The Dreaming of the Australian Aborigines

The Dreaming Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis 1992

A major consideration for anyone studying The Dreaming religion of the Australian Aborigines must be the diversity of these native people.  It is estimated that upon European settlement some two centuries ago there were approximately 500 distinct Aboriginal peoples and at least 200 Aboriginal languages. While there were many similarities in beliefs, rites, and stories, there were also significant differences.  It is certainly not possible to speak of one Aboriginal religion as there were many (Charlesworth et. al. 7). But in spite of the differences, at the core of all the variations was The Dreaming and the totemic structure that it spawned.

Another factor is the age of these beliefs, conservatively estimated at 40,000 years. Some people believe the religion to have its beginning 80,000 years ago.  This is an astounding contrast to the two-to-four-thousand-year history of most “major” religions.  In studying Aboriginal beliefs, rituals, and designs for living, we may be gaining insight into the deepest collective memory human beings have maintained (Lawlor 9). This is not to say that Aboriginal culture and religion have not changed in 50,000 years.  They have undoubtedly gone through countless modifications over the millennia, but this is a faith with stringent adherence to the rituals and beliefs of The Dreaming. It is possible to believe the essence of the Aborigine’s faith as we know it is very similar to what existed when the caves of Lascaux were being painted in France.           Another important factor to consider is that until 10,000 years ago all human beings lived as hunter and gatherers, a lifeway that is the still the basis of a few contemporary Australian Aborigines (Lawlor 8). That 10,000-year interval is a brief period of time compared to the 1,000,000 years human beings, probably quite contentedly, were born, lived, worshipped, and died in the economic structure of hunting and gathering. Because Australian Aborigines maintained this hunting and gathering economy they have often been categorized as “primitive ,” “elementary,” or “backward,” and, in the 18th and 19th centuries, “savages.” By 20th century standards the Aboriginal culture is materially “poor.” But this perceived material poverty is balanced with a tremendous spiritual richness that permeates every aspect of their lives.

This richness of religious life is derived from what we call The Dreaming, which refers not to a dream in the Western way of thinking but to an ongoing period of time in which the Aborigines’ Ancestral Beings shaped the world – a process that continues today through the Aborigines’ lives and rituals. The Creative Ancestors came to earth and traveled the surface as the Aborigines do today. They gathered, hunted, made camp, fought, loved, and in doing so, shaped the land into the topography of today. They “dreamed” into existence all the animals and plants; they made the heavenly bodies, the human, tribes, and clans. The Ancestors were metamorphic beings who changed from humans, to animal, to plant, to land form.  When the Creative Ancestors grew tired from their great efforts, they withdrew into the earth, the sky, and the creatures of the earth, where they remain and reverberate with the life force that they created. The following story of the Sleepy Lizard Man, Lunkana, is one of the many creation stories:

During Creation times, an unmarried sleepy lizard  man called Lunkana lived by himself at Ayers Rock.  Despite Aboriginal law about sharing food, he was  so mean that he kept all the meat he caught for  himself.  When he caught emus, he would bring them  secretly back to his camp and eat after dark. His  cooking place became a small rockhole. After a  while the carpet snake people became angry at such  meanness and decided to kill Lunkana.  While he  was asleep in his wet-weather shelter of boughs,  the Kuniya men set fire to it and the lizard died  in agony. The windbreak where he slept was turned  into a cave, the smoke is now a large area of  lichen and the dead body of Lunkana is a low  boulder at the base of the Rock.

The low rock is the increase center for sleepy lizards and is full of Kurunba or the essence of  life of the lizards. by Pitjantjarjara-Yangkuntjatjara, central  Australia (Isaacs 42)

While the Creative Ancestors have now retired, their creation continues to live and evolve through their stories, ceremonies, rituals, symbols, and designs that have been carefully maintained for tens of thousands of years (Lawlor 14- 18). The journeys of the Creative Ancestors are called Dreaming tracks, or songlines, which crisscross the Australian landscape. Every group of Aborigines “owns” a segment of a songline and it is their responsibility to maintain it with an elaborate series of rites and ceremonies to be performed at sites along the songline. The travels of the bands are a cyclic journey recreating the Ancestors’ activities and ceremonies to ensure the continuation of all that the Ancestors made (Lawlor 48). At the ritual sites lengthy cycles of songs and ceremonies are performed where the Ancestors have left the essence of fertility that guarantees the flourishing of the plants and animals created. Songs, mime, and dance sometimes lasting weeks reenact the actions of the Ancestors.  Without these ceremonies the cycle of life could be broken and the cosmos endangered. A group’s claim to an area of songlines is drawn from the original dreaming and is not a physical owning of the land but a spiritual stewardship to maintain purity (Isaacs 87 & 99). The concept of owning land as a material possession is foreign to the Aborigines. There are no words meaning possession in Aboriginal languages (Lawlor 237).

There is a pantheon of Ancestral Beings with names varying greatly from one Aboriginal group to another, but there are three that have some degree of universality throughout the continent: the All-Mother, the All-Father, and the Rainbow Serpent. The All- Mother or Great Earth Mother, the symbol of fertility and creator of life, is particularly dominant in northern Australia. The All- Father is given credit for shaping much of the landscape in southeastern Australia and for instituting many of the cultural aspects of life.  He is still called upon to return to earth during male initiation rites (Isaacs 51 & 58). The Rainbow Serpent is a more complex being with a wide range of meanings and functions for various groups around the country. The serpent is seen as male by some and female by others; sometimes as benevolent, sometimes as wrathful; sometimes as creative, sometimes destructive. In many regions Rainbow Serpents are responsible for many great creation functions during The Dreaming, and they are also believed to be still living in deep waterholes throughout Australia. Some groups perform ceremonies of the serpent, with complex rituals and ground sculpture, that last up to fifty days. Another aspect of the Rainbow Serpent is the snake’s relationship of bestowing power, magic, and new songs to men of high degree.  Through various rituals the serpent takes the postulant both under the water and into the heavens on the rainbow to initiate him to a higher understanding and more profound powers (Buchler & Maddock 59).

The connection of Aborigines to the Creative Ancestors and to one another is complexly and completely formed by a system of totemism. The Creative Ancestors deposited the life forces for each aspect of the cosmos, and each person is given a personal affiliation with a part of that creation, a “totem.” The individual’s totem may be a specific animal or plant or force of nature. A few totems among the thousands are the dingo, honey ant, carpet snake, witchetty grub, bush banana, thunderstorm, emu, water, and kangaroo. People are linked to their totems because they themselves are also a part of that same creative force the totems embody.  This produces a direct connection of humanity, nature, and the gods which are not separate components but part of a single unit. Men and women usually have more than one totem as they are also given totems relating to their families, and some groups also have sex totems and place-of- conception totems (Lawlor 283). The multiple totems create tremendously complex linkages with groups of people of the same totem, adding to an already expansive family kinship group.  The totemic systems weave the individual into unity with many groups of people, with nature, and with the Creative Ancestors.

The Dreaming created the land, the people, the animals, the plants, and the heavens, and it also created the Law. The Law demands a respectful, sensitive adherence to the way of life as shown through the songs and stories of The Dreaming. The stories of The Dreaming show the good and the bad, the violent and the peaceful, the moral and the immoral. Life is created in its totality (Berndt 15).  The rituals and ceremonies established in the songs of The Dreaming form the roles people are to play in the earthly design of The Dreaming.  The Creative Ancestors clearly laid down laws governing the roles of men and women, marriage, children, hunting, gathering, and food distribution (Isaac 157). As neither time nor history, as we think of them, exist to the Aborigines, The Dreaming and its Law is not a historical event, but a contemporary ever-present force forming social organization and behavior (Cowan 26).

Men in the society are seen as the primary guardians of The Dreaming rituals for their group. They have the responsibilities for continuing the sustaining ceremonies, locating the ritual sites, and determining the travel pattern.  Some of the most complex rituals are male initiation ceremonies. Boys grow up in the women’s camp and enjoy nearly total freedom until they are of age, when they are seized and undergo a series a rituals that include a journey, return to the homeland, circumcision, a simulated near-death experience, a seclusion, a second homecoming, and a betrothal, even though actual marriage may be as many as fifteen years away (Lawlor 184-194). A segment of the initiation ritual from North Arnhem Land is described as follows:

…this ceremony makes use of ground painting in  which the first Creative Ancestor is represented by  a large circle of concentric red and white rings,  like a standing wave field.  The red rings are  formed and hardened by earth mixed with blood that  has been ritually extracted from the veins of  initiated men. The white rings are also blood and earth, but thousands of white bird feathers have  been applied to the surface….

The circle is painted on the earth in a remote    sacred place known only to initiated men, at the spot  where the Ancestor is said to have emerged from the  earth in the Dreamtime. The Aborigines described the  events thus: “Though asleep, the ancestor was  thinking. His desires flashed through his mind,  causing animals to emerge from his navel and arm  pits.”

The ceremony proceeds with three initiated men    taking their place in the center of a circle of young  initiated men. The young men lie on the ground,  pressing their ears and chests against the earth. The  tribal elder in the center holds a large, heavy  wooden pole that is also encircled from top to bottom  with red and white colored rings.  It has a crown of  white feathers on top. The elder sits cross-legged  with the pole in front of him; he raises and lowers  it so that it pounds the earth.  The pole is called  Numbakul, which means Eternal Naming. The alternating  red and white colors of the pole, as well as the alternating, thumping sound, represents the principle  of duality that manifests itself in all things, most  transparently in the sexes.

