IFA, otherwise known as Orunmila is the Yoruba god of wisdom (Divination). He is one of the principal deities of the Yoruba people and it is believed to be one of the great ministers Olodumare (the Almighty God) sent from heaven to earth to perform some specific functions. He transmits and interprets the wishes of Olodumare, who was believed to have created all other deities and prescribed the sacrifices that Esu, the messenger of god must bring to him.
Ifa knowledge covers everything pertaining to man and other things created by God. Orunmila is believed to have a complete knowledge and understanding about all matters both on earth and in heaven. His knowledge covers the whole range of time and space. He is completely informed about the past, present and future, which is the reason why they named him Akerefin Sogbon (the small one with a mind full of wisdom) as his praise name.
Ifa is not approached directly but through some priest called Babalawo (diviner or priest or father of secret). Divination is not the only way or form of divination in Yoruba land.
There are other forms though not as important as Ifa divination and only the initiated that knows the secret.
There are many myths about the coming of Orunmila to the earth. It is believed that Orunmila came with other deities such as Obatala, Esu, Ogun and each of the deities was charged with specific functions. For instance, Ogun was dealing with war, iron-related matters while Ifa was charged with the function of using his profound wisdom and knowledge to put the earth in order.
Orunmila lived according to the myth, at Ile Ife, he stayed in a quarter known as Oke Igeti that is why he is known as okunruku kuru oke igeti (The short man of Oke Igeti) However, it was at Ado-Ekiti that Orunmila spent greater part of his later life having lived in different parts of Yorubaland. According to myths, Orunmila while on earth first lacked children, but later had eight male children. It is said that it was an insult from one of his children, which led to the return of Orunmila to heaven. Consequently, the earth turned into confusion, misery, want and anxiety was the order of the day. Rain refused to fall and pregnant women could not give birth.
The people on earth persuaded his children to go to heaven to beg their father to return to earth. When his children got to heaven, they found their father at the foot of ope agunkan eyi to yasi ya buka merindinlogun (the much climbed palm tree which has 16 separate nuts like groves on its top).The children begged him (Orunmila) to return to the earth, but he refused. Instead of returning, he gave his children 16 palm nuts, which are today the famous Ikin or sacred palm nuts of divination of Ifa.
It is with these palm nuts and other sacred objects that Ifa priest uses to find out the will of Orunmila.
Ifa divinatory and literary corpus
There is a profound body of materials known as Ifa literary and divination corpus. The corpus falls into two broad divination. The first part is the odu, which had 256 numbers that fall into two parts. The first part has 16 Odu known as principal 16, which are known as the best part of literary corpus while the other has 240 odu known as omo odu that contains the rare parts of literary corpus. The other divination of the Ifa Corpus is the ESE. Ese is a literary material in praise and poetry and indeed one can speak of Ese as poems.
Each odu contains an unlimited numbers of ese which every Ifa priest must learn a good number of it. Some are very long and can be chanted for several hours while some are short that can be chanted for a minute or two.
Ifa is a divination based on 16 basic and 240 derivative figures (odu) obtained either by the manipulation of 16 palm nuts or by the toss of a chain (opele) of eight half seed shells.
While in the act of divining, an Ifa priest will grasp the 16 palm nuts in his right hand leaving one or two in the left hand. If two nuts remain, a single mark is made. When the procedure is repeated four times, it will give one of the 16 Odu while eight repeated times give a pair or combination of the 256 Odu figure. Alternatively, one of the 256 figures can be obtained by a single cast of the divining chain, head and tail, odds and even (1and 2).
The chain is held in the middle so that four half seed shell can fall in line on each side in a concave inner surface upwards, which is equivalent to a single mark or with the surface downwards to a double mark on the tray.