Divination Systems

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Although regarded by some people as unscientific, illogical, irrational, and therefore a superstitious and false cognitive process, divination remains a reliable source of knowledge for millions of people in almost all the religions known to humankind. In all nations and cultures, from prehistoric time to our digital age, people of all types of education and religious convictions seek the wisdom of divination by consulting, at night or in broad daylight, people known as diviners, clairvoyants, shamans, psychics, mediums, or prophets. Despite a long-standing war waged by Christianity and Islam against “idolatry” and divination, today some Christians and Muslims still consult traditional diviners in Africa and elsewhere.
Far from being a meaningless hocus-pocus wrapped in illusory paraphernalia, divination plays a pivotal role in African spirituality and its underlying epistemology. Throughout the ages, people encounter in life questions and existential problems for which ordinary knowledge and ordinary prayers remain insufficient. In such a context, many turn to an extraordinary way of knowing available among diviners. This entry provides an overview of the role of divination in African society, describes the process, looks at divination among the Yoruba, and briefly discusses the underlying ethics.

Social Role

The notion of divination refers to the art or practice that seeks to foresee or foretell the future or discover the hidden causes of illness and other forms of affliction. It is also a potent means of insight in the decision-making process and a way of knowing the will of the Gods in people's lives by the aid of supernatural powers or a sophisticated interpretation of omens. As such, it pertains to the realm of prophecy, wisdom, and healing technique. In Africa, divination sessions are instances of consulting the Gods or the ancestors. These are not metaphysical constructs, but real living beings that interact with the living. As a means of communication with the village of the ancestors, divination reinforces the belief in the reality of the world of the spirits and the ancestors. Indeed, in African worldview, “the Dead are not dead.”
Divination (lubuko in Luba religion) and ancestral veneration are the two fundamental pillars of African religious beliefs. The practice is as old as humanity. During the colonial era, divination was regarded with extreme suspicion as an irrational practice detrimental to its adherents. Under the influence of Christianity and Western Enlightenment and modern scientific worldview, divination got a sinister signification as a harmful superstitious ignorance. Diviners were perceived as charismatic charlatans exploiting a credulous and anxiety-ridden people.

[[File:AR_Divination Systems_img_0.jpg|center|frame| Ghana, Bolgatanga, Kassena diviner performs ritual. Before a Kassena hunt begins, the village diviner must be consulted. Using his traditional instruments of divination, a sacred forked stick that he drops repeatedly onto a stone divination board, he communicates with the ancestor and nature spirits on behalf of the hunter. Source: Carol Beckwith/Angela Fisher/Getty Images.

Many Westerners regarded divination sessions as instances of arbitrary and idiosyncratic behavior by ignorant “witch-doctors.” Yet divination is found in every age and every country. It has survived all forms of attack and thrives today not only in remote villages, but also in major urban centers in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. It is, in part, divination that has made Yoruba religion, Santeria, and other forms of African religion popular in the West. Everywhere in Africa, divination plays a pivotal role as a trusted means of decision making and a basic source of vital knowledge.
Divination systems stand as the means and the premise of knowing which underpin and validate all else. Divination even plays a major role in the enactment and validation of African legal systems. It is also used to legitimize some political regimes or even political actors. Its fundamental value stems from its holistic epistemology, its ability to combine both the natural and supranatural cognitive modes, and its power to heal both mind and body, and both the individual and the community. While in the West, Cartesian dualism led to the opposition between intuition and the analytical mode of knowing, African divination systems involve a combination of “logical-analytical” and “intuitive-synthetical” modes of thinking.

Typical Process

Although quite often diviners grasp the will of the gods and the ancestors while under spirit possession and in a state of trance, they also operate via a complex system of knowledge that requires several years of rigorous training. A divination system is a rigorous process deriving from a learned discipline based on an extensive body of knowledge. This knowledge may or may not be literally expressed during the interpretation of the oracular message. The diviner may utilize a fixed corpus, such as the Yoruba Ifa Odu verses, or a more diffuse body of esoteric knowledge. Some diviners operate self-explanatory mechanisms that reveal answers; other systems require the diviner to interpret cryptic metaphoric messages.
In other words, divining processes are diverse. However, in general, some type of device usually is employed, from a simple sliding object to the myriad symbolic items shaken in diviners' baskets (Dikumbo). Among the Baluba of Central Africa, for instance, the diviner (Kilumbu or Bwana-vidye) communicates with the spirits by incantations, songs, percussion, dance, and trance. The answer of the ancestors or other spirits is known only through a laborious process by which the diviner interprets visual codes or a kinetic arrangement of items in a gourd or basket. During the consultation, the diviner articulates a narrative plot that leads the client to answer some specific questions. Then the diviner shakes the gourd and interprets the resulting configuration of items.
Items contained in the sacred gourd (mboko) include a wide assortment of natural and manufactured objects, cowrie shells, the carapaces of dried beetles, fruits, seeds, twigs, bird beaks, claws, chalk, composite bundles in antelope horns, human teeth, several miniature carved wooden human figures, and so on. This array of items constitutes the raw material that the diviner uses to diagnose a problem. To this effect, he shakes the gourd and then opens the lid. The objects or figures that remain standing in the gourd or come to the surface of the jumble of pieces are taken as a revelatory sign of the problem and then interpreted.
The process is repeated by shaking the gourd again and again until a satisfactory understanding of the problem has been reached. Items contained in the gourds constitute a set of symbols that carry a secret meaning. It is believed that the meaning carried by the juxtaposition of various items in the gourd can be decoded and disclosed by the diviner only under the influence of spirit possession. Once the diagnosis of the problem has been accomplished, the diviner ends the session by issuing a series of recommendations to the client. These include sacrifices and a new type of behavior. The failure to follow these guidelines leads to the return of misfortune.

