Oyeku Ofun Temple

Ifa and Orisha Temple in Arcata, Humboldt County, Northern California // A Peaceful Place for Divine Worship

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Sow Humanness and Honesty Today for a Blissful Tomorrow

It is the big rod that torments the gong
Torrential rains reduce the ant-hill to mud
Osun Ewuji, desirous of eating and drinking
Crawled stealthily into the ocean
Cast IFA for Eyin-Iwa (Thereafter)
Who is the senior of Oni (Today)
You people of Isinpe
It is because of Eyin-Iwa
That we should be benevolent to Oni (Today)
For whatever seed we plant today
We shall reap the fruits tomorrow
Sow humanness and honesty today
For a blissful tomorrow


May this Crescent Moon Bless all IFA Devotees

May this Crescent Moon Bless all IFA Devotees


Whether the Orí of Ìká is tight
Or it is loose
It is one’s Orí that gives one the good fortunes
Cast divination for Dendere
The mother of the Moon crescent in heaven
‘Would I see good things at all’?
‘Would good things stay with me’? She had asked
She was asked to perform sacrifice
The Moon crescent performed the sacrifice
All the stars stayed with the moon
All good things stayed with her
She brought back many children
Ifá says he wishes this person well
He said whether the Orí of Ìká is tight
Or it is loose
It is one’s Orí that gives one the good fortunes
Cast divination for Dendere
The mother of the Moon crescent in heaven
She was asked to take care of the ground and perform
Dendere heard about the sacrifice
And performed it
Dendere is back
The mother of Moon crescent
Come and see the children she brought back from her
Dendere is back
The mother of Moon Crescent




My aim in this paper is to examine, as much as possible, the Yoruba traditional account of human personality. Such critical examination will have to include the process of creation in the Yoruba belief: the concept of Ori in the Yoruba account of creation. I wish to apply philosophy as a tool to the account. Some notable scholarly works which are available would be of immense importance in this research project. Some common sayings in the society may also be, as a matter of explanation, useful in the understanding of the topic.

According to Yoruba myth the decision to create earth had to come to maturity. Eleeda, God the creator availed himself of the clairvoyance of Ifa, the oracle, in order to ‘remember ahead’ so as to determine in what way and by whose agency the awakening of life, this transcendental spiritual instilment of profane matter was to proceed.
According to Susan Wenger, “Obatala, the god who personifies the strength of purity, fecundity of truth and of white as the sacred sum of all colours in light-most-sacred-was to carry out this task in person. Ifa instructed him to pack the following paraphernalia of primordial creation in his ritual bad (Laba).
1) Efun, the sacred and potent natural chalk with which one masks oneself against the dangers of taboo.
2) Iyere osun, the wood-powder produced by termites eating the African Rosewood tree, the ritually potent powder in which Ifa, through his priest, writes his sacred number symbolisms.
3) Igbin, the great (vineyard) snail, Obatala’s own sacrificial food. The slimy fluid of the snail allows it to slide into and out of its shell with effortless ease. This fluid (Omi igbin), which is reminiscent of sperm, has great importance in all kind of proprietary sacrifices. Also, the spiral post that centrally holds up the central formation of the shell and roots the uniform contractile muscle of the snail’s soft body is the living symbols-analogy of the proto-helix and is the ‘post’ that is sacred to the goddess Iya Moopo (as the pillar that supports heaven). The strange, twofold, parthenogenetically sophisticated love life of the snail, which includes both anima and animus, is a hermaphroditic eroticism of both androgynous partners who stimulate each other to procreative activity by shooting tiny phosphorous arrows from the pores of their wet skin onto each other. This astonishing sophisticated primal procreative activity reverses our preconceived ideas of the atavistic comparative order of the evolution of species because it has no parallel with anything human. Reminiscent of the proto-motion of life in the nuclear cell that is the proto-helix of existence, Opo, the spiral post that we know so well from the Baroque Madonna is the symbol of a sacred fecundity. It is also in Igbin’s house, the snail shell.
4) Adie elese ma run, a chicken with five-toed feet, which is preferred as a sacrifice to Osun. The five-toed footprint of this hen is like the magic-mystical pentagram (Drundenfusz) with which Faust too held the Devil captive. It is said that Obatala let himself down ‘by a chain’ from heaven onto the primeval ooze. According to the statement of an Obatala priest, this chain is Obatala’s own source of force (Ase), his individual sacred energy, the hierarchical launching of evolutionary stages that led (and lead) continuously to the creation of the world.
Obatala Let himself down with this, his Ase-chain, but as it was too short; he landed on the palm tree, which grows on the boundary of the two distinct heavens which have self-evidently distinct precepts of taboo. Resting in the crown of leaves at the top of the palm, he intended to await the growth of his Ase-chain (that is till ‘the time is ripe’ for the event). He refreshed himself with the cool water of life –the wine-of the palm tree. H e got drunk and went to sleep. (The palm is the tree-aspect of the mother-goddess, Iya Moopo, as it was the symbol once of the Cretan mother of Apollo. Since this palm wine intoxication of Obatala, palm wine has been a taboo for all his priests)
In heaven, they got impatient. They were waiting for news of Obatala’s arrival below, where earth was to be. When it had taken too long, Oduduwa was sent out the ‘junior’ god. He found Obatala drunk and sleeping on the arms of the palm tree, and he made off with the bag containing the creation paraphernalia. As in the case of Jacob and Esau, it was the ‘junior’ who got the better of the ‘senior’.
Over the expanse of the still inanimate water (Omi, ordinary water, nameless and not yet entrusted with the spirit) was suspended Agemo, the chameleon, Obatala who had travelled in the gods armpit. The chameleon is an indispensable component of many sacred medicines and of medicine in the service of witch-craft. It is even ingested ritually and remains physically unabsorbed and active, ‘living on’ in the stomach of wizards and priests of quite dissimilar cults.
5) Agemo (or Oga) is not only a potent medicine; he is also a living metaphor of wisdom. Meta-intellectually, he is the symbol-antipode of the Tibetan ‘cloud of wisdom’ that is often depicted on the temple paintings, books, scrolls. The analogy lies in the assumption shared by both religion and opposite poles of ethical mankind, that wisdom is that which most sensitively react, ingest, transmutes ethically, adapts and reflects back on its author the ill all-inherent spirit of sacredness. The cloud reacts and adapts its form and volume through even the slightest atmospheric changes. The chameleon takes on its surrounding colouration without changing its own nature.
Agemo neither let loose of Obatala nor did he loose his grip on the Laba, the ritual bag containing the tool of creation, now in Oduduwa’s possession. Stretched out between them, he remained attached to both by his prehensile tongue and tail. And then Oduduwa created the world by scattering chalk and the Iyere osun power into a soft, wobbly base for the hen. He puts the hen down , and she tries to keep her balance while treading laboriously, covering this first surface with pentagonal points of her five-toes feet; more and more pentagons-running, scratching and distributing matter that was magically impressed in this way until there was enough landing space to receive Oduduwa. He climbed down and found Ile-Ife as the ‘beginning’ of mankind and its fate in this world.
Meanwhile Obatala awoke and saw that he had been out-manoeuvred. In a towering rage, typical of him as a bull-elephant, he raised up his sword of light and let of fall on Oduduwa. It fell with such ferocity that Oduduwa sank into the earth forever. There he rules in absolute autonomy. He is revered as a god that highly esteemed as he personifies the sacredness of the primacy of the earth, earth that has been impregnates once and forever with sacred fecundities like the queen bee after her nuptial flight.”1

