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Reviewed by:
  • Ifá Divination: Knowledge, Power, and Performance ed. by Jacob K. Olupona and Rowland O. Abiodun
  • Nimi Wariboko

Nimi Wariboko, Jacob K. Olupona, Rowland O. Abiodun, Ifá, Ifá Divination, African Religion, Yoruba, Babalawo, Caribbean Studies, African Studies, Performance Studies, Cultural Studies, Sacred Texts

jacob k. olupona and rowland o. abiodun, eds. Ifá Divination: Knowledge, Power, and Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii + 371.

This is a rich book with diverse perspectives converging on Ifá divination as a complex knowledge system. It informs readers new to Ifá studies, challenges experts to question their presuppositions, and does all this with multidisciplinary acuity. It presents Ifá as a knowledge system that is in an interminable search for the proper mode of human existence in any era, always adapting to new places and periods while remaining deeply rooted in history (1–2). In this interplay of the new and the old, why has the system not been substantially altered over the centuries? Many of the contributors in this edited volume argue that the supplementary additions to the poetry and its hermeneutics are "accidental" surplus added to the essentials so that the system only glows at its edges without abandoning its core (32–41).

Given all this, the best form of review of this book should be a conceptual one, laying out the deep philosophical structure that unifies its twenty-four [End Page 307] chapters. There are five key features of the Ifá divination system that I was able to distill from these chapters. First, Ifá is knowledge at play (51–61, 117–20). Ifá divination is sacred knowledge in a playful mode, the signature of human creativity totally given to its freely evolving potentialities, resisting any finite form of knowledge claiming to be infinite. Anchored in history, the knowledge emanating from any divination session is improvisational, experimental, or revisable. Like the sound of jazz, it is never fully scored, each performance being a free play of recursivity, embellishment, and enactment. It always actualizes its potentials in the very process of storing or recreating them. Like jazz, Ifá captures something basic about existence. Existence is potentiality. Existence does not exhaust potentials; Ifá does not exhaust itself.

Second, the Ifá divination process demonstrates that the sacred is an infinite set of possibilities (106). There are 256 odu (poems with approximately 430,080 verses) in the Ifá sacred text, which can take sixteen different paths. The diviner, in order to interpret a client's case, will cast the divination chain (opele) with eight half-seeds, and each half-pod, when it touches the divination board (opon) is read in two ways (concave and convex, bright and dark forces). Ifá divination points its believers to the infinite possibilities in the sacred, and the babalawo or iyanIfá (a priest or priestess of Ifá) enables their clients to have a transforming encounter with new possibilities from the sacred infinite set of possibilities that attend to their contextual realities and situations.

Third, a priest's level of competence in this complicated system depends on his mastery of the whole system (124–25). A babalawo's mastery of Ifá enables him to deal with two common illusions in spiritual consultation. Some of the readers of this journal might recall the famed competitions between two painters in ancient Greece, Zeuxis and Parrhasios. Zeuxis painted such a realistic picture of grapes that birds came to eat them. The birds mistook the image for the real thing. When it came to Parrhasios to show off his skills he led Zeuxis to a veil on a door in his house and stopped. At this point Zeuxis said something like, "lift off the veil so I can enter into the room and see your painting." There was no inner room; he had only painted a curtain on the wall of his room and the other painter was deceived.

Depending on their levels of mastery, some priests of Ifá could mistake the image for the real thing. Their diagnoses might appear to be on the mark, but they do not truly represent their clients' real predicaments. But the master priests are so adept at reading reality and bringing their clients' cases to such a level...


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