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Ifa Divination Trays from Isale-Oyo

O. I. Pogoson et A. O. Akande
p. 15-41


This paper is a study of the images and patterns on ifa divination trays from Isale-Oyo. The paper also explains some ifa paraphernalia. The paper establishes that ifa trays from Isale-Oyo bear distinctive features when compared with other ifa trays in Yorubaland such as those of Ijebu and Osogbo. Central to this study is the iconographic description and interpretations of Isale-Oyo divination trays. Data were collected through direct interviews with divination tray owners. Photographs of the trays were also taken. The investigation revealed that:
Divination trays from Isale-Oyo combine features found on both Ijebu and Osogbo trays.
The Esu figure continues to occupy the top central position on Oyo divination trays, even though with representational variations elsewhere in Yorubaland.
Some divination trays in Oyo carry no decorations on their borders, and in some recent cases, ceramic plates are now used for divination.

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1A sizeable number of studies have been carried out on Yoruba ifa divination and its arts, especially the divination trays. Wande Abimbola has shed significant light on ifa in Yoruba religion (1967 and 1969). He has written extensively on the position occupied by ifa divination in Yoruba pantheon. Abimbola has continually pursued the use of ifa divination poetry and literature as sources of historical evidence (Abimbola, 1969). His focus is on ifa prose, poetry, mythology and divination. Bascom (1969), another enthusiastic writer on ifa divination and its religious implications, submits that indeed, ifa divination is a means of communication between man and god among the Yoruba.

2Rowland Abiodun (2000, p. 182) sought to find contextual meaning to the recurring image of the equestrian figures in Yoruba woodcarvings. He therefore interrogated ifa divination poems to find a deeper meaning of the representation of horses in traditional Yoruba arts. He observed that several representations of horses/riders in Yoruba art and the use of horses by the military, a crucial factor in the determination of the strength of armies, is also a symbol of royalty, leadership, power and success.

3Studies directly concerned with ifa divination trays include those of Drewal (1983, pp. 136-56), Drewal and Drewal (1983, p. 66) and Drewal, Pemberton and Abiodun (1989). Henry and Margaret Drewal (1987, p. 233) explained two compositional decorative patterns on divination trays. These are the “serial” and “seriate” arrangements of images on the borders of divination trays. The “serial” compositional technique according to them, refer to compositions where its units of design have individual interpretations different from others, yet all the units tell one story. The “seriate” arrangement on the other hand refers to representation of the myriad autonomous forces operating in the Yoruba cosmos and those affecting the diviner and his clients. This means the representation of any objects or animals that have one thing or the other to do with divination and the diviner.

4According to Drewal et al. (1989, p. 23) the decorative patterns on the borders of Yoruba ifa divination trays can be divided into nine sections – eight sections on the border and a centre section. The most important of these sections is the oju opon (face of the tray) located directly opposite the diviner. In all cases, the head of esu is usually depicted on the oju opon. The section directly opposite the oju opon and nearest to the diviner is called ese opon (foot of the tray). Half way up the right hand side is ona oganran (the straight path) and opposite this on the left hand side is ona munu (the direct path). The other four sections are between the mentioned sections, from the upper right to the lower left (see Figure 1). They also pointed out that representations of esu head on the Ijebu trays, protrude slightly into the centre of the tray.

Figure 1: Sections on divination tray

Figure 1: Sections on divination tray

5Recent studies on divination by Ezio Bassani (1994, p. 79), Manuel Jordan (2000), Louis Brenner (2000) and Pemberton (2000 and 2007) have enriched the scholarship of Yoruba ifa divination. This is in spite of the fact that their focus is not on the divination trays per se, and they were more interested in divination processes of cultures other than the Yoruba.

Figure 2: A map showing Oyo, Ijebu and Osogbo located in the South Western Nigeria

Figure 2: A map showing Oyo, Ijebu and Osogbo located in the South Western Nigeria

6This is a study of divination trays in Isale-Oyo, a quarter in Oyo town (Figure 2) in South Western Nigeria. Isale-Oyo is a core area of Oyo town and it is populated by a large number of diviners. Ifa divination is still widely practiced by the people of Oyo. For this reason Oyo perhaps more than elsewhere in Yorubaland, still boasts of a large number of both young and old diviners. This study also identifies peculiarities of divination trays from Isale-Oyo. It compares the trays from Isale-Oyo with those of some other Yoruba towns that have been studied by other scholars.

Theoretical framework

7The archetypal theoretical model is employed in this study. The theory claims that image, idea, or pattern can become and be considered a universal model. Archetypes are found in mythology, literature, and the arts, and are important aspects of both philosophical and psychological thought. Since carving of ifa trays and decorations has formats to which they tend to conform, it is imperative that they be studied in line with the prescribed formats. This standard format is however not totally rigid and this accounts for variety and individuality found in some Yoruba ifa trays.

