Our Mother: Iya Agba Odu

So often when you hear of Ifa, you hear of the masculine. It is perceived to be a male oriented tradition because well… patriarchy can be alive and well even in Ifa. As a woman and Iyanifa, it is especially a challenge to navigate some of it because I have been a strong advocate for the great mothers most of my adult life and long before I initiated to Ifa. Finding myself confronted with a calling to initiate to Ifa put me at a quandary. One of my first missions was to write about women in the tradition. That culminated into my book Iyanifa:Women of Wisdom. The rabbit hole deepened as I awakened to the mysteries of our mothers. My work expanded through my African Women’s Mysteries courses. They comprised of over 40 hours of teachings on divine feminine on the African continent.

The greatest mother mystery in Ifa is Odu herself. Odu was most intriguing to me because it is she who is wisdom behind the oracle itself. In fact, every initiate or priest is called Awo. Awo means mystery or secret. In Irete Owonrin, Orunmila went to seek out the greatest secret of the world. He initiated to the Secret society. He then found out that the secret was woman herself. Think about that. The secret to the world is woman. So every person who calls themselves Awo, is so because they should have been to igbodu…Igbo Odu. The forest of Odu. What does a forest consist of? Trees. It is Iyami and Eleye who govern trees.

The secret to the world is Women.

In ancient Odus documented by Pierre Verger I his work on Iyami, she is spoken of as being married to Obatala symbolized as a union in a Calabash with Obatala at the top and Odu at the bottom. In Ifa, she is spoken of as being married to Orunmila as Iya Iwa. She lived to be a very old woman, Iya Agba and when she was ready to transition, she left a sacred vessel for her children. (Ose Yeku) These are the sources of the Erindilogun oracle as well as the Ifa oracle. Both pull Odus…which are named after their mother.. Odu.

In Afa, she is called Gbadu and sits at the top of the tree of Life, a palm tree. She is the daughter of Mawu. Legba, her brother, is who works with her to interpret her wisdom for those who consult her. In Igboland, she is the old woman of immense wisdom, who was an ancient seer who was buried at the foot of a tree and left the oracle behind so that those who needed her could consult and receive wisdom.

Gbadu on wall in temple in Benin
Gbadu painted on a temple in Benin

You will hear Odu expressed as the mystery or unknown… Or some other generic or depersonalized description that takes away from the fact that Odu is a womb and as such is the seat of feminine power. As the seat of feminine power, she is the essence of womb wisdom, mother wit, mothers intuition, etc. In the Odu Osa Meji, Odu’s power is motherhood. Nothing can come to this world except through a woman.

Old woman of Immense wisdom from Igbo Dibia traditions

The irony is that the tradition in history took a turn somewhere as they tried to keep women from knowing Odu. As the tradition stands, women are discouraged and in some instances downright forbidden from obtaining an Odu vessel. It’s not such a big deal because what it represents, a womb, women are born with. The ability to tap womb wisdom is always available to us within. But the sacred technology of the vessel itself came from women..not men. It was Odu that taught Orunmila the science of the oracle because it came from her. It was Odu that taught that character was the key to evolving as she is Iya Iwa..the mother of character.

It was through Odu Obatala came to know the science of Odu. When Odu was said to be married to Obatala, he stole the science of Egungun in Osa Meji. That belonged to women, not men. Now let’s be clear, when examining Odu verses ,we must distinguish between what is a historical account that was documented and what is a spiritual truth. Over time they tend to blend together but they are not the same. The story of a Obatala taking the Egungun was a reflection of historical priesthoods and changes in regimes. The Obatala priesthood obtained the mysteries. Women were then forbidden to use it by enforcements by the ruling kings. Colonial masters and Christian and Islamic adherents added it to it by Direct attacks on Aje in the women’s priesthoods laws against them.

Gelede Art and Female Power amon* the Yoruba by Henry and Margaret Drewal quotes: “In Southwestern Yorubaland, an Ijebu diviner (Osetola1982) explains that it was Odu , a wife of the first diviner, who loved her husband Orunmila so much that she revealed to himself the knowledge of divination so that man could communicate with the spirit realm. And Rowland Abodun (1976:1) relaying primarily on central and eastern Yoruba writes:

It is believed that from the beginning, the creator-God put women in charge of all the good things on Earth. Without their sanction, no healing can take place, rain cannot fall, plants cannot bear fruits and children cannot come into the world.”

Now 500-1000 years later, the truth has become the lie and the lie has become the truth. Women are often forbidden from utilizing their own sciences and accessing their own mothers mysteries…Odu. Ose Tura clearly dictates that women must be included in everything in order to be successful, yet here we are… in the 21st century, with many women still being denied their fundamental rights as daughters of Odu. I am not saying every woman needs an Odu. Just as every male Awo may not need one , the same applies. I am saying it’s women’s and Iyami technology, and it’s time we start acknowledging it as such. Aboru Aboye Abosise

Dahhomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis; Melville J Herskovits & Frances S. Herskovits. 1958, Northwestern University Press

John Umeh, After God is Dibia Volume 1


  1. Iya Omitade Adediran

    This is the theme that I have been teaching my students for so long. Perhaps, I did not have the courage to publicly voice it. You have done a wonderful job of adding voice and bringing clarity. E se pupo.

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