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48 Philosophy Of Divination


Augustine C. Obi

Divination in traditional religions especially in Africa has till date remained one
of the aspects of culture that has not received an adequate and meaningful
inquiry. A number of studies give more or less superficial data concerning
divination techniques in various African cultures but profound investigation not
only appear to be lacking but also not forthcoming.
Mere reportage of external
details that border on rituals is scarcely even the beginning of understanding but
clearly reveals our ignorance of inner and sublime worlds of African divination.

Present State of Divination
The current superficial approach to divination may be due in part to what Mbiti
refers to as the unnecessary halo of secrecy
that barricades divination
techniques and beliefs in traditional Africa. Even in exceptional cases of in depth
study on divination like that of Bernard Maupoils work on Fa Divination among
the Fon of Dahomey, the interpretation remains to a large extent underpinned by
religious conceptual schemes.

African authors and scholars who would have been in the vanguard of serious
inquiry into divination have rather joined the chorus of endless lament that attend
most traditional African beliefs and systems which remain uninvestigated or
partially investigated. With the regard to divination, John Mbiti comments that
with a few exceptions, African systems of divination have not been carefully
studied, though diviners and divination are found in almost every community.
a calculated response to Mbiti, Benjamin Ray not only reechoes the lament but
pointedly redirects the challenges against Mbitis own work.
All the
investigations so far conducted on divination appear to have been done by
anthropologists and religious experts. The merits of such inquiries
notwithstanding, they do not seem to bring us any nearer to the nature of

The philosopher who is most equipped to explore the foundational principles of
divination must take up the challenge. In Ciceros work, De Natura Deorum,
Cotta challenges his opponent Balbus as follows:

And what is the origin of your art of divination? Who discovered
the significance of the cleft in animals liver or interpreted the
ravens cry? Or the way the lots fall? Not that I do not believe in
these things. I do not despise an augur such as Attus Navius, whom
you have just mentioned. But how omens came to be understood is
something I must learn from the philosophers especially as the
predictions of the soothsayers are often falsified by the event.
Augustine C. Obi 49

From this backdrop, Cotta rightly demands from Balbus his right to ask for a
rational explanation of religious faith.
This demand apparently justifies his
choice of Gaius Laelius, a philosopher and an augur speaking about religion
than listen to any leader of the Stoics.
The philosopher is not interested in any
kind of divination but in what has been severally referred to as wisdom
and interpretive divination.

Within this kind of divination, the spirits, gods and human personality as well are
all subordinated to a profounder cosmic order. The diviner seeks a dispassionate
distance from all things, a kind of rational objectivity, which transcends the
whole in reducing all perceptual reality to impersonal elemental components.
Sensory reality is dissolved into a deeper classification. This form of wisdom in
attempting a rational cataloguing of all the possible influences at work in the
cosmic order often ends in anchoring itself in a grounding reality which
overarches and orders local forces and particular events.
Interpretive divination
is different from possession divination which depends on gods and spirits
possessing humans and animals. The basic thrust of wisdom divination is that
the forces ordering events are not open to whims and caprices as may be the case
with the gods and the spirits but rather expresses a plan or a law of the universe
governing everything within it. From the foregoing, those who practice this kind
of divination are interpreters who judge and appreciate the conjunction of
signifiers and signified in a divinatory context.
The philosopher makes the
choice of this kind of divination not only because it is more rational in
orientation than its counterpart, possession or messenger divination, but also
appears to give room for philosophical justification. As a backdrop to the
examination of the foundational principles of divination, let us attempt a theory
of the African personality.

African Theory of the Self
The relation between divination and the African theory of self is informed by the
necessary dependence of the former on the latter. To make room for the
possibility of divination, the African notion of self differs radically from the
Western concept of the same. From the account of M.D.W. Jeffreys, the Ibo,
like many other African peoples, conceive of the human being as composed of
three parts: the chi, shadow, soul, spirit; the muo, the ghost or revenant; the
aru or the physical body.
The position of Jeffreys confirmed by Zahan

indicates that the human person is not an indissoluble entity. Not only is there a
dichotomy the physical body and the soul but also a fissure within the soul which
gives room for its apparent double, ghost which he appropriately refers to as
revenant on account of its mobility.

