Babaláwo or Baba Awo: A Definition
Introduction to Babalawo
Babaláwo is a popular and common word in the Yorùbá community. It qualifies for a word that has an unchallengeable connotation and necessary in today’s casual world. A critical study into its etymology, historical meaning, theology and hermeneutics reveals fascinating questions, hence staggering shock or nostalgia as to what the word should really be.
This is an attempt at analysing the word within a range of dimensions as to re-discover the power of the word with a re-awakening into Yorùbá traditional religion.
Babaláwo is not really a word; rather, it is a short sentence that has been shortened into a word over time. Babaláwo is Baba o ní awo. Translated literally as:Baba - father, an elder or an old man
O ní - that has
Awo - secrets or
Àwo - a plate!
As it is known that words are cultural and hence have full meaning only in their language of inception or origin, Babaláwo can only be and should only be detonated within the comprehensive Yorùbá culture and worldview.
A critical study of the translation above reveals that the words translated are really concepts in themselves and not just mere words, thus calling for an expatiation of the above literal translation.
The word Baba in Yorùbá context is much beyond the English word “Father”. Baba in Yorùbá includes a biological father, a non-biological father but an age mate or peer group to one’s father, an authority figure in a setting regardless of the actual age of the concerned individual (as in a young Oba/king), the leader of a group, society or organisation and the custodians and pillars of uncommon knowledge about religion, science or any particular thing.
There are questions as to the root of the “Ba” sound compared with the “Pa” sound in “Papa”. It is the view of this writer that the foreign “Pa” nasal sound could have been an intrusion or corruption of the “Ba” labial sound, or the other way round depending on which came first. The nose-lip physiological differential of the Yorùbá and the English persons make its interconnectivity theory not only a high possibility but also a point of great interest for study and research. Philosophical searchlight in this area will yield helpful dividend in the needed enlightenment and clarification. At this stage, it could be safely emphasised that the Yorùbá “Baba” is a rich and comprehensive concept, and not just a word that is very narrow as in the English word “father”.
Within the context of Babaláwo, Baba will not mean a biological father by any sense. Baba here is more figurative and used in terms of position, authority, knowledge, old age, affirming the functions and guardian roles of the concerned person and often for a male.
The Conjunction “O ní”
“O níi” is a grammatical conjunction meaning “he or the person that has”. It may or may not connote visible, see-able, public possession. It could be mental or metaphysical possession. The contraction “O ní” to become “i” is very common in Yorùbá language and culture. Instances can be found in the following words:O ní irú - onírú
O ní ata - aláta
Oní àt? - alát?
Oní Ìbàdàn - Olúbàdàn
Oní Ìgèdè - Onígèdè
The formation of these words may follow different patterns, including assimilation, replacements of sounds and others in specialist appropriate analysis in phonological terms. These are examples of specific variations however, of the principle involved with respect to “O ní” above.
The third morpheme of the word Babaláwo is Awo. As earlier said, it could mean, Awo – secret or Àwo – plate. The question now is, which one has more bearing in the setting? This brings in the historical observation of the word.
At the advent of the missionaries, the diviners were first observed as the old men carrying the Ifá divining tray – be it rectangular or circular.1 According to Abimbola, “Nínú Àwo yìí ni Àwon Babaláwo má a n kó Ifá sí”2 – meaning, it is inside the tray that the Babaláwo puts or keeps Ifá. The tray was misconstrued, as “Àwo” and it soon became “Baba oní Àwo” – Tray! Christianity and Islam made this word, Babaláwo, popular by their derogatory reference to Babaláwo in their various evangelisation campaigns. This brought some effects of errors of terminologies3 on the word. It will be an issue of opinion whether this was a deliberate attempt to discredit or it is now a result of revolution. However, there was soon a re-thinking as to what really does the Babaláwo own. Is it a “tray” or “secret”? The tray is just an instrument of office.4 What Babaláwo really has is “secrets”. Ancient secrets of the past, present and future are revealed to the Baba Awo through the tray, Àwo. This brought a re-thinking into the appropriateness of Babaláwo over and above Baba Àwo.
