Prayer and the Orisha faith:
My Apetebii and I were talking and the subject of prayer came up. It seems like an obvious thing, almost self explanatory, but there is an underlying fundamental ideology that isn't so obvious.
Prayer can take many forms, whether it is the act of supplicating to the Orisha, petitioning that they act on our behalf to positively affect our life or the lives of those around us. There is also the act of praising the Orisha as an act of thanks for the good in our lives or from saving us from some bad. Lastly is the act of simply praising the Orisha without any expectation (sometimes the most important and the most forgotten of acts).
A very important but often overlooked part of prayer in Yoruba culture is that it is almost always physically spoken. While in many other cultures, especially western culture, prayer can be an inward act in which verbalization is not necessary, it is quite the opposite in Yoruba culture. Any act of praise or prayer is by definition verbal and most often performed in a communal setting. We see this in traditional African practice, but in some ways, what is most striking is that in the diaspora this concept has not changed or diminished in any way. This is not to diminish one's personal reflection, meditations or internal prayers which are certainly part of how we can worship.
On a literal level, our vocalization produces sounds, which can travel, whether only a few inches or several meters or more. Through initiation, and sometimes powders and medicinal preparations, it is believed we can give power to those sounds/vibrations allowing them to reach Orun (heaven). As Olorisha and Babalawo, we are considered to not only be mediators between man and Orisha, it is believed that our voices are able to reach Orun and catch the attention of Orisha. That is why before every Ebo, before every divination session, before every religious act, we pray. Through that prayer, we hope that our vocalization may reach heaven.
This explains why as Babalawo we pray before casting Ikin or Opele, and it is why before we chant or interpret Odu we say:
Aboru, Aboye, Aboshishe
Which roughly translates to:
May our ebo reach Orun (heaven) - Aboru
May our ebo be accepted - Aboye
May our ebo allow what we desire to come to pass - Aboshishe
It is also why we must say "Ase (Ashe)" to affix and affirm things. By saying Ase (Ashe) we not only legitimize the prayer, we also send out the vibration of the holy phrase so that the prayers may reach Orun.
In the Orisa faith prayer can occur in many different ways:
Adura - Very simply meaning prayer, the most common of which is the Iba or Mo Juba meaning I/we give praise. In both traditional African and the Diaspora practices, the Iba/MoJuba is quintessential, and is often the very first thing an Olorisa or Babalawo learns. There are Adura for every Orisha, and Adura can be done in any language, for in the end, Orisha are all knowing so there is no language they don't understand. Those of us who are not Yoruba natives learn prayers in Yoruba as a way of respecting the past. The Yoruba have a saying, We stand on the backs of those that came before us. Without our african ancestors, without the slaves of the diaspora, we would not be here.
Oriki Orisha - Oriki are praise names which we have for all the Orisha, they reference acts of the Orisha in Ese Ifa, Iyere and all the other forms of stories in which they take part. They extol the deeds of the past, reminding us of the wonderous actions they performed. There can also be Oriki for kings, ancestors, etc.
Iyere - Iyere is the poetry of Ifa and Iyere is said to be have been a son of Orunmila who transmitted the word of Orunmila through a type of poetry. Upon his death began the Iyere style of Poetry. Chief Eleribuibon mentions that there are two types of Iyere: Iyere Sisun (Iyere singing) and Iyere Pipa (Iyere chanting). There are Ifa priests who specialize in this style and in Nigeria there are even competitions. Also worth mention are other Orisha's praise/poetry: Ijala - chanting for Ogun, Iwi chanting for Egun, and Sango and Oya Pipe.
Of interesting note, Chief Eleribuibon talks of Iyere poetry being used as a means of telecommunications. Noting several Odu Ifa where the chanting is used to communicate thanks or grief across distance. (see Iyere Ifa, Yemi Elebuibon chapter p. 41), which gives credence to the idea that vocalization is an important part of prayer.
Orin - Song, like prayer and poetry, is an important part of the process of invocation, supplication and praise. This is probably one of the most recognizable to the non-initiate, and in the diaspora is in large part, the outward face of the Orisha traditions (as outsiders are often able to participate/attend these ceremonies). It should be of important note that singing is not only a way to beckon the Orisha to come to earth, but a way to communally give praise in an environment that eventually leads to an actual two way communication as Orisha's mount their priests/omo. Unlike any other form of prayer, this is the only one where the Orisha physically manifests to speak with us one on one. It's both visceral and profoundly humbling when you are in the presence of an initiated who is truly mounted by Orisha.
I might add at this point an oft overlooked part of the practice of prayer, which is the role of Ayan (Anya/Aña) bata drums. In the diaspora the repertoire of the drums is quite deep, and includes (as do traditional african Ayan) the notion that the drums mimic the speech patterns of the Yoruba language (which is tonal). In this way, you can even recognize certain prayers and songs that match a rhythmic pattern. So in this way, the drums too are a vocalization of our prayers to Orisha.
It's also important to note that sacred (consecrated) drums are additionally imbued with the power of speech. It is these consecrated drums whose vibrations are able to reach Orun, and in doing such lure the Orisha to Aiye (earth) to mount their omo (children) and physically manifest amongst humans. This is essentially the same role played by the Yoruba talking drum, dundun or gangan, which was used to talk across vast expanses from four to some say as much as 15 miles (during the night). This is where it becomes critical to understand that unlike western languages, Yoruba and other dialects of the area are tonal and each word can have several meanings depending on tone, a fact often lost or forgotten in the diaspora (which get into some of the famous Yoruba Puns or double meanings). This allows the drums to mimic phrases in an uncanny way.
Ofo - This is an area of study that is somewhat obscure with few that are truly masters, and is virtually non-existent in the Diaspora. This chanting is the basis for Yoruba "magic" and through the use of magical and secret names, the enchanter can control inanimate objects, spirits, people, animals, etc to use to their own ends. Ofo can be used for good, and likewise for evil. There are Ofo for money, Ofo for health, Ofo for summoning the Aje, Ofo to cause death, the list is long and numerous.
This is not an exhaustive list, as I believe many different Orisa have their own types of prayer, but should be at least a beginning point for those who don't have significant contact with traditional Yoruba practices.
It is important for us as followers to always pray and be proud. It affirms our existence, it affirms our beliefs, it affirms the Orisha, it affirms the positive desires for the world and it affirms Egun, Egbe and Isheshe. I'll end this with a short Song sung by the group after an Iba:
E e e e, Baba mi iba ni n'o f'ojo oni she e o o
Baba a ni, iba n'o f'ojo oni she e.
E e e e, father I will spend the entire day paying homage,
Father, I will spend the entire day paying homage.
Marcos Ifalola Sanchez