Iyaaláwo or Iyalawo (Iyalao or Iyalaô in Latin America; literally meaning 'mother of divination' in the Yoruba language), also known as Iyanifa and Iyaonifa (meaning 'mother of Ifá') is a spiritual title that denotes a Priestess of Ifá. Its male counterpart is called Babalawo (meaning 'father of the divination'). 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 Iyalawo 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.
History of Iyanifa
The first woman initiated in the Ifá was Orunmila's daughter as described in the Ifa verse Eji Ogbe. A verse in Iwori Meji mentions that her name was 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. The sacred odu Oturupon Irete sites a woman named Oluwo being initiated into Ifa after giving birth to a son by Oduduwa. That son became known as the Ooni. 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. Another documented African Iyalawo was Agbaye Arabinrin Oluwa, who lived c. 200 AD in Nigeria. The first documented American Iyalawo was Dr. D'Haifa Odufora Ifatogun, who was initiated in 1985. The first Lucumi Iyaonifas initiatied were María Cuesta Conde and Nidia Aguila de León in 2000.
Iyalawo in an Ifá community
Iyalawos 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, 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.
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. The priestesshood is denied by many in the Lucumí tradition and some areas of Yorubaland where women's initiations in Ifa do not include itefa. As with the various lineages throughout Africa 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. Initially the Cuban lineage dominated in the United States due to the large influx of Cuban immigrants settling in the large cities. As a result, the position of Iyanifas 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, was forced to go to Dahomey assuming Ile Ife did not initiate women at the time. It is noted that women have always received Ifa initiations in West Africa though Ifa, Afa, and Fa as it is known in various lineages. The pressure began in Oyatunji after Iyanifa Ifafunmike Osunbunmi was initiated in Osogbo, Nigeria, by the babalawo Ifayemi Elebuibon, the Araba of Osogbo. She recounts her story in the book Iyanifa: Women of Wisdom, of the initial resistance by Oyatunji village because they did not know women could be initiated until then. Ode Remo currently does not offer Itefa for women However, Ode Remo demonstrates a history to the contrary as noted in "Women in the Yoruba Religion" by Ode Remo author Oluwo Olotunji Somorin and other sources.
There are hundreds of women initiated as Iyalawos or Iyanifas in West Africa and the Diaspora according to 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 financial resources to support themselves and finance trips to Africa. They are still challenged by some houses in the Cuban Lukumi community generally headed by males who actively 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 and compliance with the other women.
There are 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. Matanzas Babalawo Ernesto Acosta Cediez went on to initiate Venezuelan lawyer Alba Marina Portales as Iyanifa in 2002 with the help of Estrada. The following quote of 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, 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 (babalao or Iyáonifá) masculine and feminine participation should be present.  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.
Notes and references
- Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere, page 116
- Agele Fawesagu Agbovi (2011). Iwe Fun Odu Ifa. Kilombo Productions. p. 152.
- Kumari, Ayele (2014). Iyanifa : Women of Wisdom.
- Iyanfia: Women of Wisdom, page 362
- Iyanifa: Women of Wisdom, Chapter Historical Notes, pg 352
- CITIZENSHIP, RELIGION AND REVOLUTION IN CUBA by Carolyn E. Watson, University of New Mexico, December 2009
- Ramos, Willie (2010). "Lucumi Oba Oriate Council Agreement".
- Eason, Ikulomi Djisovi. “Historicizing Ifá Culture in Oyotunji African Village.” In Orisa Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yoruba Religious Culture, edited by Jacob Kehinde Olupona and Terry Rey, 278–85. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.
- "OdeRemo Iyanifa Corner".
- El fenómeno Iyónifá en Cuba,” Consenso 1 (2005), available from www.consenso.org/01/articulos/02_01.shtml, internet; accessed 8 February 2006.
- Mirta Fernández, “Las mujeres penetran en Ifá,” El Caiman Barbudo 345, 14 March 2009
- Betancourt Estrada, “Respuestas a Felipe Ifaláde,” 2
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