Add to bookbag
Author: Morris Meyer
Title: Ifa and me: a divination of ethnography
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact for more information.

Source: Ifa and me: a divination of ethnography
Morris Meyer

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 1, pp. 6-9, 1991
Author Biography: Morris Meyer is working towards a Ph.D. in the Department of Performance Studies, Northwestern.

IFA AND ME A Divination of Ethnography

MORRIS MEYER Department of Performance Studies Northwestern University with

BABA OGUNDA BEDE-FAGBAMILA Ifa Foundation of North America

1. Orishas at the Mart

Stevie Ball owns a business located in Chicago's Merchandise Mart. She is a vibrant, outgoing, and attractive woman whose showroom carries a line of contemporary design carpets. She is one of Babalawo Ogunda Bede's (Philip Neimark's) omo-ile, or spiritual children. Hidden inside of the showroom ceiling is an osain amulet meant to insure business prosperity. It is only one of the ways the Babalawo has intervened in her commercial affairs.

Sharing coffee in her showroom, Stevie told me of an incident.

Last April I had serious problems. My showroom has repped one line for the last seven years. I found out that my competitor down the hall had gone behind my back and was trying to steal the line when the contract came up for renewal in June. I was crushed. If he succeeded, my business would be ruined.

I went to Phil and he said it was time to put my Warriors to work for me. [1] This was on Thursday. On Monday the mill called. Not only would they give me an exclusive, but a large sum of money as a six month advance. You have to understand how unusual this was. Not only did I keep the line, but got a better deal.

Everything was great. But I had a desire to make my competitor suffer the way he made me suffer. I didn't want him to die, just be miserable for awhile. I asked Phil if he could help. Phil said he had never had that request before. He conducted a divination to see if it was alright. The gods said it was fine and Phil went off to do what he had to do.

The next week we had an opening. My competitor's showroom is around the corner and he didn't have a single buyer. My showroom was so crowded you couldn't get in the door. In the middle of the opening I heard that there was a huge fire at my competitor's mill. He was shut down for six weeks. I called Phil right away and said, 'I have some delightful news.' "

2. At Home with the Babalawo

Babalawo Philip Neimark: One of the important things is that the god-children, or omo-ile, are a real support group. People respond to this because it has the sense of the close family unit that doesn't exist anymore. The place I grew up in was the neighborhood. We knew the people, the merchants, the policeman, the milkman. It was a close, personal contact. Now we live in a totally impersonal society. Within the religion, people respond strongly to the feeling that they are genuinely loved and cared for and that they can return those feelings. They can call day or night, any time they have the need.

Vassa (Philip's wife): They like to share and give back. There's been more of that close family feeling with them than we've had with any friends or our natural families.

Babalawo: I refer to them as the omo-ile, children of the house. I don't have a formal thing where they're required to come. That doesn't fit the lifestyles that people want today. The Santeria ile concept seems more a formal hierarchy and a set of conduct and rules. [2] We don't have that. Just a genuine feeling of compassion, care, and love. That may sound trite, but that's how we function and it's really great.

3. The Agony of Ethnographic Self-Fashioning

I was surprised to find that the Babalawo lived on Chicago's fashionable Lake Shore Drive. Did the neighbors suspect that his home was the site of rituals and initiations? Did the uniformed doorman ever questions the sight of this upper-class resident carrying caged chickens through the marbled foyer?

Entering his house just confounded any expectations. This was not a crowded basement of a barrio dwelling, but a spacious, finely furnished urban residence filled with expensive art and smartly decorated by his wife Vassa, one of Chicago's premier interior designera. What kind of people recognized this man as their priest?

"How many clients do you have? How many children?" I inquired.

The Babalawo reflected for a moment.

"I have about twenty-five or thirty omo-ile. That's different than how many people have come for divinations. There are people who come once or twice and you never see them again, and there are those who come on a consistent basis."

"How many are consistent?"

