Usually it is not too difficult to obtain a picture of the beliefs of new religious movements, and often the leader figures so prominently that we also get a good picture of him. Also many streams can be traced to the religious traditions they spring from, and from which as a rule they are a branch.
With the Ifa religion, and especially with Ifa in The Netherlands, this is not so easy. It starts with the description Ifa "religion". Ter Haar in her expert witness statement to the court remarks correctly that there really cant be something like an Ifa "religion". Ifa is the divination system of the religious tradition that derives from and connects with the Yoruba people in African Nigeria. In the times of slavery many Yoruba were deported to North America and the Caribbean. New variations of the Yoruba religious culture arose, often under different names. Macumba and Candomble in Brazil, Santeria and Lucumi in Cuba and North America. All these expressions are basically oral traditions. There are now distinct dogmas that apply to every believer.
Even "Ifa in The Netherlands" is too wide a description of the phenomenon we are trying to describe. In this case we are looking for the way Esther and Marcel give shape to their commitment to the Ifa religion, and of course also their relationship with the Rotterdam Ifa priest Amancio Batta. A complicating factor is that The Netherlands know a second Ifa priest who denies Amancio Batta all legitimity.
Thus we cannot confine ourselves to a global description of the Yoruba religion and the way it is experienced in other parts of the world after the diaspora of the slave years. It is necessary to place Amancio Batta in that tradition, and if possible shed some light too on the negative judgement of his Amsterdam colleague Ifa priest Jaap Verduijn.
A good starting point seems the common denominator that we find in all Yoruba branches. This common denominator is especially the idea that God (Olodumare in the Yoruba language) has incarnated in "energy/power" (called Ashe). Ashe is a "divine stream" that pervades all that lives. The manifestations of Ashe can be divided along three lines: the concepts of norms and values that are connected with ancestor reverence (1), the optimum use of Ashe be maintaining close relationships with spiritual beings (called Orishas) (2), and finally the order and regularity that manifests in the divination system (Ifa) (3).
Yorubas believe that people now alive should look to their ancestors as a role model on how life should be arranged from a moral point of view. Apart from many other expressions of ancestor worhsip the so called Egungun play a role: masked dancers who appear in the streets and represent the "ara orun" or "heavenly beings". They function as messengers from the world of the dead. People turn to them with questions and requests for advice. From their side the egungun criticize the behavior of the living, and encourage them to behave according to the highest moral standards.
Also connected with the ancestors is the belief that every human being is a combination of visible and invisible characteristic, that are united by a spiritual force called "Ori", the "head". All physical and mental characteristics of the individual are "chosen" before its birth. Every "Ori" chooses its own destination called "iwa". The task in life is to develop good character, in the Yoruba language called "iwa pele". One could also say: its all about staying on course, to keep following the spiritual path that has been established before birth.
Apart from the moral Ashe of the ancestors, the Yoruba find their spiritual power in the relationship with a pantheon of spiritual beings, named Orishas. The Orishas are personifications of Ashe, availabe to people who worship them. The priest in the Yoruba tradition has the important task to acitvate the Ashe of the Orishas on behalf of those who ask for help. The presence of Orishas is invoked through dance and music. Each Orisha requires a specific musical rhythm. The Orishas come down to unite with their human children, they visit human bodies to dance together with their children on this earth. People sacrifice to the Orishas in order to intensify the relationship with these spiritual beings; the Orishas in turn give humans health, wealth, children and wisdom. Without the Ashe of the sacrifices the Orishas would wither and be lost. In the vision of the Yorubas a strong interdependecy exists between man and Orisha: "If there are no humans, there are no deities".
Finally, through Ifa the Yoruba can discover Olodumares will in secular events. Ifa reveals order in chaos, and destiny in coincidence. According to Yoruba myths the founder god Olodumare gave the Orisha Orunmila a method of communication between himself and the Orishas. This method is called Ifa. People come with all kinds of questions to the babalawo, the priest who masters the divination techniques, and has great knowledge of the interpretation of the oracle. Through Ifa the babalawo gives people information on their place in the world, their destiny and what the gods expect from them.
