Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Vagina and the Womb:Female Procreative Spaces as Metaphysical Symbols: Classical Forms and their Contemporary Adaptations:the Yoruba Orisa Tradition

 The visual minimalism of the bindu,its circularity of structure,its symbolising of cosmic potentiality,a potentialilty that first emerges into being in terms of conjoined masculine and feminine polarities that constitute the cosmos,resonates in classical Yoruba thought and its contemporary expressions,and in  Western esoteric thought.

The conjunctions between these symbolic forms from various temporal progressions across the world facilitates an appreciation of the universality and variety in cosmological conceptions of human biology,particularly female biology and its masculine conrrelations.The similarities between the  concepts  symbolised  by the Sri Yantra and classical Yoruba thought emerges in the symbolism,both explicit and implicit, of the Opon Ifa,the tray that is a central iconographic form of Ifa,the divinatory system that is the integrative discourse of clasical Yoruba culture and which has relationships,both direct and indirect,influenced by Ifa or simply  confluent with it,with  cognitive systems across the African continent and the African Diaspora.

The qualities the  Opon Ifa shares with the Sri Yantra emerge in the evocation of a primal fecundity in terms of  an empty,at times circular centre, the constitution of this fecundity in terms of symbolism that indicates a dialectic between masculine and feminine elements and the  reflection of this dialectic in the symbolic depiction of the existential expression  of being and becoming in terms of complementary polarities.In addition,depicting a conception expressed in different terms in Indian thought,as in the complementarity of opposites in aspects of Indian thought,in general,and in Hindu and  Buddhist thought,in partuclar,as in Siva'sdance of creation and destructon and the mothering/destructive character of the goddess Kali,tthe iconography of the Opon Ifa suggests,in the face of Esu,which,along with the carved border and the empty centre, is an invarible element of the design of the tray, the necessary integration with these conceptions of symmetry understood in terms of cosmic being and human experience,  of the unexpected,the unanticpated,the paradoxical and the ambigous.

The central purpose of the tray is that of a consecrated space at the center of which the diviner casts the divinatory instruments.The images carved on the tray could also suggest aspects of the world view that underlies the divinatory system,a suggestiveness operating at various levels of explicitness and implicitness.

Each Opon Ifa demonstrates both the invariable or constant as well as the variable features in the composition and carving of the Ifa tray. One unvarying feature is the face at the top of the tray facing outwards from the surface. Another is the empty space at the centre of the tray. The last is the border that encloses the empty centre. The variable aspect of the form is the circular shape of the entire structure. The Opon Ifa could be either circular or square or both,as in a square circumference enclosing a circular centre.

Each of the invariable elements in the composition of the Ifa tray represents an aspect of the metaphysical structure that underlies the divinatory process. Taken together, they encapsulate the interrelationship of these metaphysical conceptions in constituting the hermeneutic process through which Ifa divination is actualised. Even when the Ifa priest does not use the tray in divining, these metaphysical elements are understood to remain constitutive of the divinatory process.

The empty space at the centre of the tray is the space where the divinatory instruments are thrown to enable their configuration spell out Ifa's response to the querent's questions.The empty space implicitly  becomes a womb of becoming,where the divinatory patterns,the Odu, emerge and re-emerge into the multiplicity of identities they are capable of realizing.

At one level, the Odu are geomantic patterns. At another level, these patterns symbolise the organising categories of the textual corpus of the system.At another level,they are understood as  volitional agents.At yet another level,they are perceived as  a means of developing and organising a systemic construction of the scope of existence, in terms of its extant forms and its possibilities of realisation, from the most abstract to the most concrete. As Joseph Ohomina describes them:

The Odu are the names of spirits whose origin we do not know…. They are the spiritual names of all phenomena, whether abstract or concrete: plants, animals, human beings, the elements, and all kinds of situations. Abstractions such as love, hate, truth and falsehood; concrete forms such as rain, water, land, air and the stars; and situations such as celebrations, conflict and ceremonies, are represented in spiritual terms by the various Odu.