"Sixty or more. And it's not because I'm such a charming, handsome guy," he chuckled.

Vassa was reclining on a sofa, suffering from a cold brought on by the sudden onset of the severe Chicago winter. Wrapped in a comforter, she interjected, "No, it's because he's there for them."

"Conversely, they're there for me," he added. "I have only one rule. That is, don't just call me when you have a problem. That would make me crazy, just having to hear problems. I want to hear from you when you're happy, when you don't have a problem, and you don't need me, too." At this point, I became aware of Vassa's penetrating eyes scrutinizing me and thought it was time for another question. "How would you describe the social and economic background of the omo-ile?"

"Almost without exception they are upper-middle and upper class. At least a third are Jews. The vast majority of the Christians are Catholics. They range in age from late twenties to early sixties."

"There's a concentration around forty years old," added Vassa. I managed a feeble reply, "Oh yeah?"

"Why? Does that surprise you?", quizzed the Babalawo.

"No, it's just interesting."

I was thinking of how I was interfacing or diverging with his demographics. As a struggling ethnographer, I probably couldn't afford to get into this religion. And, as if reading my thoughts, he continued.

"Quite frankly, they have to be somewhat successful to afford it. It's not a free religion. That's one self-limiting factor. I think this provides a need for an ever-increasing group of linearly successful people who did everything they were told to do, accomplished everything they set out to accomplish, and are unhappy. It wasn't supposed to be like that for them. The vast majority of people like that find other ways to continue. They make even more money, they see a psychiatrist. But there is another group who says, 'Hey, I need inner development.' Ifa offers that. It's a way to join your spiritual and temporal life together."

As I walked home along Lake Shore Drive, I wondered if the Babalawo would ever make himself available for working stiffs (or ethnographers)? I felt sorry for his wealthy godchildren who did everything they were supposed to do and were still feeling unhappy. I did everything I was supposed to do and didn't even get the money.

I got home, put away my field notes and tape recorder, turned on a rerun of The Honeymooners, and started sorting out my credit card bills. The choice between rich and unhappy or poor and unhappy didn't seem a difficult one to make. Drifting off to sleep, the last thing I remember was a pathetic bank account balance and a surrealistic dream character who was half-Babalawo and half-Ralph Kramden.

"You know where you're going? I'll tell you where you're going! To the moon, that's where you're going!"

Fig. 1. The Babalawo in his downtown office

4. The Gilded Cage

There are two kinds of sacrifice. The larger ones are called ebbo and generally require blood, the sacrifice of an animal to an orisha. [3] Large problems need large sacrifices. But you always cast first to see if a smaller sacrifice will do—candles, fruit—nobody wants to kill. I don't anyways. Maybe some people do. It's not something I look forward to.

I always pay more for my animals. First, I don't want any diseased animals around me or my clients. Second, there is a generally accepted thought that you offer only the best to the orisha. I buy homing pigeons which are about fifteen dollars apiece today. They're banded, healthy, wonderful birds. If you offer a scrawny, sick animal you get crappy results. But, you only sacrifice if it's absolutely necessary.

5. Ifa of the Gold Coast

Babalawo Philip Neimark's office, the site where he performs divinations for clients, is located on Ontario Street in Chicago's wealthy Gold Coast district. The Museum of Contemporary Art is directly across the street and is a place to see an exhibit or have coffee while waiting for an appointment with the priest of Ifa. [4] As the first and probably only upscale Babalawo, Neimark's clients are as distinctive and exclusive as his address. I can think of no other single fact that most intrigues people. Going against every preconception that an American might have about this religion, one of his godchildren explained,

"You should see Phil's client roster. There are big business owners, members of the Board of Trade, and politicians from City Hall. Some are such major power brokers in town that their names can't even be mentioned."

Fig. 3. Ritual objects waiting to be delivered to initiates

6. Nothing in Life is Free

Asiento, or "Crowning the Orisha," is an advanced initiation during which a person achieves close, personal identity with their guardian spirit.

