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Monday, February 9, 2009

Heretical treatise on hierarchy within the Orisa priesthood

Aboru Aboye Aboshishe,

This week I was in Rome, and while sitting at a Papal audience, I began to contemplate what it means to be a priest, what it means to be “holy” and the role that initiations play in our status in our religious community and society at large.

I start this by saying that what I propose here might make sense to some, seem radical to others, and heretical to possibly a large portion of the Orisa community. That said, I feel it’s my responsibility to propose these thoughts, if nothing else, so that people might take a second to think about what it is they believe and perhaps decide for themselves whether to continue their path, or refine what it means to worship, and what roles different people play in the process of worshipping the Divine.

I should first begin by laying out my definition of Orisa priest (Olorisa or Babalawo). In my mind, after many years of study, and further 12 years now as a priest (4 as Awo Ifa), I believe the primary role of the priest is to act as an intermediary between the laity (believers who are non-priests) and the Orisa (who are ultimately our closest link to Olodumare). In that role as intermediary, it is our responsibility to open the portals of communication, be it through Oracle, trance possession or acts of nature. We must then accurately interpret those Divine messages, deliver them to those who need to receive them, and where necessary, prescribe the actions or offerings necessary to align followers with their path in life, in order to give them Ire (blessings).

We are only intermediaries, and through our initiations, our minds are opened and our abilities to act as intermediaries are awakened so that we may serve the Orisa. Initiation is, in effect, the act of submitting to the will of Olodumare.

And yet, in both traditional Yoruba Orisa worship, and Lucumi Orisa worship, priests and lay-people alike get mired in the technicalities of seniority and status, forgetting that as intermediaries it is our actions, our ethics, our knowledge and most importantly our character that truly determines our seniority and status within the religious hierarchy.

I have myself seen the pomp and circumstance given to a chief, priest or elder in Yorubaland, who would see nothing wrong in taking graft, charging the poor outrageous fees for their services, selling titles or not doing initiations properly because they know the “client” won’t return. Equally I have seen Lucumi adherents and priests quibble about who’s older, who should dobale to whom, give unnecessary expensive cleansings or initiations or argue about which priest should be praised first with a ceremony.

Who bows to whom, who is the first to speak, who one’s godparent is, who gets a “tambor” first, these are simply constructs of the ego, concerned more with the self, and self satisfaction than with acting as the intermediary between the profane and the Divine.

I go one step further in my definition to say that the idea that the priest acts as anything more than intermediary, or midwife during the process of Dosu/Kariosha is absurd. The “godparent” does not give birth, though it can be said that the Iyawo has been re-born. There is not a single moment in all of the lucumi Kariosha ceremony in which the priest spiritually or otherwise gives birth. They simply act as intermediary or midwife, by spiritually passing the Ase of the Otanes to another set of Otanes. And through ritual, prayer and sacrifice take the Iyawo through a rebirth of their own, in which their Eledaa/Ori is awakened, and the connection between Eledaa/Ori and Orisa is opened so they too may become intermediaries between non-priests and the Divine. Ifa even tells us that the idea that the godparent is essentially a “parent” is false. In a portion of the Odu Oworin Irete, where Abeshujiyan imparts three pieces of wisdom, for which he names his three hair patterns, the third he is:

“Guardianship does not equal parentage
Another person’s child cannot be like a child from one’s bowels”

“Agbabo o jo onbi
Omo olomo o lee jomo taa bi ninu eni”

Which is proven later in the Odu when Abeshujiyan is about to be sentenced to death, and his adopted child asks that his cloth be removed so that the blood from the execution he will watch does not stain it.

“Let us set him free
If this boy had been his son truly
And not an adopted child
Would he say his fathers blood should not be allowed to spill on his cloth?
Can’t we all see truly that a Guardian does not equte a parent
Another persons child can not be like a child from one’s bowels”

E mo jee ki awon o lese lorun
E je ki awon o file
Oba ni nje bob a je pe omoo re to bi nnu ni omo un
Ti kii she omo to gbawo
Se jo pee ki ejee Baba oun o mo ta si asho oun
Omo olomo o jomo eni looto

Through the wisdom of Odu, Ifa teaches us:

Initiation alone does not give one character.

