Priest of Orunmila
Babalawo or Iyanifa (also Babaalawo in full, and pronounced Baba-a-lawo) is a Yoruba title that denotes a Priest of Orunmila, the Yoruba god or Orisha of Wisdom operating through Ifá, the divination system. Orunmila in the Yoruba tradition knows the past, present and future. The Babalawo as a Priest of Ifa can ascertain the future and how to deal with it through communication with Orunmila. This is done by consulting Ifa through the patterns of the chain (Opele) or sacred palm nuts called "ikin" on the traditionally wooden divination tray.
In Orisa worship (and its various expressions, Santeria, Lukumi, Anago, Indigene etc.) a Babalawo or "father, master of the mysteries" or Awo and is recognized as clergy, and acts as a community priest. Female Ifa priests are called Iyanifa. Awo is often used as a gender-neutral reference to individual Iyanifa or Babalawo as well as to the group. An Awo is a spiritual counselor to clients and those with whom he or she may have assisted in receiving tutelary Orisa shrines and/or initiated into the spiritual tradition of the Orisa.
On the other hand, in Cuba the position of Iyanifa as a divining priestess of Ifa is hotly contested on the grounds that in the Odu Ifa Ogunda Ka, no one can not 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 1800s. For instance, the Yoruba author James Johnson (Yoruba)" wrote in one of the most detailed early descriptions of Ifa, "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." (Johnson, James. Yoruba Heathenism. Exeter: J. Townsend Press, 1899).
William Bascom, the foremost academic authority on Ifa up until the time of his death, also states "only men can become babalawo" and never encountered a single female Ifa priestess acting as a diviner during any of his extensive field studies in the cities of Ife, Igana, Meko, Oyo, Ilesa, Abeokuta, Osogbo, Sagamu, Ilara, Ondo, Ijebu Ode or Ekiti in Yorubaland in 1937-38, 1950-51, in 1960 and 1965, nor did any of his informants mention such a thing.(Bascom, Dr. William. Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa. Bloomington Indiana: Indiana University Press)Therefore it appears to those that have not done their own research and training in Yorubaland in West Africa that the new role accorded the Iyanifa may likely be a relatively new invention among the Yoruba people, occurring only after 1969.
Awos undergo training in memorization and interpretation of the 256 Odu (the mysteries) and numerous verses (ese) of Ifa. Traditionally, the Babalawo usually have additional professional specialities. For instance, several would also be herbalists, while others would specialize in extinguishing the troubles caused by Ajogun.
The Babalawo are trained in determination of problems and the application of both spiritual and related secular solutions to these problems. Their primary function is to assist people in finding, understanding and processing life until they experience spiritual wisdom as a part of their daily experience.
The Awo is charged with helping people develop the discipline and character that supports such spiritual growth. This is done by identifying the client's spiritual destiny, or and developing a spiritual blueprint which can be used to support, cultivate and live out that destiny.
Because spiritual development of others is the charge of Awo, they must dedicate themselves to improving their own understanding of life and be proper examples for others. The Awo that does not hold his own behavior to the highest moral standards will falls out of favor with his or her Orisa community and is judged more harshly than others.
Some Awo are initiated as adolescents, while others learn as full adults. But training and years of dedication are still the hallmark of the most learned and spiritually gifted Awos. This is why on average most Ifa initiates train for as long as a decade before they are recognized as "complete" Babalawos. more
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