The first line sung to the silent initiates is    “May Numbakul reach to the stomach of the sky.” This  is sung as a mantra, alternating with “The earth is  the stomach of the sky.” As the sun sets the chanting  stops. Assisted by the two men flanking him, the  tribal shaman raises and lowers the pole, thumping  the earth through the night. The silent group of  young initiates lies utterly still and naked,  absorbing and dissolving into the vibratory dream of  the Creative Ancestor pulsating from the earth.  As  dawn approaches, the initiated men, seated quietly in  the surrounding bush, begin to chant as if their  songs arose from the heart-like beat of the pole thumping the earth. The songs tell of the mysteries  of the emergence of life and substance from the  vibratory preformed realm of the Ancestors. (Lawlor  107-8)


Aspects of Aboriginal rituals such as bloodletting, circumcision, subincision (the splitting of the head of the penis, done in a ritual latter in a man’s life), and scarification can be difficult for a Western mind to understand. From an outsider’s perspective understanding requires the individual to move beyond the act of the blood sacrifice to what is being symbolized, to the union of the individual to the group and to the spiritual (Charlesworth et. al.  ed. 151-2). Through ritual The Dreaming is reenacted in all its forms: the dark and the light, the cruel and the beautiful. Ceremony and ritual create the depth and intensity of the people’s unity with the Dreaming (Lawlor 74). The initiation of males is not simply a ceremony; it is the ritual killing of the child and recreating him as a man.  It is making a man, giving him a new outlook on life, new responsibilities, new identity (Berndt 4).

In the complex ceremonies and rituals, art plays an integral role. Sand drawings and paintings, body painting, painted and carved sacred boards and stones, earth sculptures, painting on bark and rocks are all forms that are used, usually in conjunction with each other, to create the connection with Creative Ancestors.  More than that, most of the designs are thought to have been originally produced by the Creative Ancestors themselves. Many of the ancient rock paintings and carvings are thought to be original creations of the Ancestors and they are carefully maintained and renewed (Isaacs 241).

An Aborigine once said, “Women are born from nature, men are made by culture” (Lawlor 181). Women are naturally part of the cycles of The Dreaming. They naturally sacrifice their blood for fertility and the perpetuation of the group. Men on the other hand need to be shaped into harmony with The Dreaming, as shown in the initiation rites previously described. Women’s apparent subservient role in Aboriginal society has been widely discussed and commonly exaggerated. Women’s importance to the economics of the group cannot be exaggerated, as it is women who provide up to eighty percent of the food through gathering and hunting small game (Lawlor 201). Women have a direct relationship with their totemic ancestors and have their own ceremonial grounds where men are not allowed. At the core of women’s ceremonies is emotional management. Their ritual and magic is aimed at nurturing emotions, people, and the country itself. Women see themselves as the caretakers of social harmony (Charlesworth et. al. ed. 215).

Because of the attitude Aborigines have toward children and conception, women do not see their primary function in life as childbearing. Pregnancy is not perceived as a sole result of sexual intercourse, but instead is the result of a spirit child entering the woman or man to be transferred to the woman. These spirit children are the life forces of a Creative Ancestor, which has been deposited in the landscape and finds its way into women in many ways.  Because of this. children are not thought of as the property of anyone.  They are united to and are part of the Creative Ancestors.  Children are brought up by their mothers and fathers and extended family (Lawlor 162-3). The kind of upbringing the children receive in a traditional setting is described by Daisy Utemara from the Kimberely:

Now, the child had their lessons every day. Early morning and in the evening their grandmother and  their mother warmed their hands and touched their  forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and right down to  their feet, which meant Wuduu, the warming of hands.  When they touched the forehead, that meant to give;  and the nose, not to go around another person’s fire;  eyes, not to see evil things and not to love up with  any strangers; mouth, not to use bad language; hands,  not to steal what doesn’t belong to you; and the  feet, not to trespass on other people’s land. Now the  father told the children about wunun, which meant the  sharing with other people. The father and mother and  grandmother told about sharing everything — the last  thing you have you must give. (Isaacs 176)

Children grow up in nearly complete independence and indulgence.  They learn by participating in nearly all aspects of community, kinship, environment, stories, and rituals. This integrates them into the society and prepares them to take their places (Lawlor 165-8).

Leadership in the community falls to those in closest association with The Dreaming, the elders. Leadership in ritual is designated by descent and kin positioning but their positions are ultimately maintained only by their ability and genuine association with The Dreaming (Berndt 6).  Egalitarianism between tribal members is highly valued, and even when leadership is needed, authority is carefully handled to minimize any perceived ego-centered behavior. When even respected elders speak as leaders they constantly make reference to The Dreaming to reinforce their position. They often sit facing the other direction from the group and give repeated assurances that they are “only telling a story” (Lawlor 249).  There are “men of high degree” and “wise women” in groups who have reached extraordinary spiritual power and psychic skill, but even these people are not revered more than others who have developed advanced skills in hunting, dancing, or boomerang making (Lawlor 360).

Death to the Aborigines is considered the last of their life-changing rituals. As is male initiation, death is actually a rebirth, this time into the realm of the dead.  At death the spirit of the individual splits into three components: the totemic soul, the ancestral soul, and the ego soul. The totemic soul is reunited with the force of the totemic ancestor from which it came.  The ancestral soul is reunited with its ancestors in the land of the dead which is located in the heavens and stars.  The third part, the ego soul, is also referred to as the Trickster and can be the most difficult part of the soul to deal with. This soul is bound to the locality of the person, and also to his or her earthly pleasures, and might not want to leave.  It can become “stuck” in this world and cause problems for the living. Special ritual assistance is needed to assure its departure. The Aborigine’s concept of the afterlife in the land of the dead is basically a reflection of what life is on earth. This is an agreeable vision for people who are satisfied with their lives (Lawlor 344 & 350).

The ancient religious traditions of the Aborigine people have led to some dramatically different ways of perceiving life and reality. Through lives structured around following the songlines of The Dreaming, they measure their lives according to space rather than time. They gauge their understanding of reality and The Dreaming, not according to “when” or “before” or “after,” but where.  Space and place became the defining factors of life rather than time. For instance, the defining factor of a birth is not when the birth took place but where the birth took place. Time for the traditional Aborigine is a factor that is absorbed by the physical place and the cycles of life that takes place there.  The Dreaming knows no time; it is eternal and the Aborigines’ existence is a part of that eternal existence (Lawlor 238-41).

Another striking aspect of Aborigine culture is the way they experience reality as expressed through their language. Aboriginal dialects have such an abundance of detailed, descriptive names that the language is impossible for Westerners to master. A particular type of tree can have hundreds of different names describing the subtle qualities of that tree; each individual tree may also have a variety of names.  Animals, plants, and all variety of natural phenomena are named with tremendous perceptive skills.  But they have no words for tree, plant, or animal. They have no words for abstract generalizations that are not grounded in perceptual reality (Lawlor 267). There is no such thing as a “tree.” But there is an “oak tree in spring foliage with a dead limb on the south side growing on the east side of a certain hill” and the Aboriginal dialect may have a name that means that. The Aboriginal mind thinks in the precise world of reality and in its mirror image of The Dreaming.

The heart of the Aboriginal religion is life. Every facet focuses on life and living in harmony with humanity, nature, and The Dreaming — as all three are one. The Dreaming creates a total way of life; from the Aborigine’s first breath at birth to their last breath at death, the Dreaming shapes, forms, patterns, designs their lives into a meaningful composition of not time, but space. It has been written:

The whole religious corpus vibrated with an  expressed aspiration for life, abundant life….  Aboriginal religion was probably one of the least  material-minded, and most life-minded of any which  we have knowledge. (Berndt 4)

Viewing the Aboriginal religion and culture from a society that is probably the most material-minded and least life-minded in history, it is easy to romanticize The Dreaming. It is easy to become seduced by the many qualities it possessed, and still possesses in the few surviving traditional bands — qualities which we have lost.  While The Dreaming is not a faith that an outsider can become a part of any more than one can “become” an Aborigine, we can look to The Dreaming and its wisdom for inspiration and help in healing our relationship with the earth and our relationships with each other.


Berndt, Ronald M., Australian Aboriginal Religion, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974.

Buchler, Ira R., and Kenneth Maddock eds., The Rainbow Serpent, The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1978.

Charlesworth, Max, Howard Morphy, Dianne Bell, and Kenneth Maddock, eds. Religion in Aboriginal Australia: An  Anthology, St.  Lucia: University of Queensland, 1986.

Cowan, James G., The Aborigine Tradition, Rockport, Element, 1992

Lawlor, Robert, Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime, Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions,  1991.

Isaacs, Jennifer. Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Australian History, Sydney: Lansdowne Press, 1980.

1992 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at

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Inuit Spiritualism

Inuit Spiritualism Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis 1997

The Inuit people inhabit a vast Arctic area stretching nearly 6000 kilometers, from the islands of far western Alaska to the east coast of Greenland. They were previously called “Eskimos,” which was a name applied to them by the Algonquin Indians meaning “eaters of raw meat.” The name “Inuit,” from the Inuit language means “people” or “real people.” The Inuit are genetically distinct from the Indian tribes to the south. While there are many tribal differences among the Inuit, there are many similarities as well, including the same basic language form and many similarities of oral tradition and spiritual  beliefs.

The Inuit live in the most inhospitable environment inhabited by human beings. Their survival as a people has depended on finely honed skills, intelligence and the ability to work together. Thousands of years of experience, handed down generation after generation, taught them how to survive in an environment that seems incapable of sustaining human beings (Morrison 12-130). The winter temperatures in the Arctic ranges from minus 25 degrees Celsius to minus 35 degrees Celsius.  Winter begins in October and the thaw does not arrive until July.

