Iyaláwo and Ìyánífá: female spiritual leaders in Yoruba tradition

Iyaláwo and Ìyánífá: female spiritual leaders in Yoruba tradition.

Until recently, very little was written about these titles; nearly everything exalted the Babalawo, not mentioning any female counterparts. Although this is wikipedia, it seems informed and well-sourced, and corresponds to my understanding, but providing much more detail. Everything below is a direct quote, i'm not going to go though putting in quote marks, except for my italicized comments in brackets.

Iyalawo is a term in the Yoruba language that literally means Mother of Mysteries or Mother of Wisdom (Ìyá: “mother”; awó “mysteries"). Some adherents use the term "Mamalawo," which is a partially African diaspora version of the Yoruba term, Iyaláwo and Yeyelawo are two more versions of mother of mysteries. Ìyánífá is a Yoruba word that can be translated as Mother (Ìyá) has [or of] (ní) Ifá or Mother in Ifá. 

The term Iyanífa specifically relates to Ifá and could indicate that a female undertakes Ifa divination or is a custodian of Ifa in a personal or professional capacity; the term may also indicate that a woman has had Itefa or itelodu initiation. The term Iyaláwo indicates a woman who has knowledge of sacred wisdom that may include Ifa but goes beyond Ifá . The significance of the Iyaláwo in Yoruba cosmology is said to extend to its creator, Odù. In The Architects of Existence: Àjẹ́ in Yoruba Cosmology, Ontology, and Orature, Teresa N. Washington says of Odù: “Odù, as the Àjẹ́, is the consummate Iyaláwo: The mysteries of the Cosmos swirl in the core of her being.”[1] Another term, Apetibi, is sometimes confused with Iyanifa or Iyalawo but is not the same. An Apetibi is considered a wife of Orunmila or a Babalawo. An apetibi is not initiated into the mysteries of Ifa and has not received Itefa or itelodu levels of initiation.[2]

Iyanifa have titles and ranks in Ile Ife, Nigeria. The first is Iya Araba Agbaye.The 2nd title for Iyanifa is Orun Iyanifa. The 3rd is Iyanifa Balogun. The fourth is Ekerin. The 5th is Yeyelodu.[3]

Ifá is a divination system that represents the oracular utterance of Odù, who is also known as Odùduwà. Linguist and cultural historian Modupe Oduyoye reveals that the meaning of Odùduwà is Odù-ó dá ìwà "Oracular utterance created existence."[4] The system that Odù devised for human beings to manifest their destiny is called Odù Ifá, and the chief emissary of Odù Ifá is Orisha Orunmila. Both Babaláwo and Iyanífa use Ifá and its tools, including the divining chain known as Opele or the sacred palm nuts called Ikin, on the traditionally wooden divination tray called Opon Ifá, to help their clients better understand their paths in life.

Historical accounts of Iyalawo and Iyanifa

According to Babalawo K. Ositola from Ijebu, Nigeria, it was a woman, Odu, who taught her husband Orunmila how to divine so that he could communicate with the spiritual world. The history of women casting Ifa is well-documented in the ese Ifa.[5] Oyeronke Olajubu's Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere analyzes an ese Ifa of Eji Ogbe in which Orunmila is asked why his daughter is not practicing Ifa. When he replies that she is female, he is informed that that is no taboo. Following this, Orunmila's daughter studied Ifa and "From then on women have studied Ifa / They prescribe sacrifice / They are initiated into the Ifa corpus."[6]

A verse in Iwori Meji mentions that Orunmila's daughter is named Alara and that she underwent an apprenticeship from Orunmila. When he had a son, she was responsible for a large part of her younger brother's training.[7] The Arugba Ifa, mother of Onibogi, the 8th Alaafin of Oyo, is documented as introducing Ifa to Oyo .[8] Arugba Ifa initiated the Alado of Ato into Ifa, as well. The Alado later initiated the priests of Oyo into Ifa. The sacred odu Oturupon Irete cites a woman named Oluwo being initiated into Ifa after giving birth to a son by Oduduwa. [This name refers in some places to the Earth Goddess, in others to male historical figures.] That son became known as the Ooni.[9] The Ifa Odu Odi Ogbe speaks of a woman divining and performing ritual sacrifice for Orunmila by the name Eruko-ya-l'egan o d'Oosa also known as Orisa Oke. The Odù Ifá describes how an Ìyánífá called Ugbin Ejo divines for Òfún Méji and also eventually becomes the mother of Ògbóni.[10]

Royal mothers of Yoruba rulers were also necessarily Iyaláwo and Ìyánífá.[11] For example, Biodun Adediran in "Women, Rituals, and Politics in Pre-Colonial Yorubaland" reveals that the Ìyá Mọlẹ̀ serves as the Yoruba rulers' “personal Ifa priestess and head of all Ifa priests.”[12]