The Yoruba traditional account of the creation of man, partly like the biblical account identifies two planes in the cultural cosmology: the physical plane and the spiritual plane. The physical plane, they refer to as the ‘Aye’ and the spiritual plane they refer to as ‘Orun’.
Now, the Yoruba believe that human personality is made up of ‘Ara’ (body) and ‘Emi’ (soul) and the third metaphysical entity is the ‘Ori inu’ (inner head). Ara is the physical, tangible and empirical and it occupies space in time. This Ara is the handiwork of Orisa-nla a deputy Olodumare assigned the work of creating human body.2 Olodumare, according to the Yoruba, is the supreme head of the heavenly Orisas. As the supreme head, he then assigned to his deputies different assignments to assist him in the creation and administration of Orun and Aye. Apart from Orisa-nla, Olodumare assigned other duties to deputies like Oduduwa, Orunmila, Ajalorun, Oluorogbo and others.
Orisa-nla created different bodies, some good and beautiful while some were ugly and deformed. That is the major reason why he is being referred to as
Alagbede orun
Oko abuke
Oko aro
Oko arara bori pete
The heavens blacksmith
Husband of the hunch back
Husband of the cripple
Husband of the dwarf with a big flat head.3

On this creation of human body, one tradition paints Orisa-nla also known as Obatala, as a disobedient and deviant divinity. Babatunde explained the perfect design which Olodumare set up for himself: that of making a peaceful world. In doing this “he also appointed Obatala to form the human image and he wanted both to cooperate with each other to produce a peaceful world of perfectly-formed, nice looking creatures”.4 It will be quite evident that the supreme deity did not intend that any ugly or bodily-deformed person be formed. But, with what is seen in Wande Abimbola and what obtains in the society, full of deformed and ugly people in as much as we have the beautiful ones, one cannot fail to conclude that Orisa-nla faulted the perfect plan of the Supreme Being. These deformed people were banished from their linage household from holding any family posts and are also “denied the full opportunity open to normal people within the narrow limits of the hierarchical system of the society” not only that, “at death they cannot become ancestors because they are not buried inside the linage household”. 5 Considering the quote above, a lot of questions will come to mind. For example, why were the deformed banished from the linage house hold? This could imply that the people dislike the deformed. But why were they hated? Where they hated for their deformed body or for the totality of their being including them ‘destiny’? In this case does a deformed body have anything to do with the nature of one’s ‘destiny’ albeit the former was made before the latter? If they were hated for their deformed body’s sake and since they didn’t create themselves, truly speaking, it means that, people abhor some handiwork or Orisa-nla. Then, it could directly mean, as shown in E.D Babatunde, that Orisa-nla is a deviant who faltered the perfect plan of Olodumare.
Considering the banishment from another angle, it would be evident that the deformed people are of immense importance to the society. Although they were banished from opportunities open to normal people in the family household, they still took up the service as staff of ‘Obatala’. One could claim that probably, that could be part of the content of their destiny. In the Yoruba society, however, the priest and staff of Orisa are seen as virtuous more than the normal or deformed people. By that, many came to assume wealth without much struggle. They acted, in most cases as mediators between man and the Orisas. Then, can it be said that they deformed are, as a matter of fact, disadvantaged in the society? At this point, I can say that they hold most importantly a useful and helpful position in the society.
Quite different from my proposition was that view of Epega D.O who believed that the time of creation, it was Olodumare himself who prepared the materials with which man was created. According to him, the physical part of man was created out of iron and clay. For him, “man is called ‘Ako irin’ (Male iron) and a woman ‘Abo irin’ (Female iron). The term ‘Okunrin’ and ‘Obirin’ are derived from ‘Ako irin’ and ‘Abo irin’ respectively”.6 It is claimed that after this preparation, Orisa-nla came to fix these things together and that formed different physical parts of man. Probably, the deformed and ugly came out of Obatala’s inefficiency in the putting together of those materials.
There is another tradition which identifies Oris-nla as one of the chiefs of Ile-Ife. This deity used to plant Okro which is known as ‘Ila’. Hence from the contraction above, the name Orisa-nla came forth.7
However, from all indications, the Yoruba account agrees with the fact that Orisa-nla was responsible for the creation of the physical  part of man with clay. The Yoruba also believe that at death, the ‘Ara’ will get decayed and go back into the ground. According to the Yoruba, it could also be inferred that the body is just a house to the real man which is ‘Emi’ (soul).
The spiritual part of man is known as the ‘Emi’. While it is claimed that Orisa-nla moulded the body. This ‘Emi’ (soul) is invisible, intangible, not spacio-temporal bound and it is the one which gives vitality and life to the body. “Its presence in, or absence from the body is known only by the fact that a person is alive or dead”8 This ‘Emi’ is viewed as very fundamental to the existence of a person just like Henri Bergson’s conception of Elan-vital which differentiates between organic and inorganic substances and without which a person is only a lifeless carcass or a dead log (Oku).
The Greeks, Plato for instance, the soul is what gives life to the body which is also the essential part of man and it is this same soul that thinks, feels and chooses.9 It could be said that since Plato existed before the Biblical doctrine, some have argued that it may be possible that the Christian doctrine of life after death was taken from the Greek conception of the mortality of the soul.10 One cannot hastily infer that the Yoruba belief in the importance of the soul was influenced by the Greeks or western views. This is claimed because the Yoruba account of creation (even not documented) had existed long before the Europeans landed themselves in the then ‘dark world’. Neither could it be said that the Islamic view influenced it as well. It also existed centuries back before the infiltration of Islamic civilization to the Yoruba kingdoms took place. The Yoruba conception of soul developed independent of any other tradition in the world.
According to M.A. Makinde, the account of the importance and immortality of the soul was borrowed from Egypt by Pythagorean and later inherited by Plato. But then, there had not been any channel by which the south Sahara people could get in touch with the North African people vice versa. Makinde stated “that is, either the idea of the immortality of the soul was originally borrowed from the Yoruba or any other African country, south of the Sahara, or both the Egyptians (from whom Pythagoras first learned the idea) and the Yoruba held this quite independently of each other, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. In either case the idea of immortality if the soul among the Yoruba could be regarded as original with them…”11
What I am asserting here is that, though it may seem similar, each tradition developed independent of others. The Yoruba believed that ‘Emi’ (soul) is the part of Olodumare. They also believe, like Plato, that ‘Emi’ is immortal and has a separate existence outside the body. That is why “at death, the Yoruba will say ‘Emi re ti bo’ or ‘Emi re ti lo’, (the soul has slipped away or the soul had gone) respectively”.12 Never could Yoruba say at death that the ‘Emi re ti parun’ (the soul is destroyed). It is culturally believed that at death, the body gets destroyed and the ‘Emi’ escapes from the body to either “join itself with another body or continue existence” or “go to ‘Orun’ and become ancestors”.13
Opinions are different on the fate of soul after death. Those who maintain that the soul will continue the life in aye linked it with the fact that such a person that died must be a younger person who died accidentally without having fulfilled his destiny in ‘Aye’. Such a soul will have to look for another empty body, put it on and continue life in a distant place from the original place where he lived in his previous life. According to Makinde, the dead person could return to the former environment to continue life.14 This is of course open to questions like; where could the soul find an empty body since it was not reported that Orisa-nla created empty bodies without souls? At death also, the dead body decays, then where could such body be found? Such a body, if available, should of course have been seen before the soul will put it on since it is physical. Another point is that the soul and the dead person will put on the body which resembles the former. An instance is recorded in Makinde’s theory of immortality of the soul and seven heavens (Orun Meje).15 so, where does the soul find the body with such resemblance with the former?
Those who claim that the soul goes to ‘Orun’ to become ancestors linked it with the soul of old people who have fully spent their lives and have reached their destiny in aye. It is said that, such people die and their souls go to Orun, join itself with the company of spirit and become ancestor. Wande Abimbola attests to this, 16 those who die young without fulfilling their programme in ‘aye’ are said to appear in different places, since according to the Yoruba, they cannot go to Orun to become ancestors. These are what they refer to as ‘Akudaaya’ or ‘Abarameji’. Apart from Makinde’s example, the society is believed to be full of them.
However, in either case, according to the question raised by Makinde in ‘Orun meje’17 of the identity of the same soul after death. I want to agree with him that such identity may be very difficult if not impossible. This is so because each individual cannot describe the soul inside him and how it looks like moreover a soul has no identity as it lacks the characteristics of tangibility, not physical and doesn’t occupy space in time. We only feel its manifestation in our mental and physical events. The moment it disappears from the body, I don’t know how that identity can be formed except with the same body. But, with such platonic tradition of reincarnation, shared by the Yoruba, according to Makinde, it is quite difficult however, to arrive at such identity.
The major point to note here is that, the Yoruba takes ‘Emi’ as an imperishable part of man. To further elucidate on the immortality of the soul, Makinde states that “this seems to explain the mystery surrounding the soul. It is also believed that the creation of the physical body from clay makes it an object of destruction while ‘Emi’, the real thing that gives a body life, is not subject to destruction by human being precisely because it is not moulded out of physical substances but a spiritual gift from Olodumare- a divine breath of Olodumare himself”.18
There is another part of human personality which must be given a careful attention. Makinde observed the attendant importance in human ‘Okan’, which translates heart in English. It is noted that ‘Okan’ is biologically responsible for blood circulation in the human body system. The ‘Okan’ and the blood in his view, play important roles in the sustenance of the ‘Emi’ in a human person. In fact, in some sort of way, he actually identifies ‘Emi’ with blood and as that which represents the soul in the physical plane.19 This is evident in the fact that if there is no blood in the human body, the body can never be alive and if the blood is drained or removed out of the human body, it is identical with the removal of the ‘Emi’. Not only that, according to Makinde, in the traditional setting, it is a fact incontestable that whenever a person or life is sacrificed, it is the blood that stands for the life in its physical manifestation. This is also evident in Christianity, according to the Holy Bible, Jesus Christ broke bread in communion with his disciples. “And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, this is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you”.20 In that statement, his blood was a representation of his life which he was sacrificing and the bread was the body as well, establishing the spiritual and physical importance of his death to his disciples before the actual occurrence.
As a matter of cultural understanding, I would agree with Makinde on the importance of both the heart ‘Okan’ and blood ‘Eje’ as agents of the soul which has a great influence on the Yoruba theory of human personality, but I shall disagree on the fact that the blood (Eje) alone is strictly identical with ‘Emi’ because the blood is only necessary for the existence of ‘Emi’ but not sufficient in the sense that, biologically speaking, there are some other organs in the body such as the Liver (Edo), Kidney (), Lungs () Brain (Okpolo) amongst many which are also identical with ‘Emi’. Even if the blood is present in the body and one of these afore mentioned organs are absent, it will sufficiently mean the absence of the ‘Emi’ as well. It could be argued that without blood, all these organs cannot work but conversely, without these organs the blood’s function is also irrelevant and useless therefore there is a dependence of one on another and it would be unfair to ascribe superiority of the blood over other organs.
Gbadegesin carries the importance of ‘Okan’ beyond mere physical level. He observed that since some mental and emotional events are attributed to ‘Okan’ apart from the biological function, and since these events are not physical, he then viewed that there is beyond the physical organ ‘Okan’. A spiritual Okan, just like ‘Ori’ Hence “this suggests that beyond the physical organ, there is a source of conscious identity which is construed to be invisible and more or less spiritual”.21 It is evident, from the fact that when Yoruba call a person ‘Alailokan’ (a heartless person), they don’t literally take it to mean that the person in question has no physical heart but they are using it in a metaphorical sense which could mean a cruel person or uncourageous person. Hence an ‘Olokan giga’ could simultaneously mean ‘a proud person or an optimistic person’, one who aims high, but not a person with a tall or high biological heart. As Gbadegesin portrays this, it is to mean that the Yoruba attached a kind of spirituality to the function of ‘Okan’, which as a whole, is different from the function of the physical ‘Okan’. The same significance of ‘Okan’ could also be observed in work of EB Idowu. 22 The whole point here is that in conjunction with the importance placed on Emi, Okan in its own part is also important.
What I have been able to do here is giving a critical account of creation and the make-up of human person from the Yoruba point of view. Then, I have been able to talk on ‘Ara’ (body), ‘Emi’ (soul) and ‘Okan’ (heart).

