The imagined sacred city, findings of Western explorers, the Ile-Ife and ancient kingdom of Benin connection stories

IFA: Divination Rituals and the New Yam Festival
IN the first three chapters of this book, I alluded to the role of Ifa divination and Ifa priests in various rituals in the sacred city, especially those relating to the resolution of the conflicts between Oduduwa and Obatala. I will devote this chapter to the place of Ifa divination and the Ifa deity in regulating and managing the spiritual and social affairs of the city and will introduce the myths and rituals of Orunmila, also known as Ifa, the Yoruba god of divination; Ifa divinatory practices; and the religious, ethical, and thought systems espoused in the rich Ifa divination texts, otherwise known as ese Ifa or Ifa divination poetry.

By analyzing certain related festivals of Ifa—Odun Egbodo Ooni (the King’s New Yam Festival), Odun Agboniregun (the Diviners’ New Yam Ceremony), and the annual Ifa Festival, together with the sacred narratives associated with them, I will show how the symbols and rituals of Ifa sanctify the sacred city. Ifa has a pivotal role in maintaining and legitimizing the Ooni’s sacred kingship and the lineage identity of Ifa devotees, particularly the Araba, the chief priest of Ifa, just as the sacred kingship legitimizes Ifa’s authority as the spokesperson for the 201 divinities of the Ile-Ife pantheon.

In traditional and contemporary Yoruba culture and society, the Ifa divination system occupies a vital role in ordering and regulating the social and moral order. In addition to providing a plausible theory and practice aimed at explaining and controlling events, space, and time, Ifa represents a boidy of deep knowledge that deals with the past, present and future all at once. The Babalawo or diviners memorize Ifa as poetic oral texts and recite them on appropriate occasions, especially during rituals to secure healing and good health for clients.

As a prelude to examining the rituals and ceremonies of Ifa in Ile-Ife, it is useful to discuss the practice,logic and meaning of Ifa. The Ifa divination system of belief and ritual practices derives its authority in Ile-Ife from the sacred kingship and the lineage traditions of the diviners. The ritual and ceremonies discussed later in this chapter follow the archetypal format upon which Ifa beliefs and practices throughout Yorubaland, if not abroad, are based.

The Yoruba consult Ifa diviners on a wide range of personal, social and religious matters: for example, before undertaking an important obligation such as marriage, travelling to a distant place, and whenever they are in doubt. They use divination in situations of serious illness, especially when the illness is prolonged. Below, I interpret the symbolic and metaphysical meanings surrounding an Ifa consultation. As in the consultation that my research assistant sought in the Araba’s house, a client visits a Babalawo to determine the cause of a problem, typically a physical ailment. The client sits on a mat in front of the diviner while the Babalawo lays out his divination paraphernalia, which consists of a divinatory chain of linked half nuts and a tray of yellowish pollen. The client takes a coin, touches his forehead with it, and whispers into it his prayer or request, asking Ifa to reveal the secret behind his problem and to find an appropriate solution. He places the coin in front of the diviner, touching his chain with the coin as if conveying the request to it.

The diviner begins the session by invoking Ifa and reciting the words that begin this chapter. Ifa is showered with presents to assist in the process. The diviner requests that Ifa not mislead his client. The invocation also allows the diviner to pay homage to the spirit world, the ancestors, the great diviners before him, and the four directions of the Yoruba universe as he moves the chain to the front, back, left, right, and center of the tray, acknowledging all the relevant spiritual forces connected to the process. To cast the divination, the diviner holds the chain in the middle and throws it on the mat, making a “U” shape on the floor, so that four nuts fall on each side. The nuts will expose either convex or concave sides, thus displaying sixteen possible forms of the “signature” of Ifa. Each signature stands for an odu (divinatory sign or symbol), and each odu is linked to several verses of oral poems that interpret it. The diviner then recites the odu that appears in the divination castings. The client listens carefully, and after the recitation comments on whether any of the poems is relevant to his illness. At this stage the client may reveal to the diviner the nature of his inquiry. The diviner will interpret the text and, through further questioning, arrive at a definite cause of his client’s problem. The diviner will prescribe the appropriate remedy, usually a sacrificial ritual and the use of medicinal herbs.

Ooni with the sacred crown.