8The basic shape of a divination tray is circular, rectangular or square, except for the Ulm opon ifa discussed by Bassani (1994, p. 79), which combines a circle in the centre and a rectangle. As mentioned earlier, common to divination trays is the representation of the head of esu at its top central position. There could be patterns all around the borders of the tray. Usually the centre of the tray is left bare, because this is where the divination proper is done. Because divination trays have certain common features, this paper will attempt an in-depth study of selected divination trays from Isale-Oyo based on these common features.


9Isale-Oyo (Figure 3), the quarter in Oyo from which the trays in this study are got, is encompassed by the borders of Akesan market, the palace walls of the Alaafin (King of Oyo), Lagbondoko, Aatan and Oroki. A total of ten diviners (babalawo) of the first grade and ten diviners of the second grade were interviewed. Diviners are considered first, second, third or amateur grade based on their knowledge of the odu (divination poetry) of ifa. Structured questions were administered during the interview. The questions were open ended, allowing for flexibilities in the answers of the different diviners. Photographs of divination trays were taken. Other ifa divination materials were also photographed.

Figure 3: Isale-Oyo Quarter District

Figure 3: Isale-Oyo Quarter District

Ifa divination and the Yoruba world view

10The history of ifa divination among the Yoruba can be said to be as old as the people themselves. According to Abimbola, authority on ifa (1977, p. 1), the Yoruba believed that Ifa (otherwise known as Orunmila) was one of the four hundred divinities who came from orun (heaven) to aye (earth). Olodumare (the Supreme Being) had charged each one of the divinities with particular function to be performed on earth. Idowu (1962, p. 19) records that Esu, one of the Yoruba divinities, was the universal ‘police’ and keeper of the ase (divine power) with which Oludumare created the universe and maintained its physical laws. Ifa was put in charge of divination because of his great wisdom which he acquired as a result of his presence when Olodumare created the universe. Ifa therefore knew all the hidden secrets of the universe. This is why his praise name is Akerefinusogbon, the small one whose mind is full of wisdom (Abimbola, 1977, p. 1). From account of view, ifa divination is as old as the Yoruba race itself and its origin perhaps too far back in history to be exact.

11Johnson (1921, p. 33) recorded that Oduduwa, a Prince of Mecca and the progenitor of the Yoruba, met Shetilu, the founder of ifa divination, in Ile-Ife. In another variant of the tradition, also by Johnson, Shetilu a Nupe (also known as Agboniregun) is credited with introducing ifa divination to Yorubaland. Shetilu, born blind, grew up with extra ordinary powers of divination. At the age of five, he was reputed to have started to accurately foretell events. According to Johnson, the Muslims who inhabited the Nupe area disliked Shetilu’s powers and so they forced him to flee across the Niger River and relocated to Ile-Ife. The plausibility of this story is in doubt, because the Nupe country mentioned in the story might have been mistaken for Old Oyo, but even then, Old Oyo was never beyond the River Niger. Old Oyo is the original name of Oyo people. The same author also recorded another tradition that claims that ifa worship was introduced by a king of Oyo, Alaafin Onigbogi, who became unpopular for his actions. Onigbogi was said to have been dethroned because of his introduction of ifa divination.

12Interestingly however, ifa divination is not unique to the Yoruba people; it has in fact diffused all over the Yoruba diasporas. It is found among the Fon of the Benin Republic. There, it is referred to as fa (Bascom, 1969, p. 10). The practice of ifa was also taken to the Americas during the mid to late eighteenth century by slaves from West Africa. Brenner records that the casting of sixteen palm nuts or cowry shells (ifa divination) is widely practiced today by Africans of West African descent in the diaspora. He observed that it is the most popular of all of Africa’s divination systems. Pemberton (2007) corroborated this by noting that ifa divination is the best known in Africa. Pemberton pointed out that while the different versions of the “sixteen signs” can be found in so many cultures, they have certain basic elements in common, but their interpretations vary and are often determined by cultural values, oral traditions, and social experiences of the people who practice the divination.

13Brenner (2000, p. 119) studied divination in Mali, Madagascar and among the Shona in South Africa and observed that sixteen, as a number, also has significance to their divination systems. Brenner (ibid., p. 125) traced the origin of the “sixteen signs” type of divination of Islamic Sand Writing (Khatt ar-raml).

