Black Spirituality Religion : Odu Ifa: the ethical teachings, by Maulana Karenga


New Member
Jan 24, 2008
The Odu Ifa are part of the sacred texts of the Yoruba people. Originally (and still presently) memorized in their entirety by priests, in the last century or so they’ve been written down and translated into English. These texts are in the form of short stories/parables that are named and numbered much like Biblical Bible verses. However the Odu texts are uniquely written in a beautifully rhythmic and expressive form that makes them seem like they could or should be sang as music or cited as poetry.

The texts are used in the Yoruba divination system as oracles that are used to give insight to the past, present, or future. The science of the system is based on the simple and undeniable principle that in this universe THERE ARE NO ACCIDENTS, everything happens for a reason, and there are absolutely no exceptions to this rule. Every single event, incident, or occurrence in our daily lives is able to provide us with vast amounts of useful information if we are only wise and skilled enough to understand.

Divination is a practice used all over the world and practitioners of this art use divination implements which could be cards, shells, coins, or anything else. The objects themselves don’t really matter, so long as they produce consistent results, and in the case of the Yoruba they use cowrie shells, kola nuts, or a metallic chain (so far that I have seen.) Within the hundreds of Odu scriptures can be found insight into every conceivable human endeavor. Casting the divination objects produces a number which corresponds to a specific Odu. And it is universally understood that while being mentally and spiritually focused on a particular issue, the apparently “random” selection of a particular Odu by the divination implements is in actuality not random at all. Instead, the selected Odu directly pertains to the question/issue/matter at hand, and it is left to the wisdom and experience of the diviner to obtain any and all relevant information being offered by the universe. Not magic. Not sorcery. Yoruba divination is a thoroughly developed metaphysical science based on the firmly established principle of universal order.

The Odu Ifa, the sacred text of the spiritual and ethical tradition of Ifa, is one of the great sacred texts in the world and a classic of African and world literature. Its sacred narratives and divination focus have been well-discussed, but less attention has been given to the rich resource it offers in ethical teachings. This book seeks to address this inadequacy of attention. Its governing interest is to present the ethical teachings of the Odu in the language of modern moral discourse while at the same time preserving and building on its distinctiveness as an ancient body of moral literature capable of framing and inspiring modern ethical philosophical discussion.
Maulana Karenga

In his book Odu Ifa: the ethical teachings, Maulana Karenga has reproduced the Odu and has also provided a cultural translation and ethical discussion about selected texts. I think Karenga has done a fantastic job of documenting and highlighting the ethical brilliance of the sacred Odu, in light of the fact that modern practitioners as a whole have chosen to focus much more on the immensely powerful divination aspects of the Yoruba texts, often at the expense of the ethical teachings that they offer (a sign of the times I would say.)

The Odu are of course awesome as divination oracles, but I personally use them predominately as an absolutely indelible source of proverbial wisdom. Whenever I feel that something is missing in my life, or whenever I feel the need for guidance I read the Odu. I have written in my journal a dozen or so of the Odu verses that have had the most profound effect on my life. I usually read through those first, but if I feel that I still need more then I start reading through the other Odu, letting my fingers pick and choose the verses as they like. But within the first dozen there almost never fails to be an answer there that jumps out for me. And after a little reflection and prayer I walk away spiritually satisfied and mentally prepared for whatever.

One thing about the Odu that I find absolutely amazing is the manner in which they’re written. As I said before, they’re songlike and even poetic in that they are written in a way that often times is not readily understandable. While some of the verses are more simple and straight forward, other verses are written in an almost riddle like form. When spoken or read, the incredibly creative and artistically expressive verses of the Odu create pictures, scenes, feelings, and colors in the mind that often require a great deal of reflection and meditation in order to coalesce into perceivable thought. I often don’t understand (at least not fully) the teaching of the Odu the first time I read it, or even the second or third time. It’s only after I think deeply about what is being said and begin to use all of my available resources (intellect, visualization, knowledge of Yoruba culture/history, life experience, meditation, etc.) that I’m able to able to really ingest what the verses are saying to me.

Thoroughly understanding the Odu and benefiting from its wisdom requires effort, and I believe that this is very much by design. Perhaps the two most common themes in the Odu are the concepts of “character” and “sacrifice.” The Yoruba use the word sacrifice both figuratively and literally, meaning that anything good that can be obtained in this life requires effort and perseverance. The Yoruba understanding as to the purpose of this earthly existence is that we choose to temporarily leave heaven (our true and permanent home as divine beings) and come to earth to make our sacrifices of time, energy, effort, sweat, blood, and tears to obtain earthly riches and divine wisdom (the greatest of treasures) to take back home when we leave the earthly plane.

