In Ifa metaphysics Esu is the Divine Messenger the Sprit who allows humans to communicate with Spirit. Esu translates the language of Nature into the language of humans and the language of humans into the language of Nature. Ifa teaches everything in Nature has Ori or consciousness. If you have ever gone to the beach feeling depressed and came away feeling better by being in the presence of the ocean, then you can say you engaged in some kind of dialogue or communication with the Spirit of the Ocean. The transforming factor in this interaction is a Spiritual Force Ifa calls Esu.
The verses of Ifa oral scripture are organized through the use of two Quadra grams made up of single and double lines. Single lines represent light, double lines represent darkness. These patterns are to dimensional representations of three dimensional energy patterns that occur in Nature. They represent the polarity between gravity and radiation, the polarity between expansion and contraction.
The primary energy pattern that incarnates Esu is the Odu Ose’tura, which appears as follows:
This is the symbolic representation of the energy pattern that incarnates the human ability to communicate with the Forces of Nature. The Odu is used as a magnet to invoke the power of the Devine Messenger.
In Ifa creation Myth, the Universe emerges from the Eternal Rock of Creation called Oyigiyigi. In the beginning this rock separated into the four calabashes of creation. These four calabashes interacted with one and another to form sixteen sacred principles called Olu Odu meaning they are the primal principles of creation. In Ifa the sacred number seventeen represents the sixteen primal Odu plus Ose’tura which is the seventeenth Odu of Ifa. This Odu has the function of calling the Olu Odu to copulate creating the two hundred and forty omo odu meaning the children of the first sixteen principles. This suggests that Esu, in addition to being the Divine Messenger, is also the primal seed of creation. Ose-Tura describes the relationship between Esu and the people of Earth. To be more specific there are a number of manifestations of Esu and in this verse the manifestation is called Esu O’dara meaning the Divine Messenger divides and spreads or initiates transformation.
Sore throat takes the good from the plate
Was the one who cast Ifa for all the people on
Earth when they were afflicted with illness. Esu
Says that the sacrifice will be effective if they will
Do as he says. The people of earth came and gave sacrifices
…… From that day on, the world began to be good.
Ifa Divination communication between God and Men in West Africa
William Bascom Indiana University Press 1991 page 466.
Esu as the mediator between Spirit and humans has a key role in maintaining harmony and balance in the world. If humans move to far away from the idea of living in alignment with Natural Law, Esu as the trickster causes disruption in the form of illness, bad luck, and disruption. The diseases that are most common in large cities are frequently the result of poor planning, poor hygiene, over population and greed. These same factors lead to political disruption and upheaval. Bad luck is described in Ifa as being the result of personal resistance to personal potential. Ose-tura is saying humans cannot separate themselves from communication with Spirit without suffering the consequences of their arrogance.
Ifa also describes Esu as the Divine Enforcer in issues of Spiritual Justice. This means humans cannot behave in a way that is counter to their essential nature without eventually paying a price. Esu also has a role as the Divine Trickster meaning Esu can create illusions based on arrogance designed to teach us humility. Because we live in an infinite universe our finite perception of reality does not match the objective circumstances surrounding our experience. Esu is the force in nature that illuminates awareness of this contradiction. This awareness brings us the lessons expressed through Esu’s role as Trickster, the Forces in Nature that pushes us beyond the limitations of our perception to broaden our horizons.
Ifa says Esu lives in the back of the neck, the crossroads between the head and the heart. In Ifa the back of the neck is called ipako, which literally means, not disjointed. When we experience tension it is the shoulders and the neck that tighten up. The slang expression “pain in the neck, “conveys the idea as it is understood in Western culture. Cleaning the back of the neck is an important step during initiation and initiation is essentially an elevation of consciousness or a complete manifestation of the hero’s journey in ritual form.