Technically speaking an oracle tray and sixteen palm nuts are used. The nuts are "cast"; depending on the outcome one or two lines are written on the oracle tray. After eight casts a socalled odu appears that subsequently is connected with the question(s) that were asked of Ifa. An alternative method is the use of an "oracle chain", the opele. The choice wich text(s) belonging to the odu is/are relevant for the client can be determined by the casting of cowrie shells: not the whole corpus of these texts has to be read in order to answer the clients questions.
Psychosocial aspects of the Orisha religions
In an article on Internet some characteristics of the "Orisha religions" are mentioned, that might shed some light on the experiences of the parents and the impression that a "personality change" had taken place within Esther. (See literature list: Kucklick)
Many practitioners of "The Religion" as it is called in its own circles, speak of the feeling that they are being "pulled" or "pushed" into this religion by spiritual powers. They have the opinion that the life of such a person will not go well when this "call" isnt answered.
Within "The Religion" a hierarchical system exists, based on a strong bond within a small group. The group could be seen as a family, an ile in the Yoruba language. The members of the ile are more or less the spiritual children of the priest who has initiated them. Sometimes problems develop when practitioners of the religion communicate their new-found certainties to relatives and friends. Additionally the norms and values system of the Orisha religions does not relate well to that of Western oriented morals, where individual freedom and self development hold such a central position.
The Orisha tradition, as we already stated, is an oral tradition. The adherents may feel tension between whats written on paper about "The Religion", and their own belief and experience. Much information found in books is experienced as misleading, sensational or simply untrue. The priest plays an important role in passing down the tradition. The priest is consulted on a multitude of issues: relationship problems, financial problems, bringing up children etcetera. Thus the Orisha priest has a much broader function than only as a spiritual leader.
"The Religion" has a long history of secrecy. This has various backgrounds like racism, intolerance, and above all the will to keep the own tradition pure. The spiritual experiences and the rituals of the Orisha traditions lend themselves to "pathological interpretations". We mention here the belief in the influence of spiritual powers, and the possession or trance during ritual meetings. Trance, in the Orisha tradition, is seen as a valuable, positive experience, as long as it is within the context or the Orisha ritual, guided by an experienced priest.
The above offers several entrances for the "cult researcher" to discover sectarian characteristics in an Orisha religion. "Being pulled" is often seen as dubious recruiting. When people attach more value to the spiritual community than to their own family, this tends to produce bristling hairs with many critics. The central position of the Ifa priest fits seemlessly into the stereotypes about powerful cult leaders that abuse their followers. "Secrecy is only necessary when you have to hide something"; and the inducing of trance is connected with "brain washing practices".
It is not surprising then that during the court case the defense regularly referred to the practices and rituals in the "Ifa religion" to show that potentially very dangerous practices are involved.
Ifa in The Netherlands and the terminological controversy
In the above we drew a global sketch of the origins of the Ifa divination, and we mentioned some psychosocial aspects of the Orisha religions. Remains the question how the Ifa religion in The Netherlands is organized.
Starting with externals, we establish that in Rotterdam Amancio Batta has a shingle on his front door with the description "babalawo". The Amsterdam "Awolorisha" Jaap Verduijn employs the letter head "Nederlands Ifa Genootschap". The presentation then, places both in the Yoruba tradition.
Taking a closer look we discover vast differences. For the time being we confine ourself to the self-presentation. In an article in "Onze Wereld" (October 1995) Amancio Batta is described as a Santeria priest. Batta himself indicates that he entered into the Yoruba tradition through Cuban Santeria. His involvement in the tradition was, as he himself maintains, revealed to him. Ifa itself declares that Amancio must fulfill a role within the tradition. In Cuba he is already told that he is an Oba (= King) within the Yoruba religion, and that he must travel to Nigeria to obtain more clarity on his destiny and his involvement with "The Religion". Nigeria indeed offers him the desired clarity. There he gets the confirmation that he must see himself as an Oba within the tradition. Thus Cuba and Nigeria play an important role in his self-understanding. Amancio is a well-known professional percussionist who uses the bata drums to invoke the Orishas and to communicate with them. Also from Orunmila/Ifa Amancio receives direct messages. Amancio is dressed up exotically in a bright red gown, on his head a conspicuous red hat. The color red is abundant in his Rotterdam home. Red is the color of the Orisha Shango, a somewhat exited type in the Orisha pantheon of the Yoruba tradition. So far, for the time being, Battas self-understanding.