14The interpretation of Yoruba ifa divination is based on a set of established signs and accounts known as odu ifa. Odu ifa is a vast body of literary prose and poetry that encapsulates the experiences and wisdom of the Yoruba. There are sixteen major odu, each with its identification sign and name and each of the sixteen have their own sixteen subordinate odu. Altogether therefore, there are (sixteen times sixteen) two hundred and fifty six odu. Each of the two hundred and fifty six odu has extensive narratives (prose or poem) about the lives of gods, human and/or animals in Yoruba cosmology (Abimbola, 1976).

Overview of a divination session

15In a divination session, the client is asked to whisper their problem to a coin, cowry shell or any legal tender. He then drops it on the divination tray. The diviner, called babalawo, literarily interpreted to mean father of secrets, salutes Ifa and urges Ifa to provide the appropriate answer to the client’s problems without delay. He calls on Orunmila, a deity believed to have been present with Ifa at the time of creation, and who is believed to know the prenatal destiny (ayanmo) of every human being. He offers iba (salute in acknowledgment of supremacy) to Ile (the earth) Olodumare (the Almighty God). The diviner also calls on ancestor diviners to witness the proceeding before he then casts the palm nuts eight times; he marks the result of each cast on the iyerosun (dust on the diviner’s tray). The result must match one of the two hundred and fifty six possible odu signs.

16A shorter version of casting ifa is done by using divination chain (opele ifa, Plate 4). This tool consists of eight seed pods or small copper-alloy plates with concave or convex surfaces linked together by a metal or bead chain. The diviner holds the chain at its centre point and casts it so that it falls on an already laid cloth before him to reveal a pattern of the odu sign.

17On sighting the revelation of the cast, the diviner recalls the associated storyline or poem revealed in the odu sign. The client of the diviner must be attentive at this point, because the solution to the problem will be revealed in the odu chant.

18In the chants of the diviner, the party concerned hears of others who have suffered various problems, some perhaps greater than those that brought the suppliant to ifa and the joy they knew after performing the sacrifices that ifa had asked them to make. At intervals, the diviner taps the divination tray with iroke ifa (divination tapper). The person consulting ifa is afterwards expected to perform the prescribed sacrifices.

19The chants, many at times, end with lines revealing that after the person in the odu of ifa had performed the required sacrifice, things became better for him. The lines often run thus:

Igba ti o dafa

Won ni ebo ni o waa ru.

O si ru u.

Igba o rubo tan....

Lo ba dipe ohun gbogbo nlo deede.

Orin awo wa bo si lenu...

He took his problems to ifa

He was told to perform sacrifice,

And he performed it.

After he performed the sacrifice

He became a happy man.

He started to sing the song of ifa priests...

20Apart from the main concern of this paper, opon ifa, which will be discussed in details later on, a number of tools and objects are involved in divination. This paper will look into a few of them. Notable other divination items include:

Agere ifa (ifa bowl) - Plate 1

21This is the container where the palm nuts used for divination are kept. There are many forms that can be carved on agere ifa, ranging from animal to abstracted form. It is usually about 15 to 30 cm high. Plate 1 is a common example of an agere ifa; it depicts a kneeling woman carrying a bowl. The kneeling woman has a highly decorated wrapper around its waist. The body of the kneeling woman is bare with its breast protruding sharply to the front. The figure has beads around its wrists. The bowl she is carrying is also sumptuously decorated with horizontal and vertical relief lines.

Plate 1: Agere ifa (from Odekunle family, Elekara, Oyo)

Plate 1: Agere ifa (from Odekunle family, Elekara, Oyo)

Iroke ifa (diviner’s tapper) - Plate 2

22Carved wooden or ivory object used to invoke Ifa while performing divination. The ifa priest strikes the divination tray repeatedly with iroke to call Ifa’s presence to the session.

Plate 2: Iroke ifa (from Odekunle family, Elekara, Oyo)

Plate 2: Iroke ifa (from Odekunle family, Elekara, Oyo)

Ikin ifa (sacred palm nuts) - Plate 3

23Ikin ifa consist of sixteen palm nuts from ope ifa (ifa palm-tree). Each fruit of this palm-tree has four eyelets on its thick bottom side. These palm nuts are kept in agere ifa.

Plate 3: Ikin ifa (placed in a tray)

Plate 3: Ikin ifa (placed in a tray)

Opele (divination chain) - Plate 4

24Four half-nuts of the opele fruit are attached to each half of the chain (on both right and left sides). Each of these half-nuts has a smooth surface and a rough side. During a divination session, the ifa priest holds the opele in the middle and casts it in front of him.

Plate 4: Opele (from Famoriyo family, Isale-Oyo)

Plate 4: Opele (from Famoriyo family, Isale-Oyo)

Apo ifa (ifa bag)

25This is where the divination chain is stored. It is a part of the diviners outfit. It can be made from a variety of materials, such as leather or cloth.

