Spirituality and Applied Ethics: An African Perspective, Pg 2

Thu, Jun 5, 2008

Research, Traditional Afrikan

ISSN: 1525-4488

Kölá Abíðbölá Page 2

In addition to Àrùn (Disease) as an evil supernatural force, the word “àrùn” also means illness or disease. Àrùn as a biological defect in a human being can be caused by natural causes, or by Àrùn (the malevolent supernatural force). This explains why divination and sacrifice are important in Yorùbá medicine. Just as in the Ifá poem quoted above, it is only through divination that a medical practitioner can determine whether the cause of an illness is natural or supernatural. Illnesses caused by natural causes require herbal and pharmacological remedies. But illnesses caused by supernatural forces require the offering of sacrifice, the use of talismans and amulets, or the recitation of incantations. The practice of medicine in Yorùbá society is, therefore, not merely homeopathic in the sense that it relies only on physical wholeness, it is also interested in spiritual balance.

I will now turn to another clear-cut illustration of this view in practice. This example has to do with ßõnpõnnö in Yorùbá culture. As with the word Ifá and àrùn in Yorùbá culture, ßõnpõnnö has various levels of meaning. At one level, ßõnpõnnö is one of the divinities within the Yorùbá pantheon of 400+1 gods. ßõnpõnnö is the god that brings smallpox, and as such smallpox also goes by the same name in Yorùbá.

In Yorùbá culture the illness called ßõnpõnnö actually includes less serious illnesses such as chicken-pox. So, ÿõnpõnnö as an illness in Yorùbá culture is better defined as a family of related illnesses all of which are connected by three factors: the god ßõnpõnnö, the wind, and what is called “hot earth”.

Since ßõnpõnnö is the name of the god as well as the name of the illness, people are reluctant to call the god by the name ßõnpõnnö because calling him by that name might be an invitation of both god and illness. So the god is more frequently referred to by the name Ôbalúayé (‘lord of the world’). For similar reasons, the illness ÿõnpõnnö is also known as illêëgbóná or êgbóná (‘hot earth’). The Ifá priest and oníÿègùn Babalôlá Fátóògùn of the town of Ìlobùú in Nigeria explains these connections as follows:

Whenever ßõnpõnnö comes into the world, he is accompanied by êbùrú (spirits) otherwise known as wõrõkö. These are the things that cause bad wind (atëgùn búburú). When this wind blows on to anyone this will become Ègbóná (smallpox), the person will become hot and ßõnpõnnö will be coming out of his body. ßõnpõnnö uses a type of arrow known as ôfà ßõnpõnnö. Wherever he shoots his arrow (ôfà) into the air, smallpox will affect the person, or tree, or animal, wherever the wind from the arrow touches. Wõrõkö comes out of the arrow in the form of wind. This is why old men pray that ‘evil wind may not beat us’ (afëfë burúkú kò ní fë lù wá o).

Another way ßõnpõnnö affects someone is through the witches (Ìyààmi Àjë). Witches borrow the wind of ßõnpõnnö and fight anyone they want to fight with it. It is as if a man goes to borrow a cutlass (àdá) from another man that the witches borrow the wind from ßõnpõnnö. This is why, if ßõnpõnnö affects anyone and they consult Ifá about it, Ifá may tell them that it is the witches who are fighting against them.

Another way ßõnpõnnö affects someone is that there are some men who know about medicine, who can prepare a medicine that they can put in the house of a person they want to fight, so that ßõnpõnnö can affect the person.

ßõnpõnnö always visits the world during the months of the dry season. Then he will visit the world (ayé) and also the heaven (Õrun) and he will affect both plants and human beings, so that the plants will shrivel up (ro). (Quoted in Buckley, 1997, pp.100-101.)

Fátóògùn is making some very important connections. First he gives a clear-cut analysis of the spiritual and natural dimensions of the disease called smallpox. In the spiritual dimension, the illness can be caused when the god ßõnpõnnö pays a visit to the world. ßõnpõnnö himself may cause smallpox by firing his arrow. It is also the case that wherever he goes some terrible spirits called wõrõkö accompany him, and cause the ill wind of smallpox. The witches also can cause smallpox, and, indeed, Fátóògùn mentions that smallpox can be caused by biological warfare.