From the foregoing analysis, it appears that if a serious study of African
psychology or more precisely ontology is undertaken focusing particularly on the
analysis of the self, there would be no anomally not only in adopting the position
50 Philosophy Of Divination

that ones body can be alienated from oneself but also that the soul can do the
same. Traditional Igbos have expressions that validate these positions like obi
ifepu madu and muo madu inata for someone who is shocked by an
experience and igbu muo madu for some one who receives an ugly treatment
or a serious undeserved rebuke or humiliation from another person. In the words
of Achebe, Okonkwo knew how to kill a mans spirit.

According to African ontology, the human being does not appear to possess the
unity which we usually attribute to it, and the individual soul is not the undivided
whole we think that it is. Among the component principles of the soul, there
exists an element which allows the human person to double itself at certain
moments of life. This conception is very widespread in Africa if it is not
Among the Thonga, this fundamental idea is represented as
chitjhouti or as dya among the Bambara and muo madu inata among the
traditional Igbos. The self normally and naturally possesses a point of fission
probably situated at the border of the conscious and the unconscious, and this
characteristic assures the human person of a wide gamut of parahuman
possibilities, for example, the ability to be in two places at once, clairvoyance
and metamorphosis.

The many possibilities the cleft in the human soul allows the individual
confers on the African notion of self a broader and richer content than the
Western classic treatises on the soul. The same possibilities make the African
define himself not as totally separate from the other but by that which he receives
from others at any moment. From this position the individual does not constitute
a closed system in opposition to the outside world in order to secure his
substance and limitations. The African personality and his environment co-
penetrate each other so that between the two entities there is a regular
communication, a kind of exchange which demands a posture of permanent
listening on the part of the individual to the rhythm of the world. There is in the
African person some kind of fluidity that is accompanied by a plasticity or
malleability which an observer who does not have the required perception will
overlook. It is this peculiar elasticity that makes the African define himself in
terms of becoming than of being.

The fluidity of the African self is possible because of the plane of cleavage
within the spiritual principles which constitute the human being. This cleavage
opens up in the soul an element which apparently is strange which is its double.
The double is a sort of mobile principle which has the capacity to leave its owner
temporarily to roam the world.
The context of its trips is mostly serene
environment, during sleep and often times in dreams. The person whose double
is absent finds himself in a state of prostration and lethargy because his will and
intellectual faculties appear to have failed. This is probably the content of our
notions of absentmindedness and daydreaming. The state under
Augustine C. Obi 51

consideration appears to be one level of meaning of the Igbo saying, inodu
madu na esi muo muo (present yet absent).

Divinatory practices are based on this ontological postulate, that of the existence
of the double and of its mobility in comparisom with the soul which only at
death leaves the body to which it is linked. In the context of wisdom or
interpretive divination, to the double as a mobile element or agent is added the
equally important role of a centralizer of psychic powers and energies. This is
because in contrast to the soul, the double represents the total set of intellectual
functions and the faculties bearing on action. It sums up the individual in his
capacity as a conscious, thinking and active being.
Having explored the African
theory of self and established how the art of divination is built upon it, an
exploration of the possible philosophical foundation of divination becomes
Principle of Double Causality
The question concerning causality which is most common among Europeans is,
what caused this? How did this happen? or who did this? The Igbo villager
(and African in general) is more concerned with persons than with things
whether the latter are concrete or abstract, and consequently the most pertinent
question about causality is who did this? or who is responsible? Next comes
the closely related question, why did this happen to me.
By posing the two
related questions, who did this? and why did this happen to me?, A.J.
Shelton inadvertently links the supernatural cause of things with their natural
causes in the context of divination. R. Horton adopts this position to debunk the
claim that traditional Africans are more interested in the former than in the

What appears the most feasible context for the double causality theory is the
diagnosis of disease or misfortune. Throughout traditional Africa, people who
are sick and afflicted often consult or seek the services of diviner. The answer
from the diviner is usually an offence against a divinity or another spiritual
agency and a recommendation of some kind of propitiation or appeasement. But
the diviner who diagnoses the intervention of a spiritual agency also provides
some rational account of what moved the agency in question to intervene.
Fundamental to this account is a reference to some event in the world of humans.
Thus, if a diviner diagnoses the action of witchcraft or lethal medicine, it is
usual for him to add something about the human hatreds, jealousies and
misdeeds that have brought such agencies into play. Or if he diagnoses the wrath
of an ancestor, it is usual for him to point to the human breach of kinship
morality which has called down this wrath.

