Yuruba Divination Bowl (19th Century)

Yuruba Divination Bowl (19th Century)


Such bowls were essential for rituals in which fate or prophecy (ifa) was divined. Ifa divination was used to transcribe the wisdom of Orunmila, the spirit of wisdom, divinity and prophecy in Yoruba mythology. A highly-trained priest, the babalawo, taps rhythmically on a tray (the opon ifa) with a tapper (the iroke ifa) to invoke the presence of Orunmila. A divination bowl such as this example is used to contain the sixteen sacred palm nuts (ikins), which must have at least three ‘eyes’.

During the divination process, the diviner divides the nuts between his hands. The nuts left in the original hand, desirably one or two, are counted and marked. As the divination proceeds, the diviner continues to mark single or double marks in wood powder spread on his divination tray until one of the 256 recognised odus is created. (An odus is a set of accepted traditional binary patterns or codes that have evolved over thousands of years of observation and prediction. They provide guidance on both the everyday and the spiritual.)

According to Yoruba mythology, the warthog was the most beautiful creature of the all animals at the time of creation. Its head was decorated with gems. However, the gods were disgusted by the warthog’s habits, his rooting around in the mud, and so on. They replaced the gems with warts and the gems were entrusted to the python instead.

The python, which symbolises the rainbow, safeguarded the gems by burying them at the point where the rainbow meets the earth. The warthog threatened to kill the python, but still he did not return the gems. Incensed, the gods sent messenger deities (the eshu) in the form of hunters to protect the python. 

Today, the Yoruba people form one of the largest tribes in west Africa. They number around 30 million and are predominant in Nigeria where they comprise 21 per cent of the population. Most Yoruba speak the Yoruba language. Today, 60 per cent are Christians and another 30 per cent are Muslims. But many, especially in rural areas, still practise old Yoruba traditions such as those based around ifa.

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