Iyerosun (divination powder) - Plate 5

26This is the powder that is spread on the divination tray. It enables clarity of the priests’ markings on the tray during divination. It is whitish in appearance and got from the irosun tree or from dry bamboo eaten up into powder by termites. It is simply spread on the opon ifa.

Plate 5: Iyerosun (the powder on which the markings are done)

Plate 5: Iyerosun (the powder on which the markings are done)

27They are the whites that obscure the face of this tray in this illustration.

Ibo (instrument for casting lots)

28When a suitable odu has been found and a solution to the problem has been identified, the ifa priest then makes use of the ibo to unravel further details regarding the interpretation of the solution which has been identified.

29The ibo is a pair of cowry shells tied together and a piece of bone. The cowry shells stand for an affirmative reply while the bone stands for a negative reply from the divinity in respect of every question posed. Several other instruments are also used as part of the ibo to symbolise different things. For example, a piece of rock stands for good health while the black nut represents Orunmila himself.

30After the casting of divination, the client is asked to hold the ibo materials in both hands, two in one hand and the remaining one (as they are often times three), on the other. As the diviner makes investigation, he asks the client to drop the ibo in a particular hand at intervals. He could ask him or her to drop the one in any of the hands. The diviner was not supposed to know in which hand the client held the materials. Therefore, as the materials are dropped, on his request, the diviner is led to know how to approach the solution to the problem. For example the diviner can address Ifa by making a statement demanding to know whether there is solution to the problem or not, he then ask the client to drop the ibo in his left or right hand. If the one dropped is the cowry shell, the implication is that there is an answer to the problem. However if the client drop the bone, this is a negative implication. Further divinations will therefore have to be made for other probable solutions.

The opon ifa (divination tray)

31Divination trays are carved in wood and are basically in two shapes; often they are either circular or rectangular. Sometimes they are carved with both shapes. It is on the divination tray that iyerosun (divination powder) is spread to get the result of each cast. The edges of the tray are designed with intricate zoomorphic and geometric carved shapes and patterns (Plates 6 and 7 are examples of trays from Isale-Oyo). The middle of the top section usually bears the face of Esu, the divinity that keeps the ase (authority).

Plate 6 (from Fadahunsi family, Oroki, Isale-Oyo)

Plate 6 (from Fadahunsi family, Oroki, Isale-Oyo)

Plate 7-(from Fadairo family, L.A. Road, Isale-Oyo)

Plate 7-(from Fadairo family, L.A. Road, Isale-Oyo)
  • 1 Fatokun Morakinyo is the Oba Edu (Ifa Chief in Isale-Oyo).

32According to Fatokun Morakinyo1 (b. 1946), the esu figure that is always represented on Yoruba divination trays is symbolic of the strong friendship that exist between Orunmila and Esu (Personal communication, May 2011). This association is evident in odu ogbefun. The narration of the odu runs thus:

Ogbefohun folohun

Nko fohun folohun

Adia fun Esu on gbogbo irunmole ti won jo nsore

Adia fun Orunmila oun Esu odara ti won jo nsore

Ogbe return what was kept in your custody to the owner

No, I will not return it

The same performed divination for Esu and all other divinities who were friends

It also performed divination for Orunmila and Esu who were friends

33According to the story, one day, Esu thought to himself that he was the wisest of all the divinities. He had put all of them to test, and they all failed. It was only Orunmila that he had not tested. He therefore decided to give Orunmila his own test.

34He went to the market and bought a monkey (aaya). He tied the monkey with a fragile rope. Thereafter, he went to Orunmila with the monkey and asked Orunmila to please help him to keep the monkey for a while, because he (Esu) wanted to embark on a long journey which would take him seven days. Orunmila accepted to keep the monkey but asked Esu to tie it to a tree in the front of his house. Esu did and left immediately.

35Orunmila quickly consulted ifa to know the intention of Esu. Ifa asked him to perform sacrifice with lots of bananas. He was to carry the sacrifice into a thick forest. Orunmila did. After he completed the sacrifice, he discovered the monkey had broken the rope and escaped.

36Not long after this discovery, Esu came back to inform Orunmila that he was no longer going on the journey, he therefore demanded for his monkey. Orunmila told him that the monkey had escaped. Esu became furious and started to cry. Orunmila knew that there will be trouble if he did not find the monkey. It takes seven days before the tears of Esu fall to the ground and once the tears fall in front of Orunmila’s house, there will be no peace within and outside Orunmila’s home again.

37Orunmila quickly consulted the oracle again. The oracle asked Orunmila to go back to where he dropped the sacrifice and that he would find the monkey there. When Orunmila got to where (in the forest) he left the sacrifice, he found the monkey eating the bananas. He took the monkey back home and gave it to Esu.