Victor Turner makes this point in his analyses of divination and the diagnosis of
disease among the Ndembu of Central Africa.
He demonstrates how in
diagnosing the causes of some bodily affliction, the Ndembu diviner not only
52 Philosophy Of Divination

refers to unseen spiritual forces but also relates the patients condition to a whole
series of disturbances in his social field. Turner refers to divination specifically
as social analysis and says that the Ndembu believe a patient will not get
better until all the tensions and aggressions in the groups interrelations have been
brought to light and exposed to ritual treatment.
Although Turner himself does
not refer to comparable material from other African societies, Max Gluckman,
drawing on data from Tiv, Lugbara, Nyakyusa, Yau and several other traditional
societies, has recently shown that the kind of analysis he has made of divination
among the Ndembu is widely applicable.

In his discourse on Yoruba traditional religion, Williams holds that
contemplative Ogboni men will often introduce such phrases as I know that
everything must have a cause, meaning that whatever the Orisa (gods) do for
mankind is a consequence of human action; implicit is a denial of the ordinary
mans conviction that there is an element of irresponsibility or of chance in
events; implicit also is the awareness that Elegbara, the Trickster deity, cannot
lead a man into misfortune unless he himself or an enemy provokes the events.
On the one hand, these men are led to look for immutability behind the
manipulable acts of Orisa; on the other hand, they look for a human cause for
misfortune, namely, for the witch who kills children, for the fault of the king
who has turned men against one another in the town.
Mbiti in turn observes
that even if it is explained to a patient that he has malaria because a mosquito
carrying malaria parasite has stung him, he will still want to know why that
mosquito stung him and not another person. The second answer which appears to
compliment the first is that someone has caused the mosquito to sting him by
means of magical manipulations. Suffering, misfortune and disease are all caused
mystically as far as African peoples are concerned.
The point in all the
foregoing considerations is that the African traditional diviner faced with the
incidence of misfortune, disease or illness does not just refer to a spiritual
agency. He also uses ideas about this agency to link disease or misfortune to the
causes found in the world of visible and tangible events.

To hold that the traditional African thinker is interested in supernatural causes
rather than natural causes is to miss the point. This position makes little more
sense than to say that the physicist is interested in nuclear rather than natural
causes. In fact, both the African traditional thinker and the physicist are making
the same use of theory to transcend the limited vision of natural causes provided
by common sense.
By linking natural causes with supernatural causes in the
principle of double causality, the African traditional thinker more than the
physicist adopts and approves the need for a metaphysical ground for natural

An implication of the theory of double causality is the principle of cosmic
interconnectedness. Divination ultimately reveals this principle that holds the
Augustine C. Obi 53

entire cosmic order in a common bond through the essential and causal linkage
between the supernatural and natural forces in a coherent whole. The relation
between the spiritual powers, the starry heavens, the flight of birds, animals
entrails and human activities is not arbitrary because it is derived from the
universal idea that all things without exception are connected with each other.

This principle of course affords no room for chance or accidental events.
the basis of this principle, the story of a Dyak chief who lived in a hut for six
weeks partly waiting for the twittering of birds to be in a proper direction makes
more sense.

Science of Reality
Through the principle of cosmic interconnectedness, the system of divination
appears to afford the traditional African some kind of opportunity to control the
cosmic order. This apparent attempt to master the cosmic order is at the same
time an effort to ascertain its underlying principle. In this context, divination
turns out to be a quest for reality and by implication a search for meaning. Evans
Zeusse agrees with this implication because from his exhaustive study of
divination in Africa he arrived at the conclusion that the whole point of
divination lies in the realm of meaning.
The nature of reality demands that
divination employs the method of signs and symbols which seek to capture the
many aspects of reality. In Fon religion, the system of Fa is built up through the
interaction of 256 signs, each of which is an essential mode of realty. Each
element is the sum of a series of binary oppositions (open or closed cowrie
shells, whole or broken lines, odd and even numbers, plus or minus, male or
female); together they generate the whole world.
It is said that there are 600
verses that an advanced bokono (diviner) has to memorize for each sign covering
all aspects of life.
The Ifa divination of the Yoruba which is a series of 256
figures each, with its own name, is a means of controlling the phenomenal
world, which in Yoruba metaphysics is constellated by combinations two or
Among the Igbos, the actually significant parts of the afa strings are the
apipi or ujuru half seeds; there four strings and four apipi on each string because
in part of the deep significance of the number four which is exemplified by the
market days or days of the week.
The basic number, four with its multiples
which is a constant in divination, is the symbol of the cosmic order. The
primordially and sublime wisdom concerning the cosmic order displayed by
Arochukwu priests has recently been supported by the discovery there of a sacred
script or hieroglyphics preserved by the priests perhaps from the late second
millennium B.C., but claimed by Hau to have been possibly conveyed to them by
Cretan traders.
The insinuation that the text may have come from a foreign
source is most probably due to expatriate prejudice.