The Yoruba traditional belief conceived a man as comprising ‘Ara’ (body), ‘Emi’ (soul) and ‘Ori’ (inner head). The first two have already been discussed in the previous column. From all indications, the tripartite conception of human person is exclusively the view, which the Yoruba could claim its originality, although, it may be questioned and rigorously criticized, but then, there has not been any tradition around the world which held such belief before or after the Yoruba. The concept of ‘Ori’ as the third part of man and the second spiritual element of man is highly celebrated in the Yoruba belief. By way of explanation, we must not forget that when Orisa-nla moulded physical part of man, he moulded physical Ori so when we refer to Ori or Ori-inu, we must not think that we are referring to the physical head. But, when Yoruba talk of Ori they refer to a metaphysical entity which ultimately represents the bearer of man’s destiny and only the physical Ori as a mere correlate.
According to the Yoruba account of human destiny and Ori, it is believed that before coming into the world, everybody was obliged to go and choose an Ori from among a large number of Oris stored in Ajala’s warehouse. Ajala, (a potter) has the duty of moulding human heads. The process of human creation is not complete without him. While Orisanla (arch-divinity) is understood by the Yoruba to be the maker of Ara (body), who later passes the lifeless figure to Olodumare (Supreme Deity) to put Emi (life giving entity ), Ajala is responsible for the creation of Ori. Ajala is a skilled potter, a drunkard, a debtor and an irresponsible and careless creature. 23 In any case, Ajala through his utter carelessness is responsible for moulding heads of different shapes and qualities (some are good and many are bad). In the house of Ajala, every man makes a choice of his own Ori, after which every man coming into the world passes through the water of forgetfulness-Omi igbagbe, which is the boundary between heaven and earth. In another myth the acquisition of one’s Ori is done by kneeling before the high authority Olodumare (Supreme Deity), who confers one’s portion, that is, what a person would live up to on earth. This type of acquiring ‘Ori’ is referred to as Ayanmo (that which is affixed to someone). 24 In all these myths, Orunmila (arch-divinity), the founder of Ifa (Oracle) system of divination, is noted to be a witness of man’s choice of destiny. Little wonder he is referred to as Eleri-Ipin (the witness of destiny) and the only one competent to reveal the type and content of ‘Ori’ chosen by each person.
The implication of Ajala’s personality as a skilled potter, a drunkard, a debtor and an irresponsible person is that the badly made Ori represents a bad destiny. If every human being has to choose a choice of Ori then, it means many people stand to take bad Ori from Ajala’s storehouse of Ori. The Ori taken from Ajala’s storehouse stands for and strictly contains each person’s destiny – what will happen to that individual in Aye “once the choice of Ori has been made, the individual (now a complete human being) is free to travel from Orun to Aye. It is believed that the success in life of an individual depends on the type of Ori he has picked up in Ajala’s storehouse of head”25

