by Ayodeji Ogunnaike
Literally “breath,” it carries connotations of a “spirit” or “life force” that animates a body and gives it agency. Ẹmí is given directly to each person from Olódùmarè after the body (ara) is formed out of clay by the deity Òrìṣàńlá. Upon death, ẹmí leaves the body and returns to its celestial pre-existence, and a body is not a person without the presence of ẹmí. As it participates in the nature of Olódùmarè, ẹmí cannot be destroyed or die. Consequently, it is the basis of life itself, but not sufficient to constitute a person. Not only humans have this common quality of agential life, and as it is shared amongst and beyond all humankind, other elements such as orí are required for human personality. Ẹmí also need not necessarily be the literal breath of a human being, but more so the agent that causes a person to breathe (mí in Yoruba).
The most significant implication of ẹmí is its existential link with Olódùmarè, which renders practically all life divine in a certain sense. While ẹmí does not constitute the full self, this link and ẹmí’s return to Olódùmarè after death indicates the immortality of at least part of a person. In addition, as it is placed within the body after creation, it pre-exists the purely physical part of a person. However, because ẹmí can assume physical form, its ability to exist outside of a body opens up the possibility for a “spirit” to leave the body and perhaps enter other beings or take on other forms. Ẹmí’s agential power constitutes the ability to choose one’s path or lot in life through its role in the selection of orí, which like the body is dependent upon ẹmí for its association with each person.
Depending on the perspective of individual practitioners, the òrìṣà Òrìṣàńlá is believed to form the human body (ara) out of clay only on earth, or on earth and in heaven. On Earth, Olódùmarè deputized Òrìṣàńlá with the task of molding people’s bodies and said that he would come back to breathe ẹmí into the bodies when they were finished. Òrìṣàńlá began molding human bodies responsibly, but because he worked for so long under the hot sun, he got thirsty and drank a great deal of palm wine. As a result, he got drunk and started forming irregularly shaped bodies. He also left some bodies out in the sun too long, making them very dark, and left others in the shade, making them lighter. Òrìṣàńlá eventually passed out, and before he could wake up and adjust the bodies, Olódùmarè came and gave each one ẹmí, fixing their form for good. Òrìṣàńlá felt remorse and responsibility for the shape of the bodies he molded when drunk, so those with such bodies enjoy his protection and benevolence as his special children, although all people share the same nature by virtue of being given the same ẹmí. In heaven (or alternatively in the mother’s womb), Òrìṣàńlá forms the body of each person, and once completed, Olódùmarè gives the body ẹmí, which enables it to travel to the house of Àjàlá to select its orí before descending to life on earth.
In the Odù Ifá “Ọbàrà Òtúrúpọn,” the òrìṣà Èṣù, Òrìṣàńlá, and Ogún were all destitute and in desperate need of money. Èṣù—as the clever deity of chaos, morality, and communication—devised a plan to trick an unsuspecting man out of his money. Ogún carved a statue in the shape of a beautiful woman, Òrìṣàńlá gave it the ability to speak, and Èṣù promised to take the statue to the market to find a husband for her. However, the figure could not be a real person since only Olódùmarè could give it ẹmí. Once they finished crafting the fake woman, Èṣù brought her to the market. That same day Ọrúnmìlà performed divination because he wanted help finding a wife. Ifá told him that if he performed a sacrifice, he would find the woman of his dreams in the market. Ọrúnmìlà was so excited he rushed off to the market and forgot about the sacrifice. Once he arrived, he fell in love with the woman Èṣù, Òrìṣàńlá, and Ogún had made and asked to meet her father so he could pay the dowry and make her his wife. Ọrúnmìlà paid a large sum to a man he did not realize was Èṣù in disguise but was later surprised when after only two days his wife lost her color, could no longer move, and ceased to speak! He returned to the market to find her father, but Èṣù was long gone.
Ẹmí is most closely associated with Olódùmarè, which is significant because Olódùmarè is not the focus of ritual devotion or much philosophical thought. Ẹmí is also closely linked to the complementary term ara and thus Òrìṣàńlá as its creator. However, it would be a mistake to consider ara to be purely material and ẹmí purely immaterial as one can perceive breath in the physical world and the parts of the physical body (such as orí and ẹsẹ) also have strong immaterial connotations as well. Ẹmí is also frequently invoked as tied to ọkàn (heart) as what gives ọkàn its character and vitality. Some also consider ẹmí to be each person’s specific type of àṣẹ.
All scholars writing on traditional Yoruba notions of the self reference ẹmí as one of if not the most fundamental elements (See Idowu 1994, Hallen 2000, Gbdegesin 2003). However, Bascom (1960) provides a unique analysis by presenting the diversity of views on the concept across several Yoruba communities. He demonstrates the complications with translating it as the “soul” although it is a close approximation. Oladipo (1992b) for his part cautions against applying Cartesian duality to the concept of ẹmí as spiritual rather than physical, and highlights differences between ẹmí and the similar English term “mind”.