Search Ifa articles

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Discourse on meaning and symbology in the Ifa Divination System

I would like to start this discourse with a few simple questions:

If one practices Ifa, does one have to believe in the creation stories and stories of Odu Ifa?

My answers is quite simply, yes . . . but more often as metaphor then as literal. In order to clarify that statement, I'll include here the Merriam-Webster definition of a metaphor:

Pronunciation: \ˈme-tə-ˌfor also -fər\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English methaphor, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French metaphore, from Latin metaphora, from Greek, from metapherein to transfer, from meta- + pherein to bear — more at bear
Date: 15th century

1: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly : figurative language — compare simile2: an object, activity, or idea treated as a metaphor : symbol 2

Assuming this definition, I propose that priest and layperson alike must learn to decipher each and every story and determine their literal and metaphorical meanings. As priests we are burdened with the job of helping to guide this process through our knowledge and connection to Ifa and the Divine. Once those meanings are determined, the most important job is left, sorting out what is meant literally and what metaphorically. This is where the real difficulty begins, and where rifts and divergence occur, especially without the central authority as seen in many other organized religions. Though, arguably, the Araba of Ile Ife is meant to play this role, he has not attained what I see as a critical mass in recognition, that would allow him to make decisions.

This all said, I personally believe these stories were created, and subsequently modified, as contextually and culturally relevant modes of explaining complex ideas and understandings of creation, and human existence. Like the bible and other Divinely inspired human treatises, Odu Ifa are the codification of an accumulated wisdom gathered through the ages. These Itan, Ese, Iyere are then interpreted based on accepted cultural norms (cultural relativism), and presented to the adherent during divination based on the Odu revealed by Ifa. Do I believe that a rooster was lowered to the watery planet we call earth, and by scratching at the patch of dirt that was placed with him he created the mountains and land? Well, in a metaphorical sense, yes. Literally, I don't see it, but isn't it strange that before any scientific evidence (which now exists) the Yoruba first understood that the earth was a watery place? They understood that water was a requirement for existence. I also find it interesting that the chicken scratching at the earth and spreading land as a metaphor is not so dissimilar from our understanding of volcanoes spewing molten lava in violent eruptions, which became the landmasses we know today. Interesting metaphor within which lies a complex scientific comparison.

Extracted from each ese Ifa, Itan, Iyere is a kernel of knowledge, a truth, a problem laid bare and the solution to overcoming that barrier or understand that problem. Sometimes it’s done literally, sometimes in metaphor.

If we further examine the ideas of "creating and modifying" and "contextual and cultural modes" of Odu Ifa, we see Ifa, as with all religions, is not an immutable force. We are presented with a larger issue beyond development of Odu Ifa (ese, iyere, itan), which is, what does it mean to interpret ese, ritual and liturgy, and when has something gone "too far"? These are critical issues when thinking about not only the advancement, but propagation and long-term survival prospects for the Orisa traditions. Without central authority (though I alluded to one earlier) and with an increasing gap in practices from "ile to ile" one has to wonder how long the bonds of cohesion can continue without some break. It does appear that whether acknowledged or not, there are already changes that have occurred, marking a distinction between the cuban style and US style of orisa worship and perhaps even the US and Nigerian style of Orisa worship. That assessment is based on my conversations with elders of Cuban decent (ie, having lived in cuba for a large part of their lives before moving here), Oluwos in Nigeria, and my observations of US-based practitioners.

I think bascom touches on the idea of cultural relativism in his statement on ese Ifa saying "Each listing reflects deities of importance locally, suggesting considerable regional variation in the Ifa verses because of their adaptation to local belief systems" (p.45 Ifa divination). After which he goes on to cite verses that are similar, but with different deities based on where they come from . . .

As to the creation and modification of Odu Ifa, there are two noted authors that speak to it. William Bascom in "Ifa Divination" says it does happen periodically and while I believe this to be true of traditional practice, I'm not sure whether lucumi Awo Ifa would agree. Though, arguably something must have happened to allow additions of certain lucumi verse that either do not conform to traditional verse or use items/people/situations that would be completely foreign to Yoruba culture. Bascome says:

"A Meko (area in Nigeria) diviner explained that new verses are learned when one dreams he is divining; when one awakes in the morning, he repeats what he did in his dreams. This is confirmed by Epega, who says that new verses may be derived from dreams, and also that some individuals are born with Ifa verses "inside them," so that as soon as they are taught the figures and a few verses of Ifa, they introduce new verses. Thus while no new figures can ever be added, there is no end to the knowledge of Ifa (Epega, n.d.: XVI, 6). If new verses can be introduced from dreams or through individual creativity, it is clear that all verses need not be derived from the corpus of African Folklore."
--Ifa divination, William Bascom P.137

In Chief Elebuibon's (a well known Nigerian Babalawo) book "Iyere Ifa: Tonal poerty, the voice of Ifa" he mentions this in the section talking about memorizing Ifa:

"It is a belief that the acolyte or priest memorizes these verses, his capacity to memorize is increased every day. Ajagunmole (he-who-teaches-the priest-through-dreams) is the great Ifa priest in heaven. He holds the responsibility for guiding the righteous and the upright by giving them retentive memory. It is believed that those who lose their memory or are unable to recite the Odu very well might have offended Ajagunmole." (Chapter 8, p101)

This confirms the idea of dream teaching that was told to both Bascom and Epega. And falls into the idea that there is a link between heaven and earth though which Ifa verse is transmitted. It also confirms that, whether actively talked about or not, the corpus of Odu Ifa is an ever expanding one, which may in fact house ese/iyere/etc that represent cultural norms of a time long ago, and are meant to be re-interpreted.

