Iyaláwo is a term in Yoruba language that literally means Mother of Mysteries or Mother of Wisdom (Ìyá: “mother”; awó “mysteries"). Ìyánífá is a Yoruba word that can be translated as Mother (Ìyá) has (ní) Ifá or Mother in Ifá. While Iyaláwo and Ìyánífá are often used interchangeably, the terms have different denotations and connotations. Iyanífa is a formal position in Ifá that may indicate that the woman is a priest of Ifá or it may signify a woman’s possession or custodianship of Ifá, whether she is a diviner in her own right or assisting a Babaláwo (Babalawo: Baba "father" of awó “mysteries").
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." 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 the paths in life. The term Iyanífa specifically relates to Ifá, and is delimited as such. However, the term Iyaláwo indicates a woman who has knowledge of sacred wisdom that includes and 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.”
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. The Odù Ifá describes how an Ìyánífá called Ugbin Ejo divines for Òfún Méji and also eventually becomes the mother of Ògbóni.
Royal mothers of Yoruba rulers are also necessarily Iyaláwo and Ìyánífá. 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.” Another documented African Iyalawo was Agbaye Arabinrin Oluwa, who lived c. 200 AD in Nigeria. Chief Fama Aina Adewale Somadhi, a contemporary and prominent, Yoruba born Iyalawo was initiated in 1988 by Chief ‘Fagbemi Ojo Alabi, late Araba of Ayetoro town, Egbado, and the Oluwo (High Priest) of Ogun State, Nigeria. The first documented American Iyalawo was Dr. D'Haifa Odufora Ifatogun, who was initiated in 1985. Mattie Curtis-Iyanifa Ifakemi Oyesanya initiated in the Oyesanya Compound with Araba Oyesanya And Ayoka Oyesanya , a student of Chief Fama's were the first African American women initiated into Ifa in 1993. 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 although most towns in Yorubaland initiate women at present. The priestesshood is denied by many in the Lucumí tradition in Cuba. 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 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, 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, in 1995 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
- Quoted in: Washington, Teresa N. (2005). Our Mothers, Our Powers, Our Texts: Manifestations of Aje in Africana Literature. Indiana University Press. pp. 16–17. ISBN 978-0991073054.
- Washington, Teresa N. (2014). The Architects of Existence: Aje in Yoruba Cosmology, Ontology, and Orature. Oya's Tornado. p. 43. ISBN 978-0991073016.
- 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.
- Ibie, C. Osamaro (1986). Ifism: The Complete Works of Orunmila. Efehi. pp. 247–248.
- Washington, Teresa N. (2014). The Architects of Existence: Aje In Yoruba Cosmology, Ontology, and Orature. Oya's Tornado. pp. 179–188. ISBN 978-0991073016.
- Quoted in: Washington, Teresa N. (2014). The Architects of Existence: Aje in Yoruba Cosmology, Ontology, and Orature. Oya's Tornado. p. 182. ISBN 978-0991073016.
- Iyanfia: Women of Wisdom, page 362
- Fama, Chief (1990). Fundamentals to the Yoruba Religion Orisha Worship. Orunmila Publications. ISBN 0971494908.
- 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
Oluwo Olotunji Somorin, Women in the Yoruba Religion, Teledase Publishing, Ode Remo, Nigeria 2009