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The Art of the Ifa Oracle Author(s): Evelyn Roache Source: African Arts, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Autumn, 1974), pp.

20-25+87 Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center Stable URL: Accessed: 24/10/2009 22:40
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The most well-known and often utilized of the various oracular practices of the Yoruba is that based on methods outlined by the deity Ifa. The importance of Ifa, "the greatest oracle of the whole Yoruba country which is consulted on all important occasions,"' was recognized by several early European researchers.2 In more recent years there have been ethnographic accounts of the history and technology of the Ifa oracle, the most definitive being those of William Bascom3 and Frank Willett.4 Bascom's monograph provides a sketchy framework for this discussion of the art of Ifa. He segments the method of divination into eleven steps which involve the following: casting palm nuts (odu) or on occasion, a brass chain, in a prescribed manner (this may be done ~. any number of times, contingent upon the interpretation of each throw); mak/ .. / ing marks on the divination tray with ; each throw of the nuts or chain; and This the :I pattern. interpreting completed last phase is the heart of the procedure and involves determining the sacrifices to .offer Ifa's associate deity, Esu. Ifa, the god of wisdom, imparted special powers only to his priests, called the babalawos ("fathers of the secrets"). The small brass image of a babalawo . shown in Figure 1 is one of only three such objects known to exist in either private or museum collections. It was collected by Rudolph de la Burde from Oyo in 1917, and its importance and antiquity are well recognized. This image reflects the novelty of first contact with Western culture in its blending of fifteenth century Portuguese regalia and

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the traditional Nigerian ceremonial pose. This static portrayal of the officiating priest encapsulates all the beauty and solemnity of the Ifa rite. In their oracular practices, the priests conduct impressive rituals which bring into use some of the most beautiful ordered forms of Yoruba art. Of the paraphernalia used in Ifa ceremonies, those of special artistic and ethnographical interest are the containers, trays, rattles (tappers) and Esu heads. The image in Figure 1 kneels in reverence, holding the tapper and a bottle which supposedly contains powder to be sprinkled on a tray. There are two types of containers: the opon igede, a box which stores the babalawo's implements between ceremonies; and the agere (or adjelle) ifa, a bowllike form which holds the palm nuts or chain while the priest is at work. These containers represent perhaps the greatest variety in the art of Ifa. They range in style from those of the utmost simplicity-simple columns supporting topless dishes or plain uncarved boxes-to creations of complexity and imagination (Figs. 2-7, 10). A classically simple form of great artistic merit is found in the caryatid bowl in Figure 5. The total sculptural composition is perfectly proportioned, with a rhythmic flow from the base of the figure to the upward, outstretched hands and hinge-lidded top. Similar images of the kneeling female often adorn shrines of other orishas such as Shango. The motif, illustrating the importance of fecundity and patriarchality to the Yoruba, is a favored one in many agrarian societies. The very heaviness of the orisha funfun (Fig. 3) with her distended abdomen and pendulous breasts evokes awe; and yet, the reverence for Mother blends harmoniously with the kneel and smile of submission to the masculine forces. These forces of maleness are personified by the phallic symbolism of Esu who plays an integral role in the casting of the Ifa oracle. Though also basic in concept, the chicken opon igedes (Figs. 2, 4) often are exceedingly complex in incised design and in the use of natural pigments to emphasize their sculptural character. Intricate interlaced patterns cover the entire surface of the large, delicately carved bowl in Figure 2. It is lidded, the bowl being the hollowed chicken body. This rare container, collected by RuLEFT: 6 AND 7. TWO AGERE IFAS, EACH 61/2". COLLECTION OF ROGER DE LA BURDE.