But the question can be asked: why does ßõnpõnnö sometimes seek to infect people with smallpox? There is one myth recounted by A. B. Ellis that attempts to account for this:

Shan-kpanna [ßõnpõnnö] is old and lame, and is depicted as limping along with the aid of a stick. According to a myth he has a withered leg. One day, when the gods were all assembled at the place of Ôbàtálá, and were dancing and making merry, Shan-kpanna endeavoured to join in the dance, but, owing to his deformity, stumbled, and fell. All the gods and goddesses thereupon burst out laughing, and Shan-kpanna, in revenge, strove to infect them with smallpox, but Ôbàtálá came to the rescue and seizing his spear, drove Shan-kpanna away. From that day Shan-kpanna was forbidden to associate with the other gods, and he became an outcast who has since lived in desolate and uninhabited tracts of country. (Quoted in Buckley, 1997, p.105.)

With this myth, the relationship between ßõnpõnnö and morality becomes clear. Moral conduct in Yorùbá culture is intimately connected with Ìwàpêlë (good or gentle character).[22] Ìwàpêlë is a conglomeration of principles of moral conduct. These principles are explained in various Ifá poems. The most important of these principles include: ìtçríba (respect), inú rere (having good mind to other), and otítö (truth). Good character is often simply referred to as iwa (character).

The root meaning of the word ìwà is ‘to exist’. Hence Yorùbá culture recognizes the point that questions of moral behavior and conduct arise vis-à-vis issues of co-existence amongst beings. But, as already mentioned, the spiritual world, just as the natural world, is very much part of day-to-day existence in Yorùbá culture. Hence ìwà as the state of existence of spiritual beings engenders ìwà as moral character. In the myth recounted by Ellis, some of the gods and goddesses failed to exhibit ìwàpêlë in their conduct. They did not show respect to the old and lame man who also wanted to participate in the merriment. In response to their bad ìwà, ßõnpõnnö himself exhibited an even worse ìwà by threatening to inflict all with smallpox. It was as a result of this bad character that ßõnpõnnö withdrew into the forest, and has since then disliked festivals and merriment of any kind.

Because it is common knowledge in Yorùbá society that ßõnpõnnö dislikes merriment, games, festivals, drumming and dancing are forbidden during outbreaks of smallpox. The Yorùbá generally bury the dead in their extended family compounds. The burial of victims of ßõnpõnnö has, however, always been one of the few exceptions to this. Buckley quotes an oníÿègùn, Awótúndé, on this very point:

When ßõnpõnnö kills a person, no one should rejoice. For if there are any (funeral) celebrations he will be annoyed that despite the evil he has done to these people, they are still happy. He will then affect many other people. God has given ßõnpõnnö such a power that if he kills in anyone’s family they must not be angry but must instead be thanking ßõnpõnnö or else he will be angry that people are not aware of the evil that he has done. This is why people usually call ßõnpõnnö “Alápadúpë’ (‘the owner of kill and thank’). Anyone that ßõnpõnnö kills, we should not say that he died, but rather ‘ó yõ lô’ (‘he rejoiced and went’), because if it is said that the person died, (ó kú) ßõnpõnnö will be annoyed that people are calling him a murderer. (Buckley, 1997, p.104.)

ßõnpõnnö’s (i.e., the god’s) role in smallpox must therefore be examined against the background of an ongoing cycle of revenge, punishment and vengeance against the descendants of the other gods.[23] This chain of events was started by other spiritual entities when they exhibited ìwà búburú (bad character) by laughing the old man who was trying to make merry.

This cycle of spiritual and natural events has many practical consequences for the treatment and control of smallpox in Yorùbáland. As already mentioned, merriment, dancing, and games are prohibited during outbreaks of smallpox. Sacrifices will be offered to the god in an effort to appease him. Also, the broom called ôwõ is that which is normally used for sweeping the floor in Yorùbá society. This broom, which is made from the mid-ribs of the palm-tree, is also one of the symbols of the god ßõnpõnnö.[24] The use of ôwõ is banned during outbreaks of smallpox.

The foregoing has various sorts of implications for the practice of traditional medicine. Consider, for instance, the health professional/patient relationship. What sorts of duties, responsibilities and rights attach to the roles of the oníÿègùn and the client? Is the oníÿègùn ethically bound to tell the whole truth to the patient even if this might be inimical to a speedy recovery? The Hippocratic oath, which has traditionally been the basis for Western medical ethics, is silent on the issue of truth. In fact, with this oath doctors merely pledge to “apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to [the doctors’] ability and judgment.” (Arras, 1995, p.54.) Above all, doctors promise to protect their patients from “harm and injustice”. (Arras, 1995, p.54.) Based upon the Hippocratic oath in which protection against harm is paramount, the traditional model of responsibility that emerged within the practice of Western medicine was that of paternalism in which the physician’s duty to tell the truth was subordinate to that of not harming the patient. In contrast to paternalism, many have argued that patient autonomy should be the basis of physician-patient relationship. Neither of these models suits the oníÿègùn-client relationship because even the oníÿègùn is an interpreter who is decoding or attempting to decipher the message of Ifá.

