In traditional Yoruba culture, Ifá refers to a system of divination and the verses of the literary corpus known as the Odú Ifá presented in the course of divination.
Ifá originated in West Africa among the Yourba ethnic groups. It is also practiced among believers in Lucumi, (sometimes referred to as Santería), Candomblé, West African & Diaspora Vodou, and similarly transplanted Orisa'Ifa lineages in the New World. In Togo, it is known as Afa, where the Vodou deities come through and speak. In many of their Egbes, it is Alaundje who is honored as the first Bokono to have been taught how to divine the destiny of humans using the holy system of Afa.
The Ifa Divination system was added in 2005 by UNESCO to its list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.
Performing Ifa divination is called idafa (or dida owo and ounte ale). Idafa is performed by a Babalawo or Iyanifa (an initiated priest). Babalawo can be translated as “father of the secrets”. The babalawo provides insights about the current circumstances impacting the life of a person requesting this information and provides any necessary information to aid the individual. Awo is a reference for devotees in Orisa worship. It includes Babalawos, Babalorishas, Iyalorishas and even uninitiated devotees.
Special instruments are used to assist in the divination to transcribe Orunmila's wisdom through the diviner. The items used for divination include:
a group of sixteen Ikin, commonly known as palm nuts, which are used to create binary data
Dust from the Irosun tree (Iyerosun)
a vessel for the seeds (Ajere Ifa)
a divination tray (opon Ifa).
a tapper instrument (iroke Ifa)
a fly whisk (Irukere Ifa)
beaded belts for the babalawo to wear (this is not required)
another form of divination is with the Opele, though Ikin is considered superior
The (opon Ifa) or tray and (iroke Ifa) or tapper are used in Ifa divination, a central ritual within Ifa tradition. This tray, adorned with carved images and dusted with powder, serves as the template on which sacred signs (odu) related to the personal concerns of a diviner's client are traced as the point of departure for analysis. In contrast to those transitory signs, the more permanent backdrop of the carved motifs on the tapper and tray constitutes an artistic exegesis of the forces that shape human experience and the universal needs fulfilled by such quests for enlightenment.
To initiate the ritual, the babalawo places the tray in front of him and taps rhythmically on it with the pointed end of the tapper, invoking the presence of Orunmila, past diviners, and other Orisa.
There are a variety of palm nuts that are available, but only specific kinds may be used for Ifa divination and must have at least 3 “eyes” or more. The palm nuts are grouped in one hand, then the diviner attempts to shift them all to his/her other hand at once, and counts the remaining Ikin left, hopefully to discover that either one or two remain. (Odu, which are the foundation of the binary data, can only be marked with either one or two palm nuts, remaining in the diviner's original hand. As this process goes on, the diviner marks single or double marks in wood powder spread on his divination tray until he or she has created one of the 256 odus that are available.
Each of these odus is associated with a traditional set of Ese (verses), often relating to Yoruba mythology, which explain their divinatory meaning. These verses represent thousands of years of observation and are filled with predictions, and both mundane and spiritual prescriptions that resolve issues found in that Odu. Within Ifa, Believers find all the knowledge of the world past present and future.
After obtaining the Odu that governs a situation or event, the diviner then determines whether the Odu comes with Ire (which is poorly translated to mean good luck) or Ibi (which could be viewed as obstacles or impediments to success). After this process the diviner now determined appropriate offerings, spiritual disclipines and/or behavioral changes necessary to bring, keep or compel success for the person receiving divinatory counsel.