Determining Ori – 2

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

Part 1


[…] According to the Yoruba, it is believed that before coming into the world, everybody was obliged to go and choose an ori from among a large number of oris stored in Ajala’s warehouse. Ajala4 (a potter) has the duty of molding human heads. The process of human creation is not complete without him.

While Orisanla (arch-divinity) is understood by the Yoruba to be the maker of ara (body), who later passes the lifeless figure to Olodumare (Supreme Deity) to put emi (life giving entity ), Ajala is responsible for the creation of ori. Ajala is a skilled potter, a drunkard, a debtor and an irresponsible and careless creature (Morakinyo 1983: 78). In any case, Ajala through his utter carelessness is responsible for molding heads of different shapes and qualities (some are good and many are bad). In the house of Ajala, every man makes a choice of his own ori, after which every man coming into the world passes through the water of forgetfulness-Omi igbagbe, which is the boundary between heaven and earth.

In another myth as accounted by Bolaji Idowu (1962: 173–174) and Morakinyo (1983: 72), the acquisition of one’s ori is done by kneeling before the high authority Olodumare (Supreme Deity), who confers one’s portion, that is, what a person would live up to on earth. This type of acquiring ‘ori’ is referred to as Ayanmo (that which is affixed to someone). In all these myths, orunmila (arch-divinity), the founder of ifa (oracle) system of divination, is noted to be a witness of man’s choice of destiny. Little wonder he is referred to as Eleri-Ipin (the witness of destiny) and the only one competent to reveal the type and content of ‘ori’ chosen by each person.

For a better understanding on the acquisition of ori, Bolaji Idowu (Ibid: 173) gives a trimorphous conception of the Yoruba belief in destiny. According to him, the choice of one’s destiny could be one of these three ways: A person may kneel down and choose his destiny, this is called A kun le yan (that which is received kneeling). He may kneel down and receive his destiny – that is called A kun le gba (that which is received kneeling). Or he may have his destiny affixed on him – for this, Yoruba give the name Ayanmo (that which if affixed to one).

Understandably from the above, the Yoruba believe that destiny once chosen by one or conferred is unalterable. In other words, it becomes doubly sealed up such that the earthly existence of the person is an aftermath of the type of ori one chose or conferred on one.

From the above, the Yoruba understanding of ‘ori’ can be conceived in two related senses. It refers to the unconscious self, who makes a free choice of one’s life-course before Ajala or Olodumare (as the case may be); it also refers to that which is chosen – the individual destiny or portion. As the former, ori is the personal spirit or guardian ancestor of an individual. As in the latter, the choice so made by ori (the personality spirit) is however unknown to the (now conscious) person after he has come into the world. It is thus possible for a person to embark on a project which his ori did not choose, that is, for which he is not predestined. Failure is the result of such efforts (Gbadegesin 1983: 183). This underscores the metaphysical relevance of the knowledge of one’s nature of ori. Hence the need to consult Orunmila – the god of divination, in order to determine the nature of one’s ori’s choice and whether or not one is following the right path.

The metaphysical relevance of ori in connection with human destiny should not escape us. Ori is the indicator of one’s purpose in life. It has the secret of the deity’s plan for one. Olusegun Gbadegesin (Ibid.) puts it right when he observes that “it is like a fore-runner, the pathfinder in the earthly bush”. The choice of a good ori ensures that the individual concerned would lead a successful and prosperous life on earth, while the choice of a bad ori condemns the individual concerned to a life of failure and misfortune. Thus for the Yoruba, a prosperous person is referred to as olori rere (one who possesses a good ori) while an unfortunate person is personified as olori buruku (one who possesses a bad ori). Events in the individuals’ personal history are the determinant factors of ascertaining the type of ori one is bearing.

Following the above explication of the Yoruba belief in ori and human destiny, some scholars have argued that it is analogous to fatalism. Destiny in this sense, signifies that every activities of man on earth has been preordained at the point when man chose his ipin-ori (portion or lot) with Ajala before coming into the world and therefore cannot be altered no matter what.

