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Saturday, January 26, 2008

On being Awo Ifa

I was asked what is means to be a Babalawo, to which I responded:

Orunmila was the only true Babalawo, we can only stand in light hoping that before the sun sets our shadow will match even a fraction of his stature.

Marcos Ifalola Sanchez

Friday, January 18, 2008

Further thoughts on Odu Ifa and cultural relativism

Aboru aboye aboshishe,

As I read one of my books this morning I had alot of really interesting revelations, one of which surrounded this idea of Odu and cultural relativism. I do believe there is much truth in the understanding that certainly not every Odu is meant to be universally accepted as law/mandate. And that in fact, I believe a priests main obligation, aside from worship, helping others, and divining, is to interpret the will of Ifa. As a backdrop to further this idea let's discuss Ifa's apparent support of slavery in the Odu Ogbe-shee (Ogbe Oshe)

Oju ti a pon Awo, aponku ko
Osi ti n ta Awo, atala ni
Bo ba pe titi
Aso Feyin ti
A o foro yii serin rin
A o na'se mejeeji gboro-gboro-gboro
Dia Fun Orisanla Oseeremagbo
Ti yoo loo f'aro sakora eru
Won ni k sakaale, ebo ni sise
O gbegbo, o rubo
Nje eru ti mo ra funfun lo nse
Eru ti mo ra lo la mi
Eru ti mo ra, funfun lo nse o

The suffering of an Awo is not forever
The poverty of an Awo shall turn to prosperity
Before long, we shall recline in comfort
And laugh over this matter
These were the declarations of Ifa to Orisanla Oseeremagbo
When going to but a cripple as his first slave
He was advised to offer sacrifice
He complied
Now, the slave I bought is a nice slave
The slave I bought had brought me prosperity
The slave I bought is a nice slave

Clearly this Odu establishes slavery as an accepted Yoruba practice, and provides for remedies to deal with an ill-mannered/bad slave. This would of course be the obvious and literal interpretation and also establishes as codified in Ifa's tenets, the history that the Yoruba were active participants in the slave trade, playing a key role in the middle passage. Just as with the dilemmas raised by literal interpretations of the Bible, we have to consider deeply and profoundly what Ifa is trying to say. Is it condoning slavery at all times? Or, is it simply using the language of the day to show a culturally and contextually relevant message, from which we can extract our own message, leaving out that which is no longer socially acceptable?

As a Babalawo, and a person of the 21st century, slavery is not acceptable to me, nor to the social norms that surround me. That said, the interpretation of this Odu would be that Ifa is trying to say two important things. One, the Awo (which would represent the adherent being divined for) may be having a difficult time, but Ifa says this will not last forever. Two, the adherent has a problem with people who work directly for them (and who probably are direct reports) and the only way to deal with this problem is by doing ebo, and by remembering that they need to have patience (suffering is not forever). These are today's messages of Ifa for this Odu.

I go through the exercise of interpretation to make a point, Ifa is fluid, and while certainly I believe there are some moral absolutes, Ifa is not so rigid as to think that everything must be taken literally and verbatim. Because of the changing environment, almost all Odu Ifa require some level of interpretation be it major, such as this, or minor to get its point across. Whoever thinks of Ifa as black and white misses the beauty and difficulty in trying to comprehend infinity.

Marcos Ifalola Sanchez

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Treatise on Ebori and Ori: Feeding your Soul

In today's world of speed and complexity, we often hear people talking about how one should "feed one's soul." Even more often in American culture we hear about soul food, that home cooking that warms the belly and nourishes the body, and is so closely associated with the Southern African American culture. Two ubiquitous but seemingly disconnected ideas; one a metaphor, the other a cuisine. Where do they come from? Well, I can't tell you for sure, and I imagine that many cultures have their own version of these ideas. What I can tell you is that they are absolutely Yoruba theological concepts, and soul food, an outgrowth of the African American experience (many of whom descended from Yoruba slaves), holds a strong connection to Yoruba theology.

Section I: Ori

Let's start with the Yoruba concept of Ori. While its literal meaning is "head," there is also a more esoteric meaning for the followers of the Orisa tradition. Ori is in fact the closest equivalent in Orisa theology to one's soul, as evidenced most clearly by the idea that Ori chooses one's destiny. When one's Ori is in Orun, awaiting to make its descent to Earth, it goes before Olodumare to receive its vocation and pick the destiny it (Ori) will fulfill on Earth with Orunmila as witness (Eleri Ipin -- witness to creation). These two steps are included in the seven overall steps taken by Ori before its descent to Earth, as written in the Odu Ogbe 'yonu: 1. having d'afa performed by heavenly Awo, 2. performing prescribed ebo, 3. receiving one's vocation and ewoo, 4. getting to the gate of heaven, 5. digging one's "ditch of losses," 6. filling that ditch with one's gains, and finally 7. choosing one's destiny and Ori at the house of Ajala (Obatala Alamo ti i mo -- Obatala, the clay owner that molds destiny). For more on this process see: "The Healing Power of Sacrifice" by Chief Yemi Elebuibon.