According to Abimbola in the ‘Sixteen great poems of Ifa’;

125 Ifa ni oro o,
Ori nikan
Lo to Alasaan ba rokun.
Bi mo ba lowo lowo,
Ori ni n o ro fun.

130 Orii mi, iwo ni.
Bi mo ba bimo laye,
Ori ni n o ro fun.
Orii mi, iwo ni.
Ire gbogbo ti mo ba ri laye,

135 Ori ni n o ro fun
Orii mi, iwo ni.
Ori pele,
Atete niran,
Atete gbe ni koosa.

140 Ko soosa tii danii gbe,
Leyin ori eni.
Ori pele,
Ori abiye.
Eni ori ba gbegboo re

145 Ko yo sese”.

125 Ifa said, “It is Ori,
It is Ori alone,
Who can follow his own devotee to a distant
journey over the sea without turning back.”
If I have money,
It is Ori whom I will praise.

130 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 one earth,

135 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 gives blessing to your devotee more
quickly than other gods.

140 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
145 Should rejoice exceedingly.26

In the very pertinent view of Bolaji Idowu, ‘Ori’ is the “inner person and this is the very essence of personality”. According to him, Yoruba believes that “it is this ‘Ori’ that rules, controls and guides the life and activities of a person”27 Gbadegesin passionately shares this view above in his Yoruba concept of a person. “Each newly created being picks up his or her preferred case without knowing what is stored there. But whatever is stored there would determine the life course of the individual in the world”. 28
Unlike other scholars, Bolaji Idowu didn’t identify ‘Ajala’, a personality responsible for moulding ‘Ori’ (Ori inu). This might be because ‘Ajala’ is not recognised as one of the Orisas, then Idowu might not see any reason why a due attention should be given to an irresponsible figure as ‘Ajala’ when it comes to the celebrated and significant issue like Ori and destiny. In that case, Idowu directly connects the reception of destiny (Ori) with Olodumare. He observes ‘Ori’ as a personality, kneeling down before Olodumare and receiving his destiny. Hence for Idowu, destiny could be received in any of these three ways, A kun le yan (that which is received kneeling). He may kneel down and receive his destiny – that is called A kun le gba (that which is received kneeling). Or he may have his destiny affixed on him – for this, Yoruba give the name Ayanmo (that which if affixed to one). For him also, once the destiny is received from the sealed by Olodumare and the contest becomes binding on the holder. It then guides and controls the activities of individual on earth. 29 The unchangeable destiny of Jesus Christ (crucifixion) and that of king Odewale (killing his father and marrying his mother) even after much untold effort to change them, could be seen as lending credence to the force of destiny.30
The Yoruba does not only see Ori as destiny but they also see Ori as a personality soul which is capable of ruling, controlling and guiding the life and activities of man. Generally, a fortunate person is called ‘Olori-ire’ (one who possess good Ori) while one who is unfortunate in life is described as ‘Olori-buruku’ (one who possesses a bad Ori).
Furthermore, the word Ori, which is used to describe the personality essence, is also used to describe man’s double (Enikeji) or guarding spirit. When Yoruba says ‘Ori mi ba ni se’, he is referring to the fact that it is the (Enikeji) that has helped him. If a person miraculously escapes from harm, he will say ‘Ori mi yo mi’. Apart from seeing Ori as Enikeji, it is also seen as a personal god just like the great Ifa poem which states that “it is Ori alone, who could follow his own devotee to a distant journey over the seas (without ever turning back)”31 Every man’s Ori is his personal god. If an enemy plans some evil against a person, and the mischief is miscarried, people will say of the fortunate person, Ori re ko gbabode. Ori is seen as the guarding spirit. When an individual encounters injustice in the course of life and accepts his fate about it, he says ‘Ori mi a ja fun mi’ (my Ori would fight my course in pursuit of justice).32 When a father says to his son, ‘Ori mi a gbe e’ (may my Ori support you), he is praying that his guarding spirit may also support his son. In all these usage, Ori is referred to as a different personality that is capable of warding off evil, guiding, guarding a person and retaliating where need be.
How does the issue of Ori as the bearer of destiny become a philosophical issue? It should be noted that destiny by strict definition is something predetermined and as such it is unchangeable. Such could be seen in the fatalist position of what will be, will be since everything was predetermined. 33 According to the Yoruba as held by Wande Abimbola and Makinde, though destiny is partly seen as  unchangeable, on the other hand, it is believed that one’s destiny could be changed or altered but hard work and sacrifice or lack of them. This prompted Makinde to raise a philosophical question; does the changing of one’s Ori imply the change in one’s destiny?
Although it might be difficult to associate the change in ones destiny with the change in ones Ori since Ori is metaphysical, the possibility of hard work and sacrifice make the change of destiny possible at least in the Yoruba view. I wish to agree with Makinde that Yoruba belief of predestination favours a weak destiny (WD) as claimed by Makinde.
In agreement with Makinde and Gbadegesi, it is quite impossibility to have a rational or preferential choice in the choosing of an Ori. Apart from the fact that for a rational choice to take place, the knowledge of the content of each Ori must precede the choice, the personalities who make this choice are incomplete as they are only potential human beings and haven’t attained the level of actuality according to Wande Abimbola. This is rationally inferred from “once the choice of Ori has been made, the individual (now a complete human being)…” 34 this implies that before the choice of the Ori, the individual was an incomplete human being, how then is an incomplete or a potential man to reasonable and rationally be said to choose a choice which will be absolutely binding on him in Aiye? I fail to see my rationality in that instance. This is like holding a day-old baby responsible for its fall.

It will not be difficult to see that the view of Yoruba conception of human personality is quite different from the western view. While the west views a person as comprising both mind and body, either mind or body respectively, Yoruba hold the tripartite view of man comprising of Ara (body) Emi (soul) and Ori (inner head). I have also been able to talk about Okan (heart) and its importance to human person.
I have also been able to show my agreement with Makinde and Gbadegesin that not only there was no preferential choice in the case of Ori but also that the personality involved in the choice itself is irrational, incomplete and that cannot be said to choose any choice.