In the past, fear of famine was not something vague but very real. About one winter in six to eight people would starve to death. And in every generation a starvation disaster would strike and wipe out entire villages (Morrison 90). These great hardships made infanticide an unfortunate necessity in some tribes. When conditions of starvation loomed it was impossible to bring more mouths to feed into the community. Female children were the most often put to death by exposure on the ice, as males had more potential for bringing sustenance to the village (Morrison 101).

These incredibly severe conditions led to the evolution over four thousand years of a belief system that was one of coping with the crushing difficulty of their environment. Aua, an Inuit shaman, explained their beliefs as follows:

All of customs come from life and turn towards life; we explain nothing, we believe nothing…

We fear the weather spirit of the earth, that we must fight against to wrest our food from the land and sea. We fear Sila.

We fear death and hunger in the cold snow huts.

We fear Takanakapsaluk [Sedna], the great woman down at the bottom of the sea, that rules over all the beast of the sea.

We fear the sickness that we meet with daily all around us; not death, but the suffering.

We fear evil spirits of life, those of the air, of the sea and earth, that can help the wicked shamans to harm their fellow men.

We fear the souls of dead human beings and of the animals we have killed.

Therefore it is that our fathers have inherited form their fathers all the old rules of life which are based on the experience and wisdom of generations. We do not now know how, we cannot say why, but we keep those rules in order that we may live untroubled. And so ignorant are we in spite of all our shamans, that we fear everything unfamiliar. We fear what we see about us, and we fear all the invisible things that are likewise about us, all that we have heard in our forefathers’ stories and myths. (Merkur II ix-x)

This account of a belief system based on fear may seem a blind reaction to the inhospitable environment, but in application it maintained a deep, creative understanding and balance between human beings and the other forces of nature around them.

The Inuit spirit world can be divided into two large categories. The first, the “tornaq,” consists of metaphysical beings that can be called spirits. The second, “innue,” are indwellers in nature, forces within nature that define the structure of nature.

Tornaq or spirits are not freely discussed by the Inuit as they are feared. Spirits are normally invisible, the ghost of an animal or person, although a spirit can be a wholly mythic creature as well. It can appear as an apparition to shamans or sometimes to lay people.  Spirits are responsible for accidents, diseases, and death and can cause all kinds of illnesses by stealing the free soul from the individual. They are the free souls of people and animals who have been denied existence in the after-life and have turned evil from that denial. Spirits are never worshipped; they are feared and despised and sometimes exorcised and destroyed.

Indwellers are more intangible entities in the Inuit spiritual world. To the Inuit all existence has life. Rocks, air, weather, food, animals, birds, insects — all have life. All do not have souls but all have life, which is a manifestation of an indweller (Merkur II 22-24).

The Inuit do not hold to ideas of gods to be worshipped. They only know the powers of nature that act on them which they describe as indwellers. Indwellers can be thought of as a kind of personification of natural forces. Daniel Merkur observes that the Indwellers of the Inuit are actually more analogous to the Western concepts of the forces of gravity and magnetism than what we might think of as gods or angels or demons (II, 255).

The soul, as the Inuit conceive it, has two basic components. The first, the  breath soul, is responsible for life. If it is lost the individual dies.  The breath soul is responsible for developing experience, wisdom, and strength. It can also be thought of as the mind. It distinguishes the living from the dead. The breath soul is the basis of our conscious life. The second part of the soul is the free soul, which has the capability to leave the body during sleep, trance, or illness and not kill the person. The free soul accounts for  the capability of people to experience visions and out-of-body experience. The free soul is the basis of the unconscious life. The free soul is also that part of the soul that experiences the afterlife and may be reincarnated (Merkur II 19-21).

While all natural phenomena may have innue, the three primary Indwellers are Sila, the Moon Man, and the  Sea Mother.

Sila is a term often used for the Indweller of the Wind. It is the controller of the weather. It is considered the life-giver to all creatures. Sila is the air and the breath soul of each individual. The Inuit’ breath soul makes them a living part of this life-giving force. Every soul is a part of Sila. When the air, the breath, leaves one’s body death comes. The breath then fuses with the all-encompassing Sila (Merkur II 41-5). Sila powers endow life, common sense, and wisdom. The tradition of nose rubbing is a ritual of exchanging the breath of Sila (Seidelman 33).

Sila is generally considered formless and therefore is seldom visually represented in Inuit art. The Indweller of the Wind and air and its oneness with all creatures through the breath that is constantly passing through their bodies is a mystical and unifying aspect of Inuit beliefs.  It was believed that if the correct rules of animal ceremonialism were not followed, and if the proper respect was not given to the animals that were killed in the hunt, the animal’s souls could call upon Sila to bring a curse on the tribe whose member violated the traditions (Merkur II 56).

The second of the great Indwellers is the Moon Man. The Moon Man and his sister, the Sun Woman, rose to the heaven and gained control over those celestial orbs. The Sun Woman is rarely mentioned as she is seen as a completely positive force that needs little attention. The Moon Man presides over the realm of the afterlife located in a land above the stars. The stars are seen as holes in the bottom of this land where light, water, or snow spill through to the land of the living. The free souls of dead people and animals exist in this afterlife. The Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, were considered by some Inuit to be torches of the free souls of the recently dead trying find their way to the celestial world of the afterlife. The afterlife is a land where souls are happy and there is an abundance of all they need. There is much game playing as there is time for leisure rather than work. Here the Sea Mother reforms the souls into new forms and they are then returned to earth by the Moon Man to be reincarnated in this world. When there is no moon in the sky, that is the time when the Moon Man is making his trip to the earth bringing the reformed souls. There is also a belief in another afterlife located under the world of the living where the free souls of some Inuit go; there they do not enjoy the pleasures of the celestial afterlife and no reincarnation is possible. These are the free souls of the Inuit who have broken taboos and not followed the traditions of the people. (Merkur  II 146-9).

The Moon Man is also considered to be a guardian of animals. He not only supervises their reincarnation, but also sends them to Inuit hunters who observe the traditions and keep the animals from those who break the taboos(Merkur II 159).

The Moon Man was also involved in the fertility of Inuit women. Shamans would spiritually travel to the Moon Man and convince him to throw down children for the women, making them pregnant. It was also believed in some tribes that if women allowed the full moon to shine on their genitals it would increase their chances to be fertile (Merkur II 161-2).

Finally, among the primary Indwellers is Sedna, the Sea Mother, who also goes by many other names. Sedna is by far the most complex and personified of all the Indwellers. The story of how she came to be is a long, complex, violent, and very important part of the Inuit cultural heritage. The following is a short version: There was once a beautiful young woman with many suitors, all of whom she shunned. Her father grew angry with her stubborn refusal to take part in the traditional ways of marriage; to punish her he married her to one of his dogs. She became pregnant with the dog and her father took her to an island as was the birth custom. The girl gave birth to a large litter, some dog and some human. As the domestic dog could not hunt for the litter the girl’s father would load the dog with meat packs and the dog would swim to the island. The father grew irritated with the dog and one day filled the meat packs with stones and the dog drowned trying to reach the island. The father then brought meat to the litter. The girl grew angry with her father for making her wed a dog and encouraged the litter to attack their grandfather, which they did and nearly killed him. With no one to feed her litter any longer the girl made her clothing and boots into boats and sent the litter off into the world. The human children became the ancestors to the Indian people to the south. The dog children, the hairy children, became the ancestors to the white people to the south (Merkur II 125).

After she had sent her children adrift the woman returned to live with her parents. One day when her father was away an handsome man in a kayak came and lured the girl into going away with him. The man stopped on an ice flow and removed his gear to reveal that he was in reality a fulmar, an arctic bird. The girl was forlorn but was committed to live with him and they had a child. Her father was in anguish at the loss of his daughter and set off to find her, which he did. He took her in his kayak and tried to escape, but the fulmar found them and nearly capsized the boat. The father grew panicky and threw the girl overboard. She clung to the side of the boat and he cut off her fingers at the first joint to get her to let loose of the boat. The finger tips dropped into the water and were transformed into small seals. She grabbed the boat again and he chopped off the next joints which were transformed into the bearded seals. With her last joints she grabbed the boat yet again and the father chopped off the final joints which were transformed into the walruses. With nothing left to get a hold on the boat the girl sank to the bottom of the ocean and became the spirit, Sedna, mother of all the sea beasts. When her father got home he was filled with regret and lay down at the edge of the sea. The tide came and swept him out to sea and he joined his daughter at the bottom of the sea with her dog husband who had been drowned previously by the father. They all lived together in a house at the bottom of ocean where Sedna controlled the sea creatures (Seidelman 73-4)

The incredible story of Sedna is one that confronts many of the fears of Inuit life: the fear of the elements, the fear of the sea, the fear of the animal world, and possibly the greatest fear of all — that of separation from family and the human world. When Sedna refused the traditional ways of her people by refusing her suitors, she set off a horrible chain of events compounded by her father’s anger and fear (Seidelman 78).

Sedna is the Sea Mother and the Indweller of the Sea. She controls the animal life of the sea and provides the Inuit with game for their use if they follow rules of how to hunt and treat the animals. When taboos have been broken and Sedna withholds the game from the Inuit, it is the shaman’s responsibility to coax Sedna into releasing the game. Only the most powerful of the shaman can talk directly to Sedna. The shaman must undergo many ordeals in the journey of his free soul to Sedna’s home. The shaman must break down a wall around her house, overcome the dog husband guarding the house, and finally help Sedna cleanse her hair. The evils of human beings and their breaking of taboos drift down to Sedna as lice that collect in her hair and torment her. With no fingers Sedna cannot groom her hair and the shaman must appease her by cleaning her hair and convince her to release her animals to hunters above. The shaman must then make his or her way back to the surface of the earth and, at the séance,  rejoin the people who are ready to confess their sins of taboo violations (Seidelman 81).