So the Yoruba teach and understand that the answer to our prayers and problems requires sacrifice. As we know, prayer alone yields very little. We can pray all we want, but if we don’t work smart and work hard on the job then it is very unlikely that we attain a higher position. If we do not know how to love, cherish, and respect our mates then it is unlikely that we will be able to keep our husbands and wives close to us. Work is always hard. Love is always an action word. Prayer requires sacrifice.

Central to the theme of sacrifice lies the Yoruba concept of character. There are three stages of reaching the level of “Eniyan Gidi“ (the truly authentic human being.)
1. Iwa-pele = right character, right action
2. Iwa-l’ewa = oneness of character with the inherent beauty of nature
3. Iwa-l’aiya = a moral and righteous way of life which maintains itself without regression

Somewhat in opposition to the Eniyan Gidi are the humans who act as if they are lost in the forest (omo igi) and/or as the wild beast (omo eranko). The Odu teaches over and over again that persons of excellent character will be victorious in this world, and that true human beings must always be alert to the ways of the insensitive and beastlike if we are to triumph over them.

So the answers to our prayers requires sacrifice, and proper sacrifice which leads to victory in this world requires the development of character. Understanding the Odu requires a sacrifice of time, effort, study, understanding, meditation, and visualization. And the reward for making the proper sacrifice to overstand the Odu leads directly to the development of character.

Next to the ethical wisdom of the Odu themselves, it is the journey that one takes to overstand the Odu that I find most amazing. For one, seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing, and feeling your way through the sacred text provides more of a Black history lesson than I can adequately explain. Within the text, you are transported back in time to dozens of cities, shops, markets, houses, rooms, roads, courts, battlefields, forests, farms, and gardens of the motherland itself: the scenes, sights, and sounds of the people themselves. You are there! For me, that’s a Black history lesson unlike any other. And even more importantly, I have to say that there is something powerfully rewarding about the mental and spiritual journey that the mind makes to decipher the Odu. Thinking of the words, thoughts, and mental images over and over again to arrive at the answer makes the journey a most rewarding one. When we reach the destination, when we decipher the riddle and find the answer, then we have made the effort, we’ve made the sacrifice, and the wisdom that was once another’s then truly becomes our own.

I’ve found that many people (especially including myself) simply don’t like being “told” what to do. No matter how good the advice may be, we simply don‘t like someone else telling us to do it. I believe that our ancestral method of challenging the mind to find the answer is a truly outstanding method of imparting wisdom to others, much better in my opinion than simply telling people (even in book form) what they should and shouldn’t do.

I’ve included an English translation of a few of the Odu. I’ve come to my own understanding of each of the Odu, and Karenga also offers his understanding of some of them in his book, but I think that everyone should extract from them a meaning for themselves. And I’d also be very interested in any interpretive input that anyone else may have. Ase.
Odi Meji 4:1

I arrive well.
I travel well.
I am one who usually travels and finds fortune.
Just as they were laying down riches,
I entered without hesitation like an offspring of the owner.
But I am not an offspring of the owner.
I am only one who knows how to travel and find good fortune.

Karenga breaks this one down nicely. It’s about the power and importance of positive thinking. To arrive well and to travel well is referring to beginning a task or a venture with the proper mindset, which enables you to find fortune. When this traveler sees something good (riches,) when he makes up his mind to do something, he enters without hesitation, or rather he acts without doubt or fear or pause.

He enters “like the offspring of the owner.” This verse is the most powerful to me of them all. When I enter into my mother‘s, or father’s, or grandparent’s house I enter like I belong there. I am perfectly comfortable, happy, and confident. I know I’m welcome and although the house is not mine, I feel that everything in there is a part of me, that it’s mine by right or by inheritance, because in my family there is an underlying feeling that we are there for each other because we are family.

For a number of reasons this sentiment may be dying among many of our Black families today, but I believe that this idea that we as Black people have of being “family” is culturally specific and unique to African peoples. I have not seen quite the same feeling among other people around the world. In my family we love each other. My Grandmother and all of her sons, daughters, and many grandchildren form a coalition like I’ve never seen. My mother, and her sisters and her brother (my aunties and uncles,) are each other’s best friends, live within minutes of each other (most of them) and interact on a daily basis. And when someone moves away they always seem to make their way back.

