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This landmark volume compiled by Jacob K. Olupona and Rowland O. Abiodun brings readers into the diverse world of Ifá—its discourse, ways of thinking, and artistic expression as manifested throughout the Afro-Atlantic. Firmly rooting Ifá within African religious traditions, the essays consider Ifá and Ifá divination from the perspectives of philosophy, performance studies, and cultural studies. They also examine the sacred context, verbal art, and the interpretation of Ifá texts and philosophy. With essays from the most respected scholars in the field, the book makes a substantial contribution toward understanding Ifá and its role in contemporary Yoruba and diaspora cultures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253018908
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/29/2016
Series: African Expressive Cultures
Pages: 386
Sales rank: 241,106
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jacob K. Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is author of City of 201 Gods: Ile-Ife in Time, Space, and the Imagination and editor of Orisa Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yoruba Religious Culture.

Rowland O. Abiodun is John C. Newton Professor of Art, the History of Art, and Black Studies at Amherst College. He is author of Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art and What Follows Six is More than Seven: Understanding African Art.

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Ifá Divination, Knowledge, Power, and Performance

By Jacob K. Olupona, Rowland O. Abiodun

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01890-8


Ayajo as Ifá in Mythical and Sacred Contexts

Ayo Opefeyitimi

If AYAJO (MYTH-INCANTATION) is Ifá in the mythical and sacred contexts, the best angle from which to begin this essay is the definition of myth. In Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, Lauri Honko gave a definition of myth that he regarded as descriptive and concise, and in which the gods, fundamental events, nature and culture, order, and continuity are foregrounded. According to Honko, a myth is "a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains." (1984, 49). Honko believed that this definition was "built on four criteria: form, content, function and context" (ibid.). Here, form is explained in terms of myth as sacred and symbolic narrative. Its content implicates the articulation of figures and deeds as verbalized in a narrative or poetic medium. The functions of myth are predicated in its ontological view of the world as it describes aspects of life and the universe. And the context of myth is ritualistic, wherein events once possible and operative can be exerted anew.

To complement the above, Harold Scheub wrote that:

The ancient myth has to do with the supernatural, with gods and with transcendental wisdom, with mystical behavior, and awesome activities. ... Regularly, ritualistically, through the theatrical re-enactment of the myths, we revisit the ancient times ... the contexts for our lives. What we do occurs within the context of the ancient myths. Nothing is new; we only routinely re-enact the ancient myths, moving in the paths of our gods. (2002, 185)

Special attention is called to the issue of awesomeness and reenactment (implicating performance) as the wisdom of the great beyond. These issues are reflected in Ayajo myths of Ifá. In the following discussion, attention is given to salient passages where the nature, content, functions, and theoretical angles of Ayajo evince it is a Yorùbá type of sacred myth.

Specifically, the case of Ayajo as Ifá in "sacred" contexts concerns the use of symbols — verbal symbols and objects or materials — in the performance of the genre. O'Keefe described the material objects as "'anointed' — to symbolize that old feeling, that immanent excitement of power ... objects that have become symbols of society" (1979, 248). According to Duncan (1961), they relate to the order of the society itself. Whoever controls such symbols must be obeyed, for in obeying we uphold the structure of our society. Thus, it can be said that one reason for the awesomeness of the contexts of Ayajo performance is the use of anointed symbolic objects and utterances.

Preliminaries to the Text of (Ayajo) Myth-Incantations

In Ifá divination contexts, the diviner uses the sacred chain (opele) or palm kernel (ikin) to find odù in connection with an inquirer's request. The verses of the odù (as related through the signatures of the material objects used in Ifá) are chanted in full. More often than not an appropriate sacrifice is performed; this depends on the urgency, prejudice, and readiness of the inquirer.

After the performance of the sacrifice, the diviner and inquirer assume that all will be well as far as the treated case is concerned. Meanwhile, if the inquirer keeps complaining about the same or a similar issue, the diviner arranges to tackle the problem the Ayajo way. Here, the diviner arranges with the inquirer to invoke the mythological events as contained in the original odù, since it contains the initial sacrifice performed. In other words, the process of borrowing (yiya) the events of a (primordial) day (Ojo) for use (lo) — that is, yiyaojolo = ayajo (lo) — begins. This is premised upon the belief that any problem facing an individual in contemporary times has an equivalent in the past life of our ancestors, as read by Òrunmílà who was the first literary expert on earth in the Odù of Ifá.

