Seeking advice from the Otherworld
By Ifadoyan Sangomuyiwa, Nigerian priest
to Sango and Babalawa, Father of Secrets
The current Witches’ Almanac introduces the divination system of Ifá, which the Yoruba believe
provides methods of inquiry about the nature of the world and one’s own destiny. The Witches’
Almanac article offers information about the use of kola nuts in the pursuit of Otherworld
knowledge. There follows further information for readers interested in more complex oracular
devices of Ifá.
The next three levels of Ifá are much more complex and are reserved for the various indigenous
priesthoods of West African traditions. The cowrie shells, divination chain and palm nuts all involve
symbols in a system of 16. All of these tools must be sanctified by many ritual actions before they
are used. Their use also takes place within the context of the initiate/priest’s consecration to a
particular Orisa (deity). They are bathed in consecrated water and fed with the blood of animals
sacrificed to the Orisa. Many times these animal sacrifices are part of a feast prepared for the
gods and the people who worship them – a common practice of indigenous peoples.
The cowrie shells are considered the mouths of the Orisa, which speak through the initiate who reads
them. The serrated side of the shell is the “light” side and is the mouth, which symbolically
“speaks.” The normally convex side is removed from these divining shells and this side is cut flat,
revealing the interior. This side is considered “dark” or “silent.” The 16 symbols that occur in
this system are called Odu. Each symbol is associated with a poem that the diviner may recite
as the situation demands. These poems illuminate the situation and offer a solution to the
questioner. They are sacred in nature and are taken seriously when recited.
The first part of the reading consists of counting the open mouths to determine the primary Odu.
This is the main message. Subsequent castings of the shells yield more information on the message’s
meaning, origin and positive or negative quality. Each primary Odu has a body of poetry associated
with it, called Ese Ifá. The subsequent castings allow the diviner to choose among the associated
poems for the correct meaning of the primary Odu. Here is a brief list of the most common qualities
associated with each of the 16 primary Odu, as we don’t have enough space for the entire body of
|1||Okanran ||Loss, struggle, need for persistence|
|2||Eji Oko|| Ancestors, strife among two|
|3||Ogunda ||Honesty, hard work, quarrels|
|4||Irosun ||Ancestral lineage, charity|
|5||Ose ||Sweetness, abundance|
|6||Obara ||Monetary gain|
|7||Odi ||Completion, reaping what was sown|
|8||Eji Ogbe ||Long life, abundant blessings|
|9||Osa|| Radical changes|
|10||Ofun ||Spiritual windfall – can sometimes mean an ending|
|11||Owonrin ||Leaving behind the past|
|12||Ejila Sebora ||Loss, gossip, capriciousness|
|13||Ika ||Sickness, change|
|14||Oturupon ||Courage, humility|
|15||Ofun Kanran ||Peace, knowledge through study|
|16||Irete ||Oppression, pressure|
Rarely the oracle will refuse to speak, turning all “mouths” downward. This is considered a very bad
omen and many cleansing rituals are required to reverse such a situation.
The last two methods, the divining chain (also called Opele) and palm nuts (Ikin) are read by the
priesthood of the diviner Orisha, Òrúnmìlà. These priest-diviners are known as a babalawo, if male,
and iyanIfá, if female (respectively, “father” or “mother of secrets”). These methods are so
identified with this system that they are both also referred to simply as Ifá.
Both of these methods increase the complexity of the cowrie system by using double odus –
raising the number of possible symbols to 256. As with the cowrie divination, there are poems
recited to illuminate the meaning of the symbols.
The Opele has eight seed pods, divided into two sets of four separated by a short length of chain.
The Opele is cast by the priest so that these sets land roughly parallel, making double sets of
figures, composed of the light and dark elements of each set of four. The basic combinations
generated this way number 16. When used in combination with each other, the total number of
possible combinations is 256. The increasing complexity of each of the techniques of divination
in this tradition has an interesting relationship to mathematical squares, as follows: beginning
with 4 kola nuts (2 female and 2 male) 2x2=4x4=16x16=256. This is an interesting illustration
of the relationship between mathematics and metaphysics.
The palm nuts are the highest form of Ifá. These objects are given to the babalawo or iyanIfá on their
initiation and are used in the priest’s worship of Òrúnmìlà. They are very sacred and the process
used to read with them is arduous. Here, the priestess acts as a mouthpiece for the words
of the divine.
A wooden tablet is placed before the iyanifa (or babalawo). The surface is covered with termite dust
from the irosun tree. After many invocations to sanctify the reading, she then takes the 16 ikin in
her left hand and tries to grab them all with her right. If one ikin is left, she will make a single
mark, I, in the dust. If she has two, she will mark, II. If she has more that two or none, she makes
no mark and continues the process until the figure is completed. Once the context of the reading is
known, the other figures will be generated in the same manner.
This painstaking system is reserved for those who are truly dedicated to it. Once given, the answer
generated by ikin is considered definitive. The questioner is expected to act on what he or she has
been told. To ignore this advice would be unthinkably disrespectful to Òrúnmìlà, as the god is
believed to be speaking quite directly through his intermediary.
All of these divinatory practices are not systems of fortune telling. They are integral systems that
are exercised within a religious/spiritual context. Their messages are held in high regard within the
West African cultures that hold these strong beliefs in the power of one’s personal destiny and the
way it is intertwined with the powers of the divine.
Among the Yoruba it is believed that each of us, prior to coming to earth, chose a destiny while
kneeling before Olódùmarè. This destiny is embodied in the Òrìsà Orí (personal deity). Our choice
becomes intimately entwined with and part of the complex of our inner constellation. We carry this
with us in our journey to earth and this, more than anything, is our guiding energy in life.
These methods act as a means to discover the destiny we have forgotten at our birth into this world
and a way to guide us towards re-aligning with it and with the gods.
As a system of divination Ifá shares a common set of symbols with European geomancy, Islamic ilm
al-raml, Madagascar sikidy, Chinese i-ching and unnamed systems in India. Which came first?
I would be hard pressed and surely prejudiced in my answer. I believe that these symbols do not
know the boundary of language and ethnicity. Perhaps they are all symbols of the meta-language
of the creator. In this respect they relate to all peoples with their mundane concerns of the
everyday as well as their seeking of esoteric knowledge of their destiny.
In your consideration of these matters, may your destiny be bright and may you know and
understand it – Ase (life’s blessing upon you).
Back to Internet Extras