Predestination and the problem of Freewill in Yoruba mythology.

In Time by Ebukun G. Ogunyemi

The concept of Orí, and its significance to human destiny, within the context of Yorùbá mythology and beliefs, has received attention from African Philosophers and Yorùbá Literary Scholars such as Chief Wande Abimbola, Kola Abimbola, Ebunoluwa O. Oduwole, Oladele Balogun and many others. As Yoruba has expanded past the shores of Ife, expanded into neighboring regions, traveled around the world, and interacts with new generations of Yoruba’s, our ideas of Ori must be revisited and renewed. 

Ori and Àjàlá’s Warehouse

Just like many other Yorùbá philosophies, the concepts of Orí, which in this case, implies not the physical head (part of the body that can be seen), but the spiritual or inner head (orí inú) and human destiny, is an integral aspect of Yorùbá beliefs. According to Yorùbá mythology, there are two different narratives about the concept of Orí and its acquisition—the story about Àjàlá’s warehouse and the epic where one kneels in front of Olódùmarè, who is known as God or the Supreme Deity. 

In the former narrative, Yorùbás believe that one is required to choose an Orí from a vast number at Àjàlá’s house before coming into the world. In line with this notion, and according to Yorùbá cosmology and creation story, Ọbàtálá, who is known as the Òrìṣà ńlá (the arch divinity/father of all deities), is responsible for the creation of human bodies (ara), which he then presents to Olódùmarè (Supreme Deity), and who in turn breathes life  (ẹ̀mí) into the lifeless bodies. Although Ọbàtálá is responsible for the creation of human bodies, Àjàlá on the other hand, according to Olufemi Morakinyo, “Is a skilled potter, a drunkard, a debtor and an irresponsible and careless creature” (qtd. in Balogun 2007) who is responsible for the creation of Orí. Therefore, due to the complexity of Àjàlá’s personality, he is known to mould both bad and good heads of different shapes and sizes, and these bad and good heads (Orí) can be said to inherently refer to what Yorùbás term orí rere (good head) and orí burúkú (bad/horrible head). In this case, and as established from the beginning, the head/Orí doesn’t mean the part of the body, but that which controls the entire existence of being—the orí inú (spiritual head), which isn’t seen, but is represented by the physical head—the part of the body. It is why there is a proverbial Yorùbá saying which not only validates the powerful essence of Orí but also often serves as a prayer/plea to one’s head/creator:”orí inú mi, má ba t’òde mi jẹ́, which in literal translation means, my inner head, do not spoil my outer head.

According to the narrative of Àjàlá’s warehouse, human beings are not given an Orí, they kneel and choose it from the myriads of shapes and sizes at Àjàlá’s, and this act of kneeling and choosing is referred to as Àkúnlẹ̀yàn in Yorùbá (that is, that which is chosen by kneeling). After this selection, it is believed that “every man coming into the world passes through the water of forgetfulness—omi ìgbàgbé, which is the boundary between heaven and earth” (Balogun 2007). It would therefore make sense to believe that this rite is responsible for why human beings have no memory of a previous life before their existence on earth, and in as much as this myth about the acquisition of Orí highlights our freedom to choose, it also doesn’t fail to point out the fact that the goodness of every choice is not guaranteed/known, and is nothing but sheer luck, because, although we make our own choice, we are still at the mercy of Àjàlá’s personality, mood and recklessness. In other words, human beings never know what kind of head it is they chose (whether it is a bad head or not) until they arrive at the earth and begin to live.

What is the implication of Orí to human existence? 

Although the other myth about the concept of Orí is different, it further affirms that the idea of “choice” as projected in the myth about Àjàlá’s warehouse isn’t human beings making their own choice. Unlike Àjàlá’s warehouse where a person “chooses” their Orí, thereby, “deciding their own lot/portion” (ìpín), we acquire Orí by kneeling in front of Olódùmarè (the Supreme Being), who in turn confers the destiny/portion. This form of acquiring Orí is what Yoruba refer to as Àyànmọ́, and in the light of these myths, it is established that Ọ̀rúnmìlà, who is known as the god of divinity (the originator of Ifa – oracle) and the Igbá-kejì Olódùmarè (the second-in-command of the Supreme Being) is present at both narratives as a witness of human being’s lot. It is for this reason that Yorùbás refer to him as the Ẹlẹ́rìí Ìpín (the witness of fate/destiny). 