Ayajo Myths as a Case Study

In Yorùbá orature scholarship, Afolabi Olabimtan has defined Ayajo Yorùbá sacred myths partly as "a word generally used to refer to the past in relation to the present ... attachment to a divinity — Òrunmílà, associated with a particular odùifá, relate to an incident in the past, feature some lines of ofo in some instances ... ancient Ifá priests are appealed to in Ayajo to help the reciter to achieve the purpose of the incantations" (1971, 4). In this excerpt Òrunmílà, the corpus of Ifá, relationships between past and present incidents, and the pragmatic achievement of purposes are mentioned. However, as I stated elsewhere:

Ayajo ni Imo asiri oruko, isele, Itan Iwase, majemu ayeraye ati ijinle akiyesi nipa iwa ewe, egbo tabi eda miiran, ti a n lo lode oni fun ifare, atubi ati abilu, gege bi a ti se awon asiri wonyen lojo sinu odù-Ifá, eyi to fa a ti a fi n kape Òrunmìlà bi eleriiki o le fase si atubotan ti a n lepa.

Myth-incantations are the knowledge of secret names, events, myths, old covenants and deeply rooted discoveries about the essence of herbs and roots or any other creatures, which are recounted in contemporary times for luck, as neutralizers and for evil, as those secrets are kept in the corpus of Ifá, which accounts for why we call upon Òrunmílà as a witness to accent the desires in view. (2010, 10)

This statement incorporates a number of aspects of the same genre, but does not reflect that the narrative is usually poetic in presentation.

Because the academic study of Ayajo is still in its infancy, this essay will undertake a proper definition of Ayajo so that readers can identify it whenever it is found or heard. Taking an example of Ayajo from the three broad types, this paper also aims at a critical analysis of representative examples. Specifically, the articulation of the following themes in the example under analysis will be treated: power of invocation, precedence, symbolic objects and covenants, the place of Ayajo in the odù of Ifá, the typology of Ayajo, the essence of primordial origin, verbal law, and the babalawo as a personification of the word in the society.

Typology of Ayajo (Myth-Incantations)

Broadly categorized, there are three types of Ayajo: luck attractant, neutralizers, and spells. Under the luck attractant are subtypes such as those meant for quick sales, soliciting love, and so on. The neutralizers comprise three major subtypes: cases (Aforan), protection against spells (Isasi), and witchcraft (Eleye). Each of the three subtypes has its own subgenres. The third major type is the one used for "spells" (or "evil-works" to employ Verger's [1977] language) to designate.

A close examination of the names in each category reveals their functionality. In other words, Yorùbá myth-incantations are typologically categorized and named in accordance with the notion of the functions performed.

The Thematic Content of an Ayajo

Of the three subtypes of Ayajo, witchcraft will serve as a case study. In the Yorùbá cultural worldview, once you are in sociological tune with the witches, you stand the chance of living a good long life and getting rich. This is in light of the fact adduced by O'Keefe that "a great deal of 'magic' (which I prefer to call 'mythincantations') is little more than a defense against witches ... the very opposite of every value the group stands for" (1979, 550).

    Ayajo Atubi Eleye

    Ela ro waa
    Ela ro waa
    Ela ro waa
    Alagada-nla loruko a a paye

    5 Arabatasi loruko aa pele
    Bi a ba fi efun fun aye
    Ara aye a ya gaga
    Bi a ba sepe so Ogun
    Ara ogun a le koko

    10 Ogun a sege
    Omo won nile Ife
    Oun ni o bi Atepe
    Bi o ba wa ri bee
    A je wi pe:

    15 Omode lo ni n ma tele yii pe
    Ko ku bi afe ti n ku
    Toun togboni, toun togboni
    Agbalagba lo ni n ma tele yii pe
    Ko ku bi aguntan se e ku

    20 Toun ti bolobolo enu re
    Bo ba se pe:
    Iyami aje lo ni n ma tele yii pe
    Ko ku bi adiye-opipi se n ku
    Toun ti apada esee re mejeeji

    25 Omode lo ni n ma tele yii pe
    Ona-odi ni ko maa ba rorun, ona-odi
    Agba lo ni n ma tele yii pe
    Ona-odi ni ko maa ba rorun, ona-odi
    Eye seye, fapa seye

    30 Eye seye, fese seye
    Eye be, fese be omowu-alagbede
    O di wo o
    Eye wole Alara
    O pa omo Alara

    35 Eye wole Ajero
    O pa omo Ajero
    Eye wole Orangun Ile-Ila,
    O pomo Orangun Ile-Ila
    Won ni nibo ni awon alawo tun ku si?

    40 Won lo sile Olori-aja-n-gbo-wewe.
    Awo ile Alara
    Eye pa a
    Won lo sile Boo-boo-laguntan-wo
    Awo ile Ajero

    45 Eye pa a
    Won wole Afikori-oke
    Ti n sawo Orangun Ile-Ila
    Ogan ganke, awo pa a
    Won gbera lo odo Òrunmílà

    50 Won ni kee gbo, kee to, aboru-aboye o baba
    Won ni awon yoo pa o
    Awon yoo pa awon omoo re
    Awon yoo pa aboyun ilee re
    O o ni I se aseyori

    55 Òrunmílà wa dawon lohun pe,
    E o le pami
    E o le pawon omoo mi
    E o si le paboyun ilee mi
    Emi yoo si se aseyori

    60 Won bi Òrunmílà pe,
    Bawo ni oo ti se aseyori
    Òrunmílà ni mo ti mo oruko tiyaa eyin aje n je
    Emi yoo si soruko tiyaa eyin aje n je
    Awon aje ni haa haa haa!

