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In the Yoruba religion, Orunmila is the Orisha of wisdom, knowledge and divination worshiped principally in West Africa, Cuba, Brazil and the United States. This source of knowledge is believed to have a keen understanding of the human form and of purity, praised as being often more effective than other remedies; his followers and priests are known as Babalawo.

Mythical Orunmila[edit]

Among West Africans, Orunmila is recognized as a primordial Irunmole that was present both at the beginning of Creation and then again amongst them as a priest that taught an advanced form of spiritual knowledge and ethics, during visits to earth in physical form or through his disciples.

In Yoruba mythology, Orunmila is the spirit of wisdom among the Irunmole and the divinity of destiny and prophecy. He is "Ibikeji Olodumare" (second in command to Olodumare and "eleri ipin" (witness of fate). Orunmila is also referred to as Agbonniregun, the embodiment of knowledge and wisdom of Ifá.

In the Santeria/Lukumi diaspora in present-day Cuba, Orunmila is known as Orula & Orunla which are not as commonly used in Africa. Orunmila is also known as Ifá and is referred to by that name in a number of Ifá verses, though some claim Ifá only refers to the method of divination. It was also Orunmila who carried Ifá (the wisdom of Olodumare) to Earth. Priests of Ifá are called babalawo (elder of the confraternity) or Iyanifa (female Ifá priest).

Orunmila is considered a sage, recognizing that Olodumare placed Ori (intuitive knowledge) as prime Orisha. It is Ori who can intercede and affect the reality of a person much closer than any Orisa. For this reason it is important to consult with the Babalawo to know one's direction and the wish of one's Ori.


Orunmila prononced Ọrunmila. It is generally accepted that this is a derivative of sort. Also known as Ela or Elasoode (Ela ties Ide on), one angle suggests that the ancient scholars interpreted as based on the verb "la". Explaining the meaning as "Ọlòrún-mọ-Ẹ̄la" (God knows Ẹ̄la).° Another, suggests that the name is derived from the phrase "Orun-ni-o mo eni-ma-la" (only heaven can identify the saved).

Priesthood and initiation[edit]

Awo in every tradition study the 256 Odù; each Odù is an extraordinarily vast collection of knowledge, including stories and prayers that have been passed down from the time that Orunmila walked the Earth as a prophet, usually said to be about 5,000 years ago.

Some initiatory lineages have only male priests of Orunmila, while others include both genders. The term "Awo" is a gender-neutral title for an initiated priest of Orunmila. The debate surrounding gender is a result of diversity in the many layers of history in various locations. In some areas of Yorubaland and in Cuba, only men become full priests of Orunmila (sometimes nicknamed "Orula" in Cuban lineages), other places in Africa the priesthood has always been open to women (although female awo Ifa are relatively uncommon). In many non-Cuban lineages female Awo Ifa are becoming common. On the other hand, in Cuba and parts of Nigeria such as Ode Remo, Ijebuland and Ibadan, the position of the Iyanifa as a divining priestess of Ifa is hotly contested on the grounds that in the Ifa Odus Ogunda Ka and Oshe Yekun, no one can become a full Awo Ifa without the presence of Odun, and in the Odu Ifa Irete Ntelu (Irete Ogbe), Odun herself says that she would only marry Orunmila if he promised not to permit women to be in the same room as her. These views appear to be confirmed by books published in Nigeria as far back as the 19th century. For instance, the eminent Yoruba author James Johnson wrote in one of the most detailed early descriptions of Ifa that "Whenever this should be the case, a woman would receive from a Babalawo only one Ikin or Consecrated Palm nut called Eko, which she would carry about her body for her protection, and whenever divination should recommend and prescribe to her sacrifice to Ifa, she would, for the time being, hand over her Eko either to her husband or to her brother, or any other male relative according to prescription, who would include it in his own Ikins for the purpose of the worship and sacrifice in which she would participate." [1] William Bascom, the foremost academic authority on Ifá among the Yoruba up until the time of his death, conducted extensive field work Yorubaland in 1937-38, 1950–51, and as late as 1960 and 1965. This field work was conducted in a large number of areas of Yorubaland including the cities of Ife, Igana, Meko, Oyo, Ilesa, Abeokuta, Osogbo, Sagamu, Ilara, Ondo, Ijebu Ode or Ekiti in Yorubaland. At no time during this prolonged series of studies did Dr. Bascom encounter a female Ifá priest or an informant who had heard of such a thing leading him to state unequivocally that “only men can babalawos."[2] Sources from Yorubaland going back to the mid-19th century clearly state that only men can become Ifa diviners.[3] It has been argued that women do not need to receive Odù because all women already have Odù which is represented by the womb of women, but this is the theological equivalent to saying men already have Ifá because they have male parts. Several Odù Ifá mandate that women do not see nor receive Odù (Calabash of Existence), and any claims that it can be given are easily dispelled; Ifá stanzas cite several reasons and occasions why. Odù is associated mainly with the force of creation as a gateway between the physical world and metaphysical world for the transfer of divine knowledge and messages. Throughout Cuba and some of the broader Santeria diaspora, Orula can be received by individuals regardless of gender. For men, the procedure is known as receiving "Awofaca" or "Mano de Orula" and for women, it is "Kofa." The same procedure exists in Yoruba land, with "ese n'taye" (birthing rites), "Ise'fa" (adolescent initiation rites) and "Ite'fa" (consecration of the paraphernalia of Ifá practice). Worshipers of the traditional religious philosophy of the Yoruba people all receive one hand of Ifá (called Isefa) regardless of which Orisa they may worship or be an Orisa priest. It is that same Isefa that will direct all followers to the right path and their individual destinies in life.

Iwa (Character) is one of the most important human endeavor taught within Ifa literary corpus and every Ifa stanza (ancient poetic verse) has one portion dedicated to the issue of teaching the Iwa (Character/Behaviour) that Ifa supports. This Iwa, which Ifa teaches transcend religious doctrine is central to every human being, and imparts communal, social & civic responsibility that the Creator (Olodumare) supports. Central to this is the theme of righteousness[4] and practicing good moral behaviour, not seeking for it in the community but becoming the Ambassador of Iwa (Character).

The Yoruba believe in the duality in life: males exist because of the female essence and females exist because of the male essence, so every major rite or ceremony includes both genders. The traditional religious point of view includes similar privileges accorded to women as priestesses of Ifá and women's societies. A woman priestess is known as Iyanifa, Iyalaja, Iya Agba and Iyalase.

Female titles[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Johnson, James. Yoruba Heathenism. Exeter: J. Townsend Press, 1899
  2. ^ Bascom, Dr. William. 'Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa. Bloomington Indiana: Indiana University Press
  3. ^ Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba, by John Peel. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000
  4. ^ Ifaloju , Iwòrì Méjì: Ifá speaks on Righteousness, (an extract from S.S. Popoola, Ifa Dida, Library, INC) 2011


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