Àyànmọ́ mi láti ọwọ́ Olúwa ni
Ẹ̀dá ayé kan kò lè ṣí mi nípò padà
Ẹ̀lẹ̀dá mi yé mo bẹ̀bẹ̀ yé
Ẹ̀lẹ̀dá mi gbé mi lékè ayé.
This piece is from a famous track of the legendary Juju maestro, Ebenezer Obey. Roughly translated, the stanza says:
My destiny is from God
No human can change my destiny
Oh, my Head (Creator) I plead
My Creator, help me to be victorious over evil people.
The notion of destiny is quite central to Yoruba metaphysics. So central is this notion of destiny that whenever a baby is born, the parents will seek out ifá priests to tell them what destiny the baby has; destiny is believed to affect every phase of a human’s life. It is also believed that such a knowledge of what destiny a child possesses is critical to parenting.
Several descriptive terms, often taken as synonyms, are employed in describing different aspects of destiny: Àyànmọ́ (that which is allotted to one), Àkúnlẹ̀yàn (that which one chooses from a kneeling position), Orí (literally means “head” but here refers to an inner, spiritual or cosmological entity, not a physical one), Àkúnlẹ̀gbà (that which is received while in a kneeling position), Ìpín Orí (literally, allotted head), Àkọsílẹ̀ (that which was pre-written; a prophecy), Àkọsẹ̀jayẹ́ (what was written before coming to earth), and kádàrá (likely a corruption of the Arabic word, qadar which means destiny). The various descriptions of destiny are woven together in the Yoruba account of creation that we shall get into soon.
At the time Ebenezer Obey wrote the song referenced above, colonization had already thoroughly permeated the land. So, it is safe to assume that Obey’s rendition of destiny may not be true to the original. It should be said that Ebenezer Obey is not alone in professing this good-only notion of destiny. Almost all contemporary Yoruba musicians that have said something about destiny—including King Sunny Ade, Sir Shina Peters, Shefiu Alao, Salawa Abeni, Rowland Olomola, Shola Allyson, and Tope Alabi—all have, at least, one thing in common: that their individual destiny is inherently good. One of my goals in this writing is to investigate whether such an assurance can be derived from Yoruba metaphysics. Ultimately, I shall argue that there is no coherent conception of destiny among Yoruba people, and hence, there is no such thing as destiny.
Yoruba Religious Thought and Creation Account
Polytheism does not quite accurately describe Yoruba religious thought. True, they recognize several gods in their cosmological synthesis, but this is also true about the Judeo-Christian worldview which is renowned for its monotheistic ideas. In principle, Yoruba people do not worship these various gods as ends in themselves; instead, they worship the supreme deity, Olódùmarè, through the lesser deities. There is no question whatsoever that Yoruba cosmology recognizes one Supreme Being even if in practice people do worship lesser deities as household gods.
There are various versions of the Yoruba creation story differing in some details. One version has it that in the creation of humans, Òrìṣàńlá moulds the human body from the sand. Shortly afterwards, Olódùmarè then breathes into the moulded lifeless body so that it becomes a living thing. In one version, the human then proceeds to Àjàlá Alámọ̀’s house, the deity who makes Orí, to choose an Orí; another version claims that it is Olódùmarè who confers destiny on humans –perhaps, this version recognizes Olódùmarè as the ultimate source of destiny. Differences in details continue as a version claims that one chooses an Orí kneeling which explains why Orí is also called Àkúnlẹ̀yàn; another version claims that one receives an Orí while kneeling explaining why Orí is also called Àkúnlẹ̀gbà. Invariably, Òrúnmìlà is present every time a human being chooses an Orí which is why Òrúnmìlà is called Ẹlẹ́rìí Ìpín, one who witnesses to the act of getting an Orí.