    65 Ase o tun ku awon to moruko tajee n je laye
    Òrunmílà ni Atinusoro loruko iya eyin aje n je
    Atedojokan loruko ti baba eyin aje n je
    Eyin aje gan-an ni Owawa-lakaka
    Awon aje ni o di eewo

    70 Ani se, o di oro eewo;
    Won ni ki Òrunmílà wagbin-in apinnu meji
    Ki o ko sefunsefun lowo si i,
    Ki o pe Osa-meji lowo.
    Nitori oun ni odù to mawon aje waye

    75 Ki won bura Òrunmílà
    Enikeni to ba je ninu aseje yii
    Ninu awon omo Òrunmílà,
    Awon yoo yonu si i
    Awon yoo si maa bowoo re

    80 Emi lagbaja omo lagbaja deni owo latoni lo
    Nitori berin ba jeko,
    A bowo faluki
    Befon ba jeko,
    A bowo faluki

    85 Aje kan ki i gboju
    Ko bale igi ajeofole, o seewo
    Osa meji waa lo ree sa ire gbogbo.
    Ti ni be lode aye wa femi lagbaja
    Ki ona owo nlanla si funmi

    90 Ki n gbo
    Ki n to; ati bee bee lo

    Ayajo (To Neutralize Witchcraft)

    Ela descend fast
    Ela descend fast
    Ela descend fast
    Life is called Owner-of-a-big-cutlass
    5 The Earth is called Owner-of-garner-in-which-to-shine
    If the whiting is given to life
    Life will be very healthy
    If we place a curse on Ogun
    Ogun will become hardened
    10 Ogun will relax
    Their offspring in Ife
    He was one who begot Longevity
    If it were so!
    It then means that
    15 If the young is against my living for long
    May she die as of a witch
    With cultism, with cultism
    The aged who is against my long-life
    Should die as the sheep
    20 With the dirt of its mouth
    If it is
    My-mother-the-witch who pronounces death upon me
    She should die as the featherless fowl
    With the curved sections of its legs
    25 The young who is against my living for long
    Should die the wrong way to heaven, the wrong way
    The aged who says I should not grow old
    Should die wrongly, wrongly
    Birds are birds by virtue of their feathers
    30 Birds are birds by virtue of their legs
    The bird jumped, hit its legs with the blacksmith's anvil
    Destruction resulted
    The bird entered Alara's house
    Killed Alara's son.
    35 The bird entered Ajero's house
    Killed Ajero's son.
    The bird entered Orangun of Ila's house
    He killed the son of the king of Orangun of Ile-Ila
    He asked where else to find other cultists?
    40 They went into Olori-aja-n-gbo-wewe's house
    The priest in Alara's house
    Birds killed him
    They went into Boo-boo-laguntan-n-wo's house
    The priest in Ajero's house
    45 Birds killed him
    They entered the house of Afikori-oke
    Who was priest of Orangun-ile-Ila
    He became lifeless, cultists killed him
    They made for Òrunmílà's house
    50 They greeted him as tradition demanded
    They said we would kill you
    We would kill your children
    We would kill the pregnant in your house
    You will not accomplish your goals
    55 Òrunmílà answered them that,
    You can't kill me
    You can't kill my children
    Neither can you kill the pregnant in my house
    And I will accomplish my goals.
    60 They asked Òrunmílà that,
    How would you succeed.
    Òrunmílà said because I know the mother of witches by name
    And I will pronounce the name
    The witches were astonished
    65 Saying, so some still know witches' secret names!
    Òrunmílà said that mother of witches are Atinusoro
    Atedojokan is name for the father of witches
    You witches are Owawa-lakaka
    Witches said henceforth it became forbidden
    70 And insisted, henceforth it became a forbidden issue
    Òrunmílà was asked to procure two big snails.
    Plus that which produces whiting
    And invoke Osa Meji corpus alongside
    Because "he" is the corpus that brought witchcraft to life
    75 So as to covenant with Òrunmílà
    Whoever eats out of this stuff
    Amongst Òrunmílà's descendants
    They will be merciful unto him/her
    They will honor
    80 I, So, child of So, becomes honorable henceforth
    Because if the elephant vegetates,
    It honors aluki leaves
    If the buffalo feeds
    It honors aluki leaves
    85 No witch can be so daring
    As to alight on ajeofole tree, it is forbidden
    Osa Meji-go and gather the good things
    On earth for I, whose name is So
    For me to experience momentary breakthrough
    90 For me to live long
    To live to old age.