38Esu was surprised that Orunmila could find a way out of his dubious plot for him. He was also overwhelmed that there exists another divinity that could thwart his intrigue. From that time, he vowed to support Orunmila in all his endeavours. It then became a tradition that the Esu figure is fixed in a principal position on all divination trays.

39The divination tray is perhaps the most important paraphernalia of the ifa diviner. It forms the base upon which the divination is done. On the divination trays lies the interest of this paper. The paper now takes a closer look at the divination trays from Isale-Oyo in particular and against other known ones from Yorubaland.

40Plate 8 is a divination tray from Isale-Oyo. There are animals depicted on the edges of the divination tray. The animals are lined up as if in a procession. This is placed counter-clockwise from the top left hand side to the right. There are five zoomorphic representations altogether on the tray. There is a snake, a gecko or lizard and probably a mudfish. Similar animals have been noted in trays from Ijebu and Osogbo (Hans Witte, 1994, p. 59).

41The fourth animal, because of its large ears, is probably a rabbit, but it may well be a bush rat (okete). Bush rats in Yoruba belief are said to possess supernatural powers. The belief is that they can transform to human (and sometimes human beings to bush rats) to carry out nefarious activities in the night. Bush rat is sometimes called eran agba (mystical animal). The last animal on the tray is a bird. This species is unknown, but it is depicted with its feather and tail elaborately patterned and with a long beak. Birds in Yoruba belief are associated with the powers of witchcraft.

  • 2 Fagbemisola Fatokun is the son of Fatokun Morakinyo (The Oba Edu of Oyo).

42Fagbemisola2 (age about 35), who is also a diviner, pointed out that the relationship between ifa divination and birds is to be found in irosun ega (an odu). He said that many times when birds are depicted on divination trays, they are likely to be eye ega (ega bird), the one mentioned in irosun ega (Fagbemisola Fatokun, personal communication, May 2011). In that odu, Orunmila is said to have had four ifa apprentices, namely Ikun (a type of rodent), Asa (hawk), Okere (squirrel) and Ega (a type of bird). On an occasion, Orunmila told his wife, children and apprentices that he was travelling and would spend fifteen days away. However, after the period he mentioned, Orunmila did not return. His immediate family members were bothered. His wife was particularly restless. She therefore went to Ikun to consult ifa oracle, to know when Orunmila would return. Ikun told Orunmila’s wife that her husband was no longer coming back and that she should forget about him and marry him (Ikun). Orunmila’s wife refused, she left Ikun’s house and went to Asa for consultation. Asa also told her that Orunmila was not coming back and he also proposed to the woman. She left and went to Okere’s house; the story was not different from what happened in Ikun and Asa’s houses. She therefore tried Ega. Ega consulted ifa oracle and told the woman that her husband will soon come. Ega prescribed a sacrifice. Before the woman completed the sacrifice, Orunmila arrived.

43The woman narrated her experiences in the homes of the four apprentices. Orunmila was furious and therefore killed Ikun, Asa and Okere. He spared Ega, gave him a lot of wealth and made him his bosom friend. This story is said to account for the representation of ega bird on ifa divination trays.

Plate 8 (from Fasakin family, L.A. Road, Isale-Oyo)

Plate 8 (from Fasakin family, L.A. Road, Isale-Oyo)

44Plate 8 exhibits animals similar to those found on Plate 9. The procession in Plate 8 is of five animals, while Plate 9 has three animals arranged counter-clockwise. The animals depicted have elaborate surface texture, which leads one to think the two trays might have been carved by the same person. The trays are textured with zigzags and criss-crossing lines laid on the animals. This may have been to enhance the aesthetics of the divination tray. The bird on this tray has lineal texture patterns, used to show the direction and pattern of the feathers. Also the zigzag texture on the snake gives an appearance of movement. There are no demarcation bars between the animals in the trays. It seems that the carvings were done at the discretion of the artist rather than after a laid down design pattern.

  • 3 Fasakin is a diviner in Isale-Oyo.

45The representation of snakes on divination trays, according to Fasakin3 (about 90 years old), can be traced to Okaran Osa, an odu of ifa (Personal communication, January 2009).

