Babalawo (Babaaláwo in full and pronounced Baba-a-láwo, literally meaning 'father or master of the mysticism' in the Yoruba language) is a Yorùbá chieftaincy title that denotes a Priest of Ifá. Ifa is a divination system that represents the teachings of the Orisha Orunmila, the Spirit of Wisdom, who in turn serves as the oracular representative of God. The Babalawo claim to ascertain the future through communication with Orunmila. This is done through the interpretation of either the patterns of the divining chain known as Opele, or the palm nuts called Ikin, on the traditionally wooden divination tray.
The Awo in a Yoruba community
Awo undergo training in the memorization and interpretation of the 256 Odu or mysteries, as well as in the numerous verses or Ese of Ifa. Traditionally, the Babalawo usually have additional professional specialties. For instance, several would also be herbalists, while others would specialize in extinguishing the troubles caused by Ajogun. The Babalawo are, however, generally trained in the determination of problems and the application of both spiritual and related secular solutions to these problems. Their primary function is to assist people in finding, understanding and processing the vagaries of life until they experience spiritual wisdom as a part of their daily experience. The Awo is charged with helping people develop the discipline and character that supports such spiritual growth. 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.
Because spiritual development of others is the charge of Awo, they must dedicate themselves to improving their own understanding of life and be proper examples for others. The Awo that does not hold his own behavior to the highest moral standards will fall out of favor with his or her Orisa community, thus creating a situation where he will be judged more harshly than others would be for like transgressions.
Some Awo are initiated as adolescents, while others learn as full adults. In either case, training and years of dedication are still the hallmark of the most learned and spiritually gifted Awos. This is why on average, most Ifa initiates train for as long as a decade before they are recognized as "complete" Babalawos.
Ifa priestesses are called Iyanifa. Awo is often used as a gender-neutral reference to individual Iyanifa or Babalawo, as well as to the group as a whole. An Awo is a spiritual counsellor to clients and those whom he or she may have assisted in receiving tutelary Orisa shrines and/or initiation into the spiritual tradition of the Orisa. There have been Iyanifa, women Ifa priests, since time immemorial in some areas of the world, such as Ibadan, Nigeria.
On the other hand, in Cuba and parts of Nigeria, such as Ode Remo and parts of Ijebuland, the position of the Iyanifa as a divining priestess of Ifa is hotly contested on the grounds that in the Ifa Odus Ogunda Ka and Oshe Yekun, no one can become a full Awo Ifa without the presence of Orisa Odu, and in the Odu Ifa Irete Ntelu (Irete Ogbe), Odu herself says that she would only marry Orunmila if he promised not to permit women to be in the same room as her. These views appear to be confirmed by books published in Nigeria as far back as the 19th century. For instance, the eminent Yoruba author James Johnson wrote in one of the most detailed early descriptions of Ifa that "Whenever this should be the case, a woman would receive from a Babalawo only one Ikin or Consecrated Palm nut called Eko, which she would carry about her body for her protection, and whenever divination should recommend and prescribe to her sacrifice to Ifa, she would, for the time being, hand over her Eko either to her husband or to her brother, or any other male relative according to prescription, who would include it in his own Ikins for the purpose of the worship and sacrifice in which she would participate."  William Bascom, the foremost academic authority on Ifá among the Yoruba up until the time of his death, conducted extensive field work Yorubaland in 1937-38, 1950-51, and as late as 1960 and 1965. This field work was conducted in a large number of areas of Yorubaland including the cities of Ife, Igana, Meko, Oyo, Ilesa, Abeokuta, Osogbo, Sagamu, Ilara, Ondo, Ijebu Ode or Ekiti in Yorubaland. At no time during this prolonged series of studies did Dr. Bascom encounter a female Ifá priest or an informant who had heard of such a thing leading him to state unequivocally that “only men can babalawos." Sources from Yorubaland going back to the mid-19th century clearly state that only men can become Ifa diviners.
Notes and references
- Johnson, James. Yoruba Heathenism. Exeter: J. Townsend Press, 1899
- Bascom, Dr. William. 'Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa. Bloomington Indiana: Indiana University Press
- Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba, by John Peel. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000
- Egbe Awo Toshin in Ukraine and Russia
- Ile Ifa Jalumi
- Academic Perspective, Babalawo
- Ijo Alawoye
- The Smell of My City: Interview with a Babalawo Priest by Amrit, Havana Times, June 21, 2010
- Ijo Asaforitifa - Community of West African Orisa Tradition
- Traditional Community of Ifa in Cuba, Canada and Brazil