In the late autumn, before the winter seal hunt begins, an annual Sedna festival is held in some Inuit tribes. At the center of the festival is a ritual performance given by the leading shaman of the community. It begins with the chanting of a song that is meant to lure Sedna to a breathing hole that has been cut in the floor of the igloo where the ceremony is taking place. When she approaches the hole the shaman harpoons her with all his might and a long battle ensues between the shaman and Sedna. Finally Sedna breaks loose and the shaman is left with only a bloodied harpoon. It is a symbolic driving away of Sedna and of the human world once again rejecting her. The ritual also builds Sedna’s respect for the shaman and symbolizes the seal hunts that will soon take place. The day after the ritual a great festival is held that celebrates both the young and the old in the community. The festival can be seen as a way to express the anxieties of Inuit as they prepare to face the long difficult winter ahead. It gives a brief time that they seem to have won over the powers around them (Seidelman 81).

Most of the activities of traditional Inuit were focused on the animals upon which they were dependent for their survival. The Inuit saw these creatures as having free souls like their own that needed to be carefully treated. Animal ceremonialism and taboos grew around this need to deal with souls that could haunt them in the future if not properly treated. The Inuit used great care in handling all the game they kill. There are specific procedures and rules in using the meat and other parts of the creatures. The rituals were important in that they prepared the souls to leave this world and enter the afterlife. If they were not followed properly the result could be malevolent ghosts haunting the hunter and tribe that offended the traditions and kept the soul on earth (Merkur II 210). Also some of the great Indwellers could become very displeased if the animals were not treated properly and cause the game to become scarce. Some of the traditions/taboos for various tribes were as follows: sea mammals were thought to be thirsty living in sea water, so their souls were given a drink of fresh water after the kill; birds’ heads, feet and wing joints were oiled; caribou bones were never allowed to be gnawed by the dogs near the place of the kill; bears and wolves were offered tiny bows as a hunting gift if a male, and sewing materials if a female, and no sewing could be done the day after a kill; anyone who made fun of animals or enjoyed the needless pain of an animal would be cursed; products from the animals of the sea and the animals of the land could not be mixed; land animal clothing had to be sewn on land; and sea animal clothing was to be sewn on the ice. Many other traditions surrounded the honoring of the souls of the animals they depended on so completely (Morrison 88-9).

The care of the souls of dead human beings was equally important to the Inuit. A Christian priest described the death ritual of an Inuit who died on a hunting expedition:

Krilugok helped Nerlak unload his sled, placing Igutk’s body on an elevation with a perfect view of the valley below. It lay there facing the sun, the source of all life. Oviluk knelt close to the opening of the bundle where Igutak’s face could be seen. She leaned forward and breathed around his face, simultaneously touching his nostrils and mouth as she murmured and called forth his soul to come forth, ‘Come, oh come! And go to the mountains until your name is given to a newborn… Go down to the valley and follow the roaming caribou until your name rests with the newborn.’

Symbolically she placed the beak of a falcon on her deceased husband’s mouth to give his soul the bird’s power to fly at will to the hills or the lowlands.

Around Igutak’s frozen body the two men placed a ring of stones to guard it against roaming spirits, always on the prowl in the Barren Land. As he helped complete the stone circle, Krilugok said the magic words, ‘Troublesome Spirits of the Air and Land, turn away and return to the dark.’ (Seidelman 204).

Inuit people also sought to gain some of the many powers of the animals through the use of amulets. An amulets is an attachment that the Inuit wore on their clothing that was to bring the help of the spirit of the creature it represented. A loon’s foot would help control a kayak in the water, a hawk’s claw would give good grip, a caribou’s ear would give good hearing, a wolf’s paw would make the hunter enduring and hardy, the head of a falcon would give courage, and so on. Girls would sometimes wear an abundance of amulets to protect and give qualities to sons that they would someday bear. Children might wear as many as eighty amulets to protect them from all kinds of misfortunes (Seidelman 41).

Certain animals had higher positions in the Inuit culture and mythology. The eagle held  a very high place as the eagle is said to have introduced song, drumming, and feasting to the Inuit. The following is a summary of the story of how this came to be: A hunter was seized by an eagle and taken aloft. In the air the hunter wounded the eagle and they both fell to earth. The hunter survived and carefully used all the eagle’s meat and preserved the skin and feathers as an amulet for his hunting. The skin proved a powerful amulet. The hunter was later approached by two boys who turned out to be eagles in human form. They informed him that they were to take him to the mother of the eagle that he had slain. As they approached the house of the mother eagle, the hunter heard a loud regular beating sound of an enormous drum which turned out to be the throbbing of the mother eagle’s heart over the loss of her son. The mother eagle thanked the hunter for so carefully using the meat and skin of her son and asked him to hold a feast in honor of her son. The mother eagle then proceeded to teach the hunter how to compose songs, how to drum, and how to dance. The hunter was also asked to burn the eagle skin after the ceremony to release the eagle’s soul and allow it to enter the afterlife. The hunter did all he was asked to do and began the feast traditions of the Inuit. The eagle was treated with respect and its soul was free to travel to the after world. The eagle spirit was pacified and persuaded  not to steal human souls but to function as a helping spirit both to hunters and shamans (Merkur II 205-7).

Two major feasts, the Exchange Feast and the Messenger Feast, are said to have evolved from this lesson from the Eagle Mother. In the Exchange Feast food and gifts, exchanged by the host and guest, are expected to be of approximately equal value. In the Messenger Feast a wealthy Inuit hosts the feast as a way to maintain or gain status in the tribe. At the Messenger feast the host will request gifts from the guests but the guests will in return receive gifts several times their gift’s worth. It is at the Messenger Feast that carved wooden masks are used. At this feast a staff of wood is prepared with white and red stripes and eagle feathers attached to the top. A messenger then takes the staff to the villages which will be invited to the feast. The messenger is considered to be representative of the eagle spirit (Merkur II 198-9).

The raven is another important creature to the Inuit. The raven is seen as a creator, a hero, and a trickster. He can be a helping spirit to hunter because no matter where a kill takes place the raven is always there. Amulets of raven claws or heads are seen as powerful  help to a hunter in finding game. In Inuit creation mythology it is the raven that created the land by harpooning a sea animal that was so huge it had no beginning and no end. The harpooned sea animal became the land of the earth. Ravens are also seen as having control over some aspects of the weather. A story is told that in the beginning there was no light because the sun was kept captive in a house. The raven transformed himself into a pine needle in the drinking water for the people who lived in the house. A girl who lived there drank the water and the needle and became pregnant. The raven was born to her in human form. When he grew to manhood he stole the sun from the house and released it into the sky, giving the world light (Merkur II 215-220).

The polar bear is another powerful force in the Inuit world. It is the only Arctic creature that will stalk human beings as food. It is also thought to be the animal from which the Inuit modeled many of their hunting techniques. The polar bear often plays a crucial role in the gaining of power by the shaman. The great bear through its tremendous strength is often seen as the preeminent  spirit in the animal world.

When life is not going well for the individual or the village, when sickness or starvation is threatening, there is need for special relations with the spirit world that only a shaman has the power to bring about. Shamans or angakoqs are men and women with special spiritual powers. It was not regarded an overly positive thing to be called as a shaman for the calling was a dangerous and difficult undertaking. Signs would come to people through dreams, or unusual hunting experiences, or through being able to see into the future. The apprentice shaman underwent grueling initiation rites. Shamans had the power to see into the spirit world, to cure sickness, to help barren women have children, to improve the weather, to ensure good hunting, and to foresee the future. Most of the shaman’s work is done in a self-induced hypnotic trance, produced by concentration, drumming, and chanting. In his trance his free soul could travel to the various indwellers and solicit the help of spirits. He could determine what taboos had been broken and plead or fight for the help of the powers. The shaman would give vivid accounts to the tribal member of his travels and deeds while in the trance. The trances could go on for hours and be exhausting experiences for all involved. To reinforce their powers to the tribe the shaman would often use ventriloquism and other performance elements and tricks to enhance the believability of his experiences and powers (Seidelman 42-62).

The shaman uses helping spirits to obtain information from and affect the spiritual world. The spirits could determine the safety of a journey, the location of missing goods, the causes of illness, the taboos that had been broken. The spirits are the tools of the shaman (Merkur I 128). To obtain these helping spirits the prospective shaman goes through many ordeals. the most important being vision quests. The primary methods of vision quests are sensory deprivation, often involving a solitary retreat in which the prospective shaman fasts while being exposed to the weather. Sometimes the person seeking a vision was confined in a very small ice house for many days without food, light or any stimulation. This great physical and mental strain brought about the vision and spirit helpers the shaman sought. A common vision was one of encountering a huge wild polar bear and being eaten and then brought back to life. The following is one account:

…I went  inland to Tasiusak. Here I cast a stone into the water, which was thereby thrown into a great commotion, like a storm at sea. As the billows dashed together, their crests flattened out on top, and as they opened a huge bear was disclosed.

