Cover image for Divining the Self: A Study in Yoruba Myth and Human Consciousness By Velma E. Love

Divining the Self

A Study in Yoruba Myth and Human Consciousness

Velma E. Love


$54.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05405-6

$24.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05406-3

160 pages
6" × 9"
3 b&w illustrations

Signifying (on) Scriptures

Divining the Self

A Study in Yoruba Myth and Human Consciousness

Velma E. Love

“Well-crafted case studies like Divining the Self are important contributions to the process of bringing religious studies into compatibility with the lived religious and scriptural practices of participants. Traditionally, scholars have focused on the text itself to find meanings based on words and concepts in order to claim religious relevance. This study looks beyond print and inscription by focusing on an influential oral and (relatively recently) written corpus in use among a participant population that outnumbers many ‘mainline’ Christian denominations.”


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Divining the Self weaves elements of personal narrative, myth, history, and interpretive analysis into a vibrant tapestry that reflects the textured, embodied, and performative nature of scripture and scripturalizing practices. Velma Love examines the Odu—the Yoruba sacred scriptures—along with the accompanying mythology, philosophy, and ritual technologies engaged by African Americans. Drawing from the personal narratives of African American Ifa practitioners along with additional ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Oyotunji African Village, South Carolina, and New York City, Love’s work explores the ways in which an ancient worldview survives in modern times.

Divining the Self also takes up the challenge of determining what it means for the scholar of religion to study scripture as both text and performance. This work provides an excellent case study of the sociocultural phenomenon of scripturalizing practices.

“Well-crafted case studies like Divining the Self are important contributions to the process of bringing religious studies into compatibility with the lived religious and scriptural practices of participants. Traditionally, scholars have focused on the text itself to find meanings based on words and concepts in order to claim religious relevance. This study looks beyond print and inscription by focusing on an influential oral and (relatively recently) written corpus in use among a participant population that outnumbers many ‘mainline’ Christian denominations.”
“Captivating! Velma Love has crafted a very fine study of the Odu in diaspora. The historical, ethnographic work here fulfills the important promise of the Signifying (on) Scriptures model. Anyone interested in the social life of scriptures will value this book.”
“Velma Love’s Divining the Self is an excellent ethnography of Ifa divination tradition in the African American community of Oyotunji Village in South Carolina and in New York City. In this innovative book, Love provides an in-depth exploration of how a community of believers constructs a new identity for itself by digging deep and tapping into the spiritual source and ‘orature’ of the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria. The theoretical and methodological frameworks she deploys inspire fresh ways of thinking about non-textual religion, identity construction, race, gender, and community life in modern contexts. This is a book that will interest a diverse group of scholars in folklore and literature, mythology, spirituality, and African and African American studies, to mention just a few.”
“The breadth that Love manages to achieve in a work of this brief length is impressive. It takes account of festivals and archetypes, as well as Caribbean and West African traditions and their performances and revision in African American communities in the US.”
“This historical context for researchers of contemporary Ifa/Orisha tradition in the United States remains vital, as well as being simply enjoyable reading for practitioners of Yoruba religion.”

Velma E. Love is Project Director of the Howard University School of Divinity's National Study of Black Congregational Life.


Preface and Acknowledgments


1 Mythic Origins and Cultural Practices

2 Orisha Archetypes, Cultural Memory, and the Odu

3 Divining the Self

4 Symbols and Signposts for the Journey

5 Powers of the Mothers

6 Oshun, Yemonja, and Oya






I was not a stranger to rural South Carolina when I traveled to the town of Sheldon in 1999. I had driven down rough and bumpy dirt roads on sunny days before—winding roads with potholes and gutters, roads lined by trees and underbrush, wildflowers, and weeds. But this road was different, for I was not sure where it would lead. I heard the beat of a drum in the distance, and I saw that the road came to an end just ahead. The hand-lettered sign read, “You are now leaving the United States of America.” As I looked around, I felt as though I were in a different place and time. Noticing the official “STOP” sign at the entrance to the gate, I parked beside several other vehicles. A twelve-foot-high archway in the tan stucco front wall marked the entrance to Oyotunji African Village, South Carolina, and the beginning of my journey with the Holy Odu—the unwritten, living scriptures of the Yoruba people of West African origin.

Established in 1970, Oyotunji Village was a child of the Black Consciousness movement. The early founders sought not just a physical space but also a psychological space in which they could feel rooted and grounded. From this space, they could summon from some deep inner source the material for a reconstructed memory (or perhaps not a memory at all, but an imaginative construction) of a way of being in the world, a way that felt safe and secure and meaningful. Now, more than thirty years later, I had come to this very spot to listen, to watch, and to learn.