dolph de la Burde in Akure in 1913, exemplifies the best artistic tradition within the Yoruba expressive idiom. The other bowl, collected at Ile-Igbo in 1917, typifies the Yoruba classical presentation of the chicken form while displaying an unusually rich and sensitive use of natural pigments which increases its sculptural perception by the viewer (Fig. 4). Various birds are occasionally used as decorative objects. One is imaginatively placed as the handle of the unusually large opon igede in Figure 10. The interior of the bowl is divided into sections so that the different ceremonial tools may be stored separately, yet within the same consecrated space. Though Yoruba culture (as with most traditional cultures) has a rather limited ideational range which typically is marked by formalism (note the quietude and dignity of the old man in Figure 7), there is within that range a remarkable flexibility in selection and representation of themes. The imaginative agere ifa shown in Figure 6 probably portrays a myth. Here, two brave warriors struggle with a wild animal which grasps a huge coiling serpent in its mouth. To have presented 'the climax of the struggle while retaining the traditional dignity of the participants requires considerable artistic skill. Certainly, as Robert Thompson has pointed out, the agere ifa is a fitting vessel which "holds the palm nuts aloft, appropriate to their dignity as counters of divine wisdom."5 The divining tray, or awua ifa, is also artistically worthy of the solemnity of the function. Symbols representing the pattern of cast palm nuts are drawn in a

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sulphur or bark powder which is sprinkled upon the tray. In this manner, at the conclusion of the ceremony the babalawo can have the message in its entirety before him. This is a tremendous aid, for in spite of a prodigious 256 patterns with well over memory, ..... 1,000 possible interpretations constitute a considerable challenge to the babalawo's retention. The wooden trays may be of any geometric shape, though in my experience, rectangular and circular types predominate. Most styles, even the round ones, are divided by ornamentation into four sections, each section reportedly representing one of the four directions. The


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immediately above the carved head, indicating how it was grasped, palm over the front of the figure, to tap upon the tray in greeting or summons. The loudest sounds, however, do not directly result from tapping the iroke, but from the oscillation of clappers within or outside the cavity. The wooden rattle (Fig. 11), collected in 1916 at Odogbolu, shows two metal crotals cast to resemble the cowry shells which most typically served as clappers. This same piece is a further illustration of Yoruba eclecticism, typified by the double axe symbol of Shango which extends from either side of the carved head. The inter-relationship of these two deities, Ifa and Shango, has been documented in a number of myths, several of which were included in Robert Thompson's book, Black Gods and Kings.6 Ecumenicity has been mentioned previously, not only regarding Ifa's relationship with Shango but, most integrally, with Esu. Esu's face adorns the divination trays, and a free-standing head is also placed beside the officiating priest. Farrow recounts one of many myths which illuminate this deity's importance to Ifa and the reason for his presence at the ceremonies: "In the early days of the world, when the human race was few in number, the gods were stinted in sacrifices and so often went hungry and had to forage for themselves. Ifa took to fishing, but had no success, and, being hungry, consulted Eshu . .. who told him that if he could obtain sixteen palm-nuts from the two palm-trees of Orungan, the chief man, he would show Ifa how to forecast the future. Ifa could then use his knowledge to forecast the future and benefit mankind, and so receive abundance of offerings in return; but he stipulated that the first choice of all offerings should be his. Ifa agreed, and went to Orungan to ask for the nuts, telling him for what purpose he required them. Orungan, delighted at the prospect, took his wife with him and hastened to get the nuts; but, finding the trees too high, drove the monkeys to them, who ate the pulp of the fruit and threw down the 'nuts' . . Orungan's wife, Orishabi by name, tied three in her waist-cloth, as a child is carried, and so bore them to Ifa. Elegba (Eshu) then taught Ifa, who, in turn, taught Orungan, and so made him the first babalawo. Therefore . . . the babalawo, before beginning the divining pro-


