Ifá is both a religion and a system of divination that is practiced throughout the Americas—though it originally arrived in Cuba from West Africa, the Canary Islands, Azores and Madeira.
Ifá plays a critical role in the traditions of Santería, Candomblé, Palo, Umbanda, Vodou and other Afro-American faiths as well as forming an integral part within some traditional African religions.
Babaaláwo or Babalawo (meaning ‘father of the secrets’ in the Yoruba language) is a spiritual title that is conveyed upon a Priest of Ifá.
According to practicing Santeria High Priest Frank Baba Eyiogbe:
Ifá just may be the oldest and most powerful spiritual path in existence today. Breathtaking in its depth and scope, Ifá is as much a system of knowledge as it is of divination, philosophy, or religion.
Until recently, not a lot was known about either Ifá or Babalawo here in the West—mainly due to it being both secretive and a philosophy that is somewhat at odds with traditional spiritual or religious practices.
In Babalawo, Santeria’s High Priests: Fathers of the Secrets in Afro-Cuban Ifa, Frank Baba Eyiogbe seeks to redress this imbalance by revealing some of the key elements to the practice of Ifá as well as sharing his own challenging experiences while traveling the path towards becoming a Babalawo.
In opening his book, Eyiogbe reveals how he has been a practising Babalawo for eighteen years. He believes that he is one of the few Santería priests who practices Ifá and who truly understands its somewhat esoteric principles.
While Ifá divination is a comparatively simple process, the esoteric principles that it connects to are extremely complex being that it comprises 256 ‘odduns’ with each one containing an innumerable collection of mythic parables, proverbs, recommendations, and remedies.
The concepts that underpin Ifá are, in many ways, similar to those found within our Pagan traditions in that they recognize everything that exists in our World as being animated by a universal spiritual power. In Ifá, plants, animals, mountains, oceans, etc. are all believed to be conscious beings in their own right.
The Babalawos believe that each of these elements in life are controlled by the ‘Orichás’, or gods and goddesses. These deities are not considered to be abstract concepts as they are in many religions here in the West but are instead treated in exactly the same way as they would be if they were any other type of human being.
In this regard, the Babalawos seek to interact with the Orichás directly rather than worship them from a distance.
In his book, the author explains that Santería also differs from orthodox religion in that no set time is established for worshipping their deities. Instead, they consider every waking moment to be an important time spent in a state of constant engagement with their influence.
Divination forms an essential part of core Santería practice and there are two main forms used by Babalawos: the ‘Table of Ifá’ and the ecuele ‘The Orinmila’ who is the god or goddesses that oversee the principles of omniscience, wisdom, knowledge and divination.
The system itself utilizes a method of tapping into what is defined as a binary system—a form or structure that is said to underpin our universe and govern every event that occurs within it.
Of the two divination systems, the Table of Ifá is the more important of the two and is used only when deep divinatory questions require answering.
The eceule system is comprised if eight disks on a chain and is used in more mundane or day-to-day consultations.
While the Ifá system is apparently very old, Eyiogbe explains how its core principles accurately reflect many of our modern scientific principles. Indeed, It embraces concepts regarding life and our universe that we use when explaining Quantum Physics whilst the binary method of analysis that underpins Ifá is exactly the same system that is used in modern computer code.
In chapter two of Babalawo, the author reveals in greater detail how the Ifá system works and how it is practiced.
This is followed by a look at the work of the Babalawo him or her self and highlights the strong set of moral and ethical principles that each pacticising priest must demonstrate. Here, the author reveals the nature of the many years of hard work that is required to be undertaken before a priest is ready for initiation into the religion.
Throughout the book, the history of the religion and how it spread around the world is as interesting as the religion itself.
The author traces its roots back to the south-western region of Nigeria, from where Yoruba slaves brought the religion to the New World in the 1770s and 1820s.
At some point around this later date, it was introduced into Cuba, where the Babalawos also established the art of African drumming. Later on, the religion found its way across to Florida and, in 1970, the first Babalawos were initiated on US soil.
Following an extensive look at the somewhat turbulent history of Santeria as a growing and rapidly expanding religion, the author then unravels its pantheon of gods, goddesses and powers.
One of the most important deities is Echu—a a force that acts for both good and bad and which is similar in nature to the Western archetype of the Trickster. Due to his sense of randomness, Echu also plays a large part in the Ifá divination.
Other important orichas or deities include Orula, the god of wisdom, knowledge and divination; Osun the messenger of Orula, a sort of messenger of ill fortune; Osun, the oricha of plants and their magic; Olokun who rules the depths of the seas; Oddua who presides over the secrets of life and death, and Ori the creator who is your own personal creator and who rules over every aspect of your life.
The author describes the role of your own ori as governing
…your talents, your personality, everything you are, and everything you are going to be.
