Divination Techniques

By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (formerly University of Iowa)

Nigeria; Yoruba artist

Opon Ifa (divination tray)


Diameter 54 cm (21")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.397

To begin the divination process the babalawo sits facing the door, so that light streams across the tray, allowing no shadow to fall on it.  The tray is covered with a thin layer of wood dust. The diviner holds sixteen palm nuts between his hands and shakes them, closing his hand to capture a few. He makes a mark in the dust of the tray based on whether the nuts in his hand are even or odd in number.  This is repeated eight times, with the eight resulting marks indicating a verse that is recited by the babalawo.  The verse discloses the forces that have brought misfortune and suggests solutions to the problems (Bascom 1969). The process, by which an Ifa diviner learns the Odu, or verses, involves extensive education, which can span an entire lifetime.  The diviner, who is highly respected by the community, is consulted during all important rites of passage in Yoruba life and is able to influence directly the policies of the society (Drewal 1989).  

Divination consultation, Imodi, central Ijebu area, Nigeria, 1982. Photo by H. J. Drewal and M. T. Drewal.