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A Critique of American Ifa

Note: When referring to American Ifa, the Author is referring to the self describing phrase used by the Ifa Foundation of North America, Inc.

How American should the practices of Ifa become? Does a Tradition whose genesis is in sub-Saharan Africa have relevance in the other parts of the world without going through drastic metamorphosis? As the practices of Orisa and Ifa continues to grow at a fast pace in the United States, these becomes a critical questions.

In the United States we have begun to see the re-interpretation of Ifa through a set of lenses that in many instances are fogged with ignorance (in some cases bigotry.) Examination of any sacred technology can only be healthy when executed from a point of education and understanding – a general lack of grasp beyond fundamentals will provide a flawed evaluation. Further, a revision of a system of thought without the aforementioned grasp will be wholly pejorative.

In the face of a growing phenomenon called “American Ifa” it is indeed is important that we address misinformation and systemic under education.

Ifa is Ifa! Although it is certainly an African/Yoruba practice, it transcends the borders in which it has thrived for thousands of years. The understanding of truth that is presented in Ifa can and should be interpreted, however, that interpretation must take place in a soul which is universal. It is this author’s opinion that any interpretation which is based on a person’s Americaness (or any nationality for that matter) is one that is likely wrought out arrogance and ego.

It is this author’s intention to examine areas that are deliberately being omitted from common practice in the Americanization of Ifa and to evaluate the consequences of this process.

Ese Ifa

Amongst the many areas of Ifa which are consequential and at the core of general practice of Traditionalist is Ese Ifa (the poetic corpus ) and the associated Itan (narration/story*). This vast literary corpus is a container for the lore and sacred technology of Yoruba culture, as well as its historical remembrances.

A good part of the Traditional training of the Babalawo and other Awo Orisa was centered on the memorization of this corpus. Unfortunately, this is the area in which those that label themselves as practitioners of American Ifa are most often lacking.

The general argument presented by this new system of thought is that that memorization in this day and age is not necessary. As case, an argument is presented that in the past memorization was necessary due a lack of written language. To further this argument it is pointed out that a vast quantity of material is available in published format as well as through the Internet.

I would counter by firstly advising that a very small portion of the corpus has been published. What is encountered in books and on the Web is in many instances is incomplete at best and in some instances inaccurate. We are certainly not talking about a few hundred poems. Ifa is a literary corpus – a body of knowledge. It is tradition that lives and breathes through the priests that have borne it through the ages.

Literature in older societies (especially in the case of religious literature) is more than story telling and poetry. This brings me to my second point regarding memorization, Ese Ifa is the container of sacred technology. Those with the training understand that the poetry contains the message and remedies for the client who comes for a consultation, as well as words of power, prayer, sacred lore and means of accomplishing various spiritual tasks. The individual who understands Ese Ifa solely as a mnemonic device used to recall messages for the client during the divination process has a very limited understanding of the corpus.

Lastly, I would advise that through memorization that the Awo internalizes. Memorization creates cause and effect within the Awo. Through internalization, the literature animates and is animated. It is only when the literature become solely written that it loses it life and becomes static.

If you understand Ese Ifa and their attendant Itan to be quaint poems and stories from days of yore in a culture vastly different from your own, you have truly missed their value and they of course will have no use.

The Process of Initiation

Indigenous religious tradition within Yoruba culture is initiatory. Initiation is a means whereby the initiate is transformed on various levels benefiting them not only in their mundane life but also their emotional and spiritual lives as well. The process of initiation into Ifa and Orisa is called Itefa and Idosu respectively.

While this is certainly not the space to go into the specifics of the process, I would like to cover some broad strokes.

Both Itefa and Idosu are communal efforts. In both cases, the initiation itself takes place over a three day period.(note by Awonifa: In the Ifa traditions brought to Cuba from Africa there is a seven day ceremony)

The initiate if firstly prepared by undergoing preliminary divinations which set out some of the actions that will occur before, during and after the initiation. Each of the days in the three day period are filled with ritual acts – in fact there is usually about twelve hours of ritual work that occurs on each day. The initiation occurs in a community of priests and at the end of the initiation, the individual is received back into society at large with jubilant dancing and singing.

In the case of Ifa, the initiation in most instances takes place in the Grove of Ifa. This sacred precinct is unknown to those who are not initiated. Although there are many “revelations” within the Grove that are taboo to speak of to the uninitiated – the single revelation that is commonly known, even amongst those who are uninitiated, is the revelation of the individual’s destiny to the initiate. Let me be perfectly clear – the destiny of an individual is revealed within sacred precincts, under very special ritual circumstances, not the kitchen table of those performing rites.

The initiation of other Orisa can take place in within a grove (if that is a traditional practice of that particular Orisa) or within the shrine of Orisa. Like Itefa, Idosu is an arduous three day rite. Although certainly distinct from Itefa, there are many points of similarity.

