The Documentation and Propagation of the Ifa Corpus and the Challenge of
Modern Information Technology: The Internet as a Focus
By Oyeronke Olajubu
Department of Religions
University of Ilorin, Ilorin, Nigeria
Orality is a function of verbal communication that has served humanity for a long time. Indeed, the capacity for verbal communication constitutes one of humanity’s distinctive qualities. Orality sometimes manifests itself as verbal art, which is a component of human communication that privileges oral transmission as a means of performance. The most basic feature of verbal art is performance (Finnegan 1970) because it is a composite art. While writing or written forms cannot exist without oral traditions, oral traditions can, and will always exist without writing (Olajubu 1986). Two forms of oral transmission may be identified, primary and secondary oral transmission. Primary oral transmission exists in communities that are untouched by writing whereas secondary oral transmission may be found in literate communities.
In the Yoruba worldview, oral texts cast experiences into narratives, which are continuously performed in rituals. Historical and social experiences are all recorded in oral traditions. Oral traditions therefore constitute the starting point of any investigation into Yoruba thought system. Yoruba oral genres include proverbs, ofo, ayajo (incantations), ekun iyawo (a bride’s lamentation at marriage), the Ifa corpus, oriki (lineage and individual praise recitations) and Ijala (hunters’ poetry).
Oral traditions among the Yoruba, assume that the spoken word embodies a power and active essence called oro (Abiodun 1994). The power and active essence in Yoruba oral tradition may become a vehicle for ideological control. Words become tools for entrenching ideologies either of oppression or liberation. These oral traditions manifest through diverse genres but taken together they present to us a clear picture of the Yoruba worldview. This worldview is not static or rigid therefore its configuration is dynamic. Several genres of Yoruba oral literature have been composed and performed by the people for many years and have been utilized for social engineering and societal cohesion throughout history. Oral literature for the Yoruba is always of present relevance because it continues to wield considerable influence on Yoruba social structures till date. Embedded in these genres are elements of theater and performance. In addition, it exhibits a great influence emanating from the peoples religious advocacy.
In Yoruba oral traditions as in some other cultures, myth and history overlap and shade into one another (Ray 1976). As a result of this intersection, individual and collective identities are coded in these genres. Central to these identities is religion, a concept that permeates every sector of Yoruba daily living. The importance of Yoruba oral traditions is further underscored by the influence of religion on the social settings. Social organization and cultural practices are based on paradigms derived from oral traditions. Consequently Yoruba oral traditions provide us with rich resources of knowledge, information and power. Knowledge about Yoruba life experiences is supplied in oral genres because the people’s philosophy is orally based. Accounts of war, famine, conquest, advent of foreigners into the communities and the introduction of new practices are all recorded in these oral genres. The information supplied by oral traditions has serious implications for practices on the social plane. Oral traditions also provide their custodians with power, through both knowledge and invocation. For instance, some genres of Yoruba oral traditions like ofo, ayajo and epe (incantations), may be invoked to manipulate natural elements to the advantage of the individual so endowed. Ifa is one of the genres of Yoruba oral tradition and its scope covers every aspect of the people’s lives1.
This paper is an attempt to examine the transition of Ifa from its oral form to its documentation and propagation on the Internet. The propagation of Ifa on the Internet proffers some implications for Yoruba religion and Ifa as a body of knowledge. The paper will not dwell on introductory aspects of the history and sociology of the Yoruba as this has been adequately treated by scholars in many volumes (please see J. O. Awolalu and Dopamu, P. Ade (1979) West African Traditional Religion. Ibadan: Onibonje Press; J. O. Awolalu (1979) Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites. Essex: Longman; J. S. Eades (1980) The Yoruba Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; N. A. Fadipe (1970) The Sociology of the Yoruba. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press. Methodology for this paper includes the use of literature and an extensive perusal of websites on Ifa and its propagation2.
