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African Traditional Religions: Ifa

This guide, created by the Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library with funding from the Atla OER Grant Program, exists as an Open Educational Resource on "African Traditional Religions: Ifa." Content licensed CC-BY-NC 4.0.

Chapter 5: Our Ancestors are With Us Now

 

Photography: Will Coleman, Ph.D.  

This is an agere Ifa (divination container).  It is the" house" of various implements used for divinatory purposes.  It is like a microcosm of the universe that is sustained by a ubiquitous feminine power.  Like an "ark of the covenant" it is numinous and conveys a hidden mystery of ancestral knowledge and practices.

OUR ANCESTORS ARE WITH US NOW

If you want to locate your most immanent connection with the multidimensional spirit world, tune within.  Consciously connect with your ancestral DNA and everything else will be revealed through you.  According to one of my teachers, Baba Medahochi Kofi Zannu (of blessed memory), our ancestors are literally inside of us. They eat what we eat, drink what we drink, go where we go and do what we do.  This is an awesome way of comprehending who we are, wherever we are.  We are living, organic ancestral shrines.

 

BUILDING AN ANCESTOR SHRINE

In traditional Ifa culture, everyone is believed to have the ability, and the obligation to communicate with the ancestors on a daily basis. According to Ifa oral tradition, communication with your ancestors is a birthright and requires no special sanction. At times this communication can simply involve remembering a revered ancestor and making use of the memory as a basis for making an important decision. In many ways ancestor communication is an extension of the training and wisdom we receive from our parents and grandparents. In Yoruba culture, it is common for the uninitiated to make direct contact with ancestor spirits. The most prevalent method of communication is through dreams. Information also comes through participation in annual ancestor festivals. Because such festivals are not common in the United States, Ifa worshippers in the diaspora have created several viable alternatives. throughout the Caribbean islands the various expressions of carnival celebrations are retentions of the African forms of communal ancestor reverence. It is also common to build a small ancestral shrine within the home to be used as a focal point for prayer and meditation.

There are a number of traditional Yoruba methods for building ancestor shrines; some of which are very complex and require direct personal training. For those who do not have access to lineage elders, I recommend the ancestor shrine be constructed with minimal elements. Once the basic elements are in place, the ancestors can be consulted directly for guidance on further additions and modifications to the shrine. Once the shrine is built and once you establish a link with the ancestors, they will communicate to you directly either through divination, visions, or altered states of consciousness.

When the altar is finished, it should stay as clean as possible. Ifa teaches that dirt, clutter and disorder can attract unwanted and undesirable spiritual forces. This may seem simplistic, but in my experience it is a very important consideration. Our external environment reflects our internal state of being and either supports or blocks the process of growth.

Find a place in your home or apartment that can be used for prayer and meditation. Clean the area so it will be free from dust. In Native American traditions, sacred space is cleansed through the use of smoke. I find this practice to be effective and consistent with many cultural earth-centered traditions. It is a common practice in Native American and Pagan traditions to place leaves in either a large seashell or clay pot. Any aromatic leaf can be effective, with cedar and sage being popular choices. Light the leaves and fan the flames until you generate a steady plume of smoke. Walk through the entire house making sure smoke gets in every corner of every room. As you fan the smoke say a prayer asking that all negative influences be removed from your home. The container selected for this purpose should be kept near the ancestor shrine and only used for spiritual purposes. A Yoruba prayer may be used to bless the leaves used to create the smoke. this prayer is a dispelling invocation and you may add the kinds of negativity you want removed from the sacred space.

Iba se Egun

I pay homage to the Spirit of the Ancestors

Emi (your name) Omo (list your lineage starting with your parents and working backwards)

I am (you name) child of (lineage)

Iba se Ori Ewe

I pay homage to the Spirit of the Leaves

Ko si 'ku

Send away the Spirit of Death

Ko si arun

Send away illness

Ko si wahala

Send away all gossip

Ase

May it be so

The prayer is spoken directly over the leaves. When the prayer is completed, breathe on the leaves and say the word to pronounced "toe." The word means :"enough," and is used to indicate the invocation or prayer is completed. This is known as placing your ase or spiritual power on the prayer. The word to functions as a seal locking the prayer on to the object that is being consecrated or blessed. The word is also used to indicate the invocation is over so that words spoken after the end of the prayer are not heard by spirit as part of the prayer.