A fifty-something-year-old African American man, dressed in a light-colored dashiki with matching drawstring pants, greeted me at the gate. I introduced myself as a graduate student conducting research on African American engagements with sacred texts. “Could I talk with the priest?” I asked, not knowing that there were many priests. Without ever suggesting that my question was uninformed, he simply responded, “Which one?” Before I could answer, he gestured to another gentleman nearby and said, “Oh, here’s Chief Ajamu. He’s a good person for you to talk to.” Chief Adenibi S. Ajamu, an African American man who appeared to be in his sixties, was one of the senior priests and founders of the Village. His head was shaved clean, and he wore traditional African attire, a light tan robe with matching pants and sandals. A multicolored beaded diviner’s bag hung from his shoulder, and he had a book in his hand. I later learned that the book contained commentary on the Odu.

My first two-hour conversation with Chief Ajamu explored the basic tenets and practices of the Ifa/Orisha tradition, which I introduce here but will describe later in greater detail. The word orisha (a singular and plural term) refers to gods, divinities, and forces of nature. Oyotunji Village was founded by a group of African American Yoruba practitioners from New York City who wanted to “uncover the saints”—that is, to reveal the orisha behind the camouflage of the Catholic icons used in Santeria. Santeria, the Cuban version of the West African Ifa/Orisha tradition, survived because enslaved Africans secretly worshipped the orisha while seeming to venerate the Catholic saints (see chapter 1). When African Americans embraced the Orisha tradition as part of the black nationalist movement in the 1960s, some of the newly initiated priests decided that they no longer needed to conceal their beliefs. A small group, led by Oba Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I, moved to South Carolina and established Oyotunji African Village, which marked the beginning of Yoruba revivalism in America. “Oyotunji” means that Oyo, the ancient African kingdom, “rises again” or “wakes up.” In the words of Chief Ajamu, “We wanted to build a monument to our African past, lest we forget. But the ancestors tricked us. . . . They got us down here, and we had to learn a lot in order to survive.”

As I reflected on Ajamu’s comment, several questions surfaced. What African past? Did the founders have Yoruba ancestors? Did it matter? With an estimated population of forty million people in West Africa, the Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa. The largest concentration of the population is in the southwestern region of Nigeria, though other parts of West Africa, including the Republic of Benin, Togo, and Ghana, also have large Yoruba populations. While not all Yoruba people practice the indigenous Ifa/Orisha tradition, many people of non-Yoruba ancestry, including African Americans, throughout the Diaspora have voluntarily embraced it. In his account of Yoruba culture, Kola Abimbola, a practicing priest and author, finds that close to 100 million people of different racial backgrounds—living in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, France, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Venezuela—are linked to the tradition.

Given the expansive and relational nature of the Ifa/Orisha tradition, it is difficult to know exactly how many practitioners there really are, especially because some practitioners combine multiple religious identities and may merge Yoruba practices with those of Catholicism, Islam, or Protestant Christianity. Citing census data from Cuba and Brazil, professor of religion and bestselling author Stephen Prothero notes that the often-quoted figure of 100 million Yoruba worldwide may not be a realistic estimate, but he argues that the number certainly runs into the tens of millions, with at least 25 million in West Africa, 10 to 25 million in Brazil, 2 to 3 million in Cuba, and a few hundred thousand in the United States. He names the Yoruba religion as number six in what he considers to be the eight rival religions of the world.

Historian Albert J. Raboteau reminds us that the enslaved Africans in North America were from many different parts of Africa and embraced various cultures and traditions, including, among others, those of the Mandinka, the Yoruba, the Ibo, the Akan, and the Bakingo. He notes that the Senegambia region also supplied a large number of Muslim Africans to the Atlantic slave trade. “It is important to remember,” he writes, “that no single African culture or religion, once transplanted in alien soil, could have remained intact: it was inevitable that the slaves would build new societies,” blending their social experiences and their cultural traditions. In spite of this diversity, though, as Raboteau points out, a thread of continuity was located in the style of ritual performance, including singing, drumming, and dancing, along with a general perspective on the world.

The Yoruba religion thus appears with different faces throughout the Diaspora—indeed, its fluidity is one of its defining characteristics. Whether the face is that of Ifa in West Africa, Lucumi in Cuba, Candomblé in Brazil, or Shango in Trinidad, to name a few, the shared unwritten sacred “text” is the Odu—or, more specifically, one or more of the 256 odus, or divinatory signs, which are the means through which the orisha speak to the human condition. In the Yoruba worldview, the invisible world of spirit energies, consisting of ancestors, deities, and the unborn, is as real as the visible world. Through a life-force energy known as ashe that permeates and infuses all things, members of the human, animal, plant, and mineral kingdoms are connected. Each odu accessed through divination is said to provide an awareness of how these invisible energies affect an individual or communal situation. The divination narrative also provides a prescription for restoring balance when an imbalance has been detected.

