Divination: Ifa Divination

views updated


The Yorùbá people of southwestern Nigeria possess a highly complex divination system called Ifa. Ifa is a central feature of Yorùbá religion, culture, and society, and it constitutes a main source for their knowledge, cosmology, and belief system. Ifa refers to both the divination practice and the Yorùbá god of divination, also called runmila. Ifa divination is also practiced among other West African peoples, especially the Fon people of the Republic of Benin. Divination is a ritual performance in which the priest-diviner, the clients, and the social and cosmological order of the Yorùbá people interact to produce meaningful results to a client's quest and purpose for consultation. Consultation takes place when a client inquires of the supernatural order concerning problems or issues that are not quite clear to the client. Typically, clients inquire about illness, auspicious marriages, a planned journey, or choice of the succeeding king. No dilemma or issue is too small or complex in traditional Yorùbá society to lend itself to consulting Ifa. The rationale for such depth of trust and promise is based in Yorùbá cosmology and moral order, which entrusted the Ifa deity with the knowledge of all that exists in the universe. Ifa is personified as the all-knowing historian, storyteller, and intermediary between the gods and the people. Ifa represents the people's intellectual deity and the public relations officer of the Yorùbá pantheon.

Furthermore, Ifa's role and function as an omnipotent healer in Yorùbá society is highly esteemed. Through the agency of Ifa, healing takes place when a diviner successfully diagnoses the source of a client's illness, and prescribes and carries out the appropriate sacrifice. The Ifa divination process begins when a client consults a diviner, and the diviner casts the divining chain (opele ) on the divining mat or uses a set of sixteen palm nuts to arrive at a solution. The result of divination is referred to as the Signature or Signs of Ifa, which in principle may be one of 256 possible signs, forming a double tetragram produced by manipulating the sixteen palm nuts of the divining chain. With his finger, the diviner traces the Signs of Ifa, now discernible in the yellow divining powder (iyerosun ) sprinkled over the surface of the divining tray (opon Ifá ). Thus, the diviner pronounces the results, and chanting, he recites the message of the Signature of the Ifa deity who appears in the process. The diviner explains the message to the client, prescribing appropriate sacrifices to be carried out. During long and intensive periods of apprenticeship, which may take from fifteen to thirty years or more, the priest-diviners memorize a comprehensive repertoire of complex Ifa verses.

Scholarly study of Ifa divination began with William Bascom when he carried out his fieldwork on Yorùbá social organization in Ile-If, Nigeria, and other parts of Yorùbáland between 1936 and 1938. He began publishing his research, with his major works Ifa Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa (1969) and Sixteen Cowries: Yorùbá Divination from Africa to the New World (1980). Other scholarly works also appeared, such as Wande Abimbola's Ifá: An Exposition of Ifá Literary Corpus (1976) and Ifá Divination Poetry (1977). Abimbola, more than anyone else, gave Ifa divination the prestige it enjoys in the academic world today.

Today a large body of timeless Ifa poetrysafeguarded remarkably only in the memory of individual oral historianshas been collected, transcribed, and translated into English and French. Stored in these principal oral texts, the verses are now used as sources for exploring the moral order and ritual practices of the Yorùbá people. Representing a significant genre of oral traditions as far back as ancient times, Ifa verses represent compilations of myths, legends, proverbs, songs, and praise poetry. They signify numerous themes, events, occasions, and places in Yorùbá culture and history, such as mythic and historical characters, migration stories, and biographies of cultural heroes, ancestors, animals, and such natural phenomena as trees, groves, and rivers. They also refer to ethical and aesthetic ideas, philosophy, and metaphors, and to sacred journeys carried out by famous ancient diviners. The Yorùbá themselves regard the Ifa verses as their primary source of instructions for daily life. The verses constitute the Yorùbá encyclopedia of knowledge through the interpretation of these texts, and scholars are now examining many deep-seated values and concerns in Yorùbá culture and society.

A number of interpretive works have emerged reflecting on various aspects of Ifa indigenous knowledge and Yorùbá theory of knowledge in the Ifa divination texts. Among them are Philip Peek's edited volume, African Divination Systems (1991), and J. O. Sodipe and Barry Hallen's Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft (1986). As comprehensive collections and interpretations of Ifa verses, these works enable us to have a better understanding of Yorùbá systems of thought and culture. We are able to interpret Yorùbá-derived religions in the Americas, called Santería (Afro-Cuban), Candomblé (Afro-Brazilian), and Vodou (Afro-Haitian)all of which are making significant inroads in the United States.