"It's so expensive now. The animals alone can cost one thousand dollars."

I ask him how much an asiento in America would cost.

"It depends on the saint. Each orisha wants different animals and fruits, different clothes, different dances. I suppose anywhere from twenty-five hundred to five thousand dollars. Some crooks charge ten thousand dollars and do it completely wrong. They improvise everything and cheat you. Take your time and learn about the religion before you commit yourself." [5]

7. Spreading the Word

After talking with the Babalawo and some of his children, watching the activity in his offices, and examining my own experience, I have attempted to formulate some ideas of how Philip Neimark attracts new clients.

It is important to note that he does not practice Senteria, but what he calls Ifa. Ifa is an African religion that contributed heavily to the development of Santeria. In discarding the syncretic elements in Santeria—primarily Roman Catholicism—Neimark is, in effect, a Yoruba Reversionist attempting to practice in the African manner rather than the Cuban.

Ifa is not widely known among the Hispanic community, let alone the white American population which knows nothing of Santeria outside of the notorious chicken sacrifices. That his clients are among the most staid and respectable members of Chicago society makes his accomplishment even more mind-boggling.

The Ifa Newsletter, a two page monthly, expounds his personal interpretation of the African religion. The letter is sent to anthropologists and other scholars as well as his godchildren. It was through this forum that I learned about him.

The active participants were generally introduced to Phil through friends and business contacts. Most began seeing him as a lark or as a way to spend some interesting time, just as he himself was drawn into the religion. Some of those pleasure-seekers never returned, but others are sincere and active believers who have found, in the Babalawo's philosophy, a path providing answers to difficult questions relevant to contemporary, urban problems.

Fig. 2. The office on Ontario Street

8. Leisure and Initiation

In 1974 I had retired to Florida. I was thirty-four years old, had several million dollars in the bank, a new wife and baby, and my only real concern was working on my backhand for my tennis game. One day, a friend asked if we wanted to go for a "reading" from a Babalawo. He explained that it was based on an old African religion and that these Babalawos divined the future. It sounded like a "kicky" way to spend a Sunday afternoon, so I decided to go.

I remember being driven to a home in the Cuban area of South Miami where literally dozens of Latins were gathered to have their own reading done. Whether it was the novelty of our being North Americans or what, I was quickly ushered into a room filled with strange objects, candles, containers, and statues. Four Babalawos sat on mats in a corner. In front of one was a round wooden platter covered with what looked like fine wood shavings. I was told to sit in front of this man and asked to give my mother's maiden name. The Babalawo then proceeded to "cast the nuts," a procedure that involves using his right hand to grab as many nuts from his left hand as quickly as possible. Those nuts remaining in the left hand indicated certain signs which he marked in the powdered shavings on the platter in front of him.

t was all quite strange and, to be totally honest, somewhat discomforting. The casting completed, a discussion in Spanish took place between the four men. Finally, Juan, who had been casting and who spoke English, began to explain my reading. Without going into specifics—and this is a religion of absolute specifics (not "you're going on a trip," or "you'll meet a dark stranger")—the thrust was that I was going to lose everything. Everything! They did say that after losing everything I would rise up to become more powerful, even more famous, and even wealthier—but frankly, I couldn't stop fixating on the "loss" part. They also told me that someday I would have to become a Babalawo. Honestly, I couldn't see myself sitting on a mat inscribing binary symbols on a tray of fine wood dust. My reaction was disbelief mixed with perhaps a dash of fear.

What had started as an amusing Sunday afternoon of innocent fortune telling had turned into something I could just have soon have lived without. Locked safely in my Western paradigm, I sure wasn't going to do anything except get back to my comfortable home in Bay Harbor Islands as quickly as possible.

9. From a Journal

Oct. 5, 1989

I didn't know what to expect when I first went to see the Babalawo. That's the way I wanted it. I had purposely refused to read, study, or talk to anyone about Ifa or Santeria. I wanted to go as a first-time client would and see how I reacted to the experience.

