A Babalawo in ancient Nigerian Yoruba religion is a priest of the Ifá oracle, appointed to communicate with the gods on behalf of other people.  He is also known as the father of secrets.  Although the majority of Nigerians are Muslim, closely followed by Christians, the indigenous religions still prevail.

The Ifá oracle is a West African religion and system of divination, representing among other gods, the teaching of the orisha, Orunmila, the Grand Priest, who revealed divinity and prophecy to the world.  The Babalawo, in turn, uncovers the future of his client through communication with Ifá.  This is done mainly by interpreting the patterns of the divining chain or opele Ifá, made from the seed pod of a particular tree.  It consists of   eight seeds in a row or chain and is held in the middle so that four seeds hang to the left and four to the right.  Alternatively, the sacred palm or kola nuts called the Ikin are thrown on a wooden divination tray called Opon Ifá.

Depending on the way the nuts fall, so the Babalawo refers to answers from the Ifá literary corpus, which is called the Odu Ifá.  It comprises sixteen books with a total of two hundred and fifty-six verses, which the Babalawo learns by heart and from which he selects relevant ones for his client, depending on how the sacred nuts fall.  By this means, he can identify his client’s spiritual destiny and help him to live out that path.

Men mostly are involved in Ifá worship although there are also women diviners or Iyanifas who may be recommended in particular circumstances.

There is a hierarchy of gods, spirits and manifestations of gods called orishas.  According to Yoruba religious myth, the Supreme God is Olodumare, sometimes called Olurun, the Owner of the Heavens or Chief of the Heavens and the Earth.  Under Olurun, the hierarchy of Yoruba gods totals about six hundred, with two hundred on the right and four hundred on the left side, the commonly worshipped gods being Ifa, Ogun, Oshosi, Osun, Ori, Orunmila, Obafala etc.  The orishas who are regarded as manifestations of Olodumare are powerful but not immortal, with names such as Shango, Oshun, Oya, Oba etc.  They need sacrifices and are sent by the higher divinities to guide humanity as to how to live and be successful on Earth.


Squatting on his mat, the Babalawo generally questions his client, sitting opposite him, as to why he has come and what he wants to know.  Having established these, he then proceeds with the divination process.

To begin with, he sits facing the door, so that the light reaches the divination tray and no shadows are cast on it.  The divination tray is placed so that the image of Esu-Elegbara, Yoruba divine messenger and intermediary between the world of the living and the spiritual realm, faces the priest during consultation.  His image is carved at the top of the tray’s elaborately worked border.  While reciting various incantations, the Babalawo taps the divination board with his pointer or Iroke Ifa to invoke the relevant gods.  This wooden tapper could be carved in various shapes such as an elongated conical wizard’s hat.  He then sprinkles a thin layer of wood dust on the divination tray.  Close at hand is his carved oracle bowl or Agere Ifa, also elaborately worked and featuring, in this case, a female figure seated behind a circular box or drum, a bird in the shape of a guinea fowl sitting on top.  The box itself forms the bowl containing the sixteen palm nuts.

The diviner holds the sixteen palm nuts between his hands and shakes them, closing his hand to capture a few.  He makes a mark in the dust of the tray, based on whether the nuts in his hand mean an odd or even number.  This shaking is repeated eight times, with the eight marks in the dust of the tray indicating a verse from the Odu Ifá, which the Babalawo then recites.

The two hundred and fifty-six verses represent the binary coded language of the universe, which, as we know, is also the language of computer science.  Hence, when the oracle opens up and the Holy Odu appears, the Babalawo will mark the series of strokes made in the wood dust from right to left, representing forces from the positive Ire to the negative Ibi.  The verses pointed to by the sacred nuts reveal the forces that have brought misfortune (the negative Ibi) and suggest solutions (the Ire) to the problems.

Interpretation of the verses is a lifetime task on the part of the Babalawo who may also delivers his prophetic findings to the client in parables.  As a result, he is highly respected by the community, consulted during all important rites of passage in Yoruba life and can directly influence the policies of the society.

It is remarkable that the system of Ifá, developed over twelve thousand years ago, should be based on the modern binary 2-choice Clifford algebra C1(8) as well as the N=8 ternary 3-structure, as has been investigated, among other work, in 2013 by three academics at the Bowen University in Nigeria in a paper titled “A Comparative Study in Ifa Divination and Computer Science,” which appeared in the International Journal of Innovative Technology and Research, Volume No 1, Issue No. 6, October-November 2013, p. 524-528




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