On the great trade routes from the Maghrib, across the western end of the Sahara through what is now Algeria and Mali, to the fabulous city of Timbuktu, and along the banks of the Niger River, came the camel trains, the merchants, the missionaries of the Prophet, the slavers and the traders of Islam, to the rich tropical areas south of the Niger, into which territory they thrust at different times both peacefully and with violence.
Travelling down the Niger and across country to the sacred city of If? and to Benin, they brought with them the rami of the desert dweller. Hamilton described the system of divination he observed in the Sahara, which was called derb al-raml or derb al-ful, according to the medium used to 'project' the initial figures: for the desert dweller it was sand, but in the tropical area beans were used. The latter method is the simplest, but both are in principle the same. Hamilton relates the relatively simplified modus operandi-.1
beans are held in the palm of the left hand, which is struck with a smart blow with the right half-closed fist, so that some of the beans jump into the right hand - if an odd number, one is marked; if even, two . . . This being repeated four times gives the first figure, and the operation is performed until there are obtained four [geomantic] figures, which are placed side by side.in a square.
The square defines the various geomantic Houses into which any of the sixteen figures may fall, and the technique of derb al-raml goes on to add the four geo-mantic figures together in the usual way to obtain fresh combinations and interpretations. In its use of four rather than two basic Mother figures derb al-ful is a half-way house between Islamic sand-cutting or rami in the traditional sense, and the use of beans to produce two Mother figures by the diviners of Ifa to the south of the Sahara.
Thus as the practice is carried across the Sahara and into the tropical areas of Dahomey (Benin), Togo and Nigeria, the sand which was previously used to generate the figures becomes the powder on the diviner's board (see p. 68), whilst the figures themselves are generated by manipulations of beans or palm nuts. Together with this adaptation, the unique verbal heritage of the Yoruba contributed material to the complex set of verses designed as a mnemonic to aid the practitioner to memorize the interpretations of the various combinations of geomantic figures passed on to them by the Arab traders.
In trying to ascertain an exact point of contact between Islamic rami and the divination system of ifa, we can do no better than accept the traditions of the F<jn and the Ewe tribes who acknowledge the Yoruba city of If^ as the centre from which the practice of ifa divination has spread. The Yoruba traditions themselves consistently refer back to the early kings of If^ and their diviners from whom the system was said to be derived. It seems therefore that this was the reception and subsequent diffusion point of the Islamic heritage of rami.
Ifa is the best known and most respected form of divination used by the Yoruba people of Nigeria, their African neighbours and their descendants in the Americas. Ifa is both the method and the deity of divination. The diviners that work the ifa, known in the Yoruba language as babalawo (literally 'father that has secrets'), are devotees of the god Ifa.
The divination technique is based on the sixteen figures or odu, and their 256 (i.e. 16 x 16) derivatives. These are formed by either the throwing down of a divining chain (Qpqlq) which has eight half seed shells strung on it, or by the manipulation of sixteen palm nuts (ikin).
The divining chain is quicker than the sixteen palm nuts, but the latter are considered more reliable, perhaps because they were more traditional, while the chain is a more recent 'short-cut method'.
Ifa, the oracle god, is supposed to have been the god who directed creation. Ifa took the materials of the universe from a snail shell in a 'bag' suspended between the thighs of an older god, and used them to form the universe, scattering 'soil' to form the earth. Ifa later descended to earth in human form to help with child-bearing, teach medicine and give information on secret and hidden matters. Like the Roman Mercury, or the Greek Hermes, Ifa brings messages from the gods and is patron of divination and medicine. Also like Mercury, he is multi-lingual, and the god of language. Rather than attributing ifa divination to the Arab traders, the Yoruba people say that Ifa taught his method of divination to them whilst he was on earth.
A similar system of divination is practised in near-by Dahomey, and dedicated to the god Fa, who was said to have presented the tribes with some special palm nuts brought down from heaven. The diviner in both systems is supposed to throw the nuts from one hand to another, and, depending on whether the remaining nuts were odd or even, mark down either one or two marks on the powder scattered on a divining board. It is this pattern traced on the board which provides the data for the interpretation of the oracle.