The progression of the signs that represent reality and their generation of each
other is fundamentally the hidden history of humankind itself as Fa divination,
for instance, makes clear. Before each consultation, the bokono calls up the signs
54 Philosophy Of Divination

invoking and remembering the primordial order. By introducing the current
problem into this harmony he discovers how to reconcile it to the cosmic order.
Just as the signs themselves embody cosmic time, so does the shrine room of Fa
priests correspond in every detail to the architecture of universal space. Thus
every consultation consciously but rationally occurs within all space and time
and aims at the harmonization of all aspects of reality.

Just like its subject matter, reality, no one ever finishes learning the art of
divination for there are levels and degrees within it. Even elderly bokonos set out
on journeys that may take them into distant parts of West Africa to sit at feet of
famous sages and learn more.
Since wisdom divination seeks to integrate
the many metaphysical levels of reality,
the diviner of necessity must know
more than anyone else in the community and his training is understandably
arduous and takes many years. For the Fa priests, the course, traditionally,
included study abroad at Ifa centres in Yoruba land and else where.

In his endeavour to comprehend reality, the diviner employs the services of
souls double. It can be acknowledged that owing to a remarkable genetic
endowment or following repeated and sustained exercises, the interpreter diviner
is equipped with a particularly rich and active double. Owing to this, he is so
sensitive to conjunctions that he requires, as it were, the gift of double vision, the
aptitude of the mind to move about with ease in the realm of meaning and a
special sharpness in terms of discernment, insight, and the grasp of the
relationships between things.
He possesses the skill of penetrating the universe
of signs, which mediates between the world and the human person and by
ordering it according to his own method, he is able to make it clarify the situation
at hand. In essence, the nature of the diviner can be summarized by his great
intellectual capacities, his intuition and his facility for probing the universe and
translating its messages. To these qualities can certainly be added his aptitude for
entering into contact with others by his keen sense of human relations, by a kind
of gift for penetrating the soul and by a special privilege consistent with his

Correspondence of Part to the Whole
The traditional African diviner investigates reality from any of its parts or
aspects. What guarantees the wisdom and validity of this mode of investigation
is the principle of correspondence of part to the whole. The content of this
principle is that what we refer as parts of reality are microcosms that reflect the
macrocosm. Divination implies that the whole (reality) is contained in any of its
parts because each is an essential mode of reality.
In other words,
everything participates in everything else and the potency of one may therefore
be found in the other.
This implication of divination has echoes in
Anaxagoras theory of commixture which claims that in everything combining
Augustine C. Obi 55

there are present many things of every sort and seeds of all things having all
kinds of shapes and colours and savours.

The investigation of the nature of reality undertaken by the diviner which takes
on an almost scientific character cannot of course interrogate the whole universe.
It must, therefore, select a section or as it were a ground plan of the universe and
his selection is done in an apparently arbitrary, but actually strictly methodical
manner. That is why, for instance, the entrails of an animal form a kind of
microcosm, even where there are no developed cosmological ideas of the type
obtainable among the ancient orientals.
The obvious causality of the
correspondence of part to the whole is the I-Thou theory. Philosophically
speaking, the correspondence principle gives no room for the other. What
obtains is the self with its extension. What we refer to as the world in this context
is nothing more than the extension of the self.