The Ifa corpus constitutes the storehouse of Yoruba philosophy and thought system. It is the ground of validation for Yoruba cultural practices and social organization. Ifa corpus contains accounts of Yoruba cosmology, of the founding of major Yoruba towns and the relationship of deities with humans (Ilesanmi 1996). Though records of Yoruba lived experiences are found in Ifa, the corpus is not static. As a body of intellectual material, Ifa is simultaneously conservative and dynamic (Abiodun 1994). Accounts recorded in Ifa chapters (Odu), provide us with explanations for certain practices in Yorubaland. Ifa may be described as the encyclopedia of Yoruba life and practices. Ifa is composed of sixteen major chapters (odu) and two hundred and forty derivatives, giving a total of two hundred and fifty-six chapters. Some have asserted that Ifa is a spirituality and not a religion and that Ifa is universal as buttressed by the creation of American Ifa and Carribean Ifa. Ifa then is to be perceived as a personal encounter between an individual, Olodumare and Ifa. Consequently, prescriptions for Ifa practitioners vary individually, generalization is thus impracticable. The knowledge of Ifa was traditionally transmitted orally. The two hundred and fifty-six major chapters of Ifa were learnt and recited by students of the corpus for up to ten years or more before a level of competence could be assumed. With the introduction of Western education among the Yoruba by the Christian missionaries around 1840, some documentation of the Ifa corpus became inevitable.
Many widely known scholars including Professors William Bascom and Wande Abimbola among others have documented sections of the Ifa corpus from the early 40’s. Professor Wande Abimbola initially documented some Ifa chapters in Yoruba language3 but after some years he also wrote some Ifa chapters in the English language4. His writings aided the mobility of Ifa messages across cultures and provided the tool for an academic consideration of Ifa as a body of scientific knowledge and philosophy. Since the efforts of Professor Wande Abimbola, other scholars and practitioners of Ifa have documented different aspects of the Ifa corpus. A current effort worth mentioning is the ongoing work on the iwe odu Ifa by the International Association of Ifa practitioners. Their efforts at the documentation of Ifa have aided the spread of Yoruba religion in an unprecedented dimension. One of the consequences of the documentation of Ifa is the conversion of non-Africans and Africans in the Diaspora into Yoruba religion. This contact of Ifa with non-Yoruba adherents produced significant developments, which include the adoption of Ifa as an intangible heritage of UNESCO on the 25th of November 2005 and the contact between Ifa and the Internet.
Ifa on the Internet
It is difficult to state when Ifa first appeared on the Internet. Suffice is to say that many websites which focus on Ifa may now be located on the Internet. In addition to these sites, other websites on Yoruba religion, African religions and Orisa churches may be found. A large number of these websites are hosted by Babalawos on the African continent and the Diaspora5. For the purpose of this paper, fifteen websites were considered. These websites provide information on Ifa corpus or other aspects of Yoruba religion, which relates to Ifa. In terms of content, the websites differ as each is geared towards specific agendas. Such agendas include, consultations on spiritual matters, interpretation of some tenets and concepts of Yoruba religion, education on what Yoruba religion entails, purchase of spiritual items, information on festivals of certain deities, information on Ifa, a college of Ifa, stories of solidarity and comments on some current trends in relation to Ifa e. g. same-sex marriages and the role of women in religion.
Certain themes emanate from these agendas, examples of which are economic issues, identity issues, issues of interpretations, testimonies, immigration and tourism issues as well as current trends in religious perspective. I intend to interrogate these themes in relation to the concept and practice of Ifa in Yoruba religion among the Yoruba of Nigeria. It would seem that in the process of transmitting some information on Yoruba religion from the African continent to the Diaspora, certain changes-some of them fundamental-have occurred.
