When I first sat down on the floor during my first reading by a priest of Ifá, I had no idea how deeply my life was about to transform. I remember the energy of the room seeming to shift as I listened to him describe the details of my life that I hadn’t yet provided to him, as well as the divinatory omens that were called out in between prayers. And I remember receiving official confirmation of what I had already suspected: that the Òrìsà were calling for me, in part to save my life.
And they did. By the time that I became an aborìsà - or recognized Òrìsà devotee - they had done much more.
Who Are the Òrìsà?
The Òrìsà are the divinities first associated with Yoruba people of Nigeria. They are intertwined deeply with traditional Yoruba spirituality. That traditional spirituality has two great components: the divinatory system known as Ifá, and the various Òrìsà societies. There are priesthoods, rituals, songs, and histories associated with both. Some used the term Ifá as a shorthand for the entire system, which I will do here.
The literary and divinatory corpus of Ifá, known as the Odu Ifá, contains a virtually uncountable number of songs, stories, prayers, rituals, riddles, and holy verses. Most of it is passed on by oral tradition alone and takes years to memorize. As a result, the Odu Ifá became more than a source of guidance and wisdom. It is an extensive historical, cultural and ontological record of the Yoruba people.
The Odu Ifá also contains stories about the Òrìsà, their feats, their lessons, and how they’ve aligned with their own destinies. The official number of Òrìsà is not generally countable, but they are varied in nature, temperament, and powers. Some Òrìsà are legendary Yoruba ancestors whose feats earned them deification. Others are primordial beings who introduced themselves to the Yoruba people. All have strong connections to the elements, forces of nature and beyond. Tradition establishes the Òrìsà as powerful intermediaries between human beings and Olódùmarè, the supreme Yoruba creator god. But they do far more than this; they help promote balance. Many of the Òrìsà are tasked with helping to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.
Seeking the Wisdom of the Òrìsà
People all over the globe have come to seek the Òrìsà’s support with some aspect of their lives, whether it be money, love, children, or health. Yet there are challenges and downsides associated with trying to gain the support of the Òrìsà without the help of a trained priest. Each Òrìsà has their preferences in how they prefer to be sought out and addressed. They also have specific offerings and prayers that should be used when seeking their support. If you'd like to seek to appease the Òrìsà directly, work with a priest who walks in good character - they can determine not only what Òrìsà wishes to help, but also if offerings were accepted. A prayer to help you connect with the right priest for you is featured in this article.
Despite the above, there are ways to honor what the Òrìsà try to teach human beings, and ways to allow Yoruba wisdom to inspire you on your journey. While these ways are not to be used as replacements for supplications to the Òrìsà, it is possible to move in alignment with the Òrìsà's missions on Earth without being a devotee or priest. Read on for more. I’ve also included a way to honor the world's least-known Òrìsà: your own.
An Introduction to the Òrìsà
In the Yoruba language, Òrìsà effectively means "selected head of consciousness;" one of the root words is ori, or “head.” These beings have the power to work through nature in order to bring balance to the world, often as part of their own destinies that they are trying to achieve. As mentioned before, the total number of Òrìsà in the world can’t be counted: there are many who are only known in a select number of countries, cities, towns or villages. But at least 11 have gained multinational followings. I'll introduce you to them here.
Òrìsà Òrúnmìlà: Witness of Fate
Known as second in greatness only to Olódùmarè, Òrìsà Òrúnmìlà is the divinity of wisdom and fate. He is considered the first to receive the divination system we call Ifá. Òrìsà Òrúnmìlà can help to mend what would otherwise be considered a bad lot in life, as well as what we call a “bad head” (one that works against the person). This Òrìsà's wisdom, parables, and insight are incorporated into the Odu Ifá. It is his wisdom that Ifá practitioners can draw upon to help ease the struggles of reincarnation, and to help mend a broken world.
Ways to Honor Òrìsà Òrúnmìlà's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
Like the other Òrìsà, you can honor Òrìsà Òrúnmìlà's wisdom by cultivating good and gentle character. Practice truth, honesty, and patience as much as you can. Be the kind of community member that you wish to encounter. Don't be afraid to work on the parts of your character where you fall short! Òrìsà Òrúnmìlà encourages us to be thoughtful stewards of our communities, nature, and the world.