In the United States, there is a remarkable renaissance of Yorùbá religion, especially in major urban centers. Though often classified and labeled as a popular religion, American adherents often refer to the Yorùbá tradition as Oria tradition, as it is becoming an alternative religious and devotional system for African Americans, Latinos, and some European Americans. The Ifa divination system is the central focus of these traditions. Oria devotees are eager to acquire Ifa divination texts for devotional practices and religious education.

A case in point was Jacob Olupona's encounter with devotees of the Oria Yorùbá tradition. In April 1994, at the invitation of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, he gave a seminar titled "Ifa: Owner of the Day and Regulator of the Universe." After this presentation, he was besieged by many Oria devotees who had come from as far as Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. They wanted to know where they could obtain access to Ifa divination texts. His response then was that he was mainly interested in the scholarly study of Ifa divination analysis.

Early in the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of Oria devotees in the United States express great demands for Ifa divination texts. Popular demand for Ifa materials is indicated by the very large number of internet websites appearing on Ifa. Yorùbá religion is in the process of achieving the status of a global religion, undergoing similar transformations that the scriptural traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism went through before they reached their present "canonical" status. That is, they existed first primarily as oral texts, and subsequently were written down to assist the Yorùbá in the diaspora who are cut off from the home and source of the tradition.

The iconography of Ifa divination is the subject of investigation by art historians Rowland Abiodun, John Pemberton, and Henry Drewalto mention just a few. Not only are Ifa divination objects used as instruments of divination, but they also are regarded as objects of aesthetic and metaphysical value. In Ifa oral poetry, the fly-whisk, the divination tray, and the diviner's satchel are also interpreted as ornamental objects, bestowing honor and prestige on Ifa and on Ifa diviners, who are members of an elite class in traditional Yorùbá societies.

Rowland Abiodun (1975) and others have elaborated on the artistic use of Ifa paraphernalia and divining objects. The most important are the opon Ifá (divination tray), the iroke (fly-whisk), the opa Osun (the diviner's iron working stick), and the apo Ifá (diviner's bag), without which proper divination cannot take place. A cursory look at these religious and art objects reveals that most of them are expressed in the female form, described as the "wives" of Ifa. Numerous Yorùbá oral traditions show the symbolic and cultural contexts in which Ifa objects are portrayed as female, rather than male, clearly indicating the significance of gendered meaning of Ifa objects in Ifa divination theory and practice.


Abimbola, Wande. Ifá: An Exposition of Ifá Literary Corpus. New York and Ibadan, Nigeria, 1976.

Abimbola, Wande, trans. and ed. Ifá Divination Poetry. New York, 1977.

Abiodun, Rowland. "Ifa Art Objects: An Interpretation Based on Oral Tradition." In Yorùbá Oral Tradition: Selections from the Papers Presented at the Seminar on Yorùbá Oral Tradition, Poetry in Music, Dance, and Drama, edited by Wande Abimbola, pp. 421469. Ile-If, Nigeria, 1975.

Adeoye, C. L. Ìgbàgb́ àti ̀sìn Yorùba. Ibadan, Nigeria, 1985.

Bascom, William. Ifa Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa. Bloomington, Ind., 1969; reprint, 1991.

Bascom, William. Sixteen Cowries: Yorùbá Divination from Africa to the New World. Bloomington, Ind., 1980.

Du Bois, John. "Meaning without Intension: Lessons from Divination." In Responsibility and Evidence in Oral Discourse, edited by Jane H. Hall and Judith Irvine, pp. 4871. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Hallen, Barry, and J. O. Sodipe. Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy. London, 1986; reprint, Stanford, Calif., 1997.

Olupona, Jacob K. "Owner of the Day and Regulator of the Universe: Ifa Divination and Healing among the Yorùbá of Southwestern Nigeria." In Divination and Healing: Potent Vision, edited by Michael Winkelman and Philip M. Peek, pp. 103117. Tucson, Ariz., 2004.

Peek, Philip M., ed. African Divination Systems: Ways of Knowing. Bloomington, Ind., 1991.

Pemberton, John, ed. Insight and Artistry in African Divination. Washington, D.C., 2000.

Jacob Olupona (2005)

About this article

Divination: Ifa Divination

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article