Determining Ori

The Concepts of Ori and Human Destiny in Traditional Yoruba Thought: A Soft-Deterministic Interpretation
By OLADELE ABIODUN BALOGUN, Nordic Journal of African Studies 16(1): 116–130 (2007)


The Yoruba constitute one of the major ethnic groups of modern Nigeria and they effectively occupy the whole of Ogun, Ondo, Oyo, Ekiti, Lagos and a substantial part of Kwara State (Atanda 1980: 1). Besides Nigeria, the Yoruba are also found in sizeable numbers, in South-eastern part of the Republic of Benin, Togo and Dahomey in West Africa, the West-India and South Africa. There is also a thriving Yoruba culture in South America and the Caribbean, especially Brazil and Cuba where the descendants of the unwilling immigrants to the new world have been able to keep there identities and guard their cultural heritage (Gbadegesin 1983: 174).

While the Yoruba are dispersed throughout the world, this paper focuses on the Nigerian Yoruba. The reason for this choice is that the ancestral home of the Yoruba is in Nigeria and each of the Yoruba in the Diasporas still traces its origin to this home where the culture thrives best. The Yoruba whether at home or in Diaspora have a unique and distinct cultural life and their lineage can be traced to Oduduwa with Ile-Ife as the cradle of civilization. The traditional Yoruba are associated with various beliefs that cut across different strata of human existence. Pertinent among such beliefs, are the beliefs in ori1 and human destiny.

There is a well-developed body of literature in Yoruba philosophical studies, which have dealt with the concepts of ori and human destiny. The polemics surrounding the meaning, nature, relevance and reality of the dual concepts of ori and human destiny have for long instigated philosophical interest. The philosophical problem surrounding ori and human destiny in Yoruba thought has nothing much to do with either the meaning or relevance of the knowledge of the concepts. Clearly, there is no controversy on the conceptual meaning and importance of the concepts. The controversy has not even much centered on the metaphysical reality of the traditional Yoruba belief in ori and human destiny. […] The problem surrounding the concept of ori and human destiny in Yoruba philosophical discussions centers on the philosophical nature and understanding of the concepts.

Such works as Wande Abimbola, “The Yoruba concept of Human Personality” (1971), Olusegun Gbadegesin, “Destiny, Personality and the Ultimate Reality of Human Existence: A Yoruba perspective” (1983), M.A. Makinde, “A Philosophical Analysis of the Yoruba Concept of Ori and Human Destiny” (1985), O. Oladipo, “Predestination in Yoruba Thought: A Philosopher’s Interpretation” (1992), S.A. Ali, “The Yoruba Conception of Destiny: A critical analysis (1995), E. O. Oduwole, “The Yoruba concepts of Ori and Human Destiny: A Fatalistic Interpretation” (1996), are pioneers and instances of volumes written on the Concepts of ori and human destiny.

[…] My concern in the paper goes beyond mere analysis of the conceptual puzzles or reviews of literatures on the theme, but to establish and strengthen the argument that the Yoruba are soft-determinists in their understanding of, and belief in the concept of ori and human destiny. […]

1 The Yoruba word, ori, literally translated, simply means ‘head’ (as in the physical head of a human or an animal). However, giving concession to our discussion on destiny (which in Yoruba language means ori-inu and translated, inner or spiritual head) in the paper, our contextual usage, meaning and understanding of ori throughout the course of the paper should be construed as meaning the spiritual head, which symbolizes human destiny.


Before delving into a critical exposition of the metaphysical nature of the Yoruba concepts of ori and human destiny, there is need to make explicit, such metaphysical concepts that will subsequently enhance our understanding on the theme. Hence the clarifications of concepts like ori human destiny, fatalism and determinism (or predestination). A person in Yoruba thought is according to Hallen and Sodipo (1986: 105) made up of three important elements: ara (body), emi (life giving element) and ori (Spiritual head, which is thought to be responsible for human destiny).

In the Yoruba concept of person, ara (body) refers to all the tangible elements that make a person both externally and internally such as the brain, kindly, intestine, heart etc. and not just the body frame which houses other constituents of a person. (Balogun 1997: 333). Emi (the life giving entity), the Yoruba believe, is an immaterial element that provides the ‘animating force’ or energy without which a person cannot be said to be living at all, talk less of being conscious (Oladipo 1992: 19). It is according to Bolaji Idowu (1962: 169), “closely associated with the breath and the whole mechanism of breathing which is its most expressive manifestation”. In other words, emi (the life giving entity) is regarded by the Yoruba as the life-force of a person; its presence or absence in a person makes the difference between life and death2.

The third element, Ori which is of immediate concern to us in this paper, represents the individuality element in a person. Ori is the element responsible for a person’s personality and represents human destiny. Ori, an immaterial entity, otherwise called ‘inner-head’ is intractably connected with human destiny. It is responsible for the actuality and worth of man in the material world. For the Yoruba, ori is believed to be not only the bearer of destiny but also to be the essence of human personality which rules, control and guides the life and activities of the person (Idowu 1962: 170).

It is the ancestral guardian soul, having its physical symbolization as the physical head. Given this consideration, ori is nothing short of what the Yoruba call ipin or oke-ipori. As an ipin (i.e the individual’s lot or portion), the Yoruba believe that every individual has the moral responsibility to protect and be in good terms with his ori, in order for one’s destiny to come into easy fruition.

As oke-ipori, ori is regarded as an orisa (lesser gods) in its own right by the Yoruba3. Ori is regarded as an individual personal god who caters for individual and personal interest while the orisa (lesser gods) exist for the interest of the whole tribe a clan or lineage. For this reason, whatever ori does not sanction cannot be given to any person by the orisa (lesser gods) or even by olodumare (God) himself. Ori is therefore an intermediadiary between each individual and the orisa (the lesser gods\divinities) (Abimbola 1971: 76). The orisa (divinity) will not attend to any request which has not been sanctioned by a man’s ori. No orisa (divinity) blesses a man without the consent of his ori (Ibid: 81).