1. Susan Wenger/Gert Chesi: A LIFE WITH THE GODS In their Yoruba Homeland. 1993 Perlinger Verlag Ges. m.b. H Brixentaler Strasse 61, 6300 Worgl (Austria) pp. 87-88
2. Abimbola Wande: La otion De persome en Afrique Noire ( on the Yoruba concept of Human Personality) (Paris, Central National de la Recherche scientifique, 1971), pp.3
3. Abimbola Wande: op. Cit, p.4
4. Babatunde E.D.: “Bini and Yoruba notion of the Human Personality”: in C.S. Momoh Ed: The Substance of African philosophy (African philosophy project publications, 1989) pp 283
5. Abimbola Wande: op. Cit, p.4
6. Epega D.O.: The basis of Yoruba religion (Lagos, Ijamido Printers and Publishers, 1971) pp. 13-14
7. Adeoye C.L. : Eda Omo Ood’ua: [Ibadan; Oxford University press, 1971, Chapter 2]
8. Idowu E.B.: Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief (Ibadan, Longman’s Publication, 1962), pp.169.
9. Craig Edward: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (New York, Routledge, 1998) pp.44
10. Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89lan_vital)
11. Makinde M.A.: “Immortality of the Soul and the Yoruba Theory of Seven Heavens”, Journal of cultures and ideas, No 1 (December, 1983). pp. 31-59
12. Idowu E.B. op ci,t p. 169
13. Makinde M.A. “Immortality of the soul” opt cit, p.39.
14. Makinde M.A. opt cit, p.38
15. Makinde M.A. “Immortality of the soul” op cit, p 39
16. Abimbola Wande op cit, p.2
17. Makinde M.A. opt cit, p. 44
18. Makinde M.A.: “An African Concept Human Personality Yoruba example” p. 91
19. Makinde M.A. opt cit, p. 19
20. The Holy Bible, Luke Chapter 22 Verse 19-22
21. Gbadegesin S.: Eniyan; the Yoruba concept of person, Edited by P.H. Coetzee and A.P.J Roux, Routledge (New York, 1998) p.151
22. Idowu E.B.: Olodumare; God in Yoruba belief (Ibadan, Longmans Pub. Co., 1962) p. 170.
23. Morakinyo, O.:The Yoruba Ayanmo Myth and mental Health-Care in West Africa. Journal of Culture and Ideas 1(1) p.78.
24. Idowu E.B. Op cit, p.173-174
25. Abimbola Wande. Op cit, p.7
26. Abimbola Wande: SIXTEEN GREAT POEMS OF IFA, UNESCO and ABIMBOLA 1975. Pp. 170-173
27. Idowu E.B. op cit, p.170
28. Gbadegesin S. Op cit, p. 153
29. Abimbola Wande: Ifa: An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus (Ibadan, Oxford University Press) 1976 p.132
30. Heralds of Hope: Holy Bible: Mathew Chapter 26 Verse 36-46 &
Rotimi Ola: The Gods are not to Blame, (London, Oxford University Press, 1971)
31. Abimbola Wande.: SITEEN GREAT POEMS OF IFA, pp. 172
32. King Sunny Ade Old Wine Collection Ori mi ja fun mi
33. Ryle Gilbert: Dilemmas (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1966) ‘What is, was to be’
34. Abimbola Wande, “La Notion”, op cit, p.7

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A Naturalistic Interpretation of the Yoruba Concepts of Ori by Adebola Babatunde Ekanola

A Naturalistic Interpretation of the Yoruba Concepts of Ori

Adebola Babatunde Ekanola

Department of Philosophy

University of Ibadan, Nigeria


Ori is a central concept in Yoruba-language conception of human personality.’

The Yoruba are said to believe that the personality of each individual is predeter-

tnined Ori. In this paper, I aim to show that the available accounts of Ori consti-

tute an inadequate explanation of this determinism—what is popularly translated

as destiny—in Yoruba thought. In place of the spiritualistic predetermination of

personality implied in the idea of destiny, I wish to offer a naturalistic, humanistic

account of Ori.

The Myth of Creation

One of the available versions of the Yoruba account of the creation of the hu-

man person holds that the human body [ara] was moulded by Orisanla (one of the

deities in Yoruba traditional religious system) out of sand. It is thereafter that the

lifeless body is infused with emi (life or breath of life) by Olodumare (supreme de-

ity). The body at this stage becomes activated with life and then goes to Ajala (de-

ity responsible for making Ori) to select an Ori.^

The act of selecting Ori in Ajala’s house has three important aspects:^ First, it

is supposed to be one of free choice. You are said to be free to choose any of the

Ori available in Ajala’s storehouse. Second, the Ori selected determines, finally and

irreversibly, the life course and personality of its possessor on earth. Third, each

individual is unaware of the content or quality of the chosen Ori, that is, the per-

son making the choice does not know if the destiny embedded in an Ori is good or

bad. Other terms used to symbolize Ori include Akunleyan (that which is chosen

kneeling), Ipin-Ori (allotment), Ayannto (that which is chosen or affixed to one-

self), and Akunlegba (what is received kneeling).

Apart from the above account of the determination of destiny through a choice

of Ori in Ajala’s house, there are other versions of the Yoruba belief on the determination of destiny. One such version has it that it is Olodumare who confers destiny on each human person, which is later doubly sealed by Onibode (the keeper of

the gate between heaven and earth.)” However all the available versions agree that

destiny is determined by the Ori, either chosen or conferred upon a person. They

also agree that by the time people arrive in the world, through birth, they are totally ignorant of the type of destiny awaiting them.

A Critical Analysis of the Myth

For present purposes, we shall concentrate on the version of the creation myth

that maintains that Ori is selected in Ajala’s house. Our aim is to see what philo-

sophical implications may be derived from it, since other versions of the myth may

have different philosophical implications. Many of the scholars who have written

on the Yoruba concept of human personality seem to accept one version or the

other of the mythical account of the creation of human beings as descriptive of

what actually happens before each person is birthed. Some African philosophers

have even used the creation myth as a primary premise from which many conclu-

sions on the nature and meaning of human life are derived.

These mythical accounts are subject to two general criticisms. The first is that

they lead to incompatible consequences, while the second is that they are not sup-

posed to be taken literally but should be understood as allegory. The following are

some of the problems arising from the literal interpretation of the Ajala version of

the creation myth. First, the way the Yoruba are said to perceive the relationship

between Ori on one hand, and the destiny and personality of individuals on the

other, cannot be consistently held for some people. For instance, it appears that

physically deformed people have their destinies and personalities determined by

their deformed ara (body) and not by any prenatal choice of Ori. In the Yoruba

culture, people like the abuke (hunchback), aro (cripple), afin (albino), and arara

(dwarf) are all called eni-orisa (special people of the gods). They are denied, by vir-

tue of their physical deformities, the full opportunities open to normal people. They

are not allowed, for example, to function as heads of household, village heads, or

kings. After death, they cannot become ancestors because they are not buried in

the lineage grave site but in the evil forest.^

Also, in societies where there are no established manners in which people with

physical deformities are treated, they remain limited in very important respects by

their deformities. A cripple, for instance, can never aspire to be the world’s fastest

sprinter, the world’s best swimmer, or the world’s number one footballer. In this re-

gard, we can meaningfully say that a cripple has been destined by his deformed ara

(body) not to be an outstanding sprinter, swimmer, or footballer. Hence, it seems

unacceptable to attribute at least some of the aspects of the destiny of a cripple to

a prenatal choice of Ori, because the deformity which limits him and shapes his

destiny is an aspect of his body which, going by the Yoruba creation myth, was

fashioned prior to the selection of Ori.