My family’s big on both sides, and both my father’s and mother’s families act in much the same way. It’s us against the world. And holidays and big family gatherings are just what they should be, wonderful times where everyone in the house (15-20 people or more,) is laughing, and eating and drinking everything in sight. Everyone talks to everyone, no one is left out, not even the little babies, the invited guests, or friends of the family. I have over a dozen cousins who’ve lived in close proximity to me my entire life and when we all get together it’s like a party.

I know where we get it from because African families are the same: big, loving, and there for each other in every way possible. When I went to Ghana I noticed that there were no homeless people (except for Arabic looking people who had walked there from North African countries because countries like Ghana have a lot of food I was told.) Even if they lived in a house that they had made themselves, everyone had a home, everyone seemed to have some land to live on. They told me that because the families in Ghana were so big (50, 60 people) that when someone found themselves in need someone in the family always stepped up to help them. They also had a tradition that if someone in the family was rich then brothers/sisters and cousins might send their children to live with them, and the children would help their foster relatives around the house in an unwritten exchange for a good home and a good education.

And we have the same traditions. Like when my cousin wasn’t getting along with his step father (who was hooked on crack) he came to live with us. No formal announcement or anything, one day I just noticed that he had been staying with us for some weeks without going back home. With him we had four boys in the house and three beds, so instead of buying another bed or sharing beds, we all just got used to sleeping on the floor in the living room. It was like camping out every night. We didn’t think about it, we just did it. And we had a ball! We all went to the same junior high and high schools, and all of my friends, my cousin’s friends, and my two brother’s friends would come over the house on a regular basis, not to mention other cousin’s, neighbors, and anybody else. Our house became what my auntie called “the Kool-Aid house.”

From what I’ve seen, I just don’t think white people got it like that. And I just came back from spending four years in Japan where I talked to hundreds of Japanese people, and I can tell you for certain that they don’t have it like that either. A lot of Japanese people barely even know some of their aunties, uncles, and cousins that often times live less than an hour away, sometimes in the same city. Just like white people, many of them are rich (materially) or very comfortable, and hardly even enjoy the company of their own family.

My mother was a single parent working full time and going to college at night. We had four teenage boys in my house growing up and were broke, but we didn’t really even know we were broke. We always had everything we needed, our families made sure of that, and we knew the kinds of things that we shouldn’t even ask for. In our own way, we were rich, much richer than the white people and Japanese that I‘ve known. So when the sacred texts of my ancestors says “I entered without hesitation, like the offspring of the owner,” I know exactly what that means, and I know exactly how to do that. What it means to other people, I could only guess. And whatever it would mean to them doesn’t really matter, because in the sacred text of the Odu my ancestors weren’t talking to them, they were talking to me.
Odi Meji 4:4

The buttocks are sufficient support for a person to sit on.
This was the teaching of Ifa for the gatekeeper of the city of Ajenbere Mogun.
Who would stay in one place and there find all good things.
There was no kind of work that the gatekeeper had not done.
But he did not remain long in the same place.
Could he find fortune in this way?
This is the question he sought the answer to from Ifa.
It was said that he should practice sacrifice.
And he practiced sacrifice.
And after he practiced sacrifice,
It happened that when the farmers arrived from their farms,
And when the artisans returned from their travels,
They gave the gate keeper various kinds of products like corn and yams.
And after the gatekeeper had eaten and sufficiently satisfied himself
He would then sell the rest of the products.
It is in this way that the gatekeeper became a rich man
By staying in the same place.

This particular Odu means a lot to me. It talks about “staying in one place” to find riches. This Odu speaks of focus, about firmly establishing yourself in one place, and living and working there to build your fortune over time. It says that “the buttocks are sufficient for a person to sit on.” For one, only African people in my opinion would begin a sacred text by talking about the butt, for we all know that among us Africans the butt is sacred! Lord knows how many idioms, words, and phrases we have for the sacred backside. Ain’t no butt like the African butt, and ain’t no spell check necessary on the word “butt” cause thanks to our butts and our prolific use of the term, the word “BUTT” is now officially a word in the dictionary (somebody say Amen).