Initiation alone does not give one knowledge.

Initiation alone does not give one seniority.

Initiation alone does not make one a true priest.

Ifa tells us in the Odu Iwori Meji:

Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Bi o ba te Ita tan
Ki o tun iye e re te
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, ma fi eja igba gun ope
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, ma fi aimowe wo odo
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, ma fi ibinu yo obe
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, ma ji kanjukanju jaye
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, ma fi warawara mkun ola
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, maseke, sodale
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, ma puro jaye
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, ma se igberaga si agba
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, ma so ireti nu
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, ma san bante Awo
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni
Awo, bi o ba tefa tan
Ki o tun iye e re te o
Iwori teju mo ohun ti nse ni

Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
If you undergo Ifa initiation (Itelodu)
Endeavor to use your wisdom and intelligence
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, do not use a broken rope to climb a palm-tree
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, do no enter into the river without knowing how to swim
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, do not draw a knife in anger
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, do not be in haste to enjoy your life
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, do not be in a hurry to acquire wealth
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, do not lie, do not be treacherous
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, do not deceive in order to enjoy your life
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, do not be arrogant to elders
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, do not lose hope
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, do not make love to your colleague's spouse
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you
Awo, when you have been given Ifa initiation
Initiate yourself again by using your wisdom and intelligence
Iwori take a critical look at what affects you

In this, and many other Ese Ifa, we are reminded of that character, ethics, proper behavior, intelligence, and most importantly, not assuming initiation in and of itself makes the priest, are critical to understanding the role and responsibility of a priest.

By reminding us over and over throughout the Ese to “look at what affects [us]”, we are reminded of our responsibility to constantly reassess the world around us. Further, there is a reminder to those members of the priesthood who have been given special access to the wisdom of Ifa. It is our responsibility to use our wisdom and intelligence, i.e. don’t assume Ifa will provide the key simply through initiation.

Lastly, Iwori meji reminds of one of the most important yet one of the least stressed concepts for the Awo Ifa, “Initiate yourself again by using your wisdom and intelligence”, it is here where Ifa tells the Awo that initiation alone does not make you a true Awo. It’s only through reflection and contemplation of Ifa that one can achieve an understanding of the initiation one went through, and through analysis and study, self initiation (awareness of the truths of Ifa) can occur.

None of this is to say that we should not respect each other, or that certain priests are not worthy of respect and the rituals/rights that show that. But, initiation alone does not give a priest those rights, they must be earned. The attachment of the role of “parent” and the idea that the priest “gave birth” in the diaspora overemphasizes the mentor/guide role of the priest, creating cults of personality often, though not always, based on little more than performance of initiations and perhaps consultation in which they are interpreting and clarifying the advice of the Orisa for the adherent. These attachments to roles and status are ephemeral at best, and only serve to divert our attention away from the true meanings behind the role of a priest.

So what makes a priest worthy of respect and the actions associated with that respect? Length of initiation means absolutely nothing. In and of itself, how can we give seniority values to the act of initiation, when it is only an enabling act, giving one a title, and the potential to access the Divine. The Odu Eji Ogbe tells us:

We have initiated you into the secrets of Ifa
You should re-initiate yourself
This was how Eji Ogbe was initiated
But he plunged himself into the forest
We have initiated you into the secrets of Ifa
You should re-initiate yourself
If you get to the top of the palm tree
Do not let your hands loose.

Awa te o nifa o
K’o o tunra e te
Tite la t’Eji Ogbe
T’o fi m’ori wo’gbo
Awa te o nifa o
K’o o tunra e te
B’o o d’ori ope
Ma she jowo si

Eji Ogbe, the highest of Odu, went through self-initiation, even after being lead to the sacred grove (igbodu) for initiation (te’fa), he plunged himself back into the forest. This act shows that even an initiate must go back in to the grove in order to teach himself. And, even in this short stanza, Ifa reminds us that even if we reach the pinnacle of understanding and knowledge, our arrogance should take over, lest we let our hand lose and come tumbling down the palm tree.

