from darkness and darkness comes from light. It also teaches that everything that exists is an expression of ase. The Yoruba word ase has multiple meanings. In a cosmological context, ase is the Force that sustains Creation. The primal manifestation of ase would be the invisible Force that creates both light and darkness.7 Physics calls this force electromagnetism. Everything in the material universe generates electromagnetic force fields. Those electromagnetic forces that expand by moving away from their source generate a field of radiation that includes the visible spectrum of light. Those electromagnetic forces that contract by moving towards their source draw light out of the visible spectrum into darkness.8 In Nature, the smallest atom to the largest star contains forces of expansion and contraction in a spherical arena.
The spherical shape of most energy patterns is represented in Ifa divination through the use of a two-dimensional circle in the form of a tray (Opon Ifa). Merindinlogun generally represents the sphere on a mat (ate Orisha). Every sphere is defined by the distance between its poles and its equator. The poles and the equator are determined by placing a horizontal and a vertical line at right angles from the center of the sphere. These lines are drawn in Dafa a by making marks in the iyerosun powder that is placed on the tray. These lines are drawn in Merindinlogun by making marks in the efun powder that is placed on the mat. This results in an image that is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional reality:
Using Dafa, the symbolic pattern for pure light would use a single line on each of the two poles on each of the equators as follows:
When these four lines are stacked together in a single vertical column, they become a form of linear notation that is used to represent a specific three-dimensional reality.9 The symbol for light is as follows:
Using the same process, the symbolic representation of a sphere of darkness would be a vertical column of four double lines as follows:
In addition to poles and equators, every sphere has a center called the nucleus that forms a hidden core within the boundaries of the outer shell. The nucleus of a sphere also forms a sphere at the point where the lines of the poles and the equator cross.
Dafa uses two vertical lines to represent the outer boundary and the inner nucleus of energy patterns that exist in Nature. Using the examples already given, a sphere of light with light at its core would be represented by two columns of single lines. In Ifa divination this symbol is called; "Eji Ogbe" or "Ogbe Meji." It appears as follows:
The patterns are read from right to left. The right side is the visible exterior and the left side is the invisible interior.10 In metaphorical terms the right side is the male side and the left side is the female side. In Ifa, the association between expansion, light and masculine energy and the association between contraction, darkness and feminine energy is related to the expansive and contractive nature of the male and female reproductive organs.11 One is not considered better than the other. The polarities between expansion and contraction; between light and dark; and between male and female are all seen as the dynamic principles that generate diversity within Creation.
The esoteric representation of Oyeku Meji is a black disk which symbolizes all those forces which can never be known. It is an image of those forces that create the night.
To represent a sphere that is dark on the circumference and dark at the core, Dafa uses two vertical columns of double lines. In Ifa divination this symbol is called "Oyeku Meji." It appears as follows:
Using these two examples, it is possible to make a symbolic representation of the earth. The ball of fire at the center of the earth would be represented by a column of single lines which would be placed on the left side of the octogram. The surface of the earth which could be described as light that has been transformed into matter would be represented by a column of double lines. In Dafa this would appear as follows:
Again, using the same techniques, we could make a symbolic image of the sun by representing the light that emanates from the surface of the sun as a column of single lines on the right side of the octogram. The fuel at the center of the sun contracts light, forming a mass of fused particles that could be represented by a column of double lines on the left side of the octogram. In Dafa this would appear as follows:
Within the religion of Ifa, the Prophet Orunmila is given credit for using this system to symbolize the spectrum of polarities that exist in Nature.12 In the days before colonization the markings of Odu were used as a form of written language.13 It was and is possible to communicate a complex series of ideas by marking Odu with chalk or charcoal on a piece of pottery. Messages were passed between priests using variations on this method just as someone in modem times would write a letter. In Yoruba this form of communication is called "aroko."14
The symbolism of Dafa is based on the use of binary elements. This means it is built upon the use of two components. The binary elements are a single line and a double line. These components are grouped together in two columns made up of four elements each. This is the same mathematical structure that is used to program modem computers. The major difference is that instead of using a single and a double line, computers use an on/off impulse to form the binary elements. Both systems make use of the octogram as a structure for storing information. Within this structure, each quadragram has sixteen variations ( 4 X 4). By pairing two quadragrams to form an octogram, there are 256 combinations (16 X 16). In Yoruba culture, Dafa is used as a non-mechanical form of storing information. As new insight was gained in a particular realm of Nature, this information was linked with and added to the verses of a particular octogram associated with a particular realm of Nature, just as data is linked with and stored under specific headings in a modem computer.
Ifa calls each of the 256 octograms used in Dafa "Odu." The use of Odu as a paradigm for studying and cataloguing Forces in Nature is an early attempt to formulate a scientific model that explains dynamics and form within the universe. What on the surface may appear to be a relatively simple set of signs is actually a very complex map of the structure of reality as perceived by those ancestors who formulated the concepts associated with each Odu.
According to Ifa cosmology, the Source of Creation is Olorun. The word Olorun translates as "Owner of Heaven." Owner is used here in the metaphysical sense of owning a secret or being the Source of a Mystery. Heaven in Ifa cosmology is that invisible realm that guides evolution. Olorun is the Mystery of Source which is considered to be beyond human comprehension. When Ifa describes Forces in Nature, it refers to those visible manifestations of Creation that are believed to flow from Olorun. All of the Spirits that are recognized by Ifa are considered to be knowable aspects of Olorun, while the essence of Olorun remains a Mystery.14
When the universe came into Being at the moment of Creation, it was Olodumare who was given the task of sustaining all that is. Olodumare comes from the root Olo Odu, meaning “Owner of Odu” or "Owner of First Principles."15 Mare is a contraction of Osumare who is the Spirit of the Rainbow. In Nature, the rainbow is one of the purest manifestations of light. Olodumare could be translated to mean "The Source of those Forces in Nature that generate the spectrum of light.”16 As the Owner of Odu, Olodumare can be described as the Mystical Cauldron that contains all the potential forms that manifest from Creation.