By these myths, a human being’s destiny is determined at the point of acquiring orí, and essentially, Orí is the spiritual guardian of humans and the determinant of their destiny. In other words, Yorùbá believes that a human being’s destiny is unchangeable whether chosen (at Àjàlá’s) or conferred (by Olódùmarè). Regardless of the differences in these myths, it is very certain that they both have the same implication for human beings’ existence. Inherently, what this means is that if a person’s Orí is bad, it automatically implies a bad life, and if it is good, it also implies a good life. Therefore, the concepts of Orí and human destiny does not only posit that humans are not defined at all by their efforts or actions on earth, but that life has been predestined, and therefore, everything they do is nothing but enactment in alignment with their Orí, and it is why Yorùbás say, àkúnlẹ̀yàn làdáyé bá. That is, what you choose while kneeling is what you meet on earth. Consequently, it is very plausible to say that the idea of choice at Àjàlá’s house is nothing but a performative act—that is, human beings do not choose, they only perform the act (which is mandatory), as they do not know what it is they choose. 

So, what is the place of human beings in their destiny?

If this belief in Orí is anything to go by, it expressly implies that human beings are products of their Orí, and are nothing but performers and probable pawns in a script they never wrote or have no memory of, thereby validating the concept of Orí as one that supports the notions of fatalism and hard-determinism. Although there have been arguments by Balogun (2007) in support of Orí as a concept tilted towards soft-determinism than fatalism, by emphasizing the concepts of ẹbọ (sacrifice), ìwà (character/attitude) and ẹsẹ̀ (leg), which also implies hard work or strife, to claim that human beings are not helpless in changing the results of their Orí, but according to Yorùbá philosophy, no god is capable of altering humans destiny, and it is why there is a proverb that says “orí là bá bọ, à bá f’òrìṣà sílẹ̀. That is, one is better off worshipping orí than running after the gods. As much as I am tempted to agree that the concept of Orí is more soft-deterministic than fatalistic, the Yorùbá proverbs that say one cannot outrun his destiny (èèyàn ò lè sáré kọjá kádàrá), and “àyànmọ́ ó gbóògùn” (fate has no remedy) not only prevent me from doing so but also berates the place of humans effort in achieving anything other than what has been sanctioned by their Orí. In regards to this, Oduwole (1996) also posits that any attempt by humans to alter or improve their destiny by changing a bad Orí into good does nothing but aids the fulfilment of such horrible destiny. In other words, humans have no free will other than to do the bidding of their Orí


Ola Rotimi in his play, The Gods Are Not to Blame, an adaptation of Oedipus Rex, explored the very concepts of Orí and human destiny. Although to a very large extent, he tilted towards the fatalistic notion of Orí, as Odewale who is destined by the gods to kill his father and marry his mother, eventually does so, but he also brought our attention to the circumstances that led to the fulfilment of this horrific destiny. As against the advice of the Ifá Priest that Odewale should be sacrificed (killed) to the gods to prevent him from fulfilling such a bad destiny, Gbonka, his father’s messenger, decides to spare his life out of compassion, and this singular act of disobedience which Gbonka processed as mercy eventually leads him to kill his father and marry his mother, and this makes me query the very idea of destiny not having a remedy. Maybe destiny does have a remedy, but not necessarily the kind of remedy that appeals to human willingness and conscience. Also, the very idea that nothing beyond death could be done for Odewale also validates the notion that the gods cannot alter the destiny of any man, and this leads me to submit that Yorùbás thrive on contradictions to communicate the lessons embedded in their philosophies. 

Although Odewale blames the fulfilment of his destiny on his weakness (being a man easily prone to anger) and not the gods, I believe the words of Oduwole here, as everything he does to change the destiny eventually leads him to fulfil it. Odewale runs away from home when he learns about his destiny, but contrary to what he thinks, he didn’t run away from his biological parents, he runs into his biological father and kills him out of ignorance. 

While I believe that Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame explored the complexities of Orí and human destiny pretty well, I also think it perfectly highlights the helplessness of free will and at the same time, submits that humans cannot be absolved of responsibility. Maybe Odewale wouldn’t have killed his father if he didn’t become so consumed with anger, or maybe he would have regardless because his Orí willed it. As human beings living in modern times, I think to live one’s life and existence entirely based on the concepts of Orí and predestination is just as bad as leaving life to chance and luck. Myths are myths for a reason, and Yorùbás are philosophical for a reason, but how does one find the lessons if one doesn’t see through the contradictions rather than entirely believe these myths? This is my take: I think if there is any lesson to pick from this Yorùbá belief, it is that human beings are not at the mercy of their Orí, but otherwise, and that’s why Yorùbás say, iṣẹ́ ni òògùn ìṣẹ́—that is, (hard) work is the veritable cure for poverty. If a person is destined to be rich and does nothing other than sleep all year long, what becomes of that Orí? And if a person is destined to be poor and toils and works all year long and becomes nothing still, what becomes of her faith in herself? I think the point is, a person never knows until they try, and if our entire preexistence is a myth, our existence cannot afford to be.