In the Ifa spiritual and ethical tradition, eniyan is a fundamental concept that speaks to the moral status and moral considerability of the human person. In fact, it is the hub and hinge on which Ifa moral anthropology turns. The word eniyan in the Yoruba language, the parent language of Ifa, literally means “chosen one(s)” and at the same time is the word for human being. At the heart of Ifa moral anthropology is the ethical teaching that humans are chosen by the Creator to bring good into the world and that this special status and task are the fundamental mission and meaning of human life. This concept is advanced in the Odu Ifa (78:1), the sacred text of Ifa, which reads, “Surely humans have been (divinely) chosen to bring good in the world.” This entry examines the meaning of this concept.
Who is Chosen
This concept of “chosen” has profound significance in moral anthropology for both the conception and treatment of human beings. Moreover, it also carries with it a uniqueness, in that it presents the highest level of humanism in its inclusion of all humans as chosen, rather than just those in its circle of believers and adherents, as is the case for virtually all other traditions who self-define as chosen, elect, or recipients of endowed status. Here the Ifa priests, the babalawo, do not claim special status for Ifa adherents, but provide a theological narrative in which all humans share equally in the divine endowment of chosenness. In addition to this unique inclusivity beyond religious relationship or covenant, the concept also is defined by its concept of all humans as chosen (yan) without distinction of race, class, gender or sex, ethnicity, or any other social or biological attribute.
As noted earlier, this status is a divine endowment or gift and thus carries with it all the transcendent and ultimate meaning and authority that accompany such divine benefactions. Thus, it places great emphasis on respect for the human being as the chosen of God. This status as the chosen of God parallels and is a companion concept in the Ifa tradition of humans as the omo Olódùmarè or omo Oduduwa or the offspring of the Great God or Creator. Thus, it presents an image of the God concept similar to the ancient Egyptian concept senen netjer (snn ntr), which literally means “image of God.”
In any case, it supports the concept of the inherent and inviolable worthiness of the human beings (i.e., the concept of dignity). In the Ifa tradition, as reflected in the Odu Ifa, there are numerous words and calls for respect of humans. Some of the words for these concerns are ola, ìyìn, and owo, which may be used to indicate both inherent and socially achieved and recognized worthiness.
What is Expected
The moral anthropology in which the concept of eniyan is rooted is expressed at length in the theological narrative found in Odu 78:1. In this Odu (chapter), it says that humans are chosen to bring good in the world (i.e., to make it good). But they are also to sustain and increase it. The theological narrative makes it clear that humans are chosen, not over and against each other, but with each other to bring good into the world. They are to do this for each and everyone's benefit. Moreover, for humans to honor both the fundamental meaning and mission of their lives as chosen ones, they must make sure they “bring about the good condition Olodumare has ordained for every human being.”
Here the status of “chosenness” requires working and struggling for and having a divinely ordained good condition (ipò rere). In other words, here a life of dignity is tied to a decent life, indeed a good life. For it is divinely ordained that every human being should enjoy a good life in a good world. So the chosen status carries with it not simply an endowment, but also an assignment; to both honor and fulfill this status and task, humans must create conditions that this status deserves and demands.
In the text, Orunmila, the sage, master teacher, and divine witness to creation, is asked to define this good condition (position) ordained by Olodumare for everyone. He replies that it is a good world (i.e., the condition conducive to a good life). Thus, he says that to achieve a good life for every human being, humans must achieve a good world. That good world is defined as having several fundamental features, including full knowledge of things; happiness everywhere; freedom from anxiety and fear of opponents, enemies, or hostile others; the end of antagonism with other beings or Earth (i.e., animals, reptiles, etc.); well-being and the end of fear of forces that threaten it; and freedom from poverty and misery.
How it is Achieved
Having outlined the necessary conditions of a good world (ayé rere), Orunmila states also the requirements for achieving this world. In this teaching is reflected stress on human agency—the will and capacity to act and create the good world humans want and deserve to live and flourish in. These requirements first are summed up as three essentials: “wisdom, the compelling desire for good character and internal strength.” To be noted is the stress on wisdom and knowledge, an emphasis made again in the longer list of requirements. This reaffirms the central importance of knowledge in the Ifa tradition because as noted about the first criterion for a good world is full knowledge of things.
In the longer list of requirements for achieving the good world, Orunmila lists: “wisdom adequate to govern the world; sacrifice; character; the love of doing good, especially for those who need it most and for those who ask … and the eagerness and ongoing struggle to increase good in the world and not let any good be lost.” It is important to note here that the Yoruba word “to govern” (àkóso), in its original meaning, suggests “a gathering of people together for good purposes.” Thus, the first requirement for achieving good in the world is posed as a moral wisdom for gathering the people together for good purposes, as indicated in other passages in the Odu Ifa. For example, in Odu 33:2, it says “Those whose turn it is to take responsibility for the world, they should do good for the world.” Elsewhere, it says that, to do this, one must “Speak truth, do just, be kind and do not do evil.” But again, it is important to note the emphasis placed on “full knowledge” of the world and self-conscious and committed struggle for good in the world and the strong sense of agency this requires to honor the identity and task of being “divinely chosen to bring good into the world.”
- Odu Ifa
- Abimbola, W. (1976). Ifa: An Exposition of the Ifa Literary Corpus. Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press.
- Abimbola, W. (1997). Ifa Will Mend Our Broken Ways: Thoughts on Yoruba Religion and Culture in Africa and the Diaspora. Roxbury, MA: Aim Books.
- Karenga, M. (1999). Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.