Divining the Self focuses on African American engagements with the Odu, the storied environment, the divination narratives, and the related rituals, ceremonies, and outcomes. It embraces the “signifying scriptures” model of focusing on people and their engagements with the literature deemed sacred rather than on the literature in isolation. In exploring the questions of African American engagements with the Odu, I have also explored questions of what it means to take a performative, interactive approach to the study of scriptures from any tradition, along with questions of what it means to “scripturalize.” My quest took me beyond classes at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, beyond the libraries, bookstores, museums, and archives, and ultimately into several communities of practitioners, including those in New York City as well as Oyotunji Village. I quickly learned that there was no road map for the work I wanted to do—no clearly stated methodology for the study of unwritten scriptures. Text-centered biblical criticism, even in its most radical form, did not work for the study of the Odu, a living body of knowledge that encompassed an alternative way of knowing. While anthropologists had used performance theory in the general study of religion, scholars of religion had not themselves engaged such models in the study of scriptures. Vincent Wimbush introduced the “signifying scriptures” approach, a model that shifted the focus from texts to worlds of experience and practice. Although no structural guidelines for this model existed, it provided a conceptual compass for me, and I used it to find my way as I began to traverse the unfamiliar terrain of the Holy Odu. Perhaps, as one practitioner later suggested, the warrior orisha were working on my behalf (Esu/Elegba opening the roads, Ogun clearing the path, Ochoosi gathering the ashe-capacity to make things happen), for I stumbled upon Dwight Conquergood’s performance paradigm and found in it a lifeline.

Conquergood suggests that performance studies scholars must “recuperate from performance some oppositional force, some resistance to the textual fundamentalism of the academy, must use performance as a lever to de-center . . . the textualism that pervades dominant regimes of knowledge.” Noting the difference between a textual paradigm and a performance paradigm, Conquergood further suggests that a “textual paradigm privileges distance, detachment, and discourse as ways of knowing . . . while a performance paradigm insists upon immediacy, involvement, and intimacy as modes of understanding.” It is the experiential, interactive, intimate focus that makes the performance paradigm well suited not only to a study of African American engagements with the Odu, but also to the range of meaning-making activities involved in the scripturalizing practices of any tradition. As Norman Denzin notes, “In this interactionist epistemology, context replaces text, verbs replace nouns, structures become processes. The emphasis is on change, contingency, locality, motion, improvisation, struggle, situationally specific practices and articulations, the performance of con/texts.”

In this study I take up the challenge of determining what it means for the scholar of religion to study scripture as both text and performance. As noted above, my approach draws from Vincent Wimbush’s concept of signifying scriptures and uses Joseph Roach’s and Dwight Conquergood’s ideas of a performance paradigm for focusing on the Ifa Odu literary corpus, the Yoruba sacred literature, as engaged by African Americans in the construction of self and world. Wimbush’s signifying scriptures model places its primary focus “not upon the content meaning of texts, but upon textures—upon the signs, material products, practices, orientations, politics and power issues associated with the socio-cultural phenomenon of the invention and engagement of scriptures.” The African American engagements with Yoruba “scriptures” provide an excellent case study for examining these performative aspects of scriptures.

We can safely say of Wimbush’s model what Joseph Roach, in Cities of the Dead, says of his performance paradigm: It “does not require historians to abandon the archive, but it does encourage them to spend more time in the streets.” Roach suggests that what we popularly refer to as “culture” is a process of remembering and forgetting, a process that is expressed in a variety of performance events, ranging from the stage show, the carnival, and the festival to the rituals of everyday life. He further explains, “To perform in this sense means to bring forth, to make manifest, and to transmit. To perform also means, though often more secretly, to reinvent” (11).

It is in this sense that I use the term “perform” in my investigation of the sacred Odu. How does the Odu “perform” in the lives of African Americans immersed in the Orisha tradition? What does it bring forth, make manifest, transmit? How and in what ways does it reinvent? In the creation of a category he calls “circum-Atlantic performance,” Roach uses the word “orature” to point to something that transcends the conventional categories of orality and literacy, suggesting that various modes of communication and forms of expression have interacted over time to produce such a hybrid (ibid.). Those forms of expression that he categorizes as “orature”—a term borrowed from the Kenyan novelist and theatrical director Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o—include “gesture, song, dance, processions, storytelling, proverbs, gossip, customs, rites, and rituals” (ibid.). These modes of communication are important aspects of scriptural interpretation by religious practitioners.

In his study of New Orleans Mardi Gras street performances, Roach recognizes the interdependence of orature and literature, suggesting that some things may be recorded in the literature, but the literary record is only part of the story; behaviors are remembered, too, and put into practice through orature, or performance. He suggests that through the Mardi Gras Zulu Parade, an African cultural pattern in the form of the trickster archetype (Esu) is reinvented in the social context of New Orleans. Such “restored behaviors” enacted and performed “function as vehicles of cultural transmission” (ibid.). In the case of African American engagements with the Odu, we could question whether such behaviors are “restored” or whether they are in fact imaginative constructions. The memory, performance, substitution paradigm which Roach describes as the genealogy of performance is closely akin to Wimbush’s concept of signifying scriptures, an interactive process of making meaning by appropriating, revising, embellishing, and expressing “scriptures” through a variety of forms and creative acts. In this study of African American engagements with the Odu, I argue that the scripturalizing practices serve to construct and reconstruct self and world.

