Yoruba Sacred Texts

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 22, 2008 — 1 Comment

In a recent post I mentioned that two copies of a rare book about the Yoruba religion were donated to Florida International University.

“The text, The Book of Diagnosis in Ifa Divination, was drawn from the religion’s oral tradition and first published in the 1940s. The original text and its copies were kept from the public until the present day … The text is a compilation of Yoruba and Afro-Cuban history, culture and philosophy. It was written in Yoruba and Spanish.”

Now a follow-up article about the donation, from student paper The Beacon, goes into greater depth about the history and importance of this text.

“After years of criticism for not having a written religious canon, leaders of the Yoruba religion have decided to reveal two original texts that were kept for decades in the hands of privileged priests. The texts were showcased at a meeting for the inauguration of Africana Knowledge Working Group of South Florida held at Biscayne Bay Campus on Jan. 18. This event marked the first time any sacred text of Santeria, the syncretic Yoruba religion, has ever been exposed to the public. The Book of Diagnosis in Ifa Divination was written in 1940 by a group of priests and recopied by the same authors within the next ten years.”

For anyone interested in minority faiths, this is a major development. I only wish this had been covered by a major new outlet who had the time and money to really dig into this story. For instance, what is the general consensus of this text among different manifestations of Yoruba-derived religion? Was there any controversy in making this text known? Do Santeria practitioners feel differently about the book than Vodou priests in America? Is it truly a “sacred” text in the same manner as the Bible? There are so many questions that have yet to be explored here, but I’m almost certain of one group’s reaction, academics and scholars are no doubt excited about these texts. In a couple years we will most likely see papers that explore this new find, and perhaps they will answer the questions that the journalists didn’t get around to.

Speaking of Yoruba and Santeria, babalawo Antonio Castaneda, the first priest of the Santeria religion to be elected to Cuba’s parliament, predicted the continued rule of Fidel Castro despite concerns about his health after a recent surgery.

“‘Olodumare says he is the one that should be there and so he is untouchable,’ said Antonio Castaneda, a babalawo (priest) in the religion slaves brought to colonial Cuba from Nigeria. Hurricanes may batter Cuba this year, but Castro’s health will not break, according to the orishas (deities), he said … Santeria followers have believed their gods were on Fidel Castro’s side ever since a white dove landed on his shoulder during a victory speech in Havana after his 1959 revolution.”

Of course Castaneda belongs to the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, an organization friendly to the Cuban government, so he might be seeing what he wants to see, instead of what will be. Only time will tell for sure (you can always look at the Ifa predictions for 2008, and make your own judgments).

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Jennifer

    It isn’t so much a holy book as a written form of an oral divinatory tradition..and not the first time someone’s attempted to put Ifa into writing and/or publish it. You wouldn’t see a lot of consensus on a written form because like any oral/initiatory tradition, it’s going to vary from one line to another, even within a single group.