Another documented African Iyalawo was Agbaye Arabinrin Oluwa, who lived c. 200 AD in Nigeria.[13][14] Chief Fama Aina Adewale Somadhi, a contemporary and prominent Yoruba-born Iyalawo, was initiated in 1988 by Chief ‘Fagbemi Ojo Alabi, the late Araba of Ayetoro town, Egbado, and the Oluwo (or High Priest) of Ogun State, Nigeria.[15] The first documented American Iyalawo was Dr. D'Haifa Odufora Ifatogun, who was initiated in 1985.[16][17]

Mattie Curtis-Iyanifa Ifakemi Oyesanya, initiated in the Oyesanya Compound by Araba Oyesanya and Ayoka Oyesanya, baptized into Yoruba Religion by pioneering Babalawo and Babalorisha Dr. Cliff Stewart (Oba Dekun) was the first African American women initiated into Ifa in 1993. [I question the accuracy of this; will have to check with Luisah Teish, as she may have been initiated earlier] The first Lucumi Iyaonifas initiatied were María Cuesta Conde and Nidia Aguila de León in 2000.[18]

Iyalawo undergo training in the memorization and interpretation of the 256 Odu or mysteries, as well as in the numerous verses or Ese of Ifá. Traditionally, the Iyalawo usually have additional professional specialties. For instance, several would also be herbalists, while others would specialize in extinguishing the troubles caused by Ajogun.

The Iyalawos are, however, generally trained in the determination of problems, or to divine how good fortune can be maintained, and the application of both spiritual and related secular diagnosis and solutions. Their primary function is to assist people in finding, understanding, and being in alignment with one's individual destiny until they experience spiritual wisdom as a part of their daily experience.

The Iyalawo is charged with helping people develop the discipline and character that supports such spiritual growth called "Iwa Pele", or good character. This is done by identifying the client's spiritual destiny, or Ori, and developing a spiritual blueprint which can be used to support, cultivate, and live out that destiny.

Lineage variations of Iyanifa

The position of Iyalawo is found in both West Africa and in the Americas. Every town, country and lineage has different customs, although most towns in Yorubaland initiate women at present. The priesthood of women is denied by many in the Lucumí tradition in Cuba. As with the various lineages throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, the Lucumí lineage is distinct from African lineages, as can be seen in an accord reached by a group of Lucumí Oba Oriatés, Babalaos, and Olorichás on June 2, 2010.[19]

Initially, the Cuban lineage dominated the United States due to the large influx of Cuban immigrants settling in its large cities. As a result, the position of Iyanifa did not become well known in the States until the 1990s, when African American women began to go to Africa for their initiations. In the book Orisa Devotion as World Religion, Dr. Eason recounts how in 1992, the King of Oyotunji, Adefunmi, under pressure from women at Oyotunji to allow them to be initiated as Ifá priests, went to Benin, having assumed that Ile Ife did not initiate women at the time.[20]

It is noted that women have always received Ifa initiations in West Africa through Ifa, Afa, or Fa, as it is known in various lineages.

The pressure began in Oyotunji after Iyanifa Ifafunmike Osunbunmi was initiated in Osogbo, Nigeria, in 1995 by the babalawo Ifayemi Elebuibon, the Araba of Osogbo. In the book "Iyanifa: Women of Wisdom", she recounts the initial resistance of Oyotunji village because its people did not know women could be initiated up to that point.

Ode Remo is an example of a Yoruba kingdom that does not currently offer Itefa to women. Ode Remo demonstrates a history of once having done so, as noted in the book "Women in the Yoruba Religion"[21] by Ode Remo author Oluwo Olotunji Somorin. This claim is further substantiated by other sources.[22]

There are hundreds of women initiated as Iyalawos or Iyanifas in West Africa and the diaspora, according to the Ifa Women's Association. American women are the fastest growing group of priests in the tradition . This is due to American women having advanced degrees and the financial resources to support themselves and finance trips to Africa. They are still challenged by some houses in the Cuban Lukumi community, houses generally headed by males, which actively oppose their ministries.[23]

Many women have been reported to be ostracized, harassed, and stripped of credentials if they dare to pursue Itefa. Some have reported to have their lives threatened for doing so, creating fear among and compliance within the other women.[9]

There is a small community of Iyaonifas in the Cuban Lukumi community, however. María Cuesta Conde and Nidia Aguila de León were the first Iyanifas initiated in Cuba by Victor Betancourt Estrada in March, 2000.[24] Matanzas Babalawo Ernesto Acosta Cediez went on to initiate the Venezuelan lawyer, Alba Marina Portales, as an Iyanifa in 2002 with the help of Estrada.[25] The following quote from Estrada explains his decision:

