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Àjé - The Birds of the Souls Darker Nights

The Yoruba term àjé, carry associations to movement and trade – we might understand it as a marketplace of night unfolding in silver rays. This nocturnal marketplace is conceived of as a gathering of long beaked and predatory birds.

The concept of àjé has in the New World and the Modern West been equaled with ‘witch’ – and this is true, in so far as we understand what a witch is – on African premises. Àjé is considered a power some people have by inheritance, initiation or by birth. It is considered to be an excess of àse (natural power) – and therefore it must be kept under control and in balance to avoid damage to the wielder of àjé and the community itself.  Àjé is the primordial emotional depths of womanhood. It is not a generative force – on the contrary. Honeysweet Òsún is the generative powers and fertility. Àjé and their mother Ìyàmí Òsòròngà is the barrenness and otherness, the femaleness prior to the first blood and the lament upon the last blood. This means that the powers of àjé play themselves out upon the field of possibility. Àjé is like the rhizomes of a fungi or a lotus crawling miles under ground, manifesting in peaks of power here and there – but its true essence is a phosphorous networks of subterranean possibilities that may or may not come into manifestation. 

Ifá tells us that it was in the divine vibration known as Odú Òsá Méjí the power known as àjé came to earth. This odú also speaks about how two male Òrìsà, Obàtálá and Ògún and one female, Òdù came to earth to sculpt and mold it. Olodumare gave to Obàtálá the power of sculpting and artistry and to Ògún the power of metallurgy.  To Òdù he gave the power of giving life – he gave motherhood and told her she was the sustainer of the world. She would sustain the world with a particular calabash. Inside this calabash was a bird. She declared that she would use this magnificent àse to fight those who disrespected her and to defend those who adored her. This bird was àjé – and Òdú taking hold of this bird becomes Ìyàmí Òsòròngà, which we can understand to mean “My Mysterious Mother; Owner of the Birds of Night”.

And this is why Obàtálá declares the following in this òdú that announces the birds of the otherworld’s to descend upon the earth:

Obarisa said that people should always respect
Women greatly
For if they always respect women greatly, the world
Will be in right order
Pay homage; give respect to women
Indeed, it is woman who brought us into being
Before we became recognized as human beings
The wisdom of the world belongs to women
Give respect to women then
Indeed, it was woman who brought
Us into being
Before we became recognized as human beings

Naturally, the gift of motherhood comes with the intense field of ensouled emotional variables that takes place during the menstruation, gestation and menopause. These are peak tides for the secrets of motherhood to rage and rave in its raw state. Hence, àjé are ‘birds’ that dwells, infest and feeds on our emotions and taint or heal our soul. In this lies the admonition in numerous Ifá verses and proverbs advising us – and especially males – to prostrate upon Odú – or womb and woman and pay her respect, to make ipese; the sacrifice that calms the womb.

Ìyàmí is said to be “seated upon Òdù”, that she is crowning the feminine powers or that Òdú is an Ìyàmí. She is also referred to as Ìyàmí eleye “The Owner of the birds” and Ìyà Àgbà “The elderly woman is respectable” and Ìyàmí Òsòròngà which means “My mother the Powerful Sorceress or Witch”.  This raises some controversial issues, since witchcraft is both associated with anti-social acts as well as a natural power accessible for women and members of societies like egbé eleye and egbé ìmùlè where the secrets of manipulating supernatural powers are preserved. Anti social witchcraft is sad to stem from àjé burúkú, but there is also another type of “witch” referred to as àjé rere. The difference is one of character. The word burúkú refers to everything that is bad, broken and corrupted. For instance the term Orí burúkú signifies a person incapable to make choices that are good for him or she and that are considered bothersome and destructive for themselves and society.

Rere on the other hand also used interchangeably with Ìwá pélé refers to a state of contentment and happiness, where ones character is good and one is a good and benevolent addition to society and one self. The Nigerian historian Lawal comments in this regard that women being less strong physically were blessed with a special form of cunning, ogbón ayé, which also carry the connotation of deceit or slyness. Still, the importance of character and maintaining a calm and good consciousness is at all times stressed. Even today we have proverbs amongst the Yoruba referring to the influence of àjé being like ‘birds nesting in a person’s hair’. This is most telling because hair carries the symbolic meaning of being something untamed and wild, what entangles and must be directed if a positive growth is desired. Because of this the Ori (consciousness/the physical head) is often adorned by beautifying the hair itself and fashion it with care to decorate the Ori/head as a way of appeasing and make ones head calm. 

There is another element that needs to be commented upon. That is the ancestral element. Ìyámí is considered to be the ancestral progenitor of the female sex as Osó is the progenitor of the male sex. This would perhaps mean that while Ìyámí represent supreme and transcendent womanhood, Osó represent the supreme and transcendent maleness. Osó is said to take his àse from the realm of Èsù placing this deity in the realm of transformation and change. Maybe one can understand that Àjé and Osó is the same essential power but taken into two different direction by the natural rhythm of creation and there becomes something different altogether – as crude and original maleness and crude and original femaleness. One also see this in the reflection this have in cults, Osó is deeply related to the cult of Orìsà Oko , the orìsà of the Farm and is said to serve as a judge and middleman in cases of accusations of witchcraft. He is considered to be a calm and tranquil force, just and wise with a deep knowledge about witchcraft and sorcery. Maybe in Osó is found the idealized male mirrored in the ways of Orìsà Oko? One might see this by the birds sacred to Ìyámi and Osó as well. The birds of Ìyámí are predators, while in the case of Osó the vulture is sacred, a bird that do not pray on anything than meat that is already dead. It is not a predator but a purifier. This can be one explanation for the respective ancestral relationship related to these two spiritual potencies and their similarities and differences. It also harmonize with the Yoruba view of cosmos in the words of Lawal: “as a dynamic interplay of such opposites as heaven and earth, day and night, male and female, physical and metaphysical, body and soul, inner and outer, hot and cold, hard and soft, left and right, life and death, success and failure and so on.”

There is a belief in the New World that there is some form of enmity between the àjé and Ifá – but Òrúnmìlà in his capacity as the great peace maker understood the necessity of these powers and how this abundance of ase can benefit mankind. This mystery is guarded in the society of Ogboni where the traditional dynamic of power between the left hand and right hand is understood and used. Not only this, but the weight and quality of colours is also preserved here, because all manifestation and its potential comes in the colours of red, black and white – which are degrees of mercy, coldness and fire. Ultimately we are speaking of the mystery of emotional and cosmic tension and how to appease it.  

On can ask however why it is important to understand these powers, why they are so integral to the work of Ifá, why these disruptive forces are present in the world. The explanation to this mystery is marvelous and wonderful – and one ray of its magnificence is found in the Òdù Òsá Méjì where we can read:  

Ogbon kan nbe ní kùn omo àsá Ìmóràn kan nbe kìkùn omo àwòdì Òkan nínúù re Okan ninúù mi Okòòkàn níkùn ara wa Sefá fún Òrúnmilà Ifá nlo bá àjé mulè Mòrèrè Wón ni nítorìi kìnni Ò ní nìtorì kì nkan òun lègún gègèègè ni


The hawk has one wisdom
The falcon possesses one knowledge
One in my mind
One in your mind
One each in our minds
These were the declarations of Ifá to Òrúnmìlà
when going to enter in to a covenant with the witches at Mòrèrè
They asked him why he was doing this
He said that it was for his life to be perfectly organized

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