Èsù Odàrà: Lord of Choice and the Crossroads
There are many emanations of the divinity known as Èsù, but one of the most well-known is Èsù Odàrà. Èsù Odàrà is the magician-trickster, illusionist, and owner of all roads. He is also known as a divine messenger who delivers offerings to the Òrìsà. Practitioners of Ifá regard Èsù Odàrà to be the most effective intermediary between forces of good and evil, as he can safely roam amongst both. But these are only a handful of the roles that he takes in the world: Èsù Odàrà is a powerful enforcer of natural and divine law, and he protects those who choose to do right. He reminds us that we do have that choice at all times.
Ways to Honor Èsù Odàrà's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
First and most important of all? Moral courage! Face your faults and fix them - draw courage from the knowledge that you can work on even your worst attributes. Practice being open to the idea that your way, life, or road may not be like someone else’s. Èsù Odàrà helps us to be able to see things from other people's point of view - practicing this often aligns with his will on Earth. Also, refrain from lying - particularly to yourself.
Èsù Odàrà is also extremely well-known for helping people to not take life so seriously. Remember to include laughter, joy, and play in your wellness plan!
Òrìsà Osun: the Beautiful Goddess of Harmony
Òrìsà Osun is the divinity of creation, creativity, abundance, sweetness, harmony, wealth, and cycles of nature. She is one of several great river deities who is strongly affiliated with freshwater. Òrìsà Osun is also associated with the cycle of life - including death. People often go to her priests for help with love, healing, or conception of a child.
Òrìsà Osun's reputation for being a love goddess is international. Those seeking her favor would do well to consider and appreciate this Òrìsà's multifaceted nature and lessons first! She teaches us to embrace bitterness, for after bitterness can come sweetness. Especially hers.
Ways to Honor Òrìsà Osun's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
Have courage in choosing not to stay in relationships with people who don't love or respect you. Find out what it means to honor and love your whole self: body, mind, and spirit. Treat all children with respect and care, and exercise patience with them.
You can also contribute to efforts to protect your local bodies of water against damage and pollution. Consider becoming an advocate for child welfare, education, healthy families, and people in need.
Òrìsà Oyá: the Divinity of Death, Change, and Transformation
Òrìsà Oyá is one of the great river divinities of Ifá. Like Osun, Òrìsà Oyá has a role in enforcing natural cycles of life: she can bring endings, death, and total change. This Òrìsà is a powerful divinity who can help us to transition and transform from one state to another. She has a historical counterpart: a princess of the Oyo clan in Nigeria, who eventually married Oba Sàngó. Many know her and Sàngó to be a spiritual power couple. Òrìsà Oyá is the one who taught Sàngó the secrets of the machete and helped him turn the tides of his battles.
Ways to Honor Òrìsà Oyá's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
Cultivate a willingness to be the first emanation of the change you wish to bring about in your life. Remove stagnant systems, relationship patterns, and ways of thinking from your daily life. If you must fight, be discerning about how you do so. Study and master healthy ways of processing grief, fear, and loss; if you can, learn to hold that space for others. Be willing to change your shape, if need be.
You can also honor Òrìsà Oyá's mission in the world by supporting local death doulas. Help others with burial funds and assist survivors of tragedy and domestic violence. Òrìsà Oyá is a champion of women and the oppressed.
Òrìsà Sàngó: the Mighty Divinity of Fire and Lightning
Òrìsà Sàngó is the historical third king of Oyo in Nigeria. He showed so many signs of being the incarnation of the divinity Sàngó himself, the Yoruba people deified him upon his death. Òrìsà Sàngó is associated not only with fire and thunder, but also justice, anger, and healing. He is known for his temper, his passion, and his love of the four d's: drinks, damsels, drums, and dance. While his first and senior wife is Òrìsà Obà, Òrìsà Sàngó has well-storied relationships with several Òrìsà, including Òrìsàs Osun and Oyá.
Ways to Honor Òrìsà Sàngó's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
Learn about constructive ways to harness and control your anger. Treat all lovers with respect, regard, and care, whether they're around for one night or your whole life. Cultivate humility and learn to respond rather than react. Refrain from sacrificing love, happiness and vitality for money/fame/power. Practice moderation, a very traditional Yoruba virtue.
