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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The path of initiation in Ifa: Lucumi and Traditional Yoruba

Aboru aboye aboshishe,

After a few conversations including a longer one with my Oluwo in Nigeria, I thought that it would be quite useful to post my understanding of the processes of initiation into Ifa for both Lucumi/santeria Ifa practitioners and traditional Yoruba Ifa practitioners. I'm not doing this to say that one is right, and one is wrong. They are their own interpretations of Ifa, and while they agree on many things, this particular area of ritual/theology, they differ quite a bit.

For Lucumi practitioners, the process goes like this. One can be introduced to Ifa through their "madrina/padrino" if they have ilekes first, or they can go directly to a Babalawo, if they are not yet affiliated with a house. Having a divination session is something every Lucumi practitioner that works with Ifa eventual does, with varying degrees of frequency. Everyone, at some point, who is associated with lucumi Ifa can and should receive Ifa via Awofakan (ceremony for men) or Ikofa (ceremony for women). For women, Ikofa gives them their birth Odu, and can dictate only one more potential initiation, that of Apetebii (wife of Orunmila). Becoming an Apetebii is however, a requirement for any women who is the wife of a Babalawo.

For men, Awofakan (owo ifa kan-one hand of Ifa), gives them their birth Odu, unless it is determined they have an Odu which destines them for the priesthood of Ifa. If this is the case, and they observes the taboos of Ifa for his priests, he would do his Itefa (Ifa initiation) during which he receives his true birth Odu and Odu of priesthood (which he uses to identify himself). Of course having an Odu for the priesthood comes with responsibility, please see my article on this for further information:

I will also mention here that during Ikofa or Awofakan, it is perfectly acceptable to determine a person's "guardian Orisa", instead of having a separate "plante" to do this. In lucumi Ifa, homosexuals are forbidden from the Ifa priesthood, as are women. I don't say this to get into a debate about it, it's simply religious law, but it does not forbid either from going to Ifa for divination, help or Awofakan/Ikofa.

In traditional Yoruba Ifa practice, Ifa worship begin dramatically earlier. Everyone who comes from an Ifa worshipping family should first do their Ese'ntaye 7 days after birth, (like I just did for my son). Ese'ntaye [meaning "stepping on the earth"] acts as a guide for your early life, revealing personality, direction on what they will do, and Ewoo (taboo) for the child, as well as their Ifa name.

This is where traditional Yoruba Ifa varies from Lucumi Ifa. In traditional Yoruba Ifa, all men who can/have the resources, should Te'Fa, or Itefa (initiate Ifa, like the lucumi) either either in the Itelegan style (where the man does not see Odu the mythical wife of Ifa, not done in the Lucumi system) or Itelodu (where the man does see Odu, equivalent to Lucumi initiation into the Ifa priesthood). However, if they do not have the resources they should Ishefa (this is the traditional Yoruba equivalent to the Lucumi Awofakan-owo ifa kan). If they took the second route and only did their Ishefa, they may receive an Odu in Ishefa that says it's compulsory that they do their Itefa (similar to the cuban system) in which case they are required to do their Itefa anyways.

This is where things truly diverge because, in traditional Yoruba Ifa, once one has done their Itefa (either Itelegan style or Itelodu style), they are not considered a Babalawo, but only an initiated follower of Ifa. It is only through the Odu they receive during Itefa (their true birth odu) that it is determined whether they will be allowed to be an Ifa priest (and thus a Babalawo) and learn the deeper secrets/knowledge of Ifa. This is radically different from the lucumi interpretation which says once you Itefa you are a Babalawo. To clarify, in my own case, even though I had Odu for babalawo in my Awofakan (received via lucumi priests), since I did Itefa Traditional Yoruba, I didn't truly know whether I was going to be allowed to be a Babalawo until I received my birth Odu in Itefa (which I didn't understand at the time!). So it's my Odu of Ifa (birth Odu received in Itefa) that allows me to be a Babalawo. The logic is perfectly clear to me, it's only in receiving your birth Odu that you know your path. The unfortunate thing is that many go to Nigeria to Itefa thinking then they are a Babalawo (and perhaps are sometimes misled to believe so), but this is not the case, you are only a follower of Ifa unless being a Babalawo is your destiny. The commonality between Lucumi Ifa and traditional Yoruba Ifa is that being a Babalawo is a destiny, not a choice, the only difference is which Odu determines that, and what the timing and meaning of different ceremonies are. So even if you want to be a Babalawo and go to Nigeria to Itefa, it's your birth Odu that determines it. If you decide to be a Babalawo anyways without the Odu, you are simply going against your destiny, which is completely contrary to Ifa theology, and why would you do that?