In the role of Esu as Divine Trickster, most of the anthropological literature identifies the Trickster as a random form of harassment. In some academic literature Esu is described as “evil”. This description fails to appreciate the sacred function for all Tricksters in all traditional cultures. The role of Esu as Trickster is to bring each one of us the truth that we are all interconnected and interrelated. It is a manifestation of eternal truth that no one can be totally self-reliant. Once you have the idea that you can handle all your problems yourself you are invoking an encounter with the Devine Trickster. Things occur and we don’t have all the answers. We deny our vulnerability by resisting change. Our resistance is shattered and we are left with the feeling of loss of identity. In Ifa the Force of Nature that provokes this loss is called Esu. In traditional Yoruba culture the death of the old self is perceived as a positive experience. It is considered the foundation of all personal growth and elevation.
The reason we can consider Esu a real Force in Nature that resides in each one of us is because we live in a holographic universe. Every atom continues the enter blueprint for all of Creation. Ifa teaches that if consciousness exists in humans it existed in latent potential at the beginning of time. This means consciousness infuses all that is and various forms of consciousness are able to communicate with each other through the Force of Nature Ifa calls Esu.
This is not some arbitrary, malevolent force that is out to get you if you don’t behave. This is the Christian “Boogy man “model. The divine trickster is a fundamental principle of the structure of reality, based on the idea that if you see and egg hatch and something comes out with wings, there’s a pretty good chance it’s a bird. The universe is not arbitrary. Elephants do not give birth to tigers. Humans are essentially good, if we move to far from our essential nature; Esu brings us those experiences that can potentially lead us back to our essential self. It is the role of the Divine trickster to suggest we might have a personal destiny and we might have a purpose for being on Earth.
When Ifa describes Esu as a Trickster this role is closely associated with the symbolic function of opening doors guiding us to a better grasp of our destiny. Ifa elevation (abori) is the process of elders guiding the novice up the seven steps of initiation. The elders knock on the door and kick it open, before stepping back. This is the door Esu opens; it is not a physical door. Initiation occurs every time we expand our own consciousness. A door opens every time we abandon the safe boundaries of self-perception. This can be in the context of a communal ritual, or it can be in the context of overcoming difficulty in the world. The door we are speaking of is the door of personal growth.
Ifa uses a circle that contains an equal armed cross as a symbol or consciousness. Imagine a circle with a cross the size of a baseball. This circle represents the consciousness of a young man the day before puberty. Then puberty arrives and his consciousness is forced to deal with the issues of being an adult, raising a family, and finding a productive role in society. The consciousness of the man who has assimilated these new roles is represented by a circle the size of a basketball. To get from the baseball to the basketball requires the death of the old self. The boy no longer exists. In symbolic language the door to childhood is closed. In his place stands a man. In symbolic language the door to becoming a responsible adult has opened. This shift in consciousness can only occur if we tear down the parameters of conscious that define how we see ourselves in the world. Nothing in human experience is more frightening than the prospect of letting go of the old self. Fear causes us to resist change, and prolongs the agony. Ifa calls this ibi or resistance to change.
When the resistance to change breaks down, we go through a period of death and transformation leading to rebirth. This process always involves walking through some doorway, some portal, and some barrier leading us into the realm of the unknown. This is always true, there is no exception. The process occurs daily if you are conscious of your relationship with Esu. Ifa says once we are initiated, it is our tack to re-incarnate our self every day. Each day you have to incorporate, assimilate and integrate the life lessons that occur in the world. Otherwise you become stagnant, you regress and the circle that represents the parameters of your consciousness becomes smaller. Regression takes effort and the effort can lead to emotional and physical illness.
As an alternative to resistance there is a doorway we walk through that gives us an opportunity to leap into the nest level of consciousness. The key to unlocking this doorway is the willingness to confront the fear of the unknown. Confronting the fear of the unknown always involves embracing the need for change. Embracing the need for change always requires courage. This is the way of spiritual growth; it is a map of the hero’s journey. When you see yourself clearly, you grab yourself by the lapels, you look yourself in the eye and you say, “What do I have to do to take the next step?”
Esu is the Orisa who opens the door for our encounter with the inner self (ori inu). Historically, one of the reasons why Esu tends to be described as “evil” or “negative” is becoming complacency and security is wrongly associated with Divinity. If you don’t like the experience of growth, if you can’t handle change, the tendency is to blame the Devil rather than admit to your own lack of courage. If you are unwilling to walk through the door that Esu has opened, the common human response is to blame the door keeper. Shoot the messenger and ignore the message. Esu as the opener of doors is who we invoke to confront our fears in the process of self-discovery. The door never opens unless our own ori understands there is a need for change. Blaming the Devil puts our consciousness in conflict with itself and this conflict must be resolved for change to occur. The only way to resolve this conflict is to recognize there is no Devil and that Esu appears in response to our need to begin the hero’s journey, and that this journey is a joint effort. It is a meeting between the inner self and the higher self.