Consider also the problem of euthanasia. If, after having divined, the message of Ifá is that there is no remedy for the illness (there are, indeed, a handful of poems with this message), and the patient chooses to die, should an oníÿègùn help the patient commit suicide? If the message of Ifá is clear, isn’t the oníÿègùn morally bound to help alleviate the suffering of the patient? At one level, the answer to this problem seems to be clear, the oníÿègùn might divine to enquire about what to do. But the oníÿègùn might also realize that, according to Yorùbá theology, if an individual dies before his or her pre-chosen time here on earth, that person will be sent back at the gates of Õrun. So considering euthanasia requires a consideration of its moral implications on the soul of the patient.

The point then is this: if one does not pay adequate attention to the role of the spiritual realm in the practice of medicine in Yorùbá society, we will not fully understand aspects of medical ethics such as the priest-patient relationship, attitudes to euthanasia, health care policies, etc. Moreover, as already mentioned the spiritual dimensions of divination also have profound methodological implications. For unlike in the Western methods of inquiry, in which secrecy is inimical to the pursuit of truth, secrecy is in fact that which eliminates bias within the divination process.[25] This is precisely why the patient never starts by disclosing the subject of her concern to the diviner.


I began this paper with a brief characterization of the standard philosophical classification of the branches of ethics. As is often the case when one moves too closely with pre-set conceptions, the precise thrust of my arguments about the role of spirituality in Yorùbá culture might be lost (this is especially so if one has been reading this paper with the trained eye of the academic philosopher). Therefore, I will attempt here a re-explanation of the points from a different perspective.

Morality is made up of judgmental claims of value vis-à-vis human (and non-human) conduct: it is about what one ought or ought not do in relation to human (and spiritual) conduct. A moral theory, however, is a systematic account of one’s morality. One may have a morality without having a moral theory. For instance, one may guide one’s conduct by rules and principles such as: “stealing is wrong”, “adultery is immoral”, “murder is inimical to society”, etc., without having a moral theory (i.e., a systematic theoretical framework for explaining why these rules and principles are wrong). Applied ethics is the bridge between morality and moral theory, and it is concerned with the application of a systematic moral theory to human conduct. It is the connection between theory and practice.

The main thrust of my assertions in this paper is that contemporary African philosophy is seriously defective because it fails to provide a critical assessment of the application of traditional African moral theories. Much of contemporary African philosophy is impoverished because it fails to assess the conduct of institutions and individuals on the basis of the moral theories upheld by individuals in contemporary African societies.

My claim is that there is a “group theory of ethics” that is prevalent in contemporary Yorùbá society.[26] This theory of ethics departs radically from much of standard, Western-style philosophy because it is a spiritualist theory of ethics in which moral conduct encompasses spirits within the equation of moral conduct itself. Spiritual beings in this moral theory therefore are somewhat like the lawmakers of most democratic societies: the moral codes which apply to the general populace (in this case the Yorùbá human) also applies to the lawmakers (in this case the divinities).

Of course, the question can be asked: can there be a coherent and consistent group theory of ethics? While answering this question in the affirmative might be problematic for some societies, this is not the case in Yorùbá society, primarily because of the role of the Ifá Literary Corpus in Yorùbá culture. The body of knowledge on the basis of which the spiritual account of morality is based is somewhat fixed in the sense that it arises out of a sacred oral text. At the same time, people do not adopt a close-minded attitude to these texts. The poems of Ifá are not regarded as an inflexible dogmatic creed. Indeed, the whole point of the Ifá ‘text’ is hermeneutic: it is meant to serve as the basis on which various sorts of advice and counsel that is germane to day-to-day life can be identified. Hence, while parts of the text are fixed, they are at the same time open.

This point requires more explanation. Each poem has eight parts, four of which are compulsory, four of which are non-compulsory. The compulsory parts are compulsory in the sense that when chanted (anywhere in the world), they are chanted in exactly the same way.[27] The non-compulsory parts are non-compulsory in the sense that: (i) a priest might decide not to chant them at all; (ii) a priest might decide to tell these parts in prose; (iii) or, a priest might decide just to give the gist of these parts to the client. But Ifá is also open in yet another sense: it is up to the priest and the client to decide what hermeneutic stance to adopt in relation to the content of the poems. A priest, for example, might adopt a literal interpretation of the poem, in which case s/he might believe that there was in fact a time when the spiritual forces that attacked Õrúnmìlà in the poem recounted above attacked him. The client might decide to adopt a figural interpretation in which the characters in the poem are not regarded as real-life entities, but rather much like the characters of a play.