The Odu are organised in terms of a fractal realisation,in which the first pattern,Ogbe,consisting of two pairs of lines,making four,is replicated,but with some modifications,in the second set of patterns,Oyeku,which consists of four pairs of lines,making eight. These basic configurations are then developed in terms of pairs that represent modifications of these primary patterns,until a basic sixteen patterns is realised from the permutational possibilities established through the structure of Ogbe,the first basic set,and first developed through the replication and modification of Ogbe in Oyeku.

The permutational processes through which the 256 Odu patterns are developed represents an implicit generative symbolism: the realization of these primary patterns in terms of twin pairs,Eji Ogbe and Oyeku Meji; the subsequent development of other patterns that represent a development of the possibilities of the primary pattern,Ogbe,and its modificatory interaction with Oyeku.This generative process is enabled by the paradoxically empty fecundity of theOpon Ifa,and suggested by the description of the further 245 Odu developed from the primary 16 or Oju Odu,face of the Odu,as the omo Odu or children of Odu.

The patterns of the first 16 Odu are here organised around an image of an Opon Ifa.Their order in this composite image is arranged from left to right unlike the right to left reading order of traditional Ifa iconography.

The divinatory process, therefore, could be understood as a process through which this data base of ontological values is galvanised in relation to particular situations represented by the queries presented to the oracle. These situations are interpreted in relation to their ontological identification in the various Odu. The correlation between this understanding of the Odu and ideas about female biology emerges in the feminine characterisation of the Odu and the resonance of this characterisation in the sculptural realisation of the space on which the Odu are configured in divination. The Odu are collectively understood as female and, in this collective identity, as being the wife of Ifa. The divinatory process, therefore, could be understood as being characterized in terms of a relationships between a female and a male personality. This implies a generative process that emerges on the space where the Odu patterns are formed, graphically represented by the empty centre of the divination tray. Within this empty space, therefore, the macrocosmic values represented by the Odu in their fundamental characterisation as cosmic forms converge with the microcosmic patterns represented by the client’s query. The empty space, therefore, becomes a generative space, a womb of transformation, akin to the vaginal space where new life emerges after its transformation within uterine space. The correlation of macrocosmic and microcosmic frameworks in the divinatory process could be understood to be expressive of a convergence of forces similar to the integration of the power of life which is universal but manifests anew in each life form with the distinctive genetic encoding that emerges from the gene banks of both parents in the conception and growth of new human life.

The face at the top as well as the spiral motif at its circumference-if i am using the right word-would represent aspects of the traditional Yoruba world view that are central to the metaphysics and hermeneutics of ifa divination. the face at the top would be the face of eshu,who embodies a spectrum of ideas. it could be understood as embodying  the creative dynamism that animates the cosmos,manifest in terms of the transformation of one state of being of being to another in terms of the experience of change and paradox.It also evokes the communication between various modes of being effected through divination,since eshu is the messenger of Ifa and carries sacrifices to the other orisha or deities. the spiral motif is described by lawal as evocative of thecreative,transformative principle embodied by eshu.

A dynamic weave of various patterns frames the space, suggestive of the hermeneutic fecundity of the divinatory processes that are enabled by and take place on the empty centre of the divination tray, which this work is derived from. The intertwined spirals evoke the dynamism of ase, the capacity of existence that enables being and becoming. They also suggest the integrative existence of spiritual and material forms of being, as well as the cyclic character of life ,death and rebirth. The humanised figure that recurs on both sides of the tray foregrounds human agency in the interpretation of and engagement with the various hermeneutic possibilities made manifest by the casting of the divinatory instruments on the empty centre of the space. The divinatory instruments are themselves represented by the eighth beaded chain at the centre bottom of the divinatory space, directly opposite the face of Esu, thereby evoking the twinness of function and of identity between the ambivalence, the disruptive insight enabled by Esu, and the restorative knowledge made possible by Ifa, Orunmila, of whom the divining chain can be understood as synecdochal.

