(Essay Part 2) Iyami and the Female Roots of Power in the IfaOrisha Tradition by Ayele Kumari, Ph.D.

Palm Nuts
Palm Nuts

An OponIfa and Odu binary language

Ifa utilizes palm nuts and a divination chain called Opele to secure answers or Odu. The entire system is extremely feminine in nature in that the diviner sits on a mat symbolizing the weaving found in the fabric of existence. The initiation itself takes the person through a process that includes a river rebirthing, a red feather at the third eye, symbolizing menstrual blood, among others. Male initiates actually receive an artificial womb called Odu to awaken the female intuitive process within that will support their ability to divine and bring balance to their lives. The diviners sit with legs spread open as if giving birth with an OponIfa between their legs. It is a round wooden divination tray which also symbolizes the womb of the universe from which all things come. When an Opele is thrown or the palm nuts pounded, we are able to secure an Odu in binary form that fits the situation queried about. On this tray, we mark the letters of that binary language of Odu in a powdered wood from a sacred Osun tree. Osun is often associated with the female power of the menstrual cycle. Because Odu expresses a womb, the answers secured are likened to children. Odu is metaphorically giving birth. The first 16 are twins, also called Mejis. Those 16 are multiplied by each other to produce 256 possibilities. Like the previous Erindinlogun oracle, those 256 contain tens of thousands of stories and metaphors that express every known human condition or situation known.

These oracles are the fundamental basis of our wisdom traditions and our ethical foundation of the world. Odu is short for Odudua. The name Odudua is a blend of Odu and dudu (black) and together, they mean black womb which points to its primordial source. Odudua is the female source of this wisdom and the mysteries. The prophet of the tradition, Orunmilla, married Odudua to obtain all of the wisdom of Olodumare. Orunmilla in fact married several female divinities not as an act of patriarchal dominance, but as a metaphorical expression of the spiritual qualities these divinities represent. Thus, he married Odudua for wisdom. Iwa for good character. Osun for power. … As the source of wisdom, Odu is considered the word of God … Olodumare. Olodumare is considered the supreme source in the IfaOrisha tradition. The name Olodumare is also broken down to several words. Olo is owner, Odu womb, mare rainbow expressed as all light. The world is made of light. So the word Olodumare means the owner of the womb from which all light emanates. The priests of this system are called Babalawo (father of the mysteries … because they receive the mystery of Odu) and the women are called Iyanifa (mothers of wisdom).

Divinition Chain
Divinition Chain

The IfaOrisha tradition expands its feminine mysteries further through the presence of Iyami. Iyami are both in human and spiritual form. Iyami, as a collective of women, are called Aje and have the function of maintaining balance and justice. As mothers, they create, sustain, and destroy just as a womb does. In the broadest sense, all women are considered Aje having been born with the ability to give birth. However, being considered Aje does not stop there and an added quality is enhanced naturally in some women through inheritance from their mothers. This may or may not be actually known by the women. The full awakening process involves an induction and attunement ritual process. Women who by birth or by attunement are associated with being witches, but this is better expressed as women with profound spiritual power. The word witch itself comes from IAje, in ancient Egypt called Wadjet. This power can create changes in the world through the power of her thoughts, words of power spoken, and eyes. Because of this power, women, and particularly IyamiAje, have been and still are both revered and feared.

Over the past several hundred years, there have been concerted efforts to limit and reduce the power of human Iyami on earth. The primary ways it was done was by changing laws that allowed women to perform their rituals and ceremonies. This happened due to Islamic and European colonial influence extended through colonial governments. Iyami and Ogboni (elder wisdom) systems of Justice were replaced by political outsider governments. Since Iyami owned the commerce and they wanted the land and commerce, disbanding the supporting societies that indirectly governed the commerce became the plan. Practicing the women’s traditions by women could mean death by then. As a result, Iyami went underground, hiding their participation in the celebrations of motherhood, which was almost synonymous with Goddesshood. They continued to practice secretly among themselves. Men began performing the public ceremonies originally assigned to women including dressing up like women to honor the Iyami and ancestral mothers. They realized that they could not cease to celebrate the mothers altogether. … They were too important to the community and too powerful to be neglected. But the women were no longer performing them … only men. These festivals are called the Gelede festivals today.

As the slave trade brought Africa’s beloved children to distant lands across the world, the rituals and traditions were carried also. Many hid under the guise of Catholicism all the while still practicing the traditions of their ancestors. The ancient Orisha (divinities) Osun, Yemoja, Oya and so many others continued to be celebrated in the new lands from South America through Central America and the United States. As women became more empowered economically and politically, they were able to reclaim their traditions by going back to Africa and being initiated, and also embracing Iyami in the United States. It is because of concerted efforts to dispel misinformation about Iyami that women in the diaspora are embracing their power again.

We found as we crossed the African continent that the Iyami network of mother Goddesses was not limited to a few areas, but expands far and wide across the globe. We found that those Goddess traditions anthropologists study are still being practiced by our African Priesthoods. The Iyami are known as birds and thus the black doves of Greece are from our traditions, only we have red and white birds too. We still hold them sacred, celebrate around trees, and still are inducted to their secret societies. They are called Iyalaje (mothers of Power); the Pythias of Greece and the Naginis in Southern India are known by us as MamiWatas, and women are still being initiated today. Those python priestesses are still in West Africa. Our practices extended across the entire African continent. When Greeks and Hyksos invaded Egypt, they took our practices back with them and made them their own. They eventually died out there, but we never stopped, because Africa is their home. Minona and Het Het initiations still take place in Benin. We still gather in our circles and call the names of those ancient mothers who came before as we always have. We have never held our ancestral mothers as distant theoretical Goddesses long gone. No … They are present … right now … dancing between veiled worlds and this one. Speaking through our tongues and running in our bloodlines.

When we call the ancient mothers forward, they show up in our lives as powerful forces of support, empowerment, healing, love, and guidance. When we offer libations and pour cool water and offerings to the ground, we feed Mother Earth, Onile. She is the mother of all forces of nature on the planet. We acknowledge her daughters Who come as the mighty winds and cool breezes … Who come as the flowing rivers, lakes, and the lagoons … Who come as Igbodu … our sacred forests, Who come as the oceans and seas, and as cauldrons of fire deep in the bowels of the earth … Our invocations cause them to stir and we become one again, infusing ourselves with Ase (spiritual power) to do what we must. Below is one such invocation/libation. It honors the ancient Mother Goddesses born from the source of all humanity … Africa. In Africa, she never died … In some areas, she morphed and merged … but she never died. Her priesthoods never ceased … They still live as they always have. SHE LIVES through her priestesses right now.

(To be Continued. Read Part 1 here.)

[Editor’s Note: This essay is included in She Rises Volume 2, How Goddess Feminism, Activism, and Spirituality?]

See (Meet Mago Contributor) Ayele Kumari, PH.D



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Joanna Kujawa

Wonderful essays. Thank you.


Magnificient. Essay. Thank you !