During the process of choosing one's destiny at Ajala's castle, one has the opportunity to pick from a variety of pottery heads, but not all are equal, some are deformed, some are fragile and weak, some are half baked, and some are well made. It is quite difficult to discern the differences in heads, and we are told to look to Ifa for guidance in our choice before and eventually afterwards on Earth (since Orunmila was witness, Ifa can reveal the deficiencies and prescribe sacrifices/actions to strengthen one's Ori and fulfill one's destiny). This idea is reflected in Yoruba culture's use of the words Oloriire and Olori Buburu (owner of fortunate Ori, owner of bad Ori).

After incarnating on Earth, one's destiny is forgotten, and our lives are spent attempting to find and fulfill it while on Earth. There doesn't appear to be specific reference to descending and ascending levels of destiny, but there is an assumption that one will choose a destiny that is befitting of the ideals of Iwa pele and Iwa rere (cool character, gentle character) which can be seen in the Odu Irete Ofun. It can also be safely assumed that picking a destiny that is positive and fulfills many of the ideals set forth in Odu Ifa (helping those less fortunate, helping one's community, bettering oneself, etc) is best.

This assumption also plays a part in how one becomes revered Egun and eventually Orisa. Unbeknownst to many in the diaspora, Orisa and Isheshe are an expanding corpus of beings. Through one's actions, one may become a revered Egun and, after many years of being worshipped, may become Orisa. Demonstrating the positive choices of one's Ori can raise it even in death, so that even Orisa have Ori (thus linking the words Ori and Orisa). It also clarifies the traditional Yoruba view of Ori as being elevated with respect to any Orisa, because even Orisa have Ori, and their Ori guide them. Ori may be foreign to many in the diaspora, but it's important to understand that, through making poor choices, our Ori can in fact trump even the best laid plans and guidance offered to us by Orisa.

The odu Irete Ofun says:
Dia fun Okanlenirino Irunmole
Won nlo sode Apere
Atefun-tefun eyin oni
Awo Ori lo dia fun Ori
Ori nlo sode Apere
Won ni ki won sakaale ebo ni sise
Ori nikan0nikan ni nbe leyin ti nsebo
Ebo Ori waa da ladaju
Nje Ori gbona j'Orisa
Ori ma gbona j'Orisa
Ori nikan-nikan lo ko won l'Apeere
Ko si Orisa to to nii gbe
Leyin Ori eni
Ori gbona j'Orisa

He who prints the chalk on the back of crocodile
He was the Awo who cast Ifa for the 401 Irunmole
When going to Apere (a state of perfection)
He who prints the chalk on the back of crocodile
The Awo of Ori who cast Ifa for Ori
When Ori was going to Apere
They were all advised to offer sacrifice
Only Ori responded by offering the sacrifice
The sacrifice of Ori had been abundantly rewarded
Ori is higher then all Orisa (deities)
It is only Ori which reaches Apere, the perfect state
No other Orisa (deity) can give support
Outside of one's Ori
Ori is higher then all Orisa (deities)

This Odu not only solidifies the understanding that Ori is a separate being, but that Ori is the highest of all Irunmole, and the one who remembered to perform sacrifice for its salvation. There are two other important things to note in this Odu. First, it introduces the idea of the perfect state and the notion that attaining the perfect state is something that Ori and all beings strive towards. This is a critically important concept that is sometimes forgotten in the diaspora. The second, is that it introduces the idea that the Ori is the one thing that can support one. My interpretation is that, while Orisa may be able to affect things, ultimately, one's Ori is the most important thing to have working in support of the goal of achieving the state of perfection. Without its support, even Orisa can't save you.

We further see evidence of Ori's place in theology in the Odu Ogunda Oworin:

Okun kun nore nore
Osa kun legb-lebge
Ol'Owa nr'Owa
Alasan nr'Asan
Agba imole wo ehun oro, o ri pe ko sunwon
O gi irunmu d'imu yayaya
O gi irungbon di aya pen-pen-pen
D'ifa fun isheshe merin
Ti won nse olori oro n'Ife
"Nje, kinni a baa bo ni Ifa?"
Isheshe ni a ba bo, ki a to bo Orisa
Baba eni ni isheshe eni
Iya eni ni isheshe eni
Ori eni ni isheshe eni
Ikin eni ni isheshe eni
Odumare ni Isheshe
Isheshe, mo juba ki nto s'ebo

The ocean is full
The lake is full
Travelers proceed to Owa (a town)
Travelers journey to Asan (a town; in other words, people travel to their destinations)
An elder considers the everlasting effect of a statement and realizes that it is bad
He covers his nose with his mustache
He covers his chest with his beard
Divined for the four primordial energies
Leaders of the sacred cult in Ile Ife (the ancient tradition, reference to Ogboni)
"O! who should we worship?"
The primordial forces should be appeased first before appeasing the Orisa
One's father is one's primordial force
One's mother is one's primordial force
One's Ori is one's primordial force
One's Ikin Ifa is one's primordial force
God is a primordial force
Primordial forces, I give my reverence before I perform ebo

Again we see that Ori is placed above even Orisa and ancient customs dictate that one praise first their Isheshe (mother/father (one's egun), Ori, Ikin (Ifa), and God), for without them we don't exist. Further, we have to acknowledge that Ori is a force that is reborn as we try to fulfill our destiny, hopefully learning with each incarnation, as is shown by the Yoruba names Babtunde/Yeyetunde (father/mother returns) given to those children who through divination are seen to be reincarnated ancestors.

