Apetebi, Iyawo, Onifa.. What does it all mean?

As a woman and an Iyanifa, I am always concerned about the role and expression regarding women in the Ifa Orisa tradition. I am acutely aware that while this is a very ancient tradition, founded on principles of transcendental truth and universal laws,  its interpretation and translation into other languages can leave it influenced by cultural, political, and personal influences. Not only that, regional variations can vary producing very different interpretations of the same thing. Because the role of women has been significantly influenced over the last 500 years to patriarchal systems and Abrahamic faiths, we have to unpack what is often shared with us to determine if it is truth..or if it is just a popular belief. Its the reason I wrote Iyanifa: Women of Wisdom. To dispel the popular belief that women couldn’t be initiated into Ifa =. For those who are new… YES Women can and are initiated to Ifa. 

But what I would like to discuss today is other roles for women in the tradition. One such role is that of Apetebi. The popular translation of the word Apetebi is wife of a Babalawo. In this case, a woman undergoes a ceremony where she marries the ikin of a Babalawo thus tying them together. Or, she is simply the legal wife of that Babalawo. 

Another popular interpretation of Apetebi is that this woman is actually a wife of Orunmila, not a Babalawo. Somewhere along the lines, Babalawo became synonymous with Orunmila and that crossed over to being a wife of a Babalawo. Or, some say she is tied to his ikin or shrine and therefore Orunmila’s wife. 

But technically, a wife in the Yoruba language is Iyawo.. Not Apetebi…  There is also the term Iyafa or Ayafa which refers to the wife of Ifa or a Babalawo. So there is a question about where the term Apetebi came from. There  are those who are considered to be an Apetebi Orun. That is a woman who is a wife of Orunmila in heaven. In that case, she is under the protection of Orunmila from birth. There are specific ceremonies for Apetebi Orun. There are also some who consider Apetebi a slave to Ifa. 

As we unpack this term and determine what it means and more importantly , what it means for women in the 21st century, lets look at its use in Odu Ifa.

Aboru, Aboye, and Abosise are actually powerful women who became Orunmilas wives.

There are two stories in the Ifa corpus that stick out related to apetebis for me.  The first is in Ogbe Sa. This speaks of when there was a war at Ilu Obinrin ( translated as a town of women). So there was a war against women in which the men had a hard time winning. Eventually they did win and the women who were the fighters were taken captive and tied up with rope. Some wanted to put them to death but Orunmila stepped in chose to marry all of them to put them under his protection and make them Apetebi. There is a lot to unpack in this one verse…Unfortunately time wont permit it today… It does seem to be the root of why some Lucumi lineages refer to Apetebi as a slave to Ifa. But this story only expresses that women became Apetebi, not what it is. 

In fact, many odus speak about women becoming Apetebi. There are those that also discuss her roles and responsibilities. Some of  her duties are associated with

  • Taking care of the Ifa of her husband which is the family Ifa. 
  • Preparing  food
  • cleaning the shrine
  • Being a scribe to the Babalawo and keeping up with the divinations and documentation.
  • Performing Ibori on the Babalawo
  • Divining with Erindilogun or in some cases even opele according to her knowledge
  • taking care of the Ifa plant and medicines
  •  Assisting with initiations and clients,  
  • To name a few

But what about the origin and etymology of the word? Who was the first Apetebi? Does it match up with what we now consider to be apetebi? We find that story in Obara Ogunda. Here, Orunmila was on his way to the town of Asedo to perform services. On his way, he sought shelter from the rain in a hut owned by a woman. She took care of him and they had a night of passion but he discovers in the morning that the woman has leprosy. While the story varies as to what happened next and when, what is consistent is that Orunmila cures the woman of leprosy and eventually marries her.  After she is cured, she has a child and the child is named Apetebi. The break down of the name is as follows: 

Apa – to kill

Ete- Leprosy

Bi- To be born

It is referring to the child who was born after her mother was cured of Leprosy. 

Some suggest that this was Orunmila’s first wife and all wives of babalawos came to be called that afterward. Others suggest that it just her and that Orunmila had other wives. Orunmila took responsibility for fathering her child and therefore married her. What is important is that the name and its meaning doesn’t change. It actually refers to the child who was born and not the mother who married him.