This excerpt from the Odu Ogbe Ate also supports this idea :

Orunmila was the person who initiated Akoda
He also initiated Asheda
He equally initiated Araba
Only Orunmila Abonniregun
Was the person we do not know who initiated
Now, after I have been initiated
I will complement it with self-initiation
All those things that are my taboos
I will surely avoid them
I had been initiated
I will re-initiate myself, by myself...

Again Ifa reminds us not only of the need for self study and initiation only being the beginning of the road, but also another important truth, the understanding of truth, is a solitary act. While others can help guide us along the way, in the end we face truth on our own. The solitary act of insight into the true nature of life is why we must travel the final road to realization alone.

It is through the meticulous study of the rituals, methods of accessing the Divine, theology, philosophy, and Ethics and the appropriate application of those studies that one begins the long road of priesthood. Only after one can successfully access the Divine, and interpret those messages can one begin to earn the title of “Olorisa or Babalawo”.

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

How can one be considered a preist of Ifa if one does not understand Ifa? How can one understand Ifa simply by being initiated into Ifa? In order to be a priest one has to understand, and if understanding can only come through studying, how can someone who has simply undergone initiation be considered a priest? While ultimate understanding eludes us, we can only come to understand through study, and so without study, we are priests of nothing.

On Character/Ethics

There are a multitude of ese Ifa on character and ethics, but here are some that I believe stand out. In Ogbe Sooto (Ogbe Osa) Ifa says:

Ifa a Babalawo is in grave want
Let him like not
If an herbalist is in need
Let him not be dishonest
Let no one lie or display dishonesty
Because of accountability when he dies
This is the declaration of Ifa for Orunmila
When unknown people (pretenders) waged war against him
Orunmila was asked to offer sacrifice
He complied
Now all you protestors
You have all been exposed
I now know the python
Which resembles the cobra
I now recognize the rattle snake
Which looks like the boa constrictor
I can now see through Iwowo Ereke (impersonator)
Who pretends that he is Orunmila himself.

Bi oju ba npon Babalawo
Ki Babalawo ma puro
Bi oju ba npon Onishegun
Ki Onishegun ma shera
Keni ma sheke shera
Nitori ati sun awo
Difa fun Orunmila
Nijo ti eni Aimo wa nko ogun ja Baba
Won ni ki Baba rubo
Nje eni Aimo
Emi ma wa mo yin o
Emi ti mo monu-monu
To finu jo Oka
Mo ti mo Agbadu
To tinu jo Ere
Mo ti mo iwowo-Ereke
To finu jo Barapetu

Ifa here warns both layity and priests twofold . First that our ethics must be of the highest standard, and that we not lie in order to get our way as priests. It’s no matter whether that be to assert power, manipulate others for our own gain or to make money. In the end, we will be judged. But even more important, Ifa reminds us to not mistake one thing for another, and to not mistake the priest for Orunmila himself! Beware of priests who begin to mistake themselves as Orisa. In this Odu, Ifa makes it clear that the comparison may be subtle, both snakes but of different types, one may not say outright they think of themselves as Orisa, but their actions belie their true feelings. We priests are not Orisa incarnate on earth, we are humble servants, to think or act otherwise is nonsense.

What Ifa does teach us is to respect everyone regardless of status, without that respect, how can one claim the title of priest? In Osa Meji Ifa says:

The head of a person with a bad future does not swell up
No one can recognize the footprints of a madman on the road
And, no one can distinguish the head of an honorable person in an assembly of people
This was the theaching of Ifa for Mobowu
Who was the wife of Ogun
Surely, the head that will wear the crown tomorrow
No one can recognize it
Therefore, let husband and wife stop calling each other names
And stop talking foolishly to each other
For the head that will wear the crown tomorrow
No one can tell which one it will be

Ori buruku kii wu tuulu
A ki i da ese asiwere mo loju ona
A ki i m’ori oloye lawujo
A difa fun Mobowu
Ti i se obinrin Ogun
Ori ti o joba lola
Enikan o mo
Ki toko-taya o mo pe’ra
Won ni were mo
Ori ti o joba lola
Enikan o mo

Aside from reminding us that we never know when we will need help from someone, or who that will be, Ifa is clear that we also do not have foresight. The leaders, and likewise madmen, of tomorrow are not known today, so from a practical standpoint, we should treat all people respectfully.