The key point in this process is that Ifa is not about sprinkling juju powder that gives you the courage to confront your fears, every time you have a problem you would come to me and I would sprinkle the juju on your head and the problems goes away. What you would be creating is reliance on me and not the ability to work through your fear. There is only one antidote to fear and that is courage. No one can sell you courage and it does not come in a bottle. There is no antidote to fear and there is no way to invoke courage other than to do the right thing in spite of the fear.
There is an idea in Ifa that appears in every earth centered religion I have encountered. It is the idea that everything is interconnected. If you read all the great mystical writings in literature, they are all about trying to explain how it feels when you really get the idea of Universal connection. It’s a wonderfully noble and widely recognized idea. But is remains an idea until you really experience it. Those who write about the experience say the prelude to the experience of what I call the Mother of all fears. Ifa literally calls it “Fear of the Mothers.” It is the fear of the total loss of self, which it is, followed by a sense of connecting with everything. Connection to spirit is the consequence of facing fear with courageous action. Ifa says we are all children of Oyigiyigi the eternal stone of creation.
How does this relate to the idea of Esu as divine Enforcer? You can only move so far away from the idea of Universal connection before Nature creates counter-balancing forces guiding you back to center. Esu has the function of Divine Enforcer meaning the one who keeps Creation conscious of its true essence. We can ask about tragedy and premature death knowing these are difficult questions. In Ifa there is a belief a bigger picture where Divine Justice is at work. This perspective is not always clear to human consciousness and for this reason we turn to spirit for guidance.
The symbolic analogy used in Ifa is Ifa Olokun o saro dayo, meaning the Spirit of the Ocean always provides for those who live in the sea. Every fish living in the ocean has a home and food to eat. The creatures who live in the ocean have figured it out; those of us who live on land are still working on it. The idea of Esu as the Divine Enforcer is that Nature creates boundaries for those who ignore reality.
Western science has a discipline called Chaos theory which postulates the idea that things which seem to be symmetrical in the universe have a range of variation when viewed up close. It also postulates that things which appear random have a degree of symmetry when viewed at a distance. This means the issues of justice and injustice, chaos and order are issues of perspective. If you get the big picture, the pieces start to fall in place. Esu as the Divine Enforcer is what we invoke to get the big picture. You can do things on the short term that feel effective, righteous and ethical that can have long term negative effects. A southern proverb says the path to Hell is paved with good intentions. Conversely you can do things that seem negative in the moment and end up having positive results. It is Esu we invoke to get perspective on where we are in the polarity.
Ifa teaches that the entire Universe is created by the 256 Odu which are primal manifestations of consciousness. These 256 Odu create all forms of consciousness because they all emerged out of the light from the Big Bang (Oyigiyigi). Consciousness includes the Odu Ose-tura which incarnates Esu. Somewhere inside of you Esu is alive and waiting to go to work. When we pray to Esu we are facing a rock and we are calling it Esu, in reality Esu is part of our own consciousness and we are bouncing it off the rock. Because Ose-tura exists elsewhere in the world our prayers can attract other manifestations of the Odu. These will create a convergence of forces that will create a convergence of forces that will allow for dialogue and inspiration from sources beyond our own consciousness. We call this guidance from Spirit.
Nobody in traditional Yoruba culture believes Esu is a rock. The rock is the place we face when we say our prayers. It is a sacred space created by our intentions. Every traditional Yoruba home has a room specifically for Orisa (Spiritual representations of Forces in Nature). Individuals pray every morning to the Orisa in their shrine to support their personal growth and to support their communal responsibilities.
The thing I did not realize when I went to Africa for the first time was the importance of the extended family in relationship to Ifa and Orisa worship. First and foremost, Ifa is the sanctification of the extended family is an eternal structure that exists forever while different faces evolve into the role of elders within the ongoing family unit. I did not know what a family that works as a school for both spiritual training and the development of trade skills looked like until I arrived in Ode Remo, Nigeria.
