There is the spirit of nature, the spirit of the river, the spirit of the mountain. There is the spirit of the animals, of the water, the spirit of the ancestors. Spirit is everywhere.
–African oral tradition
Ifa – An African Spiritual Tradition
Ifa is an indigenous, earth centered African spiritual tradition which was conceptualized by the Yoruba people of Nigeria, West Africa. According to oral literature, the practice of Ifa originated as far back as eight thousand years ago. Therefore, Ifa may indeed be the oldest monotheistic religion in the world.
Ifa is balanced on three legs; Olodumare (Creator), Orisa (Nature Spirits), and the Ancestors.
The Supreme Being, Olodumare, is without gender and is not an active participant in the affairs of living humans. Olodumare is benevolent and has provided a Universe with all that is needed for humans to be fulfilled and happy.
Ifa is characterized by a deep sense of the interdependence of all life. “Every life form and element of Nature has an inner soul force – including rivers, rocks, clouds, metals, flowers, thunder, and the wind. These natural energies that comprise the Universe are called Orisa (“oh – ree – sha”). Each Orisa has its own specific function. Humans are in constant communication with Orisa energy, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Through Ifa, we recognize that our Ancestor spirits are always with us and must be honored, acknowledged and consulted. All people are born good and with a destiny meant to develop their character (Iwa-pele). Divination was given to us so that we could periodically check in to make sure we are staying in balance and following the path of our destiny. The mysteries and teachings of Ifa revealed in divination are contained in a body of scriptures called Odu.
Ifa practitioners do not regard their spirituality as a “religion” in the Western sense. It is instead a way of relating to spiritual energy that helps individuals discover and stay on their path (as opposed to “The Path”). The tradition is based on staying in balance with our community and with the world itself, with our ancestors and our personal spiritual energies. Practitioners are encouraged to employ common sense and personal responsibility, to appreciate the sacred in everyday life, and to integrate all aspects of being, namely the physical, the emotional, the mental and the spiritual.
We believe that everyone alive on the planet is the descendant of a single East African woman. This idea is supported by genetics. Therefore, in a very real sense, we are all African.
Though its roots are African, Ifa is a world religion. Its adherents are male and female, gay, straight and transgender, and of every race and mixture under the Sun. One can partake of the benefits and blessings of Ifa’s teachings without being a disciple of the tradition.
Like other non-western religions, Ifa has been misinterpreted, distorted and suppressed here in the West. While other non-Abrahamic traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, or the Tao are (with varying degrees of comprehension) acknowledged and respected, African spiritual traditions are often dismissed and ridiculed by the society at large. Although other spiritual traditions, such as those practiced in Hawai’i and Native America, have been similarly marginalized, those originating in Africa have been particularly misunderstood. Whenever the subject of an African religion does arise, it is usually as a metaphor for the opposite of everything considered good about Western religion.
Many assume that African spirituality is nothing more than a collection of simple-minded superstitions. These assumptions are often based on the actions of some Western practitioners of African derived traditions, who persist in following a fear based system. These practices took root from the time when the knowledge of African spirituality first arrived the New World in the hearts and minds of African people brought here to be made into slaves. During those tragic days, if the religion were to survive at all, it had to be practiced in secret, hidden behind Christian icons. These secret practices became a necessary part of keeping African traditions from being completely destroyed in this part of the world.
In responding to the realities of life in the West, African spiritual traditions subsequently have been abused by some priests and priestesses who, in their willingness to use sacred energy to control and frighten others, are no different from their counterparts in other religions. There are also those who insist on keeping our tradition undercover. Keeping our practices invisible adds to the inability of non-practitioners to see who really are, teachers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, moms and dads, small business owners, engineers, and other normal people.
African spirituality, in its essence, celebrates the oneness that exists between the Creator and the Creation.
The breath of God is in all.
It is the view of Ifa that all things on earth, and in our entire universe, are conscious and alive. Everything possesses its own awareness and energy. These infinite, natural energies that comprise the universe are called Orisa. Each has its own specific function and its own myriad aspects, as well as its own unique name. Modern people have likened Orisa to Gods, or anthropomorphic forces with human-like characteristics; however, we understand that Orisa consciousness is Divinity revealed through Nature. It is the energy of the forest (Ogun), of the ocean (Yemonja), of the wind (Oya); of opportunity (Esu), of love (Osun), of peace (Obatala) and of war (Sango); of everything found under, and beyond, the Sun.
All human beings are in continuous contact with the Orisa. Our bodies and senses are constantly conversing with energy, whether we realize it or not. Much can be learned from honoring this connection and paying attention to the way Orisa work in the universe. Each energy serves its own unique part while still maintaining perfect balance with the whole. Through observing and communicating with Orisa, we come to realize that human beings do play this same active and significant role in the universe. Orisa shows us exactly how the energy of our actions and our thoughts affect not only our own lives, but the lives of everyone and everything around us.
There are an infinite number of Orisa operating in the universe, yet we can break them down into seven basic complexes; Esu, Obatala, Yemonja/Olokun, Ogun, Oya, Sango, and Osun.
Esu is the Orisa of Opportunity. It is seen as such because, as an unpredictable and ever-changing energy, this Orisa possesses the ability to move about freely undetected, easily finding its ways into nooks and crannies that others cannot fit into. In the Diaspora, the energy has often been likened to that of a youth – mischievous, delightful, watchful and alert, with an uproarious sense of humor. Those who embody this energy often seem to operate with a buoyancy and diversity that sets them “apart from it all.” It is impossible to box in the energy of Esu.
