Don’t Take the Odu Literally
The last time I got a reading from a traditional priest of Ifa was a few months before my initiation. That would be about three years ago. I can’t remember what it was for exactly. More than likely since I was about to be initiated I’m sure it was something regarding the details of the final preparation. I probably got a reading saying I needed to have a chicken slaughtered to remove any remaining spirits or such nonsense. Back then my only role models for the development of my spirituality and my understanding of ancestors and Orisas was the people in the ile who had a very strict and a very traditional interpretation of Ifa and I was anything and everything to learn.
I don’t remember which odu fell but I remember hearing something like I had to give Orunmila about forty thousand cowries and something big like an elephant or something else that’s pretty impossible to find these days, those days, or any other days in between. I had to give praise to my babalawo and my babalawo had to give praise to Ifa. But has anyone seen the price of cowry shells lately? Forty thousand cowries could cost as much as four thousand dollars these days. And to this day I still have yet to find a suitable elephant on eBay! Not a problem! The leaders of the ile interpreted the odu to mean that I had to have a chicken slaughtered and give pay the ile so many dollars. That was a load off my mind.
Like I said that was three years ago. Now that I have a little experience under my belt, and a much better appreciation for the spirituality of Ifa, I am able to understand things much more clearly and interpret the mechanics of spirituality without the interference of adherence to traditional thinking. Like most spiritual text written for the benefit of the masses, the odus of Ifa are not to be interpreted literally. The two hundred fifty six verses are little more than stories that are supposed to inspire and guide people in their own lives. Odus should never be interpreted literally. My teachers knew this to be true but only to a certain extent. They knew that nobody is going to show up at any ile with an elephant in tow. So the odu can be modified and the elephant can become a chicken and the forty thousand cowries and become a hundred dollars or so. And the part about giving these sacrifices to the Orisa can be modified to giving the money to the ile. Nobody has a problem with such interpretation.
Odus that inspire and guide people to take the spiritual plunge and go through an initiation ritual may say that the subject of the story may have gotten a haircut. But that should not be interpreted to mean that the haircut is mandatory for the future initiate. The manifestation of the haircut is by no means a requirement for spirituality. In the grand cosmos of things, sacrificing one’s hair makes little impact in the development of one’s character or one’s spirituality.
People who want the haircut to be part of their initiation are by all means welcome to indulge in the symbolism. For those people who need to separate themselves from the masses with overwhelmingly obvious signs of differences. It’s easy to point to the bald person walking around in all white and say there goes a student of Ifa. But it isn’t the outward experience that makes for the proper development of spirituality. Spirituality is based on character. The outward manifestation of our spirituality is based on our behavior and the choices we make for ourselves, our family, and our community. It is easy to see the person walking down the street sporting a new do and wearing all whites. It takes a lot more to recognize a person’s character and make the determination if it is of substance or not. Once has to be willing to invest the time necessary to actually to get to know the person.
Anybody can don a new appearance and parade themselves up and down the street. But the initiation is a spiritual rebirth not of appearance but of understanding. The need for a haircut is designed to make it easier for other initiates to recognize the newbie across the room, market, or whatever the case may be. Combine this with the fact that many people who are looking to be initiated aren’t looking for spiritual development as much as they may be looking for prestige and status. Over time, the individual who might not be so focused on their manifestations of their character but on their appearance can easily pass for the genuine article if we are taught to see and recognize the genuine article as the white clothes and the haircut.
But the students of Ifa who want their spirituality truly developed mustn’t rely on such obvious signs. Real students must learn to develop their character so that their behavior makes the difference and not the clothing. If an initiate wants to go the whole nine yards and get the haircut and the white clothes to go along with the change in their behavior then by all means go for it. But don’t think that an odu telling a story that someone getting a haircut just before, after, or during the initiation ceremony means that everyone who has made the decision to be initiated is required to get a haircut. If you are going to take the odu literal then may I suggest that you not only get that haircut, but start collecting cowry shells and start looking for an elephant to sacrifice as well.
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