The role of grandmother and grandfather are eternal roles within the family that are assumed by subsequent generations. Children are being trained for the day when they become grandmother and grandfather. In traditional Yoruba culture it is assumed that by the time you become a grandparent you have learned the lessons of good character and have become a clear messenger for Spirit you are in constant alignment with the Immortals.
In traditional Yoruba culture jobs are also sanctioned through initiation. The profession of blacksmith is sanctioned through initiation to Ogun. The role of herbalist is sanctioned through initiation to Osanyin. Divination is sanctioned through initiation into Ifa. Within the extended family there are different roles that sustain the wellbeing of the family.
On a communal level there is a sanctification of farming and a sanctification of the role of those who run the market. All these roles fit into an ideal version of how a family and a community functions. Sanctification means some form of communal blessing, another way of saying initiation. Sanctification is a communal process that identifies certain people as carriers of a particular kind of wisdom. This does not make one initiation better than another. Everyone has a role; everyone contributes to the well-being of the being of the entire community.
Superficially, the traditional Yoruba extended family looks like a patriarchy. That is not true, women have veto power over what is apparent in public. There is a balance of power within the structure of community. For example, if you go through an Ifa initiation, it looks like you are being initiated by a fraternity of men. But the last thing you do involves a blessing from the mothers. If they do not give their blessing you are not initiated. You have to walk past them to come into the world after you rebirth. There is a weave of influences that sustains the eternal structure of the family. No one is chief all the time. Everyone has an elder, depending on the circumstances. Life is viewed as a convergence of influences in which are personal role shifts depending on experience and expertise.
Part of the function of Esu is to maintain the cohesive fabric of the family structure. Esu can begin to give you a vision of the big picture. That vision gives us insight on how we can relate as extended family in areas where the family has been damaged. In Africa there is no word for Uncle and there is no word for cousin. Anybody older than you are father or mother, and if you don’t call them father or mother you are being rude. This is the eternal idea of respect for elders as part of the process of personal development. Ifa is one particular vision of how to make the family work. There are others, and they all look to Nature for guidance and inspiration.
Based on the idea of Esu as Divine Enforcer, Ifa teaches the ethical notion that if your life gets better my life gets better; if you suffer, I suffer. This idea requires an examination of the possibility that jealousy is inappropriate, competition is inappropriate, gossip is inappropriate, back biting is inappropriate, diminishing anyone verbally is inappropriate and denigrating any particular group of people is not consistent with the ethical principles of Divine Law.
When you find yourself experiencing these emotions there is transformation work that needs to be done. It is not hard to identify and it is not hard to recognize. The problem is taking those emotions and transforming them into something worthy of praise. This requires spiritual power, the ability to place yourself so perfectly in alignment with the Forces of Nature that surround you that your life becomes constantly transformed. Again, spiritual power is not sprinkling juju on your head, it is assuming a position in relationship to Nature that becomes transformative simply because you are a conduit for the essential balance of Nature Herself. In India it is called dharma; you get blessed by the elders by sitting in their presence and they don’t have to say anything. It’s all about having the real experience of spiritual power. In Taoism it is called chi, in Sinto it is called ki, in Hinduism it is called prana and in Ifa it is called ase. This is a real power that feels a certain way and the essence of ceremonial work within Ifa is to unlock this power. If you are unable to unlock spiritual power on your own being in the presence of those who can is of value. Ase will become unlocked within you merely by being around it. At that point what you call it is profoundly irrelevant because at that point you will know what it feels like and you will be able to access it for use in personal growth.
The hero’s journey involves encounters with Esu who pushes us beyond the complacency of our normal boundaries. This places us in unfamiliar territory where there is a profound sense of panic, confusion and fear. The only way to successfully interact in this unfamiliar place is to expand our consciousness, to change our perception of self and world. Expansion of consciousness always involves the death of the old self, and experience of the source of the fear of the unknown. In simple terms the encounter with Esu is a call to courage. The call to courage is a call to do the right thing in spite of our fear. It is an exploration of those spiritual that us towards elevation and renewal.