The Babalawo used a divining chain to produce a series of oddus, or marks, each of which had a different meaning and from which he interpreted my future and my character. After consulting his verses, he began to ask some very strange questions that, even now, strike me as uncanny. [6] I won't go into details of the entire divinatory reading, but two bits of information he came up with turned the event into a Twilight Zone kind of ordeal.

First, he said he was confused by what he saw and asked me if I could help interpret the image because it could not be taken as literal. He said that I had lived with a whale sometime in my past. I just about fell off my chair. It was a literal image, not a metaphor!

Several years ago, I had a loft in downtown Los Angeles. In the loft next to mine was only one imposing object—a lifesize replica of a sperm whale that was the object of many jokes and was visible from some parts of my space.

A second image that he asked for help in interpreting was a cryptic statement, "The chair you sit in makes you dance." This followed a deliberation during which he declared my health was in danger from eating too fast. Unravelling the meaning of his statement would clarify the problem. Again, it was not a metaphor, but a precise judgement.

The chairs at my dining table are a perfect height from which to practice dance steps while sitting down. Though I haven't danced in years, I still like to keep the repertoire intact by going over choreography while at the table. When I eat alone, I tend to take a few bites and go over a couple of bits of dance business. The dancing really does destroy the act of eating.

[Note: This kind of reading—revealing extremely private or obscure information—sold me on the Babalawo.]

December 14, 1989

Early in the month I was called to the Babalawo's house for a kind of initiation. It was very expensive and far beyond my means. Realizing I could write it off on my taxes as a business expense, I decided to bite the bullet, shell out the dough, and take a plunge into the world of Ifa.

Walking into the room set aside for the ritual, I discovered Philip Neimark was not the presiding Babalawo. That office was being filled by Afolabi Epega, a genuine article from Africa and the author of two books I had just finished reading. Afolabi allowed me neither tape recorder, camera, or notebook, saying I would have to rely on memory to reconstruct the event. His grandfather, it turned out, was William Bascom's informant for the book Ifa Divination [7], and Afolabi was not keen on ethnographers.

During this ritual I was to receive my guardian orisha, or patron spirit. All the way to the venue I kept chanting to myself, "Not Obatala, not Obatala." Of all the orishas I could possibly get, Obatala had the strictest discipline and would require the most massive changes in personal behavior. I cringed as Afolabi assigned me to Obatala and gave me the list of prohibitions—no smoking, no coffee, no alcohol.

I couldn't believe that I had paid an exorbitant amount of money to hear this. To top it off, Afolabi proceeded to tell me what a mess I was, how my life was in a shambles, and that I should get my act together. Gee, I was thinking, how do you want that—check, cash, money order, or do you take credit cards? It seemed that going to see the Babalawo was something like the last date I had. In both cases, I paid a lot of money to have somebody tell me what a creep I was.

If initiation brings out new perceptions and models for self-understanding, then Afolabi did do a good job. I am not sure I would go through it again, but certainly don't regret the experience. After all, the depression that followed totally shut down my nerve synapses, left me house-bound for the next four days, and gave me a chance to rest and get caught up on my television watching.

January 8, 1990

Despite the glib treatment I have given to the initiation with Afolabi, I do have to consider the possibility of seeking further revelation from this religion. There is a theatrical beauty in the rituals and beliefs that makes it more attractive than any other spiritual path I have yet encountered. I just did not know it would be so threatening and challenging to my everyday presentation of Self. But, perhaps, that is what is really lacking in American religious practices that only serve to reinforce whatever values its worshippers bring to it. I have no respect for wimps and even less for wimp religions. And neither Afolabi, Neimark, nor the religion of Ifa strikes me as weak.

10. A Babalawo of Means

"Because I have the financial means, I've been able to put together a collection of verses that is more extensive than those of other Babalawos. I've been able to obtain verses from sources that other can't avail themselves of."