He had a very great black snout, and, swimming ashore, he rested his chin upon the land; and, when he laid one of his paws upon the beach, the land gave way under his weight. He went up inland and circled around me, bit me in the loins, and then ate me. At first it hurt, but afterwards feeling passed from me; but as long as my heart had not been eaten, I retained consciousness. But, when  he bit me in the heart, I lost consciousness, and was dead.

When I came to myself again, the bear was away, and I lay wearied out and stark naked at the same place by the lake. (Merkur I 233-246).

This story of death, resurrection, and transformation as a shaman is one that remakes an ordinary person into a shaman with new powers and guidance of the bear spirit. Helping spirits are most often land or sea animals but they may also be the spirits of people as well. These spirits are the free souls of the dead who are trapped on earth and could be very dangerous, but the shaman has the power to control for good, or bad if the shaman is evil.

Magic songs and magic words are also an important part the shaman’s work. These songs and chants are often given by a spirit and can help evoke a spirit to aid the shamans in their work. The spirits also often talk through the shaman with many different voices during trances.

Songs play a very important role in the lives of all Inuit. Song, being a part of the breath, is considered to be deeply connected to the spiritual world. Songs are thought to have power. Hunters’ songs to attract game are kept secret and considered the property of the owners. Songs are major parts of feasts. It has been said that “The Eskimo have many songs. They have songs to make the wind blow, songs to make the seals come, songs to dance by, songs to keep off the spirits, songs to make the heart strong.” (Merkur I 93-4) Songs were often passed on from generation to generation and were considered a form of wealth that could on occasion be traded (Seidelman 42).

Storytelling was also a major component of traditional Inuit life. The storytelling tradition of the Inuit went far beyond mere entertainment. The stories were the cultural memory and history of the Inuit. An example would be the Inuit story of the two hunters who were hunting together. One killed a caribou and the other killed a wolf. They became embroiled in an argument over which of the two animals had more hairs. In order to settle the dispute they decided that they would pull each animal’s hairs out, counting them one by one. The process took so long that both the hunter died of starvation. The story ends with the line, “That is what happens when people busy themselves with aimless things and insignificant trifles” (Seidelman 17).

A summary of  Inuit spiritual duties was given by an elder:

I must never offend Nuliajuk [Sedna]. I must never offend the souls of the animals or tornraq so that it will strike me with sickness.

When hunting and wandering inland I must as often as I can make offerings to the animals that I hunt, or to the dead who can help me, or to lifeless things, especially stones and rocks, that are to have offerings for some reason or other.

I must make my own soul as strong as I can, and for the rest seek strength and support in all the power that lies in the name.

I must observe my forefathers’ rules of life in hunting customs and taboo, which are nearly all directed against the souls of dead people or dead animals.

I must gain special abilities or qualities through amulets.

I must try to get hold of magic words or magic songs that either give hunting luck or are protective.

If I cannot manage to in spite of all these precautions, and suffer want or sickness, I must seek help from shamans, whose mission it is to be the protectors of mankind against all the hidden forces and dangers of life. (Morrison 105)


The nonlinear and seemingly irrational aspects of Inuit spiritual beliefs have bewildered many Western observers. Knud Rasmussen, in the early Twentieth Century, was a keen observer of the Inuit. There is a story of Rasmussen talking with the famous shaman, Aua. As the Inuit explained their rules of life and taboos, Rasmussen kept asking, “Why?” The Inuit grew very tired of his persistence. Finally Aua took him outside  in the middle of a blizzard. After standing in the deadly weather a while, Aua said to Rasmussen:

In order to hunt well and live happily, man must have calm weather. Why this constant succession of blizzards and all this needless hardship for men seeking food for themselves and those they care for? Why? Why? (Seidelman 8-9)

Another Inuit tried to explain the same thing to Rasmussen in another way:

We Eskimos do not concern ourselves with solving all riddles. We repeat the old stories in the way they were told to us and with the words we ourselves remember…. You always want these supernatural things to make sense, but we do not bother about that. We are content to not understand (Seidelman 33).

The changes to the Inuit by contact with modern societies have been enormous. In the 1920’s an Inuit summed up the changes he had seen:

Now that we have firearms it is almost as if we no longer need shamans or taboos, for now it is not so difficult to procure food as in the old days. Then we had to laboriously hunt the caribou at the sacred crossing places, and there the only thing that helped us was the strictly observed taboo in combination with magic words and amulets. Now we can shoot caribou everywhere with our guns, and the result is that we have lived ourselves out of the old customs. We forget our magic words and we scarcely use any amulets now. The young people don’t. See, my chest is bare; I haven’t got all the bones and grave-goods that the Netsilingmiut hang about them. We forget what we no longer have use for. Even the ancient spirit songs that the great shamans sing together with all the men and women of the village we forget, all the old invocations for bringing Nuliajuk [Sedna] up to the earth so that the beasts can be wrested from her – we remember them no more. (Seidelman 145)

As the decades of the modern age have rolled by, the changes in hunting, shelter, transportation, communications, and the availability of food have made the traditional beliefs of the Inuit seem obsolete. Inuit spiritualism was directly designed to create a balance with the natural world and enhance the people’s chance for survival in a harsh, unforgiving climate. In spite of the contrast of modern times with traditional beliefs there are people trying sustain and to the extent possible carry on the spiritual legacy of four thousand years of living in the Arctic. It is a legacy well worth preserving in its sensitivity to and harmony with the chilling beauty of the Far North.


Merkur, Daniel, (I), Becoming Half Hidden: Shamanism and Initiation Among the Inuit, Garland Publishing Inc., New York & London, 1992

Merkur, Daniel, (II), Powers Which We Do Not Know: The Gods and Spirits of the Inuit, University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho, 1991

Morrison, David, and Georges-Herbert Germain, Inuit: Glimpses of an Arctic Past, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec, Canada, 1995

Seidelman, Harold, and James Turner, The Inuit Imagination, Thames & Hudson, New York, 1994

1997 copyright, Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at

baws cover 1

Ifa Divination of the Yoruba

Ifa Divination (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1996

The Yoruba people of West Africa have occupied a part of what is now known as Nigeria and Benin for over nine centuries. They have been living in city-state communities ruled by sacred rulers, councils of elders, and chiefs for a thousand years.  Due to the massive Europeans slave trade in the area  the Yoruba people were also dispersed to the Americas.  The Yoruba concept of the cosmos and the spiritual world is somewhat overwhelming to the Western mind. It seems a complex and somewhat perplexing interaction between the world of the deities and the world of human beings. The number of Yoruba deities is sometimes referred to as numbering four hundred. While this number may be exaggerated, there is still quite a pantheon of deities in the Yoruba religious system. For the purposes of this essay I will limit this study to those deities that play a primary role in Ifa Divination.

The Yoruba see the cosmos as divided into two halves of a sphere. In the upper half is orun, the world of the spiritual and the invisible – the deities, the ancestors, the various spirit forces. The lower half of the sphere is that of the visible tangible world in which we live, called the ase. Ifa divination creates the opportunity for communication between these two realms (Drewal 14).

While it is not the norm for the Yoruba to elevate one deity over another, Olodumare, also called Olorun, is singled out. Sexless and distant, Olorun is the creator of all existence and the source of the life force that is in all creation. Olorun is also the God of destiny for all. There are no special worshipers, cults or shrines to Olorun but it is he/she who controls and has set the fate of all, and who is therefore a very important deity in Ifa divination (Bascom 104). The second key deity in Ifa divination is Ifa himself, also commonly called Orunmila. Sometimes referred to as a scribe or clerk, Ifa has created the system of communication between ase and orun, between heaven and earth. Ifa who  humanity the opportunity to communicate with the Olorun and possibly influence their destinies. The central place of Ifa divination in Yoruba religious practices lies in the fact that through Ifa individuals can communicate with all the deities and yet  do not need to be  followers of Ifa to use the divination system; they can be a followers of any religion including Christianity or Islam. The third important deity  in Ifa divination is Esu. He is the messenger. It is Esu that takes the prescribed sacrifices to the Gods from the human realm. Esu’s altar is usually located outside the Ifa diviner’s house and is normally a rough chunk of laterite rock. Esu is a most unpredictable deity. He is a trickster and individuals must be careful not to incur his wrath. A small portion of each sacrifice is usually set aside for Esu himself to placate him. Esu is many times merciless in his punishment of those who refuse to sacrifice as indicated in the divination process. His vengeance can range from starting fights to the murder of the offending person. He is often equally helpful to those who carry through with the necessary sacrifices (Bascom 105).

The process of Ifa divination is not a simple one. It is a complex system of numerical figures and infinite verses of memorized information. Ifa divination is based on interpreting sixteen basic numerical figures and 256 figures that can be derived from the original sixteen. These figures can be arrived at through two different processes. The first is through the manipulation of palm nuts. The diviner holds sixteen palm nuts in his left hand; with his right hand he grasps the nuts and if one is left, he puts two marks on his dining tray. If two nuts are left, he puts one mark on the tray. This process is repeated four times to give one of the sixteen combinations; repeating the process eight times gives one of the 256 derivative figures, called odus. The second, and quicker, method of obtaining the divination figures is by a single cast of a divining chain. The chain has eight seed shells attached and is held in the middle so that there are four shells on each side. The chain is then cast and the shells fall either face up or face down. A shell that has its concave surface upward is given a single mark. A concave surface downward is given a double mark (Bascom 3).