Representation is an important aspect of this analysis, and the sign theory developed by Charles Sanders Peirce is helpful as a theoretical framework for this discussion. As Robert Preucel describes it, Peirce’s understanding of “synechism as the connectedness of all life and semiosis as the process of growth” fits well with the Ifa/Orisha worldview. Peirce’s typology of signs includes the icon, the index, and the symbol, each functioning in a slightly different way. The icon is based on the characteristics of an object; for example, in orisha iconography, the machete represents the orisha Ogun’s ability to cut away obstacles along the journey of life. The index functions as an indicator, in the way that the “signature,” or coded markings, of each odu represents a corpus of stories, sayings, or proverbs that further explicate the situation in question. The odu Ogunda is associated with the orisha Ogun, which indicates, as Peirce points out, how one sign is connected to another sign. The symbol, as defined by Peirce, obtains its character from the ideas associated with it through convention. The orisha Ogun, for instance, symbolizes a warrior energy that cuts through obstacles. The oriki (praise songs), prayers, dances, gestures, rituals, and ceremonies for Ogun, as representational actions, add to the association of ideas or conventions that determine the meanings assigned to Ogun. It is in this way that I use the term “symbol” in the discussion of the Odu and the Ifa/Orisha tradition.

Though more in line with the Saussurean tradition, Sherry Ortner, a feminist anthropologist and student of Clifford Geertz known for her work on symbols, meaning, and power, provides a system of classifying and grouping symbols that is helpful in examining the rich universe of symbols in Ifa/Orisha worship. Grouping key symbols into two categories—summarizing symbols and elaborating symbols—Ortner posits that summarizing symbols “sum up” or express for adherents, in an emotionally powerful way, what an experience means to them. In this schema, sacred symbols in the broadest sense, as objects of reverence, are summarizing symbols. Elaborating symbols, on the other hand, help order experience and provide vehicles for sorting out complex feelings and ideas.

The summarizing symbols of Ifa/Orisha worship include the igbamole (the great calabash of creation), the top half of which represents orun (the heavens or the invisible world), and the bottom half of which represents aye ile (the visible world or the inhabited earth). Figure 1 shows a drawing of the calabash on a wall that encloses the “Market Place” and courtyard at Oyotunji Village. This symbol represents the Yoruba worldview, one in which the theme of parallel worlds plays a major role. Much of what goes on in the ritual practice has to do with the connection between the invisible world of spirit and the inhabited world.

On a nearby wall in Oyotunji Village another key symbol, the opon Ifa (divination board), is drawn (see fig. 2). It, too, represents the universe. When the diviner casts the opele (chain) or throws the cowrie shells, the odu is said to “drop from Heaven,” suggesting that the odu travels from the invisible realm, or orun, to the visible realm (earth). For the babalawo (literally, “father of mysteries,” or priest), the opon Ifa is also a summarizing symbol, representing not only the universe but also the worldview of practitioners. It is on this board, this sacred symbol of the universe, that the babalawo traditionally writes the “signature” of the odu. The image at the top center of the border represents Esu/Elegba, commonly referred to as the “trickster god.” But as Henry Louis Gates Jr. reminds us, on a deeper level, “Esu . . . assumes his role of interpreter and implicitly governs the process of translation of these written signs into the oral verse of the Odu. . . . Esu is our metaphor for the uncertainties of explication, for the open-endedness of every literary text.” Esu/Elegba is described by adherents as the “divine messenger,” the one who opens roads, inner and outer; the one who links the visible and invisible worlds; and the one who may either garble or clarify communications. It is no wonder then that Esu/Elegba, the cement figure with cowrie-shell eyes, nose, and mouth, is part of the sacred arsenal of every practitioner. I discuss the significance of this elaborating symbol in chapter 2.

The inscription in the circle below represents the signature of the odu Ogbe Oshe, marked on the opon Ifa. Since I was unable to speak directly with the priest/artist who created this drawing, I can only speculate as to why this odu was selected for display in the courtyard. According to the description provided in The Sacred Ifa Oracle, one of the reference books used by several of the priests who participated in the study, Ogbe Oshe speaks of “good news and achievements that call for celebration.” The display of this particular odu seems to be consistent with the idea of the transformative power of Yoruba spiritual technology, the capacity to reinvent and re-create self and world. Ogbe is an odu in which the orisha Obatala speaks. Oshe is the odu of the orisha Oshun. Obatala and Oshun are considered the guardian orisha of Oyotunji Village.

