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Ifa Divination of the Yoruba

Ifa Divination (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1996

The Yoruba people of West Africa have occupied a part of what is now known as Nigeria and Benin for over nine centuries. They have been living in city-state communities ruled by sacred rulers, councils of elders, and chiefs for a thousand years.  Due to the massive Europeans slave trade in the area  the Yoruba people were also dispersed to the Americas.  The Yoruba concept of the cosmos and the spiritual world is somewhat overwhelming to the Western mind. It seems a complex and somewhat perplexing interaction between the world of the deities and the world of human beings. The number of Yoruba deities is sometimes referred to as numbering four hundred. While this number may be exaggerated, there is still quite a pantheon of deities in the Yoruba religious system. For the purposes of this essay I will limit this study to those deities that play a primary role in Ifa Divination.

The Yoruba see the cosmos as divided into two halves of a sphere. In the upper half is orun, the world of the spiritual and the invisible – the deities, the ancestors, the various spirit forces. The lower half of the sphere is that of the visible tangible world in which we live, called the ase. Ifa divination creates the opportunity for communication between these two realms (Drewal 14).

While it is not the norm for the Yoruba to elevate one deity over another, Olodumare, also called Olorun, is singled out. Sexless and distant, Olorun is the creator of all existence and the source of the life force that is in all creation. Olorun is also the God of destiny for all. There are no special worshipers, cults or shrines to Olorun but it is he/she who controls and has set the fate of all, and who is therefore a very important deity in Ifa divination (Bascom 104). The second key deity in Ifa divination is Ifa himself, also commonly called Orunmila. Sometimes referred to as a scribe or clerk, Ifa has created the system of communication between ase and orun, between heaven and earth. Ifa who  humanity the opportunity to communicate with the Olorun and possibly influence their destinies. The central place of Ifa divination in Yoruba religious practices lies in the fact that through Ifa individuals can communicate with all the deities and yet  do not need to be  followers of Ifa to use the divination system; they can be a followers of any religion including Christianity or Islam. The third important deity  in Ifa divination is Esu. He is the messenger. It is Esu that takes the prescribed sacrifices to the Gods from the human realm. Esu’s altar is usually located outside the Ifa diviner’s house and is normally a rough chunk of laterite rock. Esu is a most unpredictable deity. He is a trickster and individuals must be careful not to incur his wrath. A small portion of each sacrifice is usually set aside for Esu himself to placate him. Esu is many times merciless in his punishment of those who refuse to sacrifice as indicated in the divination process. His vengeance can range from starting fights to the murder of the offending person. He is often equally helpful to those who carry through with the necessary sacrifices (Bascom 105).

The process of Ifa divination is not a simple one. It is a complex system of numerical figures and infinite verses of memorized information. Ifa divination is based on interpreting sixteen basic numerical figures and 256 figures that can be derived from the original sixteen. These figures can be arrived at through two different processes. The first is through the manipulation of palm nuts. The diviner holds sixteen palm nuts in his left hand; with his right hand he grasps the nuts and if one is left, he puts two marks on his dining tray. If two nuts are left, he puts one mark on the tray. This process is repeated four times to give one of the sixteen combinations; repeating the process eight times gives one of the 256 derivative figures, called odus. The second, and quicker, method of obtaining the divination figures is by a single cast of a divining chain. The chain has eight seed shells attached and is held in the middle so that there are four shells on each side. The chain is then cast and the shells fall either face up or face down. A shell that has its concave surface upward is given a single mark. A concave surface downward is given a double mark (Bascom 3).

The basic sixteen figures of one and two marks are as follows:


I             II              II             I         I                II                   I                 II

I             II              I              II        II               II                   I                 II

I             II              I              II        II               II                   II                I

I             II              II             I         II               I                    II                I


I                     II        I               I               II                    II       I           II

I                     I         I               II              II                    I        II          I

I                     I         II              I               I                     II       I           II

II                    I         I               I               II                    II       II          I

These sixteen basic figures can be paired in 256 ways (16 X 16). These 256 combinations are called the odus of Ifa divination. These are the possibilities that can be drawn on the Ifa tray by the diviner by either manipulating the palm nuts or casting the divining chain.