Among the Yoruba

The Ifa divination system of Yoruba religion is one of the divination forms that have been studied widely and more systematically by scholars. The structure of the Ifa divination suggests that African divination systems are first of all based on a fundamental cosmology. It is only by understanding the nature of the world and the structure of human nature that the diviner can predict future events or diagnose the cause of misfortunes that afflict an individual.
According to Ifa cosmology, the world is the theater of two pantheons of competing spiritual forces. These good and bad forces struggle for the control of the universe and humans as well. According to the Yoruba, there are 400 Orishas that are benevolent to humans and 200 ajogun that are malevolent. These 200 evil powers include the eight most infamous warlords: death (Iku), disease (Arun), paralysis (egba), curse (epe), loss (ofo), big trouble (oran), imprisonment (ewon), and “ese” (a general name for all other human afflictions). A successful life requires the art of living in harmony with these spiritual forces.
Ifa diviners predict events only by focusing on the idiosyncratic harmony or disharmony of the individual with the spiritual energies of the universe. Hence, the outcome of the divination process is predicated on the belief that the future is determined by the specific energy balance and current behavior of the individual. Although the orisha bless humans, whereas the ajogun try to destroy them, the Yoruba religion underscores the responsibility of the individual in his own happiness. It teaches that good character is the essence of religion (Iwa Lesin) and is also the best shield against forces of evil. This is why the Ifa divination recommends not only sacrifices, but also a virtuous life to the afflicted.
The Ifa divination is practiced by the skilled priests known as Babalawos, a name that translates into “the father of secrets.” It is understood that Ifa divination was given to humanity by the Supreme God Orunmila in a body of wisdom gathered in 256 sacred odu or poems. Each odu is in reality a chapter containing from 600 to 800 poems. Ifa literature is thus an impressive volume of around 204,800 poems.
At the same time, diviners believe that when Orunmila departed Earth for Heaven, he left behind his spirit and wisdom in the form of the sacred “ikin” or treaded on palm nuts. Among the divination techniques used by the Babalawo, one consists of manipulating 16 palm nuts to know which odu he shall read to diagnose what the client is facing and to prescribe an appropriate remedy. The Babalawo also uses the process of elimination by posing astute questions to his patient.

Underlying Ethics

The diagnosis of the diviner is often followed by a plan for action that leads to healing and peace of mind. Divination provides that kind of knowledge that enables people to take control of their lives. As such, divination is a potent tool in humans' quest for harmony and happiness.
It is worth emphasizing the ethical dimension of divination. Although abused by some rulers to validate their personal claim to power, divination messages are often based on a set of moral principles that foster social harmony, honesty, justice, and well-being. It is largely understood that sickness and “bad luck” are the result of a moral imbalance or an ethical disorder. Thus, often diviners recommend to their clients moral rectitude along with sacrifice offerings.
The sacred odu 249 of Ifa divination explicitly prohibits adultery. All over Africa, diviners prohibit killings, lies, wicked thoughts, poisonous talks, and various forms of evil deeds and strongly recommend a virtuous code of conduct. This is why, in African understanding, divination is a magnificent gift from the Gods and is celebrated as a sacred and holy activity, rather than the evil tool of the devil. In others words, divination is not merely a healing technique or merely a way of accessing secret knowledge. It is essentially a body of wisdom that engages individuals on the spiritual path of holiness and humaneness.



  • divination
  • Odu Ifa
  • ancestors
  • spirits
  • Africa
  • wisdom
  • healing


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Further Reading

  • Asante, M., and Nwadiora, E. (2006). Spear Masters: An Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Mazama, A. (Ed.). (2003). The Afrocentric Paradigm. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.