The question of character and its affect on the priesthood is even more profoundly addressed in the Odu Ofun Otura where Ifa states:

The liar casts the Kola nut and it yields a bad omen
the commitment breaker casts the kola nut and it does not yield a good result
But the good hearted person casts the kola nut and the result is clearly promising

Eke pa bi, o di
Odale pa'bi, ko yan
Oninure pa bi, o ye peregede

Priests make a commitment to uphold and protect Orisa/Ifa and their principles, so priests who have broken this commitment when casting a tool of divination (this case kola nut, but again Ifa is metaphors, so to me, any form of divination, including Ikin Ifa or cowries) will not yield a good result. This means that the state/character of the diviner IS in fact important to the result, and affects the outcome of divination. If that is the case, how can one give seniority let alone respect to priest with no character.

Further, the prayers and action of the priest before divining are designed specifically to awaken the voice of the Orisa, if not done properly, the objects used to divine remain just that, inanimate objects and not conduits for the Divine word. It's important to remember the if consecration was the only thing that make Ikin or Dinlogun/Cowrie "speak" the priest wouldn't have to pray or do anything, simply cast and go.

These are just a few of the many ese Ifa that deal with character, pointed out to show that without character, the title of priest and respect that goes with it, are meaningless.

On Age/Wisdom

Whether the age is counted in years of initiation or years on earth, age alone does not make a priest. Though, we can certainly deduce that while age doesn’t guarantee wisdom, without age (years on earth) wisdom can’t be fully attained. This is why in Yoruba culture, years of initiation can never outweigh years on earth, so it would be absurd to see a 45 year old dobale/kunle to a 20 year old, regardless of their years as a priest. Also of note though, is that years on earth and “eldership” does not guarantee character (or wisdom for that matter. The Odu Ogbe Iwori says:

Bad conduct is what is attributed to youth
Bad character is what is attributed to elders

Ishekushe l’ewe le she
Iwa ihukuhu ni ti agbalagba

Ifa explains that in our youth, when we do something bad, the action comes from not knowing better. As an elder, life should teach us to know better, so when we do something bad, life should have already taught us so, and therefore it must come from bad character. Without character, eldership means nothing, regardless of how you measure that time.

Eldership further does not mean that one holds no responsibility to help those that are junior, which is yet another show of true character. Eldership is retained by remembering one’s status, and helping those at a different level, whether it’s age or mental ability. The Odu Oyekun Meji reminds of this by stating:

A child is not tall enough to stretch his hand and reach the high shelf
An adults hands can not enter the mouth of a gourd
The work an adult begs a child to do
Let him not refuse to do
We all have work to do for each others good
Ifa divination was performed for Orunmila
About whom his devotee
Would make complaint to Olodumare
Olodumare then sent for Orunmila
To explain the reason why
He did not support his devotee
When Orunmila got to the presence of Olodumare
He explained that he had done all in his power for his devotee
But that the destiny chosen by the devotee made his efforts fruitless
It was then that the matter
Became quite clear to Olodumare
And he was happy
That he did not pronounce his judgment on the evidence of only one of the two parties.