The Ifa diviner or priest is called a babalawo, father of ancient wisdom. The babalawo has memorized verses for each of the 256 odus. Most have learned at least four verses per odu and many diviners have memorized eight or more verses per odu, making their repertoire over 2000 verses, an incredible oral  encyclopedia. The verses form the foundation of Yoruba tradition including folk tales, history, myths, songs, proverbs and riddles. The purpose of reciting these verses in the divination process is that one of the verses is Ifa’s message related to the client’s problem or inquiry. In this respect there is some discrepancy in how scholars perceive the relationship between client and diviner. William Bascom reports that many times the client does not even tell the diviner what his or her question or problem is, but instead whispers the information in cupped hands to a coin or other object which the diviner then touches with his divining chain to get the information to Ifa. The purpose of this is to get the information to the deity without the diviner being aware of the content. This makes certain there can be no chance of the diviner manipulating the odu and verse to what he thinks would be best. By keeping the inquiry secret the clients ensure communication directly between themselves and Ifa. The babalawo then recites all the verses he knows for the odu chosen and the clients select the verse relevant to their inquiry (54-5). In contradiction to this John Philip Neimark sees the role of the babalawo as more of a sacred counselor. He asserts that the true historical process was that the client confided in the diviner, and the babalawo used his deep social and psychological skills as well as his spiritual connections to guide the client to a solution to a problem. Neimark sees the role of the babalawo as one who tries to restore a sense of balance between the individual and the rest of the universe. The Yoruba see themselves as part of the larger organism which is the cosmos. Everything forms a piece of that cosmic being and in turn every part of the being contains particles of the whole. When we are in harmony with the energy of all, we are in balance. When we are out of balance with the universal, we suffer in many different ways. The role of divination and babalawo is to help maintain the balance of energy and to right any problems that may have arisen or might arise in the future (p. ix).

The process of divination can be short and simple or very extended and complex as the following describes:

The general outline of the procedure in divination is as follows. (1) The first cast is made to determine the figure for which the verses are recited. (2) Two casts are made to determine whether the prognostication is for good or for evil. (3) Five casts are made to find out what kind of good or evil is indicated. (4) A succession of double casts may be made to find out in more detail about the evil. (5) Two casts are made to find out whether a sacrifice (ebo) is sufficient, or whether adimu [an additional sacrifice] is required. (6) If adimu is indicated, five casts are made to learn to whom it should be offered. (7) If adimu is to be made to a “white deity,” it is identified by a succession of double casts. (8) Five casts are made to determine what is required as adimu. (9) If a live animal is required, a succession of double casts may be made to find out what kind. (10) The verses of the figure of the initial cast are recited, and the appropriate verse selected. (11) The correct sacrifice is determined by a succession of double casts. If at point five ebo is indicated, steps 6 through nine are omitted; and if the client wishes, steps 2 through 9 may be skipped, and if palm nuts are used, the process may be reduced to steps 1 and 10 only (Bascom 59).

The categories of good and evil the diviner ascertain are as follows: good – long life, money, wives and marriage, children, and victory over one’s enemies; evil – death, sickness, fighting, the want of money, and loss (Bascom 55).

One of the babalawo’s primary functions is to determine what the necessary sacrifice is to either ensure the client’s good fortune or to moderate the evil fortune. If a sacrifice is called for, it is considered wise to make the sacrifices recommended as soon as possible. If the clients cannot afford the cost of the sacrifice or if they don’t trust the babalawo, they simply might ignore the advice. In this case the only price is a small payment to the priest, which usually varies according to the individual’s wealth. The diviner’s main income is derived from sacrifices. If money is part of the sacrifice, it is understood that the diviner is to retain the money unless other specifications were given in the verses. In addition to or instead of money a great many other things can be included in the sacrifice: domestic animals, wild animals or meat, all kinds of food, implements, weapons, clothing and many other items could be specified in the verse. The diviner usually asks Ifa about the disposition of the sacrifice, what he can keep, how the meat of a sacrifice is to be shared in the community, if a hair might substitute for the animal, if a thread might substitute for a cloth, if a feather might substitute for a bird, and so on. In addition to prescribing sacrifices the babalawo, an accomplished herbalists,  often calls for the preparations of magic or medicines known as ayajo. Common ingredients in these potions are the leaves of Ifa, some of the dust of the divining tray, and incantations (Bascom 61-5).