As a Spiritual Force, Olodumare exists in polarity with the Spirit Ela. There is no direct translation for the word Ela. Some lfa elders say it means "Purity."17 Others would say that Ela means "He who creates." When those forms that exist in potential within the womb of Olodumare become manifest, is it Ela who sustains that manifestation.18 In symbolic terms, Ela brings the light of Creation out of the darkness of the Womb of Creation.
The task of molding Creation was originally given to Obatala. The word Obatala means "Chief of the White Cloth. The term “White Cloth" is a reference to the primal substance that forms the foundation of the physical universe.19 Physics teaches that the first manifestation of dynamics in the universe was light. From a Western perspective, Obatala could be understood as the essence of light. Modern science teaches that evolution is the process of transforming sunlight into planetary environments. Evolution is the reorganization of sunlight into the multi-dimensions of life on Earth.20
lfa Myth says that the task of molding Creation was given to Oduduwa by Olodumare after Obatala got drunk.21 The polarity between Obatala and Oduduwa is a symbolic expression of the Western scientific theory that light forms matter and that matter dissipates into light. lfa expresses the same concept by saying that light comes from darkness and that darkness comes from light. The reference to Obatala's drinking is a symbolic expression of the observation that the movement from light to darkness and from darkness to light does not always take place in a smooth progression. The image of drunkenness is a symbol of imperfection as a condition of manifestation within Nature.
The images used to represent Odu can be considered blueprints of the ways in which the transition between light and dark or expansion and contraction takes place. The essence of Odu is an expression of the scientific idea that matter is neither created nor destroyed, it simply becomes transformed.22
In order to grasp the nature of Odu in their primal manifestation, it is helpful to represent Creation as it is symbolized on both the Ifa tray and the Merindinlogun mat:
From this symbolic representation of Creation it is possible to begin the process of visualizing the primal relationships represented by Odu. Olodumare is the Source of dynamics and form, the universe in hidden potential. Ela is the manifestation of dynamics and form as it exists in the present moment. Obatala is the source of light and Oduduwa is light as it becomes transformed into matter. The Source of balance within the Universe is Olorun, the invisible nucleus from which Creation emerges. In this paradigm, balance is the key element. Opposing forces which co-exist in a state of balance generate the ase (power) needed to give birth to the next stage of evolution.
The Spiritual Forces that come into being as a result of the polarity between Olodumare and Ela are called Imole. The Imole are those invisible Forces that guide the interaction between light and matter. Through lmole, the Odu that exist in the womb of Olodumare become manifest as primal Forces in Nature.23
B. THE IFA CONCEPT OF EVOLUTION
The interaction between light and matter results in the formation of stars. The star that Ifa calls Olofi and that is known in the west as the sun, gave birth to the planets. The Spiritual Forces that come into being through the evolution that leads to the creation of the Earth are called lrunmole. It is through the Irunmole that Odu, which exist in the womb of Olodumare, become manifest as natural phenomena within the realm of the planet.24
At that point in evolution when Odu manifested on Earth, there emerged a dimension of reality that Ifa calls w'aiye. The word w'aiye is usually translated to mean the surface of the Earth. From a cosmological perspective, w'aiye is that place that allows for interaction between the Spirits of Orun and the Spirits of Ile. In mythic terms, w'aiye is the gateway between Heaven and Earth.
The Yoruba word Ile has several meanings, but here it is used to mean the entire planet Earth. Using the symbolic image of the tray and the mat, Olorun and Ile are polarities that exist around the nucleus of w'aiye. The other polarity that meets in the realm of w'aiye is between the people who live on Earth and those ancestral spirits who participate in earthly affairs. The Yoruba word for ancestor spirit is Egun. The Yoruba word for the human body is ara. A symbolic representation of these relationships appears as follows:
The Spirits of Olorun refer to those Forces that were listed in the previous paradigm; Olodumare, Ela, Obatala and Oduduwa. Olgrun is both the realm of the ancestors and the Source of all Forces that manifest in Creation. The Spirits who live in the Earth are known as Ogboni. The word Ogboni loosely translates to mean "of the earth." Ara refers to those people who walk the Earth and Egun is the elevated souls of those who have passed from this life.
It is at this juncture that the complete spectrum of Spiritual Forces intermingles. The spirits of Olorun generate dynamics and form within the cosmos. The Spirits of Ogboni generate dynamics and form within the planet. The descent of ase from Olorun to Ile becomes seated in the human body and each individual becomes a reflection of those Forces that structure all of Creation. At the center of this circle is the invisible realm of w'aiye, which is that invisible dimension along the surface of the Earth that links Human life with Spiritual influences. This invisible opening between w'aiye and Olorun is called "Yangi" which means "Crossroads." In Ifa scripture Yangi is considered to be the home of Esu who is the Divine Messenger, the source of communication between Ile and Orun.
Ifa teaches that if there is balance and harmony between the Forces of Heaven and Earth, those who dwell upon the Earth will experience good health, gain wisdom, live in peace and receive abundance. It is when these forces come into conflict, that life generates illness, confusion, violence and scarcity. Frequently this cosmology is misinterpreted to mean that the Spirits punish those who neglect them. It would be more accurate to say that violation of the Law of Nature has inevitable consequences. If you pollute the water, at some point it will become undrinkable. If you pollute the air, at some point you will become smothered. If you place toxins in the Earth, at some point it will become barren. If you continue to bum the rain forests, at some point they will never return.