Whatever interpretation is adopted, the centrality of sacrifice remains constant. As already mentioned, within the Yorùbá cosmos, there are two groups of supernatural forces, the Òrìÿà (i.e., gods) and the malevolent supernatural forces (of which the Ajogun are the most important). These two supernatural forces are locked in an unending cycle of enmity–an antagonism in-between which humans are caught. This is where sacrifice comes in. For it is only those who offer sacrifice to Èÿù (the god who is regarded as the “universal policeman” because of his role as the impartial adjudicator between these two opposing supernatural forces of nature), that will succeed in overcoming the evil of the anti-gods. Sacrifice is, therefore, a strategy for overcoming evil.

It is important to re-iterate a point already made. Evil in Yorùbá theology (and, in traditional and contemporary Yorùbá societies) is concrete in the sense that the anti-gods can manifest themselves as tangible, real, or natural effects. This is precisely why the most important warlords of the Ajogun are Ikú (death); Àrùn (Disease); Òfò (Loss); Êgbà (Paralysis); Õràn (Big-trouble); Èpè (Curse); Êwõn (Imprisonment); Èÿe (Afflictions). The consequence of this is that although the Yorùbá distinguish between natural and moral evil, both types of evil can be the handiwork of natural and supernatural beings.

Sacrifice is also the means by which the Yorùbá repent from moral evil. The person who has sinned or committed an anti-social act can only fully indemnify himself by first, changing his ways, and then offering sacrifices to the appropriate god. For example, because the god called ßàngó is responsible for punishing thieves and crooks, a thief who has changed her ways can only fully indemnify herself by offering sacrifices to ßàngó.

It should be noted that sacrifice is not merely meant for the gods and the anti-gods. Sacrifice in Yorùbá culture is also a social act. This explains why when someone is asked to offer a sacrifice to either a god, an anti-god, or, as redemption for sin, will invite friends and neighbors to a feast. The person will explain the reason why he or she is offering the sacrifice, and his invitees will offer prayers and blessings for that person. In the case of sacrifice as redemption for moral evil, someone who has not truly changed his or her ways is unlikely to receive prayers and blessings from friends and neighbors.

The point then is that in both natural and moral evil, sacrifice performs a similar role: it is a strategy for indemnity, compensation, or salvation. A person who is afflicted by the evil supernatural force called Àrùn (Disease) will only succeed in indemnifying herself by offering sacrifices to Èÿù. A person who has changed his evil ways also concludes his redemption with a sacrifice to Èÿù. In both types of sacrifices, Èÿù will then present the offering to the appropriate supernatural force.

The role of sacrifice in Yorùbá culture, therefore, becomes crystal clear: it is the application of a spiritualist theory of good and evil to particular problems of day-to-day living, namely, those requiring of indemnity from supernatural and moral evil.


While I do not wish to denigrate the importance of normative ethics, meta-ethics, or any other division of ethics, I think applied ethics provides one in-road to making philosophy more relevant to contemporary African societies. Applied ethics has to do with the systematic application of a moral theory to issues of life, death, and day-to-day living. In contemporary Yorùbá culture, there is one such systematic theory prevalent within the practice of medicine. This theory is based on the sacred text of traditional Yorùbá religion, namely the Ifá Literary Corpus. And in this paper, I have provided a preliminary exploration of how this systematic theory can be used to explain and assess one class of human conduct, namely those of health and wholeness.

More work needs to be done, not only on ethical issues of traditional medicine, but also on many other problems of death and living in general, e.g., the moral implications of ancestor worship on ethnicity and warfare; the role of new religions in the now increasing phenomena of “witchcraft” in Africa; and, indeed, the moral implications of institutions of sacred kingship on the existence of two-tier systems of government and power in all African societies.[28] Until we move moral discourse from the level of ‘justifications’, ‘foundations’ and ‘theorizing’ to the level of mundane, day-to-day living, academic Western-style philosophy will be of little relevance to Africa.


