“Hidden within the mysterious Afro-Cuban religion commonly called Santería there is an even deeper body of secrets and rituals known as Ifá practiced by a group of priests known as babalawos, meaning, “Fathers of the Secrets,” in the Lucumí and Yoruba languages. For hundreds of years these babalawos, who serve as the high priests of the Afro-Cuban religion, have jealously guarded these secrets, which may have already been thousands of years old before enslaved babalawos brought them from West Africa to the shores of Cuba.
“Babalawos are initiated into the service of Orunmila (often shortened to Orula), the Oricha or deity of wisdom and knowledge, and are the only priests who practice Ifá, the highest and most profound form of divination in Santería. Ifá is probably best known for being a sophisticated and remarkably accurate and effective form of divination, containing within it a system of remedies, but Ifá is much more than merely divination. It is a vast body of knowledge and wisdom covering everything from the human condition to the universe at large, as accumulated and distilled over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.”*
Thousands of years ago, ancient babalawos (literally “Fathers of the Secrets”) discovered an enormous secret: the underlying fabric of the universe is made up entirely of ones and zeros like an immense computer program and that wisdom, knowledge and thought are the forces that move the world. They not only discovered the universe functioned essentially like a computer, but they learned how to manipulate this binary information to cause changes in the world around them. This knowledge became the core of the system of knowledge and divination known as Ifá. Over the centuries, babalawos refined and distilled this knowledge in Africa, and after the collapse of the Yoruba culture in a perfect storm of civil wars, invasion and colonialism, these secrets were brought with slaves to Cuba. Here in the New World these Ifá priests are considered specialists in divining the past, present and future for their clients, their communities and the world at large, as well as functioning as the high priesthood of Santería.
In Ifá, everything in existence is born in one or another of Ifá’s odduns, the groups of eight ones and zeros that make up Ifá’s version of a byte. They are archetypes of aché or power forming a matrix of power that includes every force and every being and every ‘thing’ in the universe. For us the underlying fabric of the cosmos is a series of somethings and nothings, as if the entire universe were somehow like an immense computer simulation. And each and every event that is occurring at the moment has occurred or will occur, is also included in the ones and zeros that make up the odduns of Ifá as well.
This is what makes Ifá both so accurate and so effective in coming to the aid of people who come to us for help.
Orunmila, the Oricha of Ifá is even privy to the secret of the creation of the universe as Olodumare (God) allowed him to be a witness to creation, hence his title of Eleri Ipin or “Witness to Destiny in its Creation”. He is also the only Oricha allowed to be witness when one of us chooses the destiny that we will follow on earth.
The babalawo has two sets of tools to practice this divination: the opele or ocuele and the opón Ifá or Table of Ifá proper. The opele is a chain separated by 8 small disks. Of these two, the opele is most commonly used for seeing people with Ifá, the Table of Ifá usually being reserved for truly big things such as finding out a person’s guardian orisha, the itá during the initiations of abo faca and kofá (see below), or when a person is in a situation beyond the facility of the opele.
When a person is seen with Ifá, one of 256 odus or signs will be seen to be accompanying the person. Each of these 256 odu has its own patakís or ancient histories, its own suyeres or prayers, and 16ble paths which this odu can take. This adds up to a staggering number of odus and paths that a babalawo must learn and memorize. Of course, no babalawo can learn it all as no babalawo can know as much as Orunmila himself, but all babalawos must devote themselves to learning prodigious amounts of knowledge pertaining to these odus. This is one of the reasons there are so few babalawos.
In Ifá there are two initiations: receiving kofá for women and abo faca for men, and making Ifá, the initiation where a person becomes initiated as a babalawo. Though the initiations of abo faca and kofá are similar there are differences between the two that cannot be gone into here, but essentially women are the seniors in Ifá unless the man becomes initiated as a babalawo, if that is their destiny. Actually very few people are called to Ifá and of those very few actually become initiated as babalawos. One reason is the responsibilities and intensive learning involved as there is no such thing as a dilettante or part-time babalawo. Also, the initiation is very expensive and is a much harder one to pass through than that of being initiated as a santero and even includes severe beatings with sticks, which is the only part of the initiation that is public. This ceremony re-enacts an event from the primordial past and also serves to ensure the babalawo
Taken from “Babalawo, Santería’s High Priests” by Frank Baba Eyiogbe from Llewellyn Worldwide, available through your local bookstore or online from most book sources such as Barnes and Noble, Amazon or Llewellyn Worldwide themselves.