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Proverbs

Ifa says:
'A Strong Man with No Forethought Is Lazy'

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Yoruba Fokelore

The Three Magicians

A CERTAIN King had engaged in a series of wars, during which he employed three magicians or medicine-men to make charms for him, so that he might destroy his enemies.

At the end of the war these three magicians came to the King and humbly asked to be allowed to return home. The King foolishly refused, and at this the magicians said:

We asked your permission out of courtesy, O King, but we can very easily depart without it.

Thereupon the first magician fell down on the ground and disappeared. The second threw a ball of twine into the air, climbed up the thread and disappeared likewise. The third magician, Elenre, remained standing.

It is your turn to disappear, said the King, trembling with anger, or I will slay you.

You cannot harm me, replied the magician.

At this the King ordered him to be beheaded, but the sword broke in two, and the executioners arm withered away. The King then ordered him to be speared, but the spear crumpled up and was useless. An attempt was made to crush the magician with a rock, but it rolled over his body as lightly as a childs ball.

The King then sent for the magicians wife and asked her to reveal his secret charm. At last the woman confessed that if they took one blade of grass from the thatched roof of a house, they could easily cut off his head with it.

This was done, and the magicians head rolled off and stuck to the Kings hand. It could not by any means be removed. When food and drink was brought to the King, the head consumed it all, so that the King seemed likely to die.

Magicians were hastily summoned from all over the kingdom, but the head laughed at all their charms and remained fast.

Finally came one who prostrated himself before the head and cried out:

Who am I to oppose you, great Elenre? I come only because the King commands me.

To this Elenre replied:

You are wiser than all the rest! and the head fell at once to the ground, where it became a flowing river, which to this day is called Odo Elenre, or Elenres river.

The magicians wife was likewise changed into a river, but because she had betrayed him, Elenre commanded the river not to flow, and it became instead a stagnant pool.

Ifa Related

Ifa

Ifa, god of divination, who is usually termed the God of Palm Nuts, because sixteen palm-nuts are used in the process of divination, The name Ifa apparently means something scraped or wiped off: he has the title of Gbangba (explanation, demonstration, proof). Ifa’s secondary attribute is to cause fecundity: he presides at births, and women pray to him to be made fruitful; while on this account offerings are always made to him before marriage, it being considered a disgrace not to bear children. To the native mind there is no conflict of function between Ifa and Obatala, for the former causes the woman to become pregnant, while the latter forms the child in the womb, which is supposed to be a different thing altogether.

Ifa first appeared on the earth at Ife, He tried to teach the inhabitants of Ife how to foretell future events, but they would not listen to him, so he left the town and wandered about the world teaching mankind. After roaming about for a long time, and indulging in a variety of amours, Ifa fixed his residence at Ado, where he planted on a rock a palm-nut, from which sixteen palm-trees grew up at once.

Ifa has an attendant or companion named Odu (? One who emulates), and a messenger called Opele (ope, puzzle, or ope, palm-tree). The bandicoot (okete) is sacred to him, because it lives chiefly upon palm-nuts. The first day of the Yoruba week is Ifa’s holy day, and is called ajo awo, “day of the secret.” On this day sacrifices of pigeons, fowls, and goats are made to him, and nobody can perform any business before accomplishing this duty.

A priest of Ifa is termed a babalawo (baba-ni-awo), “Father who has the secret,” as the natives never undertake anything of importance without consulting the god, and always act in accordance with the answer returned. Hence a proverb says, “The priest who is more shrewd than another adopts the worship of Ifa.” As Ifa knows all futurity, and reveals coming events to his faithful followers, he is considered the god of wisdom, and the benefactor of mankind. He also instructs man how to secure the goodwill of the other gods, and conveys to him their wishes, His priests pluck all the hair from their bodies and shave their heads, and always appear attired in white cloths.

The general belief is that Ifa possessed the faculty of divination from the beginning, but there is a myth which makes him acquire the art from the phallic god Elegba. In the early days of the world, says the myth, there were but few people on the earth, and the gods found themselves stinted in the matter of sacrifices to such an extent that, not obtaining enough to eat from the offerings made by their followers, they were obliged to have recourse to various pursuits in order to obtain food. Ifa, who was in the same straits as the other gods, took to fishing, with, however, he had small success; and one day, when he had failed to catch any fish at all, and was very hungry, he consulted the crafty Elegba, who was also in want, as to what they could do to improve their condition. Elegba replied that if he could only obtain the sixteen palm-nuts from the two palms -that Orungan the chief man, had in his plantation, he would show Ifa how to forecast the future; and that he could then use his knowledge in the service of mankind, and so receive an abundance of offerings. He stipulated that in return for instructing Ifa in the art of divination, he should always be allowed the first choice of all offerings made. Ifa agreed to the bargain, and going to Orungan, asked for the sixteen palm-nuts, explaining

