This is one of the 16 most important poems of Ifa, the divination system of the Yorubas. In this long and fascinating poem we meet many of the principal Yoruba Orisha or gods, and each is characteristically described. But the central argument is that each man’s fate is ultimately decided by his own character. The gods are powerful, but in the last resort men are free:

Ori is regarded as an intermediary between every man and the divinity whom he worships. Each individual’s Ori is his personal divinity who regulates his life in conformity with the wishes of the divinities who exist for the general public interest. Whatever has not been sanctioned by one’s Ori cannot be done by the divinities. Ori is the most important part of each individual’s personality … The point of this story (in the poem) is to demonstrate the importance of Ori in the life of every individual. The Yoruba conceive of Ori as each individual’s own guardian and divinity. The other Orisa are for the public at large. Although they cater for the interests of individuals, they cannot do this as effectively as Ori whose duty it is to protect the individual and lead him to his chosen destiny.

W. Abimbola, Sixteen Great Poems of lfa (1975), p. 34, 158-59

Orunmila said that one always bends down when entering the doorway.
Ifa asked the question, ‘Who among you Gods could follow your devotee to a distant journey over the seas?’ (1)
Sango answered that he could follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas. (2)
The question was asked from him, ‘What will you do if after travelling a long distance,
Walking and walking, You arrive at Koso, (3)
The home of your fathers?
If they prepare gbegiri soup, (4)
And they prepare yam-flour pudding:
If they offer you bitter kola (5)
And a cock?’
Sango answered, ‘After eating to my satisfaction,
I will return home.’
Sango was told that he could not follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas.

Orunmila said that one always bends down when entering the doorway.
Ifa asked the question, ‘Who among you Gods could follow your devotee to a distant journey over the seas?’
Oya answered that she could follow her devotee to a distant journey over the seas. (6)
The question was asked from her, ‘What will you do if after travelling a long distance,
Walking and walking,
You arrive at the city of Ira The home of your fathers? (7)
If they kill a big animal,
And they offer you a big pot of egbo?’ (8)
Oya answered, ‘After eating to my satisfaction,
I will return to my home.’
Oya was told that she could not follow her devotee to a distant journey over the seas.

Orunmila said that one always bends down when entering the doorway.
Ifa asked the question, ‘Who among you Gods could follow your devotee to a distant journey over the seas?’
Oosaala answered that he could follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas. (9)
The question was asked from him, ‘What will you do if after
travelling for a long distance, Walking and walking,
You arrive at the city of Ifon, The home of your fathers? (10)
If they kill for you one big hen pregnant with eggs:
If they offer you two hundred snails
Seasoned with vegetable and melon soup?’
Oosaala answered saying, ‘After eating to my satisfaction, I will return to my home.’
Oosaala was told that he could not follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas.

Orunmila said that one always bends down when entering the doorway.
Ifa asked the question, ‘Who among you Gods could follow your devotee to a distant journey over the seas?’
Elegbara answered that he could follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas. (11)
The question was asked from him, ‘What will you do if after travelling for a long distance,
Walking and walking,
You arrive at the city of Ketu, The home of your fathers? (12)
If they offer you a cock
And plenty of palm-oil?’
Elegbara answered, ‘After eating to my satisfaction,
I will return to my home.’
Elegbara was told that he could not follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas.

Orunmila said that one always bends down when entering the doorway.
Ifa asked the question, ‘Who among you Gods could follow your devotee to a distant journey over the seas?’
Ogun answered that he could follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas. (13)
The question was asked from him, ‘What will you do if after travelling for a long distance,
Walking and walking,
You arrive at Ire, (14)
The home of your fathers?
If they offer you fried beans,
And they kill a dog for you
Together with a hen:
If they offer you guinea-corn beer and palm-wine?’
Ogun answered saying, ‘After eating to my satisfaction,
I will chant Ijala loudly and joyously
Back to my home.’
Ogun was told that he could not follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas.

Orunmila said that one always bends down when entering the doorway.
Ifa asked the question, ‘Who among you Gods could follow your devotee to a distant journey over the seas?’
Osun answered that she could follow her devotee to a distant journey over the seas. (15)
The question was asked from her, ‘What will you do if after travelling a long distance, Walking and walking,
You arrive at Ijumu, (16)
The home of your fathers?
If they give you plenty of corn-starch pudding
Together with yanrin vegetable and maize-beer?’
Osun answered saying, ‘After eating to my satisfaction, I will ride upon small pieces of brass back to my home.’
Osun was told that she could not follow her devotee to a distant journey over the seas.