The signature in the circle and the remaining 255 odus are elaborating symbols. Each of the odus, representing a potential energy that may or may not have manifested in a person’s life, helps provide an awareness of the complex forces at work in a given experience. As noted above, the odus are considered the voice of the orisha, and each odu is linked to a number of proverbs and stories. A priest performs divination for a client to shed light on a situation and determine what story the client is living; the priest may also ascertain what can be done to change the story. As one priest/diviner phrased it, “It is the diviner’s job to read the client’s life story and help him/her to rewrite it.” This “reading” of the client’s life generally includes identifying the client’s “guardian orisha.” Everyone has a dominant orisha, a particular “head” or “consciousness.” Applying Ortner’s schema, the orisha might also be considered both a summarizing as well as an elaborating symbol. As a summarizing symbol, the orisha represents a personality archetype, a divinity, a force of nature, an aspect of God, or an energy matrix. The diviner generally identifies the orisha that is “speaking” in the odu that falls. As an elaborating symbol, the orisha helps the practitioner understand what it means to be influenced by particular energies and what strategies to use to bring about desired changes. What Ortner refers to as the “key scenario,” another type of elaborating symbol, is, in this context, the ontological journey of life. Strategies for living a successful life (i.e., a life of balance and harmony) are embedded in the apatakis (mythical tales), the oriki (praise songs), and the odus as well as in the rituals and ceremonies.

Every yawo, or first-year initiate, learns the apatakis, objects, colors, oriki, dances, numbers, feast days, attributes, and personality characteristics associated with each orisha. In effect, the initiate is taught the “orature” of orisha “performance” in everyday life, and part of this performance is related to the sacred Odu. The apatakis are passed on verbally from one generation of priests to another, and they are what anthropologists Elizabeth Fine and Jean Haskell Speer refer to as an epistemological verbal performance, “a way of knowing self, culture, and others more completely.” Fine and Speer, drawing from Erving Goffman’s work on the presentation of self in everyday life, suggest that “stories of self and community that have been repeated often enough to become artfully shaped performances are clear indices of a person’s sense of identity.” Yoruba orisha archetypes, some of which I discuss in chapters 5 and 6 below, exemplify such performances. The Ifa Odu literary corpus, accessed and activated through divination, serves as the basis for understanding one’s self in relationship to the world—and because it is highly adaptable to individual situations, it presents an opportunity for exploring not only how “scriptures” are produced but also how they “perform” in culture. The odus and related texts have survived primarily through oral tradition and performance. Although in recent years much of the material has been collected and published, the tradition still may be characterized as oral, for many apatakis are transmitted verbally. Though it is not uncommon to see African American diviners consulting a book to check the technical accuracy of their readings, this living body of knowledge is dynamic and changing. According to my consultants, there are two definitive texts used by the babalawo. The Sacred Ifa Oracle, by Afolabi A. Epega and Philip John Neimark, contains an English translation of all 256 odus of the ancient oral tradition, along with interpretations for contemporary life; William Bascom’s Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba Divination from Africa to the New World is another collection used extensively throughout the orisha priesthood. But all diviners are encouraged to memorize the odus, the corresponding configurations, and at least one story or proverb for each. A popular companion book for priests in the dilogun system is The Secrets of Afro-Cuban Divination: How to Cast the Diloggún, the Oracle of the Orishas, by Ócha’ni Lele. While these texts are consulted for technical information, a number of factors are considered in interpretation, including the intuition of the diviner as well as the age, gender, social circumstances, and cultural environment of the client. These factors indicate that the meanings are found in the people and their relationship with the “scriptures,” not in the content or form of the scripture, whether oral or written. As one priest aptly described it, “It is a knowledge system based on flesh and blood, spirit and thought.”

The divination ritual includes prayers and the manipulation of palm nuts (ikin), the divining chain (opele), or cowrie shells (carico) to arrive at a configuration that represents one of the 256 odus. Epega and Neimark describe the odus as “complex organisms, waiting to be meshed uniquely with each client’s personal energy.” In the Ifa/Orisha tradition, the individual is considered to be part of a very complex system of energies that make up the universe. The task of the diviner is to identify the individual’s degree of harmony with these energies and to prescribe rituals or offerings to create balance when an imbalance exists. Each odu represents an energy system and carries with it hundreds of tales that have accumulated in the oral tradition through thousands of years. In effect, each time the ikin or cowries are cast, a new “scripture” is written. The personal energy of the client mixes with an odu to produce meaning. Thus, the meaning of an odu is not inherent but socially constructed, based on the culture, the personal experiences of the client, the knowledge and awareness of the diviner, and the mythology represented by the odu.

As a participant observer, I have documented my own experiences as a client and have been astonished at the diviner’s knowledge and interpretation of the Odu. I have observed other clients with the diviner and have watched their expressions of amazement when the divination narrative is given, and I have read published and unpublished accounts of personal experiences with the integration of the divination narrative into one’s life.