Each circle used in this text represents an Ifa paradigm of balance in a given dimension of reality. I have created these images to help explain spiritual concepts that are such an integral part of Yoruba culture, most African awo consider them self-evident. When the implements of divination are cast on either the mat or the tray, their placement and orientation identifies areas of either balance or imbalance. This information gives the diviner a symbolic view of the structure of a given problem. Once an area of imbalance or friction has been identified, the counter balancing forces can be identified, giving visual guidance on how to bring the situation into a state of harmony. According to lfa, harmony with self and world, with intent and destiny and with personal will and Spiritual responsibility is the source of long life, good fortune and abundance.25
C. THE IFA CONCEPT OF SOCIOLOGY
Yoruba culture has used the Ifa paradigm of the cosmos as the basis for building their major cities. The structure of the Yoruba Nation was a federation of city states. Each city was ruled by an Oba. In ancient times the Oba was never seen by his subjects, so he became the invisible nucleus of the circle that formed the city.26 He was surrounded by a female council of elders called Odu and a predominantly male council of elders called Ogboni. The city itself was supported by male and female work parties who tended to divide their labor along gender lines. The men were traditionally farmers and the women traditionally controlled the market place. Both men and women participated in craft guilds that preserved the techniques used in the arts. The cities were built in a circular formation with the compound of the Oba at the center. The symbolic image of Yoruba culture appears as follows:
There is some archeological evidence in the Yoruba cities of Ile Ife and Oyo that suggests that this design was used as the basis for the actual layout of those cities. The extent to which this occurred in other cities has not been thoroughly researched. It does appear that this structure was used in pre-colonial times as the basis for establishing political and religious institutions both of which were built upon the cosmological model found in Ifa.
Variations on this structure involved the system of establishing the location for sacred shrines. The system is called Gede which is a very old form of astrology.27 In Gede the path of solar bodies and planets is marked in relationship to the ways that they transverse the landscape.28 Celestial bodies are believed to enhance the ase (inherent power) of natural forces that arise from the Earth. By correlating the influences of Olorun and Ile, the ancient diviners were able to consecrate their shrines in places that reflected the essence of specific Odu.
Earth (ile) was considered a reflection of Heaven (Orun) and the layout of Yoruba cities was designed to make them mirrors of the cosmic order. The religion of Ifa originally comes from the city of Ile Ife. In lfa scripture, Ile Ifa is described as the original home of humans.29 The words: "Ile Ife” translate to mean; "Spreading Earth." So Ile Ife is a city and it is any place where land formed on Earth that allowed for human evolution to take place. Ifa scripture also refers to Ile Ife as a Spiritual place. It is the home for those ancestors who have returned to Source.
D. THE IFA CONCEPT OF PSYCHOLOGY
Perhaps the most accessible manifestation of Odu is through the portal of individual consciousness. Ifa teaches that Odu represent the energy patterns that create consciousness. They are analogous to what Carl Jung called archetypes of the collective unconscious. Jung believed that there exists a set of primal patterns that form the content of self-perception and place the self in relationship to the world. According to Jung, these patterns remain abstract until the unconscious gives them a cultural and personal context.30 In both Jungian psychology and the Ifa concept of consciousness, Odu (archetypes) can be revealed through dreams, where they take on personal qualities and manifest as mythic drama. By grasping this particular manifestation of Odu, Ifa teaches that it is possible to create internal balance which is the foundation of living in harmony with Nature.
Ifa psychology is linked to the concept of ori. The literal translation of ori is "head." This is a limited definition because ori also implies consciousness and Ifa cosmology teaches that all Forces in Nature have ori or consciousness.31 Because Ifa believes in reincarnation, every ori forms a polarity with ipori. The ipori is the eternal consciousness that exists in Orun (Heaven).32 It is the ipori that forms the link between past and future lives. If a scripture describes the ipori as the perfect double of ori. According to Ifa cosmology, every ori makes an agreement with Olorun prior to each incarnation.33 This agreement outlines the type of life that is to be lived and the lessons that are to be learned in a given lifetime. At the moment of birth the content of this agreement is lost to conscious thought.34 Part of the process of establishing internal balance is viewed as the task of remembering the original agreement between ori and Olorun.
This agreement is the source of individual destiny. Because divination is considered a method for discovering destiny, all divination based on Ifa is related to the question of enhancing the alignment between ori and ipori.
The link between ori and ipori lies within ori inu.35 The Yoruba words; "ori inu" translate to mean; "inner head." This is a reference to what Jung called the individual consciousness or self. Ori inu is the nucleus of that circle of Forces that creates self-awareness.
In addition to the polarity between ori and ipori, ori inu is the center point of the polarity between ara and emi. Ara is the physical body. Ifa psychology includes the heart (okan) and the emotions (egbe) as part of the physical self. According to lfa, the nature of one's ipori can only be grasped if the head and the heart are in alignment. In other words, the mind and the emotions must be in agreement if spiritual insight is to occur. Similarly, Jung understood that a conflict between the mind and the emotions is one of the sources of mental illness.36 In Ifa this conflict is called ori ibi. It is difficult to make a literal translation of ori ibi, but the term suggests a lack of alignment between ori and ipori. When the ori and ipori are functioning as one, it creates a condition called ori ire. A literal translation of ori ire would be; "wise head." .Jung referred to this condition as individuation, which was his basis for defining mental health.37
Ara or the physical body exists in polarity with emi. The Yoruba word emi means; "breath.” Ifa teaches that the breath of life comes from Olodumare and contains the eternal essence of consciousness. Emi in this context would translate to mean; "soul." The Ifa symbol of self would appear as follows:
Ifa teaches that every ori or individual is incarnated by a specific Odu. This means that a particular energy-pattern is at the foundation of a given individual's consciousness. The quality of the Odu will mark the nature of the person's personality and character. Living in harmony with Nature involves living in harmony with self. The key to living in harmony with self is to understand the Odu from which we are born and to see it as the foundation of the life lessons to be experienced in a given reincarnation. Because each Odu is associated with a particular Orisha, the Odu that incarnates a particular ori forms a spiritual link with the Orisha incarnated by the same Odu. This link becomes the basis for determining which Orisha an individual should worship.
In traditional Yoruba culture the divination that sources the quality of an individual ori is performed at Esentaiye (naming ceremony) which occurs shortly after birth. Often the content of that divination will have an influence on the selection of the child's name. In some instances, a child will be given a secret name that is only known to the parents and the diviner. This is done because the name itself might suggest a specific Odu which would leave the child vulnerable to exploitation by those who might abuse their knowledge of awo.
Divination done after the naming ceremony will indicate which Odu guides a particular phase of the child's life. By knowing the initial Odu from the naming ceremony and the current Odu related to a given circumstance, the diviner can expand their perception of both the problem and its effective resolution.
