Heart of Arts

Toyin Falola and His Convocation Lecture at UNILAG, Part 2

Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju

This is the second part of my response to accounts of Toyin Falola’s suggestions that the Yoruba knowledge and divination system Ifa, as well as witchcraft, be developed as academic courses in universities.



Why Study Ifa and Witchcraft Ideas and Perhaps Practices as Academic Programs?

Between Theory and Practice

Ifa as a Practical System, Bringing Cosmology to Bear  on Challenges of Daily Life

Ifa in Response to Existence as both Structured and Dynamic

Ifa as a Means of Seeking Guidance from Ultimate Wisdom

On Ifa Insights as Derived from the Ori, the Immortal, Divine Self of the Enquirer

Exploring One’s Self

Adapting Ifa from Ritual to Contemplation

Adapting Opon Ifa Symbolism

Adapting Ese Ifa, Ifa Literature

Educational Adaptations of Ifa in
Relation to Self Exploration

Image and Transposing Ideas from the Religious to the Secular



Why Study Ifa and Witchcraft Ideas and Perhaps Practices as Academic Programs?

Falola’s suggestions aspire to contribute to liberating the creative potential of endogenous African bodies of knowledge, those developed in classical African civilizations,  further fertilizing present and future possibilities within and beyond Africa.

The local, represented by these African  knowledges, would further nourish their immediate, African contexts as well as feed people beyond them.

The local would therefore enrich itself and empower the universal, a local/universal oscillation adapting Falola’s formulation in “Ritual Archives”, his most trenchant expression known to me of that vision

Between Theory and Practice

The first part of my response, published on Facebook and the USAAfrica Dialogues Series Google group, presented an overview of questions that may be posed in order to address that suggestion on Ifa and witchcraft ideas in the African and particularly Yoruba contexts.

I addressed similarities between Western conceptions of the English term “witchcraft”, in its changing formulations and continuities across time, and the correlative Yoruba ideas of “iyami” and “aje”.
Ifa as a Practical System, Bringing Cosmology to Bear  on Challenges of Daily Life

This second part of my response addresses an aspect of the practical character of Ifa as a decision making system and how its features could be adapted beyond its traditional context.

Ifa is essentially a practical spiritual system, in which a cosmology, a view of the structure and dynamism of the cosmos and of humanity’s place within it,  is brought to bear on human challenges, specifically the challenges of living as experienced in the tensions of daily life.

Adapting Ifa in the context of contemporary academic education could thus develop  an approach to learning that goes beyond theory into practice, approaching philosophy as both an intellectual and a practical discipline, a way of critically exploring issues as well as of developing orientations on how to live.

Ifa in Response to Existence as both Structured and Dynamic

“Yesterday is different from today, so the babalawo-the adept in the esoteric knowledge of Ifa- divines every day” it is said.

Along similar lines, the Ifa student, even outside traditional Ifa contexts, could be a dynamic enquirer, always seeking understanding, revising previous conclusions when necessary, taking forward in his or her own way the insights of those who sought to make sense of the complexity of existence in relation to its minutiae by creating a system unifying order and disorder, randomness and regularity, chance and pattern, the literary and the mathematical, Ifa.

Is such an ambitious achievement best served only by replicating what was achieved centuries ago, valuable as that is as the foundation of all future possibilities or also by shaping new possibilities from the ancient matrix, constructing and penetrating new frontiers through the timeless inspirations?

We salute the ancient masters, their knowledge revitalizing, classic yet glowing with ever renewable power.

Ifa as a Means of Seeking Guidance from Ultimate Wisdom

Ifa is an approach to seeking guidance from divine intelligence in order to transcend the limitations of the human mind.

Does it work?

It may, going from my experience.

On Ifa Insights as Derived from the Ori, the Immortal, Divine Self of the Enquirer

Do I therefore consult babalawo-adepts in the esoteric knowledge of Ifa?



Because even though the two consultations I have done, at different stages of my life, suggest unusual insight, I’m cautious about externally derived sources of guidance in which the logic through which conclusions are reached are inaccessible to me.

If its true that such knowledge is accessible to human beings, I want to be able to access it myself, in my own way.

Does Wande Abimbola not state, in either An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus or Ifa Divination Poetry, or both, that the primary source of Ifa’s guidance is the divine, immortal self of the individual, the ori, as named in Yoruba, the source of ultimate direction of the person seeking help from Ifa?

Do various ese ifa, Ifa literary texts, not emphasize the pre-eminence of ori, such as the dramatically eloquent “The Importance of Ori”, translated  in Abimbola’s Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa and  published online at African Poems,  in which all deities fail to demonstrate they can follow their devotee on a distant journey without turning back, with ori revealed as the only deity who can be so steadfast?

How is this idea different from the universally evident notion of the divine, immortal centre of the self,  from the Igbo chi to the Akan kra to the Hindu atman, the Western esoteric inner self and the Christian idea of the self made in God’s image?

The Ifa centralization on ori is therefore a variant of a universal idea, approached in various ways by different peoples.

May this idea, as developed in Ifa, not therefore be engaged with as a decision making strategy, an approach to self knowledge in relation to one’s material, human and spiritual environments, both constant and changing, that may be adapted in ways different from traditional Ifa divination methods while taking advantage of Ifa’s distinctive approach to the idea?

Exploring One’s Self

Who am I?

I am a person with a name by which others identify me.