You can also honor Òrìsà Sàngó’s wishes for humanity by being a good leader, and by supporting those who demonstrate good leadership. Be willing to assess and change your understanding of what a good leader is, too!
Òrìsà Ògún: The Hardworking Divinity of Forward Progress
Òrìsà Ògún is the lord of iron, blacksmithing, the forge, forests, hunting, war, and technology. He is one of the oldest Òrìsà and one of the legendary divinities tasked with shaping the Earth. Òrìsà Ògún is famous for his ferocity in war, his fearlessness, and his ruthless punishment of criminals. Together with Òrìsàs Ochosì and Èsù Odàrà, Òrìsà Ògún acts as a powerful warrior on behalf of Ifá and Òrìsà devotees.
Ways to Honor Òrìsà Ògún's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
Learn to take your time and be patient in important matters - work on impatience if you have it! If you have a habit of overworking, address the root cause of that, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Be an agent of forward progress in the world in an area of your choice. Take very good care of those who are true to you. Work through impulses towards and issues with the use of force, coercion, pettiness, or brutality.
You can also make an effort to help or advocate on behalf of those who are underprivileged, or who may otherwise be weaker than you. Take good care of tools, technology, and dogs. Become an advocate for labor rights, and against the exploitation of workers. Òrìsà Ògún is famous for his devotion to his work, but also values fairness. Weigh carefully how you can help to propel your community forward into a better future for all.
Òrìsà Ochosì: the Sober Divinity of Divine Justice
Òrìsà Ochosì is a powerful Òrìsà of hunting, deep magic, and the balance between right and wrong. One of his most well-known stories explains how he came to embody the lesson of blind justice - and why we should be careful before seeking it. Even seasoned practitioners must check themselves and their character before turning to Òrìsà Ochosì about a dispute, as he will often correct all who have done wrong in a matter. He works alongside Ògún as a master hunter, herbalist and magician.
Ways to Honor Òrìsà Ochosì's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
Work through any tendency to rush to judgment: legend has it that it was Ochosì's haste to see justice that caused him to accidentally kill his mother. Mind the power of your tongue. Be a conscientious member of your family, community, and so on. Be a very good steward of animals. You can also advocate for animal welfare and the development of more healthy relationships with wildlife.
Òrìsà Osanyìn: the Divinity of Herbs and Medicines
Òrìsà Osanyìn is the master of plant life and their myriad uses. He is also closely associated with the crafting of charms and talismans, sorcery, and fairies, known as iwin in Yorubaland. Òrìsà Osanyìn's unmatched knowledge of herbs and how to use them is one of the reasons why Ifá and Òrìsà devotees hold him in such a place of great honor. Without his contributions and influence, the medicines of the world would not be.
Ways to Honor Òrìsà Osanyìn's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
Be a fierce-but-fair advocate for rainforests, wildlife, national parks, and other natural spaces. Research and execute ways to help protect the biodiversity of this world. Research and practice awareness of the land that you live on. Celebrate and support your local herbalists. Get to know the plants that grow at home or in your city/state/province! Participate in community trash cleanups if you can.
Òrìsà Olókun: the Reputable Owner of All Waters
Òrìsà Olókun is the primordial Òrìsà of all waters but is most closely associated with the deep ocean and ocean bottom. Given their history and legends, they are sometimes regarded as a more serious Òrìsà. The transgressions of human beings once angered Òrìsà Olókun so deeply, Òrìsà Òrúnmìlà chained them to the bottom of the ocean - only this prevented them from wiping out humanity. Nevertheless, Olókun helps human beings in matters of wealth, money, health, and wellness.
Due to this Òrìsà's association with trance states and the unconscious mind, people are sometimes brought to Òrìsà Olókun when suffering mental imbalance. They are one of the few popular Òrìsà whose gender can vary by tradition or even village. As a result, some regard Òrìsà Olókun to be nonbinary.
Ways to Honor Òrìsà Olókun's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
Practice deep compassion and patience with human beings. Work through fears of scarcity, bad financial habits, and greed. Take very good care of money, wealth, and intangible inheritances, especially anything received as a gift.