If the child goes through some form of initiation at any point in their life, the divination that is done at the end of the ceremony will take precedent over the divination that was done at birth. The reason for this is because initiation is believed to transform the inner character of the initiate.
The relationship between ori and emi is related to reincarnation. During the rite of passage of iku (physical death), it is the emi that becomes transformed into Egun (ancestral Spirit). Ifa funerals are designed to guide this transformation and to insure that it occurs smoothly.38 A smooth transition into the realm of the ancestors helps insure a return to the cycle of reincarnation. Those ancestors who are not properly elevated run the risk of remaining earth bound, where they suffer rather than evolve. Reincarnation is considered by Ifa to be a positive experience, and it not viewed as punishment for transgressions in past lives. Ifa also teaches that reincarnation tends to occur within the same family line. If a child is identified as a specific ancestor they might receive such names as Babatunde (father has returned) and Iyatunde (mother has returned). The belief in reincarnation within a particular family lineage is one of the reasons why Ifa places positive emphasis on the birth of children. Nearly every verse of Merindinlogun has a prescription for fertility which is seen as an essential link in the process of spiritual evolution.
1. Oral instruction from Babalawo Fagbemi Fasina.
2. Orunmila, June 1990, issue no 5: "Understanding Ifa Rituals and Taboos," by S. Solabagde Popoola.
3. This conclusion is based on the oral instruction that all Odu are supported by an Odu constructed of an opposite pattern. The result of combining the marks in each Odu with its opposite is that there are always eight forces of expansion combined with eight forces of contraction.
4. Carl Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Uncorucious, Bollingen Series XX, Volume 9, part 1, Princeton Universtiy Press, Princeton, NJ, 1959.
5. Ibid., 1.
6. Ibid., 1.
7. Moses Akin Markinde, "An African Concept of Human Personality; The Yoruba Example." White Paper, Department of Philosophy, University of Ife, Ile Ife, Nigeria.
8. John Gribbin, In Search of the Big Bang, Quantum Physics and Cosmology, Bantam Books, New York, NY, 1986.
9. This material is the author's attempt to interpret fundamental Ifa symbols with western concepts. It is based on the concept that the tray represents the cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth.
10. Among awo in Africa there is a range of variation concerning the meaning of each leg of lfa. The author is presenting the formulation
that has proven most effective in his own practice of awo.
11. Ibid., 2.
12. The same system is found in Sufism and in some systems of western occultism that are based on the Kaballah. Because the beginnings of divination pre.-date recorded history, establishing the origins of this system remains subjective.
13. Orunmila, June 1990, issue no. 5, "Ancient Communication Systems," by Chief (Mrs.) F.A.M. Abayomi, a.k.a. Fama.
14. E.B. Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, Longmans, London, 1962.
15. Ibid., 14.
16. There are other possible translations of Olodumare, but this one appears to the author to be most consistent with the essence of the spiritual principle expressed by the term.
17. Orunmila, June 1987, "Difference Between lrunmole and Orisha." by F.A.M. Adewale.-Abayomi a.k.a Fama.
18. lbid., 1.
19. Susanne Wenger and Gert Chesi, A Life with the Gods in Their Yoruba Homeland, Perlinger Velag Ges. n.b.h. Brixentaler Strasse 61, 6300 Worgi Austria, 1983.
20. Ibid., 8.
21. Babalawo C. Osamaro lbie, lfism: The Complete Work of Orunmlla, C. Osamaro lbie Efehi ltd. P.O. Box 10064 Lagos Nigeria.
22. This is a fundamental theory of physics as postulated by Albert Einstein.
23. There are variations among awo in Africa regarding the translation and interpretation of Irunmole. This explanation appears to be consistent
with the Ifa concept of the desent of ase from Qrun to Ile.
24. Ibid., 17.
25. Ibid., 7.
26. William Bascom, Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa, Indiana University Press, Bloomington,IN, 1969.
27. Ibid., 1.
28. Research conducted by Vance Williams in locational astrology.
29. Ibid., 21.
30. Ibid., 4.
31. Ibid., 7.
32. Ibid., 1.
33. Ibid., 2.
34. Ibid., 2.
35. Ibid., 7.
36. Carl Jung, The Psychogenesios of Mental Disease, Bollingen Series XX, Volume 3, Princeton Universtiy Press, Princeton, NJ, 1960.
37. Carl Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Bollingen Series XX, Volume 8, Princeton Universtiy Press, Princeton, NJ, 1960.
By Awo Fa’lokun Fatunmbi
AKA David Wilson
Photography: Will Coleman, Ph.D.
"As above, so below; as without, so within."
The Experience of Oneness and the Myth of Creation
After the Ifa initiates go through the rite of iku (death), they take a ceremonial journey into the underworld. The underworld is not a place of evil; it is a place of regeneration. Underground, in darkness, is the place where seeds lay dormant through winter waiting to sprout in spring. It is the place where emi, the human soul, becomes egun, the ancestral spirit. The underworld is the womb of rebirth.
When the Ifa initiate is first brought into the sacred grove, it is to experience the journey through the underworld. The initiate is covered from head to foot in a cloth bag that serves as an oversized blindfold. As I walked through the grove, things happened around me to test my courage. I thought I was handling the ordeal relatively well, until I started to hyperventilate from a lack of oxygen inside the bag. I assumed my reaction was part of the process and I struggled for air until I passed out. Fortunately, I was surrounded by a circle of initiates who caught me before I hit the ground.
Later I discovered fainting was not part of the process, and the descriptions of how I keeled over became the source of some good-natured teasing. Even though I was not supposed to faint, the experience was a significant aspect of the initiation. After returning to the United States, my memory of the symbolic journey through the underworld kindled memories if a childhood near-death experience. I forgot the details of the experience but as the real-life images re-emerged I came to understand how one event influenced my emotional reaction to seemingly unrelated circumstances. Frequently I experienced an irrational feeling of claustrophobia. The near-death experience from my childhood involved suffocation under a pillow.
