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Oracular prognosis, existential quest in Ifa divination poetry

By McNezer Fasehun
10 May 2020   |   2:04 am
At the Wesley University Ondo where we teach law, literature, philosophy and mass communication, there arose lately the prepositional debate as to whether the proper title of a course should be the History of Philosophy of Science or the History and Philosophy of Science.

At the Wesley University Ondo where we teach law, literature, philosophy and mass communication, there arose lately the prepositional debate as to whether the proper title of a course should be the History of Philosophy of Science or the History and Philosophy of Science. While some had advanced that the former was the stated canon in the curriculum, we had insisted that the proper title was the latter. Our position was buoyed by the assertion that the tendency to narrow epistemology in the humanities to the zero-sum of Eurocentrism had done much damage to Knowledge.

The proposition of Xenophanes that the gods had not revealed everything to man from the beginning, but by searching man finds better, was the underlying factor for his idea of “the spirit of persistent enquiry” which was central to his theology.

But it predates him.
The preoccupation of the Milesian and subsequent pre-Socratic philosophers to determine what was the ultimate reality had hovered around water in the speculation of Thales, putrefaction, decay and the cyclic apeiron or the boundless in the idea of Anaximander, air, mist, water, ice and stone in the processes of condensation and rarefaction of Anaximenes, the mystical and sacred numbers of Pythagoras of Samos, down to the speculations of the atomists, from Leucippus through Democritus to John Dalton.

Through time, socio-psychologists have busied themselves with the search for man’s ultimate “will” or “driving force”. While psycho-analysts like Sigmund Freud spoke about the “will to pleasure”, and Nancy Alder, based on the doctrine of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, spoke about the “will to power”, Victor Frankl, based on Soren Kierkegaad’s existential analysis, spoke about the “will to meaning”. For Freud, man, by nature, is susceptible to the pressure of appetite such as food and sex. For Nietzsche and Alder, natural law is about the moral goal of the strong to dominate the weak, as could be illustrated in the relationship between the predator and the prey in the food chain. Frankl, however was the first to use the word “logotherapy” to connote man’s existential quest in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, (1946).

Whereas philosophy is traditionally defined as the study of Being, Existence and Reality, it emphasizes the difference between essence and existence, between the universal and the particular. For the Scholastics, the universal precedes the particular; therefore, philosophy consists of rational explanation designed to corroborate the truth of ecclesiastical doctrine.

Existentialism, however, says the world is much more irrational than we think; that there is no rational pattern, no way to fit every little thing in neat little categories; the universe is unpredictable, therefore, man must continue to search for meaning.

In African oral traditions, and as expressed in their poetry, which is realized in performance, man’s quest for meaning is as lodged in his creative sensibilities.

The Ifa divination institution is as practiced by the larger Yoruba communities and their ancillary traditions. We define it as an oracular prognosis into existence and meaning, because, in the Yoruba universe, life is so unpredictable and replete with non-sequitors that man’s existential quest is perpetual: “B’oni ti ri, ola o ri bee, lo mu babalawo d’ifa ojoojumo”(As today is, differs from tomorrow, so prompts the daily divination of the Ifa priest). This is not to say that the destiny or fate of man is haphazard. For, as Olatunde Olatunji would say, it is “part of a whole wider cosmic pattern which can be deciphered by inductive, interpretive or intuitive methods adopted by the accomplished diviner whose technique is considered mystical or other-than-mundane”.

For man to be human, in the doctrinal orthodoxy of Frankl’s “logotherapy”, he must necessarily possess an “existential vacuum”, a need, a yearning, an ambition, and a perpetual quest into the unknown which, most times, overawe him.

For instance, whereas the Yoruba sense of ad infinitum is accentuated by the transcendental, though etymologically debatable phrase of numerology, that, rather than counting the infinite numerals, we could just say, “ohun t’o wa lehin ofa, o ju oje”(what comes after six is more than seven), Pythagoras, believing that man attains the purification of his soul through the mystic contemplation on numbers, had identified 1, 2, 3, 4,as “the sacred numbers” because, once you add them up, you can attain 10 without further counting. He had therefore identified them as the sacred numbers and used them as his totem of pact and oath-taking.

For us in this essay, existential quest connotes man’s search for meaning through folk literature. We shall therefore concentrate on the literariness of performance, or otherwise, of the poetry of the Ifa institution, and its logotherapeutic functions, rather than dwelling on its graphematic practices and beliefs.

Ifa divination poetry is made up of 256 literary corpus, otherwise known as Odu. It is subdivided into 16 major or regular verses, and 240 minor or irregular verses. In turn, each of the 256 Odus has hundreds of poems or verses associated with it. Again each ese or verse has a total of 600 poems associated with it, giving a cantos of close to 153, 600 poems. According to Wande Abimbola, “In some cases, these are short poems of a few lines but in some cases an Ifa poem may run into many lines. Such long poems are known as Ifa Nlanla(Great Poems of Ifa)”. Our representative samples here are taken from Abimbola’s anthology of sixteen of such long poems.