Other abstract, geometric configurations shape the border around the empty space, evoking various powers at play in the dynamic relationship between being and becoming represented by the divinatory process and the analogue of the empty space with the womb of being from which Odu enables hermeneutic possibilities and their relationship with actual historical experience as it emerges into being through the interventions made possible by divination. Grids, triangles resting on each other’s bases, their apexes rimmed by circles, the entire ensemble reinforced by another similar configuration which touches the bottom structure at the apex of both structures; this point of conjunction framed by a circular form; suggestive of the use of geometric forms in evoking and invoking spirits in other parts of Africa a,in Asia and in Western magic, as well as the symbolism of numbers in classical Yoruba thought, the geometric forms being describable in terms of numerical relations.

The women backing babies who hold up the tray are a central motif of traditional Yoruba art and thought and  evoke a host of ideas associated with motherhood. particularly in relation to the principles of emergence into being represented both by the act of giving birth to new human life and that of perceiving the processes involved in giving birth to new possibilities of existence and participation in that process. This perception and participation is embodied by the Ifa oracle's ability to enable its clients  negotiate various possibilities in their management of their lives.

The woman backing a baby and holding up the tray that is reminiscent of an Ifa divination tray evokes the correlations between Ille,the Earth,who makes life on earth possible,and Odu,the composite female deity described as foundational to the wisdom of Ifa,the presence of whom may be understood as suggseted by the spiral patterns on Ifa trays,evoking her identity as “Osumare, the ever moving rainbow serpent, symbol of continuity and permanence…who encircles the world to hold it together…the principle of movement, the integrating force that bids the primordial elements together” .

The circular structure of the Opon Ifa, is undertsood as  "the intersection of heaven and earth and a stage for metaphysical theater [as] evident in the popular saying "Aarin opon niita Orun" ("The middle of the tray connects with heaven"Abimbola 2000:177)and is correlative with the circular structure of Igba Iwa,the calabash of being,the "cosmic gourd with two halves",symbolising

the popular Yoruba saying "Tako, tabo, ejiwapo" ("The male and female in togetherness")...the   top half signifies maleness as well as the sky/heaven--the realm of invisible spirits .The bottom half represents femaleness and the primeval waters out of which the physical world was later created. A mysterious power called ase is thought to hold the gourd in space, enabling the sun and moon to shine, wind to blow, fire to burn, rain to fall, rivers to flow, and both living and nonliving things to exist[recalling the Indian concept of  "Rta or Cosmic Order, the inflexible law of universal order and harmony whereby all disorders and chaos is restored to equilibrium. Rta is, in essence the ordering principles of nature which gives to everything from the vast galaxies, down to the nucleus of an atom, their nature and course.].This power emanates from a Supreme Deity known (among other names) as Alase ('Owner of ase'), Olorun ('Lord of the Sky') and Olodumare (the 'Eternal One and Source of All That Exists').

Olodumare is also understood,in one  version of Yoruba cosmogony as " a praise title of Odudua...the Self-Existent Being who created existence [and who is ]both male and female[known as] known as Iya Agbe--'Mother of the Gourd' or 'Mother of the closed calabash; She is [sometimes] represented in a sitting posture,nursing a child. Hence prayers are often addressed to her bywould-be mothers.

It is the equivalent,on a flat,two-dimensional plane, of the three dimensional form of the circular rim at which the upward and downward facing halves of the calabash of being converge,representing the point of intersection of the spiritual and material aspects of being symbolised by both calabashes.It is " the intersection of heaven and earth and a stage for metaphysical theater [as] evident in the popular saying "Aarin opon niita Orun" ("The middle of the tray connects with heaven". 

The woman holding up the Opon Ifa,her maternal associations foregrounded by her carrying a baby on her back,suggests the foregrounding of matrixial potential in an interpretation of the ground of being in the Yoruba Orisa tradition:

Oduduwa [a central cultuiral Yoruba culture hero is understood ] as the Supreme Goddess, an embodiment of Heaven and Earth.... credited with the priority ofexistence ...  regarded as having independent existence, and as co-eval with Olorun [aka Olodumare], the Supreme Deity with whom she is associated in the work of creation ... Oduduwa is known as Iya Agbe--'Mother of the Gourd' or 'Mother of the closed calabash; She is [sometimes] represented in a sitting posture,nursing a child. Hence prayers are often addressed to her by  would-be mothers (Lucas 1948:45).D. Olarimiwa Epega, another Yoruba elder, makes a similar point: "Odudua is the Self-Existent Being who created existence. He is both male and female ...  ( Babatunde Lawal, "Ejiwapo: the dialectics of twoness in Yoruba art and culture",African Arts, Spring, 2008.)