Okaran Osa, awo Ejo

Adia fun ejo

Ejo nbe laarin ota

Nigba iwase

Ejo ko loro

Itakun ni ejo, won fi ndigi lati oko wale

Ejo to awon babalawo lo

Won ni ko bo ori

Ejo bo ori

Won ni ko rubo okini

O rubo

Ejo di oloro

Ejo di ohun iberu

Ori kan ti ejo ni

Nii fi tugba ori ka

Okaran Osa is the divination for the Snake

The Snake consulted ifa for solution

He was amidst enemies

At the time of creation

Snake was harmless

Snake was used for tying firewood

Snake could no longer contain this insult, he went to the diviner

He was asked to sacrifice in honour of his head

He performed the sacrifice

He was asked to sacrifice needle

He did

Snake became poisonous with venom

It became frightful

A snake has only one head

Yet, its appearance sends several heads restless

  • 4 Ojebode Fabiyi is a diviner and masquerade in Isale-Oyo.

46The Yoruba belief that the source of poisonous powers of the snake is gotten from ifa is a strong testimony of the potency of ifa divination to solve any problem. According to Ojebode4 (age 55), it may also be a representation of Esu (Personal communication, May 2011). This makes it one of the animals used as decorative patterns on the edges of divination trays.

Plate 9 (from Fasakin family, L.A. Road, Isale-Oyo)

Plate 9 (from Fasakin family, L.A. Road, Isale-Oyo)

47The faces of esu depicted on plates 8 and 9 indicate a stylistic affinity. Both faces are depicted with simple forms. The eyes have brows, the nose is a simple triangular form, and the mouth is represented with two short parallel raised lines. Generally, their forms are bold and sharp, in characteristic Yoruba woodcarvings style. The images depicted on the entire border, including the face of esu are embedded within the border line. The only difference between the esu figures in Plates 8 and 9 is that the face on Plate 8 wears a vertical face mark on both cheeks. In terms of their countenance, the esu faces represented are neither sad nor calm nor with any discernible countenance.

48The representations on Plate 10 do not follow any particular pattern; however the heavy zigzag snake on the left-hand side balances the weight of the divination chain depicted on the left-hand side. On the lower part of the tray (ese opon) directly opposite the esu face, are same reptilian animals. On the lower right-hand side of the tray is depicted a small gourd (ado). Such gourds are used in storing curative medicines in Yorubaland. Then the figure of an animal sits in the upper left-hand side of the tray. This animal may perhaps be a bush rat because of its long tail.

49The face of esu in this tray extends beyond the demarcated borders of the tray into a part of the centre of the tray (arin opon). The mouth, cheeks and chin of esu jot out of the border. The face is realistically rendered with robust cheeks. The eyebrows and lips are simply depicted. The face is not characterised by the deep and sharp cuts common to Yoruba woodcarvings.

Plate 10 (from Fagbenro family, Oroki, Isale-Oyo)

Plate 10 (from Fagbenro family, Oroki, Isale-Oyo)

50The carvings on the edges of the tray depicted in Plate 11 are simple. The decorations occupy only the four major areas on the border of the tray. The head of esu is on the oju opon, while two arrow-like triangles are on the ese opon. On the ona oganran and ona munu are simple embossed horizontal lines.

Plate 11 (from Famoriyo family, Lagbondoko area, Isale-Oyo)

Plate 11 (from Famoriyo family, Lagbondoko area, Isale-Oyo)

51Unlike the other trays discussed earlier, the tray in Plate 12 is rectangular in shape. It is bordered by intricately embellished patterns rather than with animal forms. The geometrically decorative pattern is incised rather than in relief. The patterns used include ziz-zags, criss-crosses, and chequered patterns. The esu face on this plate also extends slightly into the centre of the tray. There are facial marks on its cheeks and forehead. There are four horizontal marks on its cheeks, while on the forehead are three short vertical lines. The eyeballs are large and bulging. The marks on the cheeks are typical abaja of Yorubaland. The one on the forehead is called pele even though pele may also be worn on the cheeks by the Yoruba. These two facial marks are common all over Oyo Yoruba towns, especially in Oyo and Iseyin, according to Babalola (2009).

Plate 12 (from Ojebode family, Oroki, Isale-Oyo)

Plate 12 (from Ojebode family, Oroki, Isale-Oyo)

52Ojebode Fabiyi (age 55) traced the representation of animals like horses and tigers to ogundawonrin and oyeku meji respectively.