He brought out a manuscript copy that had just been delivered to him from Africa.

"This is just a copy and it cost a thousand dollars."

11. Text as Other: A Preface

When I first met with the Babalawo, it was to secure an informant for an ethnography of Yoruba divination. I wanted my first impressions of him and his procedures to be free from any presuppositions based on reading others' research. I went in cold, so to speak, allowing the situational politics of the encounter to indicate ways to proceed.

What I discovered raised serious challenges to my ethnographic authority. If the basic definition of "informant" is "one who provides information," then the Babalawo could be considered a professional informant within his own cultural realm [8]

The Babalawo exercises authority in a dialogic fashion, taking questions from clients and giving answers back through means of divination. There was no need for an information-gathering strategy; all I needed to do was sit before him, ask my questions, and hear his answers. Going into a meeting with prepared questionnaires or surveys was not necessary. In fact, it would have been politically naive.

There were two ways for me to treat the Babalawo as an informant. One would have been to undertake standard interviews, divorced from the cultural context in which he practices. The other suggested itself during our initial meeting. If I became a client, my questions could be answered through divination. I would not only have my information, but would receive it while fully participating in the social phenomenon I had come to study. By assuming a combination client/ethnographer role, the Babalawo would keep his cultural authority intact. To have resorted to conventional interviewing would have resulted in stripping him of that authority while placing myself, as ethnographer, in a position of dominance.

When I took a step back from the situation, I could see two distinct goals. First, I wanted to collect data on Yoruba divination. Second, I wanted to write an ethnography. But if I wanted simply to find out about Babalawos and divination there was no need to play the ethnographer. Thus I concluded that my goal was the writing of a text about divination.

When the Babalawo asked me what I had come for, I asked for guidance in the construction of an ethnographic text. I would ask him questions about the mechanics of writing and text production while he, through divination, would provide the answers. After much deliberation, and seeing the political irony and humorous self-reflexivity of the proposal, he consented to divine the ethnography. We had, in effect, collapsed the data-gathering process so that collecting information and writing the text became a single act.

The result of his divinations created a truly dialogic approach to ethnographic reporting, one in which the finished text reflected the logic structures of us both. Rather than select and edit data for the text, we altered the process by making observation, participation, data collection, and text production parts of single operation. In this regard, I hope I am successful in avoiding the criticism levelled at other attempts to produce ethnographies that invoke a dialogic model, such as the critique of Marjorie Shostak's Nisa by George Marcus and Michael Fischer, where the issue seems to be who exactly "allows" the voice of the Other to speak? [9]

In this ethnography it is clearly the informant who allows the fieldworker to speak. In three sections of the text, my ethnographer's voice is absent, having been written in the first person by the informant. This being the decision of the Babalawo, my textual absence cannot be construed as a device meant to produce the appearance of relinquishment of authorial control—such control did not exist. It is for those reasons that the speaker of first person narratives is not always identified in this ethnography. If I identified the informant his voice would become a quotation spoken by me in an effort to recover the text.

My power over the text was based primarily on the choice of questions that I asked. And though it might be claimed that those choices enabled me, in some way, to control the final form of the text, this is not antithetical to the cultural authority of the Babalawo; for within his sphere of activity it is considered necessary for the client to initiate dialogue through inquiry. If I have actually controlled the text through my framing of questions, it is a control that is partial, subject to modification by the answers of the informant, and exercises a control no greater than that which is to be expected by the Babalawo from a client.

The final text reflects a collaboration in which both the informant and ethnographer become constructions of the other. The form partakes equally of the aesthetic and professional demands made upon both the Babalawo and the writer, and indicates ways in which ethnographic texts can be shaped to incorporate a dialogic mode. Most importantly, it demonstrates the need for the academic writer to relinquish traditional forms of exegesis when the situation requires it.