I still maintain, before calling yourself a Babalawo, you must adhere to the commitments and Ewoo (taboo) of a Babalawo and if you are committing Ewoo (taboos) you should not act as a practicing priest nor call yourself a Babalawo without respecting those ewoo. In traditional Yoruba Ifa, treatment of homosexuals is varied, most typically they are viewed as acting contrary to Ifa and nature and are outright shunned. There are other who don't believe this and work with homosexuals, however all factions bar homosexuals from being Ifa priests. This comes in part from the requirements of Ifa priests (ie, having an apetebii (being married to a woman), having children, and from other things. There does seem to be a don't ask, don't tell or look the other way policy as of late, and some folks who were shunned by Lucumi practitioners have taken to going to Nigeria where they are not known. This does not mean that traditional Yoruba Ifa accepts gay babalawos, just that some people are working around the system.

Women follow this path, first receiving ese'ntaye, then Isodu (the Ide (bracelet) of Ifa and one ikin - an Ijebu practice, which is exactly like some Lucumi lineages) for those who are not a Babalawos wife. When receiving Isodu, the Babalawo casts his own ikin to determine the woman's Odu. In receiving this Odu, it can be determined she needs to Itefa and become an Iyanifa, a position not recognized by Lucumi Ifa. Iyanifa are female Ifa priestesses that can Te'Fa, but are NOT allowed to see Odu (the mythical wife of Orunmila). In some areas, she can cast Opele (divine), but not Ikin. In all areas an Iyanifa learns Ifa verses and other rituals of Ifa.

If the woman is married, the Babalawos Odu is the Odu of the house, but she receives an Odu during her Apetebii ceremonies which tells more about her specifically, including whether she should Te'fa and become Iyanifa. All Babalawo are required to have an Apetebii (ie, be married) and during said ceremony, the women are ritually married to both the man and Ifa.

Other important notes are that Ishefa (owo ifa kan) would be given to the child of a babalawo within a month of birth, but can be received 1 - 2 years, 3 at most later. Itefa is typically done around puberty (when he becomes a man) but can occur anytime after that.

In Ogbe Ate, Ifa says:

A kii ji ni kutukutu
Ka ma mo Odu to da nu s'aiye
D'ifa fun Olupo Alaelu
Eyi t f'eyin ti
To n fekun surahun ire gbogbo
Eyi ti ti ile aye ni lare kokooko bi ota
Won ni ko sakaale ebo ni sise
Ko si lo ree te ifa
O gbe'bo o rubo
Ko pe, ko jinna
Ire gbogbo wa ya de tuturu
Ifa de o, Alase
Ope abise warawara


It is not advisable for one to wake up in the dawn of one's life
without knowing the Odu that gave birth to one
Divined for Olupo Alaelu
Who reclined and was weeping in lamenation of his inability to achieve all Ire in life
He whose life was as hard and tough as pebbles
He was advised to sacrifice
He complied
Before long, not to far
All IRE in life came to him in abundance.

I hope that this helps clarify some of the processes and differences in Lucumi and traditional Yoruba Ifa practices. It's been a learning process for me as I shed some of my own layers to learn how things are done in my particular path.

Marcos Ifalola

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Esu, guerreros and the nature of "caminos" of the Orisa

Aboru, Aboye Aboshishe,

I was recently asked a question regarding the differences between Esu and Elegba, why one might receive more then one Esu/Elegbara, and what is the difference between Ifa Guerreros and Olorisa Guerreros in the lucumi system. I take a moment to answer the question, but it leads us to a larger and more interesting question about the nature of “caminos” or “roads” of the Orisa.

From the Traditional Yoruba perspective, Elegbara – “Owner of Vital Force” in Yoruba (translation by John Mason), or Elegua in lucumi, is simply a praise name for Esu. They are one and the same. From a Lucumi perspective, Esu is the entity that is given by Babalawos, and is the primordial force that lives with Ifa and is the one who can block or aid in any offering/ebo/request. Elegba/Elegua/Elegbara is only given by Olorisa (santero/a) and is not, as far as I recall, known to have as much of the destructive tendencies as Esu. The Elegba of the Olorisa has fewer "roads" (I've heard 12 or 21) whereas the "roads" or avatars of the Esu of babalawo are at least 121.

The split in the way these are given may have been the result of politics or power struggles when the lucumi changed to a standardized and joint system of initiations (ie, any priest of any Orisa, can initiate virtually any other priest of any other Orisa as long as they have received the secrets of that Orisa and do not have ewoo (taboo) against initiating that Orisa). It's not that traditional Yoruba priests can't initiate into other Orisa mysteries, they can, and sometimes do, but when you joined a priesthood and were initiated to that Orisa, it was done by other priests whose teutelary Orisa were the same (so if Elegba was initiated, it was done only by Elegba priests, Yemoja by Yemoja priests, etc).