It is obvious, with but little examination, that these two systems of divination, which have remarkably similar names, have a common source. Although we will concentrate on the ifa divination of the Yoruba, it is useful first to survey briefly the myths connected with fa divination.
Fa was said to have sixteen eyes, made of the sixteen nuts of divination which enabled him to see everything in the world: a parable suggesting that the sixteen figures of geomantic divination enable the diviner to discover everything going on in the world. Fa lived on a palm tree in the sky, from where he could see the world; it was also said that the mischievous god Legba had the duty every morning of opening Fa's eyes. Legba, who lived on the earth had to climb the palm tree to open Fa's eyes. As Fa did not wish to speak to Legba unless he was uttering an oracle, he put palm nuts into Legba's hands to indicate how many eyes he wanted opened. However, as Legba was such a mischievous god, and delighted in doing exactly the opposite of that which the other gods wanted him to do, Fa used to put one palm nut in Legba's hand if he wanted two eyes opened, but two nuts if he wanted only one eye opened. To this day, one palm nut thrown by the diviner means two marks on the divining board, whilst two nuts means one mark, because of the deceitfulness of Legba.
Each of the sixteen possible 'figures' that may arise are associated with sacred verses, and as many myths, which can then be applied in various combinations to the question in hand; the babalawo, or diviner, using the elements of the verses to build up a story-like reading.
The babalawo is both a focal point in the traditional Yoruba religion, arbitrating in the matter of sacrifices and ritual acts, as well as a professional diviner who is consulted by the worshippers of many of the Yoruba deities and also by Muslim and Christian converts. Rather like the practitioners of sikidy (chapter 4), he is involved in prescribing means of avoiding the fates which he predicts, as well as the more straightforward prescription of medicines. The many thousands of verses which he has to commit to memory to perform his function as a diviner even resulted in the establishment of a church in Lagos in 1934 which takes these verses as its 'Bible'. However, it seems to have always been meritorious amongst the worshippers of Ifa, to know his verses by heart.
Apart from a prodigious memory, the babalawo must naturally have or acquire during his three initiations a reasonable degree of clairvoyance, as it is standard practice for the querent to whisper his question to the palm nuts, rather than asking the babalawo directly. It is even commonly said that it is wrong for the diviner to know the nature of the problem, because this would tempt him to lie to satisfy the client, either by faking a verse or manipulating the figures accordingly.
Because of the similarity between the divinatory systems associated with Ifa and Fa, and their obvious historical connexion, we will simply consider the ifa system in detail, drawing occasional parallels with that of fa where necessary. Considering for the moment the distribution of ifa divination, we find that in recent literature there is no mention of it west of Togo or east of Nigeria, but early references have mentioned it as far west as the Ivory Coast (at Assinie) and in coastal Ghana, north of the River Niger (the Nupe people) and almost as far east as the Cameroons.
The principal tribes practising ifa divination are the Yoruba and Benin Edo of Nigeria. In Dahomey the Fgn practice fa, and the Ewe of Togo call it a fa. The Gbari or Gwari of Niger province practise the Islamic form of sand-cutting as well as using the palm nuts which would be accounted for by their northerly position, and geographical proximity to the strongly Islamic influenced town of Kano.
What may be the earliest report of ifa divination comes from the coast of what is now Ghana in a description given by Bosman, who served as factor for the Dutch at
Elmina and Axim. Bosman, who was in Ghana by 1690 says, 'the second way of consulting their Idols, is by a sort of wild Nuts, which they pretend to take up by guess and let fall again: after which they tell them, and form their Predictions from the number falling even or odd'.2
Another early account comes from Assinie in the southeastern corner of the Ivory Coast, still farther to the west. Loyer in about 1700 describes a method in which palm nuts are taken from a wooden or copper cup, and marks are made with the finger in wood dust on a board (a foot long and half a foot wide) as a result of this operation.3
Allowing for occasional misinterpretations by early travellers and missionaries, the system of divination has not changed much since the late seventeenth century, and has been passed down from babalawo to babalawo for the last three hundred years. If we ignore, for the moment, the persistence of some forms of sand-cutting in this area, we find that the initial figures are generated either by palm nuts or by the (possibly more modern) use of a 'divining chain'.
Was this article helpful?