"Osa Meji tula. Obu yankan yankan. Ariwo ajija ni d'Orun.
Osa Meji is a rich, powerful cosmic scream. Ringing bells arrive from the vaults of Heaven[the depths of the zone of origins]."
"Odu Iyaami Osoronga: Part VII" presentation and
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Orisa tradition that has its origins in Yorubaland of Nigeria and has spread globally is its esoteric dimension and the relationship of that esoteric form to the enigmatic concept of 'aje.This term is at times translated as 'witch'.Molara Ogundipe,however,would argue that that translation distorts the meaning of the Yoruba word.That argument is accurate up to a point.It is accurate largely in relation to the pre-twentieth century
What follows is my effort to organise my understanding of the concepts of the esoteric and 'aje' in the Orisa tradition.
A central,perhaps the central term for esoteric knowledge in Yoruba is 'awo'. A striking definition of 'awo' I remember between the two definitions I have come across is by David Wilson,better known by his Ifa initiatic name,Awo Falokun Fatunmbi:
"Within the discipline of Ifa [ the central integrative discipline of the Orisa tradition] 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".
This quote is from "Obatala:Ifa and the Chief of the Spirit of the White Cloth" which can be found at the free document archive Scribd.A reading of anything written by this man is likely to be rewarding to anyone interested in Ifa and Yoruba thought in particular and esoteric and other forms of knowledge in general.His books can be purchased through his website and free essays of his can be found at Scribd and his website.
For an adequate understanding of 'awo' one would need to understand the term 'ase' because it seems the depth of one's relationship with 'ase' is central to a relationship with 'awo'.I would define ase as a cosmic force that enables being and becoming.It is described as a morally neutral transformative capacity in nature,emanating from the creator of the universe, to which human beings and spirits have access.Yoruba:Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought by Pemberton et al and the essays of Rowland Abiodun, such as "Ase: Verbalising and
Visualising Creative Power through Art" present this idea with some vividness.John Mbiti in African Religions and Philosophy describes a similar concept as central to classical African thought in general while Achebe "The Igbo World and its Art" identifies a similar idea in the Igbo concept of 'ike',which he defines as 'energy' and 'power'.
Orí Inú and Ojú Inú
The process of gaining access to ase as well as to awo represents a cultivation of 'ori inu',the inner head,here both metaphorical for and an embodiment of 'ori' the invisible and immortal centre of the self that is the embodiment of the individual's potential.The cultivation of the capacities of ori inu involve the development of 'ojú inú', the inner eye, which according to Lawal,represents a spectrum of cognitive possibilities,from critical thinking,to imagination and clairvoyance:
"As with other aspects of Yoruba culture, the eyeball is thought to have two aspects, an outer layer called oju ode (literally, external eye) or oju lasan (literally, naked eye), which has to do with normal, quotidian vision, and an inner one called oju inu (literally, internal eye) or oju okan (literally, mind's eye). The latter is associated with memory, intention, intuition, insight, thinking, imagination, critical analysis, visual cognition, dreams, trances, prophecy, hypnotism, empathy, telepathy, divination, healing, benevolence, malevolence, extrasensory perception, and witchcraft, among others" ( "Aworan:The Self and its Metaphysical other in Yoruba Art").
To see a range of perspectives on the ori concept among Ifa babalawo-masters of the esoteric knowledge of Ifa-, one could see Adegboyega Orangun, Destiny:The Unmanifested Being.Also very useful are other philosophical discussions of ori.
The Feminine Matrix in Orisa Cosmology: Ille, Odu, Aje and Awon Iya Wa Osoronga
Cultivating an informed and active relationship with this complex of ideas and the practices associated with them is at the centre of the concept of 'aje'.The complex of ideas around this concept is quite subtle and its complexity is such that I want to be careful about how I address it here because I am still refining my understanding of it.At the core of this complexity is the notion of the relationship between the aje concept and the feminine matrix in Orisa cosmology as embodied in what Lawal describes in The Gelede Spectacle as the unity of female Orisa in Ille,the Earth Mother and her manifestation in Odu,the feminine cosmic transformative and hermeneutic personality and her 256 manifestations, manifestations described by Fatunmbi as energy patterns through which everything in nature comes into manifestation and by Bini babalawo Joseph Ohomina as spirits of unknown origin,only a small fraction of whose significance is understood;spirits,who, as embodiments of all possibilities of existence,from the concrete to the abstract ,from physical forms to situations,are the power behind the efforts of the babalawo to understand,guide and transform human fortunes.
The relationship between the aje and the spiritual origin of female procreative capacity is represented by their female associates being described as Awon Iya wa Osoronga,Our Mothers.I dont know what Osoronga means.This implies that the aje are understood as capable of both maternal and destructive activity while their power is described as central to the stablity of the body politic including the power of the king.The literature on this subject is growing but the picture still needs clarity and its seems the discussion of the subject is gaining ground faster in the Diaspora where it is being significantly discussed and adapted,to some degree,in terms of forms of practice.A text that sums up perspectives on this subject in Yorubaland and the Diaspora although it weakens its case by eschewing critical examination of the subject for thoroughgoing valorisation of the aje concept is Teresa Washington,Our Mothers,Our Powers, Our Texts.A book that describes male and female manifestations of the aje concept in the form of male traditional healers is Hallen and Sodipo, Knowledge,Belief and Witchcraft.
Ase,Bird imagery,Ori and aje
Lawal sums up the relationship believed to exist between ase,birds,ori and aje:
"...birds are celestial messengers,since they dwell on both land and sky and fly great distances across the water"..."The divine power (ase) of Olodumare enters the human body through the head and flies out of it (at death) like a bird"..."When the founder of witchcraft (Odu) was leaving heaven for the earth, Olodumare gave her a special Ase in the form of a bird enclosed in a calabash." [the calabash of Odu,Igba Odu, 'the beginning and the end of all things' is a cosmic symbol that sums up the creative personalities that underlie the cosmos in relation to the fecundative and nurturing womb that is Odu]..."To the Yoruba Ase is invisible and immaterial; when activated it flies like a mysterious bird. As the seat of the soul (the ase of the individual) the orl is also capable of flight, and this occurs during dreams, trances, or when a witch [aje] "changes into a bird inside her body and flies out of the mouth" to attack victims"( "On the Significance of the Head in Yoruba Sculpture")
1. How to Become Aje
A procedure from Pierre Verger's Ewe:The Uses of Plants in Yoruba Society on how to be become an aje,Awon Iya Wa,using herbs and incantations.It would be interesting to experiment with it.
2. Understandings from the African Diaspora of the Feminine Complex in the Orisa tradition
3. A Summative Exploration of the Feminine Complex in the Orisa tradition as it Unifies the Central Classical Yoruba Institutions of Ifa,Ogboni and Gelede, a most rich pot of ideas.