Later on, the author shares with his reader some of the questions that he is asked from those who are interested in finding out more about Santeria
Once again, he re-enforces the fact that this is not an easy path to follow and that it is one that requires intense dedication and a deep commitment. He also answers questions related to the nature of the ceremonies, the initiation of a Babalawo. For those readers looking for a deeper understanding of the Ebbo, he reveals something of the sacrifices and offerings that need to be made to the deities.
In a later chapter, the author returns to the subject of Ifá, the Santeria divination system. He explains a little more about how it works and the role of the 256 Odduns from which it is formed.
The author explains that
…each Oddun has its own nature and personality… and that
by knowing and using the right keys to unlock the power of that oddun, a babalawo can affect any of the things ruled by the oddun.
Ache and balance are the two interlocking principles that underpin Ifás effectiveness. They form the basis of Ifa philosophy.
Ache is the power that underpins all things in the Universe. Having it determines your personal luck, talents and accomplishments. It is accessed through rituals and offerings.
Balance is the process of maintaining a working knowledge of the forces of black and white, good and evil in life.
The Santeria system does not view these things as opposing forces in life but a path through contradictory powers. While the condition of balance is considered to be important, so is the instability brought about through imbalance for this is deemed necessary to bring about forward motion in the World.
The Santeria religion recognizes both feminine and masculine powers in the World. Thus, the role that females play in bringing feminine power into Ifá is considered vital. Indeed, they also bring uniquely important roles and offer important opportunities for the manifestation of oricha power in a ceremony.
However, the author does point out that the role of women is not always recognized by all practitioners of the religion—though he does say that this attitude is changing.
The book closes with ‘One Babalawos Story’—a story that features an account of the author’s introduction to becoming a Babalawo during a consultation that he was given in a Santeria supply store in San Fransisco’s Mission District.
During the consultation, he was told that it was his destiny to become a babalawo himself. That night, he experienced a vivid dream in which he was surrounded by a large group of Santeros, all of whom were saluting him. The prediction had been sealed and the result was his eventual initiation into the religion.
The book closes with a notes section, a glossary of terms, a bibliography and an index.
I ought to say before sharing my impressions of this publication that I originally approached it knowing very little about Babalowo, Ifá or of Santería. I am reviewing the book from this perspective.
The question is: ‘Does the book work as an introduction to the Santería religion and its practice?’
My immediate answer to this is a resounding yes but I appreciate that this book might not work for everyone—or anyone—who already has a firm understanding of this rich esoteric tradition.
To a Western mind such as my own, I must say that I initially found this to be quite a difficult book to read and somewhat challenging to understand. It took several attempts to wade through it and yet I still could not fathom what was being said. (This, I must make clear, is down to my own ignorance of the subject and is not a reflection of the author’s excellent writing style!)
In the end, I spent a little time learning the basic meaning behind some of the keywords and their related core philosophies of the Santeria religion (the glossary of terms at the back of the book was invaluable!).
Armed with a little knowledge of the basics and a much clearer understanding of what was being asked of me as a reader, I found that, little by little, the mist started to rise and the publication began to reveal its riches.
To a large degree, the book focuses upon the life and experiences of its author: his work as a Santeria High Priest and the way that he uses its Ifá divination system. In this regard, it is a personalized account of a complex subject seen through the eyes of someone who was seemingly drawn into its secrets by accident.
The author manages to avoid bogging his reader down with the minutiae of his religion and, instead, presents a more general flavour of its principles—philosophies that I can only liken to those of the Pagan traditions of the West—but even then this does not adequately describe the religion’s unique approach to their deities.
I found his description of the religion’s various facets and philosophies to be extremely well presented throughout and, between them, they weave a colorful tapestry of a form of spiritual thinking that we have sadly lost in the West.
For me, however, it is the section of the book that describes the mechanics behind the Ifá divination system that is the most astounding.
In what can only loosely be called a fortune-telling system, this simple way of engaging with the wisdom and intent of the Universe will have profound implications for anyone seeking confirmation of our rapidly-growing scientific and metaphysical belief that our universe is nothing more than one gigantic computer—one that, rather ironically, relies upon a simple two-stage or binary state to operate.
It is perhaps of little wonder that the author is able, through his divination work, to obtain such accurate and insightful answers to even the most complex of questions!
In the end, I finished this book feeling that I had just experienced something of a deeply profound and of vitally significant importance. It was, for me, a book that left me with a satisfying sense that I had indeed been rewarded for the initial time and effort that I spent in understanding its content.
If you are seeking a deeper and more authentic form of religious teaching as well as insight into a divination system that makes most of our most popular Western methods look slightly quaint and old-hat, I would whole-heartedly recommend that you check out ‘Babalawo’. It certainly opened my eyes!
In Babalawo, Frank Baba Eyiocbe offers a uniquely fascinating look at Santeria and his work as one of its High Priests. It is a richly-rewarding book—one that opens up exciting new paths of spiritual insight and revelation to the Western mind.