Owo ewe o to pepe
Ti agbalagba o wo akeregbe
Ishe ewe be agba
Ki o ma she ko mo
Gbogboo wa ni a nishe a jo mbe 'raa wa
A dia fun Orunmila
Eyi ti akapoo re
O pe lejo lodo Olodumare
Olodumaree waa rannshe si Orunmila
Pe ki o waa so idi naa
Ti ko fi gbe akapoo re
Nigba ti Orunmila de iwaju Olodumare
O ni oun sa gbogbo agbara oun fun akapo
O ni Ipin akapo ni o gbo
nigba naa ni oro naa
Too waa ye Olodumare yekeyeke
Inuu re si dun
Pe oun ko da ejo eekun kan

Additionally, this Odu reminds us that eldership is attained and kept by being just and wise. Olodumare seeing two juniors (Orunmila and his devotee) was wise in waiting to hear both sides of the story before pronouncing judgement. This allowed him to realize that not all was as one person might have it seem, and so rendered just judgement.

Ifa tells us in Orangun Meji (Ofun Meji) the eldest of Odu that became the junior of Odu upon descending to earth:

He who breaks a Kola nut (with 4 valves) will eat two valves
An avaricious elder is he who eats three valves
After eating three valves
He carries his load unaided and proceeds on this way
These were the declaration of Ifa to the person at the forefront (the senior/leader)
Who shall later become the person at the very rear (the junior/follower)
He was advised to offer sacrifice
He refused to comply
It is their lack of propriety in manners
It is their lack of diplomacy
The person at the forefront
Had turned into the person at the very rear
It is their lack of propriety and manners

Onpabi nii j’eji
Agba okanjuwa a j’eta
To ba j’eta tan
A gn’eru u re a yaa lo
Dia fun Eni iwaju
Ti yoo deni ikeyin
Ebo ni won ni ko waa she
O koti ogbonhin sebo
Nje aimowa a hu u won ni o
Ai mede e pe e won ni o
Ara iwaji o, lo deni ikeyin
Aimowaa hu u won ni o

Even an elder and leader can lose their status for lack of character, as told my Ifa in Orangun Meji.

On Mentorship

It is the role of the priest to act as mentor and advisor to the devotee, but these are not things which come easily, quickly, or instantly upon initiation. In Otura-Elejin (Otura Ogbe) Ifa tells us:

A child studies Ifa with labor and suffering
When he grows up
He will reap all the rewards
This was the declaration of Ifa to Otura
When he would dip his hand into the boat of success
I dip my hands into the boat
And I pull out all good things of life
When Otura dipped his hand into the boar
He became successful from his sojourn to his home
I dip my hands into the boat
And I pull out all the good things of life

Tishe tiya lomode kekere fi n ko’Fa
Bo ba dagba tan
Nii ri ere e ee je o
Diafun Otura
Ti yoo towo b’ili ni Ishaga
Mo towo b’oko
Mo fa’hun rere yo o
Igba Otura t’owo b’oko
Lo la wale
Mo t’owo b’oko
Mo fa’hun rere yo o

In the story of Orunmila’s creation of the system of Divining Ifa, we are told:

Ifa, you are the leader
I am the follower
The leader is he who teaches the follower wisdom
You are the one who teaches one
Just as one’s sibling…

Ifa, iwo lara iwaju
Emi ni ero eyin
Ara iwaju nii ko ero eyin logbon
Iwo loo ko’mo loran

It is as leaders that Ifa wants us to teach Ifa’s followers wisdom, and so without wisdom, character and scholarship how can we accomplish this? If we do not study, we do not show character, we do not show leadership how can we truly call ourselves priests, let alone demand respect and senior status?

I’ll end this with on the somber note created by a stanza from the Odu Eji Ogbe

A o t'okun dokun
ka too ri winni-winni agbe
A o tosa dosa
Ka too ri doodo orun Aluko
A baa t'okun dokun
Ki a tosa dosa
Ka too ri oloooto Awo
Odi Ile-Ifa Akelubeke
Dia fun Igbin
O n'sawo lo sode Ileyo
O wa mekun sekun igbe
O mohun seyere aro
O ni: Eniyan an won o
Eniyan an soro
Ka too ri olooto Awo
Ona a jin

We shall travel from ocean to ocean
Before we can see the tiny specie of the Blue Touraco
We shall wind from river to river
Before we can see the specie of Maroon Touraco with goiter on their necks
Whether we travel from ocean to ocean
and from there wend river to river
Before we can find a truthful Babalawo
We shall reach Ile-Ife Akelubebe
That is the declaration of the oracle of Igbin (snail)
When going to Ileyo town to practice Ifa
He made his weeping a shouting lamentation
He made his song a dirge of lamentation
He said: Human beings (truthful ones) are scarce
Human beings are difficult
Before we can find a truthful Babalawo
We shall travel far

Aboru Aboye Aboshishe
Marcos Ifalola


Fatoyebi said...

