Babaaláwo or Babalawo (Babalao or Babalaô in Latin America; literally meaning 'father of the secrets' in the Yoruba language) is a spiritual title that denotes a Priest of Ifá. Its female counterpart is called Iyalawo (meaning 'mother of the secrets'). Ifá is a divination system that represents the teachings of the Orisha Orunmila, the Orisha of Wisdom, who in turn serves as the oracular representative of Olodumare. The Babalawo or Iyanifa ascertain the future of their clients through communication with Ifá. This is done through the interpretation of either the patterns of the divining chain known as Opele, or the sacred palm nuts called Ikin, on the traditionally wooden divination tray called "Opon Ifá".
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 Ifá. 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, or to divine how good luck can be maintained,and the application of both spiritual and related secular solutions. Their primary function is to assist people in finding, understanding, and being in alignment with one's individual destiny, "Ori" 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 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.
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 Orisha 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 adults. In either case, training and years of dedication are still the hallmark of the most learned and spiritually gifted Awos.
Ifá priestesses are called Iyalawo or Iyanifa. Awo is often used as a gender-neutral reference to individual Iyalawo or Babalawo, as well as to the group as a whole. An Awo is a spiritual counselor to clients and those whom he or she may have assisted in receiving tutelary Orisha shrines and/or initiation into the spiritual tradition of the Orisha.
On the other hand, in the Americas and parts of Nigeria, such as Ode Remo and parts of Ijebuland, the position of the Iyalawo as a divining priestess of Ifá is contested on the grounds that in the Ifá Odus Ogunda Ka and Oshe Yekun, no one can become a full Awo Ifá without the presence of Orisha Odu, and in the Odu Ifá 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 suggested 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 be babalawos." Sources from Yorubaland going back to the mid-19th century generally state that only men can become Ifá diviners, although it is true that the Reverend Samuel Johnson did say in "The History of the Yorubas" that in his day, the Ifá priests of imperial Oyo were led by the Iyalemole, the priestess of the Alaafin's personal oracle.
In the Ifá Literary Corpus that Awos use for confirmation in the odu EjiOgbe which documents that Orunmila initiated his firstborn daughter. The arguments of Odu forbidding women are noted by the fact that Odu itself is feminine and means womb and her nature is to give birth. The odu is for men to become like a woman and have a womb. Women do not need an artificial womb because they were born with one.
While Ode Remo now takes a posture of not initiating women, it demonstrates a history to the contrary as noted in "Women in the Yoruba Religion" by Ode Remo author Oluwo Olotunji Somorin and other sources.
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
- "Suny Press".
- "Amazon". Iyanifa.org.
- "OdeRemo Iyanifa Corner".
Oyeronke Olajubu, Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere ISBN 978-0791458853
Ayele Fa'seguntunde Kumari, Iyanifa:Woman of Wisdom ISBN 978-1500492892
Oluwo Olotunji Somorin, Women in the Yoruba Religion, Teledase Publishing, Ode Remo, Nigeria 2009
- 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
- Oyeku Ofun Temple - A peaceful place for Divine worship
- Traditional Community of Ifa in Cuba, Canada and Brazil
- "Iyanifa.Org". Iyanifa Worldwide. 2014.