Esu is also the energy of the Divine Messenger, taking communications back and forth between Earth (the marketplace) and Heaven (home). For this reason, Orisa Esu is the first to receive our prayers and offerings in ceremony. Without the road between Heaven and Earth open, our prayers merely land in the place where they are spoken. Esu is the trailblazing force that can carry our prayers and offerings where they need to go.
Esu opens paths, doors and roads to provide us with opportunity. This energy also protects us by shutting down those paths and roads that are not good for us.
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Obatala is the Orisa of peace. Known as an ancient energy, it embodies the patience, clarity of mind and wisdom that can only be attained through thoughtfulness and careful and sober consideration. Thus, Obatala is also associated with the concept of justice. Those operating in this Orisa’s field are often highly intelligent and extremely thoughtful, possessing lofty yet realistic ideals. They are reserved and fair. They are the observers and intellectuals among us who strive for peace, truth and clarity above all else.
Obatala as expressed in traditional Yoruba culture is always associated with the color white, which is a combination of all colors in the spectrum and stands for purity and light. One seeks out this Orisa when in need of clarity, calm and inner wisdom.
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The Yemonja/Olokun matrix is a complex manifested by the ocean and is made up of two distinct characteristics: Yemonja is at the surface, exposed to light, and is subjected to the pull of the Moon. Olokun is beneath, dark and mysterious. They cannot exits without each other.
Yemonja is the care-taking energy. Yemonja deals less with creation and more with nurturing. While Osun conceives, Yemonja sustains. It is the energy of strength which will support our lives by bringing us what we most need – for there can be no life without water.
Yemonja energy is most present in people who are warm, giving, sensitive and kind. However, the Orisa also exudes a strong sense of mystery, as all of its secrets can not be comprehended.
Yemonja is the spirit of the Ocean, and much can be learned by observing the rhythm of the tides, which are in constant motion. These represent emotion and the subconscious. The pull of the Moon reminds us of something that is far and yet far-reaching. Although we may lament the mystery of the depths that can never be fully known, Yemonja offers the comfort and assurance that all things needed to sustain life are contained within.
Yemonja/Olokun is a giant mirror that reflects the sky. It is connected with the core of the earth. It is also what connects us with each other all over the world.
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Ogun is the spirit of dynamic creativity. Often associated with the blacksmith or metal worker, Ogun is the energy of focus and work that brings our tools into form. It is associated with the “Type A” personality, as those in alignment with Ogun often possess an incredibly fierce work ethic and tireless energy. Ogun is the energy that decides to do something and doesn’t stop until that task is completed.
The energy of Ogun can clear away blockage at any level.
We can learn more of Orisa Ogun from its relationship with Iron. The Iron Age was the beginning of humankind’s quantum leap into technology, which has helped us progress into the modern era. This Orisa is also associated with the spirit of the forest – a fecund and complex ecosystem full of medicines and organisms that sustain themselves and each other. Ogun provides us with the tools, creative ideas, and the sheer force of will that are needed to evolve and achieve our goals.
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Oya is the Orisa of sudden change. Drastic transformation is Oya’s rightful territory, and for this reason the Orisa is linked greatly with death. Associated with the whirlwind, tornado and lightning, Oya is the energy that can reverse luck at any moment, bringing with it either wealth and blessings, or destruction and chaos. Oya is the energy of the marketplace, where fortunes are lost and won. On the converse of loss, even from chaos all things grow – and so this Orisa is always sought out for support and blessings whenever change or something beyond our control is imminent or already occurring.
Oya is the Orisa of the warrior. An energy both fearless and knowing, Oya fights against any perceived injustice. Orisa Oya’s children have often developed stronger survival skills than most, due to having endured much suffering in life. This allows them to be familiar with the shadow side, and those aligned with Oya are often perceived to be magical. However, past trials and tribulations also enable those associated with this Orisa to express its more empathetic aspects, for Oya is the energy that will provide for an individual what will most serve them, though it may not always be what is easiest.
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Sango is the energy of strategy . Bold, adventurous, confident and brilliant, Sango encompasses all that is associated with fire. Those aligned with Sango energy are usually very charismatic and extremely effective strategists. Resonating with the Orisa of Fire, those governed by Sango have the uncanny ability to gather people and forces to them, and are very magnetic and usually outspoken individuals.
Sango is also the Orisa of war, where assuming a position of both strategy and authority plays a major role. This Orisa is the energy of mobilization of force and the unwavering conviction of purpose. Orisa Sango calls forth the fiery strength, enormous confidence, and able leadership needed to push forward in the face of adversity, as well as the capacity to fully enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.
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Osun is the energy of attraction on all levels. It is through this Orisa that abundance, fertility, laughter and lightness are called forth. Osun attracts love, sexuality, joy and prosperity. It is the energy of harmony and song, as beauty in all its forms comes through this Orisa. It enables conception in any manifestation, from a child in the womb to the stroke of genius that sparks a fruitful business endeavor or partnership. Osun brings joy. Those in alignment with Osun are often perceived to be open, happy, emotional and social beings.
Symbolized by the sweet waters, Osun demonstrates the power of love itself. Just as a river traverses roots, boulders, curves, and miles of obstacles to reach its destination, love will let nothing stop it from achieving its purpose.
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