There are integral parts of each type of initiation that occur in Ifa whether you are initiated in Osogbo, Oyo or Ibadan. The same is true of a Idosu Sango, or Idosu Osun. While there may be geographical variances, the core technology and actions are the same. As example I would point to the shaving of the head of the initiate. While the reasons for shaving the initiates head will not be presented here, I will say that the shaving of the initiates head is not solely for the placement of Ase. To understand it a such is a gross misunderstanding of its reasoning within the sacred technology of initiation. In American Ifa, they do not shave the head of the initiate. This along with other eliminations further separates American Ifa from Traditional Ifa.

Lastly regarding initiation, going through Itefa and Idosu does not confer the right to immediately go out and minister to the general population. Nor does it confer the right to initiate others. Itefa and Idosu are both a spring board which can in some instances lead to one becoming a priest. The training of a priest and a diviner takes a number of years and is a lifetime endeavor and can never be a crash course of seven days. The process of individual steps within each type of initiation are each important. American Ifa has reduced the process to a couple hours, with a highlight on a half hour ceremony on the second day. I would at best this a severely incomplete process and in this author’s opinion can be dangerous for all concerned.

Again, in America Ifa we are seeing incomplete acts that are being labeled as authentic initiation into Ifa and Orisa. Minor acts of ritual culminating in the slaughtering of an animal over the head of an individual and the recitation of a short Oriki (praise poem) does not an initiation make.

Ebo

I have in a previous article outlined the definition of ebo from a Traditionalist’s point of view (see What is Ebo?). Here again we encounter a sacred technology which integral to Ifa and Orisa practice.

I will not use this space to reiterate the whys and wherefores. Let it suffice to state that not only is proper ebo the culmination of divination. Traditionally it has never been simple offerings made to an Orisa which should be more properly called Orisa Bibo. Properly performed ebo is also an integral part of the initiation process. Because of the integral part that divination plays in the initiation process – it is also an integral part of without which any Itefa or Idosu would be incomplete.

Orisa

Many understand that the Orisa manifest in the natural world. A good example would be Sango’s manifestation in the natural world is lightning. To understand Sango as being lightning rather than lightning being a manifestation of this Orisa is short sighted. The energy associated with a particular Orisa the natural world is a part of their essence – however they are not energies without sentience and intelligence.

When you wholly understand the Olodumare and the Orisa as insentient energy you remove yourself from the ability to participating in dialogue with them and process of divination with Ifa becomes a fallacious act.

While I may agree that the Orisa are not the characters of a play, I also understand that their sentience does imply that there is some sort of character to them. We again can should look to the corpus of literature to help in our understanding of them. However, realize that this is only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. Understanding of the Orisa is borne over time and contact. If we dismiss the Orisa as being merely “thunder” or “wind” or “mountain” without sentience, we disallow ourselves to enter into a relationship.

In addition to the above outlined areas, there are certainly other areas that we could touch upon briefly regarding American Ifa. One particular area of note is the equation of Orisas Yemonja and Olokun as a single Orisa. One realizes the flaw in this supposition when one examines these Orisa in the context of the literature of Ifa. Traditionally Yemonja is a riverine deity and Olokun is the deity of the ocean. To assume that Yemonja and Olokun are the same deity is truly misguided and shows a basic lack of understanding of the pantheon of Orisa in Yorubaland.

Another interesting phenomena is the equating initiation into Awo Nana Bukun as the female equivalent of a man receiving Igba Odu. On first examination of this idea, one would assume that a man cannot receive initiation of Nana Bukun, just as a woman cannot receive the Igba Odu. This is another area that has no basis in Tradition. As a matter of fact, there are many male initiates and priests of Nana Bukun in Yorubaland. While the women of Yorubaland certainly do have mysteries in which only they may participate, this is not one. Unfortunately I am not privy to any of the women only cults and therefore will not comment of them beyond this simple statement.

Conclusion

The technology of Ifa and Orisa is a scared science, methodical and systematic. To this end, like good science, if your methods are flawed and if in your procedure you omit important time proven steps – the end result incomplete and sometimes dangerous. If we are to subject Ifa to logic (as it should be), let us lay the ground with clear postulations that are based on not only our own observations (be they one year or twenty), as well as the observations that have been gleaned over a millennium.

When you revise, add invention and eliminate traditional sacred technology to the point that your subject no longer is recognizable, it becomes fancy and capricious. What is presented in American Ifa is no longer Ifa. Practicing an alternative which is devoid of the sacred technology is not wrong, it just not Ifa whether it be American or otherwise.

Traditional Ifa transcends color, ethnicity and national borders. Modification solely on the basis on of nationality is a revisionist view which can give the impression of racism. The truth for an African is no different than the truth for an American and certainly not worth less investigation.

*Itan are mistakenly referred to as Pataki in American Ifa

Nota Bene: When referring to American Ifa, the Author is referring to the self describing phrase used by the Ifa Foundation of North America, Inc. and refers only to the practices of their compound now in Deland ,Florida formerly in Bloomington, Indiana. The author in now way would ascribe any of the aberrations described above to respectable community of Babalawos in the Diaspora (and specifically Lukumi).

Original Article http://irunmole.org/

 
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