1. Actually, this is not entirely accurate. There is a very long tradition of scholarship on the role of spirituality in Western ethics as well! One important scholar of recent times within this tradition is Norbert Rigali (1969, 1975, 1981, 1986). The catch however is that this tradition of excellent scholarship is now generally classified as “Catholic moral theology”. [Back]

2. There are many possible variations within each point of view. Any one of the following claims could be upheld: (i) morality and religion are identical, and as such each is logically derivable from each other; (ii) morality and religion are not identical but, via a process of non-deductive reasoning, one can argue from religion to morality; (iii) religion is derivable from morality, but not vice versa; (iv) morality is derivable from religion, but not vice versa, (v) morality and religion are in fact incompatible with each other. These options, of course, do not exhaust all possible options. While I know of no one who maintains option (v), it is sometimes unclear from the discussion what position is been upheld and criticized by these philosophers. As will become apparent later on, based upon an intuitionist view of logic, my own position is (ii). [Back]

3. I will be employing Anglo-Christian theology as a comparative frame of reference in my discussion of Yorùbá theology. This is purely for exegetical purposes. [Back]

4. This sentence alone shows that Idowu’s analysis is not based upon the Yorùbá conceptual scheme. Traditional Yorùbá society operated on a four day week, and as such there is no fifth day that is “set apart for the worship of the Deity”. Idowu’s view might be based on the fact that priests and priestesses of Yorùbá religion say that they worship their divinities lörôôrún, i.e., “every fifth day”. But “every fifth day” in Yorùbá numerology is actually “every fourth day” in Western numerology! This is because Yorùbá society operates on an inclusive counting system while the Western system is exclusive. For instance, if today is a Monday and we have scheduled a meeting for next Monday, then, from the Western conceptual scheme, one would say our next meeting is in seven days time. But from the Yorùbá conceptual scheme, next Monday is in eight days time because we count the current day as well. So although the traditional Yorùbá priest would say that s/he worships the divinities at least “every fifth day”, there is actually no fifth day in the Yorùbá week. [Back]

5. Ifá priests are the custodians of the Ifá Literary Corpus, the sacred text of Yorùbá religion. The Corpus is made up of 256 books called Odù, each having in number from 400 to 600 poems (called çsç. Although a small number of these poems have been written down, most have not. When written down, the length of each poem ranges from 8 lines to about 20 pages. An Ifá priest has to know about five poems from each of the 256 books. The training of an Ifá priest takes about 15 years of full-time study, and up to 35 years of part-time study. There are thousands of Ifá priests currently practicing in Nigeria. Outside of Nigeria, Ifá priests are found in significant numbers in Cuba, Benin Republic, Togo, Puerto Rico, and the USA. As we shall see below, Ifá priests are also practitioners of traditional medicine in the parts of the world in which they live. [Back]

6. These are the lines Idowu interprets as the four days of creation. These are actually praise names of Õrúnmìlà, the Yorùbá god of wisdom. Every Ifá poem has an eight-part structure (see W. Abíðbölá, 1976, pp. 43-63). The first part of each poem states the name (or names) of the Ifá priest (or priests–this is because there might be more than one priest involved) who first chanted this poem during a divination. These names are either praise names of Õrúnmìlà himself, or praise names of priests he trained in the art of divination. Note that these names are meant to be ‘secret’ names. The real names of these priests are never mentioned in Ifá poems. (See Abíðbölá & Hallen (1993), and Abiodun (2000), for further explanation of the role of secrecy in Yorùbá culture.) So even when it is Õrúnmìlà himself who was engaged in the past divination, his praise names are those given in the first part of the poem. Line 12 of the poem suggests that it was Õrúnmìlà who divined for himself on this occasion. Hence these four lines are better regarded as praise names of Õrúnmìlà himself. [Back]

7. Each individual has his/her own personal divinity called Orí. Divination in Yorùbá culture is an attempt to make a connection with the spiritual world through one’s Orí. Each person’s Orí is unique and personal, and it is also one part of the ‘soul-complex’ in Yorùbá thought. That is, although the Yorùbá divide the person into the body and soul, the soul is made up of various attributes such as: Orí, êmí, and çsê. I explain the Yorùbá conception of personhood in detail below. [Back]

8. Ògúndá Méjì is one of the 256 books (Odù) of the Ifá Literary Corpus. Hence this phrase means something like this: divination directed him to analyze the situation with a poem from this book of the Yorùbá Holy scriptures. [Back]

