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Ikin are some of the special instruments that are part of the Ifa divination apparatus within the Yoruba religion. They also appear in the Yoruba-influenced Vodun religion of the Ewe (where Ifa is referred to as Afa) and of the Fon (where Ifa is referred to as Fa). More specifically, Ikin are the 16 palm nuts used to form binary sets of data during the divination process. In addition to Ikin, other indispensable tools include a divination tray (Opon Ifa) covered with white powder obtained form a particular tree (Iyerosun), a tapper instrument (Iroker Ifa), a receptacle for the Ikin (Ajere Ifa), and, optionally, a belt made with beads for the diviner (Babalawo for a male Ifa priest and Iyanifa for a female Ifa priestess) to put on while divining. Sometimes, instead of Ikin, diviners will use chains, known as Opele, but Ikin are deemed to have a superior divination capacity.
Divination is a critical epistemological mode in African religion, and diviners and their instruments of divination are highly regarded. Indeed, Ifa divination allows people, through diviners, to consult Orunmila (also known as Ifa), the orisha of wisdom, knowledge, and divination, to gain insight into the present and future and to receive advice and guidance on how to best proceed. The instruments, hence the Ikin, are used to record Orunmila's message to the diviner.
According to the Yoruba oral tradition, Ifa once lived on Earth at a time when the Earth and the sky were still united. Ifa had married and fathered eight sons, and all lived on Earth. Because the Earth and the sky were still one, Ifa could then go back frequently into the sky to be consulted by Oludamare, the supreme God. However, one day, one of his sons insulted Ifa, who then decided to leave the Earth and go back to live in Heaven again. His decision had dire consequences, creating much havoc, because famine and disease plagued the Earth. Barrenness became the norm. The elders, desperate to obtain relief, sent eight children to Ifa, begging him to take up residence on Earth again. Ifa refused and instead, and out of pity, gave each one of the children a set of 16 palm nuts, the sacred Ikin, which would allow them to communicate with him. Through Ikin, then, Ifa speaks to the living.
Although there are different types of palm nuts, only those with three or more eyes are eligible to become tools of Ifa. At the beginning of a divination session, the diviner holds all the Ikin in one hand. He or she then tries to shift all the nuts in the other hand at once. The diviner does this several times. Usually, each time, one or two Ikin will not be transferred into the other hand. As the Ikin go back and forth from one hand to the other, the diviner keeps a record, by tracing one vertical line (if one Ikin is left in the hand) or two vertical lines (when two Ikin are left) in the white powder spread on the divination tray.
This goes on until a particular Odu Ifa emerges. There are 256 possible Odu Ifa. Odu Ifa are believed to address all possible human situations and predicaments. Each one is associated with a particular spiritual meaning, specific predictions, and prescriptions, which the diviner will reveal to their client. He or she will also inform their client should it be necessary to perform any offerings or sacrifices as propitiation or expiation rituals.
In addition to being practiced in Yorubaland in Nigeria, Ifa, and therefore the presence of Ikin, is also attested in many communities influenced by Yoruba culture and religion, such as Lukumi in Cuba, Santeria, Candomblé, as well as in many other places with large West African communities, such as Europe, the United States, Canada, Mexico, and South and Central America. In 2005, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization listed the Ifa Divination System as one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”



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Further Reading

  • Alpini, J. (1900). Les noix sacrées: Etude complete de Fâ-Ahidégoun, génie de la sagesse et de la divination en République Populaire du Bénin et en Afrique (Réédité et complété par Pierre L. Alpini). Cotonou, Benin: P. L. Alpini.
  • Bascom, W. R. (1993). Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba Divination From Africa to the New World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Fatunmbi, A. F. (1992). Awo: Ifa and the Theology of Orisha Divination. Bronx, NY: Original Publications.
  • Knappert, J. (1995). African Mythology. An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend. London: Diamond Books.
  • Ogunode, T. (1994). Three Yoruba Divination Systems and Ebo. New York: Oluweri Publications.