To become a babalawo is a long and difficult process requiring two very elaborate and expensive initiations. Instruction can start as early as the age of five or six with the student observing the babalawo performing his various duties and by beginning to learn the figures. Some diviners learn from their fathers while others are apprenticed to babalawo to learn the profession. The apprentice usually does not pay the master but serves him doing many duties and chores. Formal training can last from three to ten years with ongoing study continuing for  life. The trainee studies with a babalawo learning the verses and the many rituals of the Ifa sect. Even after he is released from his teacher, he still owes an obligation to his teacher and may give the teacher a percent of his earnings for as long as the teacher lives. Many also continue learning verses for their entire lives, paying for the learning as they go (Bascom 81-6).

The babalawo has many duties beyond divination, including the many rituals and rites for those people who are specific followers of Ifa. One of the rites, Itefa, is a ritual for boys around the age of seven that guides them in finding their personal identity. It is series of rituals and symbolic journeys that are to lead to the child’s rebirth at a new point in his life. The ceremony also empowers and prepares the initiate’s personal set of  palm nuts for Ifa divining. While the complexity of the series of rituals may be too sophisticated for the young boys to fathom at the time, it is a beginning of understanding that is reinforced many times as they observe and participate in the initiation of other boys. This learning process continues into adulthood. The components of the rites deal with hardships, joys, wealth, and creativity and take oral, visual, and kinetic modes of presentation. The learning process,  both in the spiritual and material realms,  relates new meanings to everyday life (Abiodun 178-88).

Another important function of the babalawo and Ifa divination is  to determine which ancestral soul has reincarnated itself in a newborn Yoruba child. The Yoruba believe in multiple souls for each individual in a complex system that has many variations in different region of Yorubaland. One of the most important aspects of the soul is the ancestral guardian soul that resides in one’s head, often specifically in the forehead. This part of the soul dictates the individual’s good or bad fortune. The judgment laid upon this soul, later in heaven, determines whether the person can be reborn to life again or is to be punished for leading a bad life. To maintain the protection of one’s ancestral guardian soul, sacrifices need to be given as prescribed by the Ifa diviners and usually an annual sacrifice as well. Divining to find the ancestral soul also determines what taboos the child must follow. The child is taken to a diviner shortly after birth for a reading and in some ways the reading establishes a course for the child’s future. The figure selected is carefully recorded so it won’t be forgotten or confused. When the child is old enough, the figure is memorized.

The Yoruba believe that a person’s soul appears before Olorun in heaven before taking on a new human body and being given the opportunity to choose its destiny. Olorun may refuse if the requests are not made humbly or if they are unreasonable. The souls are given a fixed day they are to return to heaven, which cannot be altered except by suicide which prohibits the person from ever returning to heaven.  If people gain the full support of their ancestral soul, Olorun, and their personal deity, they may live their allotted time on earth. If they are killed or die before their allotted time is over, they becomes ghosts here on earth until the day to return to heaven arrives. Criminals and wicked people are condemned to a bad heaven where living is not comfortable. But most people have the components of their souls reunited in heaven and live comfortably, much as on earth, until they are reborn on earth in another generation. Because rebirth often occurs into the same ancestral lineage an endless cycle of birth and rebirth in the families is created (Bascom 114-6).