To understand this shift as a metaphysical principle let us examine the Odu that incarnates Esu. The Odu is Ose-tura and appears as follows:
The Odu are two Quadra-grams read from right to left. On right side it is the metaphysical principle of Ose. This principle gives birth to the Force of Nature or Orisa Ifa calls Osun. Ose in simple terms is the ability to project your prayers through the use of ofo ase meaning the power of the word. In traditional Ifa the power behind effective prayer is called aje. Ifa teaches that aje is an inherited skill that passes from mother to daughter. This skill is enhanced and put to effective use in the women’s secrete society called Iyaami Osoranga meaning my mother’s bring me the power of astral travel from the elision Iya mi oso ran ga. The Yoruba word oso means astral travel and astral travel is a component of effective prayer because it is the ability to project human consciousness into the invisible realm that sustains creation.
The left side of the odu is Otura which is a manifestation of the force of nature Ifa calls Obatala. The word Obatala from the elision Oba ita ala meaning the King of the road of light. In Otura we are blessed with mystic vision, meaning we get a glimpse of the holographic universe that comes in direct response to our prayers. In the process of divination the right side of the Odu represents that which has manifest and the left side represents that which exists in latent potential. In Ose-tura spirit gives us the promise of enlightenment anytime we reach out for clarity and resolution of conflict.
Science tells us that the universe is a huge sign wave and that everything we see is a manifestation of light. A sign wave can be visualized as a series of W’s linked together. If we draw a horizontal line through the center of the W we can consider everything above the line as expansive and everything below the line as contractive. In Ifa mythology the polarities between expansive light and contractive light is symbolized by the polarity between male spirits known as Orisa Okunrin, and female spirits known as Orisa Obinrin. These are not independent forces they are part of a continuum that emerges from a single source. At the place in the wave where the horizontal line intersects the polarity between expansion and contraction the opposite polarities unite and become one. In Ifa this place of unity is symbolized by the Uroborus or the snake eating its tail. The tail represents the phallus and the mouth represents the vagina. In Earth centered religions around the world, throughout history, the moment of organism is considered the point of unification. In that moment Nature embraces the possibility of re-creation, it is the moment of conception. In Odu Ifa the unity between Osun and Obatala results in the birth of Esu.
On a personal level this means when we access the power of prayer we create the possibility of receiving and answer from Spirit in the form of mystic vision. In order to make this vision manifest in the world we need to implement that vision. The first step to implementation is to open the door that initiates the hero’s journey. In Ifa mythology Esu is considered the guardian of the portal that makes this journey possible. Walking through the door requires courage, because the journey involves completely letting go of the old self. It requires giving up all dogma, all preconceived ideas, and all the boundaries that define the self. It requires living in a state of confusion, imbalance, and loss of identity. This is the single most fearful moment that humans experience. It is a call to courage which is why the journey is always associated with the Orisa Ebora meaning Warrior spirits, who guide us towards Akin l’ona or the hero’s journey.
Osun the Spirit of the River gives us the secret of how to project our prayers into the realm of spirt. She does this my pushing us towards the idea of creating a better life. Obatala responds to this impulse by showing us what a better life looks like. Esu gives us the courage to take the first step in making the vision of Spirit a reality.
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- Priase name for Orunmila: Onílégangan-ajíkí, Àáyán-awo inú-ibgó, Amáiyégén.
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- Praise name for Ela: Tí npojó ikú dà, a kò mò ó tán iba se, a bá mò ótán Iba se.
- Praise name for Ogun: Àwònyè Òrìsà
- Praise name for Orunmila: Okùnrin dúdú òkè Ìgètí, Olúwà mi àmò – imò – tán, Olúmmaàmi Òkítíbìrí.
- Praise name for Ogun: Àwàlàwúlú
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- Praise name for Ela: A bi ara ílu bí ajere, Òrìsà tí ngbé nkan òle gún, ‘Fágúnwà, oko Òyèkú.
- Praise name for Ogun: Atóónàlórógùn
- Praise name for Ela: Onílégangan-ajíkí, Àáyán-awo inú-igbó, Amáiyégén.