[NB] Trees In the Forest of Mystery

I picked up a copy of Frisvold’s latest, Ifá: A Forest of Mystery pretty early out of the gate. I started in my usual way, dipping in and out of the book at random or as some specific curiosity prompted me (what does he say about Ogun? What about Òbárá Meji?). That left me with a favorable impression of the text—each time I came away with a sense of having my understanding both confirmed and expanded.

In his discussion of Òkànrán Meji, Frisvold relates the story of how the female breast came to earth and secured its blessings (227). If you look at Òkànrán Meji (or Tristitia doubled for those more familiar with European names for the figures) you’ll see how the figure itself resembles a pair of breasts, especially when you take into consideration the prominence of breasts in Yoruba art dedicated to Ṣango (who is closely associated with the sign of Òkànrán Meji).

A sculpture of a bare breasted femae torso and head, her arms uplifted to support a bowl balanced atop her head.
Female Figure from Oke Onigbin Shango Shrine. From Wikicommons.

Also tied to Ṣango’s cultus is the Yoruba practice of women lifting up their breasts when Ṣango appears in possession. I have always wondered somewhat after that tradition’s origin, but with the knowledge that the breast comes to earth in Òkànrán Meji and that Òkànrán Meji itself can be seen as an image of the breast, in uplifting their breasts women are inverting Òkànrán Meji to produce Òbárá Meji, a sign in which Ṣango’s presence is generally more benevolent. Neat, right?

Reading from the beginning forward has been a different sort of pleasure. Frisvold hasn’t just spent a lot of time practicing Ifá, he has spent a lot of time reading accounts of it. Reading from the front toward the back, I see that stereoscopic vision of Ifá more clearly. It has been a while since I read Jonathan Olomide Lucas’s Religion of the Yorubas, but I was immediately reminded of it when Frisvold noted that “some…ascribe his [Eṣu’s] origin to the Egyptian deity Shu” (76).

You can also see Frisvold’s roots in traditional witchcraft come into play in charming fashion, as when he observes how the comparison between Eṣu and the devil can produce useful insights (58) rather than falling back on well-worn arguments that make such comparisons nothing more than a colonialist elision (they are that, too, of course, but the idea that they may not just be that is good). While the text cultivates a certain scholarly distance, in moments like this you can glimpse the personal dimension of the project. I like that.

I haven’t finished the book; I am only about 80 pages in. Still, I wanted to post because I came across this little gem in the section entitled “The Crossroads of Confusion.” Frisvold builds the section in dialogue with the work of Baba Medahochi, a

Biní babalawo/bokono who founded the Akoda Institute in Atlanta, Georgia in the late 1980s, made a set of lessons available for students of Ifá, in which he addressed the metaphysical dimensions of Ifá… (78)

I came across Baba Medahochi’s work about eight years ago, when some of it was posted in memoriam after his funeral. It blew me away! Reading about him in Frisvold’s book inspired me to look back at what I had preserved from that and how it impacted me. Eight years later and a lot of reading and geomantic practice later, even if you exclude that which rested on his initiations, there are still many places where his work remains ahead of my own. Here is the summary appended to Baba Medahochi’s 40 or so page The Sixteen Great Signs and Their Meaning:

This study of the Odu compares various traditions of Ifa / Fa / Afa from African, Chinese, Arabic, Indian, Hebrew and European sources. It goes in depth in study of the relationship between the Odu and the body.

A very fascinating discussion describes the connection with this ancient divination system to the Archangel Gabriel, Idris, Hermes and the Prophet Enoch!

African cultures referenced include:

Minyanka of Mali (Nya Kamo Society)
Evhe
Bamana
Malagasy
Igbo
Madagascar
Dahomey

Sources include:

Issa Baba Traore – La Divination – La Geomancie Dans Le Beledougou
John Anenechukwu Umeh – After God is Dibia
Marion Smith and Emile Smith – Islamic Geopmancy and Thirteenth-Century Divinatory Devices
Bernard Maupoil – Contribution A L’Etude De L’Origine Mulsumane De La Geomancie Dans Le Bas-Dahomey
Ron Eglash / Ohio State University – Bamana Sand Divination – Recursion in Ethnomathematics

Historical figures mentioned:

Surgy
Ahmed Ben ‘Ali Zunbul
Halaf Al-Barbari
Tumtum Al-Hindi
Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad Az-Zanati

Note: Pages 9, 10 & 39 are not from Baba Medahochi, but are notes from Ogunlade. Pages 15 & 16 contain notes from Ogunlade interspersed with Baba’s original words and figures. Page 42 is a duplicate of page 40.

(That article on the thirteenth-century Islamic geomancy device is great, by the way. Worth your time if you can get your hands on it.)

Baba Medahochi had a fiercely comparative genius, but he used comparisons to enrich his Panafrikanism rather than dilute it. I honestly can’t tell you at this point whether Baba Medahochi’s comparative approach inspired the sort of thing I have sought to claim under the mantle of pansophism or whether I was so enthused by his work because I was already well on my way toward such a position. Regardless, I feel a great deal of kinship with his thinking. His Afrikan center can’t be mine, but there is much still that can be learned from it (Ibaye).

Baba Medahochi is one of those wonderfully American thinkers. Starting from his complex and fraught position as a Black man in the racist United States, he set out to lay the groundwork for a thought and life that would provide himself and others a way to break away from and resist that racism from within it. From Gary, Indiana, to Atlanta, Georgia, by way of South Carolina, he cuts quite a figure.

(Here is a link to his obituary on the eponymous medahochi.com so that you can read this from the perspective of those close to him. He was part of the forward line of black people in the United States forming close ties with Cuban expressions of the African diaspora—initiated to Palo Mayombe in 1969! A little research has shown that he is starting to be discussed in scholarly accounts of this era, so there is probably a lot more out there about him than I could glean from this narrow window almost a decade ago.)

His Panafrikan thought was global, to be sure, but at each point he returned that global thinking to the local situations he confronted. He took hold of Ifá as his center, but allowed it to speak in dialogue with Islamic, Hebrew, Malagasy, Indian, and Chinese thought, without ever leaving me with the impression he was trying to reduce one to the other. Each of them served as a commentary on Ifá proper. He preserved the diversity of geomantic expression while cultivating an especial tie with one.

Here, for those who might be curious, are the bibliographic citations for the lessons that I stumbled across all those years ago (I don’t know where you would find them, but in case you can):

Medahochi. The Sixteen Great Signs and Their Meaning. Atlanta: Akoda Institute, n.d. (alternately titled: Olodu: The Sixteen Great Signs and Their Meaning)

—”Ase—What is It?” Atlanta: Akoda Institute, n.d.

Both were accessed at http://www.medahochi.com/his_writings.html (accessed April 2008; no longer available online as of this posting).

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2 thoughts on “[NB] Trees In the Forest of Mystery

  1. Pingback: Revisiting Marija Gimbutas – Disrupt & Repair

  2. Pingback: To the Crossroads and into the Frontier – Disrupt & Repair

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