The obiter dictum of Tewfik Al Hakim that drama flows from the jug of rituals shows that the African oral literature does not function in isolation from its dramatic performance. And to Frantz Fanon it is in that performance that their logotherapy, their use of the verbal medium to heal, the interface between their literature and folk medicine and their quest for meaning, lie. Says Fanon: “…At certain times on certain days, men and women come together at a given place, and there under the solemn eye of the tribe, fling themselves into seemingly unorganized pantomime, which is in reality extremely systematic, in which, by various means – shakes of the head, bending of the spinal column, throwaway of the whole body backward, may be deciphered, as in an open book, the huge effort of a community to exorcise itself, to liberate itself, to explain itself…”(our emphasis).

In his essay, ‘Yoruba Oral Poetry: Composition and Performance’, Oludare Olajubu says, while written poems exist, and is transmitted and perpetrated in prints, “the Yoruba oral poetry, like all oral works of art, exists and is transmitted and perpetuated in performance. That is, without performance, or for want of performance, a Yoruba oral poem has no means of existence”

In the performance of any Yoruba oral literature, parallelism, repetition, call-and-response, cantor-and-chorus, etc., are same as you find in any African oral literature. But the immanence and transcendence of the Yoruba oral performance is in the depth and charm of its conceits, extended metaphors, metalanguage, resonance, tonal counterpoint and the musicality of language at performance.

Abimbola says any Ifa divination poem, whether long or short, has eight structural parts, four of which are obligatory while the four others are optional. While the obligatory are chanted in standard Yoruba orthography, (being the Oyo variant as legitimated by the Osoogun tower of African literature, Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther), the optional could be domesticated in the local dialect of the practitioner/performer.

Yoruba, being the only tonally patterned language in the world, is most artistic at its oral performance. It is at oral performance, whether in pre-literate rendition, or a cappella, or with accompaniment, that it attains its emotional re-orientation of its audience. It is at this juncture, really, that literature interfaces with medicine. For, even though Aristotle was excoriated by his critics for indulging in “experiental psychology” in his definition of tragedy having mentioned the emotions of “pity and fear”, which they argue are lodged in the audience, rather than in the play itself, the nexus between performance and the emotions of the audience is the plateau where literature or arts affect man’s medical condition. This, in this essay, is “logotherapy”, either as a binomial of “logos” and “therapy” to connote the healing functions of literature, or “logotherapy” in the sense of Frankl’s man’s search for meaning. This perpetual quest for meaning is our own idea of literature-and-medicine in this essay.

Our position is that, as a folk literature, the yearning or the existential quest of the communicant/supplicant before the Ifa priest is essentially met more in the manner the divination poetry is performed than in the graphematic interpretations of how the divination chains, their casting and resultant Odu are formulated, read and explained.

To Olajubu, the performance of the Yoruba oral poetry is not performance for its own sake, but a plateau of mediation between the performer and his audience. Says he: “…performance requires two basic things. First there should be a need for it, and secondly there should be someone, or some people wanting it…(it) depends on an audience willing to listen to it. There is a connection between these two elements in the performance…” For the audience in need at performance, therefore, the Ifa divination poetry is the oracular prognosis into existence and meaning.

Just as religious hymns are sung with rapturous emotions in their poetic elements, rhythms, rhyme schematics and the rest, Ifa divination poetry at performance is tonally aesthetic and rapturous that, beyond being a priest, or a babalawo (the custodian of secrets), the diviner is, (or, ought to be), in his own right, a poet, and a dramatist!

In the versified historiography of the Yoruba being, the babalawo, in his rendition of this testament of un-wavering hope, is a rhapsode of some sort:
Apa nii gboko tan ina oso
Oruru nii wewu eje kanle
Ile ni mo te tee te
Ki ntoo topon

Ope teere ereke
Nii ya si ya buka merindinlogun
A dia fun Orunmila
Won ni baba o nii bimo sotu Ife yi
Mo gbo titi

Mo rin won, rin won
Igba ti o koo bi
O bi Omo-ni-mo-bi-tan-ni-mo-fi-nsara
Oun ni won fi joye Alara
Igba ti o tuun bi,
O bi Oran-omo-tajoro
Oun ni won fi joye Ajero.
Igba ti o tuun bi,
O bi Omo-ni-mo-bi-tan-ni-mo-funfun-lara-gberugberu,
Oun ni won fi joye Oloyemoyin

Igba ti o tuun bi,
O bi Omo-ni-mo-bi-tan-ni-mo-kegikegi
Oun ni won fi joye Alakegi.
Igba ti o tuun bi
O bi Omo-ni-mo-bi-tan-ni-mo-segi-ta-loja-Ejigbomekun
Oun ni won fi joye Ontagi-olele, etc

It is the apa tree which thrives in the forest and produces fearful flowers of wizards
It is the oruru tree which wears a garment of blood from top to bottom
It was on the bare ground that I printed Ifa marks
Before I started using the wooden tray for divination

It is the slender palm-tree on hilltop
Which branches here and there and has sixteen hut-like heads
Ifa divination was performed for Orunmila
It was said that Father would never have a child in this city of Ife
When I heard,

I laughed and laughed at them.
When he first had a child,
He had Omo-ni-mo-bi-tan-ni-mo-fi-nsara
Who was given the title of Alara
When he had a child again

He had Oran-omo-tajoro
Who was given the title of Ajero
The next time he had a child,
He had Omo-ni-mo-bi-tan-ni-mo-funfun-lara-gberu-gberu
Who was given the title of Oloyemoyin.

