The question of the expansion of the corpus of Ese Ifa is one that often comes up, and with unusual extremism and indignation (at certain ideas, which I’ll talk about here). I did write a piece on the fact that traditional Yoruba not only believe Ifa is constantly growing, but have a theology around it (read here). Let’s look at this problem from a few directions:
First, what is Ifa? Let’s agree that it is all knowledge of the world past, present and future, or thought of in another way, Ifa is the codification of the human condition. If we think of Ifa in this way, there is certainly nothing in the world, no possible situation, that Ifa doesn’t talk about. And if that’s the case, then we can safely assume that on some levels, every piece of written material that talks about the human condition is a manifestation of Ifa.
Whether that’s the Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, with its themes about the hollowness of the upper class, violence in society, or honesty, or Native Son by Richard Wright, with its themes on the effects of racism in society and the hypocrisy of justice, they all are Ifa. I would go further to say that there are two levels of the stories of Ifa: First there are the culturally contextual stories that help us better relate to the themes like the above books, or like the way that Patakins have been modified by the Afro-carribeans to be more relevant/understandable (Palo certainly didn’t exist in Nigeria, so it’s clearly an addition to many stories). Secondly, the more transcendent ese Ifa that speak of the big themes like love, hate, existence, etc, without necessarily placing them into cultural context.
In this second way, we could for instance say that the great Sufi poet Rumi must have been a true “father of the secrets” (babalawo), that created some of the worlds greatest ese Ifa. Rumi said:
“Indulging our pride, we run after every fleeting image.
How odd that being so unimportant we cultivate such grand illusions.”
If that is not Ifa, I don’t know what is! In fact, it might be easily argued that the great poets like Neruda, Shakespeare, Whitman, etc were just manifesting Ifa when they wrote of the world. Further great religious scholars like Lao Tzu the taoist, Hafiz the Sufi and Augustine the Christian also sit in this camp. Philosophers like Plato, Confuscious and Descartes clearly fit in to this camp as well. They were all people who manifested Ifa, and their works fit into Ifa’s deepest and most profound places.
So how can you modify something that is manifest everywhere and encompasses everything? You can’t, because there is nothing to modify! Only to discover… The Lucumi are some of the most inflexible when it comes to this conversation of the expansion of Ifa, and yet, they have probably done the most modification of Ifa. This is not only because they translated it, which immediately changes the original meaning, if only slightly at times, but also with mentions of Palo, espiritismo, homosexuality, guns, drugs, etc.
So what does this all mean? It means that Ifa is everywhere, and there is no human story that is not a part of it.
What does this mean for the expansion of Ifa? Simply this, it is up to the Babalawo to interpret and make Ifa understandable to the person being consulted. Ese Ifa are there as a mnemonic device, meant to assist the Babalawo in remembering the key themes of a given Odu Ifa, and they have already transformed over time. They have not been added to, but have been adapted to help the Babalawo remember the key problems, issues and themes prevalent in a particular Odu. If one were to take the Diccionario de Ifa already in print with the lucumi Odu Ifa and their Ese and Ebo, we would see this. The lucumi call them the “refranes” or refrains. Instead of memorizing word for word, long stanzas of Ifa in Yoruba, which need to be translated, one can memorize the pithy maxim, restate it, and then go into interpretation for the devotee seeking Ifa’s advice.
Where this gets complicated, is you don’t want people running around just making things up. Creating Odu Ifa is not for the layity, in fact, it’s not even for most of the priesthood. Creating Odu Ifa lies in two places: with the priests who’s life and ashe are focused on the deep esoteric study and understanding of Ifa, and for those Babalawo who have the epiphanies, flashes or divine inspiration when on the mat, in understanding how they can explain what they’ve learned better.
You can’t expand the all encompassing, it’s like saying think of the highest number you can think of, then add one. But, you can think of a better way of getting your point across.
As Ogbe Ate tells us:
I had been initiated
I will re-initiate myself, by myself
-- Marcos Ifalola Sanchez