Ifa divination serves many functions in traditional Yoruba life but its primary function is to provide human beings with direct access to Olorun, who is in charge of their destinies. Ifa divination can give insight into what that destiny may be, what one’s guardian ancestral soul is, which deity one should worship, what sacrifices are necessary to enhance one’s destiny, what medicines are needed, and what evil might be working against one in the form of witches, evil spirits, curses and so on. While each individual has a personal deity to pray to, all people have access to the trinity of Olorun, Ifa, and Esu which controls their very destinies. The babalawo’s verses also give guidance in matters of practical advice for living and moral and ethical behavior. Diviners are often consulted when people are in trouble, are about to undertake new ventures or travel, or have important decisions are to make. The destiny of a person defines the general boundaries of one’s life: whether on will have good luck or bad luck, whether one will be wise or foolish, what one’s occupation may be, how many children one will have, whether or not one will go insane, and so on. It can be said that Olorun determines the general direction of these factors in one’s life, but the individual can do things to affect the extent of these conditions. One can divine and sacrifice to enhance good fortune and to mitigate bad fortune. If one is born with a “bad head,” ancestral soul, he can try to lessen his bad conditions by right behavior and attention to the Gods and his ancestral soul (Bascom 117-8).

Divination systems can always be disregarded by the skeptical mind, but regardless of whether one actually believes in the gods communicating to humans through such systems or not, there are real benefits to the clients. Through the process clients now have the assurance that they are following the correct path and can proceed with confidence that they are doing the right thing. The choice was made by Ifa. In some ways the system cannot fail if the diviner knows enough verses. If an answer is not found in the verses recited to the client’s question, the problem is that the diviner does not know enough verses and the solution is to consult another diviner. But the goal of the diviner is not simply to have the most verses memorized but to solve their clients problems which means they must have the right verses and be able to interpret them in a helpful manner for  clients (Bascom 70-1).

The verses of Ifa are considered the unwritten scriptures of the Yoruba people. There are now several collections of the Ifa verses in print but they must be considered very partial and incomplete. It is conceivable that every babalawo has a somewhat unique set of verses in his oral repertoire. These verses cannot be considered static or permanent in any sense. They are not only evolving through the oral tradition of individual priests but they are also growing through the addition of new verses through the visions and insights of the babalawo. Some babalawos have new Ifa verses come to them through dreams, and others are born with new Ifa verses in them which are stimulated to arise when they learn existing verses (Bascom 137). The Ifa verses are a living and growing scriptural base of the Yoruba. The content of the verses includes materials that are theological, ritual, social, political, historical, medicinal, and scientific. Some of the more common topics of the verses include death, illness, wives, children, money, values, moderation, and a wealth of other concerns. The following is a sampling of verses that relate to these and other topics, all from The Sacred Ifa Oracle translated by Afolabi A. Epega and Philip John Neimark:

The very first odu contains a verse dealing with the very important theme of children and fertility:

I     I  EJIOBE (odu #1)

I     I

I     I

I     I



Separately we ground groundnut

Separately we eat immumu (special nut)

We are head over heels in love with Oba Makin

They all divined for Agbonniregun.

They said if he sacrificed, he would be

blessed with children; he would not

even know the number of his children

both during and after his life.

He was asked to sacrifice

a she-goat and Ifa leaves.

If he offered the sacrifice, he was to cook the Ifa leaves for his wives to eat.

He obeyed and sacrificed.

Ifa leaves: Grind yenmeyenme (ogbonyin) leaves, irugba, or ogiri (condiments) with cloves and other condiments.

Cook them together with the goat’s fallopian tubes.

Place the pot of soup in front of the Ifa throne and allow his wives to eat there.

When they finished eating it, they had a lot of children.(4)

Another verse dealing with children is found in odu 20 where to help a sick child, a feast be held for the child’s playmates is prescribed:

I     II  IWORIBOGBE (odu 20)

I     I

I     I

I     II

He said something had to be offered to the

child so that the child might not die:

pounded yams, a hen, and thirty-two hundred cowries.

Ifa said that they should cook the food and hen prescribed, gather all the children together,

and allow the playmates of the sick child to eat the food provided. Ifa said the sick child would get well if a party was held for its playmates. (75)

From odu 21 comes a tale of the rather embarrassing consequences of not performing a sacrifice prescribed by divination:

I     I  OGBEDI (odu 21)

II    I

II    I

I     I

Kute-agbon Korojiji divined Ifa for Ogbe

when Ogbe was going on a hunting expedition.

He was asked to sacrifice so that he would not encounter obstacles there: three he-goats, three cocks, and six thousand cowries.

He refused the sacrifice.

When he got to the forest, the rain came.