A single person does not, and really cannot have “Awo”, a cult. The misconception of “Awo” as the divination bowl is the main reason for the wrong signal generally sent in the past. It is noted that there are several divination methods that do not involve the bowl.
The threaded bead of Ifá also called Divining Chain5 known as Òpèlè, does not have to require a bowl for its consultation. The sixteen (16) palm nuts called ikin6-Èkùró do not involve the use of bowl or the having of bowl. The sand system – Tít? yanrìn – does not also require a bowl. Others like Ìbò that consist of Eegun (sacred bones) and Èy?wó (divine cowry) require no bowl.7 Thus the theory of the Baba oni Àwo – The owner of the bowl, is unacceptable both by day-to-day reality and content or cultural dynamics of the words in contextual setting.
The popular age long usage of the word – Babaláwo sets a big task for the research into the origin, background and the development of the word. Old Yorùbá is highly contextual with a variety of dialectal variations. There is the high possibility that Babaláwo could have been a sectionally or dialectally favoured form of speech while Baba Awo could have been another favoured and closely related variant possibly within another dialectal belt. The influence and spread of western missionary education, language and culture, no doubt, diminished the upkeep and distinct development of many of the dialectal variations. In actual sense, any Yorùbá word chosen by the western promoters enjoyed a fast spread, however such a word, however then suffered the loss of its initial contextual meaning, as it always has a new meaning that is super imposed on it. It is the new meaning that is usually spread, and many naïve observers have always taken the new meaning as the original meaning! A word that suffered grossly from this kind of unjustified publicity is “Èsù”.8 Another word in the same vein is Èsè.9 It will suffice to say therefore that the word Babaláwo has similarly suffered some publicity that has tainted its meaning and recognition. In most western routed minds, Babaláwo conjures an unwanted evildoer, to be feared and avoided, a sinner of the greatest ebb. This opinion or position is most unfortunate and unwarranted even though it is very popular! It is part of this pejorative acclamation that this paper is attempting to correct.
Babaláwo is an important cultic functionary. He is to be recognised as a religious minister of adept knowledge. He is a reservoir of secrets of the past, present and future through his avowed life and all. He is a man of honour, trust and dedication. He is a principal adviser in all matters to the king, community and the God – gods in Yorùbá land.
The issues to address are: what is the better form to use – Babaláwo or Baba Awo? Should Babaláwo be regarded as a descriptive name, as proper name or what? Is the theory of “mass usage” to be equated to correctness of word meaning”? It is the view of this writer that the issues raised have no simple answers. The attempt here is to work round them so as to bring the issues to the arena of more research.
Study of the usage of some religious words sheds light on the issues. Eleburuibon10 translated Babalóríshà as priest of ?bàtálá11rather than Baba tí Ó ní Òríshà. But interestingly no single person owns Òríshà or ?bàtálá! Also Ìyálóríshà is the priestess in ?bàtálá’s shrine,12 while ?barísà is used to refer to ?bàtálá as the king, chief or head of the Òrìsà.13
The questions surrounding Olódùmarè, ?ni tí Ó ní odù, or the supreme or Almighty God14 is germane in this case. In essence, what is here observed is that all of the words cannot be built on their etymology for the formulation of functional and contextual religious meaning or theology. Rather, the words must be seen as concepts that go more into performative reality, function, value and recognition.
Findings from Interview
In the interview with selected Baba Awo in some areas15, the issues of meaning and preference were asked on these words, Babaláwo, Baba Awo, Kékeré Awo, Àràbà, Olórí Awo, and Awo in general. They were further asked to give sayings to justify or back up their views. These are some of the findings:
All interviewed agreed to be called and did respond to the name “Baba Awo”. About 80% prefer Baba Awo to Babaláwo; about 12% are indifferent while only about 8% preferred to be called Babaláwo.16
Àràbà, they all agree is a chieftain title-reserved for the head of the Baba Awo within an area. Examples are Àràbà, Agbaye (Ile-Ife), Àràbà Osogbo, and Àràbà Eko.17 There was a mild difference in the opinion on whether Babaláwo is pejorative, with more of the aged saying it means a negative connotation more than the younger ones!18 It is the general view that the masses often call them Babaláwo, but they prefer to be called Baba Awo. It is noted in passing that “Olórí Awo” is not in line with Babaláwo or Baba Awo. It is completely out of step as it belongs entirely to a different echelon or cadre of cult system.