Ifa as a body of knowledge takes cognizance of economic matters in the human living experiences. Narratives of economic pursuits, attainment and advancements of the gods/goddesses and human personalities abound in the Ifa corpus6. Again, the quest for economic success is a valid search that has led and continues to lead people to the provisions in the Ifa corpus. Consequently, the economic affair of the individual in the bid to attain a comfortable status in life is a concern of Ifa. The economic well being of the community is also an important focus of the Ifa corpus. This explains why any hint of famine, pestilence or premature deaths is promptly referred to the Ifa corpus for prescriptions to rectify the anomaly. The contact between Ifa and the Internet continues to reinforce the important position of the economic quest of individuals for the Ifa corpus but with some fresh perspectives.
Globalization presumes that geography is no longer a limitation for human contact and interaction. Central to this assertion is the Internet with the many provisions it encompasses. Hence, in the contemporary society, consultation on any issue of human endeavor is now possible through e-mail, telephone calls and fax messages. Prior to these recent developments, it was required that the client visits the Ifa priest/ess (Babalawo/Iyanifa) for consultations. Also purchases of religious items can now be done through the Internet. Indeed, there are some websites focusing mainly on the sale of religious items, some of which are imported from the African continent7. Some have argued on the “authenticity” of such imported religious items being concerned that the “energy” or spiritual sanctity of such items would have dwindled due to the distance across the waters. Again, there is the salient issue of animal sacrifice in Yoruba religion, which was hitherto taken for granted, but which is presently attracting interesting comments and arguments. “Ebo” in Yoruba religion is sacrifice offered to the deities for rectifying a bad situation or to seek favors from the supersensible powers. Sometimes Ifa may prescribe a sacrifice to remedy an unsatisfactory situation or to attract a desired result. Oftentimes this involves the killing of an animal, which is presently a topic of debate under the law; is animal sacrifice against the law? Invariably, a process of negotiation of legislation in the face of religious preferences would be imperative. In as much as adherents of Yoruba religion are citizens of America for example, some level of understanding would be desirable to accommodate requirements for sacrifice in their religion.
Unavoidably, there have been some cases of fraud on diverse economic issues both on the continent and the Diaspora. Fake products have been known to circulate in the name of authentic spiritual items, just as psychology is sometimes substituted for Ifa divination through e-mail, telephone calls or fax messages. The monitoring mechanism for compliance is largely porous by the sole fact that contact on economic issues in Ifa practice is no longer physical but through information technology.
Some African Americans and other peoples of African origin in the Diaspora delight to trace their linkages to specific African communities through a combination of science, speculations and goodwill. The Kunta Kunte story illustrates this well8. In furtherance of this trend, some people of African origin have been known to identify themselves as descending from a long line of African spiritualist. Specifically, an example may be cited from one of the websites of a Baba-odu who traces his lineage to a long line of African spiritualists9.
The bid for identity (de)construction also includes the taking of chieftaincy titles by non-Yoruba people who are adherents of Ifa. These titles combine social and spiritual responsibilities. Oftentimes such “chiefs” are not resident in Nigeria but they maintain a link through the Internet and occasional visits on festive days or during the summer holidays. The fusion of Western orientation and Yoruba religious adherence may produce tension and nuance on the state of belonging and identity construction. For instance, it takes some considerable time and commitment for a non-Yoruba to blend with his/her host community in terms of language, cuisine and interpersonal relations. In the same vein, a non-Yoruba adherent of Ifa may also experience some tension in her/his home community e.g. United States of America, where until recently, orisa worshippers were not many. Such obstacles may however be surmounted through patience and commitment.
Responses to the question “who am I” would of necessity be individualistic. This individualistic response to identity definition has facilitated the spread of Ifa knowledge through the Internet. As has been noted by an Ifa worshipper on the Internet “Ifa is a medium with which our individual strengths are expounded upon, enabling us to express our different attitudes in harmony with one another. Ifa is also a means of exposing the weaknesses we have that block our path to success, happiness and longevity”10.