As you walk through the space fanning the smoke, keep your conscious thoughts focused on the intention of the cleansing. The smoke will magnify whatever thoughts you are projecting into the room so make sure your thoughts support your intention.

Traditionally, smoke has the effect of clearing away all spiritual influences from a room both positive and negative. When starting the practice of regular communication with the ancestors, it is helpful to begin with a neutral environment so that you consciously invite specific ancestors to the shrine and know who is making their presence known. Ifa teaches that emotions have substance and that emotional energy lingers in a room long after it has been discharged. This is especially true of intense emotions like anger, hate, disappointment and jealousy. If these emotions build up around an ancestor shrine for a prolonged period of time, they can have the effect of invoking ancestors who indulged in negative emotions. for this reason, periodic cleaning with smoke after the initial cleansing should be part of the ancestral reverence discipline.

After the space is cleansed with smoke, use the same process to cleanse your physical body. Start with the front of your body moving the smoke from your feet to the top of your head and down your back. Each pass should be made in the same direction. Do not move the smoke from front to back then from back to front because this would be returning the influences to the place where they were removed.

In Ifa once an area has been cleansed, it is traditional to seal the space with water and herbs. Ifa makes use of a wide range of herbs for the purpose of locking in the positive effect of prayer and invocation. the simplest seal for the uninitiated is clear water mixed with either efun or cascariaEfun is white chalk made from fossilized sea shells and cascaria is an efun substitute made from egg shells. If these materials are not available, it is traditional to add either perfume or cologne to the water. Make sure your choice of fragrance is something you periodically wear. In addition, add a small amount of body fluid to the water, either saliva or urine. By doing this you are placing your own essences in the seal. This becomes a statement to the Spirit realm that they are entering your shrine area and indicates they need your invitation to enter. 

A traditional Ifa prayer may be used to enhance the power of the water to function as a seal. This is an enhancement prayer so you may add any of the things you want to manifest as a result of ancestral intervention.

Iba se omi tutu

I pay homage to the Spirit of Water

Emi (your name) Omo (list your lineage starting with your parents and working backwards)

I am (you name) child of (lineage)

Fun mi

Bring me

Ire alafia

the good fortune of peace

Ire l'era

the good fortune of a stable home

Ire omo

good fortune to my children

Ire owo

the good fortune of abundance

Ire agbo ato

the good fortune of long life

Ire iwa-pele

the good fortune of good character

Ire igbodu Egun

the good fortune of an ancestor shrine

Ire l'ona iponri atiwo Orun

the good fortune of the blessing brought by my higher self from the Realm of the Ancestors

Ase

May be be so.

 

The prayer should be spoken directly into the water followed by the word to. Sprinkle the water over the places that were cleansed by the smoke. Conscious attention should be placed on the matter of claiming the area as sacred space. Most of us have some ancestors who would not be welcome at the altar because of a lack of character development. It is necessary to exclude these ancestors and to make it clear no communication with them is desired. In particular it is important to exclude ancestors who suffered from addictive behavior and those who exhibited violet or sexually abusive behavior. the presence of these kinds of ancestor spirits can unconsciously trigger similar influences. they are identified in Ifa as Spirits who carry a family curse. The seal may include the names of those ancestors who are welcome to communicate at the shrine.

In some instances, there are those who do not know their ancestors. do not let this hinder the process. Simply identify the types of problems you will not allow within your altar space and identify the types of Spirits who are welcome. In time, as your communication with Spirit develops, you will be able to use this skill to begin the process of identifying unknown ancestors.

Construction of the Ancestor Shrine can start after the cleansing process is finished. the shrine is a place to remember; it is a memorial for those who have gone before us. It is a place to consider the wisdom of our lineage and to ponder the ways in which that wisdom can inform and guide us through current problems.

In the beginning, keep the construction simple. Place a box or table in the spot selected for a shrine. Cover the box or table with a white cloth. Place a glass of water and a candle on the cloth. At this point, you have the basic elements that create human beings;  you have earth, air, fire and water. Use the walls behind the shrine to mount pictures of your relatives. This is a place to remember, simply seeing a picture of a revered ancestor might remind us of a way they might have handled a particular crisis. remembering can lead to inspiration and inspiration can lead to resolution. Pictures of our ancestors can serve as a subliminal reminder of the contributions they have made.