Although the most frequently employed form of divination involves the use of the opele chain, a more prestigious and elaborate form of divination, the ikin, involves the use of sixteen palm nuts. The diviner takes the palm nuts from a beautifully carved divination bowl into one hand. He then attempts to grab with his other hand most of the palm nuts in his first hand, leaving one or two. He marks the result of the exercise in the powder in the divination tray. When one palm nut is left in the other hand, the diviner makes two marks, and when two ikin are left, he makes one mark. When no palm nuts remain, he makes no mark. This process is done several times until the diviner can make four signs on each side of the tray. Each divination session produces an odu divination sign out of the 256 possible signs. The process of reciting the odu that appears to the client is similar to the above divinatory session with the opele.
Below is an example of verses from an odu called Eji Ogbe, which explains how important divination practice is on earth.
Ko sibi ti afefe ki i fe e de
Ko sibi ti iji ki i ja a de
A d’ifa fun Ojise Olodumare
Eni ti Olodumare ran wa sile aye
Eni ran’ni nise la a beru
A ki i beru eni ta a je fun
Olowo ori mi ko je t’Ikole orun bo wa s’Ikole aye
Olowo ori mi o re’bi Kankan
To fi n se gbogbo ohun ti o fe e se
Eni to ba ko’ti ikun s’Ifa
Eniyankeniyan to ni eni wo’fa o logbon lori
Enikeni to ni eni n wofa n sese ibi
O setan to fe e lo s’alakeji
Ojo to jade nile koje pada wale omo
Ebi iru won nii jese owo o won
Enikeni o gbodo so pe Ifa o nii se e
Ohun t’Ifa ba so nii fun babalawo lounje
Eni to n’Ifa n puro o lere kankan.

There is no place that the wind does not blow.
There is no place that the hurricane does not blow.
Who divines for the messenger that Olodumare the Supreme sends on an errand?
He who sends you on an errand
He [whom) only you will respect.
Your Master never travels from heaven above.
Your Lord does not go out visiting.
Your Lord stays in one place and accomplishes everything he wants to bring about.
Whoever refuses to obey the diviners’ words,
Whoever says the client’s work is not good,
Should be prepared to see Olodumare in heaven [i.e., be  prepared to die].
When the enemy leaves his house, he will not return home.
The family he leaves behind will have to take charge of his affairs.
No one must doubt the stories of the diviners. The stories the diviners tell provide for their daily bread.
The enemy who says the diviners are lying will make no progress in life.

In this powerful narrative the heavenly Ifa commands his devotees to take the work of the diviners seriously and spells out consequences for disobedience. Ifa diviners see this passage as proclaiming the authority given to them by Orunmila to control, determine, and mediate the affairs of the living. The diviner’s role recalls that of the Holy Spirit, who according to Christ’s promise would guide the affairs of the world after Christ departed.

The Logic and Meaning of Ifa
African societies recognize two forms of divination: the mechanical and the mystical. The mechanical form involves manipulating divining instruments or objects to arrive at an appropriate answer and treatment for the client. The mystical form centers on possession by a deity and appeal to a deity. In discussing the !Kung or San divination system, Lorna Marshall has argued that mechanical forms of divination fall into the category of magic and “secular” rather than religious forms because they involve no communication with mystical powers. But although Ifa divination is primarily mechanical, the preamble to an Ifa divination session indicates that mystical powers in control of the cosmos are invoked.

Ifa divination is also premised on the communication process between the diviner and the spiritual agencies responsible for proper divination performances. William Bascom remarked that the result is influenced by divine guidance. As in the divination process used by the Ainu of Japan, an invocation and prayer to the mystical forces precede the actual mechanical manipulation of the divinatory instrument.  The invocation of Ifa provides an important clue to the logic of the divination mechanism. Here we focus on the Ifa divination performance for healing, and our exploration of its three stages – consultation, diagnosis, and sacrifice-must begin with the ritual invocation. It is a poetic ritual prayer addressed to the relevant cosmic powers (the gods, ancestors, spirits) that the diviners know could influence the outcome of the client’s diagnosis. The Ifa ritual invocation that I witnessed in 1991 was intoned as follows:

The front of Ifa
The back of Ifa,
The right side of Ifa,
The all-knowing on the left, the centre of Ifa,
The centre of heaven
From the dawn of the day
to the setting of the sun,
Never say it is good when the message is evil
Never say it is evil when the message is good.
Never speak in a voice of deceit!

These lyrics are the diviner’s invocation to Ifa, spoken as a prayer to guide his consultation rightly so that an unequivocal truth may emerge. By his invocations, the diviner symbolically dramatizes the creation of the cosmos, the three layers of the Yoruba world. At the core of the divination is the idea that the universe and its events are guided by Ifa. He is the regulator of events in the universe (Agbayegun), and his divination process and activities bring order to a potentially chaotic universe. That spiritual order is symbolized by the regulating grid of the four cardinal points of the universe plus the centre, the fifth and the most central point.

The five important axes of power are replicated in the Ifa divination tray, usually carved out of wood, which represents the universe. The circular tray is a replica or “reproduction, on the human scale, of the cosmos [and] of Creation itself. It is an imago mundi, an image of the original world order.” At times in the course of divination, the Babalawo may trace these axes in the yellow powder on the Ifa tray, indicating the connection between the four cardinal points and the center.

The centre of the divining tray, like the centre of the world, is the link to the centre of heaven, the abode of the Supreme God (Olodumare) and the storehouse of sacred knowledge required to discover the “secrets” surrounding the client’s ailment, the hidden forces that have produced it. This is analogous to Victor Turner’s notion of the centre “out there;’ a place outside the immediate domain of the client, which nevertheless can be accessed through divination.