Because initiation triggered suppressed memories, I was able to confront my fear of confinement. It was through the confrontation of my fear that the real power of the initiation process became apparent to me. I suspect different elements in the initiation can have similar effects depending on the developmental problems brought to the process.
I know initiates who have encountered their fears while traveling through the mythic underworld who blame their elders for causing the fear. In my opinion, this is a way of avoiding the underlying issues. When this occurs, the initiate fails to access the fundamental source of transformation. This failure can lead to a feeling of bitterness about the initiation process that cannot be healed until the personal issues are faced.
In the old Kung Fu television series, the hero is shown lifting a red hot pot with his forearms. That was the last stage of the journey through the underworld for the Taoist monks who studied the martial arts in China. Lifting the pot unlocked the door marking the end of the ordeal.
In both Ifa and Taoism, the journey through the underworld is a test of courage. The ultimate test of courage is the ability to face the fear of death. The only antidote to fear is courage and it is courage that is being invoked during the second stage of initiation. Fear is a relatively easy experience to conjure. I was able to access my own fear simply by having someone place a bag over my head. The ability to access courage, on the other hand, requires effort.
Ifa and the Taoists martial arts teach that the path to courage requires stillness. It is the stillness that accompanies the calm introspection leading to a feeling of oneness with self and world. Being one with the world necessitates an acknowledgement that the thing is feared is a part of the self. The Taoists call the experience of oneness Tao. In Ifa the experience of oneness is called Ifayelele.
The term Ifayelele describes both an inner calm, and the ritual process used to resolve disputes between Ifa it is referred to as Ifayelele. The word Ifayelele from the elision Ifa yeye ile ile means the wisdom of the eternal house of the mothers. I believe it is a reference to the state of grace that occurs in the mother’s womb prior to birth. To know Ifayelele in the face of fear is to return to the moment of unity at the beginning of time. True courage can be found in no other place. It is a reflection of the basic nature of consciousness.
Religion traditionally takes one of two approaches in its attempt to describe the unity of Being. The dogmatic approach is to describe Deity based on established religious doctrine. Accessing courage using this approach is based on accepting or believing specific articles of faith. The mystic approach is to experience Deity through ascetic discipline.
Ifa uses the mystical path to access courage. In Ifa, the ascetic discipline involves honoring personal taboos, the study of geomancy (patterns of dafa), meditation, incantation, and initiation. Using these techniques, understanding Being becomes a process of expanding consciousness by overcoming fear through Ifayelele. There is religious dogma in Ifa regarding the beginning of time, but this doctrine is understood to be a limited reflection of the mystical experience.
The content of mystical experience is known in the West as revelation. In Ifa, revelation is described as communication with Orunmila. The revelations of successive generations of Ifa priests are added to the scriptures (Odu) used in divination. As a result, mystic vision is used along with shared experience as a guide for accessing courage.
The philosophical implication of Ifa mystical discipline is that Being, or Olorun, is grounded in a creative process that is based on universal principles that can be grasped by human consciousness. These principles are viewed as levels of mystery into the nature of Olorun that can be progressively revealed to anyone interested in making the effort. But because consciousness is restricted by the limitations of time and space, Olorun remains beyond the scope of verbal description. For this reason, Olorun has no gender, there are no symbols of Olorun and there are no invocations for Olorun.
Prayers are offered to Olorun, but this is usually done when all other efforts to produce spiritual transformation have failed. These prayers traditionally take the form of a request for the solution to a problem and include an acknowledgement that Olorun’s will is always in effect. This means events that may appear as tragedy and misfortune may have a deeper meaning beyond human understanding. This element of faith is based on the Ifa belief that every human head (ori) has made an agreement with Olorun at the beginning of each incarnation to receive a specific destiny as part of the overall unfolding of evolution. For this reason, the process of spiritual transformation is understood to be the conscious act of remembering elements of the original agreement between ori and Olorun.
In Ifa, the agreement between ori and Olorun includes the element of reincarnation. Ifa understands reincarnation to be the rebirth of consciousness in different physical bodies. The rebirth of the emi (soul) is believed to occur within recent family lineage. It is this aspect of Ifa belief that is the basis for ancestor reverence and respect for children. Those who come before us and those who follow us are part of a continuous search for Ifayelele.
The Ifa rituals performed for cleaning away negative influences (etutu), rites of passage (igbodu), and offerings of appeasement (ebo), are all intended to create attunement with what can be known about an individual’s specific destiny. They are not intended to fulfill arbitrary desires, or to crate meaningless power and abundance. It is the task of Ifa to guide individuals along the path that leads to those portals of vision that reveal the primal agreement with Olorun. Once a threshold has been approached, the elders step aside. Transformation will only take place if the person being guided walks through the gateway on their own. If the step is not taken, fear becomes reinforced with more fear. If the step is taken, fear is replaced with courage at the moment of Ifayelele.
The life long process of discovering oneness with Source builds what is known in Yoruba culture as iwa (character). Those who develop good character (iwa-pele) become the elders of the community, sharing their insights with the younger members of the extended family who look to them for guidance. What this means in practice is that the deepest meaning of Ifa folklore; myth and symbolism cannot be fully understood by the intellect alone. Religious meaning must be both understood and experienced to be fully grasped. In the West the integration of knowledge and experience is called wisdom. In Yoruba language wisdom is known as ori ire. The phrase has various translations, but in this context it would mean; head of goodness, or transformed head. Ori ire is the basis for the respect given to the elders of the Yoruba community who have direct experience of remembering aspects of their original agreement with Olorun. This idea of having an agreement with Creation is not common in Western forms of spirituality. It is rooted in the belief that all things have consciousness, and consciousness gives birth to change through the power of the word.
In Ifa the sound of Creation is called Oro, which means word. It is not the word of normal speech or conversation. Oro is the word of power, the word of manifestation, and the effect of invocation. Creation is the Oro of Olorun; it is the manifestation of existence and the invocation of evolution spoken at the beginning of time.
