Ifá is a system of divination and way of understanding the universe found at the core of several West African cultures, including those of the Yoruba people in Nigeria and Ewe in parts of Togo and Ghana. European colonization and slavery imported these traditions to the Caribbean, where they merged with others and formed their own religious practices which continue to this day. Cuban Santeria and Haitian Vodou are two well-known examples that are both practiced on the islands as well as in the United States.
The mythos of Ifá’s origin is different in various cultures, but in the Yoruba tradition, the Universe was created by Olodumare, who unlike the Judeo-Christian God has no gender and is not actively involved in human affairs. Instead, he provided humanity with all it needs to live in peace and harmony, the knowledge of which he bestowed on the first diviner, Orunmila.
Orunmila, also called the Grand Priest and the Orisha of wisdom and knowledge, then taught and initiated two students, Akoda and Asede, who became the first Babalawos, high priests of Ifá. He also had two wives, the second of which was named Odu. Together, they had 16 sons, collectively known as Odu Ifá.
In practice, the Odu Ifá is both a binary code system, where | represents zero and || represents the number one, and an oral tradition in which each of the 16 binary “signatures” are a kind of shorthand representing thousands of verses, or itan, of poetical tutorials. Each of the 16 main signatures can be paired with any of the others for a total of 256 odus.
Much like the parables of the Bible, the “books” of the Odu Ifa tell the story of creation, the beginning of mankind, and describe the guiding forces in the universe. In Ifá, these divine forces or energies are known as the Orisha. There are 400 of them, sent to earth by Olodumare to control things like the wind, oceans, thunder, creativity, peace, and love. One, called Esu, was given the key to divine power, or ashe, and therefore plays a critical role in Ifá divination.
Babalawos are trained to memorize as many of the verses associated with each Odu as possible, but no one besides Orunmila knows them all. Their mysteries, for those with the training to unlock them, contain instructions for overcoming any negative circumstance, challenge, or influence, and all the possible destinies to be lived out by humans on earth.
Babalawos from different traditions may use different divination tools, such as kola nuts, divining powder, or cowrie shells, to commune with Orunmila, Esu, and other spirits. Traditions and rituals vary across the Americas due to the movements of colonists, the intermingling of cultures and religions, and often the outlawing and forced suppression of non-Christian faiths.
In the Yoruba tradition as well as Cuban Santeria, consultations with the average client are done with an Opele, or divining chain, and the Opon Ifa, an intricately carved tray.
Followers consult with priests to ensure they are in balance with nature and on the correct path. During an Ifa reading, priests will see their client’s divine destiny and the Odu or itan relevant to their needs, as well as anything internal or external that is out of alignment or blocking them from prosperity, health, love, harmony, and balance. The Babalawo might prescribe certain remedies in the form of actions, medicine, ritual, or sacrifice to help their clients realign with nature and their destiny.