trays are flat-bottomed with raised decorative edges. Dominating the edge is a stylized face of Esu. Esu's watchful eyes observe each step of the oracular procedure both from this position on the divining trays and as he stands sentry beside the babalawo. Occasionally the tray designs incorporate additional faces of Esu or of the other deities, but more frequently the design is completed by abstract (Fig. 8) or animal (Fig. 9) motifs. Coupled with the use of the awua ifa is the rattle (iroke). These two objects communicate greeting to Esu at the day's beginning and summon Ifa to the ceremony. This writer has also seen a babalawo use the iroke to incise the odu

symbols into the powder. The form of these implements is uniquely suited for both purposes. Many irokes are carved from actual tusks (Fig. 12); others are made of wood shaped to resemble the tusk form: slightly curved and tapering at one end (Fig. 11). Again, the typical Yoruba symbol of fecundity serves as the most usual ornamentation. The kneeling or seated female holding her breasts is carved into the lower portion of the rattle, with a small segment near the bottom and a larger one at the top remaining uncarved. The ivory irokes in particular show the beautiful patination of frequent use. The larger one in Figure 12 is glossed and worn most intensely in the area


cess, utters the invocation, Orungan, a juba o! Orishabi, a juba o! i.e. 'Orungan, we respect thee! Orishabi, we regard
thee!' "7

Esu is such a vital consideration in the casting of the Ifa oracle that an ivory replica of his head is stored with the palm nuts and it watches over the babalawo's actions during the ceremonies. The head usually is distinguished as Esu's by his physical trademark, a unique hairstyle, the "phallic" tail. A rare and large image, collected in 1917 at Oyo, depicts Esu with a different hair arrangement, the classical peaked headdress of divine kingship (Fig. 14). These heads show the remarkable diversity of interpretation that has been noted in other objects used in Ifa divination. Stylistic variety is not limited to the hair crown styles but embraces the entire form. A head indigenous to Ekiti is marked by a rectangular, flattened face, with straight horizontal incisions indicating the mouth, eyes, facial scarification and hair pattern (Fig. 13, right). Conversely, the images from the Oyo and Ibadan areas (Fig. 13, left and center) are more classical in interpretation. Regardless of how he is portrayed, Esu in a sense is king of the Ifa oracle. Indeed, he has a vested interest in its

outcome. The balalawo usually advises his clients to sacrifice to Esu in order to assure the deity's cooperation. Ifa informs; Esu remedies. The Ifa oracle is a helpful decisionmaking and anxiety-releasing mechanism. Robert Thompson succinctly expresses its function as ". . . an intellec-

tual system that makes fate visible, as upon a screen, where man views his problems with a clarity not previously obtained."8 Once the psychological quan-

dary is resolved, man is free to act. In cultures lacking the level of empiricism found in the western world, some form of divination is necessary to provide the dynamic element. The fact that Ifa holds the elevated position of oracle attests to his importance within the context of Yoruba culture. That importance is reflected further by the great variety and artistic virtue of the art associated with the divinatory practice. D Notes, page 87



