The Babalawo are the trained dedicated Ifa priests and diviners in the Yoruba community of Nigeria. In Yoruba traditional society, a Babalawo is a ‘doctor’, a ‘pharmacist’, a herbalist and the most popular diviner who the people’ consult for advice, guidance and medical treatment.
When a pregnant woman is under labor, when a person is seriously sick or when there is a breakout of epidemic disease, the Babalawos help is sought personally or on behalf of the victim. It should however be noted that the Babalawos unique position in the Yoruba society is neither attained through lineage or honor. The status of a Babalawo can only be acquired after many years of rigorous training and experiences. The detail on training follows later.
At any point in time, no practicing Babalawo divines without using either the opele (the divining chain) or the ikin (the sacred palmnut). The use of these instruments would enable him, to know, the nature of his client’s problem. The diviner relies on the dictate of the gods. The diviner therefore serves as a link between two worlds: the ephemeral and eternal, the material and the spiritual. Just as a medical doctor always takes with him a stethoscope, a technician has a screwdriver and pliers ready with him for an emergency work, a Babalawo pockets his portable opele when he is invited to a nearby town or village for divine consultation.
There are two major categories of Babalawo in Yorubaland: the- Awo Olodu and the Awo Elegan. The Awo Olodu (the devoted Ifa diviners) are the most recognized and the most knowledgeable class of Babalawo in the Yoruba society of Nigeria. They are not only the diviners but also the worshippers of Orunmila, the god of divination and wisdom.
The Awo Elegan on the other hand, are those Babalawo who are not fully engaged in Ifa divination. These consist of the Agbamole and Sawosesegun. The Agbamole are the set of Babalawo who either inherited the divining chain or are partially trained in the art of Ifa divination but uninitiated into Ifa cult. When this class of Babalawo feel like doing so, they can divine for themselves or any member of their family, but never an outsider.
The area of specialization attached to Ifa literature include the Ifa divination art, healing and chanting of Iyere (the ifa songs). A Babalawo may specialize in one or two of the areas. The Sawosesegun, the second sub-category of Awo Elegan mentioned above, are those Babalawo with combined honor degrees in Ifa literature. They combine divination with healing of serious illnesses such as leprosy, epilepsy and mental disorder. Usually, they are more popular as a healer than a diviner. Chief idowu Obayomi (alias Afinju Babalawo) of Ijagba compound, Sagamu in Ogun State of Nigeria and late Aladokun of Ikirun Oyo State of Nigeria are two examples of Asawosesegun.
To whichever category of Babalawo one may belong, the code of conduct which binds them all must be preserved. A Babalawo is always generous, faithful, Knowledgeable, and a good traditional counselor to the members of his community. A Babalawo in discharging his duty, always believes he has an obligation to fulfill in respect of his client (s) and this he does willingly.
The Babalawo are highly respected, not only for their wisdom and intelligence but also for their faithfulness and generosity to the members of the society. Under normal circumstances, no one insults or fights with them.
Mo ru eewo orisa,
I say it is a taboo to the orisa,
Enikan o gbodo na babalawo,
No one beats an Ifa priest,
To ba gbofa yanranyanran lotu Ife
Who is Very Versed in Ifa in the city of Ife.
Generally, every Babalawo knows his rights and also keeps the law of the land. A Babalawo by his training and practice is prepared to advise and guide anybody who consults him. He knows something about the life and teaching of Orunmila and when he divines for his clients, he interprets only the message of Orunmila.
Whatever may be the problem or complaint of a client is no secret to Orunmila and any trained and certificated Babalawo should be able to read the language of Orunmila through the Odu signs. But if a Babalawo does not receive a proper training, he may have some problems in interpreting Odu sign and thus deliver wrong message to the client. In such a circumstance, the clients whose faith in Ifa divinity is not strong enough may complain of its inability to foresee all things.
Ope (Orúnmila) is not dishonest,
Oniki ni o gbofa,
It is the chanter who is not versed in Ifa,
Ohun a ba b’Ifa.
Whatever we ask Ifa
Nifa i so.
Is what Ifa reveals.
If this happens, it is the Babalawo who has “misrepresented the divinity. Anyone who has successfully passed through the rigors of Ifa training would be able to identify the problem of his clients. The Babalawo should base his expertise on the training he has acquired. Those who use charms to find out the hidden problems of their clients are not true Babalawo and in fact, they are not fit to be one. This class of Babalawo (if any), are being dishonest, and they pay dearly for it.
