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Ifa: The Traditional Yoruba Religion and Source of Wisdom

In traditional Yoruba culture, Ifá refers to a system of divination and the verses of the literary corpus known as the Odú Ifá presented in the course of divination. Orunmila is the deity associated with Ifa diviniation. In some instances, the name Orunmila is used interchangeably with the word Ifa. Orunmila brought Ifa diviniation to the world.

(It should be noted that this article sometimes uses the word "Yoruba" to refer to the system of traditional spiritual belief and practices, as well as modern day practitioners. This should in no way be confused with the Yoruba people that primarily live in the southwestern region of Nigeria. Not all Yoruba people practice this traditional spiritual system, although the tradition primarily originates from their culture, history, and beliefs. The best descriptor would be "Ifa/Orisha tradition.")

Ifá originated in West Africa among the Yourba ethnic groups. It is also practiced among believers in Lucumi, (sometimes referred to as Santería), Candomblé, West African & Diaspora Vodou, and similarly transplanted Orisa'Ifa lineages in the New World. In Togo, it is known as Afa, where the Vodou deities come through and speak. In many of their Egbes, it is Alaundje who is honored as the first Bokono to have been taught how to divine the destiny of humans using the holy system of Afa. The Ifa Divination system was added in 2005 by UNESCO to its list of "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity".

The Yoruba divination system enabled diviners to invoke the word of God through the teachings of Orunmila, the Yoruba deity of wisdom, prophecy and ethics. Esu (Eshu), who is in charge of spiritual justice, as well as the god directly in charge of transportation of ebos, lends his authority or ase to the oracle for the purpose of clarifying the issues at hand and providing direction to those seeking guidance. Ifa divination rites provide an avenue of communication between the spirit world and that of the living.

Performing Ifa divination is called idafa (or dida owo and ounte ale). Idafa is performed by a Babalawo or Iyanifa (an initiated priest). Babalawo can be translated as "father of the secrets". The babalawo provides insights about the current circumstances impacting the life of a person requesting this information and provides any necessary information to aid the individual. Awo is a reference for devotees in Orisa worship. It includes Babalawos, Babalorishas, Iyalorishas and even uninitiated devotees.

Initiation into Ifa requires rigorous study. An aspiring Babalawo must learn AT LEAST four verses from each of the 256 chapters (Odu) of Ifa. The minimum of four verses will of necessity include ebos and ooguns (medicine) that are embedded and relevant to each of the verses, plus other issues that complement divination. An accomplished Babalawo must know about ten verses of each of the 256 chapters of Ifa (256 Odu Ifa). Regardless of gender, whoever aspires to practice Ifa must have this qualification. In essence, Ifa practice does not preclude a woman provided such woman acquires the required qualification. Odu—a special Orisa—can only be received by a Babalawo who decides to perform the special initiation that will allow him access to Odu. In essence, initiation into Ifa is the first step into initiation into Odu. A woman cannot be initiated into Odu. Character Traits of a Babalawo: Orunmila demands humility from his priests, therefore, a Babalawo should be an embodiment patience, good character, honesty, and humility. Apetebi is the term for a Babalawo’s wife. No initiation is required for apetebi title because it comes with being married to a Babalawo. Iyanifa is a title and not the opposite term of Babalawo.


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