Susan Wenger develops this matrixial conception in terms that depict this feminine force in terms of collective psychology,and,therefore,as intimate to human being at the most profound subconscious levels: " Oduduwa,the great,dark goddess,residing in the depth of the human psychiod...who preordained time,space,and the collective psychoid (Susanne Wenger and Gert Chesi, A Life with the Gods in their Yoruba Homeleand.Worgl:Perlinger Verlag,1983).She goes further to to develop the correlations of the verbal dynamism and animistic identity of Odu in terms that further amplify the matrixial  symbolism that correlates the ground of being,understood as Osumare/Oduduwa with the primordial wisdom of Ifa,depicting  Odu as word,vocative cave,uterus,womb,and receiver of phallic  impulse:"[Odu] is both the word [and] the dark cave of the mouth that symbolically corresponds to the uterus from which speech is born and in whose mysterious depths the flame-like tongue delivers its phallic sacred cargo." (Adapted from Susanne Wenger and Gert Chesi, A Life with the Gods in their Yoruba Homeleand.Worgl:Perlinger Verlag,1983.81.) Judith Gleason further integrates the visual strands that constitute the correlation of the Odu,female identity and calabash symbolism, in her retelling of an Ifa narrative:

The sixteenth major odu [Ofun Meji,an organisational category and active agent in the Ifa system of knowledge and divination],container of all mysteries,the complete calabash of Oduduwa as formulated in the language of Ifa,is all but inaccessible-placed out of the way and out of ordinary thought processes.What was lost at the "time" of Ose Meji must be regained,but how?The redemptive process might said to begin with the final episode in the saga of witches :Oshe Oyeku.
Odu,the female principle imagined as a container,the fourth elemental being to issue  forth from the python's egg,having grown too "old",expresses her desire to go underground.Seated on her mysterious cylinder box,she calls her four advisors-Obatala,Babaluaye,Ogun,and Oduduwa (an active emanation of her self )-and gets them to agree to her departure by promising revelations to those of their children who come to solicit,to adore her properly in her house in the forest.

This house has become the ceremonial apare-box containing a calsbh (her body),which contains in turn (or is surrounded by )the four calabashes given to her on that occasion by the four advisors.Obatala gives a calabash of chalk,Babaluaye offers his favorite substance,osun (red powder),Ogun-charcoal powder,and Ododuwa-mud.These gifts imply four roads,four corners of the universe.They are the original four major signs.From one of them will be born another forest principle,as once Odu from the pythons egg.Ofun,the calabash of chalk (efun) who gives (fun)himself,produces Obatala,the white divinity as Orisan-nla,greater than,the beginning and the end,first and last,the container of them all.The egg within becomes the womb,passivity becomes creativity personified.Surely this is part of the meaning of the orisha Obatala as Ofun.

Igadu (igba, "calabash",and Odu )becomes an orisha,the divinty worshipped by diviners who have attained the highest degree of self knowledge-that is,the profoundest understanding of Ifa.Only such diviners may install the terribly powerful calabash of existence,once closed never to be reopened except under horrific circumstances, "symbol of the sky and earth in their fecund union,container of the supreme wisdom of Ifa, [the installation of which validates ]an esoteric principle of universal symbiosis.

 (Judith Gleason,A Recitation of Ifa: Oracle of the Yoruba (New York:Grossman,1973)188-191)

Taken together, these interpretations could be understood as correlating images of cosmic continuity, linkage between differing ontological forms, macrocosmic and microcosmic elements and the process of mediating between them as these mediations suggest change and transformation from one state of being to another. All these associations relate ultimately to the transformative potential associated with the special relationship between the female and biological life and between the earth and life.