So in the African sense, we know that “the buttocks are truly sufficient for a person to sit on.” Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be true for many other people in the world today. What I over stand the ancestors to be saying is that what we as African people have been blessed with, what we’ve been born with is sufficient. In fact, it’s a lot, a whole lot. More splendid and magnificent than any other if we choose to compare. We know that we’re the most talented people on earth, but that fact can also be our downfall. We are so talented; so athletic, so charismatic, so sensual, so beautiful, so clever, so witty, so humorous, so rhythmic, so expressive, so fun-loving that we find it nearly impossible for example for us to spend “nearly” as much time studying and preparing for school as Asians do. We know what the result would be if we did. It’s all about focus.

The Orisha (angelic forces of nature) are in us all. And in us all, are all of the Orisha. Meaning that every power, ability, gift, or talent in the universe is present within us. And we know from experience that the Orisha are stronger in us than in anyone else. The entire practice of Ifa is designed to find the angelic powers of the universe within ourselves and bring them out. And it is also designed to discover which power in us is most dominant, and most spiritually connected to us. Finding and discovering this information allows us to know which careers, places, people, actions, and endeavors are right for us, the ones where we will find the most success and the most spiritual gratification. The entire practice of Ifa, as shown through these verses of the Odu, is designed to provide focus.

When reading Odu like this one I like to picture in my mind for instance the city of Ajengbere Mogun that is being spoken of. I’ve been to Africa and I have seen what they mean when they refer to cities, towns, and villages. There is a distinction between all three. On my visit to Ghana I got lost in what had been described to me as a “village.” That village was big, full of houses, roads, schools, restaurants and whatever else.

I was lost in the village for about seven hours because we had gone walking and I wanted to stop at a record store to get this song I kept hearing in the night clubs (back in the city.) I told the others to go ahead because I thought I could easily find my way back to the house, but I couldn’t. I walked through that village from about 10am to about 5pm looking for the house. I even had a little boy who lived in the village helping me and the both of us together couldn’t find it. Finally I gave up and went to the busiest intersection in town and figured that the others would come looking for me soon because it was about to get dark. Sure enough, as soon as I sat down on the corner to wait I see the car driving up. When I confronted my friend about the size of this so-called “village,” he told me that in recent years it may have been upgraded to a town, but apparently was still a far cry from a city in their minds.

The woman’s house I was staying at in this “village” was reported to be 96 years old, and she was truly from the “old school.” She woke up at 4am everyday and walked about a mile to the farm where she gathered all of her food for the day and walked all the way back carrying child sized yams on her head, then spent the entire day cooking, cleaning, and helping care for her grandchildren. She spoke no English, only her native tongue of “Ewe,” made all of her food from scratch everyday and only chose to use the refrigerator that her son had bought her to cool water. She had a full kitchen insider her house but chose instead to cook with homemade charcoal on a small clay oven that she had made outside. They said she was 96 but in fact they didn’t know how old she was because in her culture they didn’t care about the day of the year you were born on, only the day of the week. They estimate that she was 96 because her oldest sister at the time who they knew was five years (seasons) older than her could vividly remember events that had happened in 1905. So they figured that her sister must have been at least 7 years old at the time, which would have made her 101, but in fact she could have actually been older.

Like I said, this woman was from the “old school,” and she and her family referred to where they lived as a “village.” So when I read about a “city” in the ancient text, I know they ain’t talking about no cracker jack box, they talking about a “CITY!” I can only imagine this magnificent African city, and all of the other ones that Yoruba Odu, prayers, and stories constantly talk about (dozens that I’ve read about.) And one can only imagine what they are talking about when they refer to a kingdom.

The Odu talks about a gatekeeper at the city gates. This means a walled city like the ones built in Nubia because you know you can’t have a gate without walls, and I’ve read about the magnificent walled cities of West Africa and other places. It talks about farmers and artisans that would give the gatekeeper food and gifts as they passed through the gates, perhaps for opening the gate for them, maybe for a kind word or greeting, or just maybe just to be friendly and charitable. But poor hungry people are not likely to give gifts like this, so were talking about wealth and wealthy people, so many wealthy people that the gatekeeper could eat and become wealthy himself just by selling what he had left over. And we’re not talking about bartering, were talking about a monetary system for an African city full of artisans and craftsmen, a fully functioning economy. The Odu and other Yoruba literature are full of nothing but references like these because that‘s Africa for real. That's really how it was. That’s what I see in my mind when I read our sacred literature. And that's the best Black history lesson that I've ever had.


Support, the oldest, most respectful, online black community in the world - PayPal or CashApp

Latest profile posts is one of the leading tractor exporters from Pakistan to Africa and the Caribbean regions.
HODEE wrote on Etophil's profile.
Welcome to Destee