Issues of Interpretation
All of the fifteen websites considered for this paper attempt to give some information on Yoruba religion though from different perspectives. The dynamics of interpretation is crucial to the type of information given on Yoruba religion by any of these websites. While the sacred text (oral or written) is fixed, interpretation is dynamic. As has been observed, a prototype of worship that consists of “the seeker, the middle-woman/man (interpreter) and------ the energy” is already being perpetuated in the modern society11. The position of the interpreter is therefore significant when considering information on religious practices. Consequently, some new configurations, concepts and terms in and about Yoruba religion may be found on these websites. Some of these concepts, configurations and terms may be totally unknown to practitioners of Yoruba religion in Nigeria. Such developments may be construed as a product of the socio-cultural experiences of non-Yoruba adherents of Ifa practice. The seven basic complexes of orisa: Esu, Yemonja, Ogun, Oya, Osun, Sango and Obatala, identified on www.orisa.org homepage is an appropriate illustration in this regard. Ogun is described as the energy of the forest whereas in Yoruba parlance Ogun is the god of iron. Again, Sango is designated, the energy of war whereas among the Yoruba of Nigeria, Sango is the god of thunder. Here, an attempt is made to fuse diverse religious understanding with the traditional understanding of two Yoruba gods.
The concept of “energy” is prevalently used on these websites on Yoruba religion as a substitute term for gods/divinities. Though Yoruba gods/divinities are embodiments of divine energies as supernatural beings but usually these gods/divinities also have human lives or display human like characteristics (anthropomorphism). For example, the divinities marry; they have favorite foods, taboo, favorite drums, colors or tunes. These divinities practice polygamy as explicated in situations where goddesses who are wives of a god engage in marital quarrels and schemes of deceit to win the husband’s favor12. Some gods/ddesses are rich and control the ability to bestow prosperity whereas some others are gifted with extraordinary wisdom, which they give to dedicated devotees. Therefore, to state that orisa is energy and nothing else falls short of an accurate description of Yoruba religion.
A term “Ifaism” is used on www.cultural-expression.com to refer to the practice and knowledge of Ifa. On this website, it is asserted that “Ifaism is usually referred to as Yoruba”, this could not be accurate because Yoruba language does not have words ending in “ISM”. Consequently, in the bid to provide information on Yoruba religion, some level of imposition of concepts and terminologies do occur. A general trend in religious propagation worldwide is the establishment of educational institutions where knowledge of the particular religion is impacted on people. Christian organizations are known to establish theological Seminaries whereas Islamic bodies have Islamic/Quranic schools; the Buddhist establishes Seminaries for monks and nuns. One of the websites examined for this paper supplies such knowledge on Ifa through the Ifa college i. e. www.Ifacollege.com the website provides education on Ifa in theory and practice. Usually serious students of Ifa aim at initiation into Ifa priesthood (Babalawo/Iyanifa). In the traditional setting, the practice of understudy was a basic component of all Ifa students in training in Yorubaland. However with the introduction of priesthood training via the Internet, this may no longer be tenable. Of what implication might this be for Yoruba religion, on the continent of Africa and in the Diaspora?13
Testimonies of life experiences of an individual before his/her encounter with Ifa and the subsequent positive change of fortune abound on these websites. These testimonies are meant to achieve certain goals. One, membership drive is enhanced through the sharing of experiences because others in similar dire situations would be encouraged to convert to Ifa in order to attain positive results. Two, the faith of other Ifa worshippers is uplifted by some of these testimonies especially where the experience of the person concerned led to personal spiritual growth and improved knowledge of the divine. Such a story may serve as a model for other worshippers to emulate.
There are however negative testimonies about the experiences of Ifa worshippers as well. For instance, there is the testimony on www.yorubareligion.org about the supposed dishonesty of Oribami LaTricia January a. k. a. Oosatena, who is accused of duping the Ibile Faith Society and which had been taken to court in Nigeria. Other worshippers of Ifa and Yoruba religion are advised to be wary of her because “she is dangerous”. This case has since been resolved. Some worshippers of Ifa have also reported cases in which they were duped by worshippers of Ifa in Nigeria. This could be through the sale of “ordinary” items instead of sacred objects and the impartation of partial and inadequate knowledge of Ifa for monetary gains.