Arguing within a supposed fatalistic context of the traditional Yoruba belief in ori and human destiny is Wande Abimbola. Abimbola (1976: 115) argues that once a person has chosen his destiny by the selection of an ori, it becomes almost impossible to alter it on earth. He rightly points out: “indeed, the gods are not in a position to alter a man’s destiny”. Citing some excerpts from ifa (oracle) divination poetry, Abimbola argues to the effect that in view of the nature of the selection of ori in orun (spirits abode world), and the consequences of this irrevocable choice for every individual, what will be will be regardless of what ever happen.

Caution needs to be exercised here in not construing Wande Abimbola as a fatalist while there is the temptation of classifying him as one given the above analysis, a further careful consideration of his works will indeed reveal that he is not a fatalist. Even though the choice of Ori by a ‘child’ before birth functions as a causal antecedent that affects the wealth, success and failure of that child after birth, that child is according to Wande Abimbola, nonetheless free to make use of ebo (sacrifice) and ese to change the outcomes of an ori that contains bad fortunes. Abimbola is emphatic on the claim that when a man makes sacrifice to his ori, which requires freewill, and complements it with the utilization of his ese, which involves decisive struggle and hardwork, there is a possibility in change of fortunes. The soft – deterministic inclination of Wande Abimbola becomes clearer when he argues in one of his works, Iwapele: The concept of Good character in Ifa literary corpus, that in Yoruba thought, people are held responsible for their own voluntary actions (1975: 399–420). The implication of this is that predeterminism does not remove freewill because the notions of ebo (sacrifice), ese (strife) and iwa (character) are unconstrained exercise of freewill.

In a fatalistic interpretation, Taylor (1983: 52) argues that the fatalistic attitude of submitting to everything that happens as inevitable, to a great extent, fits the Yoruba concept of human destiny. Like Taylor, Bolaji Idowu argues that the Yoruba are incurably fatalistic in their belief in ori and human destiny. As he argues the Yoruba are not autonomous agents in their causal explanations of events in their personal history. The important episodes in the life of a typical Yoruba man have been chosen, sealed and extremely difficult to change. Hence, what will be will not but be.

Oduwole (1996: 48) extensively argued for the plausibility of a fatalistic interpretation of the Yoruba concepts of ori and human destiny. While establishing her claims, she noted that for the Yoruba, everybody has got his biography written before coming into he world, such that whatever he does is not done out of freewill but because it has been preordained. Such a belief as this is expressive of hard-determinism. Arguing further, Oduwole claims that whatever a person does is not as a matter of chance or luck, it is something which has been settled in pre-existence state or by fate. She avers fate to be the guiding force that controls actions which we ordinarily believe to be under man’s control or over which man thinks he has a choice. Freedom in other words, is an illusion within the Yoruba causal explanation paradigm. In fact, the so-called act of choice present in the acquisition of ‘ori’ before coming into the world, argues Oduwole, is not an act of choice. From all indications, the choice of ori is forced on man by forces more powerful than himself. Consequently, ori the determinant of man’s destiny, denies the act of choice, freewill and moral responsibilities (Ibid: 53).

Moreso, Oduwole underscores the supposed avenues by which the Yoruba think destiny can be altered and argued that they are fruitless exercise (Ibid: 49). As she argues, human beings do not naturally want to accept failure. In cases where man finds out via the ifa (oracle) priest that he has chosen a bad ori; the result of which is failure on earth, he engages in an endless, albeit fruitless, struggle to achieve the impossible – to improve or change his destiny. All such efforts and the whole exercise of changing the destiny, Oduwole claims, are actually a means of fulfilling the destiny. Hence, man has no freewill to do otherwise than destiny has fated him. While strengthening her fatalistic interpretation of the Yoruba concepts of ori and human destiny, Oduwole (Ibid: 50) notes that “such an interpretation relieves one of all tendencies towards both blame and approbation of others. It promises that perfect understanding is possible and removes the temptation to view things in terms of human wickedness and moral responsibility”.