Advocate for marine wildlife and help to protect the world’s bodies of water. You can also honor Òrìsà Olókun's will for humanity by helping to destigmatize mental illnesses and being thoughtful allies to members of your community who suffer them.
Òrìsà Yemoja: Mother of Fishes, Mother of the Òrìsà
Òrìsà Yemoja is the ancient Òrìsà associated with the ocean, motherhood, childbirth, nurturance and care, healing, and growth. Her humility, dedication and steadfastness legendarily earned her the title of "Mother of All Òrìsà," given to her by Olódùmarè. Where Òrìsà Osun helps with the conception of life, Òrìsà Yemoja is known for assisting with bringing that spark into this world and sustaining it. Many people all over the world go to Yemoja’s priests and festivals for help with pregnancy and childbirth, material health, and family matters.
Ways to Honor Òrìsà Olókun's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
Learn more about your body and take very good care of it. Learn how to practice healthy boundary-setting and cultivate healthy relationships. Be decisive and brave in learning about, then helping to end, toxic family cycles. Take good care of your home, and the places where you thrive.
Like many of the Òrìsà, you can honor Òrìsà Yemoja's will for the world by helping to protect natural bodies of water. You can also help to raise children in your family and community, support local midwives and doulas, and help invest in prenatal and postnatal health education.
Òrìsà Obàtálá: Owner of the Divine Spark of Consciousness
Last but not at all least is Òrìsà Obàtálá, also known as the King of White Cloth. Obàtálá is the gentle Òrìsà of purity, purification, consciousness, patience, ethics, divine law, moral steadfastness, and wisdom. He is one of the primordial Òrìsà who Olódùmarè tasked with preparing the Earth—particularly human beings. Ifá followers regard Òrìsà Obàtálá to be the embodiment of suuru (a powerful form of patience). He is also the embodiment of cool headedness, a virtue in Yoruba society. Like Olókun, Obàtálá is sometimes regarded as nonbinary and has distinctly feminine emanations.
Ways to Honor Òrìsà Obàtálá's Example, Energy, and Wisdom
Devote yourself to the cultivation of a good and balanced character. Learn how to use your anger in healthy ways. Actively work on keeping the light of your hope going. Pursue self-knowledge. Work through any grudges that you may have and learn how to manage negative emotions that you hold towards others.
You can also learn how to be an ally to marginalized and disenfranchised communities. Obàtálá is considered the Òrìsà who protects the oppressed, the ill and disabled, and those whose abilities are not well understood or accepted. Be thoughtful about your place in society and the impact that you can have, as well.
Iwa Pele, The Ori, and How to Honor Yours
As you’ve just seen, there are many Òrìsà. But as many practitioners would tell you, none are more important to your life than your own.
As to what the Ori is: ori is Yoruba for both “head” and “consciousness.” It can also refer directly to a person’s destiny. Ifá teaches that each person is born with their own divine spark, holy consciousness, and destiny—that is Ori. The sum total of your attributes—that also is Ori.
But the Ori is more than a god-spark, consciousness or the vessel for one’s destiny. It is truly a multifaceted aspect of the human spirit. The Ori is the part of us that can be appeased, prayed to, and strengthened in order to achieve our destiny. Each Ori has distinct likes and dislikes, taboos and restrictions, and more. That’s because each of us is unique. The Yoruba traditional belief is that we choose our Ori and customize our experience prior to being born. Things can be lost along the way but regained through spiritual effort.
When strong and appeased, our Ori can keep us in alignment with streams of wealth and good fortune. We also tend to experience much stronger dreams and can understand spiritual messages more clearly. Our Ori also helps us to solve life’s problems, no matter what they are. That we have our Ori for our whole lifetime (compared to the Òrìsà, who are not always with us) is an oft-underestimated blessing.
One of the most effective long-term ways to strengthen your Ori (and your connection to it) is through the practice of iwa rere and iwa pele. In Yoruba language, iwa means “character;” iwa rere means “good character,” and iwa pele means “balanced character.” To get to iwa pele, many first have to master the fundamentals of iwa rere. To keep things simpler, I’ll be explaining iwa pele to you here. Many people seek quick manifestation tips only to discover that what’s actually needed is to develop iwa pele instead.
