Ifa: telling the fortunes of animals and humans

Divination, or Ifa, occupies a central place in Yoruba religion. My understanding of the Ifa system is basic in the extreme; I lack the two essential English-language studies, both by Wande Abimbola: Ifa: An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus and Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa. As the titles of these works suggest, a large canon has grown up around the practice, which is all the more impressive for being entirely oral in its transmission until modern times.

There are several different methods of Ifa divination (casting of kola shells, casting of cowries, etc.) and as with any divinatory practice the interpretation and application of lessons arise from a kind of three-way negotiation between client, priest/therapist and divinities (orishas). (I would speculate in passing that the main difference between secular and religious forms of therapy is that the latter, by acknowledging the divine as a third party, may be more able to zero in on the problem through triangulation)

It’s during the interpretive stage that traditional Ifa poems may be recited if appropriate. English translations display much more affinity to the Hebrew Bible than to the I Qing; this should not surprise us, since many Hebrew religious concepts (including henotheism/monotheism) appear to be African in origin. Indeed, despite the passionate and eloquent arguments of the great A. J. Heschel (in The Prophets) I remain unpersuaded that the ancient Hebrew nebiim (prophets) were fundamentally different from West African diviners in their understanding of the relationship between revelation and response. In both cases, what matters is not predictive accuracy but moral transformation.
One might ask, Why not call the Ifa diviner a prophet rather than a priest? Yoruba priests and scholars like Abimbole prefer to reserve the term “prophet” to translate the role of the orisha Orunmila, who is second in the divine hierarchy after Oludumare, the High God who is not only beyond all supplication but can’t even be characterized in words or concepts. (It should not surprise us that Ifa recognizes the via negativa as explicitly as the other ‘world religions,’ for Yoruba religion too is a universalizing system, and thus needs to spell out speculative details that would be left largely unspoken in more particularistic or ‘tribal’ traditions.).

Ifa diviners are also called priests rather than prophets because they direct the sacrifice. In his essay in Evil and the Response of World Religion (W. Cenkner, ed., Paragon House, 1997) Abimbola translates what he says is a ‘very difficult verse’ explicating the power of sacrifice to maintain – or correct – the balance between benevolent and malevolent forces in the world. Like many Ifa psalms, it tells a story – here about the King of Epe (Elepe) who managed to appease death (Iku) for a little while. It begins in the praise-proverb mode familiar from West African poetry from almost all languages and genres. This mode typically uses metaphor and, especially, apparent non-sequitor to inject magic potency into the overall poem/utterance/act.

[from Osu Meji]

The old man who strolls gracefully like an elephant.
The old man who gallops like a buffalo.
When a wooden pestle falls on the ground, it makes the sound ogbonrangandan.
Help me catch my chicken with broken wings.
One room cannot adequately contain two sick people with different diseases.
Exchange-exchange, Ifa priest of the household of the king of Epe.
Ifa divination was performed for Elepe
When he was told to use an animal for sacrifice
As an exchange for his own life
Because of imminent death.
He listened to the prescription of sacrifice.
And he performed the sacrifice.
He was told to offer sacrifice to Eshu
And he complied.
He then heard the Ifa priests tell him that his sacrifice was accepted.
He praised his Ifa priests,
And his Ifa priests praised Ifa.
Death then left Elepe untouched
But took away the head of the animal.
Exchange-exchange, Ifa priest of the household of Elepe.
Loss left Elepe untouched,
But took away the head of the animal.
Exchange-exchange, Ifa priest of the household of Elepe.


Back near the beginning of this weblog I wrote a couple short pieces “for” and “against” sacrifice expressing my own ambivalence about this word, which still pervades discussions of ethical behavior – especially during wartime. In the essay about my television shrine I quoted Abimbola’s own thoughts on sacrifice; to recap, he says “sacrifice is an act of exchange. When one makes sacrifice, one exchanges something dear, or something purchased with one’s own money, in order to sustain personal happiness. Sacrifice involves human beings in a process of exchange or denial of oneself, or giving of one’s time, forsaking one’s pleasure, food, etc., in order to be at peace with both the benevolent and malevolent supernatural powers as well as to be at peace with one’s neighbors, family, the entire environment and ultimately to be at peace with oneself.”