It has been noted that genres such as the mythological types were created, propagated, and utilized for sociological reasons. For instance, Duncan noted that the practice of literature is concerned with specific social problems (1961, 59). This particular Ayajo is used for a long life. This is the preoccupation of line 12 in particular and lines 13–28 in general. Second, Duncan noted that "no one can finish a study of the sociology of literature without feeling deeply how much he has not said about words ... for words are wondrous things. They evoke great power for evil as well as for good" (ibid., xi–xii). This observation was reechoed by Pettazzoni, who suggests that "the efficacy of myths ... lies in the magic of the word, in its evocative power, the power of mythos in its oldest sense ... as a secret and potent force" (1984, 103). To be sure, invocation of appropriate powers in the context of each Ayajo is intimately connected with belief in its efficacy.


Excerpted from Ifá Divination, Knowledge, Power, and Performance by Jacob K. Olupona, Rowland O. Abiodun. Copyright © 2016 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword / His Royal Highness Oba Okunade Sijuade Olubuse II
Preface / Jacob K. Olupona and Rowland O. Abiodun
Introduction / Jacob K. Olupona and Rowland O. Abiodun with Niyi Afolabi
Part I. Ifá Orature: Its Interpretation and Translation
1. Ayajo as Ifá in Mythical and Sacred Contexts / Ayo Opefeyitimi
2. Continuity and Change in the Verbal, Artistic, Ritualistic, and Performance Traditions of Ifá Divination / Wándé Abímblá
3. Recasting Ifá: Historicity and Recursive Recollection in Ifá Divination Texts / Andrew Apter
4. Ifá, Knowledge, Performance, the Sacred, and the Medium / Olasope O. Oyelaran
5. "Writing" and "Reference" in Ifá / AdeìleìkeÌ AdeìeÌòkoòì
Part II. Ifá as Knowledge: Theoretical Questions and Concerns
6. Ifá: Sixteen Odù, Sixteen Questions / Barry Hallen
7. Kín N'Ifá Wí?: Philosophical Issues in Ifá Divination / Olúfeìòmi Táíwò
8. Diviner as Explorer: The Afuwape Paradigm / Rowland O. Abiodun
9. "The Hunter Thinks the Monkey Is Not Wise. The Monkey Is Wise, But Has Its Own Logic": Multiple Divination Systems and Multiple Knowledge Systems in Yorùbá Religious Life / Mei-Mei Sanford
10. Dagbon, Oyo, Kongo: Critical and Comparative Reflections on Sacrifice / Wyatt MacGaffey
11. Ifá: The Quintessential Builder of Our Bank of Images / Akínwùmí Ìsola
12. Odù Imole: Islamic Tradition in Ifá and the Yorùbá Religious Imagination / Jacob K. Olupona
Part III. Ifá in the Afro-Atlantic
13. Ifá Divination as Sacred Compass for Reading Self and World / Velma Love
14. Ìtan Odù Òní: Tales of Strivers Today / John Mason
15. Orunmila's Faithful Dog: Transmitting Sacred Knowledge in a Lucumí Orisha Tradition / Joseph M. Murphy
16. Mofá and the Oba: Translation of Ifá Epistemology in the Afro-Cuban Dilogún / Ysamur M. Flores-Peña
17. The Pai-de-santo and the Babaláwo: Religious Interaction and Ritual Rearrangements within Orisha Religion / Stefania Capone
18. The Role of Women in the Ifá Priesthood: Inclusion versus Exclusion / M. Ajisebo McElwaine Abimbola
19. Transnational Ifá: The "Readings of the Year" and Contemporary Economies of Orisa Knowledge / Kamari Maxine Clarke
Part IV. Sacred Art in Ifá
20. The Creatures of Ifá / Philip M. Peek
21. Of Color, Character, Attributes, and Values of Orunmila / Bolaji Campbell
22. Signs, Doors, and Games: Divination's Dynamic Visual Canon / Laura S. Grillo
23. Ifá: Visual and Sensorial Aspects / Henry John Drewal
24. Art, Culture, and Creativity: The Representation of Ifá in Yorùbá Video Films / Akintunde Akinyemi
List of Contributors

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University of Texas at Austin - Niyi Afolabi

Edited by two distinguished exponents of African religions, this is a formidable book that will stand the test of time by all conventional standards of evaluation given its cogency, in-depth research methodologies, variety of sophisticated interdisciplinary approaches, and scholarly interrogations.

University of London - John Picton

Will add substantially to our knowledge of one of the world's most extraordinary bodies of texts and ritual practices.

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