That identity is shaped  by particular biological and social contexts,  identifiable by a personality, related to society,  time and space, my journey from birth, in the body that is mine, through my interactions with people  and  places where I have been.

Is there more to me than that?

How valid is the idea that I am a traveller from a destination beyond Earth to the same destination after time on Earth?

This view is represented by the Yoruba expression “orun nile, aye loja” which may be expansively translated as “orun, the world of ultimate origins, is home, Earth is a marketplace, where, after buying and selling, in the give and take of earthly life, we return home”, the Yoruba variant of a widely dispersed African expression, also evident in Igbo as “Uwa bu afia”, as Nkeonye Otakpor describes in “The World as a Marketplace”,  a perspective correlative with various perceptions across the world of the human journey.

Adapting Ifa from Ritual to Contemplation

Ifa is a ritual system in which an expert consults the oracle for others, or less often done, for oneself, for the person divining.

But, can it be adapted to a contemplative system, a method of listening to oneself, so that ori may whisper its insights to one?

Does one need to believe in ori to learn from it, if its truly one’s innermost, divine self?

Adapting Opon Ifa Symbolism

At the centre of the opon ifa, a central Ifa symbolic and divinatory platform, is an empty space, where the divination instruments, the ikin, the divination nuts, or the opele, the divination strings, are cast so the patterns they spontaneously form, believed to be influenced by the oracle, may reveal the insights of  the oracle to the client’s query through the symbolism of those patterns.

Can’t that empty centre be imaginatively interpreted as the depths of one’s self, where various levels of awareness converge to respond to one’s enquires and reflections?

Can’t the various opon ifa designs be treated as symbolic forms suggesting approaches to this contemplative exploration?

Adapting Ese Ifa, Ifa Literature

Can’t ese ifa, ifa literature, be employed, both as responses to particular enquires from Ifa’s clients, as is traditionally done, and as means of inspiration, even of entertainment, which anyone may employ as suits their interests at a point in time?

This is my own approach to Ifa as a decision making and inspirational system, absorbing it into my contemplative practice.

Educational Adaptations of Ifa in
Relation to Self Exploration

Of what relevance could such ideas be to education?

Self knowledge and decision making in interpersonal and larger contexts are cultivated in various kinds of educational curricula.

The central understanding of the self in Yoruba thought is of the human being as composed of a material, physical and temporally limited self, ori ode, and an immortal essence, transcending life and death, ori inu.

This complex is perceived as animated by ase, a  creative capacity permeating the universe but uniquely actualized by each entity.

How should a person navigate the tension between the idea of a self understood as predating one’s earthly birth and the idea that one is imbued with unique creative potential?

The literature on Yoruba theories of the self oscillates between belief in predestination and ideas about freedom within a degree of pre- determination of human circumstance.

Without necessarily giving credence to any of these ideas, they may be responded to, not as articles of faith but as attempts to address the perennial questions of the nature of the self and the relationship between this nature and the progression of human life in terms of tensions between fate and free will.

To what degree can one go beyond the material and environmental contexts of one’s existence?

May the self transcend the immediacies of the senses, intellect, emotion and social orientations to reveal inspiration making sense of life at a deeper level?

In exploring these and other questions in relation to Ifa, Ifa strategies may inspire understanding in terms of other bodies of thought, just as other bodies of thought, African and non-African, may be expanded through correlation with Ifa.

Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Healers, in its description of a form of healing derived from Akan thought, as described to me by Armah, references the need to understand the various aspects of the self and choose those one wishes to identify with.

Ada Obi’s school in Lagos, my visit to which helped me appreciate the educational philosophy of this school owned by a striking social media writer, teaches emotional intelligence, described as the sensitivity to one’s emotions, to those of others and how to manage them.

May Ifa ideas about aspects of self not be similarly approached, as suggestions for exploration of the nature of a human being to be engaged with by whatever means relevant?

Image and Transposing Ideas from the Religious to the Secular

Picture from Hans Witte’s “Ifa Trays from the Osogbo and Ijebu Regions” in Rowland Abiodun, Henry John Drewal and John Pemberton III’s edited The Yoruba Artist.

It shows the characteristic opon ifa design, the square form being the other variant, in which the face of the deity Eshu, at the top, looks out upon the divinatory platform.


Eshu may be seen as embodying insightful guidance within the intersection of possibilities.

Ifa deity ideas may be related with, not as references to entities, as deity images are traditionally meant to be understood, but as concepts, as ideas about human, natural and cosmic possibilities, as the image of Eshu may be interpreted.

Eshu may be discerned in terms of  insight within complexity, of the intersections of contraries, of the presence of the unexpected, of the potential for chaos within order, of relationships between diverse possibilities, these, among others,  being central values Eshu is associated with.

These strategic ideas can be appreciated and engaged with without relating with the deity Eshu, if one is not so inclined.

Maximizing its capacity for knowledge involves a society adapting various cognitive forms for different purposes.

This occured in the movement between religious myth and intellectual philosophy in ancient Greece.

It emerged in the reworking of Christian and occult ideas across 17th to 18th century Europe, in which religious ideas were reworked in secular terms in science and philosophy.

Given the huge influence of Christianity and Islam in Africa, its vital that people coming to classical African systems of thought from various persuasions be guided to appreciate how these ancient systems may be adapted in secular terms, so these people  may not see themselves as compromising their own faiths, the fear of which compromise could lead them to ignore the achievements of their own ancestors, their contributions to the global pool of knowledge.

The depth of the well is infinite, enabling people to draw different kinds of water from the same well.

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