It is Eshu who mediates between the 400 malevolent ajogan and the 401 benevolent orisha; thus it is to him that sacrifices are performed. As the straddler of worlds he is the master of paradox, which makes his praise-poems especially interesting in translation.

But – asks the sensitive postmodern reader, recoiling from the very notion of blood sacrifice – what about the animals? “Animal rights” propaganda to the contrary, traditional earth-based religions in which animal sacrifice is practiced (which could include all shamanistic systems, give a sufficiently broad definition of ‘sacrifice’) generally seem to inculcate more respect for the natural world in all its loving cruelty and complexity than many supposedly more advanced religious or philosophical systems. You can search the canons of European Romantic poetry in vain for a poem that deals as tenderly with a predator as the following excerpt from an Ifa psalm. (Though Blake’s “Tyger” comes close.) This was translated originally by B. King for Introduction to Nigerian Literature and is included in The Penguin Book of Oral Poetry, edited by Ruth Finnegan (whence also the remaining examples, except where noted). However, I have modified the translation of “tiger” to “leopard,” based on a strong resemblance to a briefer piece translated by Ulli Beier, not to mention the fact that tigers do not live in Africa! I am also not sure which orisha is meant by King’s “Oosa,” Orunmila or Oludumare.


Ifa divination was performed for Leopard,
That one with lovely and shining skin.

Could he possibly have honour?
That was the reason Leopard performed Ifa divination.

He was told there was much prospect of honour for him,
but he should perform sacrifice.

And he performed it.
He performed sacrifice with ten knives
And one lovely and shining cloth.

The ten knives which he used for sacrifice
Were fixed to his fingers by his Ifa priests,
And with it he does havoc to all other animals.
That lovely and shining cloth which he also uses for sacrifice
Was used to cover his body
And it made him a beautiful animal.

He was dancing,
He was rejoicing;
He was praising his Ifa priests
And his Ifa priests praised Ifa.
He opened his mouth,
And the song of Ifa entered therein.
As he stretched his feet,
Dance caught them.

He said: O! Animal created to have honour.
Animal created to have honour.
It is Oosa who gave honour to Leopard,
Animal created to have honour.


For a fuller sense of traditional Yoruba attitudes toward animals, some translations of non-Ifa poems might help:

(translated by Ulli Beier)

Swaggering prince
Giant among snakes.
They say python has no house.
I heard it a long time ago
and I laughed and laughed and laughed.
For who owns the ground under the lemon grass?
Who owns the ground under the elephant grass?
Who owns the swamp – father of rivers?
Who owns the stagnant pool – father of waters?

Because they never walk hand in hand
People say that snakes walk only singly.
But just imagine
Suppose the viper walks in front
The green mamba follows
And the python creeps rumbling behind –
Who will be brave enough to wait for them?


What’s remarkable about this poem from a Western perspective is not simply the reverential attitude toward snakes, but the recognition of swamps and stagnant pools as “fathers of rivers.” In this respect, traditional Yoruba knowledge is more advanced than was environmental science in the 1970s when the Clean Water Act was written: its supposition that such a thing as “isolated wetlands” can exist continues to bedevil conservation efforts in the U.S.

Beier also translates a praise poem for the viper. This comes from his African Poetry (Cambridge, 1966).


The viper lives in the forest.
Not even the Ogun worshipper can pick it up.
Viper’s child is beautiful in its nest.
But Nini is the most beautiful of snakes.
It is better for Nini to change its colour
and go home and bring some colour for Viper.
Viper owns all the rats in the forest.
Viper owns all the bush in the forest.
Viper owns all the snakes in the forest.
If there is no rat, what will snake eat?
If there is no rat, it will eat mouse;
if there is no mouse it will eat a shrew.
Poisonous death,
Poisonous viper,
Beautiful viper.


