Yoruba Divination

Seeking advice from the Otherworld

By Ifadoyan Sangomuyiwa, Priest of Sango
and Babalawo—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 poems:


# Name Meaning
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.

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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).



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