Ifá Divination, Knowledge, Power, and Performance

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Jacob K. Olupona, Rowland O. Abiodun
African Expressive Cultures
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , February
     390 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The resilience and transformation of divinatory meaning systems and processes in indigenous African religions has attracted robust scholarly attention in the last few decades. William Bascom and Wande Abimbola stand out as doyens and pioneers of Ifá studies. This book, Ifá Divination, Knowledge, Power, and Performance brings fresh transdisciplinary insights and perspectives to interrogating old and new theoretical and hermeneutic questions that are germane to contemporary Ifá indigenous knowledge systems and praxis. It is the most recent contribution to the discourse on Ifá divinatory systems: “geomantic knowledge system[s] through which specialized interpreters diagnose, explain, or predict current and future fortunes or misfortunes” (1). The Ifá divination system, which makes use of an extensive corpus of texts and mathematical formulas, is perhaps the most widespread means of divination practiced among Yoruba communities and by the African diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean. Other systems include the casting of kola nuts, sixteen cowries, and Opele (divination chain).

Ifá Divination, Knowledge, Power, and Performance, comprising twenty-four chapters with an introduction, was originally presented at an interdisciplinary conference at Harvard University in 2008. The conference set out to create a knowledge exchange forum for scholars and practitioners of Ifá divination, both on the continent and in the African diaspora (xv), but also to explore how Ifá epistemology has and can respond to issues of global concern (12-13). This book is thus poised towards sustaining research on, and practice of, Yoruba religion in its varied iterations globally. It espouses the dynamic world of Ifá—its discourse, ways of thinking, and artistic expression—exploring Ifá and its role in contemporary Yoruba and diaspora cultures. Abimbola, the foremost scholar cum practitioner of Ifá divination and contributor to this volume, affirms another of the book’s unifying themes: the emphasis on the Yoruba religion as an ascendant and an “important world religion” (41).

The book is structured into four main sections, woven together with conceptual, analytical, and theoretical considerations. It includes the following sections—Ifá Orature: Its Interpretation and Translation; Ifá as Knowledge: Theoretical Questions and Concerns; Ifá in the Afro-Atlantic; and Sacred Art in Ifá—which reflect the book’s interdisciplinary complementarity and approach in responding to complex themes of knowledge, power, and performance. First, the book underscores the dynamism and multidimensionality of Ifá narratives and repertoires as entities shaped by political, cultural, historical, and social realities. Ifá tradition did not develop in isolation. Editor Jacob Olupona explores the interaction between Islamic tradition in Ifá and in the Yoruba religious imagination, leading him to identify commonalities in worldviews (168-178). Second, the book illuminates the intricacies of translation—particularly the process of transmission and the performed structure of the text—in rethinking the symbolic and discursive politics of language use in ritual contexts. Firmly rooting Ifá within African religious traditions, these contributions examine the sacred context, verbal art, and interpretation of Ifá texts and philosophy. Another interesting focus of the book is the globalization of Ifá knowledge, cosmologies, and praxis across the Atlantic. In the diasporic context, this divination system has engendered “a unique epistemology and worldview” (7) as it takes on new meaning and function. Many contributors, including Stefania Capone, underscore the status of the Yoruba religion as a world religion, while exploring the global reach and expansion of Ifá tradition into Europe and the Americas. For instance, Capone focuses on the religious interaction and ritual rearrangements within Orisha religion by contrasting Brazilian Candomblé and Cuban Santéria; a synthesis, she argues, which can help communities of African descent to reclaim their “lost tradition” and “reconstruct” it (240).

This appropriation, dynamism and mobility of Ifá cosmologies and ritual praxis in Africa and the diaspora contribute centrally to the discourse on resilience and transformation of indigenous worldviews in general. The book enormously enriches the theoretical discourse on indigenous divination systems and how they are generating new power discourses of meaning and interpretation. It illuminates Ifá divination as an instance of the institutionalization of indigenous religious beliefs and praxis transnationally, demonstrating how, and to what extent, adherents engage in producing and contesting transnational relationships regarding what constitutes religious cosmologies and praxis. Ifá tradition has not only been transformed by its geographical expansion, mobility, and transcultural encounter with the religions of the Americas, as Akintunde Akinyemi explains; time itself has been sufficient to transform Ifá in Yorubaland through the proliferation of new technologies. Akinyemi critically assesses various depictions of Ifá divination in Yoruba videos and argues that, depending on the accuracy of such portrayals, these films either help to preserve the tradition for younger generations or project a distorted image of reality (356).

Ifá Divination, Knowledge, Power, and Performance provides an invaluable glimpse into the richness of indigenous African spiritualities, even when they are transmitted into new geo-cultural environments as African-derived religiosities. Editors Olupona and Rowland Abiodun, along with the other authors, aptly demonstrate the impact that transformation and mobility in space-time can have on Ifá cosmological traditions in particular, and Yoruba religion as a world religion. The transdisciplinary approach taken in this book has enriches that discourse considerably, but this could also be its burden, as some contributions were more accessible than others. There is no doubt that the discourse which this book embodies demonstrates Ifá’s resilience and continuing relevance to contemporary African and African diaspora societies and beyond. As the editors lucidly indicate, it is hoped that these ideas will inspire a new generation of interdisciplinary investigations into the endless depths of Ifá divination (xvi). This book is a must read, and I recommend it unreservedly to scholars and students of African studies, religious studies, indigenous religions, Native traditions, and ritual and performance studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Afe Adogame is Professor of Christianity and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jacob K. Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is author of City of 201 Gods: Ile-Ife in Time, Space, and the Imagination and editor of Orisa Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yoruba Religious Culture.

Rowland O. Abiodun is John C. Newton Professor of Art, the History of Art, and Black Studies at Amherst College. He is author of Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art and What Follows Six is More than Seven: Understanding African Art. 


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