The next time he had a child,
He had Omo-ni-mo-bi-tan-ni-mo-kegi-kegi
Who was given the title of Alakegi.
The next time he had a child,
He had Omo-ni-mo-bi-tan-ni-mo-nsegi-ta-loja-Ejigbomekun

Who was given the title of Onitagi-olele, etc.
At translation, poetry rarely attains its original rhythm. Only users of the Yoruba language, as the client/communicant before the babalawo is expected to be, would be apprehended, therefore, by the emotional re-orientation ensuing from performance.

In his highly influential work, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Thomas Kuhn says every community which produces a body of knowledge defines the boundaries and vocabulary by which the body of knowledge is interrogated. He goes on to say that when such body of knowledge and related theories come under the pressure of anomalies and theorizing, the established raison d’eter must shift. He refers to that as paradigm shift.

Kuhn’s idea of incommensurability accounts for how universally accepted word or idea acquires a different meaning in a different paradigm. He says no other theory of literature emphasizes such transposition as the defamiliarisation of form, and that this happens through poetry, figures of speech, especially metaphor which Kuhn describes as “language games”.

The advocacy of T. S. Elliot for “a poetry that fully demands the reader’s attention…through the complexity of language and form (which) forces us to take it seriously in its own right”, can rightly be described as the precursor to Victor Schlovsky’s Art as Technique.

Elliot’s position that poetry should convey complex meaning where contradictory attitudes are fused so as to see what otherwise we would not have seen is elaborately demonstrated in almost all Yoruba oral poetry, but especially so in the text of Ifa divination poetry, and as cited above. In that poem, supra, words are conjured in such a poetic manner like the wagon of quest which takes us through various parallelisms, assonances, consonance and other sound animations until we get to the arrival lounge of etymology and meaning, where inferences are then made and conclusions are drawn.

Imagine the craft and the language game in the sprawling name Omo-ni-mo-bi-tan-ni-mo-fi-nsegi-ta-loja-Ejigbomekun just to arrive at the title of Onitagi-olele…!

Our position is that it would be lame to just consider oral literature and its performance using the easy theory of mythology as against a supposedly modern and exotic theory of formalism with its appurtenances of defamiliarisation and dehabituation to interrogate oral literature and/or its performance.

Couplets, for instance, at the opening lines of an Ifa poem resonates sharply up on the first line, and then descends sharply down on the second line, at counter-points. This is usually followed by another set of couplet of shorter meter and rhythms, again, with its own chatty, but rapturous musicality.

In our paper titled ‘Tragedy and Threnody in Sophocle’s Oedipus Rex and Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman’, we argue that when Soyinka defines music as “the intensive language of transition and its communicant means the catalyst and solvent of its regenerative hoard”, the virtuosity of the casts in the delivery of the lines of the Chorus of Thebes and the Olohun Iyo, in the respective plays, would go a long way in the evocation and echo of pathos, mellow mood, nostalgia almost on the brink of déjà vu, and the surreal re-orientation of the emotions of the audience in apprehending the impact of performance.

To this end, the advocacy in our other paper titled ‘The Poet Is My Shepherd’ for the settlement of the age-long quarrel between poetry and philosophy which predates Plato himself, and which continues with Matthew Arnold who identifies religion and politics as the two realms of human existence where you would find quackery and charlatanism, and are further propagated in Soyinka’s Kadiye and Jeroboam in The Swamp Dwellers and The Trials of Brother Jero, respectively, shows that all good works of art, even at pre-literate time, and from anywhere in the world, are, in themselves the verisimilitude of life in performance and the much needed soothing balms in man’s existential quest for meaning, all of which are very central to his medical conditioning.

Again, this underscores the fact that the history and philosophy of epistemology could only have been comparative, rather than linear. For, the ontological man, from whichever cultural pedigree he had come, had always had something to say about his cosmogony as far as his level of awareness and institutional practices could carry him.

To the Yoruba, the Ifa divination institution is the systematic oracular prognosis into meaning, into life, his awesome physics and metaphysics, his legitimate probing into the unknown. It is therefore important to identify distinctively the artistic virtuosity of performance of the Ifa divination poetry, transcending the belief itself, as the veritable locale, by which literature, even in pre-literate culture, performs its healing functions, such that, away from the dislike of Plato for the “pantomimic” poet, whom he would rather shoo out of his ideal republic, unless he would subordinate his art to the educational functions of the guardians of his commonwealth, other unwritten cultures would or had always affirmed what Matthew Arnold would assert, namely: “that man must turn to poetry for surer and surer stay.”