9. Lines 22 and 23 are playing on the meaning of the word Ifá. In line 22, Ifá, the god of wisdom is singing the praises of his Ifá priests. But in line 23, Ifá’s Ifá priests are singing the praises of the divination process! The word “Ifá” has 6 layers of meanings: (i) the god of wisdom; (ii) the divination process; (iii) the entire body of knowledge called the Ifá Literary Corpus; (iv) any one specific poem from the Corpus; (v) a special herbal mixture or talisman prepared for medicinal purposes–the recipes for these are explicitly stated in some Ifá poems; and (vi) there are some special Ifá poems that function as incantations or powerful words. When uttered, these words reveal truth in the sense that whatever they state will come to pass. These Ifá incantations are used mainly for medicinal purposes–for example, reciting one such poem in the appropriate manner “calls out” the venom of certain types of snakes from the human body. These multi-layered meanings for the same word might appear strange and confusing to someone who is not familiar with the Yorùbá conceptual scheme. [Back]

10. Ewé means “leaf” (and/or “leaves”), and þlá means “big”. Oori (also known as êkô) is corn-starch pudding, a very popular meal in Yorùbáland. This pudding is usually wrapped with leaves such as those of the banana, cocoa, iyá, or iran trees. Because the leaves of these trees are wide or broad, and, as such, can be used to wrap-up the pudding into individual potions, Ifá adopts the generic name “big leaves” from them. [Back]

11. Ètípön-ôlá is a shrub that grows on the ground just as grass does. This shrub spreads-out and covers the ground copiously such that the soil is almost invisible to the eye. [Back]

12. Even this translation follows Idowu’s mis-interpretation too closely. A better translation of this phrase is: “Ifá is the master of all the four days (of the week) established here on earth by the divinities”. This is a better translation because (bearing in mind that traditional Yorùbá society operated on a four-day week) the Ifá priest is regarded as having access to a hidden knowledge on the basis of which day-to-day life in Yorùbá culture is regulated. The divination process attached to the Ifá Literary Corpus accesses this hidden knowledge. This part of the poem is therefore a statement of the overall importance of Ifá in the regulation of day-to-day life. It is also important to note the following curious point: Yorùbá is a language that allows for the contraction two separate words into one. For example, from the two words “ilé” (house) and “ìwé”(book), a new word “iléèwé” can be coined for “school”. These contractions can result in different meanings being attributed to words. But this is usually only a problem when a phrase or word is taken out of its original context. This sort of out of context mis-interpretation is at the heart of Idowu’s translation. The phrase in question, as rendered by Idowu is “…Òrìÿà dá’lé aiyé [also spelt ayé]“, which he interprets as “… the Òrìÿà created the earth.” Here Idowu has used “dá’lé ayé” which, if taken out of context could be “dá ilé ayé” (“create the earth”) instead of “dá silé ayé” (“establish here on earth”). When Ifá priests chant the poem in question (see line 4 of the poem quoted above), the full version of this phrase is often given as: “…Òrìÿà dá silé ayé ” (and I have translated this to be “… the Òrìÿà establish here on earth”). Because Idowu has given us the contracted version, “da’le”, even a competent Yorùbá speaker who is not given the full context of the phrase (i.e., the Ifá poem from which it is taken) could be misled into thinking the phrase is indeed about the creation of the world! [Back]

13. The ancestors come after humans because one condition for becoming an ancestor in the Yorùbá cosmos is to have lived a morally worthy life here on earth. Hence one must have lived life as a human before becoming an ancestor. But, if one does not pay careful attention to the details of Yorùbá theology, it is easy to misunderstand the status of the ancestors. This is because within the functional hierarch, the ancestors are above humans (but are placed below the divinities). [Back]

14. The role of Orí in the Yorùbá conception of personhood is often mis-understood. Having been weaned on the staple Western diet of freewill and determinism, many contemporary philosophers of African thought have spilled much unnecessary ink on the question of how the Yorùbá can maintain free will, punishment and reward alongside the conception of ‘inner head’. The fact of the matter is that this is all much ado about nothing. Ifá poems make a very clear-cut distinction among Orí (the principle of actualization and earthly success or failure), çsê (the principle of individual strife and struggle), and Ìwà (good character). Most of these philosophers quote various Ifá poems from W. Abíðbölá (1968, 1969, 1973). Despite the fact that the poems themselves (and Wande Abíðbölá’s own expositions) discuss Orí within the context of earthly success and failure, and despite the fact that there is a concept of Ìwà in which freewill is made crystal clear, because Western Anglo-American philosophy makes no distinction between determinism vis-à-vis earthly success and determinism vis-à-vis moral character, Western conceptual schemes are transmitted wholesale into Yorùbá thought! Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, there is an Ifá poem from Èjì Ogbè, the very first book of the Ifá Literary Corpus, in which the distinction between Orí and Ìwà is stated concisely. Unless one can point to situations in which Yorùbá culture punishes people for lack of earthly success and achievement, discussing Orí in relation to moral responsibility and autonomy is misplaced. [Back]