The basic sixteen figures of one and two marks are as follows:


I             II              II             I         I                II                   I                 II

I             II              I              II        II               II                   I                 II

I             II              I              II        II               II                   II                I

I             II              II             I         II               I                    II                I


I                     II        I               I               II                    II       I           II

I                     I         I               II              II                    I        II          I

I                     I         II              I               I                     II       I           II

II                    I         I               I               II                    II       II          I

These sixteen basic figures can be paired in 256 ways (16 X 16). These 256 combinations are called the odus of Ifa divination. These are the possibilities that can be drawn on the Ifa tray by the diviner by either manipulating the palm nuts or casting the divining chain.

The Ifa diviner or priest is called a babalawo, father of ancient wisdom. The babalawo has memorized verses for each of the 256 odus. Most have learned at least four verses per odu and many diviners have memorized eight or more verses per odu, making their repertoire over 2000 verses, an incredible oral  encyclopedia. The verses form the foundation of Yoruba tradition including folk tales, history, myths, songs, proverbs and riddles. The purpose of reciting these verses in the divination process is that one of the verses is Ifa’s message related to the client’s problem or inquiry. In this respect there is some discrepancy in how scholars perceive the relationship between client and diviner. William Bascom reports that many times the client does not even tell the diviner what his or her question or problem is, but instead whispers the information in cupped hands to a coin or other object which the diviner then touches with his divining chain to get the information to Ifa. The purpose of this is to get the information to the deity without the diviner being aware of the content. This makes certain there can be no chance of the diviner manipulating the odu and verse to what he thinks would be best. By keeping the inquiry secret the clients ensure communication directly between themselves and Ifa. The babalawo then recites all the verses he knows for the odu chosen and the clients select the verse relevant to their inquiry (54-5). In contradiction to this John Philip Neimark sees the role of the babalawo as more of a sacred counselor. He asserts that the true historical process was that the client confided in the diviner, and the babalawo used his deep social and psychological skills as well as his spiritual connections to guide the client to a solution to a problem. Neimark sees the role of the babalawo as one who tries to restore a sense of balance between the individual and the rest of the universe. The Yoruba see themselves as part of the larger organism which is the cosmos. Everything forms a piece of that cosmic being and in turn every part of the being contains particles of the whole. When we are in harmony with the energy of all, we are in balance. When we are out of balance with the universal, we suffer in many different ways. The role of divination and babalawo is to help maintain the balance of energy and to right any problems that may have arisen or might arise in the future (p. ix).

The process of divination can be short and simple or very extended and complex as the following describes:

The general outline of the procedure in divination is as follows. (1) The first cast is made to determine the figure for which the verses are recited. (2) Two casts are made to determine whether the prognostication is for good or for evil. (3) Five casts are made to find out what kind of good or evil is indicated. (4) A succession of double casts may be made to find out in more detail about the evil. (5) Two casts are made to find out whether a sacrifice (ebo) is sufficient, or whether adimu [an additional sacrifice] is required. (6) If adimu is indicated, five casts are made to learn to whom it should be offered. (7) If adimu is to be made to a “white deity,” it is identified by a succession of double casts. (8) Five casts are made to determine what is required as adimu. (9) If a live animal is required, a succession of double casts may be made to find out what kind. (10) The verses of the figure of the initial cast are recited, and the appropriate verse selected. (11) The correct sacrifice is determined by a succession of double casts. If at point five ebo is indicated, steps 6 through nine are omitted; and if the client wishes, steps 2 through 9 may be skipped, and if palm nuts are used, the process may be reduced to steps 1 and 10 only (Bascom 59).


The categories of good and evil the diviner ascertain are as follows: good – long life, money, wives and marriage, children, and victory over one’s enemies; evil – death, sickness, fighting, the want of money, and loss (Bascom 55).

One of the babalawo’s primary functions is to determine what the necessary sacrifice is to either ensure the client’s good fortune or to moderate the evil fortune. If a sacrifice is called for, it is considered wise to make the sacrifices recommended as soon as possible. If the clients cannot afford the cost of the sacrifice or if they don’t trust the babalawo, they simply might ignore the advice. In this case the only price is a small payment to the priest, which usually varies according to the individual’s wealth. The diviner’s main income is derived from sacrifices. If money is part of the sacrifice, it is understood that the diviner is to retain the money unless other specifications were given in the verses. In addition to or instead of money a great many other things can be included in the sacrifice: domestic animals, wild animals or meat, all kinds of food, implements, weapons, clothing and many other items could be specified in the verse. The diviner usually asks Ifa about the disposition of the sacrifice, what he can keep, how the meat of a sacrifice is to be shared in the community, if a hair might substitute for the animal, if a thread might substitute for a cloth, if a feather might substitute for a bird, and so on. In addition to prescribing sacrifices the babalawo, an accomplished herbalists,  often calls for the preparations of magic or medicines known as ayajo. Common ingredients in these potions are the leaves of Ifa, some of the dust of the divining tray, and incantations (Bascom 61-5).

To become a babalawo is a long and difficult process requiring two very elaborate and expensive initiations. Instruction can start as early as the age of five or six with the student observing the babalawo performing his various duties and by beginning to learn the figures. Some diviners learn from their fathers while others are apprenticed to babalawo to learn the profession. The apprentice usually does not pay the master but serves him doing many duties and chores. Formal training can last from three to ten years with ongoing study continuing for  life. The trainee studies with a babalawo learning the verses and the many rituals of the Ifa sect. Even after he is released from his teacher, he still owes an obligation to his teacher and may give the teacher a percent of his earnings for as long as the teacher lives. Many also continue learning verses for their entire lives, paying for the learning as they go (Bascom 81-6).

The babalawo has many duties beyond divination, including the many rituals and rites for those people who are specific followers of Ifa. One of the rites, Itefa, is a ritual for boys around the age of seven that guides them in finding their personal identity. It is series of rituals and symbolic journeys that are to lead to the child’s rebirth at a new point in his life. The ceremony also empowers and prepares the initiate’s personal set of  palm nuts for Ifa divining. While the complexity of the series of rituals may be too sophisticated for the young boys to fathom at the time, it is a beginning of understanding that is reinforced many times as they observe and participate in the initiation of other boys. This learning process continues into adulthood. The components of the rites deal with hardships, joys, wealth, and creativity and take oral, visual, and kinetic modes of presentation. The learning process,  both in the spiritual and material realms,  relates new meanings to everyday life (Abiodun 178-88).

Another important function of the babalawo and Ifa divination is  to determine which ancestral soul has reincarnated itself in a newborn Yoruba child. The Yoruba believe in multiple souls for each individual in a complex system that has many variations in different region of Yorubaland. One of the most important aspects of the soul is the ancestral guardian soul that resides in one’s head, often specifically in the forehead. This part of the soul dictates the individual’s good or bad fortune. The judgment laid upon this soul, later in heaven, determines whether the person can be reborn to life again or is to be punished for leading a bad life. To maintain the protection of one’s ancestral guardian soul, sacrifices need to be given as prescribed by the Ifa diviners and usually an annual sacrifice as well. Divining to find the ancestral soul also determines what taboos the child must follow. The child is taken to a diviner shortly after birth for a reading and in some ways the reading establishes a course for the child’s future. The figure selected is carefully recorded so it won’t be forgotten or confused. When the child is old enough, the figure is memorized.

The Yoruba believe that a person’s soul appears before Olorun in heaven before taking on a new human body and being given the opportunity to choose its destiny. Olorun may refuse if the requests are not made humbly or if they are unreasonable. The souls are given a fixed day they are to return to heaven, which cannot be altered except by suicide which prohibits the person from ever returning to heaven.  If people gain the full support of their ancestral soul, Olorun, and their personal deity, they may live their allotted time on earth. If they are killed or die before their allotted time is over, they becomes ghosts here on earth until the day to return to heaven arrives. Criminals and wicked people are condemned to a bad heaven where living is not comfortable. But most people have the components of their souls reunited in heaven and live comfortably, much as on earth, until they are reborn on earth in another generation. Because rebirth often occurs into the same ancestral lineage an endless cycle of birth and rebirth in the families is created (Bascom 114-6).

Ifa divination serves many functions in traditional Yoruba life but its primary function is to provide human beings with direct access to Olorun, who is in charge of their destinies. Ifa divination can give insight into what that destiny may be, what one’s guardian ancestral soul is, which deity one should worship, what sacrifices are necessary to enhance one’s destiny, what medicines are needed, and what evil might be working against one in the form of witches, evil spirits, curses and so on. While each individual has a personal deity to pray to, all people have access to the trinity of Olorun, Ifa, and Esu which controls their very destinies. The babalawo’s verses also give guidance in matters of practical advice for living and moral and ethical behavior. Diviners are often consulted when people are in trouble, are about to undertake new ventures or travel, or have important decisions are to make. The destiny of a person defines the general boundaries of one’s life: whether on will have good luck or bad luck, whether one will be wise or foolish, what one’s occupation may be, how many children one will have, whether or not one will go insane, and so on. It can be said that Olorun determines the general direction of these factors in one’s life, but the individual can do things to affect the extent of these conditions. One can divine and sacrifice to enhance good fortune and to mitigate bad fortune. If one is born with a “bad head,” ancestral soul, he can try to lessen his bad conditions by right behavior and attention to the Gods and his ancestral soul (Bascom 117-8).

Divination systems can always be disregarded by the skeptical mind, but regardless of whether one actually believes in the gods communicating to humans through such systems or not, there are real benefits to the clients. Through the process clients now have the assurance that they are following the correct path and can proceed with confidence that they are doing the right thing. The choice was made by Ifa. In some ways the system cannot fail if the diviner knows enough verses. If an answer is not found in the verses recited to the client’s question, the problem is that the diviner does not know enough verses and the solution is to consult another diviner. But the goal of the diviner is not simply to have the most verses memorized but to solve their clients problems which means they must have the right verses and be able to interpret them in a helpful manner for  clients (Bascom 70-1).