Aboru Aboye Awo.

I must say this is the best article you have written thus far. Keep up the work man! I hope these so called high priest can clean up their own personal work.



Oluo Sixto IfaOdara said...

Will pass on this message and its enlightenment! Much Health and Prosperity always Oluo Sixto IfaOdara....

De Los Santos said...


Alexander said...

What a great article...that applies to life in general and the hierchy of many faiths.

I appreciate sharing your wisdom with us.

Daughter of Thunder said...

Aboru Aboye Aboshishe,
My Godfather Sixto passed this blog onto me and it couldn't come at a better time.
I am an African American who knew very little of the religion but knew of the yoruba people from my readings. My background is more closer to what we call "roots".
I have learned so much from my Godfather about a religion that my people as a whole have abandoned, that has been purposely mired, so that our true strengths would not be known. As people of the islands and the diaspora we all should be in tune and in touch, Alas we are not.
The teachings and guidance of my Godfather has given me renewed hope and purpose to enlighten not only myself, but others whom I may meet on this earthly sojourn.
This blog exemplifies what it should mean to be a beacon and a representation of God, the Ancestors, and the Orishas et al. It is time to get back to the true meaning of worship and stewardship. Thank you for your enlightenment.

ocan la ocha said...

Aboru Aboye Aboshishe, Many thanks for your assistance in my self initiation. Know that the pearls of wisdom you share so selflessly are serving to make us priest, that are more whole.

Ocan La Ocha

Anonymous said...

Aboru Aboye Aboshishe all,

I will say this only one time. I will not let my site be hijacked into a back and forth he said, she said. The post that I left up originally didn't use any names or identifiable information, which is why I originally left it up. When it was brought to my attention that the other person who it was referring to felt she could be identified, even though I disagree, I was happy to remove it from the site in order to avoid getting in the middle.

It's been deleted, and I will not let my site become a site for other peoples problems. If anyone feels the need to get into a back and forth with each other, I will respectfully ask that you do it on your own site, or someone elses.

I am not picking sides, my site is only meant to express my opinions and ideas, or answer other peoples questions with my opinions or ideas.

You will note that once this issue was brought to my attention, I deleted the message in question.

Thank you for understanding that I choose not to be involved in this dispute, so I am not posting anymore messages on this topic.


omisaide7 said...

I read this and thought back on my journey with my godparents. I love them and they were found of me. its sad when you deal with those who are soo gifted but who are so selfish, arrogant, bossy and make enemies wherever they go. I disassociated myself from them after my awo year was complete based on the readings of my oba oriate at my ita. "We must take separate roads because of different destinies". This was painful to hear but as the years go by I am "still standing". Thank you for this article because it put things into perspective. People ask if you are an awo why you don't you advance yourself? Why you don't divine? Did you make santo for your health? No, I don't do anything or want godchildren. And my health is fine-before and after. I choose to stay out of the centre of this business, because I have been ostracized and mistreated. My intentions has been misrepresented by the Vodoo/Orisha community-all because of PROFIT. Their others just like me that sit and look carefully. If only the priest/priestess read your article. The emphasis is on MIDWIFE-not slave master, owner, mother/father but giving birth to Otanes. Passing on Ashe. Its sad.

BABACUBA said...

.....una mano lava la otra y las dos lavan la cara!!!!.....excelente comentario abure!!! Ashe O!!!

nuit menhit said...

aboru aboye...wonderful post, wonderful topic. may Ifa bless you always.