This understanding of word as power is the foundation of the Ifa process of spiritual transformation. The Ifa belief is that the power of the primal Oro is preserved in the physical universe at all levels of existence. Because of this retention, the power of Oro can be invoked through the use of the human voice. In human form Oro is called ofo.
According to Ifa, the moment of Creation (Oro) generated a single force known as ase. This force is manifest in polar form as expansion and contraction. The force of expansion creates light, and the force of contraction creates matter. It is the harmonious interaction between light and matter that is responsible for good fortune, known in Yoruba as ire.
The Ifa Creation myth teaches that all from (ire) was placed in the universe at the beginning of time. The primal Spirit that sustains form as an element of Creation is Olodumare. This is a difficult word to translate directly into English. Some Yoruba dictionaries define Olodumare as the self-existent God. In metaphysical terms, this means Olodumare is the aspect of Olorun that has physical existence. In this context Olodumare is sometimes called Oba Orun, meaning Ruler of Heaven. This would suggest that Olodumare is similar to the Western theological concept known as pantheism; the belief that everything in the physical universe is an expression of Deity. As a universal symbol of substance, Olodumare can be understood as the archetype or repository of all forms that give shape to matter. In metaphysical terms, Olodumare would be the primal source of ire. I have not seen this interpretation of Olodumare expressed in the written literature on Ifa. In my opinion, it appears to be expressed symbolically in Ifa myth. In the Yoruba story of Creation Olodumare gives Obatala the task of molding the physical universe, but retains the power of giving breath to humans. The Yoruba word for breath is emi the same word used for soul. This suggests Olodumare is both the source of physical animation, and the source of consciousness. Breath is a newborn baby’s first experience of ire or transformation, and it is a result of the ase (power) raised during childbirth. In psychological terms, the moment of birth becomes every individual’s initial contact with the polarity between light and dark, as it exists in the world. During Ifa initiation, the journey into the underworld can be understood as a re-creation of the journey down the birth canal. The fear that is overcome as the baby emerges in to the world is recreated as the initiate prepares for ritual rebirth.
It appears to me the word Olodumare might be a contraction of Olodu meaning Owner of Odu; and Osumare, meaning Rainbow. Odu is the word used to describe Ifa scripture, but it also represents the Womb of Creation. The translation from this interpretation would be the light of the Rainbow comes from the Primal Womb. I can find no written confirmation for this translation. It does appear consistent with the idea that double lines in dafa represent the portal of rebirth and it is rebirth that generates ire or good fortune.
Ifa teaches that the need for ritual rebirth is a result of the need to gain insight into our original agreement with Olodumare. Human life includes the possibility of living in harmony with our agreement or living in opposition to our agreement. The consequence of living in opposition to our destiny is the experience of disruption, illness, grief, mental suffering and fear of the unknown. In Ifa scripture it is Esu who guides the ori (consciousness) towards one or the other of these possibilities.
Esu is known as the rascal, and virtually all traditional forms of Nature Worship recognize some form of the Trickster Spirit. In European systems of Earth Reverence, the Trickster is often represented as the Divine Fool, or the Court Jester. What is unique in Ifa is the identification of the force that controls Esu. This Force is called Ela. The word has no literal translation, but is sometimes described as the Spirit of Purity. I suspect it is an elision of e ala meaning I am light. The Ifa description of the interaction between Ela and Esu is an expression of the effect of Divine Will on the parameters of chaos. In some regions of Yoruba land, Ela is associated with Eleda. The word Eleda is used to describe the energy center in the human head located just above the bridge of the nose. In Western occult theory, this center is known as the third eye. For both Ifa and Western occultism, this spot is the seat of intuition. Opening Eleda or the third eye in both traditions is viewed as the antidote for the confusion and disruption caused by the Trickster. In Ifa the chaos caused by Esu is believed to originate in the energy center locked at the base of the neck. Ifa calls the base of the neck Esu ni ba ko meaning Spirit of the Trickster don’t trick me. In Western occultism the Trickster is often know as the Jabberwocky, who lives in the back of the neck.
The back of the neck is the place where the head connects to the body. Symbolically, it is the spot that connects mind with emotions. When emotions inappropriate for a given circumstance are triggered, they can effect our perception of reality. This is the psychological source of the Trickster’s power to cause disruption. It is my belief that emotions become misdirected as a result of some unconscious fear: the same fear that confronted us during initiation and the journey through the underworld.
It is the function of Ela to place limits on the disruption caused by Esu. To fully understand this relationship requires an explanation of the way in which an Ifa priest approaches divination. People come to dafa for many reasons, but, from the point of view of the Ifa priest, there is ultimately only one question that can be asked. The question is; am I in alignment with my destiny? If the answer is no, it is believed Esu can cause a condition known as ori ibi. The Yoruba dictionary defines ibi as evil. I would translate ori ibi to mean confused head. The purpose of dafa is to give guidance so that a confused head (ori ibi) can be transformed into a wise head (ori ire). When someone approaches divination with issues of misfortune, poor health, and confusion, Ifa identifies all of these issues are rooted in ori ibi. In this circumstance, Esu can be seen as the Divine Enforcer. Esu crates these conditions as a reminder that life includes the possibility of transformation and enlightenment.
When a person is in consistent resistance to transformation it can lead to a condition that Ifa calls ori buruku. The condition is considered so reprehensible that he word buruku is never spoken without covering the head with the hands. The word itself is a form of hexing and is never spoken in a sacred place. The Yoruba dictionary defines buruku as hell, but here again the definition is misleading. It would be more accurate to understand the term as referring to someone who is inherently confused. The main remedy for this condition is to invoke Ela in hopes of forcing a breakthrough that will led to healing.
Ela is considered the first incarnation of the prophet Orunmila. It is the first incarnation in Spirit form that preceded the emergence of human life. Ela is the power that gives expression to the forms that exist in the womb of Olodumare. The ase (power) of Ela is constantly giving support to the forms that emanate from Olodumare. In metaphysical terms, Ela re-creates the world in every present moment.