That said, the cultural interpretation, regardless of its original meaning  is now an established understanding as well. Orunmila has many wives and each has different stories historically and metaphorically as to their role. Osun is his wife as is Yemoja in some stories. Iwa is his wife. Odu is his wife.. In fact, Aboru, Aboye, and Abosise… the greeting given to Awo Ifa are all wives of Orunmila. Each are called by their own name and not called Apetibi by name but by association in being his wife. Each of the others, however have their own independent work and ase. Each of those “ marriages” was to add to  Orunmila’s power and effectiveness. 

It is here, I would like to  differentiate between the Apetebi ceremony which I understand to be more Isode and the Isefa ceremony which is when a person receives one hand of Ifa. Isode Ceremony places you under the protection of Ifa and you marry the ikin of a Babalawo and or promise to marry a Babalawo.  You may receive marks on your left wrist and/ or in your head. This is the Apetibi ceremony and the woman receives an ide of Orunmila. Some areas refer to her as Iyafa or Ayafa instead of Apetebi. This ceremony ties the person directly to another Babalawo and his Ifa and the woman does not receive her own ifa. 

It should be pointed out that this is not easy work. Often she sits right along side her husband who is divining and she learns, knows, and sees just as much as he does… Sometimes more. She knows how to prepare the same medicines he does often… or is the one preparing them. She is who is keeping the records and data related to the readings. She is the one who gets everything prepared before initiation, ceremonies, or ebos. She does most things right along with him.  She is often the one who does the clean up too. Truth be told, if the work were left to be just done by the babalawo, it wouldn’t get done.. Or only half… because….its a lot of work and he really can’t do it alone… So while a lot of praise is given to that Baba… never underestimate that woman sitting by his side. She is the wind beneath his wings… As iyami..she is probably the wings too. 

That said, Isefa ceremony is when a woman receives her own Ifa shrine consisting of 16 ikin. This ceremony has been confused with being an apetebi ceremony. This is actually for men and women.  Here, they are considered an Onifa.. Or owner of Ifa. They are not initiated to Ifa but also under the protection and receives a destiny ( Ita) associated with that Ifa. In this case, she takes care of her own Ifa shrine.  Their relationship to Ifa is as a student, not necessarily an apetebi. Men who receive this ceremony are not considered apetebi. Some oluwos refer to this person as an Omo Awo or child of Ifa . The person may receive this ceremony as a prelude to full initiation or in the case they are not able to receive the full ceremony or just need protection but don’t have a destiny to be an Awo Ifa. If this is as a prelude to full Ifa initiation, some Olowos will allow the  person to begin to learn Dafa or how to divine for themselves…not others. It is dependent on the Oluwo though. 

Another ceremony in some lineages is called Ikofa. This is done in some Lucumi  lineages. In this ceremony the woman receives a finger or two ( 1 or 2) ikin in ceremony. Here she is also tied to the Baba who did the ceremony and in this way, it is closer to the isode ceremony than the isefa. With only 1 or 2 ikin, they must always add them to the Babas ifa in order to divine. This makes her tied to him or whatever Baba gave them to her. 

Alice Ball is an African American chemist who developed a cure for Leprosy using the oil from the chaulmoogra tree, a tree native to Nigeria and the African Gold Coast. Her roots to her African heritage offered her the insight to herald in this cure for the 20th century.

Back in the day when a woman’s destiny may have been tied to her husband or father, that may have been acceptable cultural practice. In the 21st century…especially in the Diaspora, it does not seem to align well for women who may have full careers, their own money, and are educated and often run their own houses and businesses.  In this world, many women encounter just as many problems in the world as men and really could use their own relationship with Ifa to protect, support, and align them to their highest destiny.

This is not a new thing… this is actually reclaiming what is very ancient. Women have always had a relationship with Ifa beyond being wife. It was Odu who taught Orunmila Odu Ifa. The oracle is hers…not his…thus the name ODU Ifa.  It was Orunmila’s own daughter who taught his son Ifa. It was a woman who in the 15th century initiated the priests of Ato who would later initiate Oyo Babalawos. So a woman having her own relationship to Ifa whether now as an Apetebi or as an Onifa is hers to have and hers to choose. 

So going back to Apetibi and it’s origin…or at least who is the woman who had leprosy who married Orunmila. We have several Odus that speak to it but without saying it. Ofun Meji speaks of Orunmila bringing a very powerful woman into his home. She wished to be away from his other wife. This woman preferred to be in the dark and eat alone. Some described her as spotted, ugly with bumps, or debilitated. All of these descriptions describe the condition of leprosy. This woman that Orunmila brought in was Odu…the mother of the Oracle. So the woman with leprosy… the mother of Apetibi …is Odu herself. Aboru Aboye Abosise


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