53He traced the representation of horses to the odu of ifa called ogundawonrin, also called ogundanlare. It runs thus:

Emi ko ri eni ti nrele Alara

Ko ba mi ki gbogbo omo won nile Alara

Emi o ri eni tin lo si ode Ejigbo

Ko ba mi ki Orisatalabi ara ode Ejigbo

To ba ki Orisatalabi ara ode Ejigbo

Ki o ki Egunbiyi Oloponda, omo Abuda

Omo kerekere ntile rode

Awon agbalagba tode wole

Ifa e rowo mi dogbodoruku, owo mi niyi

E pe ki olukaluku ma yowo tire labe aso

Ifa ise re ni mo je kiri, n go je ngo mu

Ti mo fi dele Olu,

Ifa ise re ni mo je kiri, n go je ngo mu

Ti mo fi de Oke Ora

Ifa ise re ni mo je kiri, n go je ngo mu

Ti mo fi de Oke Ijeti ile Agboniregun

Mo gbo, o ta si mi leti

Won ni iwo lo se fun Olu ti Olu fi lowo

Ifa ire ni ko se fun mi ki nlowo

Ifa mo gbo, o ta si mi leti

Won ni omi tutu ni obu fun Igbora

Ti ohun gbogbo fi tutu fun Igbora

Ifa mo gbo o ta si mi leti

Won ni o se fun Owarangun Aga ti Amota Ido

Omo oloburo omoba Agufo Olabaye tetete

Ojo ti Owarangun Aga ku

Esin ni won fi ru oku Owarangun Aga wale

Ti mo ba gbogbogbo, ti mo ba tototo

Esin ni ki omo o fi ru oku mi dan dan dan

Whoever is going to Alara

Should salute inhabitants of Alara

Whoever is going to Ejigbo

Should salute Orisatalabi the son of Ejigbo

After greeting Orisatalabi an indigene of Ejigbo

He should also extend salutations to Egunbiyi Oluponda a son of Abuda


The young ones are moving from courtyards into the house

The elders are moving from inside into the courtyard

Ifa look at my hand, its crumpled

Let all show their hands

Ifa it is your instructions that I am carrying out, that made me not eat nor drink

Till I got to Olu

Ifa it is your assignments that undertaking, that made me not eat nor drink

Till I got to Oke Ora

Ifa it is your assignments that I am carrying out, that made me not eat nor drink

Till I got to Oke Ijeti the abode of Agboniregun (the founder of ifa divination)

I overheard that you (Ifa)

Helped Olu to make plenty money

Ifa favour me also to make money

I overheard that you (Ifa)

Gave Igbora cold water

Life became comfortable for Igbora

I overheard that you (Ifa)

Helped Owarangun Aga of Amota Ido

The son of Oloburo, prince of Agufo Olabaye

The day Owarangun died

His corpse was transported home on a horse

Ifa, when I am old and aged

Let my children carry my corpse with horses

54This ifa verse brings out the importance of horses. Horses as found in this verse are dignifying animals and are a mark of royalty. According to Pogoson and Akande (2011, p. 1), the horse rider is not an unusual imagery in Yoruba woodcarving. Indeed, it is an abundantly used one in Yoruba art. Among the Yoruba, carved wooden figures of horsemen honouring warriors are kept in the house of veterans of military exploits.

55Ojebode pointed out that in oyeku meji, tiger was made mention of.

Oni ni won roko leti opon

Ola ni won sakaa lagbe


Oni la o kun Ifa Olukorokorobojo

Ola la o kun Ifa Olukorokorobojo

Ani won o kun, Won kun

Won pa Ekun kan minijo-minijo

Ti nbe ni abe iti

Won gbe ori re fun Oba Ido

Omo Ejiworogbe Ile Ido

Won gbe yegese ara re fun Oba Eleyo Geji

Omo ajoju ebo gbara

Ina abara wusa

Ojo palami omo atuyeriyeri

Eni to ba peri Oba Ido nibi

Ori gbogbo a maa fo won iwere iwere

Eni ba peri Oba Eleyo Geji

Aya a ma lawon Igarara igarara

Togun Oba Ido ni ina....

Today we shall clear the forest on the edges of the tray

Tomorrow we shall fry bean cake in a gourd (impossibilities)


Today we will divide it, a divination of Olukorokorobojo

Tomorrow we will cut it to pieces, a divination of Olukorokorobojo

We asked them to butcher it, they did

They killed a big tiger

They cover it and kept it under the plantain trees

They gave its head to the king of Ido

The son of Ejiworogbe of Ido

Another part was given to King Eleyo Geji

The one that thrives on sacrifice

The fire that hurts

The rain that sprinkles

Whoever attempts to attack the king of Ido

They will have their heads aching

Whoever attempts to attack King Eleyo Geji

Their hearts will pound with fear

56On the whole, divination trays from Isale-Oyo combine two features found on trays from Osogbo and Ijebu. These features pointed out by Witte (1994, p. 59) indicate that divination trays from Ijebu have a part of the face of esu extending slightly into the centre of the tray, and that the trays from Osogbo have the face of esu contained within the borders of the tray. This may indicate a stylistic and cultural affinity between both places and Oyo.