In Yoruba spirituality, iwa pele is comprised of multiple key attributes, such as:
- Patience, considered the father of good character
- Endurance, especially when things are hard or don’t make sense right away
- Self-inquiry and assessment (The Odu Ifá called Iwori Meji establishes this pretty solidly)
- Self-awareness, which self-inquiry and assessment open the way for
- Self-mastery, such as the ability to control one’s emotions
- Deliberation, such as choosing to respond to external changes rather than react and weigh the consequences of your potential actions
- Adaptability, the ability to consider any situation that you are in, as well as thoughtfully respond to new information and environmental changes
- Humility, as well as the willingness to hear, receive, respond to, and act on wise counsel
According to Yoruba traditional wisdom, cultivating each of these attributes increases your ability to maintain alignment with various primordial forces of the universe. It also allows you to successfully receive blessings. When walking in iwa rere, it becomes easier to access the abundance and good fortune that is yours to enjoy. All of this is distinctly more possible when you are honoring your Ori regularly.
Praying to Your Ori
Traditional Ori "work"—various appeasements, rituals, and herbal offerings—is the domain of the priests, and they can give you specific instructions on how you can appease your unique Ori using Yoruba wisdom. But there are ways to honor your head that do not require assistance. The practice of iwa pele as lightly outlined above is one. Regular prayer to yourself is another.
Like many other practitioners, I recommend that you pray to your Ori upon waking; this helps you to start the day mindfully. However, you can pray at any time of day or night. What’s important is that you try your best to make it a regular part of your life. I strongly recommend keeping a journal alongside this practice! If you do, it’s easier to see what changes in your life have occurred as a result of your prayers, and when.
What follows is a prayer that I’ve devised for public use, based on my experience and spiritual practice. Reciting a prayer like this is a useful strategy that can be utilized until you have the right spiritual tools, practices and foundation for you.
In the morning, or just before bed, gently hold your head - one hand on your forehead, one at the base of your neck. Take a few deep, slow, soothing breaths. Then use the prayer below.
My head, I pray to you.
My soul, please listen to me:
I come to you in prayer to be the author of good change in my life.
I come to you so that I may improve my whole self.
I come to you so that I may lead a good life.
You can add to this as needed. If you are looking for a spiritual guide or teacher, add the below.
Do not let me be confused - do not let me be led astray.
Do not let me be in harm’s way.
Guide me to the right spiritual teachers for me.
Help me connect with the right diviners for me.
Let me be blessed, compassionately, with the knowledge that I need.
If looking specifically to work with an Òrìsà priest or priest of Ifá, ask for that while reciting this prayer. You can incorporate this sample line:
Lead me to a priest of good character, one who is held in high regard by their Òrìsà, an honor to their ancestors, who is also truthful, and practices good character. Let it be clear to me that this is the person who is spiritually safe to work with.
End your prayer with “thank you. So it is.”
Frequently Asked Questions about Ifá and Orisha Wisdom
A. What is the origin of Ifá and the Orisha traditions?
Ifá as a divination system was first given to the Yoruba people in Nigeria thousands of years ago. As it spread to the far reaches of what would be the Yoruba empire and beyond, it was incorporated into several other systems. One of them, notably, is the Vodun system of Benin. The divinities of the Òrìsà traditions
When members of the Yoruba society were kidnapped and forced into slavery, Ifá and the Òrìsà traditions came with them across the Atlantic. But it was difficult to preserve. Enslaved Africans caught practicing their traditional spiritual systems or who were suspected of using them were brutally tortured or, in some cases, killed outright. Slaveholders often made the practice of Christianity compulsory which, unbeknownst to most of them, led to religious syncretism.
In Brazil, the Òrìsà traditions intermingled with indigenous spiritual systems. Once mixed with the Christianity of Portuguese slaveholders, the practice branched into the systems that we now call Candomblé and Umbanda. A vast number of the original rituals from West Africa remain.
In Trinidad, the Òrìsà traditions survived and came to be called Shango (like Òrìsà Sàngó). Those who practice the Òrìsà traditions simultaneously with Christianity are called Sàngó Baptists, although there is often intra-community debate as to whether one can practice both.