In spite of the claims that the Yoruba believe that the prenatal choice of Ori

determines, finally, the destiny and personality of man (used generically) on earth.

Idowu, Makinde, and Gbadegesin argue that the Yoruba believe that there are still

some ways by which a bad Ori can be changed for the better and a good Ori al-

tered for the worse. They maintain that t:he Yoruba are of the view that a had Ori

can be improved through consultations with Orunmila (a deity in Yoruba tradi-

tional thought), etutu (sacrifice), and hard work. Conversely, an originally good

Ori may also be altered for the worse through the activities of malicious agents like

the aje (witches), laziness, or bad character.*

The claim that destiny can be altered seems inconsistent with the Yoruba idea

of predestination, as consisting of the belief that a prenatal choice of Ori deter-

mines, finally and irreversibly, the destiny and personality of each human person.

The opinion that destiny is irreversible is reflected in many Yoruba proverbs and

wise sayings. For instance, the Yoruba often say that Ohun Ori wa se ko ma ni

salai se eo (what the Ori has come to achieve must definitely be fulfilled).^ Other

Yoruba proverbs depicting the inalterable nature of destiny include

Akunleyan ni ad’aye ba

Akunleyan pin

Adaiye tan oju nro ni

(We knelt down and chose a portion

We get into the world and are not pleased)

A-yan-mo o gbogun

(That which is affixed to one cannot be

With soap)«

In addition, going by the definition of destiny as connoting “what must happen

and cannot be changed or controlled,”‘ it seems unlikely that what has been pre-

destined can be altered. Hence, it is contestable that a consistent belief in predesti-

nation is synonymous with fatalism, which is the viewpoint that whatever happens

is unavoidable and could not have been otherwise.

Ironically, however, many of the available accounts of the Yoruba belief sys-

tem suggest that the Yoruha hold on to these incompatible beliefs. They are said

to believe that a prenatal selection of Ori determines each person’s personality and

life course and also that a man’s destiny can be affected negatively or positively.”

While some scholars have tried to explain how the Yoruba can consistently hold on

to these seemingly contradictory beliefs, others have resorted to a fatalistic inter-

pretation of the Yoruba idea of destiny.. While putting forth a fatalistic interpreta-

tion, Abimbola, for example, stated categorically that even the gods cannot change

human destinies. Supporting Abimbola’s interpretation, Makinde argues that the

best the gods could do in regard to a human’s destiny is merely to guide the fulfill-

ment.” The implication of this is that humans are not free agents but are merely

acting out a previously written script. Hence, they should not be held morally re-

sponsible for their actions.

To avoid the above implication, Makinde rejected the fatalistic interpretation

and introduced his weak conception of Ori, which sees Ori as a mere potentiality.”

He argues that the Ori chosen in heaven is just a potentiality which needs certain

things to be done before it is actualized. Therefore, one needs to work hard, con-

sult with Orunmila, and make necessary sacrifices before a potentially good Ori is

brought to fruition or a potentially bad Ori is improved.

A problem with Makinde’s conception of Ori as a mere potentiality is that it

seems to be inconsistent with the idea of predestination, which he also wants to

defend. Predestination, as rightly observed by Makinde himself, “presupposes that

one’s position on earth as well as the activities that led or would lead him to such

a position were already pre-ordained from heaven and the situation could not be

or have been otherwise.”” This suggests that all the things identified as required

to actualize a potentially good Ori or improve a bad one are really either activities

in futility or those that have been pre-ordained for specific individuals as part of

the fulfillment of their destinies; when an individual works hard or consults with

Orunmila before he is successful in life, he is merely following the path of destiny.

He would not have worked hard or consulted with Orunmila if it was not so pre-

ordained. Hence, the actions and inactions, which Makinde classifies as acts of free

will in his effort to make the Yoruba belief in predestination coherent,”’ should

really be classified as part of what has been pre-determined. These actions can be

described as free actions only if we completely give up the notion of prenatal deter-

minism. Hence, it appears that the notions of free will and predestination cannot

be consistently held together in any discourse on the Yoruba concept of Ori.

In essence, consistent predestination is equivalent to fatalism, while inconsis-

tent predestination amounts to a negation of predestination. Either we maintain

that there is predestination, in the sense that whatever happens to an individual

and whatever steps he takes in life are mere manifestations of his destiny, or we as-

sert that there is no predestination at all. Consequently, as Makinde’s weak concep-

tion of Ori portrays the Yoruba as inconsistent with their belief in predestination,

it follows that they do not really believe in predestination but pay mere lip service

to it.

In addition, Makinde fails to realize that saying that something is predestined

is completely different from saying that there is a potential for one thing or the

other. For instance, a person may have the potential to be a good lawyer, a promi-

nent politician, or a distinguished academic without actually becoming any of these

things. But when we say that a person is predestined to become something, we are

not merely saying that he has a potential. Rather, we are saying that becoming that

thing is unavoidable and could not have been otherwise. Hence, it is a mistake to

define predestination in terms of the mere possession of potentials.

Another difficulty arising from the mythical explanation of the nature and ori-

gin of man is seen in the area of free will and moral responsibility. The myth holds

that the prenatal selection of Ori is one of free choice, by virtue of which a person

can be held to be morally responsible for his or her personality and life course.

Makinde, however, convincingly argues that there is no free will involved in the

selection of Ori from Ajala’s house.^^ His argument is outlined thusly: One, all

choices are preferential choices. Two, the types of Ori, good or bad, are unknown

to the persons making the selections. Three, if an individual knows the types of Ori available, he or she is Hkely to prefer a good one to a bad one. Therefore, the al-

leged prenatal selection of Ori is not of a free choice at all, and it follows that we

cannot rightly hold anyone morally responsible for the quality of Ori selected, or

for the consequences arising from it.

The above argument by Makinde seems to have established that the notions

of free will and moral responsibility cannot be consistently held together in any

discourse on the Yoruba concept of Ori. But, since the Yoruba in their everyday af-

fairs operate the notions of moral responsibility and free will in conjunction with

the belief in a prenatal selected Ori, we need to make further attempts to identify a

sense in which these notions and beliefs can be consistently held together.

This brings us to a different attempt, to reconcile the notions of free will, moral

responsibility, and prenatal determination of destiny by Olusegun Oladipo.^^ He

subscribes to the view that human destiny is determined by a prenatal selection of

Ipin-Ori after it is “doubly sealed” by both Olodumare and Onibode.” He, how-

ever, describes Ori, symbolizing destiny, as a “covenant or agreement with Olodu-

mare as to what a person intends to become in the world.”^^ Ori is seen as “a

series of events agreed to in a covenant with O/o^Mware.” ^’Conceived in this man-

ner, Oladipo argues that it is meaningful and consistent for the Yoruba to say that

a person’s destiny can be changed through any of the various ways we have iden-

tified earlier.^” What he is saying, in essence, is that an earlier agreement between

a person and Olodumare, which was doubly sealed by Olodumare and Onibode,

can yet be changed under certain conditions.