57Bassani (1994, p. 79) discussed a particular divination tray (Plate 13) belonging to a German merchant, Christoph Weickmann, in the middle of the 17th century. This divination tray, in our own opinion, exemplifies the variety of styles and forms in Yoruba divination trays. The overall shape of the tray is rectangular but embedded in the rectangle is a circle. The depictions on this tray encompass a lot of activities and patterns found on many Yoruba divination trays. Interestingly also, the shape can be said to be two in one. This is one of the most representative trays we had ever seen.

Plate 13: Divination tray collected by Christoph Weickmann in the middle of the 17th century

Plate 13: Divination tray collected by Christoph Weickmann in the middle of the 17th century

58The stylistic affinity between trays from Isale-Oyo and trays from elsewhere in Yorubaland supports the belief that some Yoruba settlements were established from Old Oyo. The sack of the Old Oyo by the Fulani’s and consequent spread of the Yoruba towards the Bight of Benin might also have resulted in the spread of the Yoruba carvers and carving patterns just as with their cosmology.

59According to Aremu (2001, p. 16), almost all Yoruba carvers trace their ancestry to Are Lagbayi (sometimes called Abogunde, or Ajibogunde) of Old Oyo. Lagbayi was a legendary palace wood carver of an Alafin of Oyo. He was said to have come from Ojowo, a satellite town of Old Oyo. It is therefore possible to assume that many Yoruba wood carvers may have descended ancestrally from Old Oyo. The similarities in the carvings may therefore be because of descent from the same source, Old Oyo. Old Oyo is also the centre of ifa culture from where it spread to other parts of Yorubaland. Woodcarvings are not as popular in Ife as they are in Oyo and elsewhere in Yorubaland.

60Looking at the fixed use of the esu figure in all divination trays in Yorubaland, it is safe to assume that this is the most significant figure in the tray. The decorations, undoubtedly left to the discretion of the artist, allows the use of representations of all types of animals, humans and other ifa paraphernalia and all forms relating to ifa to decorate the tray. Indeed the decorative patterns found on the borders of many divination trays in Yorubaland are similar to those found on Yoruba calabash carving, wood carving, adire eleko and other Yoruba artistic genre. This is an indication that the carvers might have had the freehand to extemporize but not with the central esu figure in the upper part of the tray.

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1 Fatokun Morakinyo is the Oba Edu (Ifa Chief in Isale-Oyo).

2 Fagbemisola Fatokun is the son of Fatokun Morakinyo (The Oba Edu of Oyo).

3 Fasakin is a diviner in Isale-Oyo.

4 Ojebode Fabiyi is a diviner and masquerade in Isale-Oyo.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Sections on divination tray
Fichier image/jpeg, 24k
Titre Figure 2: A map showing Oyo, Ijebu and Osogbo located in the South Western Nigeria
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k
Titre Figure 3: Isale-Oyo Quarter District
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k
Titre Plate 1: Agere ifa (from Odekunle family, Elekara, Oyo)
Fichier image/jpeg, 32k
Titre Plate 2: Iroke ifa (from Odekunle family, Elekara, Oyo)
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k
Titre Plate 3: Ikin ifa (placed in a tray)
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Titre Plate 4: Opele (from Famoriyo family, Isale-Oyo)
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Titre Plate 5: Iyerosun (the powder on which the markings are done)
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k
Titre Plate 6 (from Fadahunsi family, Oroki, Isale-Oyo)
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Titre Plate 7-(from Fadairo family, L.A. Road, Isale-Oyo)
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Titre Plate 8 (from Fasakin family, L.A. Road, Isale-Oyo)
Fichier image/jpeg, 52k
Titre Plate 9 (from Fasakin family, L.A. Road, Isale-Oyo)
Fichier image/jpeg, 40k
Titre Plate 10 (from Fagbenro family, Oroki, Isale-Oyo)
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Plate 11 (from Famoriyo family, Lagbondoko area, Isale-Oyo)
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Titre Plate 12 (from Ojebode family, Oroki, Isale-Oyo)
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Titre Plate 13: Divination tray collected by Christoph Weickmann in the middle of the 17th century
Fichier image/jpeg, 121k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

O. I. Pogoson et A. O. Akande, « Ifa Divination Trays from Isale-Oyo »Cadernos de Estudos Africanos, 21 | 2011, 15-41.

Référence électronique

O. I. Pogoson et A. O. Akande, « Ifa Divination Trays from Isale-Oyo »Cadernos de Estudos Africanos [En ligne], 21 | 2011, mis en ligne le 22 juillet 2012, consulté le 30 mai 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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O. I. Pogoson

Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria

A. O. Akande

Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Emmanuel Alayande College of Education
Oyo, Oyo State, Nigeria

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Droits d’auteur


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