15. Actually, a distinction should be made between moral and natural evil. The status of natural evil in Christianity often is not fully explicated. Does natural evil emanate from Satan? In Yorùbá theology, this issue does not arise because evil supernatural forces are associated with both natural and moral evil. Thus, while Ikú (the supernatural force called death), might be responsible for a car accident, another evil force called Omìmì is responsible for earthquakes and earth tremors. [Back]

16. Note that 200+1evil supernatural forces is not the same as 201 supernatural forces! The extra 1 is actually the set of all those evil forces that did not originally descend from the supernatural world at the time the natural world was created. In short, the Yorùbá conception of evil contains what we may call a principle of elasticity that allows it to incorporate any new force of evil into its pantheon. The principle of elasticity also applies to the divinities who are 400+1 in number. [Back]

17. The full import of the Yorùbá poly-demonic conception of evil is often not appreciated. Elsewhere (K. Abíðbölá, 1994) I have relied upon this conception in a discussion of the problem of evil. The focus of my analysis was not the standard problem of evil in relation to the existence of God. Rather I posed an epistemological question about the rationality of the belief in God given that moral and natural evil exists in the world. The answer implicit in Yorùbá theology seems to be following. We ought to distinguish between concepts and instantiations. The concept of good makes no sense independently of a concept of evil to contrast good with. In fact, Yorùbá theology suggests that there can be no such thing as a perfectly good world unless we understand the meaning of evil. But a concept need not have instantiations. In the Yorùbá cosmos, instantiations of evil are the handiwork of natural beings (such as humans) and supernatural beings (such as the anti-gods, Ajogun, who attacked Õrúnmìlà in the Ifá poem above). Contemporary Yorùbá society operates on this poly-demonic conception of evil and responsibility. As we shall see below, in Yorùbá culture, the malevolent supernatural being called Àrùn (Disease) can be held responsible for disease, just as a human being can be held responsible for an evil act that was up to that person (and not up to a malevolent force). The question, of course then is this: how do we determine when a malevolent force is responsible for an evil act? The answer supplied by Yorùbá theology is: divination. This is precisely why, up till today, all Yorùbá medical practitioners are also diviners. [Back]

18. Since the focus of this paper is Yorùbá culture, I will use the dichotomies employed in Yorùbá society. Hence, unless otherwise stated, I will use traditional medicine to refer to holistic medicine, and I will use alternative (or orthodox) medicine to refer to medicine as currently practiced by the Western doctor in a standard hospital or clinic. [Back]

19. It is important to note that traditional oníÿègùn are also Ifá priests and diviners. There are two main interrelated methods of divination in Yorùbá culture: divination with the Ifá Literary Corpus in which there are 256 books, and hundreds of poems within each book; and, the Çërìndínlógún (sixteen cowries) divination system, a system which condenses the 256 books of the Ifá Literary Corpus into sixteen. The traditional oníÿègùn will be competent in at least one of these two divination systems. I should also point out that there are other traditional methods of divination (for example, kola-nut divination). Also, in contemporary Yorùbá society, there are now many healers whose methods are not based on traditional Yorùbá medicine. These would include: Christian healers who eschew almost all forms of medication and concentrate on the power of prayers and the holy water; and Islamic healers who make use of the power of words derived from the Qur’an. Islamic healers also depend heavily on talismans and amulets. My assertions in this paper apply only to the healing techniques of those healers who derive their methods from traditional Yorùbá conceptions. I should also add, however, that there are some traditional Yorùbá healers who do not divine at all. They are, however, not called oníÿègùn, they are called adáhunÿe (a term which means something like “s/he who does it alone”). [Back]

20. Even this is not mandatory. It is not uncommon for clients to choose not to reveal the precise nature of their problems to the diviner. The client might, therefore, decide to listen to the priests chants, and interpretations of the poems chanted, and then ask that the appropriate sacrifice for a particular poem be performed. [Back]