It seems that somewhere down the line, some felt it important to distinguish between Olorisa/Santero and Babalawo, which by extension gets into the whole question of the lucumi "guerreros". There is also controversy as to who is authorized to "give" these out, and depending on the Ile (house) you come from, it's either babalawos or olorisa (santeros). In truth, the only two Orisa in the “guerreros” that are given in traditional Yoruba Ifa practice are Esu and Osun, and further, Osun in Yorubaland is only given to Babalawos and no one else. This it not say other Orisa are not in Ese Ifa, but that typically they would not be given by a Babalawo who was only initiated to Ifa.

So where does this leave the question? Well, it's lucumi tradition that Esu is the province of the Babalawo, and Elegba the province of the Olorisa/santero. How this evolved, I don't think anyone will truly know.

With respect to “Caminos” or “roads”

Receiving multiple Esu or Elegba, is a practice that comes from the idea that there are multiple caminos/roads/avatars of the Orisa. This practice extends to many other Orisa other then Esu, such as Oshun, Yemoja and Obatala. What is important to clarify from the beginning is just because you may have multiple Orisa, or multiple roads, the Orisa is still only one thing in spiritual essence. What happens is that the sacred objects of an Orisa (which are the Orisa manifest on earth literally) manifest in different ways, drawing upon a particular energy. The Otan of Esu (or any Orisa for that matter) is in essence a focal point for calling on certain energies of the Orisa. Through a blend of specific ingredients, incantations and rituals, the Otan (rock) becomes a portal for the specific energy of the Orisa to come through. The name acts as an incantation that begins the process of calling down that specific energy (see my article on prayer) and the fact that you have a particular road of a particular Orisa is because the Orisa themselves (through divination) determined that that particular energy is what is most suitable for you/will be there to help you when needed. Typically, these roads can come from three sources: Oriki (praise names), Objects/places in nature (as in Oshun Ibu apuaro (Oshun river of quail), Olokun (owner of Ocean) or Esu Alaketu (Esu from Ketu)), or manifestations of deified people/royalty (as in Sango, Obatala Ajagunnla, or Ogun Onile (Ogun, king of Ile).

Therefore, you may want to have an Esu Laroye (Esu owner of titles of honor) is known to protect Obatala’s door, and therefor is good for protecting your door, or perhaps Esu Bi (Esu is born) is known to cause accidents, so he is called on because you are prone to accidents in hope of avoiding them, Esu Alaalubanshe (Esu owner of medicines that help me to be fulfilled) because you will require medical help or will be someone involved in the medical field, etc etc etc. Esu is prescribed to people based on Odu that come out in their Ita or a reading, those Odu indicating the predominance of a particular type of energy, and an Esu is prescribed for that Odu based on that energy, either to balance it out, or to combat it. A special note, Esu is the only Orisa that you might recive multiple times, this is because upon Esu there are no limits, and he does as he pleases and manifests everywhere at all times in multiple ways.

The same regarding roads can be said in the Ita of Dosu/Kariosha, the particular Odu that comes out for that Orisa may indicate to the Oriate a particular road/avatar that he might ask about when it comes time to divine and find out the Orisa’s camino. And likewise, the names of the roads indicate the energies of the Orisa via oriki, place or deified ancestor. For instance there is, Obatala Orisanla (owner of white cloth, highest of Orisa, an Oriki for Obatala), or Obatala Ajagunnla (ayaguna-lucumi) who was the son of Princess Adetinrin, the daughter of Oduduwa (a male in this story). She gave birth to a son, ajagunnla, who was known as a great fighter and used the “ada ogbo” or curved cutlass his Oriki is

Omo Alada koromodo
Ada aramanda
To fi nko omo re mona
Tifi o fi de le Ila Ajo
Nibi ti o ti njoba tori

Possessor of the curved cutlass that brings wealth
Strange and wonderful cutlass
The cutlass used to clear the way for his people
Until he reached Ajo
Where he sits in state
(see “Yoruba Sacred Kingship”-John Pemberton p. 31).

Though this is a Yoruba story, this aligns perfectly with the qualities/emblems of Obatala Ayaguna of the Lucumi.

I believe this is an often misunderstood and understudied studied area of Orisa theology. But if we see the caminos/roads/avatars as a particular energy of the Orisa, we can understand how to better work with them, and how to understand what they mean in a theological context.

The Odu Okanran Oturupon reminds us of our need to study in saying:

It is through constantly studying Ifa that we come to understand Ifa
It is through missing the way that we come to know the way
It is the road we have not traveled before that causes us to wander here and there

Ifa ki ko nii mu ni mo Ifa
Ona sisi nii mu ni mo ona
Ona ti a ko rin ri
Nii se ni sibasibo

Aboru, Aboye, Aboshishe
Marcos Ifalola