As he was running away, he saw a wide hole that he thought was in a tree or an anthill.

He fell into the hole and did not know that it was an elephant that had opened its anus.

The elephant closed up his anus against him.

He therefore could not find his way out.

His people started a search for him.

After a while, when they could not find him, they decided to go and perform the sacrifice he had neglected.

He was then excreted by the elephant.

However they said: The Ogbe that came out of an anus should be called Ogebedi. (78)

Also from OGEBEDI comes a complex story about the dangers of not sacrificing, the benefits of making the sacrifice, and the dire consequences of jumping to conclusions. The tale also explains how Esu became the permanent slave of Ifa, Orunmila, and how Esu came to reside outside:

Ogbedikaka, Ogbedilele cast Ifa for Esu when he was serving a term of slavery with Orunmila, Orisa-oko, and Ogun. Esu was asked to offer as a sacrifice: palm kernel shells, nine pigeons, and eighteen thousand cowries. Ifa medicine should be prepared to enable him to pay his debts.

Esu refused to sacrifice.

Esu was a fisherman at that time. Whenever he caught a lot of fish in his trap, the irunmale (four hundred deities) were envious of him. They thought that Esu could soon make enough money to bail himself out of his financial straits. For this reason, they decided to send him on errands to distant places on the same day. Orunmila sent Esu to Oke-Bisi to bring his bag and tray. After sending the message, Orunmila thought of consulting the Ifa oracle on the matter. He called the babalawos who divined Ifa saw Ogbedikaka. Orunmilla was advised to sacrifice six rabbits, six pigeons, and twelve thousand cowries,

He heard and performed the sacrifice.

Ifa medicine was prepared for him by tying up the six rabbits in the bag. They warned him to carry the bag with him. Orisa-nla asked Esu to go to Ode-Irawo. Ogun asked Esu to go to Ode-Ire and bring his gbamdari (a large cutlass). Quickly, Esu got up and went to a nearby bush, where he conjured and obtained all the things requested. Immediately after Esu had left, all the irunmale went to collect the fish from his trap. As he was returning home, he found them sharing his fish. When he appeared unexpectedly, everybody pocketed the fish. He delivered all the items that they had requested him to fetch. Esu then began to question everybody. “Where did you get the fish you were sharing?” Some were apologizing; some did not know what to say. Those begging his pardon decided to give up their claims on the money he owed them. He should not let anyone hear that they had stolen. It was custom in Ife at that time that nobody must steal. Orunmila said he did not steal Esu’s fish. Esu said Orunmila must have stolen the fish that were tied up in the bag he was holding. Esu thought fish noses were bulging out of the bag. They took the matter to court at Ife town. They argued. The court decided to ask Orunmila to unveil the contents of his bag. He loosened the bag and they saw the six rabbits he threw out. They started to blame Esu. Esu begged Orunmila for his pardon. Orunmila refused to accept his apology. Esu further pledged his house and other possessions to Orunmila. Orunmila still refused to accept his plea. Esu responded that he would go home with Orunmila and continue to serve him forever. They handed Esu over to Orunmila. When they arrived at Orunmila house, Esu wanted to enter with Orunmila. Orunmila refused and asked Esu to sit outside. Orunmila said what he ate inside the house he would share with Esu outside.

Esu has been living outside ever since that day. (79)

The theme of death is dealt with in a surprising way in a verse from odu 70, where a life free of killing nearly everything is recommended if one wishes to avoid death:

II     I  IRETE’YEKU (odu 70)

II     I

II     II

II     I

Ofrifusi, the father of Elu, said he was seeking a way to prevent death from taking him, his children, and his wife by surprise, as they were becoming famous and world renowned. Mujimuwa, the diviner of Opakere, Bonronyin, the diviner of the Ido state, Ogorombi, the diviner of Esa state, Gbeminiyi, the diviner of Ilujumoke, Kuyinminu, the diviner of the palm tree, divined for Orifusi and Peregun, who were both seeking ways of escaping death. The diviners said: If you wish to avoid death, you must sacrifice and be initiated. The sacrifice is ten pigeons, ten hens, twenty thousand cowries, and palm oil in large quantities beside Esu.