If it is the text, as Renato Rosaldo observes, that reflects power relationships between author and subject, then it may be expected that, in some cases, conventional academic text form must be surrendered in order to express equitable relationships between the parties. [10] If an attempt is made to explicate the logic structures of the Other, then it may not be possible to retain a traditional narrative/ethnographic form that is surely the product of the writer's own social and cultural milieu.

12. Rituals of Text

Fig. 4. Babalawo and author divining the text

13. Looking for Mr. Goodbaba

I met Brian for a drink on Clark Street shortly after my initiation by Afolabi Epega. As the bartender served each of us a pint of Watney's, Brian asked,

"You don't really believe that bullshit, do you?"

"Well, I got Obatala for my guardian spirit," I replied, "and Afolabi told me I'd have to get off coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, and whatever else I may have hidden up my sleeve."

"But that describes your whole lifestyle," he said! "It sounds like EST. You pay your money and somebody tells you what a lousy person you are."

I didn't know how to respond. I mumbled something like, "I've been trying to quit smoking, anyways. This could be a good incentive."

"Yeah, sure," he quipped with the usual rude sarcasm, "I'll believe it when I see it."

"It's something I have to consider seriously," I moaned as I worked at my pint of Watney's. "You got a light?"

14. On Chicken Sacrifice and Other Matters

In the spring of 1980 the ASPCA, apparently acting on a neighbor's tip, raided an apartment in the Bronx where an asiento was about to take place. Agents came upon "a scene of blood-splattered confusion." Several chickens and hamsters and a goat had already been sacrificed, and the raiders confiscated eighteen chickens, three goats, and several hamsters. This report gave Santeria a few months of adverse and much sensationalized publicity, and a great deal of speculation took place as to the purpose of the sacrifices. The press, obviously unfamiliar with Santeria, commonly used terms like "satanic cults" and "bizarre ritualistic activities." This near-hysteria was quite understandable. Ritualistic killings and "blood sacrifices" are supposed to be the exclusive realm of horror stories and B-grade films and are not supposed to happen in real life. [11]

In the ancient African religion of Ifa, the issue that most troubles North Americans is blood sacrifice. For most people, this response stems from viewing the act as form rather than ritual. The ritual and importance of blood sacrifice cannot, when understood and used effectively, be overstated. The distaste, fear and outright repugnance that many North Americans feel about it stems from their reaction to the act viewed as form and not understood as ritual!

If you pass an automobile accident on the highway with smashed and broken bodies, you are rightfully horrified. The destruction and injuries were senseless, and your human reaction is one of horror, fear, and distaste.

If you were to view open-heart surgery, part of you would be shocked, part afraid, but you would understand it as a necessity that must be performed to benefit the individual undergoing surgery. And, along with your initial fear, you would feel a sense of awe at the work being performed.

In Ifa we never senselessly or wantonly kill animals. We sacrifice only in order to benefit another human being. While you may not believe it "works" (I can assure it does), the issue is not simply a pragmatic one, it is a moral premise that insists you grant us the respect and religious freedom to practice our faith.

What amazes me the most is the intensity that people in Western society exhibit in response to blood sacrifice. It is certainly not a logical or consistent philosophical view for 99.9% of those who express it. These same people eat beef and chicken, fish and lamb, pork and veal. They wear furs, leather shoes, and carry handbags. Yet, they are horrified over the concept of humanely killing an animal to provide health or well-being to another human being.

A good friend of mine, a university professor, suggests that it is fear that they feel. Fear, not from the killing of the animal, but of the intense emotional response the act creates within them. I believe he is correct. Animal sacrifice does provoke intense emotional feelings. That's the point. That's what breaks us out of the "safe" Western paradigm and allows us to connect emotionally to forces that otherwise lie beyond our reach!

Equally fascinating to me is that, without exception, every North American godchild of mine who had these same fears and inherent distastes regarding animal sacrifice understood and integrated the event in a useful emotional context only after witnessing a sacrifice and experiencing the emotions it provokes!