In the Amsterdam Awolorisha Jaap Verduijn we find a completely different expression of the Yoruba tradition. Verduijn has set his first steps in Ifa divinational practices and rituals with an American Babalawo, and later he was initiated by this Babalawo as Awolorisha and Omolawo. Where with Batta the "communication with the Orishas" plays an important role in his functioning as a priest, Verduijn stands more in the traditional (scriptural) line of Ifa divination: the ancient system of which the codes and interpretation tables through years long initiations are passed on from babalawo to babalawo. In other words: where we find in Batta a more "experiential" practitioner of the Yoruba tradition, Verduijn is more scripturally grounded.
The controversy around Batta and Verduijn seems to revolve around a terminological discussion. Especially because both use the term "Ifa priest", the discussion arises if Batta and Verduijn are in the same tradition after all. Batta understands himself as an Oba in the Nigerian Ifa tradition, and from this self-understanding he considers himself not obliged to adhere to the complex codes and rules that are connected with the Ifa divination techniques. His "pedigree" and the way he came into contact with Ifa, seem to indicate that his is more a Caribbean variation of expression, with a strong emphasis on direct communication with Orunmila/Ifa. In short: changing the shingle on his door could contribute to clarity, removing much of the need for endless discussions afterwards.
We still havent arrived at the level thats really important, namely in what way Esther and Marcel are involved with the Ifa tradition. The simple fact of their membership of Battas Ile gets us well on our way, because it leads to the conclusion that they also practice the more "experiential" version" of the tradition. However, the reference to Batta does not lead us any further. After all, Esther and Marcel behave just as "Dutch" as adherents to other religions (established churches and/or newer streams): every individual fills in their religion and belief in their own personal way. The individual experience, after al, is the pivot.
Which leads us into an area where one has to be careful with judgements, yet there should remain room for quotation marks. Ifa, and the Orisha religions in general, are not just "belief systems for the Sunday, and the rest of the week we go our own way". They require a deep commitment, and there is an elaborate and inclusive system of norms and values connected to the belief. The connection with and the dependence of an Orisha means that you have to live the way the Orisha wants you to, because disturbing that connection brings great risks to your well-being and your physical and psychological health. The question now crops up: what are the consequences of adopting an African "symbolic universe"? Is this really possible without extensive modifications caused by the fact that, in The Netherlands, we live in an utterly different context: socially, economically and religiously? Exactly here lie the risks of the more "experiential" variations" of African religions. The ecstasy of the religious experience might obscure the perception of the complexity of human life. The experience of unity might lead to rigidity, and undermine flexibility and the capacity to see things in perspective. And then theres the risk of social isolation. It is often difficult to communicate with "outsiders" about the required level of religious commitment in the Orisha religions. Many people cannot see why one should "turn to Africa", when in the West there is an overkill of spirituality and spiritual ideologies. The prejudice against everything exotic and "foreign" has not eroded yet.
Whether such a negative scenario will materialize remains, of course, to be seen. Experience teaches us that especially in cases of failed deprogramming a hardening of positions might take place. Which in turn contributes to the vicious circle the victims of deprogramming might get caught in.
Conclusion, and how to go on?
The court case has cut deep wounds. Reading the court files is not an elevating experience. The various positions have been worded so violently and negatively, that both parties must have been shocked by each other. In Esthers presence it is said that she is potentially suicidal; the parents are described as fanatics without feelings. And all was meant so positively One almost experiences a feeling of substitute shame when the most intimate details are highlighted in front of the public media.
The researcher is left with many questions. And he realizes that he remains the outsider, who is objectifying a "personal tragedy", and then gives a detached verdict. The explanation "personality change" in the end gives no relief for what people in the concrete situation experience as estrangement, pain and confrontation. The explanation does not take the sting out of the discussion.