Finally, she maintains that a fatalistic interpretation of the Yoruba concepts of ori and human destiny is more consistent with Yoruba belief than any other interpretation (Ibid: 53). This interpretation of the metaphysical nature of ori and human destiny in Yoruba thought system as shall be shown shortly is philosophically inadequate and does not represent a correct, coherent and consistent philosophical interpretation, reflective of the Yoruba belief in ori and human destiny.

4 It is important to note that Ajala, the entity that moulds ori, wields an important status in Yoruba cosmology. However, as explicit in Ifa poems and many other ancient Yoruba scriptures, Ajala is not an Orisa (divinity). This is understandable when one realizes that not all supernatural entities in Yoruba religion are gods, goddesses, Orisa or divinities.


Explicitly established in the above arguments of Taylor Richard, Bolaji Idowu and Ebun Oduwole are these salient points: that one’s destiny, his future existence or whatever he becomes in life or whatever activities or events that occurred in life are all traceable to the type of destiny his ori had chosen for him at creation; that with the Yoruba, the notion of ‘chance’ or ‘freedom’ becomes otiose since whatever happens to a person is attributed to the choices, which his ori makes. In other words, that once a destiny has been chosen, it becomes doubly sealed and totally impossible to change, even the preternatural forces are not in position to alter it; and that the Yoruba are hard deterministic and fatalistic in their belief in and conception ori and human destiny. There are two fundamental problems with this kind of submission.

First, virtually all Yoruba African philosophers (Olubi Sodipo, Segun Gbadegesin, Moses Makinde, Segun Oladipo, Ebun Oduwole, Samuel Ali and amongst others) who have commented on ori vis-à-vis the freewill-determinism problem have overlooked a point that is quite clear in the exposition of the two important religious scholars on this issue (i.e, Bolaji Idowu and Wande Abimbola).

Indeed, virtually all these Yoruba African philosophers who have written on ori, human personality, vis-à-vis freewill cite these two religious scholars, but these philosophers all overlook one point, which is obvious in the writing of these religious scholars: Ori is limited to issues of material success (i.e things like wealth, riches and success in one’s profession). Ori has nothing to do with moral character, and as such it does not affect all of human actions and/or inactions. Ori in Yoruba thought is concerned only with issues of material success in life at a general level.

Arguably, no where in any of the ancient Yoruba scriptures (i.e the Ifa literary corpus, Ijala and Iwi, Egungun, and Esa Egungun) is there the claim that moral character can be pre-determined by one’s earlier choice of Ori. Given this critical point that Ori is not about moral character, but about issues of prosperous or impoverished destiny, then establishing the case for soft-determinism becomes more resonant with the Yoruba cultural belief. However, before we explore the plausibility of such, let us examine the second prank of the problem.

The second problem has to with the fatalistic conclusion of some of these scholars, which if carried to its logical conclusion; it will be unjustified to hold a person responsible for his actions since the causes of his actions are external to him and beyond his control. With the fatalistic interpretation of the Yoruba belief in ori and human destiny, the practice of performance of character formation becomes otiose, since it is not a product of man’s making. Besides, the doctrine of fatalism, rather than promising perfect understanding and removing the temptation of viewing things in terms of human wickedness, as Oduwole argues, it indeed nullifies the efficacy of reason, stifles creativity and spirit of hard-work. But is there a way out of this dilemma? Is the Yoruba belief in ori and human destiny rigidly fatalistic and hard-deterministic, or does it appear so merely at the surface level?

A surface look at the Yoruba concept of ori will seem to suggest that the Yoruba are incurable fatalists and hard-determinists. Although in theory, the destiny of a person is said to be unaltered because it became doubly sealed after its choice, but in actual sense, it does not seem to be so. Upon a deeper reflection and practical experience, several factors have occasioned an alteration in destiny on earth; either for good or bad. An individual’s destiny may be changed for good or for bad. Instances of this abound with in the Yoruba cultural milieu.

