I learned about the world of Ifa, the indigenous religion of the Yoruba people, from Oba Odumade, a babalawo from Nigeria. Oba was a traditional healer and diviner as well as a master drummer and ceremonial leader. I met him in Los Angeles in 1992 and remained his student, and sometimes lover, until 2006.
Oba emphasized that Ifa is “a focused spiritual practice. It’s not magic. It’s an ancient technology for healing people and communities.” He explained that this technology heals through a complex combination of vibration, psychological archetypes, herbal remedies and identification with the primal energies of Nature.
“In my tradition, drumming, dancing and chanting are forms of prayer. The rhythms I play and teach are sacred vibrations coded to create healing,” he said.
As Oba translated the lyrics of the chants, I recognized affirmations of positive outcomes: “I am alive and well!” and “Something good is happening!”
I resonated with this concept immediately because it’s precisely what I learned from my Native American teachers: vibration can heal us because we are composed of constantly moving energy. As quantum physics confirms, matter (including us) is simply electrons vibrating at various rates. Indigenous wisdom recognizes that positive vibrations (certain rhythms, repetitive movement, chants) can realign energy that has fallen out of harmony.
“Ifa addresses the complexity of human psychology with a specific belief system,” Oba said. “In this mythology, Oludumare is the energy of creation, perhaps equivalent to the western idea of God. Oludumare is the intelligence above all. It’s not a being. It’s simply energy. Before people and animals come to live on Earth, they have to answer to Oludumare about what they want to do here. So when difficult things happen, we can’t ask why. We must just accept.”
I recalled the Native American parable that before we come to Earth, we decide exactly what is going to happen to us so that we can learn the lessons we want to learn in this life. When we are born, we forget what we’ve agreed to and spend our lives trying to remember to learn the lessons.
“Oludumare presides over the orishas, who are intermediaries between humans and Oludumare,” Oba said. “Orishas are actual historic persons who have ascended to divine status after their deaths in the distant past, like Catholic saints, but each orisha also embodies universal energy that is identified with a natural element. For example, Oshun, the orisha who represents the energy of love and eroticism, is a beautiful woman, but she is also the river.”
Oba taught us about the orishas by leading a ceremony for each one, at least for those most important to him. Ifa teaches that there are 400 orishas. We studied several including Eshu/Elegba, the trickster (our shadow); Obatala, the wise old man (wisdom, creativity); Yemoja/Olokun, the ocean (motherhood, prosperity); Oshun, the river (love, eroticism); Shango, fire/thunder/lightning (justice, manifestation); Ogun, iron (the warrior). Each orisha has its own rhythm, song, dance, color and favorite offerings.
Oba’s orisha ceremonies incorporated I Wo San, one of the primary Ifa rituals. According to Oba, in Africa, Yoruba people celebrate I Wo San several times a year: at solstices and equinoxes, weddings and funerals, graduations and infant-naming ceremonies as well as during orisha ceremonies. Whenever a community gathers for an important occasion, the I Wo San invokes the energies of the appropriate orishas, clarifies positive intention and honors the complexity of life. At the heart of I Wo San are various “tastes of life” in tiny white bowls that are passed around to all the celebrants as the babalawo explains their significance. These bowls serve as the focal point of the altar.
At the beginning of every ceremony, Oba chanted the invocation to Eshu1 (always the first prayer to call the trickster out from behind our head where we may see him and honor him), then asked us to face the north as he chanted Obatala’s song, Ile Bobo, Ile Orisha2. We all faced south as he sang it again. We faced east and finally west. He translated the chant as, “The land belongs to Obatala because he made it.”
After we placed our offerings (flowers, candles, favorite foods of the orisha being honored) on the altar, Oba joyfully called out “Ajaja!?”3 which asks, “Are there any spirits here?” We responded, “A mee lo!” answering, “I am here. I am Spirit!” The drums pounded in unison, then broke into syncopated rhythm. Dancers processed into the space, stepping in unison, each holding a six-foot bamboo walking stick, symbol of Obatala. Their sticks struck the earth simultaneously as they marched into a circle. Once in a circle, they leapt as they held their sticks skyward, shaking their sticks as they hopped, turning the sticks horizontally to create a square that morphed into a spinning circle.
