Mo juba awo Obatala.
Iwo ni Eleda Orisha.
Iwo ni Orisha Julo Nase.
Iwo ni Oluwa Awo Ori.
Iwo ni Oluwa Awo Ogbogba.
Iwo ni Oluwa Awo Mimo.
Iwo ni Oluwa Awo Alafia.
Iwo ni Oluwa Awo Ti Abo ati
Ako Ipilese.

I humble myself before the mystery of Obatala.
You are the Creator of the Orisha.
You are the Most Powerful Orisha.
You are the Owner of the Mystery of
You are the Lord of the Mystery of Balance and Equality.
You are the Owner of the Mystery of Purity.
You are the Owner of the Mystery of Peace.
You are the Owner of the Mystery of the Feminine and the Masculine Principles.

Obatala is the Spirit of the Chief of the White Cloth in the West African religious tradition called “Ifa”. The word Obatala is the name given to describe a complex convergence of Spiritual Forces that are key elements in the Ifa concept of consciousness.

Those Spiritual Forces that form the foundation of Obatala’s role in the Spirit Realm relate to the movement between dynamic and form as it exists throughout the universe, According to Ifa, dynamics and form represent the polarity between the Forces of expansion and contraction. Together these Forces create light and darkness, which in turn sustains and defines all that is. Ifa teaches that it is the interaction between light and darkness that generates the physical universe, and it is Obatala who brings this interaction into Being.

There is no literal translation for the word Ifa. It refers to a religious tradition, and understanding of ethics, a process of spiritual transformation and a set of scriptures that are the basis for a complex system of divination.

Within the discipline of Ifa, there is a body of wisdom called “awo”, which attempts to preserve the rituals that create direct communication with Forces in Nature. Awo is a Yoruba word that is usually translated to mean “secret”. Unfortunately, there is no real English equivalent to the word awo, because the word carries strong cultural and esoteric associations.

In traditional Yoruba culture, awo refers to the hidden principles that explain the Mystery of Creation and Evolution. Awo is the esoteric understanding of the invisible forces that sustain dynamics and form within Nature. The essence of these forces are not considered secret because they are devious, they are secret because they remain elusive, awesome in their power to transform and not readily apparent. As such they can only be grasped through direct interaction and participation. Anything which can be known by the intellect alone ceases to be awo.

The primal inspiration for awo is the communication between transcendent Spiritaul forces and human consciousness. This communication is believed to be facilitated by the Spirit of Esu, who is the Divine Messenger. Working in close association with Esu is Ogun, who is the Spirit of Iron. Ogun has the power to clear away those obstacles that stand in the way of spiritual growth. According to Ifa, the work done by Ogun is guided by Ochosi, who as the Spirit of the Tracker has the ability to locate the shortest path to our spiritual goals. The essential goal that Ochosi is called upon to guide us towards is the task of building “iwa-pele”, which means “good character”. This guidance takes the form of a spiritual quest which is called “iwakiri”. One of the functions of Obatala is to preserve the Mystic Vision for those who make the quest of iwakiri in search of iwa-pele.

The power of Obatala is described by Ifa as one of the many Spiritual Forces in Nature which are called “Orisha”. The word Orisha means “Select Head”. In a cultural context, Orisha is a reference to the various Forces in Nature that guide consciousness.

According to Ifa, everything in Nature has some form of consciousness called “Ori”. The Ori of all animals, plants, and humans is believed to be guided by a specific Force in Nature (Orisha) which defines the quality of a particular form of consciousness. There are a large number of Orisha, and each Orisha has its own awo.

The unique function of Obatala within the realm of Orisha Awo (Mysteries of Nature) is to provide the spark of light that animates consciousness. To call and Orisha the Chief of the White Cloth is to make a symbolic reference to that substance which makes consciousness possible.

The reference to White Cloth is not a reference to the material used to make the cloth, it is a reference to the fabric which binds the universe together. The threads of this fabric are the multi-leveled layers of consciousness which Ifa teaches exist in all things on all levels of Being.

