In “The Fortuitous Meeting,” the Oba Ekoshoni says to Oludara: “You have been summoned because my diviners consulted the Ifa oracle. They told me to seek the progeny of a man who aided me long ago.” Ifa divination begins with Orunmila, the Yoruba Orisha of divination. He is sometimes called the “God of Palm Nuts” because of the sixteen palm nuts used in the divination process. He is also known as Ifa, the same name given to his collected knowledge, which I discuss below. His diviners are called babalawo, or “Father of Secrets”, because they posess both knowledge and the means of passing it to the rest of humanity. For this, Orunmila is considered both the god of wisdom and principal benefactor of mankind.
The process of divination by the babalawos is a complex one, which I’ll do my best to summarize here. Before learning the art of divination itself, the babalawo must commit himself to the memorizaiton of the collected knowledge of Orunmila, a set of verses known in its entirety as Ifa. The Ifa is collected into 256 sets called Odu. The Ifa is said to represent every possible situation, circumstance, action, and consequence in life.
For the actual divination process, the babalawo wears white–the color of calmness and purity–enabling him to speak with the spiritual world. He uses sixteen palm nuts (Ikin), a container for them (Ajere Ifa), a divination tray (opon Ifa), a tapper (iroke Ifa), a whisk (Irukere Ifa), and white dust. The babalawo will toss some nuts from one hand to another, and depending on how many remain in each hand, will mark spots on the tray with figures called “mothers”.
Example of an Ifa divination tray (opon Ifa) and palm nuts (Ikin)
(Image: Wikipedia, public domain)
The figures, once all have been marked, correspond to specific sets of the Ifa. The babalawo will recite verses associated with these sets, which he can then use to interpret an answer to the supplicant’s query.
The Orisha Eshu also gains great status from his relationship with Ifa, because it is Eshu who takes offerings and sacrifices to the Orishas, and brings their rewards and punishments back to Earth. His face often appears on the divination boards because of this.