Once the dance had sanctified the space, Oba offered teachings about the orisha being honored, in this case, Oya. “Oya is the orisha of the wind, the whirlwind, the tornado. She stands for truth, feminine leadership and feminine fury. Because she is our breath, she lives in the graveyard and helps people cross over at the time of death. She rules the changes in our lives. Her sister is Oshun.”
Oba added that her color is maroon but she also likes dark brown and deep purple, thus eggplant is her favorite offering. We danced in a circle as he chanted her song, Oya Ma Pa Mee4, which translates, “When the wind blows and something is going to tear, let it tear. If it’s going to break, let it break. When the wind is blowing, it has no respect for anybody.”
He proceeded to the I Wo San. I passed the offerings to all the celebrants as Oba explained each one:
“Taste salt and honor the ocean, the mother who gave birth to us all. Taste your tears and your sweat.” Each celebrant took a pinch and put it on their tongue.
“Taste bitter kola and honor the bitterness of life. As you chew on bitterness, remember to watch what you say because bitter kola makes spoken words manifest.” Each celebrant took a piece of the medicinal, highly-caffeinated nut and chewed it. It tasted acrid and nasty.
“Taste honey and honor the sweetness that Nature provides us.” Each celebrant dipped a finger in honey and licked it.
“Taste alligator pepper, and appreciate the spice of life.” He instructed men to take seven peppercorns and women to take five, and all wait until everyone had the pepper in hand. Then he told everyone to put the potent red pepper in their mouths at the same time, chew three times, and inhale in unison. We felt the heat together.
“Taste palm oil and honor what blends things together and makes them go smoothly.” Celebrants dipped a finger in the greasy orange goo and touched it to their lips.
“Taste sugar in the shape of a house and honor the sweetness man creates.” Each celebrant took a sugar cube and ate it.
“Taste water and honor how it purifies, cools and creates peace of mind. Accept the blessing of Oshun, the orisha of love.”
He sprinkled each celebrant’s face with water. Then he passed his hand over the bowl, and a flame ignited in the middle of the water.
“Behold the fire in the water! Know that the impossible is possible. See how opposites can come together as one.”
(After I became Oba’s confidant, he showed me how he concealed a small cube of naphtha in his hand, then deftly lit it and floated it in the bowl of water.)
Then Oba took a special divining kola nut, sprinkled it with water, broke it into pieces, threw the segments on the altar and read a message for the celebrants. It was a positive message. Our intentions were good. The crowd cheered! The drums rolled!
Oba led the drummers in Oya’s rhythm. He demonstrated her dance, spinning one way, then changing direction. Following his lead, we spun and swirled like cyclones until the trance took us. I felt the power of the tornado enter me. I became blind destruction. Oya rode me until I was furious, feminine truth.
Were we practicing voodoo? No, “voodoo” is a pejorative misnomer for a sophisticated system of spirituality born and practiced in West Africa for thousands of years before Christian missionaries arrived. We were practicing Ifa. In my experience, this practice is entirely joyful and life-affirming. Can Ifa be misused? Perhaps, but Ifa’s shadowy reputation (as well as that of its sister religions Vodou in Haiti, Santeria in Cuba, Umbanda and Candomble in Brazil) is a legacy of the ruthless and violent suppression of all aspects of African and Caribbean culture that was designed to keep slaves under control. Such ceremonies were outlawed. Drums were destroyed. Native languages were forbidden. The religion was labeled as evil black magic by people who made no attempt to understand it.
Likewise, the first missionaries who ventured into Africa must have projected their fear onto the practices. They saw evil devil worship in a philosophy that did not even include the idea of evil or the concept of a devil. Perhaps giving “voodoo” a bad rap was an intentional tactic designed to help oppress powerful cultures. As with Native Americans, separating indigenous African people from their traditional spirituality was an effective technique for controlling them.
Why did Ifa interest me, a college-educated 49-year-old white woman with a career in film production? I’d spent ten years exploring unconventional spiritual paths. When I discovered Ifa, I recognized the basic metaphysics of sacred vibration and reverence for the earth coupled with a rich mythology. This fusion of quantum physics and Jungian archetypes triggered my curiosity. A philosophy deeply rooted in the pre-Christian past hinted at universal truths that preceded the divisions of organized religions. I was always seeking the next level of spiritual experience, and Ifa promised to take me there.
1, 2, 3, 4 Recordings of these songs and rhythms are featured on the Honey in the River Soundtrack, available for download from itunes, Amazon Music and CD Baby.
“Yoruba Dancers” by Ayo Adewunmi is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0