Using ethnographic methods, including in-depth interviews, participant observation, and document analysis, I sought to determine how the sacred scripture of the Yoruba, i.e., the Odu, functions to construct and reconstruct self and worldview. Toward this end, I conducted research in two field sites: Oyotunji Village, South Carolina, and New York City, including Brooklyn and the Bronx. These sites have an organic relationship. The founder of Oyotunji Village, Oba Oseijeman (born as Walter Eugene King), established the Yoruba Temple in New York City in the 1960s before migrating to the South and establishing the Village in 1970. My initial visit was in 1999, nearly thirty years after the founding. Over the course of the next four years, I returned for field research several times. One of my Oyotunji consultants referred me to several practitioners from New York, which led to other contacts and additional interviews. I discovered that many of the people I met had, at one time or another, lived at, trained in, or traced their priestly lineage to Oyotunji.

In South Carolina, Oyotunji Village’s minister of foreign affairs, Chief Ajamu, served as the initial contact and consultant. For years, Ajamu served as an “ambassador” to practicing communities throughout the United States and was recognized nationally and internationally as a senior Ifa priest with a wealth of knowledge on Yoruba traditions, both in Africa and in the Diaspora. Initial contacts in New York City included a senior Yoruba priest, Lionel F. Scott (Babalosha Odufora), to whom Ajamu referred me. Odufora taught a series of classes entitled Introduction to Yoruba Religion/Culture, which provided an excellent opportunity for participant observation.

During the course of the study, I interviewed twenty-one practitioners, twelve male and nine female. Using an open but focused approach, I followed an interview guide, but not a structured interview schedule. This narrative inquiry process allowed respondents to tell their stories, relay their feelings, and report experiences within social contexts, rather than simply answering factual questions. Generally, the participants chose the location for the interview. The interviews lasted from forty-five to ninety minutes. I met people where they were most comfortable, sometimes in their homes or in restaurants, parks, gardens, or at the site of local orisha festivals. Questions designed to facilitate simultaneous reflection and reporting prompted participants to consider their personal experiences with the sacred Odu and to share their stories. One of the objectives was to determine how such “scriptures” have been internalized, embodied, and actualized during significant life events.

The second strategy, participant observation, allowed me to supplement the interview data and get at the “phenomenon” on an experiential basis. Participant observation operates on a different epistemological basis, one uniquely suited for the nature of the inquiry. I was not privy to all of the rituals and ceremonies that were held behind closed doors; I was considered an aleyo, a non-initiated person, and participants were reluctant to discuss some topics with me. Still, none of the stories I heard or the books I read provided the same level of insight and understanding that I gained from actively participating in Yoruba rituals and ceremonies. This immediate, intimate way of knowing generated the multisensory material needed for developing a portrait that captures the experiential and performative aspects of engaging scriptures in life.

Performance theory, literary reception theory, and ritual theory are part of the framing of the study as well as the analysis and reporting. Of particular relevance, in this regard, is Edward Bruner’s theory of the anthropology of experience, suggesting that meaning always lies in the here and now of performed texts. Though divination narratives are central to this study, I also have, to a lesser extent, researched other means of engaging the sacred, including meditation, trance possession, dream interpretation, music, dance, chanting, and the visual arts, as each has a relationship with the Odu. The following chapters weave strands of personal narrative, myth history, and contextual observations into a tapestry that reflects the dynamic, embodied nature, material culture, and storied environment of African American engagements with the Holy Odu.

Readings from the Elders

The scholars who have significantly affected my thinking regarding the work of Yoruba “sacred texts” include Wande Abimbola, Ócha’ni Lele, Laura S. Grillo, and Afolabi A. Epega and John Philip Neimark. Wande Abimbola, a well-known and widely respected Ifa priest and scholar of religion, focuses on the structural and technical aspects of the Ifa literary corpus, the system of divination through which it is accessed, and its cultural background. His discussion of the Yoruba concept of destiny and ori is most helpful to my work. According to Abimbola, the ori is the personal god that guides each individual’s “inner head.” Therefore, “one can say that when a person goes to consult Ifá all he is doing is finding out the wishes of his Orí. Ifá is merely a mouthpiece, an intermediary between the inquirer and his Orí. . . . The role of the gods is to aid Orí in leading every person to his destiny in life.” From this perspective, the odus accessed through divination offer the client a reading of “self” as well as a prescription for recasting “self.”