Ifa teaches that it is the ability of Forces of Nature to communicate with each other, and the ability of humans to communicate with Forces in Nature that gives the world a sense of spiritual unity. It is the understanding of this ability which gives substance to the Ifa concept of good character, and it is Obatala who guides us towards developing this understanding.

Ifa teaches that all Forces in Nature come into Being through the manifestation of energy patterns called Odu. Ifa has identified and labeled different Odu which can be thought of as different expressions of consciousness. But because consciousness itself is generated by Obatala, every Odu contains an element of Obatala’s ase (power).

In metaphysical terms, this means that all of Creation is linked to Obatala as the Source of Being. Ifa teaches that all forms of consciousness contain a spark of ase (spiritual power) from Obatala, and it is this spark that links everything that is, to its shared Beginning.

In the folklore of Obatala there is a story of how the Chief of the White cloth travels to Earth. Olodumare (The Creator) called Obatala (Chief of White Cloth) to Ikole Orun (the Realm of the Ancestors) on the day that he wanted to create dry land on the waters of the Ikole Aye (Earth). Obatala kneeled before Olodumare and said that he did not know the awo (mystery) of creating land on Ikole Aye (Earth). Olodumare told Obatala that he would give him the ase (power) to make land on Ikole Aye (Earth).

Ogun took all the iworo (gold) and forged a long ewon (chain), which he flung towards Ikole Aye (earth). Obatala placed his ase (power in a pouch and began the descent down the ewon(chain). When he came to the last rung he could see that he was still some distance from the primal waters.

Obatala removed the igbin (snail) shell from his pouch and sprinkled soil upon the primal waters. Then he removed the five toed etu (guinea hen) and dropped it in the land. As soon as the etu (guinea hen) reached the soil it started scratching the ground, spreading dirt across the surface of the primal waters. Seeing the ground had become firm, Obatala removed an ikin (palm nut) and dropped it on the land. The ikin (palm nut) sprouted and became a palm tree. When the palm tree grew to its full height, it reached the last ring of the iworo ‘won (gold chain). Obatala was able to step from the ewon (chain) to the palm tree.

After climbing down the tree, Obatala started to mold humans from the clay in the earth. As he worked, he became tired and decided that he needed a rest. Taking the fruit from the palm tree, he made palm wine and drank until he was ready to return to work. The humans that he molded while drunk did not look like the others, but Obatala did not notice and he kept drinking until he fell asleep.

While Obatala slept, Olodumare gave the task of finishing Creation to Oduduwa (Owner of the Womb of Creation). Olodumare waited for Obatala to awaken from his drunken sleep and told him that it was taboo from Obatala to taste palm wine ever again. When Obatala saw what had happened to the humans he had created while he was drunk, he agreed to protect all children for future generations. It was Obatala who said that he would never again let his White Cloth become soiled.

To this day those that worship Obatala say, “Obatala o su n’na ala, Obatala o ji n’nu ala, Obatala o tinu ala dide, Iba Obatala,” which means, “The Chief of White Cloth sleeps in white, the chief of the White Cloth awakens in white, the chief of the White cloth gets up in white, praise to the Chief of the White Cloth”.

Commentary: The word Obatala translates to mean “Chief of the White Cloth.” In metaphysical terms White Cloth is the primal source of the physical universe. Ifa teaches that light becomes transformed into darkness and that darkness becomes transformed into light.

Within the unfolding if this transformation, Evolution creates greater and greater levels of complexity. The original explosion that created the universe produced massive quantities of light in the form of subatomic particles. As the universe cooled these particles joined together to form simple elements. The elements in turned joined together to form stars. In time, certain stars collapsed, forming black holes that imploded on themselves until they created a fission reaction. This sent huge clouds of complex elements throughout the universe. It was a cloud of complex elements that cooled to form the solor system, and within the solor system evolved the ecosystem that exists in earth.