The act of touching the divining chain or  opele on the four cardinal points and then the center of the tray captures a complex religious symbolism. By this visually significant act, the tray becomes the earthly sacred centre from which the diviner makes present the heavenly centre and the ultimate storehouse of Ifa’s knowledge.”

Lokoloko (palace guards) holding whips made of branches during the Olojo Festival

Ifa divination connects the diviner’s probing act with the source of the client’s being, the ori (personal destiny). By this process, divination exposes the client’s destiny, the realities that influence his development, and the configuration of sacred powers that governs the world’s ceaseless transformations.


Today, in Ile-Ife and throughout Yorubaland, newer Pentecostal, evangelical, and “born-again” Christian movements that first emerged in the 1970s and 1980s are challenging the institution of the sacred kingship and the pluralistic order that has existed for over a century. These movements epitomize a new form of modernity encroaching upon Ile-Ife. Amid hundreds of evangelical Christian programs, revival meetings, open-air services, and nightly vigils taking place in the city, a newly emergent form of discourse is pushing evangelical Christian activities beyond the arena of the churches and private spirituality to public spaces, thereby directly challenging the orisa-based civil religion that has been in place. I should add that whereas in the Western world the crisis of modernity often connotes a struggle between religion and secularity, Ile-Ife’s current struggle over the negotiation of modernity concerns which form of religion will control its centre and civic life.

This newer negotiation of modernity is driven by generally exclusivist religious movements whose theology subsumes the entire cosmos and its inhabitants under a single divine order, ruled over by a Supreme God. This theology renders implausible the older order, according to which there exists not only the sacred kingship but also a diverse range of spirits and ancestors. As a result, this shift of sacred power and authority-from rulers and principalities that inhabit the living world to a single divine order inhabiting an invisible world (called heaven) – creates significant tension between devotees of the orisa and members of the new, predominantly Christian, movements. In short, these new movements challenge existing assumptions about what it means to be human in the cosmos and how civil authority is to be understood.

According to these new movements, all kings are simply human beings. Thus no king has any inherent religious or earthly authority that gives him power as head of the community, as the chief priest of the local civil religion. Central to this message is an emphasis on the personal salvation of individual converts. Moreover, unlike indigenous traditions, which were concerned with the temporal domain and a this-worldly proximate salvation, the new movements place significant emphasis on otherworldly salvation and benefits. Kings have become more concerned with their own personal salvation than with the proximate salvation of their people as a whole. Each individual is left to fight for his or her own salvation.

Members of these new Christian movements are targeting the sacred authority of the Ooni, and Ile-Ife civil religion more generally, because they realize that debunking the legitimacy of the sacred canopy-the guardianship of religious pluralism-will make it possible to destroy all indigenous non-Christian Yoruba traditions. While this kind of exclusivity is often associated with the European and American missionary enterprises of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I have shown that their accommodationist orientation actually tended to support a role for indigenously based Yoruba civil religion. Rather, native Yoruba are driving this second, far less tolerant, mode of conversion. Although the new Christian movements are part of a global effort to usher in a universal Christian moral and social order, the conversion tactics employed by native inhabitants of Ile-Ife are specifically adapted to their local context. These individuals are able to explore and exploit, to their advantage, their knowledge of the indigenous orisa tradition in order to turn that tradition against itself. They draw upon the indigenous tradition’s pragmatic orientation – its emphasis on religion’s use value – but claim that indigenous beliefs and practices no longer have such use value because they no longer meet people’s needs.

Thus these new movements often blame disorderly events – particularly those perceived to be obstructing societal progress – on the continuance of traditional orisa religious practices and ways of life, which are regarded as “pagan.” Among these events are pestilence, natural disaster, famine, disease (especially the AIDS epidemic), and military coups, all of which are seen as signs of divine anger and Satan’s presence. Paradoxically, whereas indigenous religions have claimed that they were indeed performing rituals, engaging in calendrical ceremonies and holding festivals to explain, predict, and control natural phenomena, the new Christian movements have claimed that destructive natural phenomena and events are caused by the continuation of these very “pagan” rituals and festivals. Evangelical Christianity’s desire to trump indigenous religious symbols and practices has effectively devolved into a declaration of hostility and war against indigenous traditions. As the cultured despisers of indigenous practices, these new Christian movements aim at doing away with any forms of local knowledge, language, and ethos, even when they do not have any apparent religious connection. For example, by discouraging the use of vernacular liturgy and local dialects, members of these new movements aim to preach a universal message that is ultimately of global, rather than purely local, reach.

Read the second part of the book: Book Serial: Ile-Ife: City of 201 gods (2)

Also read the first part of the book serialisation: Ile-Ife: City of 201 gods

CITY OF 201 GODS: Ile-Ife in Time, Space, and Imagination by Jacob k. Olupona was  presented at NIIA, Lagos on December 13, 2012.

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