The powerful Babalawo of Ifa: shamanism and the matrix of life

Priests of Ifa gather at the palace to perform the rite of Ifa Adagba, Nigeria, August 1982. Photo by John Pemberton III.

“We write in every aspiration for truth, in thought and deed by day, and in soul struggles by night, the story of our desire for spiritual development. Upon the pages of the book of Karma are written the minutest particulars of individual efforts; when the feeble will is strong enough to prevent further births in this world, which is the spirit’s dream life, we shall find in real existence all the chapters that we have written in all our transitions. Only then will we be able to read the whole book through and know the nature of the long journey out of spirit through matter and back again to the All.” – An excerpt from a Theosophical doctrine.

As the days drift by and the evanescence of the seasons fade into the mysteries of nothingness, we are reminded of the transient nature given the life we live and all that is contained therein. Of tomorrow’s happenstance, who can know? Of the impersonal forces by whose beckon we are accorded the insight and guidance with which we gain traction on our muddied paths, how much of gratitude can we pay in recompense given the unconditional nature of the wisdom with which they employ in helping heal our over-grown ego?

Of the energy intelligence by whose creative endeavor flora and fauna have flourished and continue to evolve on our plane of existence, whose eyes can behold? Of the rise and fall of the Sun, of the changing phases of the Moon and of the vibrations underlying the mystic winds that have ferried our adventure-loving relatives to distant lands in search of love and inner joy, whose feet can keep up with their non-existent pace? Many are the questions surrounding the beautiful mystery called life.

Life, however, does not have to remain unto us a puzzling phantom, because if it does, it wouldn’t be worth the struggle embedded in living it. The problems and situations with which we are faced contain in them the respite of a freed salvation, our quota towards the liberation of our impersonal Self in the recognition of the vestiges bared by our trials lies in the willingness and humility required to elevate our senses to those unfettered heights.

There are persons walking amongst us who by virtue of the mysteries surrounding their birth are naturally aligned with dimensions higher than what our five senses permit our innate perceptive abilities. These are the ones who wield the key to unlocking the mysteries contained in all of our unanswered questions, aiding our vessels in their sojourn along the shoreless ocean of immutability. The Babalawo happens to be one of those select few whose innate abilities transcend what is offered by the average.

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A Babalawo in Nigeria — Photo: Faith & Belief by Jarred James Breaux

‘Babalawo’ is a highly revered pedigree of an Ifa high priest, a servant and mouthpiece of Orunmila in the Yoruba cultural tradition and pantheon. It means, among other equally reverent permutations; ‘The Father of Mysteries’.

The Babalawo acts as an intermediary between the living in the ‘Upper world’ on one hand, and the living in the ‘Lower world’ on the other hand, for in most Afrikan communities, the ones who have shed their flesh in the transition process others call ‘death’ are believed to be living nonetheless but in a world qualitatively different from ours. He is ‘called’ from an early age in life amongst his peers to tread the path of a ‘Seer’ because of the spiritual aptitude characteristic of his ethereal self. His work is always garnished with a deep-seated reverence for all who cross the path of his divine duty.

The Babalawo is by personality very generous and intelligent, with a marked capacity for memorizing endless volumes of information; the one who will wield the high title of ‘Babalawo’ is required by the duty entailed therein to retain in the storehouse of his memory 256 Odu. His divining is usually done with a divining chain called Opele, or palm nuts on a sacred divining tray named Opon Ifa. The Opele and the palm nuts represent the male principle, and the divining tray represents the female principle in the dual nature of things but most importantly, they are indicative of the Law of Opposites; which teaches that every noble creative process requires by virtue of creating, an interaction between the negative and the positive; their interactive energies which bring to us the manifested creative answers to some of our deep-seated questions.

The Babalawo’s ultimate will is to discover the will and purpose of Orunmila; one of the most powerful deities among the Yoruba pantheon.

The Odu is an unwritten literary corpus; stories representative of all circumstances contained within the motions of life. They hold in them happenstances from the past, evidence of the now and impeccably accurate predictions of the future in sub verses named ese. The Odu is unwritten because the Babalawos hold the belief that; that which is written so as to unburden the mind becomes dead in essence, whereas that which is held in the mind is perpetually renewed in mode and make by the creative energies of the mind and thus is of a living nature irrespective of how old it is given the duration of its occurrence sometime past in relation to present moment.

The powerful Babalawo of Ifa: shamanism and the matrix of life
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So, the individual who is called to take up the high duty of a Babalawo usually understudies a more advanced and experienced Babalawo, one who passes this oral literary corpus of a heritage containing primordial wisdom and insight to him a day at a time. This can take up to 20 years to accomplish, but the training and studies entailed given the role and title of a Babalawo continues throughout the life of the initiate, as he also serves as a source of Odu to add to the already existing ancient store by incorporating some of the life stories shared with him by his visitors.   

The 256 Odu is what I refer to as; the Matrix of Life, for there is nothing bound by the cords of life from the past, in the now, within the future or in the hereafter that commands the needed power to elude the confines of the absolute. There are 16 principal Odu and 240 minor Odu culminating in a total of 256 Odu. Each Odu contains verses which tell a story, and the appropriate Odu for the situation a Babalawo and his visitor may be faced with is determined using some precise mathematical algorithm based on the sciences of probabilities and binaries.

In the parlance of its adherents; “when the Odu falls, there is a story that comes with it.” The nature of this story will provide the spiritual information sought after by one who may be experiencing a Babalawo in his line of work, and it is an honour as well as noteworthy to mention that the ‘chosen’ Odu, as well as the predictive wisdom it carries, are always accurate, always!

The Babalawo is thus in effect and practice, a Shaman of African descent, and a very powerful one for that matter. He is bound by a code of conduct intrinsic to his line of work to be at peace and in harmony with members of all other religious sects, as his duty is to humanity and not members of his believing cohort. He is also a herbalist, a counsellor, a philosopher, a storyteller, a cosmologist and a philanthropist where he finds himself.

There have been, there is and there always will be forces higher than man in his current state, these forces are always benevolent, ready and willing to lead and guide man on his sojourn within the realm of Earth. The duty required of us is to quiet our apprehensions in the recognition of that fact and open up in humility to embrace the wisdom they have made available to us all around us, and the simple veracity that; we are not alone on our journey.

Those who seek after life’s deep waters will find within the rivers of their souls a dynamically potent shoreless ocean of immutability, always.

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: June 19, 2019


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