This is one of the many thousands of poems associated with the Ifa oracle of the Yoruba people. There are 256 different Odu or branches of lfa poetry, and many hundreds of different poems are associated with each Odu. The Ifa priest learns these poems during many years of training. Each poem is associated with a set of ‘throws’ of the divination instruments (cowrie shells, kola nuts etc) to indicate which poem is suitable when a client comes to him for advice. He recites the poem to the client who must find his own meaning in the words. The Ifa priest will also direct the sacrifices to be made to the relevant Orisha following the divination.
This poem from the Ifa oracle illustrates how, through a superb description of the tiger’s hide and claws, tiger was granted honour by consulting Ifa and making sacrifice.
Ifa divination was performed for Tiger,
The one with the lovely and shining skin.
An extract from a Yoruba Praise-Poem from Nigeria. According to legend, Olu Oje was one of the first kings at Ile Ife. Forced to abdicate because of his bad temper, he went into exile and founded the town of Oje, bearing the title Olu Oje, king of Oje.
Offspring of Layimese who was invited to assume a chieftaincy title,
Because of a chieftaincy title he went to Oje.
In order to be crowned King, he had to go to the River Yemetu.
He was duly crowned,
And duly proclaimed a paramount chief.
Consequently he gained more honour.
Saturated with glory,
Dressed in flaming robes,
Clothed in gorgeous attire,
He returned home.
An improvised recitation sung by a Yoruba bride as she is escorted by musicians and relatives to her husband’s house. She speaks her mind about all the hopes and concerns that she has, whilst drummers announce her arrival.
Those who stand-let them stand well.
Those who stop-let them stoop well.
Those who sit on the verandah-let them receive our thanks.
You the elders, who have come from far,
I thank you for honouring this day.
A Yoruba funeral poem from the African nation of Nigeria. Within a few lines the poem evokes the weight of bereavement, and contrasts the reverence in which some deaths are held with the unsentimentality of others.
I cannot carry it
I cannot carry it.
If I could carry it,
I would carry it.
A collection of praises (Oriki) for the Orisha Ogun. Some of these were included in a previous post, but are included again here to illustrate how different Oriki could be recombined in performance.
Ogun kills on the right and destroys on the right.
Ogun kills on the left and destroys on the left.
Ogun kills suddenly in the house and suddenly in the field.
Ogun kills the child with the iron with which it plays.
Ulli Beier describes Alajire as a manifestation of the Orisha, Sonponna, who is more commonly known as Babalu-Aye. This Orisha is associated with suffering and diseases such as smallpox, leprosy and AIDS. This poem describes Alajire as both terrifying in his unpredictability but also emphasises that it is only by undergoing suffering that individuals can attain maturity and wisdom.
Alijire, we ask you to be patient,
you are very quick-tempered,
and we worship you for it.
We ask you to be moderate,
you are wildly extravagant
and we pray to you for it.
We ask you not to be jealous,
you are madly jealous,
and we love you for it.
Oshun is an Orisha goddess associated with rivers and the marketplace. Medicines for fertility, wealth, love and intimacy are often attributed to her.
Brass and parrot feathers
on a velvet skin.
White cowrie shells
on black buttocks.
Her eyes sparkle in the forest,
like the sun on the river.
She is the wisdom of the forest
she is the wisdom of the river.
Obatala (King of White Cloth) is one of the eldest Orisha and held responsible for the creation of the earth and of human bodies. His devotees aim to reflect the purity of Obatala’s white clothing, striving for moral impeccability in their actions.
He is patient.
He is silent.
Without anger he pronounces his judgement.
He is distant,
but his eye rests on the town.
He kills the initiate
and rouses him to new life.
A Yoruba Praise-Poem from Nigeria. According to legend, the first Alaafin or King of the powerful Yoruba kingdom of Oyo was Oranyan. He chose a trader whom he named Onikoyi (meaning, ‘You, the Man Carrying a Basket’) to be one of his generals, holding command over 1469 men who were obliged to fight to the death and never turn their backs to the enemy. Onikoyi, then, is remembered first and foremost as a warrior. His descendants became rulers of the town of Ikoyi, under the Alaafin.
Onikoyi, the warrior who never received an arrow in his back.
Child of the water lily, child of the squirrel.
The bird’s foot shall never touch the water.
The river shall never be at rest.
Onikoyi, the warrior
Who frightens death himself.
A Yoruba Iwi chant from Nigeria. Iwi is the poetry of masqueraders, who personify the ancestors in the Egungun masks. Through the masks, the ancestors comment wisely or satirically on the living. In Tricks a series of proverb-type metaphors are put together to make the point that death is unavoidable.
The star is trying to outshine the moon,
The frog is preparing a trick to get wings,
The one who wears a cotton dress pretends to wear velvet,
The one who is wearing velvet pretends to be a king.
We all try to do
What God never intends us to do.
Watch out, ‘We shall catch and kill’
Is what we cry when we go to the battlefield:
We tend to forget that we shall meet another man there
Uttering the same cry.
When Death is far away,
We may protect our child with aja charm:
When Death arrives,
He tears the aja from his neck
And carries the child along.
from Yoruba Poetry (1970),
ed. Professor Ulli Beier