The Myth of Obatala is the Ifa version of this sequence of events. It uses symbolic language to describe a series of evolutionary events that match closely with the theories of Creation that have been proposed by contemporary Western science. At the beginning of the Myth, Olodumare gives Obatala the instruction to create the world. Olodumare represents all potential form that exists in the universe as it remains dormant prior to manifestation. It is the White Cloth or light particles of Obatala that bring potential form into physical existence. Western science teaches that all of Creation evolved from the light produced during the primal explosion at the beginning of time. Ifa teaches that all Creation evolved from the White Cloth of Obatala’s a robe.

The chain used by Obatala to travel from the Realm of the Ancestors to Earth appears to be a symbolic representation of the structure used to transmit genetic information from one generation to the next. The genetic code that is used to form each species is passed through a biochemical substance called DNA. When DNA is viewed under a microscope it appears as a double helix, which is similar to the pattern of a chain. In Ifa scripture the reference to the Realm of the Ancestors includes all those Natural Forces that led to the development of human life and is not limited to human form. In Western science that DNA which exists in mammals is believed to be an extension of a chain of transmission from single cell life forms at the bottom of the ocean to complex life forms that populate the earth.

When Obatala climbs down the chain towards land, he takes soil a from snail shell. The shape of the snail shell is a pattern that recurs throughout Nature. The early Greeks called this pattern the “Golden Mean”. It is a series of expanding circles that get progressively larger at a steady rate. This growth pattern occurs in trees, plants, and sea life. It is the same pattern that regulates the distance of planets from the sun. The snail shell as a sacred object associated with Obatala symbolized the expansive quality of evolution.

When Obatala places the guinea hen on the ground, the Earth becomes a place that can support life systems. The guinea hen is sacred to Oshun and it has five toes, which is Oshun’s sacred number. Oshun is the spirit of eroticism, fertility, and abundance. At this point in the myth, Obatala is introducing sexuality, reproduction, and the allure of the erotic into the unfolding pattern of Creation.

In order to reach the Earth, Obatala plants seeds which grow into a palm tree. Within the religion of Ifa the palm tree is regarded as the sacred tree of life. Most earth-centered religions designate a particular tree to symbolize the transformation of all things as they progress through the cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth. When a Myth refers to a deity bringing the tree of life to Earth, it is a reference to the existence of natural laws which guide the development of ecological systems on the planet.

Obatala reaches the ground and then begins to make humans. At the point Obatala becomes intoxicated, and the task of finishing Creation is given to Oduduwa. In mythic terms, this part of the creation story suggests that the unfolding of evolution can be flawed. Defects occur in Nature and the Ifa Creation myth reflects this truth. Ifa cosmonology tends to describe the world as it is and not as it should be.

The fact that the task of Creation was taken from Obatala and given to Oduduwa appears to be a reference to the Natural Law of entropy. That law says that once an ecological system is set in motion it always moves towards inevitable extinction. By placing Oduduwa in charge of Creation, the myth is suggesting that there is awo, or a mystery beyond the visible universe and beyond the inevitability of death. Oduduwa is the womb of darkness through which all rebirth emerges.

When Obatala agrees to keep his White Cloths unsoiled, it is a promise to continue the struggle for perfection in a flawed universe. Without this struggle there is no existence, only primal unity. Primal unity is described in Ifa scripture as the loneliness of the Ancestors in Ikole Orun 8888.

Excerpt taken from Awo Fa’lokun Fatumbi

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  1. Wow, what an amazing read, and well-thought distillation of myth into western principles. The more I read, the more I am fascinated by Ifa!

    1. Alaafia Eli;

      Thank you for your encouraging words.

      Thank you for your feedback!!

      Ogbó àtó Asure Ìwòrìwòfún.

      O dábò!
      Chief Awodele Ifayemi
      Atunwase Awo of Ilobuland

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