A Babalawo is a priest of Ifa, also referred to as Orunmila, who is probably the most popular deity of the Yoruba pantheon and certainly one to whom great attention is paid by all. Indeed, Ifa is the deity of divination, a most important and favored epistemological mode in Africa in general. African people turn to divination on a daily basis and, therefore, to Ifa in Yorubaland for guidance and advice on all kinds of issues, trivial or critical. It takes, however, a person specially and carefully trained to decipher Ifa's messages to the humans, and this is precisely the function fulfilled by a Babalawo.
Those called into Ifa's priesthood must undergo a long and expensive initiation process, which may last anywhere between 3 and 15 years. During that time, the initiate must acquire an extensive body of sacred and secret knowledge and memorize no less than 4,096 couplets associated with Ifa. When the initiate has shown readiness, she or he must then prepare for two important rituals: a ceremony of purification by water, and a final testing by fire, known as Pinodu. The latter demands that extremely hot oil be poured on the initiate's hands and rubbed on his or her body without leaving any sign of burns. It is at this point that the initiate is declared to be finally ready to undertake their most noble function—that is, to provide assistance and protection to others in their community.
Traditionally, there have been three levels of initiation into Ifa: the olori level, where a person may worship Ifa, but not divine with it; the orisa level, where a Babalawo may worship and divine with Ifa; and, finally, the Amon ti a te ni Ifa, the highest level, where a Babalawo may not only worship and divine with Ifa, but also may partake in the eating of food offered to Igba Odu—that is, the sacred calabash of Odu. Such a level is achieved by Chief Babalawos only.
Babalawos who have undergone proper training and whose initiation has successfully ended must remove every hair from their body as well as shave their head. They are also expected to wear white and light blue clothing. Babalawos are highly respected because they are believed to have privileged access to the wisdom of the Ancestors and the gods and to be able, therefore, to share it with the rest of the living for their benefit.
To fulfill their obligations, that is, divining to answer the questions of their fellow men and women, and possibly alleviate their anxiety, Babalawos typically use a divination board, known as opon Ifa, whitened with “divination powder,” iyerosun. The divination board is usually round, but may also be rectangular. It may be decorated or not. In addition to the divination board, the Babalawo uses 16 palm nuts, ikin. The Babalawo would most often hold all the palm nuts in his left hand and then attempt to grab as many as possible with his right hand with one grasp. He would repeat this “exercise” eight times. From this, and depending on the number of nuts left in his left hand each time, the Babalawo would draw signs on the divination board and a pattern, or more precisely an odu, would emerge.
It is then incumbent on the Babalawo to interpret Ifa's answer, the Odu, correctly for his or her client. The Odu, however, is always a parable; because the Babalawo is not supposed to know the specific situation that brought one in for consultation in the first place, it is ultimately the client's role to apply Ifa's answer, the parable, to his or her specific situation.
Another method of divination also commonly practiced involves the use of a divining chain, whether made of metal or string, and to which four half-nuts have been attached on each half of the chain. The diviner throws the chain away from him or her and then reads the answer based on the way each nut fell. Finally, a divination session is not complete until the Babalawo has also informed his or her client of Ifa's recommendations or demands—that is, of what type of ritual (if any) is necessary to open the path and ensure success. The ritual often involves a sacrifice or offering of some sort to Ifa or some other deity.
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Santeria “babalawo” (high priest) Victor Omolofaoro Betancourt poses in front of his outdoor altar on January 19, 2002, at his home in Havana, Cuba. Source: Getty Images.
Needless to say, given the importance attached to divination throughout Africa, Babalawos have their equivalent in many other parts of Africa. In Igboland, for example, it is the Mboni who fulfills the same important function, whereas in Fonland, it is the Bokonon. Furthermore, some scholars have derived the word ifa from nefer and have suggested that the origin of the worship of Ifa must be properly located in Kemet. In the African Diaspora, the term Babalawo is loosely used and refers to any priest of a Yoruba deity, not just Ifa.



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Further Reading

  • Farris Thompson, R. (1984). Flash of the Spirits. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Idowu, E. B. (1994). Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. New York: A & B Books.
  • Karenga, M. (1999). Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
  • Lucas, O. (1948). The Religion of the Yorubas. Lagos, Nigeria: C.M.S. Bookshop.