Orunmila said that one always bends down when entering the doorway. (17)
Ifa asked the question, ‘Who among you Gods could follow your devotee to a distant journey over the seas?’
Orunmila said that he could follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas.
The question was asked from him, ‘What will you do if after travelling for a long distance,
Walking and walking,
You arrive at Igeti hill, (18)
The home of your fathers?
If they offer you two fast-moving rats,
Two fish that swim gracefully,
Ten hens with big livers,
Two goats heavy with foetus,
Two cows with fat horns:
If they prepare pounded yam,
And they prepare yam-flour pudding:
If you take well-brewed guinea-corn beer,
And you take alligator pepper,
And good kola nuts?’ (19)
Orunmila answered saying, ‘After eating to my satisfaction, I will return to my home.’
Orunmila was told that he could not follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas.

Ifa priest was dumbfounded.
He could not say a word
Because he didn’t understand the parable.
Orunmila, I confess my helplessness:
Please clothe me with wisdom,
Mapo in the city of Elere, (20)
Mokun of the town of Otan,
Mesin of the city of Ilawe,
Mapo in the city of Elejelu:
Gbolajokoo, offspring of tusks
That make the elephant trumpet.
Orunmila, you are the leader,
I am the follower.
You are the sage who teaches one wise things like one’s relation.
Ifa, the question is, ‘Who among the Gods can follow his devotee
to a distant journey over the seas?’

Ifa said, ‘It is Ori,
It is Ori alone
Who can follow his own devotee to a distant journey over the seas.’
Orunmila said, ‘When an Ifa priest dies,
People may ask that his divination instruments should be thrown into the ditch.
When a devotee of Sango dies,
People may ask that his Sango instruments should be thrown away.
When a devotee of Oosaala dies,
People may ask that his paraphernalia should be buried with him.’
Orunmila asked, ‘Ever since human beings have been dying,
Whose head is ever severed from his body before burial?’
Ifa said, ‘It is Ori,
It is Ori alone
Who can follow his own devotee to a distant journey over the seas without turning back.’ (21)
If I have money
It is Ori whom I will praise.
My Ori, it is you.
If I have children on earth,
It is Ori whom I will praise.
My Ori, it is you.
All the good things that I have on earth,
It is my Ori to whom I will give my praise.
My Ori, it is you.
Ori, I hail you,
You who always remember your devotee,
You who give blessing to your devotee more quickly than other Gods.
No God blesses a man
Without the consent of his Ori.
Ori, I hail you,
You who allows children to be born alive.
A person whose sacrifice is accepted by his own Ori
Should rejoice exceedingly!

from Sixteen Great Poems of lfa UNESCO (1975),
by W. Abimbola


Footnotes

  1. Over the seas: the expression refers to any distant journey.
  2. Sango: the god of thunder and the boldest of the gods, which explains why he answers first.
  3. Koso: a part of old Oyo where Sango worshippers lived.
  4. Gbegiri soup … yam-flour pudding: all through the poem, the gods are offered food especially associated with them to tempt them from the journey. Yam-flour pudding was Sango’s favourite meal.
  5. Bitter cola and a cock: similarly, all through the poem, the gods are offered their special sacrifices.
  6. Oya: the wife of Sango, a fierce woman who answers second in the clear belief she can do better than her husband.
  7. Ira: the place where Oya was born.
  8. Egbo: cooked maize.
  9. Oosaala: the Yoruba creation god, also known as Obatala and as Oosa.
  10. Ifon: Oosaala’s home town in Owo.
  11. Elegbara: the god of fate, the trickster god, also known as Eshu.
  12. Ketu: Yoruba town in Dahomey, where Elegbara is still worshipped.
  13. Ogun: the god of Iron.
  14. Ire: a town in Ekiti, believed by some to be Ogun’s home. Ogun demands the sacrifice of a dog and is fond of drinking and of Ijala. These lines (Lines 55-65) are vividly in character.
  15. Osun: a gentle god whose symbol is the River Osun and who is associated with children and nursing mothers.
  16. Ijumu: Osun’s home town.
  17. Orunmila: the leader of the gods and appropriately the last to answer since if he cannot complete the journey then no god can.
  18. Igeti Hill: a place near Ife where Orunmila lived while on earth.
  19. Orunmila is offered the largest sacrifice of all.
  20. The names in these lines are all different titles which Orunmila bears in these different places.
  21. The answer to the question is ‘Nobody’s’, and the point is that only Ori accompanies us on the journey of death.