It is highly essential that one who’ aspires to be an Ifa priest (Babalawo) receives adequate training from a versed and experienced Babalawo that he may be able to meet the responsibilities of the important positions in which he would later find himself in the community. While in training, the would -be Babalawo would be taught the Odu signs and commit to memory a great number of ese Ifa (stories) associated with the Odu starting with Ejiogbe (the first Odu in the corpus). After the mastery of the required stories in each of the sixteen principal Odu, he proceeds to the stories in the minor Odu. The study of ese Ifa require deep concentration, otherwise the trainee will be wasting time in repeating the stories of an Odu several times.
In his work, Abimbola (1976:18-24) describes the system of training and initiation of a would-be Babalawo. Nevertheless there are some other facts worth knowing for, understanding fully the process of training of a would-be Babalawo. Before a trainee lays his hand on anything, divination has to be performed for him in order for him to know the Odu which is destined for him.
The Babalawo usual terms for this notion is ‘Odu to bi enikan’ which literally means the Odu which gives birth to someone (the trainee in this case). It is this Odu which will guide the master Babalawo the way to treat the person in training. The trainee begins his education with the identification of the signature of each of the sixteen principal Odu and essentially the Opele is the major instructional materials for the purpose.
The Opele used for the training is made from pieces of calabash (paaakara) which looks inferior to the usual Opele the Babalawo use for divination. The process of studying the signs of Odu is referred to as Sisi Opele (the opening of Opele). This term derives from the fact that the master-Babalawo uses his hand to form the pattern of each Odu when teaching his students. It must be noted that it is only the principal Odu that are learned this way.
After a trainee has mastered the signs of the sixteen Odu, he would be examined by his master and perhaps in the company of a few fellow Babalawo. The performance of the trainee would determine whether or not he would proceed to the minor Odu.
Assuming that the trainee has displayed mastery over the principal Odu he starts learning the minor Odu (beginning from the first minor Odu-Ogbeyeku). His master now uses the method casting the Opele to teach him. With the Opele, any Odu can emerge and in this case the trainee does not only learns the minor Odu but also revises the principal Odu. A trainee learns better by understanding his master as he (the master) divines for various clients. The trainee learns the correct stories to each Odu and the correct tone which distinguishes ese Ifa from all other poetic arts as esa and Ijala among the Yoruba.
In addition, to his knowledge of Ifa, and the process of divination, an aspiring Babalawo must know the appropriate sacrifice for each Odu. He must also acquire a vast amount of herbal and pharmaceutical lore with its accompanying repertoire of charms and incantation. It therefore follows that those who ultimately qualify as full practicing Babalawo are men of some intellectual strength and judgment. Above all, the Babalawo is not only an artist but the custodian of Yoruba cultural heritage.
One has to learn and commit to memory the 256 Odu with the endless stories connected with them and the practical application of the stories. He should also learn to prescribe appropriate sacrifice and medicinal preparation. All these are the skills which take much time, patience and energy. Furthermore, a would-be Babalawo or diviner does not stop studying once his apprenticeship is complete and he has begun to practice on his own. He continues to learn new verses and medicine from his teacher and other Babalawo or diviners. In effect, the period of studying ese Ifa never ends. A diviner keeps on learning until he dies.
There is no doubt, the Babalawo are very intelligent but they do not claim to know everything. Bascom (1969) describes the Babalawo as the best, organized and most knowledgeable, magico-religious sect of the country. When a Babalawo is in search of knowledge, he could consult any other Babalawo, old or young. Even when Orunmila was alive, he once sought knowledge from one of his children.
Agba to moyi ko.moyi,
The elder who knows one thing may not know the other,
A diafun Qnmmila,
Performed Ifa divination for Orunmila
Ti yoo si tun kdfa lodo
Who would still learn Ifa from Amosun, one of his
The excerpt above shows how humble and ambitious the Babalawo are. No true Babalawo pretends to know everything. He is always prepared to learn more anywhere and from anybody. It is a common attitude of the Babalawo that they are always prepared to teach Ifa to anyone at any time.
When one wants to acquire some knowledge on Ifa corpus, he approaches a Babalawo and tells him. The Babalawo will readily impart the knowledge.
If a group of Babalawo assembles for a meeting, a festival or certain ceremony where there is a need to chant ese lfa, each member (beginning from the youngest Babalawo) chants, recites or sings ese Ifa which is appropriate to the situation or an Odu which emerged. But if a Babalawo who is called upon does not know certain portion of Ifa he would state frankly that he has forgotten or that he has no idea of that particular aspect (for Ifa mythology stories are so numerous that no single person can claim to know all). This is why the Babalawo say ‘aboruboye, o ya ju iro lo’ (confession of one’s ignorance is better and more honorable than pretence).
Tags: orunmila, odu, babalawo, ifa priest, ikin, opele, ese ifa, opon ifa, awo elegan