Hence, ori is the element which symbolizes human destiny and the whole of a person’s personality. Kola Abimbola (2006: 80) seems to go beyond the views of Hallen and Sodipo, S. Oladipo and Bolaji Idowu in his account of the nature of a person in Yoruba thought, when he added a fouth element, ese. Literally translated, ese means ‘leg’, but within the content of human personality, it means “strife”, “hard work” or “struggle”. According to Abimbola (2006), ese introduces the principle of individual effort, strife or struggle before the potentialities encapsulated in one’s ori can be actualized. As a symbol of power, mobility and activity, ese is a vital part of human personality both in the physical and spiritual senses.
Human destiny is the mysterious power believed to control human events.

Destiny or predestination is the believe that whatever happens or that will happen in the future has been preordained and happened according to an earlier master plan. It is the belief that every person has his biography written before coming to the world which consequently implies that anything one does is not something done out of free will but something done in fulfillment of preordained history (Oladipo op.cit: 36). Such a belief as this is usually accredited to a divine mind or Supreme Being, who is said to have pre-existentially fixed all the events that, could possibly and would take place in a man’s earthly existence.

Let us consider the notion of fatalism. Fatalism is the belief that whatever happens could not have been otherwise. In other words, certain events are such that they cannot but occur no matter what happens. Fatalism by implication does not allow for possible human efforts self criticism and self involvement. As a result, a fatalist views things with an undisturbed mind and has no sense of guilt (no moral responsibility) since everything is not within his control. “What is going to happen will happen”, “what ever will be, will be” (Hospers 1981: 322). These slogans of fatalism are not intended as analytic statements; what they mean is that the future will be of a certain nature regardless of what we do, and that therefore, there is no point in our trying to do anything about it.

Determinism is simply the thesis that every event, with respect to the past, present and future, has a cause. It is more of a scientific approach, through it; we can predict the outcome of an event if we know the necessary and sufficient causal conditions. In other words, determinism is the view that everything that occurs in the universe must be the effect of a cause, must be produced by, is dependent on, and conditioned by what brought it into existence. Some determinists specify the character of the causes to the events. Others leave open the issue of what kinds and types of things could be the (causes) of events that must have a cause. However, there are two kinds of determinism: hard and soft determinism.

The hard determinism does not allow for freedom while soft determinism gives room for freedom (Balogun op.cit: 331). [Von] Holbach is an example of a classic hard-determinist, while [Ayer] is a renowned defender of soft-determinism. [Von] Holbach denies human freedom and argues that man has no control over his own ideas or decision processes. While man believes that he acts as a free agent anytime he does not see anything that places obstacles to his actions, [Von] Holbach (1961: 55) argues, contra such supposed belief, that in whatever way man acts, he will act necessarily, according to the motives by which he shall be determined.

Basically, for Ayer (1963) he does not claim that determinism is true. He does claim, however, that it is compatible with human freedom, and that in fact, freedom presupposes determinism. Freedom for him, does not mean uncaused, it means unconstrained. To constrain means to cause, but to cause does not mean to constrain. Ayer means by constraint a condition or circumstance that makes human will and the process of deciding irrelevant to human actions. Thus, for Ayer, an action can be caused, and entailed an explanation of human free will. For actions that have no cause, they are free, in explicable and nothing more than pure accident or chance, whose agents can hardly be held morally responsible.

From the above conceptual clarification, there is the need to perhaps, draw the salient points of difference and relationship among the concepts of fatalism, determinism, indeterminism and predestination. As earlier said hard determinism contradicts the view that human beings are free and supports that all human actions and events in the universe are caused; whether these causes are known or not is a different question. Related to this view of hard determinism is fatalism, which equally agrees that everything that happens has a cause. But such a cause is based on the argument that man does not have the willpower to change the course of events. With the fatalists’ slogan – “whatever will be, will be”, the point is that the past, present and future actions and events had been fixed and that there is no human effort that can alter them.

Unlike the determinists who specify the character of the causes of the events (e.g. psychology, sociology, metaphysics, economics, history, science etc.), the fatalists do not. While certain events (our present actions or choices) do not constitute part of the causal network for the fatalists, in fact, they do for determinists. In the same vein, a fatalist unlike a predestinationist does not have any theory at all, about whether there is a divine mind or some mysterious power behind the scenes directing the whole show (Nelson 1971: 53). Like wise, a determinist needs not assume that there is a purposive agent or force behind the world that orders things in a definite way. As a determinist, he commits himself only to the belief that for any event or action given certain conditions, such and such must happen. In view of this, we can infer that a predestinationist or fatalist is essentially a determinist.

However, a determinist or fatalist is not necessarily a predestinationist. In fact, a determinist or predestinationist need not be a fatalist. An indeterminist or a freewiller believes that human actions are products of pure accident or chance; no cause; no explanation and in fact, no moral responsibility.

2 This is not the occasion for a consideration of a detailed analysis of Yoruba concepts of ara (body) and emi (life giving entity). The nature of these two human components, including their connections with the mind – body problem in Western Philosophy, is discussed in a separate paper. For further details, see my earlier paper Balogun, O.A 1998. The Yoruba Concept of Person: An African Solution to the Traditional Mind Problem. Journal of Yoruba Folklore 1(1): 52-60.
3 As an orisa (lesser god), ori has its own paraphernalia; the most important of which is a conical material made of leather to which cowries are sown in rows. This material is known as ipori and sacrifices are put on it during the process of the propitiation of ori.

Continue to Part 2


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