Time and time again, ritual has lost meaning and power as we have forgotten that true joy is an internal experience. Today we seek gratification only from outside ourselves. It is the gift that somehow must give us joy on Christmas rather than the internal feelings about the birth of Christ and its implications. The Bar Mitzvah has become an economic event rather than a rite of passage and the wedding ceremony has become a social as well as economic event rather than the spiritual one it was meant to be.

It is this fear to look and feel within that leaves us spiritually empty. In Ifa, blood sacrifice is not only a way of improving our outward existence, but a way of looking inside ourselves, of coming in touch with and understanding intense emotional feelings and the power they provoke.

15. Roll Away the Stone

When the Africans were kidnapped from their homes and sold as slaves in the western hemisphere, the premium on wisdom gave way to the imperative of survival. Wisdom tends to be a long-term survival tool, while quick wits, facile thinking, and practicality help you survive in the short-term under adverse conditions. Just as many academics failed to get out of or survive Nazi Germany, the wise Babalawos probably perished in their slave setting as well.

In order for the religion to survive under the forced conversion to Catholicism, a new breed of quick-thinking, knows-how-to-operate Babalawo came into existence. Openness was replaced by secrecy, concessions were made, power and position became subject to economics rather than philosophy. And, over a period of time, Catholicism, spiritism, the beliefs of the people of Congo and Ifa melted together in the tropical heat to form Santeria. Somewhere during that process, the needs of expediency became the gospel of a new generation of Santeria Babalawos. That process has carried its way into the cities of North America where the continuing emphasis on secrecy, necessary under the conditions of slavery, is not necessary today. The largest problem with Santeria's insistence on secrecy is that it lends credence to the contentions of the self-righteous and the fearful that Santeria is a cult rather than a religion.

It is my own belief that the Latin community should be open about their pride and beliefs. They have nothing to be ashamed of, no reason in our free society to hide their philosophy or rituals. I am afraid that if they continue to behave in a secretive manner, they will have given their opponents the justification for considering this adaptation of a great and thoughtful religion simply a cult.

16. The Final Chapter

Next to my computer are a glass of water and a burning candle—a sacrifice to honor the dead, executed under directions given by the Babalawo during the last ritual. The last ritual of divination was held to determine the future of this ethnography, what kind of ebbo would have to be offered, and the consecration of the text to the orishas who guided its construction.

The ritual consisted of two parts. The first indicated that my efforts to employ experimental field methodologies would be regarded as impertinent and met with skepticism. This reception would pass though, and respect would come to replace suspicion. To ensure this outcome the Babalawo gave me a handful of wood shavings that were rubbed into my hair while I chanted according to his dictates.

The second part of the ritual implied that a certain amount of animosity would accompany the initial skepticism of some readers. But, by being honest in all matters regarding publication, these feelings would also pass. To support this, he recited the narrative verse that governed the divination: "The son of this Ifa gets big money." This paper would have a lucrative ending to it. Since scholarly publishing is not characterized by generous writers' fees, he may have meant that I could look forward to selling the movie rights to the ethnography. In that case, I see the Babalawo played by Brian Dennehy and myself played by Bronson Pinchot.

We concluded the ritual by giving thanks to the orisha Eshu— the trickster—whose presence guided the construction of this text.

Fig. 5. A caged pigeon awaiting sacrifice

Appendix: Methodology

Before the ethnography divinations began, I requested that the text be divided into sixteen sections. This was the number of oddus, or divinatory signs. That number could be justified by its central and symbolic importance to the informant's system of logic. Further, there needed to be sufficient length to give readers an idea of the effect of divination upon the ethnography. The Babalawo felt it was not necessary to specify the number of sections before beginning the divination rituals, but he recognized my concerns regarding readership, i.e. producing a text that would demonstrate adequately the methodology; and he felt that if the number of sections was predetermined, then sixteen was the most appropriate.

