What is this thing called “Ifa”…

April 2, 2013 by
Filed under: Finding your way in Ifa-Orisha 


… and whaddafugg is it for?

This little article is specifically geared towards newbies in Ifa-Orisha. For others it may contain nothing new. But read it anyway… you never know… 😉

Called Ifa Ifa in its in the West best-known form is an ancient, levelheaded religion and a way of life, grounded in the West-African Yoruba culture. Ifa recognizes complex combinations of spiritual and metaphysical forces called Orisha’s, more or less (probably less…) comparable with the archetypes of Jung’s psychology.

In this Ifa tradition, Orunmila is the spiritual force that was present when Olodumare (God) decided to create the earth and populate it with human beings. Orunmila knows all the secrets of creation, the forces of good and evil, and the possibilities to deal with those; he represents the moral and ethical order in the universe, in contiuous interaction with Eshu who represents the creative disorder behind all sorts of evolution.

Initiated persons, when using metaphysical techniques, are able to communicate with the Orisha’s. This is called Ifa divination, a spiritual experience that helps lead a balanced life in a world that is full of conflicts and contradictory interests.

Ifa Divination, whaddayaknow?!

Ifa divination knows 16 metaphysial principles that may be combined in 256 ways. Each principle or Odu is a window on reality; through divination the Awo (Ifa priest) determines the window behind which the client stands, in order to help him or her see their situation in the right perspective. The Odu that is applicable to the client’s situation of the moment comes out through the casting of an oracle chain (Opele), sixteen palm nuts (Ikin) or sixteen cowrie shells (Owo Merindinlogun); a second, sometimes a third cast supplies additional information on how to interpret the first Odu.

Each of the 256 combined Odu’s contains several texts; those Odu’s that are important during the consultation are clarified by one or more of these ancient myths and historical tales. The texts give, among other information, “prescriptions” for daily life, tailored to the client’s specific situation. During Ifa divination all kinds of questions may be asked, preferably formulated in such a way that they can be answered with “yes” or “no”. As it happens every question, even those containing multiple choices, may be divided into subquestions that can be answered with a clear yes or no.

Besides diagnosing problems, in most cases Ifa divination also offers their solution. Often this is pointed out by the texts, while in other instances the Awo’s knowledge and experience give the first impulse to solution. The ultimate purpose of divination is to help the client live in harmony with his/her destiny, which is not a fixed and narrow path, but an extensive navigation map from which one may choose the very best road!

What the Awo thinks he’s doing

Ifa divinerSpecialists in Yoruba-based Ifa divination are called, depending on their initiation(s), Babalawo, Omolawo and/or Awolorisha. The translations would be something like “Father of the Mystery”, “Child of the Mystery”, and “Mystery of the Orisha”. The position of diviner is not gender-specific; many Owo Merindinlogun (Dilogun) diviners both in Africa and in the diaspora are female, while mainly but not exclusively in Africa also female Opele and Ikin diviners are not unheard of.

The Awo is consulted on important issues in daily life, like spiritual development, material prosperity, marriage, health. Their advice is also asked for decisions or choices on making a journey, change of jobs, buying a house, or choosing a partner. It is not necessary to be a follower of Ifa to consult an Awo. Actually almost nothing is required by Ifa, except the development of good character. As an initiate in the mysteries of his/her Orisha the Awo speaks a universal language, communicating with the client’s conscious and unconscious self, and with external spiritual forces.

The Awo never stops learning; their study is a lifelong process. The more the Awo learns, the better he/she is able to counsel, diagnose problems, prescribe traditional or non-traditional remedies, and perform rituals on behalf of those who consult them. Depending on where one lives, the rituals may get either less or more emphasis than in Africa. This should not be regarded as a deviation, but as an example of the remarkable adaptability of this ancient tradition, that for the Awo is a way of life as well.

(Note: for old-timers and others who know me and this site, it should be clear that the above is a description of what’s traditionally accepted in the Yoruba system of Ifa. I posted it this way because for most newcomers that’s the only system they may have heard of. However, I do not limit myself to the Yoruba system, nor do I subscribe to the idea that for performing Ifa divination any initiation into f’rinstance Orunmila would be required.)


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