tion and understanding-for it raises the issue of the extent to which they are inevitably and necessarily coordinate. For my own part, if it were not for the increasingly insatiable demand to generate this "FILL" for your magazine, perhaps I would never have embarked on this inconclusive debate at all, preferring to let the subject remain private, rippling through the mind idly in those periods dedicated to "THOUGHT" in the garden with eyes closed against the red glare of the California sun and a sweet somnolence descending. It may not be Marvell's splendid concept of "a green thought in a green shade" but there is just as much enjoyment to be derived from a soporific thought in the hot bright sun. If my thoughts have become soporific to the writer, one can only imagine with awe how sublimely narcotic they must be to the reader. Perhaps at least an insomniac may find my speculations therapeutic if not informative. As I close this column I can almost hear the gentle buzz of slumber that it will occasion, that agreeable "throwing up of the zees" of which e. e. cummings once wrote. With the discovery that this discussion has already produced the first glimmerings of a self-induced yawn, I leave the continuing speculations to those readers who have got this far. C [
AFO-A-KOM, Notes, from page 86. 1. The preceding paragraphs appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 1974, p. 1, as "Our Kind of Afo-A-Kom" by Walter M. Brasch and Gilbert D. Schneider, and are reprinted with the kind permission of the Review. 2. The letter was sent to Dr. Schneider. IFA ORACLE, Notes, from page 25. 1. Ellis, A.B., 1894, The Yoruba-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa, London: Chapman and Hall. 2. de la Burde, Rudolph, unpublished memoirs; Frobenius, L., 1913, The Voice of Africa, London: Hutchinson. 3. Bascom, W. R., 1969, Ifa Divination, Bloomington: University of Indiana Press. 4. Willett, F., 1967, Ifa in the History of West African Sculpture, London: Thames and Hudson. 5. Thompson, R. F., 1971, Black Gods and Kings, Los Angeles: University of California Press. 6. Thompson, ibid., 5/4. 7. Farrow, S. S., 1926, Faith, Fancies, and Fetish, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, p. 37. 8. Thompson, op. cit., 5/5. SENEGALESE ART, Notes, from page 59. 1. An exception is "Peintres s6nEgalais," held in 1964 in Brazil, a country with a strong African heritage, by the Centre d'Etudes Afro-Orientales de Bahia. The Senegalese artists have also exhibited their works at the first "Festival des arts negres" in Dakar in 1966, at the "Festival panafricain" in Algiers in 1969, and at the "Semaine senegalaise" in Rabat in 1970. 2. It is perhaps this type of image that the critic Raoul-Jean Moulin was lampooning when he spoke of "africaneries s6n6galaises" ["Senegalese Africanisms"] ("Artistes africains d'aujourd'hui," Les Lettres franFaises, February 25, 1970). 3. Catherine Joliot, "Entretien avec Iba N'Diaye, peintre et sculpteur s6negalais," L'Afrique litteraire et artistique, No. 11, June 1970. 4. Irmeline Hossman, "Entretien avec Pierre Lods," Afrique, March 1967. 5. "Lissiers s6negalais," L'Afrique litteraire et ar-


No. 2, December,


6. Niaky Barry, "Art negre et modernit6," Senegal d'aujourd'hui, No. 14, December-January 1970. 7. It would be worthwhile to make an inventory of paintings done on the front of small stores or on the sides of "express cars," as was done for the store signs of Ivory Coast by Jacques Clauzel, who this year will present pictures and original documents at the Institut de l'Environnement in Paris. 8. A painting like "Gor6e" by Clement Coulibaly seems to me to be an exception. GREBO MASKS, Notes, from page 39. 1. Grebo is the currently used form, while the official spelling is Glebo. 2. M. Leiris and J. Delange, Afrique Noire, Paris, 1967, p. 11; L. Segy, African Sculpture Speaks, New York, 1969, p. 170; Sculpture from West Africa in the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1963, p. 9; E. Leuzinger, Die Kunst von SchwarzAfrika, Kunsthaus Zuerich Katolog, Zurich, 1970, p. 97. 3. W. Robbins, African Art in American Collections, New York, 1966, p. 77. 4. E. Becker-Donner, Ueber Zwei Kruvoelkcerstaemme: Kran und Grebo, Wien, 1944, p. 61. 5. K. Krieger, Westafrikanischeplastik 1, Berlin, 1965, Figs. 19, 20, 21a, 21b. 6. Traditional History and Folklore of the Glebo Tribe, Bureau of Folksway, Monrovia, 1957. FOROWA, Notes, from page 49. 1. Crowley, Daniel J., "Forowa: Ghanaian Brass Shea Butter Boxes," read at the Annual Meetings of the African Studies Association, Philadelphia, Pa., November 8-11, 1972. This study began under the supervision of Dr. Crowley at the University of California, Davis, in the fall quarter of 1972. I would like to thank Dr. Crowley for his assistance and encouragement. This paper has also been invaluably aided by the editorial comments of Dr. Herbert M. Cole, University of California, Santa Barbara, to whom I am greatly indebted.