Ifa will always teach you how to conduct yourselves and behavior that will turn death away from you. Furthermore, if you performed the sacrifice, you would start cultivating the act of doing good more than ever before. It would be in vain if after you had performed the prescribed sacrifice, you reduced your benevolence; you would die. You should take the pigeons and hens home, let them loose and refrain from killing them but give them food whenever they return to your house. Starting today, you must refrain from killing anything, because anyone who does not wish to be killed by death must not cause the death of anything except a poisonous snake. Peregun heeded the advice and performed the sacrifice.

The Ifa song:

Death, do not make my house a ruin. I have done no evil. Disease, do not make my house a ruin. I have done no evil. To both friends and foes I do good. I have done no evil. When people were involved in the litigation at Oko, I pitied them and gave them help. I met two people fighting; I pitied them. I have done no evil. Poverty, do not make my house a ruin. I have never been idle. Esu-Odara does not eat pepper. Esu-Odara does not eat palm kernel oil. I gave palm kernel oil to the molester of mankind. I have done no evil. Loss, do not make my house a ruin. I will never steal. (178)

In the following odu, 71, death is dealt with in a very different light, when Ifa explains the value of death and necessity of the process:

I      II  OYEKU-ISE (odu 71)

II     II

I      II

II    II

K’amateteku, the diviner of the house of joy, Aiteteku, the diviner of the house of grief, Biku-ba-ka-yin-Oluwa-logo, the diviner of Igoboya ewa Alogobon-on-maku-ninu, Masimale ninmeyeniyi, the diviner of Afinju-maku-mase’baje Okyekeseniyi, divined Ifa for the sages, who invited the babalawos to consult on the problems of death by asking: Why should death kill people and nobody has ever overcome death? The babalawos said: Ifa has indicated that Amuniwaye created death for the good of mankind. A stagnant water becomes a pond – a pond of polluted water, a pond that can cause disease. Water takes people away freely and water brings them back freely. Let the sick return home for the cure and renewal of the body, and the wicked for renewal of character. The madman is cared for by his family. The babalawos asked: What is unpleasant about it? The sages bowed for Ifa, saying: Orunmila! Ibiru, Iboye, Ibose. They all dispersed and never regarded death as a problem any more. (180-1)

In odu 75 the basis of Yoruba reincarnation is expressed with poetic eloquence:

I      II  IWORI WO’DI (odu 75)

II     I

II     I

I      II

There is not childbearing woman who cannot give birth to an Ifa priest. There is no childbearing woman who cannot give birth to Orunmila. Our father, if he gives birth to us in full, inevitably we shall in time give birth to him in turn. Our mother, if she gives birth to us in full, inevitably we shall in time give birth to her in turn. Ifa oracle was consulted for Orunmila, who said he would bring the heaven down to earth, he would take the earth back to heaven.

In order to accomplish his mission, he was asked to offer everything in twos, one male and one female – one ram and one ewe, one he-goat and one she-goat, one cock and one hen, and so on. Orunmila heeded the advice and performed the sacrifice. Thus the earth became fruitful and multiplied greatly. (186-7)

Money is a topic rarely dealt with in religious writings with as much frankness as in the following verse:

II     I  OBARA’WORI (odu 82)

I      II

I      II

II     II

Orobanta-awuwobi-owu divined Ifa for the world on the day all the world’s people declared that money is the most important thing in the world. They would give up everything and continue to run after money. Orunmila said: Your thoughts about money are right and your thoughts about money are wrong. Ifa is what we should honor. We should continue to adore both of them. Money exalts a person; money can spoil a person’s character. If anyone has too much love for money, his character will be spoiled. Good character is the essence of beauty. If you have money, it does not prevent you from becoming blind, mad, lame, and sick. You can be infected by diseases. You should go and increase your wisdom, readjust your thinking. Cultivate good character, acquire wisdom, go and perform sacrifice in order that you may be at ease. They asked, “What is the sacrifice? The sacrifice included rats, fish, goats, a calabash of cornmeal, a calabash of bean meal, and twenty thousand cowries. They refused to sacrifice. They insulted and ridiculed the babalawos and other practitioners of traditional medicine. After a while, they began to be sick. They were ill and sad and had nobody to attend them. They were dying daily. They were faced with the problems of decaying bodies and could not ask the babalawos and others for help. When they could no longer bear the burden, they went and apologized to the babalawos. Since that day, the babalawos have been treated with honor in the world. (203)

This short verse from odu 97 reminds of the balance of good and bad, bitter and sweet:

I      II IWORI-OSE (odu 97)

II     I

I      I

II     II

Tribulation does not come without its good aspects.