In the first phase of divination each of the sixteen sections underwent identical divinatory rituals to determine: 1.) the length; 2.) the number of speaking voices; 3.) the identity of the speaker(s), i.e. ethnographer, Babalawo, or others; 4.) point of view, i.e. first person, second person, etc.; 5.) placement and content of documentary photographs; 6.) the use and placement, if any, of citations from published sources. An additional ritual specified the placement of this methodology section as an appendix.

The second phase of divinations involved more complicated rituals. An oddu was divined for each section, and verses for each oddu were supplied to me by the Babalawo. The reasons for this were first, to further constrain authorial freedom, and second, to channel my remaining ethnographic authority into activities that mirrored the ritual process of the Babalawo. The goal was to share my position as ethnographer with the informant, and for the informant to share his position with me. I will explain how this was accomplished.

The Babalawo uses an opele, a divining chain, to generate oddus (fig.6). Each oddu is accompanied by narrative verses that are consulted and creatively interpreted within the context of the client's question. The answer he gives is determined partly by the oddu, partly through personal interpretation. To produce a text that accurately reflected the informant's logic, both of these techniques needed to be expressed in the activity of my own writing.

In this case, I interpreted the supplied verses in order to determine the topic of each section. My interpretation of the verses allowed me creative license, but only to the degree practiced by the informant in his own handling of the verses during ritual work. The analysis of a section of text will clarify the process.

Section fourteen was divined as three pages in length. It would contain the Babalawo's voice in the first person, a book citation, and a photo. The oddu was Ose Irete, which is drawn:

1 1
1 0
0 1
1 0

The verse read as follows:

In order to receive money and luck quickly, an ebbo must be made. The ebbo is water, the sacrifice of two beautiful pigeons—one for Osun and one for Irete. The left-over blood should be made into soap and pounded with leaves. Store the soap on the wall above the oddu signs, and bathe with it frequently.

Based on my interpretation of the verse, I decided that section fourteen would concern itself with animal sacrifice. The Babalawo would write his own part and I would add a photograph of one of his caged sacrificial pigeons and pull a relevant citation from a book to accompany the informant's writing.

Each section was treated similarly, through both dictated and interpreted knowledge. A total of one hundred fifty-four divinations were performed to produce this text. The result is a complete ethnography of few pages coupled with a style that is highly idiosyncratic, paratactic, and often surreal.

Fig. 6. The Babalawo's opele, or divining chain


1. The Warriors are three spirits (orishas): Eleggua, Oggun, and Ochosi. They protect the individual who has received them through initiation.

2. The ile (house) is the basic Santeria organizational structure. An ile is organized around a priest or priestess, and members of that house have responsibilities to uphold and duties to perform there.

3. An orisha is a Yoruba spirit or deity.

4. Babalawo translates as "Fathers of Mysteries." He is a priest of the orisha Orunmila. Part of this office is to act as a diviner, utilizing the system of Ifa. Often, the system of Ifa is equated with Orunmila, and it is not uncommon for a Babalawo to be called a priest of Ifa.

5. Joseph M. Murphy, Santeria: An African Religion in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 91.

6. Each Babalawo has an enormous collection of verses. There are thousands of these verses, some as short as one line while others may be hundreds of lines in length. The verses are to be memorized and consulted as needed. The Babalawo, after determining which oddu is to be read, consults all his verses for that sign. To produce an answer, he selects and interprets verses against his knowledge of the oddu and of the client's situation.

7. William Bascom, Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa (Bloomington, In.: Indiana University Press, 1969).

8. Bruce Jackson, Fieldwork (Urbana, Il.: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 7.

9. George E. Marcus, and Michael M. J. Fischer, eds., Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 57-59.

10. Renato Rosaldo, "From the Door of His Tent: The Fieldworker and the Inquisitor," in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 77-97.

11. Migene Gonzalez-Wippler, Santeria: The Religion: A Legacy of Faith, Rites, and Magic (New York: Harmony, 1989), 152.

passages |