And here are two more from the same volume, which I use simply because I don’t have a copy of Beier’s Yoruba Poetry on hand. As with poems about people, in Ifa psalms or otherwise, the praise-proverb mode is above all designed to instruct and inspire.

Kob Antelope

A creature to pet and spoil
An animal with a smooth neck.
You live in the bush without getting lean.
You are plump like a newly wedded wife.
You have more brass rings about your neck
than any woman.
When you run you spread fine dust
like a butterfly shaking its wings.
You are beautiful like carved wood.
Your eyes are gentle like a dove’s.
Your neck seems long, long
to the covetous eyes of the hunter.


Colobus Monkey

We ask him to come and die – he sulks.
He dies at last – his cheeks are full of laughter.
Two rows of neat white teeth.
Death always follows war.
Those who wake early must sweep the ground.
Colobus says: the eagle sweeps the sky;
let me sweep the top of the tree.
Abuse me – and I will follow you home.
Praise me – and I will stay away from you.
Colobus is friend of the man in rags,
and a friend of the man in the embroidered gown.
He kills lice with black nails.
Deep-set eyes.
A mighty tail.
Don’t hold my tail,
don’t play with my face.
Death always follows war.


I don’t understand all the references in this last one, but the lines about praise and abuse could almost be my own motto! (A friend with whom I sometimes exchange poems, on the condition that we each be unsparing in our critique of the other, once accused me of not being able to take compliments.) Perhaps if Ifa divination were performed for me, some lines about the Colobus would crop up! For Ifa does possess a sense of humor, it seems:

(translated by J. A. Adediji)

Ifa speaks in parables,
A wise man is he who understands it.
When we say understand it –
The wise man always understands it.
But when we do not understand it –
We say it is of no account.


Wisdom is the finest beauty of a person . . .
an Ifa oracle poem

(translated by Ulli Beier)

Wisdom is the finest beauty of a person.
Money does not prevent you from becoming blind.
Money does not prevent you from becoming mad,
Money does not prevent you from becoming lame.
You may be ill in any part of your body,
So it is better for you to go and think again
And to select wisdom.
Come and sacrifice, that you may have rest in your body,
Inside and outside.


As I conceive of it, the Ifa valuation of social and aesthetic balance bears a strong resemblance to that of the Diné (Navajo). The word usually translated “beauty” – as in the famous Nightway chant – for the Diné includes notions of harmony, symmetry, justice. A deep participation in this beauty promotes both wisdom and healing (“rest in your body, inside and outside.”) I’m also reminded a bit (again, perhaps erroneously) of the Japanese word kirei, commonly translated as “pretty” or “beautiful” but carrying also strong connotations of cleanliness, purity and order.

This ethos is on display in my final selection, one more translation of an Ifa psalm by Ulli Beier. It treats a theme that is truly pan-African in scope: the idea that, by sharing in the glory of others (through praise-singing or otherwise) our own selfhood is expanded: from the little bundle of urges and impulses familiar to us from western psychology, to the Self of Atman and Whitman’s Song of Myself. This psalm interprets the throw called Iwori wotura, which Beier uses for a title:

Oracle: Iwori Wotura

Iwori wotura.
Anybody who sees beauty and does not look at it
Will soon be poor.
Red feathers are the pride of the forest.
Young leaves are the pride of the palm tree.
Iwori wotura.
White flowers are the pride of the leaves.
A swept veranda is the pride of the landlord.
Iwori wotura.
A straight tree is the pride of the forest.
A fast deer is the pride of the bush.
Iwori wotura.
The rainbow is the pride of heaven.
A beautiful woman is the pride of her husband.
Iwori wotura.
Children are the pride of their mother.
Moon and stars are the pride of the sun.
Ifa says,
‘Beauty and all sorts of good fortunes arrive.’

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