Orunmila is known as the first Babalawo, meaning Father of Secrets. It is the spiritual presence of Ela that is being expressed through Orunmila’s human revelation that forms the basis of Ifa’s prophetic message. In objective terms, the existence of Ela means chaos in the universe can only move a certain distance from the parameters of evolution before it runs up against the primal genetic imprint of Nature. As a force in Nature, Ela is both the coded blueprint for the unfolding of evolution and the primal principle that defines the nature of expansion in the universe. Ifa myth indicates that the ase used to communicate between the ori of humans and the ori of Orisa (Forces in Nature) comes from Olodumare, through Ela, to Esu. Because he is the most immediate and the most accessible ling to ase, Esu has the additional function of being the Divine Messenger. When the message from Esu is misunderstood our grasp of self and world is disrupted. This means that the first step in understanding our original agreement with Olorun involves clear communication with Esu. When divination indicates this communication is clouded, it is the Spirit of Ela who brings clarity.
In Yoruba terms, coming to dafa is ori’s appeal to Esu illuminate the relationship among Olorun, Olodumare and Ela. As symbols of real Forces that existed at the beginning of time, they are the Ifa Trinity of Divine Manifestation. Astrology describes these principles as cardinal, fixed and mutable. The concept of Cardinal Deity would correlate to Olorun as the Primal Source of Being. The concept of Fixed Deity would correlate to Olodumare as the originator of Primal Form. The concept of Mutable Deity would correlate to Ela, as the originator of dynamics, which is the primal force for change.
Based on Ifa Creation myth, these three fundamental principles existed in undifferentiated unity within Olorun prior to Creation. At the moment time and space came into Being, these principles generated the Force in Nature known as ase. From ase emerged the polarity between expansion and contraction; light and dark; dynamics and form. It is the manifestation of these polarities that form the structures of Odu. These structures are consulted during divination. We examine these structures in an effort to link with Source, in an effort to find the courage to live without fear.
For me, the purpose of Ifa initiation is to give the initiate full access to the entire range of personal consciousness. This access includes the ability to enter altered states known as possession. The mechanism for placing an initiate into an altered state is to surround the initiate with elders who are in an altered state. In Ifa this is called passing - or spiritual power. As someone who does initiations I place an initiate into possession by first going into possession myself then standing close enough for the initiate to feel it.
There is in the West and idea about possession that is inconsistent with the traditional Ifa description of the process. My elders in Ile Ife say that possession comes from the inside out and not the outside in. That means it is not something that happens to you, it is something that comes from you. As an initiator I cannot give you something you don’t already have. As an initiator I cannot give you the wrong Spirit. All I can do as an initiator is unlock what was already given to you by Creation. In Ifa possession is by the Spirit of Ela from the elision e ala meaning I am the light. The light of ala is not the light of visual illumination it is the internal light of consciousness, it is the fundamental building block of Creation. Ifa teaches that the Light of Creation is the only truth and everything else is reality created by agreement. The light of Ala shapes the world and is given to us as a gift from the Creator to make the world a better place. Possession by Ela is different from possession by Orisa in that the spiritual connection to Spirit in Orisa possession is linked to one of the seven iwaju or chakras through the Earth. Possession with Ela links the crown iwaju or chakra directly to the invisible realm called Orun.
In west some argue that there is no possession by Ela. I am of the opinion that if there was no possession by Ela there would be no invocation for possession by Ela in our oral scripture. The invocation for possession by the Spirit of Ela is clearly presented in the Odu (Ifa Scripture) Ogunda’sa:
(Invocation for possession by the Spirit of Destiny)
Ela omo osin.
Ela Omo Oyigiyigi ota omi.
Spirit of Light, child of the Ruler. Spirit of Light, child of the offspring of the Stone in the Water.
Commentary: Ifa teaches that everything is a manifestation of light and light carries primal consciousness. The stone in the water is the center point of Creation which exploded to create hydrogen atoms. The cloud of hydrogen atoms at the first moment of Creation is symbolically referred to as omi Orun or the heavenly waters.
Awa di oyigiyigi.
A ki o ku wa.
We ourselves become manifestation. The stone that birthed the Spirit of Light will never die.
Commentary: this is a reference to the eternal aspect of human consciousness that is accessed through prayer and the development of good character.
Ela ro a ki o ku mo, okiribiti.
Ela ro (Sokale) Orunko Ifá.
The Spirit of Light has descended to Earth, we die no more. This is the name we give to Destiny.
Commentary: in Liturgical Yoruba the word ro is used to invoke possession or to place consciousness in an altered state.
Entiti ngba ni l'a.
Nwon se ebo Ela fun mi.
He is the one who saved us. We have made offerings to the Spirit of Light
Commentary: Salvation in traditional Ifa comes as a result of accessing our full potential. Accessing our full potential comes as a result of developing good character which in turn supports access to altered states of consciousness.
Ko t'ina, ko to ro.
He is of no substance. He is too small to be thought of.
Commentary: The transcendent component of human consciousness is immortal and invisible.
Beni on (Ela) ni gba ni la n'Ife, Oba - a - mola.
Yet He delivered the Immortals from all trouble, the Chief for whom to know is to be saved.
Commentary: This is saying that the transcendent element of human consciousness also exists in the consciousness of Spirit and that salvation is a consequence of accessing the transcendent. In other words all consciousness is linked to a higher consciousness called Iponri and within the Grace of Iponri all consciousness becomes One.
Ela, Omo Osin mo wari o!
Ela meji, mo wari o.
The Spirit of Light, Son of the Ruler, I praise you. The Spirit of Light, the Spirit of Light, I praise you.
Commentary: The reference to Ela meji means the spirit of Light is Immortal. In the Yoruba language when you repeat a word you are suggesting the eternal essence of that word. Ela meji or the Spirit of Light Twice would be spoken Ela Ela meaning Ela exists forever.
Ela mo yin boru.
Ela mo yin boye.
Ela mo yin bosise.
Spirit of Light I beg you to lift my burden. Spirit of light I beg you to lift my burden from earth. Spirit of Light I ask you to present my burden to the Immortals.
Commentary: This is a traditional greeting to the Spirit Light when it becomes manifest through possession by the mediums present when the invocation is spoken.