I must say that Oladipo’s effort to reconcile the belief in predestination is quite

attractive. It appears to be very compatible with the Yoruba beliefs in the freedom

of humans and their being morally responsible. However, he needs to clarify what

is meant by “destiny being doubly sealed.” If it means some kind of approval or

ratification, then I would agree that destiny may be altered just like any party to an

agreement may later alter some aspects of the agreement or even nullify the agree-

ment completely. But it appears that the actual meaning of destiny goes beyond

an agreement or covenant. When we say that something is predestined, we are

not merely saying that it has been agreed upon or that it is included in a prenatal

covenant. Rather, the main claim is that something cannot be prevented no matter

what anyone tries to do.

I believe that it is in an attempt to buttress the inevitability of whatever has

been predestined that the idea of destiny being “doubly sealed” by Olodumare and

Onibode is introduced. This seal, in my opinion, is not just a kind of approval or

ratification, but a means of ensuring that destiny is irrevocable, certain, and with-

out any possibility of change.

As rightly pointed out by E. O. Oduwole,^^ the fact that destiny is inalterable

is illustrated in Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame.^^ Here, we see Odewale

eventually killing his father and marrying his mother, as was predestined in spite of

all efforts made to forestall the fulfillment of these events. Indeed, Abimbola seems

to be quite right to have stated that it is simply because people find it to be quite

difficult to accept a bad destiny that they make serious, but fruitless, attempts to

rectify or alter it.^^ Even consultations with oracles and the offering of relevant sacrifices cannot bring any change in human destiny. The best that these can achieve,

according to Abimbola, is that “every man would be able to thread the path al-

ready laid out for him without beating about the bush.”^” Similarly, such virtues as

hard work and good character are as incapable of changing a hitherto bad destiny.

At best, they seem to be mere means by which destinies are fulfilled. The Yoruba

have many proverbs depicting the inalterable nature of destiny. Some of these have

been mentioned earlier. A Yoruba adage asserting that a good destiny can never be

changed or perverted by evil agents is omo ar’aiye ko le pa kadara da won kon le

fa owo ago s.eyin ni (malevolent agents can never alter or pervert a good destiny,

the worst they can do is to delay its fulfillment).

The above analysis of Oladipo’s account suggests, contrary to his own conclu-

sion, that destiny is alterable. One implication of this is that the Yoruba seem to

be irrational, because while they recognize that destiny is inalterable, they still go

ahead to make efforts to change it. Another implication is that the notion of free

will and belief in the moral responsibility of humans is unjustifiable and baseless

within the context of the Yoruba culture.

However, before we accept this conclusion, let us attempt to transcend the

myth in order to see if we can arrive at a more plausible naturalistic explanation of

the Yoruba idea of Ori and predestination. Our presupposition in this effort is that

the Yoruba mythical account of human creation is not meant to be taken literally

but understood metaphorically.

A Naturalistic Interpretation of the Yoruba Concepts of Ori

It is granted that the Yoruba believe that each individual person is composed

oiara, emi, and Ori (body, spirit and spiritual inner head). Other spiritual elements

identified in some accounts of the Yoruba traditional thought system are owo and

ese (spiritual hand and leg). It is also accepted that the Yoruba believe that individ-

uals exercise free will and are morally responsible for many of their actions.

Ordinarily, the Yoruba recognize that an individual is free to do or not to do

certain things. For example, the Yoruba will agree that each individual is free to

decide whether or not to steal, tell the truth, or be kind to people. But they also

recognize that in some cases, individuals may not be free to do or not do some

things. For instance, the Yoruba would agree that a blind man is not free to help

somebody read a letter, just as a cripple is not free to save a drowning child. It is

because they are able to distinguish between areas in which people are free and

areas in which they are not free that people are held to be morally responsible for

only those actions they are free to carry or not carry out.

However, it seems that no one is free in an absolute sense, even in those ar-

eas where freedom may be exercised. This is because a number of external factors

which people do not have much control over, and of which they are frequently not

conscious, often affect or influence the way of their actions and characters. These

may be classified into two sorts: Factors of heredity and factors of environment.

Factors of heredity include all those inborn propensities common to a race or fam-

ily, like certain physical characteristics, diseases, habits, and so on. Environmental factors include earthquakes floods, droughts, and various climatic changes. So-

called social environmental factors are those happenings in society that may influ-

ence individuals either at the level of specific actions or at the level of dispositions

and characters. War, for instance, usually predisposes people to violence in a way

they may not be predisposed to when society is at peace. Similarly, harsh economic

conditions may propel some people toward such vices as prostitution, stealing, and

armed robbery.

The fact that human acts, characteristics, and dispositions are not products of

absolutely free choices suggests that the practice of praising and blaming people is

really meaningless and unjustifiable. This is because the system of morality presup-

poses that people make free choices. To save morality, within the Yoruba context,

from the charge of meaninglessness, we need to identify precisely how people can

plausibly be said to be genuinely free in such a way that will be consistent with the

Yoruba concept of Ori. An option is to say that an individual is free only when he

is not compelled to do or is restrained from doing certain things. That is, when he

is free from external constraints. Moritz Schlick is an advocate of this view, and he

affirms that “free acts are uncompelled acts.”^^ Hence, he sees all problems of free

will and moral responsibihty as pseudo problems.

However, a more plausible sense in which individuals may be said to be free,

consistent with the Yoruba concept of Ori, is that each person has the power to

introduce a new energy or to make an effort of the will to transcend environmen-

tal or hereditary factors that may want to constrain, compel, or predispose him or

her to do or not do certain things. For instance, we still find some people embrac-

ing and practicing the ideals of Pacifism in war situations, in spite of the general

tendency toward violence. Similarly, in spite of the fact that poverty predisposes

people toward such vices as steahng and prostitution, it is still open to poor people

to choose whether or not to steal or become a prostitute.

Although the term will is ambiguous and quite problematic, for our present

purpose it means the mental powers manifested in making a choice between two

or more alternatives. An example may be helpful in clarifying this: Let us suppose

that an individual, Joseph, is aware of two things. First is the strong conviction

that it is always morally right to tell the truth. Second is the equally strong desire

to continue to live in the house he has lived in all his life. Let us suppose further

that this second desire is incompatible with his deep conviction that he ought to al-

ways tell the truth, because the only way he can continue to live in this house is to

lie under oath. C. A. Campbell describes such a situation as the “situation of moral

temptation.”^* In the example above, even if Joseph’s desire to live in the house in

question is stronger than the desire to tell the truth, the choice remains with him

to exert or not exert some effort of the will which will enable him to tell the truth.

If he decides to tell the truth, his action can rightly be described as a free one be-

cause he could have lied. Similarly, his decision to lie would be a free one because

he could have told the truth.

In essence, factors of environment and heredity may determine the nature of

the situation within which decisions are taken,^^ but individuals can still exercise

their free will in allowing or disallowing factors of heredity or environment to dictate their decisions and actions. In Joseph’s case, above, the desire to continue

living in the house and the desire to tell the truth constitute at least some aspects

of the moral situation in which Joseph finds himself. But the actual decision taken

to either lie or tell the truth in pursuit of either of the two incompatible desires is a

function of his free will.