21. See W. Abíðbölá 1976 for details of the divination process. [Back]

22. See W. Abíðbölá (1975). [Back]

23. According to various Ifá poems, the cradle of humanity is a town called Ilé-Ifê, in the South-Western part of Nigeria. According to Yorùbá theology, this was the first settlement established by the 400 plus 1 divinities that created the earth. (In Yorùbá thought, the “plus 1″ functions as a principle of elasticity which allows for the addition of new divinities into the Yorùbá pantheon. Hence, this 1 is better regarded as the set of new divinities.) Although not all humans are regarded as descendants of the divinities, individuals can be re-born into the extended family of any divinity. This is one way of interpreting the initiation rites undergone by those who are initiated into the cult of any divinity. Indeed, the Yorùbá name for those who have been initiated into the cult of any divinity is ômô-Òòÿà, i.e., “child of the divinity”. [Back]

24. Note, however, that when the broom is used as an icon of the god ßõnpõnnö, it is called safara as opposed to ôwõ which is its usual name. [Back]

25. See W. Abíðbölá and B. Hallen (1993) for further explanation of the role of secrecy in divination. [Back]

26. What does it mean to say that a spiritual theory of ethics is prevalent in contemporary Yorùbá society? I have explained this point in some details elsewhere, K. Abíðbölá (forthcoming). Re-hashing this explanation would take us too far afield, so a very brief summary will suffice. What I call the psychology of belief is at the heart of the matter. Specifically, I think we need to make a distinction between implicit and explicit beliefs. Someone’s explicit beliefs are those claims s/he would profess to uphold, while implicit beliefs are those beliefs which we, as onlookers, can decipher from a person’s practical conduct. Someone’s implicit and explicit beliefs may cohere: that is, the beliefs that a person claims and pro-claims to adopt could be those which are consistent with that person’s conduct. But often, implicit and explicit beliefs diverge. Before my claims about the prevalence of the Yorùbá spiritualist theory of morality can be valid, one needs to include those whose implicit beliefs are consistent with that theory. The practical effects of this claim of mine can be very easily illustrated. My uncle, Chief Abíðbölá Ìrókò, is a practicing oníÿègùn in the town of Õyö in Nigeria. His clinic is part of our extended family compound, and whenever I am at home in Õyö, I usually spend a lot of time with him. His days begin around 5am when he and his assistant mix and brew various medical herbs. The first patients begin to arrive around 6am and by about 10am when the morning rush diminishes, he might have attended to over 30 patients who have various medical requirements. A substantial part of his diagnoses requires physical examinations and divination with sixteen cowries, and his clientele include many who openly profess to be Christians and Muslims, just as it includes many who claim to be traditionalist. On many occasions when he did not deem it necessary to diagnose with sixteen cowries, many of his clients would specifically request a divination. About 100 meters from our family compound is a Western-style private hospital in which only allopathic medicine is practiced. By 10am when my uncle would have attended to about 30 patients, this private hospital (on a good day) might only have attended to 10 patients. This pattern is the same all over Yorùbáland in Nigeria. Indeed it seems to be the case that in Yorùbá society, most people use the Western-Style hospital only in cases of trauma. This explains why the homeopathic (plus spiritual) approach to the treatment of illnesses is regarded as traditional in most African societies. Orthodox Western-style medicine is the alternative reserved for cases requiring urgent treatment. The point of all this should be clear: the Yorùbá person who explicitly claims to be a Christian, a Muslim, or an atheist, but who consults the oníÿègùn for medical treatment (and who uses/takes the herbal prescriptions in conjunction with the spiritual prescriptions) is implicitly subscribing to the Yorùbá spiritualist view of the world. [Back]

27. William Bascom, who has collected various Ifá poems from priests in Nigeria, Benin Republic, and Cuba observed in surprise that priests in Cuba, who had never had any direct contact with Africa, chanted Ifá poems exactly as they were chanted in Africa. In some parts of the New World, especially in Cuba, the whole extensive structure of the Ifá Literary Corpus (with its 256 books and numerous poems within each book) survived through slavery and into contemporary times. [Back]

28. This is a Pandora’s box that is best left unopened. But open it, at least in a footnote, we must. About two years ago, Nigeria was once again returned to civil democratic rule. But the age-old traditional political institutions of government and power (i.e., sacred kingship) remain firmly in place. The new Nigerian constitution still does not mesh very well with these traditional institutions. Whilst I do not wish to suggest that contemporary African philosophers are not providing critical assessments of political conduct and institutions (Gbadegesin, 1991, is one good example of critical reflection on contemporary concerns), I think it is fair to say that most philosophers do not view the problem of politics and government as a problem of spirituality and applied ethics. Hence, often, we end up with the same potpourri of irrelevant ideas: socialism; African socialism; negritude; consciencism, etc. A discussion of the moral implications of the existence of these inconsistent institutions on day-to-day living is often left out. [Back]


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