Eni esi so wa soro odun.
Odun ko wo wa sodun.
The Spirit of light has appeared. The friend has returned for this year's festival. The celebration returns.
Commentary: Once a year the Spirit of Ela is invoked and appears as a beam of light emerging from the floor of Igbodu or the sacred grove. This mystery is the fundamental ritual process that was the basis for building the great stone temples that cover the earth.
I come Iroko oko. I come Iroko oko. I come Iroko oko.
Commentary: The Iroko tree is used in traditional Yoruba communities as an ancestors shrine. Oko is the power of the shrine to influence future generations.
Odun oni si ko.
Ela ro, ko wa gbu're.
The celebration has returned. The Spirit of Light has appeared. Holy Spirit descend. Holy Spirit descend. Holy Spirit descend, prayers to accept.
Commentary: This phrase announces the presence of Ela through the mediums.
Ela takun wa o.
Ela ro o.
Eti ire re.
Ela takun ko wa gbu're.
Holy Spirit with string descends. Holy Spirit descends. Be the ears of our prayers. Holy Spirit with string descends to accept our prayers.
Commentary: String is the Ifa symbol for the idea that all things are inter-connected.
Enu ire re.
Ela takun ko gbure.
Oju ire re.
Hear the lips of our prayers. Holy Spirit with string descends to accept our prayers. Hear the eyes of our prayers.
Commentary: Once possession occurs the medium uses the spiritual energy of the altered state of consciousness to pray for the good fortune of the community.
Ela takun ko wa gbu're.
Ela ma dawo aje waro.
Ela ma d'ese aje waro.
Holy Spirit with string descend to accept our prayers. Holy Spirit with lips of blessing embrace us. Mighty Spirit with lips of blessing embrace us.
Commentary: After the medium prays for the community Spirit answers those prayers by responding to them through the medium.
Atikan Sikun ki oni ikere yo ikere.
From door to door remove the hinges.
Commentary: Removing the hinges from the door is a symbolic reference to the idea of removing those artificial boundaries that separates humans from one another.
Ipenpe'ju ni si'lekun fun ekun agada ni si'ekun fun eje.
He who removes the hinges opens the eyelids for tears.
Commentary: Removing boundaries enhances empathy and this in turn allows us to share the pain of others as the foundation for healing.
Ogunda'sa, iwo ni o nsilekun fun Ejerindilogun Irunmole.
The Spirit of Iron, the Spirit of Wind, the Spirit who opens the door for the Immortals.
Commentary: Ogunda’sa is a verse of Ifa scripture that invokes opening the portals between the Invisible Realm and earth.
Ela panumo panumo.
Ela panuba panuba.
Spirit of Light resounding. Spirit of Light rebounding.
Commentary: This is a reference to the idea that the Spirit of Light is accessible in every moment.
Ayan ile ni awo egbe ile, ekolo rogodo ni awo ominile.
Near the crack in the wall where the elders meet, Peace ascended to Heaven and did not return.
Commentary: A crack in the wall refers to a place where a person can ease drop on matters that do not concern them. This suggests that spying on others is a source of disruption in the community. It also suggests that everyone has a place and function with the community and maintaining our person responsibility is more important than arrogantly trying to take more responsibility they we are prepared for.
Eriwo lo sorun ko do mo.
O ni ki a ke si Odi awo Odi.
Upon blockade the Priest of Blockade is called to Earth. He asked us to call upon the Priest of Peace.
Commentary: Every day life involves the need to separate the ori from the ipoinri. The invocation is asking us to make this separation in a spirit of peace.
O ni ki a ke si Ero awo Ero.
O ni ki a ke si Egún osusu abaya babamba.
Upon the shrub thorns he asked us to call. Upon the blockade we call the Priest of the Blockade.
Commentary: shrub thorns are used as protection in certain shrines, so again the invocation is asking us to set up boundaries in a spirit of peace.
A ke si Ero awo Ero, ke si Egún o susu abaya babamba a ni eriwo lo si Orun ko de mo, won ni ki Ela roibale.
Upon the thick shrubbery thorns we call, to the Realm of the Immortals we calmly ascend. Holy Spirit descend.
Commentary: We use protection to guide us to a place of unity. This is an admonition against using ritual to harm others.
Ela ni on ko ri ibi ti on yio ro si o ni iwaju on egun.
The Peace of the Spirit of Light said; "I have nowhere to descend."
Commentary: This is a reference to the idea that in order to be an effective medium of Light we need to surrender or sacrifice our personal ego to make room for effective possession.
Eyin on osusu agbedem 'nji on egun osusu, awo fa ma je ki'iwaju Ela gun mori on tolu.
I find the front filled with thorns, I find the rear and the middle filled with thorns.
Commentary: The reference to front and rear is a reference to resistance in the past and in the future.
Òrúnmìlà ma jeki eyin Ela gun mosi Olokarembe Òrúnmìlà ma jeki agbedemeje la gun Osusu.
The humans appealed to the Spirit of Destiny to pray to the Great Spirit of light.
Commentary: This is a reference to the idea that Orunmila the historic prophet of traditional Yoruba culture was a medium or Ela.
Ifá ko je ki iwaju re se dundun more on tolu.
Spirit of Light descends. Remove the thorns from the front and rear.
Commentary: The invocation is asking us to remove our resistance to possession.
Ifá ko jeki eyin re se worowo.
Spirit of Light descends. Remove the thorns from the middle.
Commentary: The invocation is again asking us to remove our resistance to possession.
Ela ni 'waju o di Odundun.
Spirit of Light descends. At the front place of Peace, the Spirit of Light becomes manifest.
Commentary: This is a clear statement that possession is a consequence of alignment of the head and heart which results in a state of inner peace.
Ela ni eyin o di Tete.
Ela ni agbedemeji o di worowo.
At the rear place of Peace, the Spirit of Light becomes manifest. At the middle place of Peace, the Spirit of light becomes manifest.
Commentary: The removal of ego allows for the higher self to overwhelm normal consciousness.
By Awo Fa’lokun Fatunmbi
AKA David Wilson