The ever expanding corpus of wisdom we call Ifa.
We should start this conversation with a well known mantra I've repeated many times: Within Ifa is housed all the wisdom and knowledge of the world past, present, and future. Acknowledging this statement as a truth, we eventually have to ask the question, does the corpus of Ifa Ese/Iyere/Oriki/Ofo expand, and how does that happen?
As a conversation starter I'd like to remind us of the old adage, "there's nothing new under the sun", which I believe holds true for peoples interactions with each other. While certainly there are new inventions, and we find out new things everyday, if we look at the interactions between people; love, hate, war, jealousy, passion, peace, these all seem to have been themes amongst all people from time immemorial as we see in the painting of the pyramids, the bible, the writings of Plato, and most importantly for those reading this, Odu Ifa.
If we can, but for a moment, raise ourselves above our given situation, we are apt to see one of these themes projecting itself on us. So in that way, Odu Ifa, when interpreted by ourselves or a priest, can show us the outcome, warn us of the pitfalls and provide us with a solution to our quandary. And so this leads in to our first question, does the Ifa as a corpus expand?
I believe that like all things in life, yes. it does. Though the larger themes remain, once we get into the details of interpretation of these issues, there is fluidity as can most aptly be seen in the examples of infanticide of twins, slavery and human sacrifice. We have clear evidence that infanticide was practiced based on the idea that twins were considered to be an abomination of nature. Not until the reign of Sango (Shango) was the practiced banned, and the view on twins reversed. Human sacrifice was documented (as with every culture at some point in time) and not halted until some say as late as the late 1800s in some remote areas. Slavery was also a very common practice among the Yoruba until the late 19th, early 20th century's. Ifa has to grow and morph in order to stay consistent and relevant to its followers. Clearly, morality can change, and that change is reflected in Odu Ifa.
Ifa, as all religions, is not an immutable force. There are larger issues which goes beyond the growth and development of Odu Ifa, such as the meaning and interpretation of ese Ifa, how that affects ritual and liturgy, and when has something gone "too far" or is no longer culturally relevant. These are critical issues when thinking about not only the advancement, but propagation and long term survival prospects for the Orisa traditions. Without any central authority and an increasing gap in practices from "ile to ile" one has to wonder how long the bonds of cohesion can continue without a significant break. I would argue that already, whether acknowledged or not, there are changes that have occurred, marking distinction between the cuban lucumi and US lucumi worship and between US traditional Yoruba and Nigerian traditional Yoruba worship. That assessment is based on my conversations with several elders of Cuban decent (ie, having lived in cuba for a large part of their lives before moving here), conversations with my Oluwo in Ibadan, and my observations of US practices (people like Philip Niemark of American Ifa).
William Bascom touches on the idea of cultural relativism when says "Each listing (of Odu Ifa) reflects deities of importance locally, suggesting considerable regional cariation 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.
So if we agree that while the themes of Ifa (love, hate, etc) may be finite, the ways in which they manifest in our lives are unlimited and with great variation. It now becomes important to ask the question, how do Patakin/Ese Ifa develop? Again we note William Bascom in "Ifa Divination" where he says:
"A Meko (area in Nigeria) diviner explained that new verses are learned when one dreams the he is divining; when on 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 cerses need not be derived fromt he corpus of African Folklore." --Ifa divination, William Bascom P.137
While I believe this practice to be true of traditional Yoruba Babalawo, I don't believe lucumi Awo Ifa would agree, though, arguably something happened as evidenced by certain lucumi verses that either do not conform to traditional verse or use items/people/situations that would be completely foreign to Yoruba culture (espiritismo, palo, homosexuality, modern inventions). This idea of dream teaching is supported In Chief Elebuibon's (a well known Babalawo) book "Iyere Ifa: Tonal poerty, the voice of Ifa" in which he mentions this under 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)
In supporting the idea of dream learning, and possible creation of new Ese Ifa, he takes it one step further in creating a divine link between heaven and earth though which Ifa verse is transmitted from Orun to Aiye.
Further, Bascom in the end of his work "Ifa Divination" recites several "Ese Ifa" that specifically talk about whites (europeans) and modern inventions such as trains and flashlights. These are classic examples of new additions. What is interesting though, is that he added it under a section labeled "parodies" (clearly not giving it the same weight) and not under the corresponding Odu, perhaps his own particular judgment on the merit of these particular verses. If, however, one were to conform to the style of other Odu more strictly, and not use "modern" terms/objects, it would be difficult to detect and thus enter the Odu Corpus without objection.
From a philosophical perspective, if we combine the fact that humans can only memorize so much, and Odu encompasses all knowledge past, present and future, it should be no surprise that the Corpus gets updated (as evidenced by many lucumi patakin) and added to. It seems to me that being an oral tradition alone makes the process highly susceptible to purposeful or inadvertent change, whether people want to acknowledge it or not (play a game of telephone to illustrate this). Clearly, if you've sat in a lucumi Ita (and I've sat in at least 20 or so, with 5 different Oriates including esteemed Cuban elders with 55+ years of Osha and relative newcomers with only 18 years as a priest) you can see that things have been added to the Odu corpus (not Ifa in this case). You will hear about jesus, doing "misas", getting rayado in palo, the Abakua, etc, and in Traditional Yoruba Ifa you may hear about Muslims or Christians. This is clearly interpretation or the addition of cultural relevance to the process.
Whether we like it or not, we are subjects of doublespeak when talking about the purity of our practice on the one hand, then complaining about invented Orisa, or accepting certain things which are clearly european/judeo christian influences on the other. Further, we see that this is an evolutionary and changing practice simply by looking at the process of becoming Orisa. I say this because at least as I was taught in the lucumi tradition, Orisa were not an expanding rank. However, when I read some Yoruba theology and eventually had a conversation with my Oluwo, I came to understand that actually, Orisa are not so stagnant, and in theory at least, there can be additions to the Orisa we worship. A person dies, eventually they might be worshiped as Egun, after many many years that egun might eventually become Orisa. This of course is perfectly supported by all Orisa practitioners (lucumi and traditional Yourba) acceptance of the Orisa Sango, who we all know and acknowledge was a deified King.
Both the traditional Yoruba and lucumi practices are equally prone to these issues. The real question is how will the clergy control this evolution and what practices are accepted, and which are not, in such a way that doesn't jeopardize the integrity of the Ifa.
Aboru aboye aboshishe,