The verses of Ifa are considered the unwritten scriptures of the Yoruba people. There are now several collections of the Ifa verses in print but they must be considered very partial and incomplete. It is conceivable that every babalawo has a somewhat unique set of verses in his oral repertoire. These verses cannot be considered static or permanent in any sense. They are not only evolving through the oral tradition of individual priests but they are also growing through the addition of new verses through the visions and insights of the babalawo. Some babalawos have new Ifa verses come to them through dreams, and others are born with new Ifa verses in them which are stimulated to arise when they learn existing verses (Bascom 137). The Ifa verses are a living and growing scriptural base of the Yoruba. The content of the verses includes materials that are theological, ritual, social, political, historical, medicinal, and scientific. Some of the more common topics of the verses include death, illness, wives, children, money, values, moderation, and a wealth of other concerns. The following is a sampling of verses that relate to these and other topics, all from The Sacred Ifa Oracle translated by Afolabi A. Epega and Philip John Neimark:

The very first odu contains a verse dealing with the very important theme of children and fertility:

I     I  EJIOBE (odu #1)

I     I

I     I

I     I



Separately we ground groundnut

Separately we eat immumu (special nut)

We are head over heels in love with Oba Makin

They all divined for Agbonniregun.

They said if he sacrificed, he would be

blessed with children; he would not

even know the number of his children

both during and after his life.

He was asked to sacrifice

a she-goat and Ifa leaves.

If he offered the sacrifice, he was to cook the Ifa leaves for his wives to eat.

He obeyed and sacrificed.

Ifa leaves: Grind yenmeyenme (ogbonyin) leaves, irugba, or ogiri (condiments) with cloves and other condiments.

Cook them together with the goat’s fallopian tubes.

Place the pot of soup in front of the Ifa throne and allow his wives to eat there.

When they finished eating it, they had a lot of children.(4)


Another verse dealing with children is found in odu 20 where to help a sick child, a feast be held for the child’s playmates is prescribed:

I     II  IWORIBOGBE (odu 20)

I     I

I     I

I     II


He said something had to be offered to the

child so that the child might not die:

pounded yams, a hen, and thirty-two hundred cowries.

Ifa said that they should cook the food and hen prescribed, gather all the children together,

and allow the playmates of the sick child to eat the food provided. Ifa said the sick child would get well if a party was held for its playmates. (75)


From odu 21 comes a tale of the rather embarrassing consequences of not performing a sacrifice prescribed by divination:

I     I  OGBEDI (odu 21)

II    I

II    I

I     I


Kute-agbon Korojiji divined Ifa for Ogbe

when Ogbe was going on a hunting expedition.

He was asked to sacrifice so that he would not encounter obstacles there: three he-goats, three cocks, and six thousand cowries.

He refused the sacrifice.

When he got to the forest, the rain came.

As he was running away, he saw a wide hole that he thought was in a tree or an anthill.

He fell into the hole and did not know that it was an elephant that had opened its anus.

The elephant closed up his anus against him.

He therefore could not find his way out.

His people started a search for him.

After a while, when they could not find him, they decided to go and perform the sacrifice he had neglected.

He was then excreted by the elephant.

However they said: The Ogbe that came out of an anus should be called Ogebedi. (78)


Also from OGEBEDI comes a complex story about the dangers of not sacrificing, the benefits of making the sacrifice, and the dire consequences of jumping to conclusions. The tale also explains how Esu became the permanent slave of Ifa, Orunmila, and how Esu came to reside outside:


Ogbedikaka, Ogbedilele cast Ifa for Esu when he was serving a term of slavery with Orunmila, Orisa-oko, and Ogun. Esu was asked to offer as a sacrifice: palm kernel shells, nine pigeons, and eighteen thousand cowries. Ifa medicine should be prepared to enable him to pay his debts.

Esu refused to sacrifice.

Esu was a fisherman at that time. Whenever he caught a lot of fish in his trap, the irunmale (four hundred deities) were envious of him. They thought that Esu could soon make enough money to bail himself out of his financial straits. For this reason, they decided to send him on errands to distant places on the same day. Orunmila sent Esu to Oke-Bisi to bring his bag and tray. After sending the message, Orunmila thought of consulting the Ifa oracle on the matter. He called the babalawos who divined Ifa saw Ogbedikaka. Orunmilla was advised to sacrifice six rabbits, six pigeons, and twelve thousand cowries,

He heard and performed the sacrifice.

Ifa medicine was prepared for him by tying up the six rabbits in the bag. They warned him to carry the bag with him. Orisa-nla asked Esu to go to Ode-Irawo. Ogun asked Esu to go to Ode-Ire and bring his gbamdari (a large cutlass). Quickly, Esu got up and went to a nearby bush, where he conjured and obtained all the things requested. Immediately after Esu had left, all the irunmale went to collect the fish from his trap. As he was returning home, he found them sharing his fish. When he appeared unexpectedly, everybody pocketed the fish. He delivered all the items that they had requested him to fetch. Esu then began to question everybody. “Where did you get the fish you were sharing?” Some were apologizing; some did not know what to say. Those begging his pardon decided to give up their claims on the money he owed them. He should not let anyone hear that they had stolen. It was custom in Ife at that time that nobody must steal. Orunmila said he did not steal Esu’s fish. Esu said Orunmila must have stolen the fish that were tied up in the bag he was holding. Esu thought fish noses were bulging out of the bag. They took the matter to court at Ife town. They argued. The court decided to ask Orunmila to unveil the contents of his bag. He loosened the bag and they saw the six rabbits he threw out. They started to blame Esu. Esu begged Orunmila for his pardon. Orunmila refused to accept his apology. Esu further pledged his house and other possessions to Orunmila. Orunmila still refused to accept his plea. Esu responded that he would go home with Orunmila and continue to serve him forever. They handed Esu over to Orunmila. When they arrived at Orunmila house, Esu wanted to enter with Orunmila. Orunmila refused and asked Esu to sit outside. Orunmila said what he ate inside the house he would share with Esu outside.

Esu has been living outside ever since that day. (79)


The theme of death is dealt with in a surprising way in a verse from odu 70, where a life free of killing nearly everything is recommended if one wishes to avoid death:

II     I  IRETE’YEKU (odu 70)

II     I

II     II

II     I


Ofrifusi, the father of Elu, said he was seeking a way to prevent death from taking him, his children, and his wife by surprise, as they were becoming famous and world renowned. Mujimuwa, the diviner of Opakere, Bonronyin, the diviner of the Ido state, Ogorombi, the diviner of Esa state, Gbeminiyi, the diviner of Ilujumoke, Kuyinminu, the diviner of the palm tree, divined for Orifusi and Peregun, who were both seeking ways of escaping death. The diviners said: If you wish to avoid death, you must sacrifice and be initiated. The sacrifice is ten pigeons, ten hens, twenty thousand cowries, and palm oil in large quantities beside Esu.

Ifa will always teach you how to conduct yourselves and behavior that will turn death away from you. Furthermore, if you performed the sacrifice, you would start cultivating the act of doing good more than ever before. It would be in vain if after you had performed the prescribed sacrifice, you reduced your benevolence; you would die. You should take the pigeons and hens home, let them loose and refrain from killing them but give them food whenever they return to your house. Starting today, you must refrain from killing anything, because anyone who does not wish to be killed by death must not cause the death of anything except a poisonous snake. Peregun heeded the advice and performed the sacrifice.

The Ifa song:

Death, do not make my house a ruin. I have done no evil. Disease, do not make my house a ruin. I have done no evil. To both friends and foes I do good. I have done no evil. When people were involved in the litigation at Oko, I pitied them and gave them help. I met two people fighting; I pitied them. I have done no evil. Poverty, do not make my house a ruin. I have never been idle. Esu-Odara does not eat pepper. Esu-Odara does not eat palm kernel oil. I gave palm kernel oil to the molester of mankind. I have done no evil. Loss, do not make my house a ruin. I will never steal. (178)


In the following odu, 71, death is dealt with in a very different light, when Ifa explains the value of death and necessity of the process:

I      II  OYEKU-ISE (odu 71)

II     II

I      II

II    II

K’amateteku, the diviner of the house of joy, Aiteteku, the diviner of the house of grief, Biku-ba-ka-yin-Oluwa-logo, the diviner of Igoboya ewa Alogobon-on-maku-ninu, Masimale ninmeyeniyi, the diviner of Afinju-maku-mase’baje Okyekeseniyi, divined Ifa for the sages, who invited the babalawos to consult on the problems of death by asking: Why should death kill people and nobody has ever overcome death? The babalawos said: Ifa has indicated that Amuniwaye created death for the good of mankind. A stagnant water becomes a pond – a pond of polluted water, a pond that can cause disease. Water takes people away freely and water brings them back freely. Let the sick return home for the cure and renewal of the body, and the wicked for renewal of character. The madman is cared for by his family. The babalawos asked: What is unpleasant about it? The sages bowed for Ifa, saying: Orunmila! Ibiru, Iboye, Ibose. They all dispersed and never regarded death as a problem any more. (180-1)


In odu 75 the basis of Yoruba reincarnation is expressed with poetic eloquence:

I      II  IWORI WO’DI (odu 75)

II     I

II     I

I      II


There is not childbearing woman who cannot give birth to an Ifa priest. There is no childbearing woman who cannot give birth to Orunmila. Our father, if he gives birth to us in full, inevitably we shall in time give birth to him in turn. Our mother, if she gives birth to us in full, inevitably we shall in time give birth to her in turn. Ifa oracle was consulted for Orunmila, who said he would bring the heaven down to earth, he would take the earth back to heaven.