In the system described by Abimbola, the babalawo engages the Ifa corpus. However, in the Lucumi system, a Cuban version of the Yoruba tradition and one also practiced by African Americans, the babalosha (the priest of one of the orisha) engages the Afro-Cuban dilogun corpus, a related body of literature. I have relied heavily on the work of Ócha’ni Lele, a practitioner since 1989, for an understanding of the dilogun and its corresponding system of cowrie-shell divination. Lele writes for the diviner, providing detailed instructions on “opening, reading, and closing the oracle,” as well as extensive information on the body of lore that surrounds each odu in the Lucumi system. He speaks not only to the mechanics of manipulating the divination implements but also to the metaphysics and meaning inherent in the coded configurations of shells that are cast on the mat. Lele describes the Odu as a dynamic principle and active force:

Remember that although each odu contains all the facets of our faith and lives, they are not stagnant, unchanging, mere collections of sacred stories and scripts conceived centuries ago. Each of these letters is alive in the universe and in our lives. They are organisms of energy, creatures of symbiosis awaiting connection with our own human energies as they are opened on the mat. . . . The sacred shells reveal the forces at play in an adherent’s life, and these energies are redefined and placated as the orisha priest manipulates the letters in an attempt to help his client evolve. Diloggún is an oracle, yes; yet it is also a long, arduous road to change and personal transformation. It is the heart of Santería and New World orisha worship.

Lele’s remarks reflect the dynamic, symbiotic nature of scripture as a religious and cultural phenomenon active in the lives of adherents. The extensive glossary and the examples of recorded readings with the dilogun also make Lele’s work valuable.

Epega and Neimark’s definitive collection of the 256 odus is a crucial resource for understanding the intricate system of signs, symbols, and practices that function as an integral part of the priest/practitioner’s life. As they explain,

In casting a specific odu for a client, the babalawo meshes the universal energy and wisdom of the particular odu with the specific circumstances facing the client. It is this “marriage” between the truth of the odu and the reality of the client that creates a unique and individual interpretation of current and future events. This synergy between client and odu provides the dynamic that keeps Ifa as accurate and important today as it was thousands of years ago.

Unfortunately, most Western anthropologists . . . who have studied Ifa have always viewed the sacred odus as divine text—unalterable, literal, written in stone. . . .

Far from being literal and unalterable, the odus are alive. They are complex organisms, waiting to be meshed uniquely with each client’s personal energy before being “written.”

Epega and Neimark have described a system that is based on “scripture as human activity,” the dynamic phenomenon that is the focus of this study.

In like manner, Laura S. Grillo argues that divination, as a means of constructing reality, establishes the contextual ground that facilitates a discourse around identity, authority, and meaning, shaped according to the contours of real life. She points to the role of the sacred Odu in the cultural construction of identity and in the negotiation of selfhood and destiny. Grillo’s focus on divination as a “visual canon” that serves as a resource for stimulating the imagination for the recasting of experience in the light of culture is an especially useful concept. Her study, based primarily on archival sources, offers an excellent basis for a comparative examination of contemporary ethnographic sources.

Only a few scholars of the Yoruba religion have focused specifically on African Americans. In 1979, Carl M. Hunt published the first history of Oyotunji Village. A narrative centered on Walter Eugene King (Oba Oseijeman), this history tells the story of the founders during the first ten years of life in the Village. Hunt describes in detail the personal experiences, struggles, hardships, and conflicts of the “Black nationalists” who initially moved from New York City to South Carolina to establish a community where they could practice the Yoruba religion according to ancient African traditions. Some of the founders of the community Hunt wrote about participated in my study and referred to his work as an accurate account of the early years of the community’s development.

Following the publication of Hunt’s Oyotunji Village, most of the scholarly work on Yoruba religious practices in the United States focused primarily on Santeria as practiced in Afro-Cuban and Latin communities. Then, in 1997, Mary Curry’s study of the African American Yoruba community in New York City was published. Curry’s ethnographic study focuses primarily on the social structure and the practical aspects of the religion. She also points to the African American emphasis on “re-defining” Santeria. Curry suggests that identity issues are of major concern for African American practitioners, but her study stops short of an in-depth examination and analysis of such concerns. By focusing on “Odu outcomes,” Divining the Self picks up where Curry left off. This study also builds on the work of Steven Gregory, whose research on Santeria focuses on aspects of cultural resistance. His emphasis on the religion as an alternative means of affirming and renegotiating ethnic identity and cultural heritage among Latinos and African Americans is relevant to my investigation of the scripturalizing practices associated with the Odu. Maxine Kamari Clarke’s ethnographic study of Yoruba traditions practiced at Oyotunji Village and in Oyo, Nigeria, has also offered important insights into the social and psychological dynamics at work among African American Yoruba practitioners.

The popular material written by practitioners—especially John Mason, Lionel F. Scott, Ócha’ni Lele, Awo Fá’lokun Fatunmbi, and Aina Olomo—has proven key to my study. Mason, a priest of Obatala in Brooklyn, has written extensively about the practical aspects of orisha worship. He is a musician, writer, and photographer who is known for his collaboration with Gary Edwards in Black Gods: Òrìà Studies in the New World, which describes the orisha archetypes, as well as his Ìdáná Fún Òrìà: Cooking for Selected Heads, recipes for ritual foods; his translation of the oriki, Orin Òrìà: Songs for Selected Heads; and his Four New World Yoruba Rituals. Mason is one of the African American elders in the religion and was co-curator, along with Robert Farris Thompson, of the popular visual art and artifacts exhibition Beads, Body, and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe. He has devoted much time and energy to preserving the culture.

