Higher Levels of Fa

Gedegbe Chief Fa priest of the Benin Empire

From History of Religions : Divination and Deity in Africa

One never finishes learning Fa. There are levels and degrees within it. Even elderly bokono set out on journeys that may take them into distant parts of West Africa to sit at the feet of famous sages and learn more. Bernard Maupoil, whose study of Fa is still unequaled, had the immense advantage of having as his informant the chief bokono of the former Fon kingdom, Gedegbe. This truly wise man was responsible, during the days of the sovereign glory of the Fon, for divining for the king and the entire country. He also examined every aspiring bokono before the priest was permitted to practice and regulated the ethical behavior and teachings of bokono throughout the kingdom. Gedegbe knew entire levels of Fa not accessible to any-one else. These higher levels of Fa had nothing at all to say about the demigods or spirits; they were instead about the interaction of the primary cosmic elements themselves, and one was devoted to astrology.

Fa, in short, works a depersonalization of the Fon cosmos. The great fault, in the ethics that is implied in Fa philosophy, is excessive self-will. Fa is not a method of changing one’s fate, but of adjusting to it (in the active, not the passive, sense). Knowing his own characteristic engrained failings, the wise man avoids subjecting himself to otherwise inevitable pitfalls. One must learn to accept one’s own limits. These “limits,” the Fon believe, are chosen by oneself before birth as one’s destiny-soul. Maintaining a good relationship with our destiny, knowing its possibilities and inadequacies, enables us to make the very best life possible for ourselves. Ignorance of the powers bearing on us makes us entirely their victim. The fortunate and happy can push their luck too far; the unfortunate can through hopeless passivity make their lot gratuitously agonizing.

The individual soul has no will, say the bokono; only Mawu has will, and the individual destiny-soul is a particular manifestation of that will.” Thus an evil man is not necessarily to be blamed for his actions, for his soul is not guilty if it does not get caught up in the deed and persist in it, exceeding its fate. Likewise, the exces-sively (and hypocritically) good man will suffer for his pretentious-ness.” In consulting Fa, a person is brought face to their eternal destiny, and from this dispassionate vantage point can accept and come to grips with his individual lot in a rational and fully conscious way. The judgment may indeed be harsh, but usually there are ways to mitigate a severe decree, and in any case his responsibilities and expectations are revealed in detail; to the limit of any man’s ability he is in control of his fate.

The radical difference of this approach to the divine from that of man’s heated, passionate relationship to the vodu is suggestive. While the vodu, spiritual persons, erase human personality in possession, Fa emphasizes the unique personality of the client while submitting it to a depersonalized divine order. The irony of this forces us to the realization that Fa is fundamentally a criticism of the popular religion of the vodu. The legends of Fa themselves reflect this: again and again we find the vodu helpless, their power useless, until they consult Fa (who is outwardly a weakling, in some versions a boneless, amorphous being). The vodu in these tales are, in fact, the paradigms for the clients who hear the stories during the consultation. Just as the client has troubles and comes to Fa, so too in illo tempore a vodu had an essentially similar problem, and Fa supplied the answer—which becomes the answer to the client. The vodu and mankind are persons on the same level from the transcendent perspective of Fa. Fa even instructs mankind in the ways to avoid the arbitrary power of the vodu—to socialize them and establish a predictable mutuality with them. Men thus receive their personalities back in the world of Fa, though they might have seemed to have lost them through subordination to the vodu. But the system of Fa implies more, inasmuch as it suggests that there is a larger impersonal order that even the vodu cannot violate. Fa, the greater bokono say, is not a being at all, but simply the message or voice of Se (Spirit)—that is, of Mawu.” The power working in man, in the world, and in the vodu, is all of Se. There is nothing else.

37 Maupoil, pp. 404, 388-89. According to Gedegbe, the various levels or kinds of soul known to man are merely stages in man’s quest for God and their own deepest identity. The most obvious spiritual aspect in us is that which links us to our ancestors (the joto, ancestor soul), while diviners and a few others late in life attain to knowledge of their Fa-essence, their deepest destiny-soul, the kpoli. Beyond that dwells the infinite God. See ibid., p. 386. .. Ibid., p. 404.

One Fa proverb insists: “One ought not to put Fa on one side and Mawu on the other—it is Fa that one names Mawu,” and several others make the same point (see ibid., p. 31). For Fa is really not a person, but a process leading to transcendence and “at-one-ment.” Several myths of the origin of Fa tell that in the beginning Fa was killed by the vodu, who were resentful of his impartial justice and truth, but that there arose from his grave, or from the parts of his divided body (Hainuwele style) the palm nuts used for divination or the signs making up the Fa system. Fa is the type, in short, of the redemptive power of sacrifice. Every session begins and ends with sacrifice, and initiation into bokono status is accomplished through sacrifices, etc. 40 Ibid., pp. 387,399-401.