Seeing this evidence, it appears that Ori is:

An entity in and of itself
That which chooses our destiny
That which chooses what is to become our Earthly head
That to which we must pray for guidance
An entity which is so closely associated with us/our being/body, that you can't in fact separate the two, though clearly it is also something that transcends traditional ideas of "consciousness"
An entity that we worship
An entity that transcends our worldly selves and travels back and forth to Orun

Section II: The Soul

Merriam-Webster's definition of the word "soul" is:

Pronunciation: \ˈsōl\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English soule, from Old English sāwol; akin to Old High German sēula soul
Date: before 12th century
1: the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life 2 a: the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe 3: a person's total self

If we look at the Yoruba concept of Ori and compare it to this definition, it seems fair to say that Ori is in fact the Yoruba concept of the "soul." So how does this tie into "feeding the soul" and "soul food"?

In order for our Ori to fulfill its destiny and rise above any pitfalls that may occur by chance or design (through our choice of destiny), it is important to consult Ifa, adhere to Ifa's advice and, when appropriate, offer the sacrifice (ebo). In other words, we cannot simply walk through life and let things happen -- we have to take an active role. We must act in order to advance ourselves and our Ori. Without action, Ori is stagnant. Action can take many forms, literal and symbolic, from observing ewoo, to performing certain acts, changing our behavior, and leaving a food offering. Whatever the action, it is a source of energy for us and our Ori. That's why in the Odu Irete Meji it's said:

Iwo ote
Emi Ote
D'ifa fun baba a lese ire
Ma a l'ori ire
Won ni ko ru'bo si ilaiku ara re
O ru'bo
Ko i pe
Koi jina
E wa ba wa laiku kangere

You are a presser (an initiate)
I am a presser
Divined for the Baba with good feet
but not with a good Ori (destiny)
he was advised to make ebo for good fortune
He made the ebo
Not too long
Soon after
Join us in everlasting lives

Ifa let's us know that with a good foundation (feet) even if our Ori (destiny) is not good we can make ebo (sacrifice) in order to lead a fruitful and fulfilling life. As I mention in earlier articles, it's important to understand that ebo is sacrifice, and that sacrifice is performed not only by "giving" something tangible, but sacrifice can also be an action. Ifa reminds us of the idea that we are responsible for our deeds in the Odu Irosun'geda:

Aja sunwon, aja fideyin
Agbo sunwon ti roro
Agbo ti o sunwon ka lo ile
Ka lo re e magbo bo baba eni
A difa fun ori, a bu fun iwa
Won jo n torun bo waye
Iwa lapo gbe wa re bo n rele aye
Tara gbe iwa re pon
Iwa lapo gbe iwa re

The dog is beautiful up to the teeth
The ram is beautiful up to the dewlap
A ram without a dewlap is better to be offered
as a sacrifice to ancestors
Divination was performed for Ori and character
Who both traveled from heaven to the world
Deeds are sacks; carry your own

Ifa also reminds us in Ogbe Yeku that we should adhere to advice:

Eni taa pe ko rubo
To ba rubo
Lose de ara re ara re lo se de
Eni ta a ni ko se rere
To ba se rere
Lo se de, ara re lo se de
Eni ta a pe ko rubo, ti ko rubo
Lo se de, ara re, ara re lo se de

Whoever is told to perform a sacrifice
If he performs it
He does so for himself
Whoever is told to be good
If he is good
He does so for himself
Whoever is told to perform sacrifice but refuses to do so
Does so at his own risk

So what, you are probably still asking, does all of this have to do with soul food and feeding the soul? We've established that Ori is the Yoruba equivalent to the soul, and Ebori is the ceremony in which one "feeds" one's Ori, thus "feeding the soul." Feeding and praying to one's Ori is prescribed time and time again in Odu Ifa, because the soul, like all other things in life, needs to be attended to. Nothing is self-sustaining, food strengthens us, strengthens our Orisa and that bond, and so we must do Ebori in order to strengthen our Ori. While Ebori includes foods/blood offering/prayer, feeding one's Ori is also accomplished by actions and the performance of good deeds. We strengthen our Ori by taking the time to do something for our Ori, taking the time to do something for ourselves, observing our Ewoo, enhancing our knowledge, being compassionate and also taking time to do something for others and our community.

And so it is that the Yoruba were very likely among the first people to capture the idea of soul food, or feeding the soul, as a quintessential part of their theology. Our actions can elevate our Ori on their road to becoming revered ancestors. We should remember, at the end of the day "we can't take it with us," and we must evolve so that our Ori is worthy of being a shoulder upon which our future generations can stand. Nourish your Ori, feed it well.

Ela moyin 'boru, Ela moyin 'boye, Ela moyin 'boshishe
Marcos Ifalola Sanchez
with inspiration from my apetebii Ifatolu