In my opinion, it is how an individual exercises his free will, which is made

manifest in his various free choices and free actions, which determines his charac-

ter, that is, each person’s character (iwa) is formed by virtue of his past acts of free

choice, and it is in recognition of this that the Yoruba praise and blame people for

their good and bad characters. For instance, a habitual thief may be blamed for his

stealing habits because it has formed part of his character through his past acts of

theft. Hence, the Yoruba are of the strong conviction that Owo eni ni aafi’ntun iwa

ara eni se (we use our hands or make individual efforts to improve our individual


Given the above understanding of how individuals could plausibly be said to

be free, I will now present an alternative naturahstic understanding of the Yoruba

concepts of Ori and destiny. To begin with, let me quickly address the Yoruba be-

lief in the prenatal determination of Ori and destiny. I am of the opinion that the

fact that hereditary and environmental factors, which infiuence the situations in

which people find themselves, exist prior to and independent of the birth of the in-

dividuals they affect contributes to the Yoruba view that certain aspects of human

lives are determined prior to birth in heaven. But there seems to be no good reason

supporting the Yoruba prenatal thesis. Rather than maintain that there is a prena-

tal choice of Ori which determines one’s destiny, personality, and entire life course,

I argue that the idea of a chosen Ori is no more than a combination of all the vari-

ous acts of free choice made by an individual up until any specified time in his life.

Three key factors seem to be vital in the determination of a person’s life

course: hereditary factors, environmental factors, and character. The relation be-

tween the first two factors and the third one is such that in the formation of char-

acter, each person has a choice to either allow or disallow facts of heredity and

environment to dictate the particular decision and actions which will ultimately

form the character.

By character we mean the distinctive quality of a person or the peculiar ways

in which each person manifests his or her existence.^^ It is formed by virtue of

the various previous acts of choice made by the individual and it is what, to a

very great extent, determines the destiny of persons. Take as an example a habitual

smoker who develops lung cancer as a result of the smoking habit. This habit con-

stitutes part of the character of the smoker, by virtue of which it makes sense to ar-

gue that he or she is predestined to develop lung cancer. Therefore, it might be said

of the habitual smoker in question that it is his or her Ori to develop lung cancer.

Going by this, the claim by Moses Oke that “a man’s character is his destiny” is

quite plausible.^^

From the above considerations, what the Yoruba describe as a choice of Ori is

actually made by individuals during the course of human existence, through the di-

verse acts of choices made, not by any prenatal choice in heaven. This implies that the concept of Ori is meaningful only in a retrospective sense. It is only with the

benefit of hindsight that we can plausibly say that an individual is predestined to

be one thing or the other, or that an event is predestined to occur. Before an event

occurs, I do not think that the Yoruba would say that it is predestined to occur,

except if by some special powers they have some insights into the future. Prior to

the occurrence of events, the best that can be said is that given the way a person is

living, behaving, or manifesting his character, he is likely to end up this way or that

way. It is only when such predictions come to pass that the Yoruba would say with

some measure of authority that the events have been predestined.

It is of interest to note that various world religions and cultures subscribe to

the view that some individuals are able to accurately predict future events. The

Yoruba traditional religion is no different, as its practitioners often consult with

the Ifa oracle to know the future of their children. This, in Yoruba language, is de-

scribed as knowing the Iko-se waiye or the es-n-taiye of a child.^” All that the ora-

cle does is to foretell the kind of life the child will have, as well as the major events

that will occur in his or her life. Subsequent efforts to avoid the occurrence of some

revealed unsavory events, for all we know, would end up as fruitless efforts. Such

efforts may be likened to the efforts to care for an individual who is sick with an

incurable ailment. Just as relatives would not want to leave an incurably sick pa-

tient without doing anything to alleviate his or her pain, and perhaps hope against

all hope that the ailment will miraculously disappear, the Yoruba also make fruit-

less efforts to alter a destiny that is foretold.^^

Going back to our discourse on the relationship between destiny and charac-

ter, my position is that it is a person’s character, which is a product of past acts of

free choice, that determines destiny on earth. There are several suggestions of this

view in Idowu’s writings.^^ According to him, Orunmila recited thusly:

Iwa nikan I’osoro o

Iwa nikan I’osoro,

Ori kan ki buru I’out ife

Iwa nikan I’osoro o

(Character is all that is requisite

Character is all that is requisite

There is no destiny to be called unhappy in Ife city

Character is all that is requisite)

In essence, the idea that is being conveyed here is that human well-being and suc-

cess on earth depend upon character. Similarly, Idowu stated that “a good character

is a sufficient armor against any untoward happening in life.”^^ As such, the recog-

nition of the fact that each person is free to develop either a good or bad character

underlies the Yoruba’s practice of blaming or praising individuals for the quality or

type of character they have and also for the ways their lives eventually turn out.

They say to the woman having marital problems, Obinrin so wan u o’loun o mori

oko wa’aiye (a woman is devoid of a good character but she complains of not be-

ing predestined to have a husband).

However, the view that destiny is determined by character seems to be under-

mined by the fact that there are occasions in which some significant occurrences

take place in the lives of people which cannot be accounted for in terms of the

characters of the individuals concerned or their past free choices. For instance,

when a person who has never smoked before or engaged in anything that we know

can cause lung cancer suddenly develops the ailment, the Yoruba may want to say

that it is such a person’s destiny to have cancer without us being able to say that

the cancer is a product of past choices, habits, or character. In such situations, we

are unable to offer any plausible explanation for the occurrence, except to say that

it is the destiny of the person concerned to have that experience at that time. This

is the kind of explanation offered when strange and perhaps tragic events defying

rational explanations occur.

In such circumstances, the Yoruba make use of explanations in terms of des-

tiny only because they lack any other rational explanations for the event. This is

similar to the way other people may explain away events in terms of such notions

as the “will of God,” “chance occurrence,” or “luck.” However, we need to note

that it is not in all cases in which the Yoruba need to explain events affecting peo-

ple that they offer explanations in terms of predestination. In many cases, they are

able to give plausible natural explanations as to why certain events take place or

why a person has become a success or failure in life. For instance, the Yoruba often

encourage young men to be hardworking and honest so as to make a success out

of their lives. Thus, it is not uncommon for the Yoruba to attribute a person’s suc-

cess to such factors as hard work, consistency, and patience, without any reference

to destiny. Likewise, failure is often explained in terms of such factors as laziness,

rashness, foolishness, and impatience. It is usually when the Yoruba are unable to

identify empirical reasons behind the success or failure of an individual that they

resort to explanations in terms of destiny.

For instance, it is only when an individual, after doing all that is required to

prosper in a venture, ends up in failure that the Yoruba may say that he is predes-

tined to fail in the venture. But, in this context, the way the notion of destiny is em-

ployed is quite similar to how some other people might simply say that the person is

just unlucky, because they cannot offer any plausible explanation for the ill fortune.

Indeed, the Yoruba term for luck is the same as the term used to denote des-

tiny. When the Yoruba want to say that a person is lucky or unlucky, they say

that ose orire or ose ori buruku (he has a good head or a bad head). Perhaps it

is because reference is made to the head when the Yoruba are talking about both

destiny and luck that some of the difficulties surrounding the Yoruba notion of Ori

and destiny are accentuated.

What is being suggested, in essence, is that there are at least two senses in

which the Yoruba employ the notion of Ori: First, to signify the choice of character

made by each individual through the particular choices of actions made. Second,

to denote the lack of plausible explanations in a perplexing situation that defies

any reasonable naturalistic or empirical explanations. In such situations, there is

the tendency to say that what has happened cannot but occur because it has been

so predetermined in heaven. But as we have tried to show, such explanations cannot be rationally defended and they are the products of a number of incompatible