The good and the bad are always together.

Ifa divination was performed for Owokosi-eniyan-kosununwon.

He was advised to not become dejected because he was poverty stricken.

He should keep his good name. Sweetness usually ends the taste of a bitter leaf.

He was asked to sacrifice so that his adversity might turn to prosperity: pigeons, thirty-two hundred cowries, and Ifa medicine (pound bitter leaves and oluseaju leaves together; mix with soap) (234)

This short verse gives hard condemnation to women in prostitution; I came across no similar condemnation for the hiring of prostitutes:

I      I   OBARA’DI (odu 106)

II     II

II     II

I      II

Igba ori-amu, the diviner for women, divined Ifa for a prostitute who was sleeping with all the men. She was warned that she was doing  a risky thing. A prostitute lacks honor. No women can ever prosper from prostitution. She was advised to confess her ignorance and to sacrifice two pigeons, two snail, shea butter, eight thousand cowries, and Ifa medicine (grind eso leaves with iyere; cook the mixture with a snail into a soup for her to eat; you can also mix the ground eso leaves with the shea butter for rubbing on her vagina, the eso leaves can be pounded with soap for bathing).

A verse from odu 185 extolls the warrior virtues:

I      II  OKANRAN-EGUNTAN (odu 185)

I      II

I      II

II     I

Whoever is fast is usually assisted by Ogun to be victorious during fights. One who can neither fight nor talk cannot live long on earth. Fighting can bring wealth and honor. This was divined for Ogun-gbemi, who was advised that even if he did not feel bold enough to challenge someone to a fight, he should not run away. It is the powerful who enjoy the world; nobody respects a weak person. It is the manly (brave) person who controls the earth; people do not pay attention to cowards. He was asked to make sacrifice so that he might be strong physically. The sacrifice: a cock, three knives, an alligator pepper, thirty-two hundred cowries, and Ifa leaves (put a grain of alligator pepper seeds in water in a calabash; give the water to the cock to drink; the client should then drink the remaining water in the calabash and eat the alligator pepper and some of the other grains).

A verse in form of a dialogue with God outlines the virtues and rewards of telling the truth:

I      II  OSA-OTURA (odu 219)

II     I

I      I

I      I

Osa-Otura says, What is truth?

I say, What is truth?

Orunmila says: Truth is the Lord of heaven guiding the earth.

Osa-Otura says, What is truth?

I say, What is truth?

Orunmila says: Truth is the unseen One guiding the earth, the wisdom Olodumare is using – great wisdom, many wisdoms.

Osa-Otura says, What is truth?

I say, What is truth?

Orunmila says: Truth is the character of Olodumare. Truth is the word that cannot fall. Ifa is truth. Truth is the word that cannot spoil. Mighty power, surpassing all. Everlasting blessing.

This was divined for the earth. They said the people in this world should be truthful. To enable them to be truthful and honest  willingly and comfortably, let the idabo (Ifa medicine) be applied by marking Odu-Osa-Otura on the divining powder. After reciting the above Ifa saying on the powder, mix it with eko (cornstarch gruel) and drink it, or put it in palm oil and eat it, so that it will be easy to be honest and truthful.

Ifa song: Speak the truth, tell the facts. Speak the truth, tell the facts. Those who speak the truth are those whom the deity will help.

In another conversation with Ifa the value of moderation is put in words that a Confucian could well appreciate:

I      I  OTURA-RETE (odu 245)

I      II

II     I

I      I

Otura-Rete, brace up yourself again. If you are born, try to bring forth yourself again.

Otuta-Rete, Amunwon, Amunwon, he who knows moderation will never fall into disgrace.

