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TRAINING OF IFÁ PRIESTS
of Ifá priests is a supreme example of sacrifice in
human endeavor. It demonstrates that human memory can be stretched
to an almost limitless extent for the retention of knowledge.
of the training is to give the would-be priests a disciplined
attitude to many problems in life. In ancient times, Ifá
priests were the guardians, counsellors, philosophers and
physicians of their various communities.
therefore, the primary aim of the training to prepare the
would-be priests adequately to meet the grave responsibilities
of important positions in the community. Most people start
their training as Ifá priests between the ages of seven
and twelve. If the training goes well without a hitch, and
if the trainee has a retentive memory, the training lasts
not more than ten to twelve years.
There are usually many dropouts during the training with only
a small percentage of those who start the training completing
it successfully. This is due to several factors of which the
most important are firstly the mental rigour and secondly
the extremely hard conditions of living involved in the training.
Throughout the period of training, the master-priest and his
trainees live together as brothers. Age and seniority are
respected and given priority among trainees in certain matters.
do household work for the master-priest. This is especially
the case with master-priests who have no wives. Such people
depend on their trainees for carrying out all the menial jobs
of their households.
It is also
not uncommon for the master-priest to have a small farm near
the town or village in which he lives. In such a case, a number
of his trainees are sent to the farm regularly to do all the
necessary work ranging from weed clearing and planting to
the harvesting of the crops.
only goes to the farm once in a while to supervise the activities
of the trainees.
The training starts by teaching the would-be priest how to
use the paraphernalia of the divination system. This includes
learning how to use the divining chain and the sacred palm
nuts of divination to find out the appropriate Odù
and ÷s÷ relating to particular clients.
of the training is known as dIdá-æwô (learning
how to use the divining chain for divination) and ètìtë-alë
(learning how to use the sacred palm nuts for divination).
The divining chain is one of the first instruments in the
paraphernalia of Ifá to be introduced to the would-be
priest. He is taught how to recognize the various combinations
of the half-nuts of the divining chain that make up each Odù.
The trainee learns one Odù every other day, or in the
case of very dull boys, one Odù every week.
progress depends entirely on his own memory and intelligence.
This part of the training of the would-be priest does not
end until the trainee is able to use the divining chain to
recognize the respective signatures of the two hundred and
fifty-six odù in the Ifá divination corpus.
After the student Ifá priest has mastered the use of
the divining chain, he is introduced to the sacred palm-nuts,
that is, ikin. This part of the training is known as ètìtë-alë,
and it consists of teaching the would-be priest to be able
to use the sacred palm-nuts to find out the appropriate odù
by making marks on the yellow powder of divination.
As the sacred
palm nuts are used less frequently by the Ifá priest
than the divining chain, less time is devoted to this part
of the training.
By far the most important part of the work of the student
if a priests is learning by heart of a number of ÷s÷
from each of the two hundred and fifty-six Odù. Particular
attention is paid to the principal sixteen odù, which
are also the first sixteen Odù in the corpus.
to be no fixed number of ÷s÷ which each trainee
must learn before he qualifies for initiation, but most of
my informants confirm that in ancient times, nobody would
be respected as a good Ifá priest unless he has learnt
by heart at least sixteen ÷s÷ in each of the
two hundred and fifty-six Odù.
however, it seems that most Ira priests know less than sixteen
÷s÷ in each Odù. The ÷s÷
are memorized at the steady rate of one per day. In the case
of very long ones, the master-priest could divide the ÷s÷
into two or three parts and devote one day's tuition to each
It is a
common sight to see many trainees queuing up to take their
turns while learning their ÷s÷. Each ÷s÷
is learnt in the form of recitation in the first instance.
The master-priest says one complete sentence at a time and
the trainee parrots the words after him several times until
he is able to retain the whole sentence in his memory.
done for each sentence until the whole ÷s÷ has
been covered. Thereafter, the onus is on the student to find
time to repeat the whole ÷s÷ to himself several
times. This process is termed rírán Ifá
(reiteration of Ifá verse).
to many of my informants, after a trainee has properly memorized
the first sixteen ÷s÷, the task of learning
Ifá verse by heart becomes relatively easy for him.
It is widely
believed that many of the trainees are greatly aided by a
medicinal preparation known as ìsöyè (memory-aid),
which they take with their food three times a day.
is supposed to make it impossible for any Ifá priest
to forget any ÷s÷ which he has already painstakingly
learnt by heart.
Learning how to chant the ÷s÷ is reserved for
a much later part of the training. A clever trainee, however,
acquires the art of chanting Ifá verse by imitating
his master when chanting ÷s÷ Ifá everyday
during the process of performing Ifá divination.
could also learn the art of chanting Ifá verse by attending
the regular assemblies of Ifá priests. Ifá priests
could, however, specialize in chanting as part of their post
The ÷s÷ is memorized with such a great reverence
that not a single word is missed. It is considered extremely
sacrilegious for anybody to add or subtract anything from
must always be learnt in the very form in which it has been
preserved and disseminated from ancient times. It is believed
that in this way the texts in the Ifá literary corpus
have been kept free from errors. The corpus, therefore, remains
till today one of the most reliable genres of Yoruba oral
Another important part of the trainee's work is the learning
of the appropriate sacrifices that a client must be asked
to offer if a particular ÷s÷ Ifá turns
out as the solution to his problem. The name given to the
section of the corpus in which detailed instructions are provided
about various sacrifices is Ökarara-÷bæ.
It is a
very difficult and confusing part of the corpus since every
÷s÷ Ifá has its own appropriate sacrifice.
The would-be priest therefore has to learn a number of items
required for sacrifice among which usually occur clothes,
money, cooked food, fresh fruit and drinks.
he has to learn the proper process of using these things for
sacrifice. For example, one ÷s÷ Ifá may
stipulate that a piece of cloth used for sacrifice should
be burnt while another stipulates that it should be cut into
÷s÷ Ifá may name six things to be offered
as sacrifice and furthermore prescribe that the various items
should be arranged in a particular order and deposited in
the bush or placed on the shrine of a particular god.
In addition to learning by heart the things required for sacrifice
and learning how to use them for sacrifice, the would-be priest
has to learn certain poems that are meant to be chanted whenever
certain sacrifices are being performed. These chants are not
actually in the main stream of the literary corpus known as
÷s÷. They are special chants meant only for