In order to accomplish his mission, he was asked to offer everything in twos, one male and one female – one ram and one ewe, one he-goat and one she-goat, one cock and one hen, and so on. Orunmila heeded the advice and performed the sacrifice. Thus the earth became fruitful and multiplied greatly. (186-7)


Money is a topic rarely dealt with in religious writings with as much frankness as in the following verse:

II     I  OBARA’WORI (odu 82)

I      II

I      II

II     II

Orobanta-awuwobi-owu divined Ifa for the world on the day all the world’s people declared that money is the most important thing in the world. They would give up everything and continue to run after money. Orunmila said: Your thoughts about money are right and your thoughts about money are wrong. Ifa is what we should honor. We should continue to adore both of them. Money exalts a person; money can spoil a person’s character. If anyone has too much love for money, his character will be spoiled. Good character is the essence of beauty. If you have money, it does not prevent you from becoming blind, mad, lame, and sick. You can be infected by diseases. You should go and increase your wisdom, readjust your thinking. Cultivate good character, acquire wisdom, go and perform sacrifice in order that you may be at ease. They asked, “What is the sacrifice? The sacrifice included rats, fish, goats, a calabash of cornmeal, a calabash of bean meal, and twenty thousand cowries. They refused to sacrifice. They insulted and ridiculed the babalawos and other practitioners of traditional medicine. After a while, they began to be sick. They were ill and sad and had nobody to attend them. They were dying daily. They were faced with the problems of decaying bodies and could not ask the babalawos and others for help. When they could no longer bear the burden, they went and apologized to the babalawos. Since that day, the babalawos have been treated with honor in the world. (203)


This short verse from odu 97 reminds of the balance of good and bad, bitter and sweet:

I      II IWORI-OSE (odu 97)

II     I

I      I

II     II


Tribulation does not come without its good aspects.

The good and the bad are always together.

Ifa divination was performed for Owokosi-eniyan-kosununwon.

He was advised to not become dejected because he was poverty stricken.

He should keep his good name. Sweetness usually ends the taste of a bitter leaf.

He was asked to sacrifice so that his adversity might turn to prosperity: pigeons, thirty-two hundred cowries, and Ifa medicine (pound bitter leaves and oluseaju leaves together; mix with soap) (234)


This short verse gives hard condemnation to women in prostitution; I came across no similar condemnation for the hiring of prostitutes:

I      I   OBARA’DI (odu 106)

II     II

II     II

I      II


Igba ori-amu, the diviner for women, divined Ifa for a prostitute who was sleeping with all the men. She was warned that she was doing  a risky thing. A prostitute lacks honor. No women can ever prosper from prostitution. She was advised to confess her ignorance and to sacrifice two pigeons, two snail, shea butter, eight thousand cowries, and Ifa medicine (grind eso leaves with iyere; cook the mixture with a snail into a soup for her to eat; you can also mix the ground eso leaves with the shea butter for rubbing on her vagina, the eso leaves can be pounded with soap for bathing).


A verse from odu 185 extolls the warrior virtues:

I      II  OKANRAN-EGUNTAN (odu 185)

I      II

I      II

II     I


Whoever is fast is usually assisted by Ogun to be victorious during fights. One who can neither fight nor talk cannot live long on earth. Fighting can bring wealth and honor. This was divined for Ogun-gbemi, who was advised that even if he did not feel bold enough to challenge someone to a fight, he should not run away. It is the powerful who enjoy the world; nobody respects a weak person. It is the manly (brave) person who controls the earth; people do not pay attention to cowards. He was asked to make sacrifice so that he might be strong physically. The sacrifice: a cock, three knives, an alligator pepper, thirty-two hundred cowries, and Ifa leaves (put a grain of alligator pepper seeds in water in a calabash; give the water to the cock to drink; the client should then drink the remaining water in the calabash and eat the alligator pepper and some of the other grains).


A verse in form of a dialogue with God outlines the virtues and rewards of telling the truth:

I      II  OSA-OTURA (odu 219)

II     I

I      I

I      I


Osa-Otura says, What is truth?

I say, What is truth?

Orunmila says: Truth is the Lord of heaven guiding the earth.

Osa-Otura says, What is truth?

I say, What is truth?

Orunmila says: Truth is the unseen One guiding the earth, the wisdom Olodumare is using – great wisdom, many wisdoms.

Osa-Otura says, What is truth?

I say, What is truth?

Orunmila says: Truth is the character of Olodumare. Truth is the word that cannot fall. Ifa is truth. Truth is the word that cannot spoil. Mighty power, surpassing all. Everlasting blessing.

This was divined for the earth. They said the people in this world should be truthful. To enable them to be truthful and honest  willingly and comfortably, let the idabo (Ifa medicine) be applied by marking Odu-Osa-Otura on the divining powder. After reciting the above Ifa saying on the powder, mix it with eko (cornstarch gruel) and drink it, or put it in palm oil and eat it, so that it will be easy to be honest and truthful.

Ifa song: Speak the truth, tell the facts. Speak the truth, tell the facts. Those who speak the truth are those whom the deity will help.


In another conversation with Ifa the value of moderation is put in words that a Confucian could well appreciate:

I      I  OTURA-RETE (odu 245)

I      II

II     I

I      I


Otura-Rete, brace up yourself again. If you are born, try to bring forth yourself again.

Otuta-Rete, Amunwon, Amunwon, he who knows moderation will never fall into disgrace.

I say: Who knows this moderation?

Orunmila says: He who is working.

I say: Who knows this moderation?

Orunmila says: He who will not squander his money.

I say: Who knows this moderation?

Orunmila says: He who will not steal.

I say: Who knows this moderation?

Orunmila says: He who does not owe debts.

I say: Who knows this moderation?

Orunmila says: One who never drinks alcohol, one who never breaks an oath with friends. Otura0Rete, one who wakes up early in the morning and meditates within himself because of activities! Among thorns and thistles, the young palm frond will shoot out. Joworo will never use up all his money, Jokole will never be a debtor. If Eesan owes a great deal of money, he will pay the debt. Amuwon is the ameso (one who has a good sense of what is right).

Ifa leaves: Grind together joworo, eso, and jokoje leaves with black soap worth 120 or 200 cowries. Set nine cowries one by one on the soap. Impress Odu Otura-Rete on iye-irosu on the soap in the calabash. Bathe with it.


In this final verse from odu 251 the client is given the necessary information to protect him or herself from the powers of witchcraft:

I      I   IRETE-SE (odu 251)

II     I

I      II

II     I


Ondese is their mother. When they descended on two colossal things, Olodumare laid down the rule that two colossal things do not fall on top of each other. The baby tortoise does not follow the mother tortoise; the baby snail does not follow the mother snail; the baby snake does not follow the mother snake; and so on. A dead man’s Ifa will not affect another man’s son. May all the witchcraft directed against me be ineffective, and so on.

Ifa leaves: Collect a tortoise, a snail, a snake, the bark from two iroko trees, and Ifa oku (a dead man’s Ifa). Burn them together and keep the powder in an ado. Take out a small quantity on occasion, mark Odu Iru-Ekun [Odu Irete-Se is also known as Iru-Ekun] on it, and recite the incantation just before mixing it with palm oil and licking it. It may also be used as an ointment to rub on the body. Some of it may be given to other people to use. This Ifa is a preservative against all witchcraft.


From this small sampling of verses one can get a glimpse at what must be the remarkable richness of those 2000 verses held in the oral memory of some babalawos.

From a western perspective a religion that holds divination as one of its central institutions would be suspect by many. But it seems clear that divination as used by the Yoruba is far beyond “fortune telling.” Ifa divination is a form of communication with God. It is a way for individuals to analyze their behavior and direction in life and get the input of ages of wisdom as contained in the verses. The verses are the vessels that hold the living and growing heritage of the Yoruba people. It seems logical to a Western scholar that massive research should attempt to document in written form as much of this information from as many babalawos as possible. But on deeper reflection, it would be a desecration of this faith. The genius of the Ifa verses is in their quality as a living organism within the Yoruba people. To try to document and make permanent this organism would surely be to kill it.

Another aspect of Ifa divination that some cultures might find objectionable is the sacrifice of live animals. This objection would carry credence from a culture of vegetarians, but from a Western culture that has its meat processors kill vast numbers of animals to satisfy dietary habits, such an objection would seem hypocrisy at its worst. The animals sacrificed in Ifa divination are normally consumed by  people of the community, and the animals are also a crucial link in communication with the Gods. In comparison, it seems a nobler use of animals than one billion Big Macs.

Ifa divination is at the center of the Yoruba religious design. It is a bridge between the spiritual world and the physical world, each world forming two halves of a singe sphere. People’s souls cycle between the two halves of the sphere. The sphere itself is a living organism and human beings and their souls are particles of the total energy of that organism. Ifa divination is an instrument in keeping that energy in balance and guiding the soul’s successful movement through both realms of the sphere. It is a sophisticated and beautiful design.


Abiodun, Rowland, Henry J. Drewal, and John Pemberton III, edited by ,The Yoruba Artist

Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1994

Bascom, William , Ifa Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa

Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1969

Drewal, Henry John, John Pemberton III with Rowland Abiodun, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, Center for African Art, in association with Harry N. Abrams Inc., Publishers, New York, 1989

Epega , Afolabi  A., and Philip John Neimark, The Sacred Ifa Oracle, Harper San Francisco, 1995

1997 copyright, Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at

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