The Yoruba believe in the consultation of the god of divination (Orunmila) to know the kind of ori one had chosen and to perhaps alter an unfavorable destiny through the help of some spiritual forces and by the application of the right type of sacrifices. Ebo (Sacrifice) among the Yoruba is believed to be capable of influencing human destiny either for good or bad. Sacrifice is a form of communication between the natural and the supernatural realms of the Yoruba cosmos. According to Kola Abimbola (Ibid: 62–63), sacrifice is forgoing, relinquishing or doing without something in the expectation of gaining something else. Among the Yoruba, it is more of food for the gods; a social act; a means of repentance; and, insurance against failure. It is founded on the ideal of mutual exchange or reciprocity between man and the spirits in order to influence or bring about positive changes in man’s life.

It is for this reason that the Yoruba will say:
Riru ebo n gbe ni, airu ebo ki gbeniyan
(making of sacrifice favours one than its utter refusal)

Ese is another closely related principle with ebo that stresses the possibility of alteration in man’s destiny. Ese, which is the principle of individual strife and struggle signifies that choosing a good Ori is not sufficient without having to struggle and strive for success in life. Ese acts like a catalyst to the realization or otherwise of one’s destiny.

Besides the above avenues, other agents of possible change in the fulfillment of destiny include evil forces such as witchcraft and some other demonic forces. In addition to factors influencing an alteration in the status of destiny is one’s own character. One’s act of rashness or impulse behaviour can affect one’s destiny for the worse. While an impatient person will run at a faster pace than his ori, thereby losing its support, an idle mind will spoil an otherwise prosperous destiny. In all these practical instances, the Yoruba believe that destiny can be altered.

The possibility of altering one’s destiny presents some forms of antimonies in Yoruba thought. At one point, it is said that one’s destiny is unalterable. At another, it is held that it is alterable through some factors. What do we make of this seeming contradiction? What is suggested is that there does seem confusion in the whole idea of ori and its connection with human destiny. However, such puzzles become cleared when we realize that the Yoruba also posit another concept, afowofa (the infliction of a problem on oneself or causation of a problem by oneself) as explanation for some of the problems that befall a person.

The Yoruba trace the cause of some events to the individual person who performs the action and not any supernatural force outside of man. Such actions are located in the realm of the natural and are empirically observable. It is for this reason that people are punished for wrongdoing because they are believed to be responsible for their actions. This then suggests that in the analysis of the concepts of ori or destiny, The Yoruba falls within the gamut of what is called ‘soft-determinism’ in metaphysical terms. The nature of ori and human destiny in Yoruba belief is neither fatalism in the strict sense of it, nor hard determinism. The Yoruba conception of human destiny is indeed soft-deterministic in nature. Soft determinism here refers to a situation where a person is held responsible for actions deliberately performed by him while attributing to his ‘ori’ those whose ‘causes’ transcend him. This soft-deterministic interpretation of the Yoruba concepts of ori and human destiny is more consistent, correct and coherent with Yoruba belief and cultural practice than any other metaphysical interpretation.

A proper look into the traditional Yoruba cosmos and their beliefs in ori and human destiny suggests that the Yoruba are better referred to as soft-determinists and not fatalists and hard determinists as some scholars want us to believe. Unlike a fatalist who easily resigns himself to fate with respect to future situations, the Yoruba as soft-determinists are hopefully gratified of being able to help future situations. In the same vein, they are rationally conscious of being held responsible for present actions deliberately preformed by themselves.

Indeed, a soft-deterministic conception of destiny in Yoruba thought is truly reflective of and coherent with the belief of the people on moral responsibility and freedom. It is because of the freedom, morality and responsibility which are accommodated by this conception of destiny that make the alterability of destiny meaningful and consistent. Situating the concept of ‘ori’ and human destiny in traditional Yoruba thought within the framework of soft-determinism can help in taking care of the inconsistencies and problems associated with the fatalistic interpretations of the Yoruba concepts of ori and human destiny. Such problems are occasioned by practical existential experiences of the Yoruba in noting some factors (such as one’s action, sacrifices, evil machination etc.) as potent forces in altering one’s destiny even when fatalism suggests that the choice of one’s ori is irrevocable and unalterable. With soft determinism, the possibility of changing an unfavourable destiny; of worshipping the guardian ancestral spirit of hard work; of consciously guiding against other’s interception of a favourable destiny, become apparent.