Immigration and Tourism
Ifa festivals in Yorubaland and the Diaspora serve as veritable avenues for the promotion of tourism. These festivals serve religious, social and cultural purposes whether they take place in Germany, United States of America or Nigeria. Ifa festival is an occasion for reciting Ifa verses (Iyere Ifa), dancing to the gong music (agogo), and performing divination on diverse issues that affect individuals and the community as a whole. Socially these festivals bring together people of different classes and races who subscribe to the tenets of Ifa practice and philosophy. It is usually an avenue for feasting, dancing and personal interactions. Yoruba culture is displayed in its richness during Ifa festivals. The blend of colors and sonorous voices of the priest and priestesses is a wonderful sight to behold and listen to.
Until recently, Ifa festivals held among worshippers of Ifa in Yorubaland but presently, Ifa festivals feature in other countries such as Germany, United States of America, Brazil and Cuba. The Ifa festivals in Nigeria take place in different communities at different times and are attended by Nigerians and tourist from outside the continent. A direct product of this inter-continental Ifa fellowship is the solidarity of worshippers across waters14, some worshippers of Ifa from the Diaspora choose to conceive of their visit to Yorubaland as a pilgrimage; just as Mecca is to Muslims and Jerusalem is to Christians and Ganges is to Buddhists. In addition, some Ifa worshippers from the Diaspora adopt shrine (s) located in Yorubaland to ensure the renovation and sustenance of the physical structures of such shrines.
Current Trends—Same-Sex Marriage and the Place of Women
According to www.yorubareligion.org “Yoruba religion is against being homosexual/Lesbian. Ifa, which is the embodiment of Yoruba Traditional Religion does not sanction same sex marriage”. The website goes further to submit that “there is nowhere in odu Ifa-----------that relationship with the same sex is narrated”. In sharp contrast to this stance www.ifacollege.com sanctions homosexual/Lesbian relationships with the submission that “Ifa is not concerned about the biological sex of partners in a marriage, all that matters is the faithfulness and richness of each partner’s life and the marriage relationships”. Which of these positions is correct? Does Yoruba religion approve of same-sex marriage/relationships or not? The correct response to this question would be determined by the supposed content of Yoruba religion, what is Yoruba religion? Or better still, what was Yoruba religion? Again, what is Ifa? Is the content of Ifa susceptible to change in its mobility? If yes, is such a change in content or in interpretations?
A cursory examination of Ifa texts (256 chapters) shows that no record of same sex marriages existed among the Yoruba. However, since the concept of scriptural interpretation is dynamic and dependent on the interpreter’s lived experiences, same sex marriages like some other human practices which were alien to traditional Yoruba thought system have come to feature in the contemporary practice of Yoruba religion, and Ifa practice worldwide. Whether same sex marriages/relationships are sanctioned by Ifa or not would then become an issue of relativity rather than a rigid or monolithic analysis of scriptures, hence the debate continues.
The place of women in Yoruba religion in general and the practice of Ifa in particular are significant. With the cross-continental exposure of Ifa practice through the Internet, women’s position and roles has become even more pronounced. Ifa text presents an ambivalent portrait of women by providing narratives on negative and positive roles of women as wives, mothers and daughters. Women serve as custodians of traditions in Yoruba religion as well as serving as priestesses of Ifa (Iyanifa). In fact, the Yoruba worldview’s preference for gender balance compels that due recognition be given to women and this is exemplified in women’s roles in Ifa practice15.
