Ifá: A Forest of Mystery

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Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold is an anthropologist and psychologist who over the course of the last fifteen years been studying, both academically and practically, African and Afro-derived cults in the New World. He makes part of the council of elders in the Ogboni society of Abeokuta, Nigeria. Nick is a Babalawo and a member of Ogboni society. He has for the last decade lived in Brazil where his studies and involvement in traditional forms of metaphysics, faith, cult and witchcraft is a constant theme in his life.

He is also author of:. Exu is the fusion of Umbanda, Angolan sorcery and European demonology, erupting in a uniquely Brazilian cult of practical magical action. Spells, workings, hierarchies and origins are all given in detail. Oluwatoyin Adepoju.

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The main text is complemented by pictures and accompanying text projecting Ifa as a spirituality centred in the intersection between the transcendent and the terrestrial, dramatized by the power of the beauty and mystery of nature. The Yoruba origin Ifa system of knowledge, spiritual development and divination is one of the world's great powerhouses of knowledge, integrating mathematics, literature, the visual and verbal arts, spirituality and philosophy in a matrix of primary disciplines, with ancillary disciplines including an extensive and complex herbal corpus.

This cognitive scope is both highlighted and expanded in a growing range of scholarly and more general writings on Ifa, in the context of a growing globalization of the Orisa cosmological and spiritual tradition to which Ifa belongs.

Ifa is also a bastion in the little studied field of African esotericism. Esotericism may be understood as the exploration of the structures of meaning and the direction of existence through the use of techniques either concealed from the public or inaccessible to the public on account of most people not having cultivated the perceptual faculties vital to accessing such knowledge. This description of what I describe as social and epistemic esotericism represents my own understanding within the controversial characterizations of esotericism as this has emerged in the academic study of Western and Jewish esotericism, perhaps the most developed areas in the scholarly study of this field of knowledge.

The expansion of the geographical and social reach of Ifa beyond Nigeria has inspired a reconfiguration of the system in terms of its monetary value, with a particularly blatant case being an online provider offering to train clients to become qualified babalawo, adepts in the esoteric knowledge of Ifa, in 78 hours, a level of development, which, if I can recall correctly, my Ifa teacher Joseph Ohomina described as taking 16 years to reach in the traditional system.

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Even if the traditional requirement of memorizing large parts of the Ifa literary corpus, the central information storehouse of the system, were modified on account of the modern focus on high levels of written literacy , is it realistic to expect adepthood in any spiritual system within a short time frame? Furthermore, the increasing complaints from people in the Americas about the high cost of initiation into Ifa necessitates inquiry as to whether or not one can initiate oneself into the tradition.

Purists insist it is not possible for a number of reasons. Centrists state its possible in rare cases.


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I insist it is possible for anyone who so chooses. The tree is so named by me because it prefigures, in structure and cosmological associations, the 16 Odu Ifa, the primary information network and active agents of Ifa. The tree's form, along with Orunmila's presence under it, like the Norse god Odin, who, in order to gain wisdom, hangs on Yggdrasil, each of whose branches constitutes one of the worlds that collectively compose the cosmos, evoke such images of the structure and dynamism of the cosmos as the Jewish Kabbalistic Tree of Life with its roots in the unknowable source of existence and its branches the network of all that is, as well as the cosmic tree in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, which contains in its seed the cosmos that the entire tree will become.

Democratizing Ifa beyond its current state would facilitate ease of access to its wealth of knowledge and its spiritual core, in the understanding of Ifa as one means of relating to the concept of ase as an enablement of creativity permeating existence like water does air, approaches such as Ifa enhancing the creative powers inherent to the human being.


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I am particularly challenged by the contrast between the paucity of information on Ifa initiation and the descriptions of its cost and the absolute ease with which one can undergo one of the most powerful Christian initiation rituals available, the Pentecostal ritual of being Born Again. This observation is reinforced by ready access to two of the greatest of human creations, the Hindu Sri Devi Khadgamala Stotram ritual and the rituals of the Western esoteric Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, particularly the edition of the Golden dawn ritual text by Israel Regardie.

The Sri Devi Khadgamala Stotram, of which the Shakti Saddhana version is the richest English translation I know, is an imaginative navigation of the cosmos mobilizing all the senses as portals to ultimate reality. The Golden Dawn rituals are a majestic synthesis of ideas from various cultures directed at shaping the mind within a cosmic matrix through meditations and rituals of superb architectonic splendour and sublime poetry.

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The network of tree branches above a face in reflection within contemplative semi- darkness softly illuminated by overhanging spaces of light, evokes the cognitive framework enabling intersections of mind and cosmos. A turbulent order prevails, in which all life is closely intertwined with itself, maintains itself mutually, while with great intensity each part holds its ground.

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