Kékeré Awo is the title to Baba Awo in training. It is also used for the boy carrying the Àpò Jèrùgbé – the sacred embroided beaded bag that often contains the Òpèlè (Ifá chain) and the Agéré Ifá when an Ifá priest is travelling. It is noted that Kékeré Awo is not a chieftain title. It is a general descriptive name; hence Baba Awo should and could be regarded as the accepted descriptive name!
Some Related Sayings
During the course of the interview, expressions freely used by the Baba Awo included the following:Awo ní ígbé Awo ní ìgb?n wó,
Bi Awo kò bá gbé Awo ní ìgb?n wó
Awo á té, Awo á sì fà ya gb?r?g?d?.
It is Awo that supports, aids, assists Awo,
If Awo does not aid or assist Awo,
Awo will be disgraced, and Awo will break and split completely. Wíwo ni ?nu Awo má a n wo
The mouth of Awo is always locked forever (in terms of known secrets), And
A kìí rí Awo fín!
?ni bá rí Awo fín, Awo á wo!
You do not get too familiar or rude to Awo.
He who gets rude to Awo, Awo will fell the person
were freely used by the Baba Awo.
The first saying is to the effect that there is cooperation between the many Baba Awo; hence all could be generally and simply called Awo. The second emphasised the need for confidentiality while the third is a reminder of discipline within the ranks.
It is needless to say that all these expressions add to the discussion on the preference of Baba Awo to Babaláwo in one form or the other.
Conclusion to Baba Awo or Babalawo
In discussing problems of terminologies in traditional religion, one of the proposed solutions is that people – foreigners, devotees, and people generally. should be using what the owners of the language, culture or religion call their thing rather than squeezing the traditional religious experience of Africans into western language that is created by an unfitting mould. While there are possible arguments on both sides of Baba Awo and Babaláwo, it remains that much research has to be done. This is just a peep into the study that can constitute an “affront” to the popular use of old words!
This writer’s vote is for the research finding that Baba Awo is more valid than Babaláwo in describing the concept, function and person of the Ifá priest and of people akin to him and his profession.
References to Baba Awo1. Abosede Emmanuel, Odun Ifa, Ifa Festival, (Lagos, West African Book Publishers Limited, 2000), pp. 72, 73.
2. Wande Abimbola, Awon Oju Odu Mereerindinlogun, (Ibadan, Oxford University Press, 1977), p. viii.
3. E. Bolaji Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition, (London, SCM Press, 1976), pp. 108 – 136.
4. Wande Abimbola, Op. cit., “Awon Ohun Eelo Ifa Dida.” pp. vi – ix.
5. Abosede, Op. cit., pp. 76-77.
6. Ibid. p. 75.
8. Ade Dopamu, Esu: The Invisible Foe of Man, (Abeokuta, Shebolatan Press, 1985).
9. T.F. Jemiriye, “The Concept of Ese among the Yorùbá”, A Ph.D Thesis, University of Ibadan, 1988.
10. Ifáyemi Eleburuibon, The Adventures of Obatala. Ifa and Santeria God of Creativity, (Osogbo, API Production, 1989).
11. Ibid. p. 87.
12. Ibid. p. 88.
14. Ibid. p. 89.
15. The collection of this data is done within Ekiti State at a very low, down to earth and informal level. The interviews conducted numbered 40 (forty). The interview was carried out using informants between September 2001 and December 2002. The main question asked among many others was which name would you prefer to be called – Babaláwo or Baba Awo? It is noteworthy that the ages of the people interviewed ranged from 45 to 75 years.
16. The figures are rounded up to the nearest whole number, as it is impossible to have fractions of a person. This equally explains why the chosen number for interview was 40 (forty) persons.
17. Abosede, Op. cit.; Chief Agboola, Araba of Lagos, 1984-1991, p. 46.
18. Most of the Baba Awo above 60 years of age agree that it is more pejorative but that they have come to live with it because even other believers (like some Christians and Muslims) still patronise them directly or indirectly in most of their hours of dire crisis.
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