The power to enable the creation of life and to nurture it suggested by female biology is also suggested by powers attributed to a group of women who are described as demonstrating various manifetsations of this power in a self conscious manner that indicates a control of ase,the power that enables being and becoming and which suffuses the universe.

One conception in terms of which the control of ase is described is that of the ability to traverse space,both physical and spiritual,a power often represented in terms of the ability to fly in the form of a bird,but which could also be understood to symbolise  traversing various realms of being as the bird traverses  both land and sky.This bird symbolism is evoked in both the calabash of being,where the birds are shown at the intersection between the two halves of the calabash,symbolising the conjunction of spiritual  and physical universes in terms of ase,described as holding the universe together.

In one Opon Ifa,a concourse of birds rims the circumference of the tray,evocative of the constellation of matrxial powers associated with the conjunction between the feminine forces of Odu,and Ille,Earth, the latter,who,as the primal maternal force, Iya Nla ,the Great Mother,is the patron of the aje,and like the  female Orisa,is correlative with the Orisa Mopo,described by Wenger as the patroness of women's actvities,including their erotic vocations of conception and childbirth,emblematised by her role as potter,who creates form out of preexistent space,thereby actualising the latent potentiality of space,as the woman's body is latent with the potential for new life.

The relationships between female procreative power and associations which emerge in relation to those procreative powers in terms of the imagery of flight,as  evoked by the bird   imagery of the Orisa tradition,in general, and of Ifa,in particular,is is further dramatised  in the image,from Tibetan Buddhism,of the Dakini,a name which can be translated as  "Traveller in  Space".The space traversed by the Dakini is both physical and multidimensional/spiritual since the Dakini is able to appear and disappear at will across physical space but her being also represents the metaphorically conceived spaces of the ground of being and its conception as consciousness,of which physical space is metaphorical.According to Wikipedia "In this context, the sky or space indicates shunyata, the insubstantiality of all phenomena, which is, at the same time, the pure potentiality for all possible manifestations."

The evocation of flight in both physical and spiritual space as one of the powers of Awon Iya wa,Our Mothers,the Aje,exemplars of the creative and destructive spiritual powers of women,  could be correlated with ideas of cognitive flight developed by the Olorisa-Orisa devotee-Susan Wenger,who is influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, in relation to her art,to  her relationship with nature as well as with the construction of oracular insight in  relation to  Ifa. These correlations amplify the relationships of endogenous  Yoruba conceptions of the feminine with other cultures.

Wenger transmutes the idea of flight in terms of the flight of consciousness, where the spiritual space the witch is understood to traverse through her avian powers is accessed through an immersion in nature and its occult properties:

Here I am,one with the water;I think and feel like the river,my blood flows like the river,to the rhythm of its waves,otherwise the trees and the animals wouldn't be such allies.I am here in the trees,in the river,in my creative phase not only when I am here physically, but forever-even when I happen to be travelling-hidden beyond time and suffering,in the Spiritual Entities, which,because they are Real in many ways,present ever new features. I feel sheltered with them-in them-because I am so very fond of trees and running water-and all the gods of the world are trees and animals long,long before they entrust their sacrosanct magnificence to a human figure.
(Adunni:A Potrait of Susan Wenger by Ralph Brockman and Gerd Hotter.

The correlation of the female identity of Wenger with the flight associated with the female figure of Awon Iya Mi lends itself to a correlation of the conception of flight in the world of spirit with the Tibetan Buddhist conception of the Dakini, the space travelled by both the Buddhist figure and Wenger being understood as the ground of being.

The image of flight, as expressed in the iconography of birds in flight, evocative of flight in terrestrial as well as in spiritual realms, is also associated with Ifa, as expressive of the oracle’s power to demonstrate a  comprehensive grasp achieved through cognition across terrestrial and spiritual dimensions of being, of the  queries presented to it. In correlating the image of the bird, as a biological form that is yet expressive of extra-biological powers, with the powers of oracular insight of the prestigious Ifa oracle, Ifa iconography underlines the construction of the feminine in relation to exoteric and esoteric powers in traditional Yoruba thought.

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