In Cuba, as with other parts of the Caribbean, the Òrìsà traditions intermingled with the spirituality of the indigenous people of the island. Akin to what happened in Brazil, practitioners then carefully hid the Òrìsà behind the European slaveholders’ Christian saints and iconography. What we call Regla de Ocha, Lucumí, or Santería was borne of this great effort.
Owing to the cruel particularities of human trafficking and the methods employed by US slaveholders, people who believed in the Òrìsà were kidnapped and brought to the United States, then separated from people of their culture and language in order to prevent them from organizing. Together with kidnapped Africans of other faiths, their descendants would gradually form the system that we now know as Hoodoo. Hoodoo is practiced by bloodline practitioners not just in the deep South, but all over the United States.
B. Are Yoruba and Orisha beliefs compatible with other religious or spiritual beliefs?
A common consensus among Western practitioners is that the Òrìsà generally do not care what other traditions devotees practice. So long as commitments made to the Òrìsà are honored, all is well. As a result, compulsory exclusivity may only be on a case-by-case or even family-by-family basis. Generally, only formal divination and the help of a priest can discern this.
As for the spiritual beliefs themselves, Yoruba wisdom has astounding intercontinental overlap with that of traditions all over the world. Ifá's heavy focus on refinement of character overlaps with that of many ancient traditions.
C. Can anyone practice Yoruba and Orisha traditions, regardless of cultural background?
There has been some heated debate both online and off about the accessibility of the Òrìsà to non-devotees and non-Black seekers. The following is generally regarded as true:
- Black people whose ancestors who were kidnapped and enslaved can check to see if they are of Yoruba descent, and then verify with a priest if an Òrìsà is already tied to their bloodline. If so, honoring that Òrìsà may radically improve one's life, that of one's family, and help to heal a great number of ancestral wounds.
- Before attempting to formally enter either Ifá or one of the Òrìsà traditions, it is important to know if your Ori requires that of you.
- Every human being can seek and consult a priest of Ifá to know the contents of their fate, and to verify the need for Ifá rituals.
- If they believe that they are called to work with an Òrìsà, every human being can seek an Òrìsà priest to verify that.
- Not all who seek will be asked, or obliged, to practice Ifá or become an Òrìsà devotee.
- The Òrìsà have also been known to turn people away, including for some grave offense committed in setting up an unconsecrated altar to one of them.
The nuance folded into of all this is that if you have both consulted your Ori and have had the matter divined upon by a priest, then there’s no need to worry about whether you can or cannot practice. But I generally advise seekers to discern the real reason why they seek Ifá and the Òrìsà traditions out in the first place. That line of inquiry sometimes leads straight to the Òrìsà, but oftentimes leads to the seeker discovering their own power by some other more appropriate means.
D. How can I incorporate Ifá and Orisha practices into my daily life?
See the above answer to the previous question, but also consider the other parts of this article! They're a great start.
E. Can I find out which Òrìsà is willing to help, support, or teach me by Tarot or psychic reading?
Due in part to what goes into calling the Òrìsà successfully, no.
There are five divinatory methods through which the Òrìsà are generally willing to speak. Two are accessible to non-priest practitioners, but not to those outside of the tradition. The other three are Ikin Ifá, Opele, and Érìndínlógún: palm nuts, a diviner’s chain, and a specific set of cowrie shells respectively. All three are consecrated in a specific way, then given to an initiate as part of their entering the priesthood of their Òrìsà. Depending on which priesthood and which of the Òrìsà traditions a person is in, one may be fluent in one, some or all three of those above divinatory languages.
To find the right priest for you, refer to the prayer included as part of this article.
F. What are some recommended resources for learning more about Yoruba and Orisha wisdom?
It is wise and appropriate to seek out an Òrìsà priest when looking to practice or to gain Òrìsà support. But I invite you to consider the following:
- “The Ifá Divination System” as introduced by UNESCO (link)
- Ifá Will Mend Our Broken World by Wande Abimbola (link)
- “In Search of Beauty” by Fernanda Ferreira (article)
- “The Importance of Ori” via African Poems (essay)