No bridge is built between the different worlds. The academics maintain their opinion that these are individual (neglectable?) problems, the anti-cult movement again sees conformed its opinion that academia is blind to the dangers of indoctrination, individual manipulation, and group manipulation. Those immediately concerned still feel themselves misunderstood, for (and nothing can change that) personality change is a process that cuts deep wounds into relationships.
But possibly the court case might lead to a renewed effort to take the issue seriously. An effort to get all those concerned around the table, and together look and research which institutions can be created to prepare for and react to the problems that manifest around the membership of new religious groups.
Perhaps it is also the start to (again) found a platform where all sides of the coin will be done right. Without, of course, taking the problem out of proportion. To finally quote Schnabel: "All flutters, swells and bulges in the gale of thought, whose major quality seems to be windiness". But this does not diminish the fact that also from excessive windiness many individuals have foundered and drowned.
What is done cannot be undone. There seems no real perspective in sight to solve either the problems in Esthers family, or the terminological controversy between Verduijn and Batta. In order to reach the first goal all past books need to be balanced. Rapprochement is only possible when all unanswered questions are put aside, and the future is faced with an open mind.
The personalities of Batta and Verduijn are so different that the chance is that "Ifa in The Netherlands" will always be a "country between the rivers". But does it really matter? Diversity is a very important characteristic of African Traditional Religions. Both worship the Orishas in their own way. So the Orishas will keep dancing with their human children.
This article is based upon (among others) a report that I wrote shortly after the case in the magazine "In de Marge". While writing this follow-up article I had access to all court files. Between April and August 1997 I have conducted several interviews with Esther and Marcel, and with the care assistants that were concerned with the deprogramming.
I have also interviewed Esthers parents, and finally Amancio Batta and Jaap Verduijn. A concept version of this article was given to them. I owe them thanks for their extensive comments.
Ara Orun: "Heavenly beings". Yoruba ancestors or Orishas, depending on the context.
Ashe: Power, grace, growth, blood. The life force of God, the Orishas and nature.
Awolorisha: "Mystery of the Orisha". An initiate in the mysteries of an Orisha.
Babalawo: "Father of the mystery". Highest priestly level of Orunmila/Ifa; divination priest.
Bata: "Sacred" drums, used in various Yoruba rituals.
Egungun: (egun = dead person, ancestor). Ritual where masked "representatives" of the ancestors play.
Ifa: The oracle system of the Yoruba religion. Often Ifa also denotes the Orisha of the oracle.
Ile: House, commune, family. Ile-Ife = Spiritual centre of the Yoruba, centre of creation.
Iwa pele: (iwa = character). The moral responsibility of every Yoruba: good character.
Oba: "King" within the Yoruba tradition.
Odu: Individual divination code, result of divination. Also the connected myths, tales and offerings. (The oral literary sources upon which Ifa divination is based)
Olodumare: Founder-God within the Yoruba pantheon.
Omolawo: "Child of the mystery", lower level of Orunmila priest; divination priest.
Opele: Divination chain, with eight half opele nuts.
Ori: "Head", destiny of humans.
Orunmila: Orisha of wisdom and divination. See Ifa.
Santeria: "Path of the saints". A Cuban and North American variation of the Yoruba tradition.
Shango: Orisha of thunder, lightning and power.
Yoruba: The people living in that part of Africa that now is called Nigeria. Also a name for the (religious) culture from which the various Orisha religions derive.
I have observed similarities between the I-Ching, Ifa and Runic oracular systems. Some of these similarities exist at the mathematical level, or at the level of methodology for consulting the oracles, which are worth mentioning. I don't believe this may lead to a type of syncretism of these systems, as each is unique and comprehensive on its own, but studying these similarities may lead to very interesting insights.
