by Ayodeji Ogunnaike
Literally translates as “head” but carries a transcendent meaning akin to a person’s destiny/fate, though not in a fatalistic or deterministic sense. It constitutes the cosmic potential of each human being and their purposes for existence. There is both an orí òde (outer/physical/visible head) and an orí inú (inner/metaphysical/invisible head), but in philosophical discourse, the term orí refers to the orí inú. However, the physical parts of the body are not fully divorced from their metaphysical counterparts. Orí is also the most powerful spiritual force in a person’s life—a deity itself and more powerful than the many others—and success in all aspects of life is contingent upon a positive relationship with it and mediated through ritual. Knowledge of one’s orí is an important goal in Yoruba life and the deepest information on oneself. Orí can also be understood as a type of celestial spirit double or guardian angel not dissimilar to a Neoplatonic daimon.
The concept of orí provides a context in which to understand and debate issues such as free will and destiny or how cosmic order interacts with personal effort. It constitutes a field in which thinkers can adopt different perspectives, as some place more of an emphasis on the ability to alter or affect one’s orí through propitiation and action on earth, while others consider the choice of orí as more final and fixed. It also strongly suggests a celestial pre- or supra-temporal existence of each individual or the existence of a primordial archetype of what or who a person truly is or should aspire to become. The greater focus on orí inú over orí òde demonstrates the ontological priority of the inner, immaterial nature of a person over the external, although they are linked. The ritual processes and paraphernalia associated with orí demonstrate the practical and lived nature of this central aspect of Yoruba philosophy and religion.
Before coming to earth from heaven, all people must go to the house of Àjàlá, the celestial potter, to select their orí. Àjàlá forms each orí out of clay, but he is an unreliable craftsman, so not all orí are created equal. Some are good and durable, while others are poorly crafted and will not serve their owners well, but it is very difficult to determine the nature of each orí. After selecting an orí, and crossing the boundary between heaven and earth, people forget the content of their orí and need to consult the òrìṣà Ọrúnmìlà (deity of wisdom and divination) to find out the nature of their orí and what it would have them do at important junctures. This is because Ọrúnmìlà witnesses each person’s selection of orí and can reveal the necessary information through his system of divination.
In a chapter (Odù) called “Ogbè-Yọnú” of the Ifá oral corpus (a vast body of myths, proverbs, and poems used in divination), one of Ọrúnmìlà’s sons named Afùwàpẹ is going to Àjàlá’s house with two friends before coming down to earth. His friends proceed directly to Àjàlá’s house, but he stops at his father’s house first to greet him and ask him to perform Ifa divination about his impending decision. Ọrúnmìlà tells Afùwàpẹ that he must make a sacrifice of salt and a great deal of money to ensure success. Afùwàpẹ does as his father instructed and carries the sacrifice along with him. Before reaching Àjàlá’s house, he encounters a gatekeeper who is seasoning his food with ash, and Afùwàpẹ recommends the man try some of his salt instead. The man is so happy with the taste of salt, he tells Afùwàpẹ that he will not find Àjàlá at home because his creditors are looking for him and he has gone into hiding. However, if he can get the creditors to leave, he could talk to Àjàlá and get help selecting a good orí. When Afùwàpẹ arrives at the house, he uses his large sum of money to pay off Àjàlá’s debt, and Àjàlá jumps down from the rafters as soon as the creditors are gone. He too is so pleased with Afùwàpẹ that he points out an excellent orí that will bring him success in life. When Afùwàpẹ comes down to earth, he prospers, but his two friends who had chosen their orí without Àjàlá’s help end up with bad ones. They struggle and struggle but cannot make much of themselves due to the bad choice they unknowingly made (Abimbola, 1975b, 178-207).
In another Odú Ifá called “Ògúndá-Méjì,” Ọrúnmìlà asks all the òrìṣà who can travel the farthest with their devotees. Each one, except for orí, admits that they would have to stop to eat their favorite foods and perform their rituals at their ancestral homes and cities. That orí is the only one who never needs to stop and will accompany a devotee to the ends of the world demonstrates its superior importance to the life of the individual.
In philosophical discourse, orí is often paired with ẹsẹ (leg/foot) as its compliment. While people would often carry heavy loads on their heads and a head/orí determines where the body will go, ẹsẹ are necessary to carry the person and anything they have acquired to the desired location. Thus, ẹsẹ represents the hard work necessary to bring the benefits of a good orí to pass. The deity Èṣù is commonly believed to be able to tempt people to leave the path of their orí, and good character (ìwàpẹlẹ) is closely associated with orí as well. It is also connected with ẹmí (breath), which is received from Olódùmarè (Almighty God) just before choosing an orí.
Orí is likely the most common term used in literature on Yoruba philosophy and is analyzed by practically all scholars of Yoruba thought and cosmology (See Abimbola 1993, Gbadegesin 1994, Makinde 1984, Oduwole 1996, Balogun 2007). This literature often takes the form of analysis of Yoruba perspectives on destiny (such as soft-determinism or fatalism), but a great deal of insightful work has also been done in the realm of art and art history by scholars such as Abiodun (2014), Lawal (1985, 2001), and Ademuleya (2007) because the paraphernalia associated with the ritual propitiation of orí and their aesthetic attributes are both rich and deeply embedded in understandings of its philosophical significance.