It would be romantic to expect that the content of Ifa practice would remain static in a dynamic world. Nonetheless, correct education and appreciation of Yoruba worldview, which is composed of the people’s cosmological myth, ritual practices and philosophy is basic and crucial to understanding Ifa practice. This goes beyond learning Yoruba language. Whereas Yoruba language is important to understanding Yoruba religion and Ifa, such knowledge would prove inadequate if the people’s worldview is not countenanced. The imposition of concepts on Ifa practice should be discouraged. The onus of this rests with the Ifa priest/tesses in Yorubaland. Occasion of religious syncretisms are known to occur but where it happens with the practice of Ifa, it should exist under a different name. If Ifa practice is to remain relevant for all times as the Yoruba perceive it to be, then its practice should exhibit characteristics that are as near as possible to its original content.
The Internet serve as a tool of positive contribution to the spread and availability of information on Ifa worldwide. The effect of this is the evident increase in the number of adherents of Ifa in many different countries worldwide. Consequently, associations of solidarity for orisa worshippers and Ifa adherents are located on the Internet, an example is the OrisaWorld, which promotes “cooperation, understanding and excellence in a world where Orisa Tradition and culture plays a central role in the day-to-day lives of over one hundred million people”. OrisaWorld was founded in 1981 according to www.orisaworld.org the effect of the Internet on Ifa practice is basically centered on interpretations of text in a dynamic world hence the results have remained as diverse as the agendas. I would recommend that an attempt be made to place the major chapters (odu) of Ifa on the Internet in Yoruba Language. This effort would supply materials on text in its original language and thus centralize the materials to be interpreted.
Conclusively, the presence of Ifa on the Internet purports to confirm the dynamic nature of religion in an age of globalization. Similarly, it compels a continuous re-appraisal of Ifa practice but most especially of the interpreters of Ifa text, worldwide.
Abimbola, W. (1969) Ìjìnlè Ohùn Enu Ifá. Apa Keji, Glasgow: Collins
Abimbola, W. (1975) Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa Divination. UNESCO
Abiodun, R. (1994) The Yoruba Artist. Smithsonian Institute Press
Finnegan, R. (1970) Oral Literature in Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press
Olajubu, Oludare, (1987) “The Voice of the Artist: The Voice of the People” Inaugural Lecture, University of Ilorin, Ilorin, Nigeria
Olajubu, Oyeronke (2003) Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere. Albany, New York: Suny Press
Ray, B. (1976) African Religion. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
1 O. Olajubu (2003) Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere. Albany: Suny Press, p. 115
2 Fifteen websites were perused for the purpose of this paper; these include
3 W. Abimbola (1969) Ijinle Ohun Enu Ifa. London:Macmillan
4 W. Abimbola (1975) Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa Divination. UNESCO
5 Examples of such host are Baba-Awo Adigun Olosun (Germany) Chief Adedoja E. Aluko and Iyanifa Jolaoso Ogbe’fun (America). Some cooperate bodies also host sites like the worldwide Association for Traditional Religion. The Babalawos that I interacted with in Yorubaland and in the United Staes of America were favourable disposed to Ifa on the internet but prescribed caution to avert the activities of fraudsters. Examples of such Babalawo include- Adejare Adisa (the babasegun Abiwere Oke-Oloola, Oyo), Ifatunmibi Ifaleke (Ologun Compound, Osogbo), Famoriyo Agboola (The Akoda Awo of Oyo, Ile-Odoje, Oyo) and Iyanifa “Doyin Tala-Faniyi (Yeye Apesinola of Mosifa, Osogbo).
6 Examples of these include the power to bestow prosperity for which Osun goddess is known.
7 See www.africanspiritualmarket.com
8 The Novel and Film titled ROOTS, is being referred to here.
9 Baba Odu is Chief Adedoja E. Aluko (Akala Obatala of Ile-Ife, Osun State, Nigeria)
10 See www.cultural-expressions.com
11 A submission of Iyanifa Jolaoso Ogbe’fun on www.orisa.org/article
12 O.Olajubu (2003) p.85
13 Response to this question would constitute the focus of a future paper.
14 An example was the Orisa Conference held in August 2001 at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.
15 Please See-Olajubu, Oyeronke (2003) Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere. Albany, New York: Suny Press