S. Ade Ali (1995: 104), in consonance with this paper’s soft-deterministic interpretation of the concepts of ori and human destiny argues that the Yoruba conception of destiny is repugnant of harsh words of hard determinism, repudiating fatality and necessity The temptation to consider the metaphysical nature of the Yoruba belief in ori and human destiny in the light of fatalism or hard determinism (as Bolaji Idowu, Richard Taylor, Ebun Oduwole, etc have done) is natural; however, incorrect. It is only inexplicable traits of a person either towards evil or good that the Yoruba explain through appeal to destiny. Destiny in this sense signifies an unfreedom act which only implies a transcendental relation that explains the unusual, baffling and untoward complexities of life which must come to pass no matter what (Ibid). Only destiny understood in this sense is analogous to fatalism. Outside this sense, and as it is often the case, the belief in ‘ori’ and human destiny in Yoruba coheres with the notion of afowofa (self causation), where one is held responsible for actions deliberately performed by oneself, while attributing to his ori those whose causes transcend him. It is when the effort to rectify a bad destiny or to maintain a good destiny come to a naught that the Yoruba recourse to fate (fatalism).

Instances as these constitute inexplicable events with transcendental causes to the Yoruba. Hence, their easy recourse to fatalistic submissions – ori buruku ko gbo ose (a bad ori cannot be rectified with soap) (Idowu op. Cit: 182). In view of this therefore, it becomes untenable to narrowly conclude and offer a fatalistic interpretation of the Yoruba concept of ori and human destiny based on few instances of inexplicable events, which tend to evade human solution and explanation. Rather, for an inclusive understanding of the concepts of ori and human destiny, reflective of true traditional Yoruba cultural beliefs, a soft-deterministic interpretation is inevitable.


Thus far, the discussion in the paper has established that the concepts of ori and human destiny in traditional Yoruba thought fits very well into the framework of soft-determinism rather than hard-determinism, predestinationism, indeterminism or fatalism. Though in the attempt to offer explanation for some baffling, untoward and inexplicable events, the Yoruba recourse to fatalistic interpretation of destiny.

Given the reality of few instances of events as these in the life of the Yoruba, there is the temptation to conclude that the metaphysical nature of ori and human destiny in traditional Yoruba is basically fatalistic or hard deterministic. However, upon further critical reflection and overwhelming supporting evidence in Yoruba thought, the paper has shown that such conclusion is exclusive of other salient issues, factors and problems surrounding the concepts of ori and human destiny. Hence, an incorrect interpretation.

The validity and reality of the concepts of ‘afowofa’(self causation), rewards and punishment, the efficacy of reason, ebo (sacrifice), and ese (hard work), freedom and moral responsibility; all true of the Yoruba, seem to demand for a more inclusive metaphysical explanation of the nature of the Yoruba concepts of ori and human destiny. It is in this regard that the paper offers and defends soft-determinism as a better alternative causal explanatory paradigm.

Though critiques may perhaps want to raise a fundamental question that will vitiate the veracity of our soft-deterministic defense of ori and human destiny in Yoruba thought: Are humans really free in issues of material wealth if in Yoruba culture they had no say in the determination of the contents of their Ori in Ajala’s house?

This question is quite important and cannot be ignored. While it is true that there are external constraints at the supernatural realm of the choice of Ori at Ajala’s house, it is however sacrosanct to note also that at the natural plane, there are various avenues ebo (sacrifice), ese (hard work), iwa (character), and afowofa (self-caused) open to man, and which require his freewill in order to (re)shape and (re)influence his chances of chosen destiny (whether good or bad) on earth.

It is for the above reason that we make bold to reaffirm that soft-determinism is more correct, coherent and consistent with the Yoruba belief in ori and human destiny than any other metaphysical interpretation. It is more of a secular orientation in the normative conception of destiny in Yoruba thought. Besides, it creates a situation where one is held responsible for actions deliberately performed by oneself, afowofa, while attributing to his destiny those whose causes transcend him.


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