Adebola Ekanola, professor of philosophy at the University of Ibadan, notes three crucial features of the act of choosing an Orí: First, the process of choosing is free; that is, the individual is free to choose from any Orí in Àjàlá’s house. This freedom to choose is, however, constrained by the number of available Orí. Secondly, “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 person making the choice does not know if the destiny embedded in an Ori is good or bad” (Ekanola, 1). Orí is given an exalted place in Yoruba thought. Orí is so exalted that it is often considered a personal god worthier of sacrifices than the other deities. In fact, Orí is sometimes described as one’s creator making it an extension of Olódùmarè. Here are two Yoruba sayings:
Orí ẹni ni Ẹ̀lẹ̀dá ẹni (Ori is one’s creator)
Orí ni à bá bọ, à bá fi òrìṣà silẹ (we ought to offer our sacrifices to Orí instead of the deities)
It is instructive and pivotal to my goal to pause here to discuss the striking resemblances and differences between the Yoruba creation account and the Judeo-Christian Story. In both accounts, the Supreme Being breathes into moulded human bodies to make living things. Interestingly, however, whereas the Judeo-Christian Story has it that God made the first humans here on earth, the Yoruba Story teaches that Olódùmarè makes humans in his realm. In other words, Yoruba religious thought teaches that human beings exist in heaven, the realm of the gods, before journeying to the earth. It should be carefully noted that humans are not incarnated; rather, they are made in heaven as humans and then sent to the earth. Another crucial detail to observe is that whereas the Judeo-Christian worldview teaches that God made the first humans and they make other humans, Yoruba religious thought teaches that Olódùmarè makes each human in heaven; this is necessarily so partly because each human must choose an Orí. In fact, Ènìyàn, the Yoruba word for “human being” literally means “one who chooses.”
After one has chosen and received an Orí, the individual proceeds to Oníbodè, the keeper of the gate between heaven and earth. In one account, one here declares the content of the Orí chosen, and this content is doubly sealed by Oníbodè. Departing heaven and going through Ibodè ọ̀run, the gate between heaven and earth, one passes through the water of forgetfulness so that nobody remembers the content of his or her Orí on earth. On the way to earth, there are spirits or deities of wickedness that may adulterate a good destiny. The most notorious among these deities is Èṣù. Enaikele and Adeleke write that Èṣù is one of the closest deities to Olódùmarè and that he can be invoked to remedy an undesirable destiny as well as to harm an otherwise good destiny (Enaikele and Adeleke, 13). So, he is quite non-discriminatory. He is the deity “that tempts human beings, afflicts them with ailments, and makes life miserable for them—especially when they have sinned against the Supreme Being” (Enaikele & Adeleke, 13). If this sounds familiar, it may be because there is a historical point here to be made. When scholars were translating the Bible into the Yoruba language, they wanted to give Satan a name that would be immediately familiar. Èṣù had no competitor, and Satan was christened Èṣù. In other words, Èṣù in traditional Yoruba belief is not the same as the New Testament Satan—though they share labels in the Yoruba Bible.
On earth, Ifá priests are believed to be able to consult with Òrúnmìlà, the spiritual Ifá head, to find out what an individual’s Orí is and what factors are mitigating against destiny. In cases of adulterated good destinies, it is believed that sacrifices can be done to appease the spiritual forces of wickedness frustrating a person’s destiny. However, it is also commonly held that no sacrifice can change a bad destiny to a good one and vice versa. Chief Wande Abimbola writes that “indeed, the gods are not in a position to alter a man’s destiny.” Besides, this fact is distilled in several Yoruba sayings including the following:
Àyànmọ́ ò gbógùn, orí ni
(Sacrifices cannot alter destiny, destiny is the judge)
Àyànmọ́ kò gba ẹbọ bẹni kò
(Destiny is not appeasable by sacrifice or charms)
Ohun orí ma ṣe kò nì ṣ’alai ṣe
(That which Ori will do, it cannot fail to do)
Ayé kò lè pa kádàrá dà wọn kàn le yi ago sẹ́yìn ni
(Sorcerers cannot change destiny; they may only delay the time of manifestation.)
We shall critically engage with all these data in Part 2 and then explore scholarly attempts to situate all these data in a coherent metaphysical system in Part 3 and Part 4. I shall say something about the problem this issue presents to destiny-preaching African preachers.
Abimbola, Wande. Ifá: An Exposition of Ifá Literary Corpus. Ibadan: Oxford University Press Nigeria, 1976. Print.
Ekanola, Adebola Babatunde. “A Naturalistic Interpretation of the Concept of Ori.” Philosophia Africana, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 41—52. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Sept. 2018.
Enaikele, M. D, and A. T. Adeleke. “Yorubas’ Ifa System and Human Destiny: An Oral Narrative Account.” Fourth World Journal. No issue info. 5—15. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Sept. 2018.