The Ifa divination system, which makes use of an extensive corpus of texts, is practised among Yoruba communities. The word Ifa refers to the mystical figure Ifa or Orunmila, regarded by the Yoruba people as the deity of wisdom and intellectual development. In the twelfth century, the city of Ile-Ife, located in the Osun region of the South-west of Nigeria, emerged as the cultural and political centre of this community. It is also practised by the African diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean.
In contrast to other forms of divination in the region that employ spirit mediumship, Ifa divination does not rely on a person having oracular powers but rather on a system of signs that are interpreted by a diviner, the Ifa priest or babalawo, literally “the priest’s father”. The Ifa divination system is applied whenever an important individual or collective decision has to be made.
The Ifa literary corpus, called odu, consists of 256 parts, which are subdivided into verses called ese, whose exact number is unknown as it is in constant growth (ther are around 800 ese per edu). Each one of the 256 odu has its specific divination signature, which is determined through a procedure held by the babalawo using sacred palm-nuts and a divination chain. The ese, considered as the most important part of Ifa divination, are chanted by the priests in poetic language. The ese reflect Yoruba history, language, beliefs, cosmovision and contemporary social issues. The knowledge of Ifa has been preserved within Yoruba communities and transmitted among Ifa priests.
Under the influence of colonial rule, traditional beliefs and practices were discriminated. The Ifa priests, of whom most are already advanced in age, have only little means to maintain the tradition, to transmit their complex knowledge and train future practitioners. Thus, there is an increasing lack of interest among the youth and the Yoruba people in practising and consulting Ifa divination, which goes hand-in-hand with growing intolerance towards divination systems in general.