I say: Who knows this moderation?

Orunmila says: He who is working.

I say: Who knows this moderation?

Orunmila says: He who will not squander his money.

I say: Who knows this moderation?

Orunmila says: He who will not steal.

I say: Who knows this moderation?

Orunmila says: He who does not owe debts.

I say: Who knows this moderation?

Orunmila says: One who never drinks alcohol, one who never breaks an oath with friends. Otura0Rete, one who wakes up early in the morning and meditates within himself because of activities! Among thorns and thistles, the young palm frond will shoot out. Joworo will never use up all his money, Jokole will never be a debtor. If Eesan owes a great deal of money, he will pay the debt. Amuwon is the ameso (one who has a good sense of what is right).

Ifa leaves: Grind together joworo, eso, and jokoje leaves with black soap worth 120 or 200 cowries. Set nine cowries one by one on the soap. Impress Odu Otura-Rete on iye-irosu on the soap in the calabash. Bathe with it.

In this final verse from odu 251 the client is given the necessary information to protect him or herself from the powers of witchcraft:

I      I   IRETE-SE (odu 251)

II     I

I      II

II     I

Ondese is their mother. When they descended on two colossal things, Olodumare laid down the rule that two colossal things do not fall on top of each other. The baby tortoise does not follow the mother tortoise; the baby snail does not follow the mother snail; the baby snake does not follow the mother snake; and so on. A dead man’s Ifa will not affect another man’s son. May all the witchcraft directed against me be ineffective, and so on.

Ifa leaves: Collect a tortoise, a snail, a snake, the bark from two iroko trees, and Ifa oku (a dead man’s Ifa). Burn them together and keep the powder in an ado. Take out a small quantity on occasion, mark Odu Iru-Ekun [Odu Irete-Se is also known as Iru-Ekun] on it, and recite the incantation just before mixing it with palm oil and licking it. It may also be used as an ointment to rub on the body. Some of it may be given to other people to use. This Ifa is a preservative against all witchcraft.

From this small sampling of verses one can get a glimpse at what must be the remarkable richness of those 2000 verses held in the oral memory of some babalawos.

From a western perspective a religion that holds divination as one of its central institutions would be suspect by many. But it seems clear that divination as used by the Yoruba is far beyond “fortune telling.” Ifa divination is a form of communication with God. It is a way for individuals to analyze their behavior and direction in life and get the input of ages of wisdom as contained in the verses. The verses are the vessels that hold the living and growing heritage of the Yoruba people. It seems logical to a Western scholar that massive research should attempt to document in written form as much of this information from as many babalawos as possible. But on deeper reflection, it would be a desecration of this faith. The genius of the Ifa verses is in their quality as a living organism within the Yoruba people. To try to document and make permanent this organism would surely be to kill it.

Another aspect of Ifa divination that some cultures might find objectionable is the sacrifice of live animals. This objection would carry credence from a culture of vegetarians, but from a Western culture that has its meat processors kill vast numbers of animals to satisfy dietary habits, such an objection would seem hypocrisy at its worst. The animals sacrificed in Ifa divination are normally consumed by  people of the community, and the animals are also a crucial link in communication with the Gods. In comparison, it seems a nobler use of animals than one billion Big Macs.

Ifa divination is at the center of the Yoruba religious design. It is a bridge between the spiritual world and the physical world, each world forming two halves of a singe sphere. People’s souls cycle between the two halves of the sphere. The sphere itself is a living organism and human beings and their souls are particles of the total energy of that organism. Ifa divination is an instrument in keeping that energy in balance and guiding the soul’s successful movement through both realms of the sphere. It is a sophisticated and beautiful design.


Abiodun, Rowland, Henry J. Drewal, and John Pemberton III, edited by ,The Yoruba Artist

Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1994

Bascom, William , Ifa Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa

Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1969

Drewal, Henry John, John Pemberton III with Rowland Abiodun, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, Center for African Art, in association with Harry N. Abrams Inc., Publishers, New York, 1989

Epega , Afolabi  A., and Philip John Neimark, The Sacred Ifa Oracle, Harper San Francisco, 1995

1997 copyright, Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at

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