The Letters: Archetypal Units of Meaning
Both Ifa and the Runes refer to their units of meaning as letters. The 24 runes are the letters of the Viking alphabet, which is known as Futhark due to the fact that the first seven letters of the alphabet are f-u-th-a-r-k. A rune is translated as a letter, a sign, but the real meaning of the word is 'whisper', 'mystery', 'secret'. In the runic system, each letter hides a series of mysteries, or archetypes which are linked to norse spirituality. When reading the runes, one interprets the combinations of archetypal mysteries according to their placement in the reading.
In the Yoruba system of Ifa, which originated in the holy city of Ile Ife, which is in what is now Nigeria, they use signs known as Odus. In Cuba, the word Od is translated as 'letra', or letter, and like the runes each Odu contains folkloric wisdom appropriate to the culture that it derives from. Each Odu is a living entity that has its own legends, sayings, sacrifices, and divinatory outcomes. In fact, babalawos (1), or Ifa priests, claim that Ifa contains the entire corpus of Yoruba religious lore within its Odus.
In Ifa, there are 16 basic Ods o signs. The system is somewhat like the I-Ching. In Ifa two Odus or signs are derived from using the okpwele chain. Therefore, there are 264 possible Odu combinations (sixteen times sixteen). In other words, the babalawo or Ifa priest derives meaning from a combination of two of the sixteen Ods, so that if the first Odu is Obara and the second if Oshe, the sign that he must interpret is known as Obara-Oshe. Due to the large number of Odu combinations, as you can imagine, the babalawo must be very proficient in Yoruba lore in order to be effective.
The Binary System
Both Ifa and I Ching use the binary system (2) as their mathematical foundation, just like computer languages. That is to say, the unit from which we derive meanings is some combination of the same two digits. In the casting of the okpwele chain within Ifa, the outcome is four units of either I or II, again, combinations of ones and twos. Each combination of four I or II digits gives birth to one of the sixteen Odus, and so casting the okpwele twice generates one of the 256 signs which comprise the corpus of Ifa.
After casting a coin three times, in I Ching one gets a trigram, made up of three straight or interrupted lines. Straight or interrupted lines may be interpreted as ones and twos, and they also represent the cosmic duality, the constant interplay between the oppossite and complementary principles in Chinese philosophy and cosmology. There are eight possible combinations of straight and interrupted lines in a trigram. Two trigrams generate an hexagram, which is the main unit of meaning in the I Ching system. Eight times eight generates 64 possible meanings within I Ching. Ifa, with her 16 Ods, is macrocosmic or greater version of the I Ching with her 8 trigrams, however both systems are quite similar in how they operate.
The use of the binary system results in the oracular methods being organized in groups or multiples of four and eight, just like the runes are organized in three groups of eight (the three Aetts). From the viewpoint of numerology, this insistence on the number 4 represents an insistence on structure or cosmic order, since four is a square, a house, stability, establishment. The fourth sign of the zodiac, Cancer, is the sign of the home, family, and foundation. In all these correspondences we see in metaphysical languages a tendency towards linear, logical thinking, towards order and structure.
In the Havamal, which is the poem that explains the birth of the runes, there is mention of 'staining' the runes. All vitkis agree that blood was used in ancient times to 'stain' them. What this means is that, when creating runes, the vitki must make them out of wood and etch the runic shape on the wooden piece with blood, so that it may come alive magically. This would significantly increase the power of the runic mystery and archetype.
This ritual staining of runes has a parallel in Orisha spirituality, which is associated with the Ifa oracle. When a person is initiated into Orisha, the Orisha is said to be 'born', and this birth requires animal sacrifices. Without blood, there is no Orisha, as blood is life. In Yoruba religion, animal sacrifice is performed in such a way that the victim will not suffer and so the animal dies in an instant. Nothing goes to waste. The blood is for the Orisha, and the meat goes to humans, and a feast is prepared. From this point on, the initiate is reborn in Orisha and every year, he or she will celebrate the anniversary of his initiation as a birthday in Orisha.