Before I go further, I would like to reiterate that history is precisely that, His Story, and as such, reflects the attitudes and opinions of those who have transmitted it. As we advance as a society it is necessary at times to reconstruct the logic and reasoning behind some of our most sacred acts. This can prove difficult since we have no books to guide us, and direct access through divination, to the Divine and the Awos who have gone before us can be tedious and insufficient. It is also necessary to update our views and understanding as technology and science reveals more to us. Just as we might send someone to a medical doctor now instead of an herbalist, we will also re-evaluate our system to reflect new knowledge or insights. It is in this vain that I move to my next topic in this discussion.

With the basis for the corpus of knowledge laid, we can turn to the question of the technicalities of Ifa and its markings. Ifa is in its essence a binary system. In fact one of the oldest and original binary systems, which happens to also be the basis for how modern day computers work. In a binary system, Two digits, 0 and 1 for computers, or in Ifa I and II, can be used to stand for the two states of ON and OFF, or in Ifa's case existence and non-existence. While Ifa itself is quite complex, and able to handle all the intricacies involved in shades of grey, its basis lies in the simple fact of two possible states of being. I exist or I do not exist, yes or no, positive or negative, known or unknown, these are the most basic states of existence, and are reflected in the markings of Ifa.

So we ask, why 8 markings? To first understand this, we should look at one of the most basic symbols in Orisa worship, the circle and crossed lines

This figure appears in a variety of places, from the Opon Ifa (traditionally circular, though there are modern square and rectangular versions) with the crossed lines marked in Iyerosun, to the “firmas” used within a variety of religious ceremonies. The symbology of this is a critical part of Yoruba cosmogony. We begin with the shape of the circle, which represents a variety of important concepts. First and foremost, by drawing a circle you perform the act of acknowledging and drawing, a representation of the eternal and infinite. Once drawn, a circle has no discernable beginning, middle or end, it simply appears to go on and on without stop. Not only does this represent the concept of never ending flow of time, it is crucial to the Yoruba concept of reincarnation. This is clearly evidenced when talking about the theology of Orun and the way in which we come to earth. It’s also evident in Yoruba names such as Yetunde or Babatunde (mother returns or father returns respectively), which are given to children born shortly after the death of a grandparent, viewed to be their reincarnation as marked by the ceremony of Esentaye done on the third day after a child’s birth.

The circle is also important in that it is a representation of the calabash (igba), and extremely important part of Yoruba culture. In the picture below, we see one beautiful example of a calabash carved with Yoruba motifs throughout. In Yoruba culture, the calabash is consider a container for items, both sacred and profane, but importantly is a symbol used when explaining the universe, which is considered to be a calabash (again, science concurs that the universe as we understand it is in essence an expanding sphere). In that role, the universe is cut in half with the upper half representing Orun (heaven) and the lower half representing earth or the “known” universe (aiye). This plays directly into our diagram of circle with two intersecting lines, the horizontal representing the differentiation between heaven and earth and subsequently life and death. While as a whole, our personal trajectories are on the outer circle, the intersecting vertical line, in Ifa, is a representation of our breaking of the boundary between heaven and earth in order to commune/communicate with heaven and seek counsel of the Divine. The center point of two intersecting lines representing the present moment in which the divination occurs where the two worlds are for an instant brought together.

To add another level of complexity to the discussion, the intersecting lines are also a representation of the crossroads and a manifestation of the Orisa Esu (owner of the crossroads) who traditionally is depicted at the top of an Opon Ifa as seen below.

The intersecting lines are a representation of the crossroads at which the devotee stands, and is the reason they are consulting Ifa for guidance. They stand at the center of the intersection, looking out onto each of their options in four directions seeking counsel on the correct path. Esu oversees this process and is given his due (ebo) to ensure he does not block and removes any obstacles from our way. In that way, the intersection represents the devotee’s present, each line a possible path to the present (their past), originating from the infinite circle, and each line also a potential future path extending out to the infinite circle. And so, as the Babalawo casts Ikin, he draws the ikin 8 times, 4 representing each potential path that lead to the present, and 4 more times representing each potential path that leads to the future. In the circle, as in Odu Ifa, all possibilities of past, present and future are contained.

This notion is further acknowledged by the role the calabash plays as the container of all knowledge, otherwise known as igba Odu, or calabash of Odu. We know that within Odu, is housed, all the knowledge of the world, past, present and future, and that based on our dynamic understanding of the Opon Ifa as crossroads, as Babalawo, we manipulate the symbols through ritual, prayer and the use of sacred objects to access that knowledge and present the devotee with a clear path to success and the overcoming of obstacles.

I believe that for now, this is a first attempt at creating an understanding of the symbology of Ifa which I hope will lead to more conversations, and a deeper understanding of the rites and rituals which we use to communicate and commune with the Divine Ifa.

Ase oo
Marcos Ifalola Sanchez