There is much evidence from Africa that wisdom forms of divination arise and
flourish above all in centralized kingdoms as was the case also for Babylonian,
Chinese and Amerindian divination. Such complex classifications as found in the
art require a specialized training and standardization that centralized instruction
alone permits. Such regulation also assures that the tendency that has been
discovered in wisdom divination to undermine the personal immediate social
realities that confront the diviner and the client is controlled and turned to the
purposes of a hierarchical cosmos and state. Here, wisdom divination acts to
integrate many metaphysical levels of reality with the social system. According
to Maupoil, with the destruction of the Fon kingship by the French, the control of
the Fa system and the certification of the diviners also lapsed. The consequence
was the loss of uniformity of teaching, the disappearance of entire deeper levels
of interpretation and worst of all, the rise of self seeking and amoral diviners
who used their knowledge for power, demanding high prices from clients and
even stooping to sorcery.
Divination begun to be individualised and its
critical analysis of reality was subverted for persons seeking to escape the
consequences of the chaotic breakdown of society. But as long as a society
remains near the subsistence level and relatively undifferentiated, the wisdom
that is handed down through the generations in divination requires the ongoing
patronage of a centralized rule which can subsidize the training of full time
priestly diviners. Without this, the system loses its internal dynamics and
becomes part of folk practice.
Unlike the Ifa divination of the Yoruba, the
aforementioned lack of a centralized system of governance prevalent among the
traditional Igbo spelt the degeneration and ultimate demise of their afa

56 Philosophy Of Divination


1. See Evans M. Zeusse, Divination and Deity in African Religions, History of
Religions (1974), 179.
2. See Ibid.
3. John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (New York: Fredrick Praeger
Publishers 1969), 177.
4. See Bernard Maupoil, La geomancie a I ancienne Cote des Esclaves
(Paris: Institut dethnologie 1943), 607.
5. John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy,177
6. See Benjamin Ray, History of Religions 12.1 (1972), 84.
7. Cicero, De Natura Deorum, 3.15
8. Ibid., 3.5
9. Ibid.
10. See Evans M. Zeusse, Divination and Deity in African Religions, History of
Religions, 160
11. See Dominique Zahan, The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of
Traditional Africa (Chicago : University of Chicago Press 1979), 86.
12. See Evans M. Zeusse, Divination and Deity in African Religions, History of
Religions, 160.
13. See Dominique Zahan, The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of
Traditional Africa, 86.
14. M.D.W. Jeffreys, The Bull-Roarer Among the Ibo, African Studies
15. Dominique Zahan, The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional
Africa, 8-9.
16. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann Educational Books
17. See Dominique Zahan, The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of
Traditional Africa, 8.
18. See Ibid.
19. See Ibid.
20 See Ibid.,87.
21. See Ibid.
22. A.J. Shelton, Causality in African Thought: Igbo and Other, Practical
Anthropology (1968) 158-159.
23. See Robin Horton, African Traditional Thought and Western Science Part
1, Africa 37.1 (1967) 53.
24. Ibid.
25. See Victor Turner, Ndembu Divination (Manchester: Rhodes Livingstone
1961), 31.
26. Ibid.
27. See Robin Horton, African Traditional Thought and Western Science Part
1, Africa 37.1 (1967), 54.
Augustine C. Obi 57

28. See Peter Morton Williams, The Yoruba Ogboni Cult at Oyo, Africa 30.4
(1960), 373.
29. See John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London: Heinemann
Educational Books 1969), 169-170.
30. See Robin Horton, African Traditional Thought and Western Science Part
1, Africa 37.1 (1967), 54.
31. See G. Van Der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation (Princeton:
Princeton University Press
1986), 380.
32. See Ibid., 381.
33. See Ibid., 380.
34. See Evans M. Zeusse, Divination and Deity in African Religions, History of
Religions, 179.
35. Ibid., 174.
36. See Ibid., 175.
37. Peter Morton Williams, The Yoruba Ogboni Cult at Oyo, Africa 30.4
(1960), 372.
38. See Austin J. Shelton, The Meaning and Method of Afa Divination among
the Northern Nsukka Ibo, American Anthropologist 67 (1965), 1442.
39. See Kathleen Hau, The Ancient Writing of Southern Nigeria Bulletin
delinstitut Francais d Afrique Noire,29.1-2 (1967), 150-178.
40. See Bernard Maupoil, La geomancie a I ancienne Cote des Esclaves, 166-
41. Evans M. Zeusse, Divination and Deity in African Religions, History of
Religions, 176-177.
42. Ibid., 180.
43. Bernard Maupoil, La geomancie a I ancienne Cote des Esclaves, 128
44. See Dominique Zahan, The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of
Traditional Africa, 87-88.
45. See Ibid., 81-82.
46. Evans M. Zeusse, Divination and Deity in African Religions, History of
Religions, 174.
47. G. Van Der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation, 381
48. Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press), 83.
49. See Ibid.
50. Bernard Maupoil, La geomancie a I ancienne Cote des Esclaves, 148, 159-
51. See Evans M. Zeusse, Divination and Deity in African Religions, History of
Religions, 180.