One may hear that 'such an Orisha is born from such Odu'. What this means is that the secrets that are crucial to the initiatory ritual that brings about the birth of a certain Orisha are contained within the myth, prayers, sayings, and lore of said Odu, or sign, within the Ifa system. This is secret knowledge that only babalawos are entitled to. The runes function in a similar way. Many runes literally contain deities which may be awakened by the chanting and using of the rune. Hagalaz, for example, contains the Goddess Hella, and Tyr and Thurisaz contain Tyr and Thor respectively. Mannaz contains R�/Heimdal, and Ing contains Fro Ing. I will not go into all the mysteries contained within specific runes, but since Odin sacrificed his own life, and acquired the merit, to be able to bring us runes, it is appropriate to ask the God of poetry and inspiration directly for further guidance with regards to responsible runic work. The only thing I will say here is that, when one births a rune with the proper staining ritual, a matrix containing a Norse deity is born, and that some runes contain powerful initiations and transformations for those who are ready.
Adonai the Orisha?
If we read the Old Testament of the Bible, we'll find references to kings and faithful consulting oracles of the God of Abraham, and deriving counseling which is similar to the type of counseling that one derives from the runes and from Ifa, oftentimes concerning sacrifices. In fact, when Salomon built the temple in Jerusalem we find him consulting an oracle and deriving instructions from it. However, these oracles apparently vanished and nothing is known about them, which tells us that whoever kept their secrets vanished, and was not connected with the writing of the Bible, and that they kept their lore as an oral tradition, just as in Ifa. These oracles must have been served by a special priestly caste (probably similar to our babalawos), whose role was probably hereditary, and who probably vanished at around the time of the Syrian invasion along with other members of the ten tribes. These ten tribes were lost to history; they either assimilated or were killed.
If the Bible speaks of oracles of the God of Abraham, it's fair to assume that there may have been a method of consulting the God, and a body of folklore that was passed orally to the next generation regarding the interpretation of signs. It's also fair to assume that such a body of folklore was contained and organizaded in such a way that it may have been easy to remember, like the 16 Ods in Ifa, or the 24 runes. Due to the power that this sacred functionary must have held, being able to speak on behalf of the God, there must have been clear guidelines regarding how this knowledge was passed on to the next generation of prophets and who was worthy, and many of the things that they did and knew must have been secrets that were available only to initiates. This would explain the biblical silence with regards to the details on what these oracles consisted of. They probably shared much in common with other oracles in the area, perhaps Phoenician or Sumerian systems.
It is interesting to note, however, that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, within the occult tradition of Kabbalah, are oftentimes used in a way similar to the runes and the odus of Ifa: they hide oracular and cultural wisdom and initiatory secrets, and they contain elements of the folklore and the collective psyche of the people that birthed it. It is quite possible that Kabbala, and in particular the use of Hebrew letters in the occult Jewish tradition, may be the remaining vestiges of the oracular systems that are documented in the Old Testament.
The similarity of this oracle with Ifa is also noteworthy. The God of Israel received animal sacrifices similar to the ones performed within the Yoruba tradition, and oftentimes for the same reasons. When the oracle was consulted, the God would make an offer to mortals where in exchange for animal sacrifices, he would protect, guide, give children to his followers and make the land fertile. These are some of the issues solved within Ifa, where either Orula or whatever Orisha speaks through a specific Odu often offers assistance in exchange for some sacrifice. Sacrifices in the Bible were also made in atonement for sins under oracular or prophetic counsel, which is also the case in the Yoruba faith, where the evil results of our deeds or character may be averted through sacrifice, which cleanses the follower. Sacrifice may also be offered instead of one's life in Ifa, in order to gain salvation if one's life is in danger, which is also documented in the Abrahamic religion. Therefore, it is quite possible that the oracle of the God of Abraham may have shared numerous similarities with the oracle of Ifa, as both oracles deal with the same issues in a similar way.
For more information on the runes, you may visit my Runes page. Peace,
1. Babalawo. 'Father of the Mysteries', priest of Ifa.
2. Binary system. Basic computer language from which programs and other, more complex languages are created. Consists on combinations of ones and zeroes. In Ifa, a similar system is used, with I's and II's, or at times I's and 0's. Four combinations of I's or II's generate an Odu, or sign/letra, which is the basic unit of meaning in Ifa. Odus are, therefore, comprised of various combinations of the two available digits.
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