2. American Museum of Natural History, New York, catalogue number 90.1-9398 a.b. 3. Shea butter (known commercially as "karite") is the rendered oil from the nut of the shea tree (Butyrosperum parkii). The tree is commonly found throughout the Northern Territories and has been actively cultivated since 1932 in a shea reserve near Yendi (Bourret 1952:88 and 129). 4. Personal communication, August 1973. 5. Information accompanying the forowa presented to Mrs. Richard M. Nixon by Richard Nunoo of the National Museum of Ghana in January, 1972. 6. Only one forowa in this study is documented as to exact provenance (Figs. 1, 6). It is from Nana Owusu Afruyle II, Bansohene, Banso, Tuaso District. The majority of the pieces were purchased from traders on High Street in Accra. 7. 1947 AF. 13.35. This forowa is probably unique. 8. An electron beam microprobe analysis of twelve cans by Raymond W. Wittkopp of the Geology Department, University of California, Davis, revealed a remarkably homogenous composition of approximately 63% copper and 37% zinc with several samples having inclusions of elemental copper. The spectroscopist considered the brass, as a whole, to be of relatively poor quality. 9. These circles are connected to their respective cylinders by having their outside edges folded over the flared ends of the cylinders. The foot is either riveted or stapled to the bottom plate of the body. 10. Kyerematen ilustrates a rectangular forowa (1964:98). 11. In many cases these designs are identical to the patterns of concentric circles and "six-petaled flowers" illustrated by Rattray (1923:30) and Menzel (1968:82-83 and Figs. 15-18) as decorating gold dust scales and scoops. Other cans have a subtle, mostly unartistic, pattern on the bottom plate of the container. This consists of a simple circular, triangular, or square design gouged somewhat carelessly into the brass. Here again, when the can is

CONTRIBUTORS JANET ADWOAANTIRI,an Ashanti from Ghana, is the niece of Dwomohene (Chief of Dwomo) and granddaughter of Abesewahemaa (Queen Mother of Abesewa). She has a B.A. from Howard University and an M.A. from the Catholic University of America. She helped form the Akan Dance Group, "Contact Africa," in Washington, D.C. RENATOBERGERis a writer and lecturer in African culture currently living in Switzerland. He specializes in the Yoruba. WALTERM. BRASCH, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, received his Ph.D. in mass communication, with a cognate area in ethnolinguistics, from Ohio University. His publications include two books, several articles, and the television documentary, "The Royal Symbols of the Kom." MARIOMENEGHINI, a chemist from Milan, Italy, has been living in Liberia for the past eighteen years where he has developed a deep interest in the artistic production of the peoples in Liberia and the neighboring countries. ROBERTand NANCYNOOTERbegan collecting African art while living in West Africa in 1965. He is an official of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Program and a Trustee of the Museum of African Art. His wife, a painter with twenty years of experience as an exhibiting artist, assists in the Curatorial Department of the Museum of African Art. BERNARDPATAUXwas formerly a professor of plastic arts and art history in Paris. The author of a thesis and a catalogue on "le portrait cubiste," he was professor then director at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Dakar. EVELYNROACHE,now on the faculty of the University of Richmond in Virginia, previously taught at Old Dominion University and Virginia Commonwealth University. She completed her doctoral work at the University of Liege, Belgium, in 1972 after having conducted fieldwork among the Ijebu-Yorubaof Nigeria. DORANH. ROSS is a graduate student in African art at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is presently doing fieldwork in Ghana. GILBERTD. SCHNEIDERis an associate professor of linguistics at Ohio University (Athens) with an M.A. in African anthropology and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the Hartford Seminary Foundation. He was a missionary administrator and ethnolinguist in Nigeria and Cameroon from 1947-61; nine of those years were spent living with the Kom.