"In the Ifá room, initiation to the feminine orisha Odú, the mother of all living beings and the first woman diviner (she who married Orúnmila and had sixteen children who were converted into the sixteen Olodú or major signs of Ifá), is represented." This demonstrates that to consecrate any diviner, masculine and feminine participation is required.[26] The Ifá verse Oshe Tura requires that women and their power be recognized and specifically that it is forbidden to leave women out of religious activities. Oshun, a female Orisha who is featured in Oshe Tura, "encountered men who would not recognize her, so she established a sect of women called Iyami Aje to counterbalance the injustice. The male Orishas were rendered powerless, and were not effective until Oshun was included amongst their number.[27] " 

Ewe Ìyánífá, 1906

This article doesn't allow text copying, but provides a simple and clear explanation.


One of the videos linked there is an interview with Araba Ifayemi Elebuibon on the role of women in Yoruba tradition. An earlier post discussed this story about the exclusion of Oshun by 16 male orishas and how she showed them what's what. He is of course wrong that no other traditions permit women in religious leadership! He also touches on the Cuban ban on female iyanifa (he says "babalawo") [the sexist ban is equally intense on female batá drummers (those who drum for Lucumí ceremonies) but women have begun breaking that down too.] https://youtu.be/jcT-YRtoIOM

However, another talk by this man recounts the patriarchal story about Odu, the true, female power of Ifa. She is ugly and gives her Ifa power to the male orisha Orunmila; her jealousy against other women is blamed for the ban on female participation in Ifa. He even recounts stories about Odu killing other women. Thus, "no women is allowed to see Odu." https://youtu.be/Uptj3huY2Uc

Contra this, the late Iyanifa Aina Olomo, reinterprets Odu as the primeval womb and female power, in her book The Core of Fire: A Path to Yoruba Spiritual Activism. I met her at the Association for Women and Mythology conference in 2010, and we had a long conversation about this. Because I had found references to Odu that indicated an older reservoir of female power, and we agreed that she had been colonized by patriarchal narratives (similar to how the Book of Exodus maligned MIriam the Prophetess by describing her as struck with leprosy for challenging male power, and similarly Christian scripture authors characterized Mariamma of Magdala as "possessed by seven devils."

Ọ̀jọ̀gbọ́n Sophie Bọ́sẹ̀dé Olúwọlé: Ìyánífá, Philosopher (1936-2018)

"It is impossible to convey in this brief lecture the enormous range of Prof. Olúwolé’s work. She was concerned with many things, but most particularly, with education, women and gender issues, indigenous knowledge—which she approached through her magisterial works on Ifá divination narratives in philosophical discourses—and, of course, the significance of native language in early childhood education. Though she mastered the discipline of philosophy, she was not a conventional scholar. However, it was only after her official retirement from the University of Lagos that she had the opportunity to fully put her ideas into broad use...

"... One of the ablest scholars and teachers of her generation, Professor Olúwolé’s early interests in Ifá divination poetry and tradition led to the publication of a number of articles and books on various aspects of Ifá. However, in a country that conflates deep scholarship with the practice of faith, very soon her work began to generate controversy and name calling—she was called Mamaláwo, Ìyánífá, and even a witch. In this, she was part of a long line of misunderstood women. I have always marveled at how the people of Ìgbàrà-Òkè, her home place, are praised as “omo eléye, íse weye weye” (the descendants of Eléye, that is, descendants of the powerful women of valor often nicknamed erroneously as Aje —witches). [Many women have been reclaiming this term and pointing up the way that it, and the Iyami ("mothers") have been maligned.)

"It was in Ìgbàrà-Òkè, in my childhood years, that I first saw women drummers in Yorùbáland, who rolled out their drums early on Saturday morning calling their compatriots to gather for the women’s association and lineage meetings. These are certainly the trademarks of great achievers in community history. Auntie Sophie’s resolute will and courage, the intellectual insights and striving energy that characterize her rare and dynamic life and work, should always go hand in hand.

"Her first major work, a book titled Witchcraft, Reincarnation, and the Godhead, tackled a broader question beyond what the title of the book connotes. In the popular imagination, her book’s title refers to the problem of evil in our society, which is often erroneously associated with Ajaa witchcraft, in Yorùbá thought and life. This misperception harms older women and now even children, thanks to the Pentecostal zeal to eradicate all kinds of evil from the world. Prof. Olúwolé recognized the need for an ardent intellectual response to the conflicting attitudes towards culture and life, a response based on a true understanding of the Nigerian cosmology and worldview. In this book, therefore, she attempted to probe beneath the stereotypes that have so often come to define public discourse.


Olóyè Ifáṣèyí Bamigbàlà, Iyanifa and professor, leading ceremony

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