Lionel F. Scott (Babalosha Odufora), also an African American elder and an initiated priest of Obatala since 1960, focuses on the apatakis, which he describes as stories and sayings that symbolically express the moral teachings and principles of the culture. He has published only a few of the apatakis in the vast repertoire passed on to him in Tales of Ancestors and Orishas and Beads of Glass, Beads of Stone. He has also written about the spiritual technology and metaphysics of orisha worship in The Amber Talisman. Awo Fá’lokun Fatunmbi, a Euro-American initiated priest of Ifa trained in Nigeria, writes as an initial outsider who had a difficult time grasping and understanding the African worldview. Fatunmbi’s discussion of the Ifa proverbs, folktales, and prayers associated with each odu provides insight into the ways in which the “scriptures” of a people reflect their understanding of the relationship between self and world.

Aina Olomo, an African American priestess of Shango, presents a strong critique of the practitioners who have “hung a verbal African belief system on a biblical structure.” She suggests that too many have written about the mechanics of divining and the content of the oracles rather than the “main features that are involved in living the Odus.” She is concerned that Yoruba religion in the West might become another book religion. In her words, “The new priests . . . are reading books and quoting oracles as if they were biblical scripture. They have not yet realized that having a written document does not determine spiritual truth, and replacing spiritual exploration with memorized quotations is not the ancient Yoruba way to conceptualize a spiritual perception. . . . It is not the way indigenous people whose spirituality is based in nature attain their spiritual vision.” Olomo’s critique opens the way for my exploration of exactly how the Yoruba adherents, both Old World and New, “live the odus” and how they “attain their spiritual vision.”


In chapters 1 and 2, I discuss the mythology surrounding the origin of the sacred Odu. I also briefly survey the social and historical circumstances under which African Americans embraced orisha worship and the Odu, examining the conjuring traditions among enslaved Africans in America as well as the cultural nationalist ideology that influenced many of the first-generation practitioners. These chapters illustrate reclamations of self through the imaginative reconstruction of a cultural landscape. As Fine and Speer express it, “When the cultural or physical landscape is torn, or when circumstances wrench people from their homelands, performance provides a way to recover that physical space through the imaginative reconstruction of a cultural landscape, either through words and gestures or through the combined narrative of words and textile art.”

Chapters 3 and 4 look at Yoruba “scriptures” as both unwritten text and performance. Giving attention to the vast body of oral literature and the divinatory process through which it is engaged in the production of meaning and worldview, I examine related practices, events, and behaviors by highlighting specific case studies of practitioners in South Carolina and New York. I also discuss the Odu corpus as part of a psycho-social-spiritual healing system and examine the diagnostic and prescriptive aspects of divination along with the role and function of art, altars, icons, and other symbols. The ita reading, performed as part of initiation rites and ceremonies, and the subsequent negotiation of selfhood and destiny take center stage here. The ita reading provides a snapshot of the client’s life—past, present, and future—with prescriptions for balance and harmony.

Chapters 5 and 6 pay particular attention to the feminine energy principle represented by selected orisha. I examine the mythological role of the goddess in Yoruba traditions and also look at accounts of the experiences of women in contemporary cultural engagements of the traditions. Drawing from the work of Teresa N. Washington, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and Oyeronke Olajubu, this section applies black feminist thought to the analysis of power dynamics and gender issues surrounding practitioners. I conclude by highlighting prevalent themes and motifs and considering the role of “remembering, forgetting, and substituting” in the African American appropriation of Yoruba traditions. Shifting the focus from texts to worlds of experience and practice creates opportunities for greater understanding of the role of religious myth in shaping human consciousness and self-understanding.

My own fascination with “sacred performance” through the engagement of oral or written literature, myth, song, dance, sculpture, visual arts, ritual, rite, drama, or ceremony fuels this work. While I use ethnographic sources, Divining the Self is not a conventional ethnography. Rather, I use ethnography as a methodological tool for the study of diverse scripturalizing practices within a particular tradition. Using the archetypal journey motif, the study further focuses on the divinatory enterprise as key to the negotiation of selfhood and destiny. The use of a performance paradigm as a point of departure positions “scriptures” as a site of production more than a site of interpretation, and it allows for a focus on “texts” beyond things written. This approach calls for an examination of the dynamic interaction involved in the production of “scripture,” the phenomenon that Vincent Wimbush refers to as “signifying scriptures,” that Victor Turner might call “social drama,” and that Roland Barthes says is “governed by a metonymic rather than a hermeneutic logic.” This work, then, answers some questions as it generates others.