to him what he proposed to do with them. Orungan, very eager to know what the future had in store for him, at once promised the nuts, and ran with his wife Orisha-bi, “Orisha-born,” to get them. The trees, however, were too lofty for them to be able to reach the palm-nuts, and the stems too smooth to be climbed; so they retired to a little distance and drove some monkeys that were in the vicinity into the palms. No sooner were the monkeys in the trees than they seized the nuts, and, after eating the red pulp that covered them, threw the bard kernels down on the ground, where Orungan and his wife picked them up. Having collected the whole sixteen, Orisha-bi tied them up in a piece of cloth, and put the bundle under her waist-cloth, on her back, as if she were carryino, a child. Then they carried the palm-nuts to Ifa. Elegba kept his promise and taught Ifa the art of divination, and Ifa in his turn taught Oruno-an, who thus became the first babalawo, It is in memory of these events that when a man wishes to consult Ifa, he takes his wife with him, if he be married, and his mother if he be single, who carries the sixteen palm-nuts, tied up in a bundle, on her back, like a child; and that the babalawo, before consulting the god, always says, “Orugan, ajuba oh. Orisha-bi ajuba oh.” (“Orungan, I hold you in grateful remembrance. Orisha-bi, I hold you in grateful remembrance.”

For the consultation of Ifa a whitened board is employed, exactly similar to those used by children in Moslem schools in lieu of slates, about two feet long and eight or nine inches broad, on which are marked sixteen figures. These figures are called “mothers.” The sixteen palm-nuts are held loosely in the right hand, and thrown through the half-closed fingers into the left hand. If one nut remain in the right hand, two marks are made, thus | |; and if two remain. one mark, |. In this way are formed the sixteen “mothers,” one of which is declared by the babalawo to represent the inquirer; and from the order in which the others are produced he deduces certain results. The interpretation appears to be in accordance with established rule, but what that rule is is only known to the initiated. The following are the “mothers”:

This process is repeated eight times, and the marks are made in succession in two columns of four each.

No. 6 is No. 5 inverted; 8 is 7 inverted; 10, 9 inverted; 13, 12 inverted; and 14, 11 inverted. Meji means “two,” or “a pair,” and the following appears to be the meaning of the names:–(1) The close pair (buru, closely). (2) The removed pair (Yekuro, to remove). (3) The street pair (Ode, a street). (4) The closed-up pair (Di, to close up, make dense). (5) The squatting-dog pair (losho, to squat like a dog). (6) The cross-bow pair (oron, cross-bow). (7) The striped pair (abila, striped). (8) ?Vulture-pair (akala, vulture). (9) The pointing pair (sha, to point). (10) The pair ending downward (Ku, to end, da, to upset on the ground). (11) ?The top-heavy pair (Dura, to make an effort to recover from a stumble; opin, end, point). (12) The tattoo-mark pair (ture, name of certain tattoo-marks). (13) The edge pair (leti, on the edge of). (14) The folded-up pair (Ka, to fold or coil). (15) The opened pair (shi, to open). (16) The alternate pair (fo, to pass over, pass by, jump over, skip).

From these sixteen “mothers” a great many combinations can be made by taking a column from two different “mothers,” and figures thus formed are called “children.” Thus (13) and (2) and (11) and (10) make respectively-

The initiation fee paid to a priest for teaching the art of divination is, it is said, is very heavy, and moreover does not cover the whole of the expense; for the Oracle is, like Oracles generally, ambiguous and obscure, and the neophyte finds that he constantly has to refer to the more experienced priests for explanations of its meaning.

When a man is initiated the priest usually informs him that he must
henceforward abstain from some particular article of food, which varies with the individual.

Ifa figures in connection with a legendary deluge, the story of which, now adapted to the Yoruba theology, Some time after settling at Ado, Ifa became tired of living in the world, and accordingly went to dwell in the firmament, with Obatala. After his departure, mankind, deprived of his assistance, was unable to properly interpret the desires of the gods, most of whom became in consequence annoyed. Olokun was the most angry, and in a fit of rage he destroyed nearly all the inhabitants of the world in a great flood, only a few being saved by Obatala, who drew them up into the sky by means of a long iron chain. After this ebullition of anger, Olokun retired once more to his own domains, but the world was nothing but mud, and quite unfit to live in, till Ifa came down from the sky, and, in conjunction with Odudua, once more made it habitable.
 
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