Many of us come from mixed ancestry. Within the spectrum of our lineage there might be a wide range of religious and spiritual influences. You might want to represent some of these influences on the table through the use of a Bible, the Koran, Buddhist Sutras or a copy of the I Ching. All that is required to integrate this into an Ifa world view is an understanding of the universal nature of spiritual principles that have been expressed time and again in a variety of cultural expressions.

To use the shrine stand in front of it and light the candle. The first statement that should be made to the ancestors is a commitment to regular use of the shrine for meditation and prayer. I call this type of agreement self-regulated discipline. It does not matter how often you agree to make use of the shrine; what is important is that you live up to your agreement to make use of it on a regular basis. In my experience it is better to commit to one day a week and keep the commitment than to commit to every day and break the agreement. You are establishing a connection with the ancestors and telling them when you will be available for communication. The white cloth, candle, water and pictures can be thought of as an electron magnet that draws Spirit to the shrine. The current that drives the magnet are the prayers directed towards the white table. If you only turn to your shrine in moments of crisis, the current will be weak. If you charge the batteries on a regular basis, the spiritual connection  will remain dynamic and accessible.

At this point, you may spend time remembering those relatives who have served as role models considering how they might have dealt with any of the circumstances causing problems in your own life.

 

ANCESTOR OFFERING

Following the opening invocation to the ancestors you may make a food offering to the shrine. the Yoruba term for this type of offering is adimu egun. the idea behind making an offering is reciprocity. If we ask the ancestors for their guidance we need to give them something in return. Offering food is not meant to literally feed a Spirit; it is meant as a gesture of honoring the memory of those who once ate with us.

In Africa the most common offering to the ancestors is a small portion of every meal placed on the edge of the eating mat. Because Western culture generally eats meals at a table, the offering to the ancestors may be placed on a small plate that is set on the floor in front of the Egun altar or it may be placed on the altar directly. It is traditional in the Diaspora to use a plate with a crack. the broken plate is symbolic of the body that is discarded when the human soul (emi) is elevated.

In addition to food, it is traditional to offer something to drink. A cup of coffee, tea or alcohol may be placed next to the plate. If you are pouring libation hold the bottle with the left hand and cover the spout with your thumb and sprinkle a few drops on the floor.  Flowers can also be used as an offering and they can be placed directly on the altar. It is common practice in the Diaspora to use cigars as offerings to the ancestors. the smoke is used as a method of cleansing similar to smudge. Once you are in communication with the ancestors they will make specific requests for the kinds of offerings they want. You should make every effort to comply with the request, because in my experience it will enhance the quality of communication.

After making the offering, thank the ancestors for all the blessings you have already received. You may express your thanks in your own wrods or you may use the following Yoruba oriki (praise poem).

E nle oo rami o

I am greeting you my friends

Be ekolo ba juba ile a lanu

If the earthworm pays homage to the earth, the earth always gives it access

Omode ki ijuba ki iba pa a

A child who pays homage never suffers the consequences

Egun mo ki e o

Ancestors I greet you

Egun mo ki e o ike eye

Ancestors I greet you with respect

Ohun ti wu ba njhe lajule Orun

Whatever good things are being eaten in the realm of the ancestors

No mo ba won je

Eat my offering with them

J'epo a t'ayie sola n'igbale

Eat richly from the earth

Omo a t'ayie sola n-igbale

The children of the earth are grateful for your blessing

Ori Egun, mo dupe

I thank the wisdom of the ancestors

Ase

May it be so

 

Feeding the ancestors should be done on a regular basis to keep them close to your shrine. The frequency of the feeding is part of the agreement you make with your ancestors. In Africa, some elders make an offering to Egun at every meal and before they drink any liquids. In the Diaspora, it is more common to make an offering once a week to the shrine. It is acceptable to feed the ancestors less frequently as long as you keep to your schedule and your agreement.

For those who have not been initiated, having an ancestor shrine will give them a place to use the system of four cowries for divination and will provide access to ancestor spirits who will speak through divination. In all the systems of divination based on Dafa (Odu Ifa), the divination is directed towards a specific Spirit. That Spirit may bring messages from a number of sources, but the invocations to open divination are always directed to a particular Egun or Orisa.

By Awo Fa’lokun Fatunmbi

AKA David Wilson

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