THE RELATIONSHIP OF YORUBA FOLKLORE TO DIVINING

THE RELATIONSHIP  OF YORUBA FOLKLORE TO DIVINING

By WILLIAM R. BASCOM
The special relationship that exists between the folklore of the Yoruba of
West Africa’ and their system of divination, which takes its name from the
god, Ifa, is important because of the light it throws on the theoretical prob-
lems of the functions of folklore and the difference between the myth and the
folktale. During the ritual of divination both myths and folktales, according
to the native definitions of these categories, are recited; and under these cir-
cumstances both have a function quite different from that of amusement
which is so often ascribed to the folktale.

Ifa divination can be practiced by two methods which differ only in the
mechanics of manipulation. Very briefly, in the simpler form a chain of
eight seeds (Qpele) is tossed on the ground in such a way that the seeds fall
in two parallel lines of four seeds each. As each seed can fall either “heads”
or “tails,” there are sixteen possible permutations for each one of the parallel
lines of four seeds; each of these possible arrangements of “heads” and “tails”
has a name. Since there are also sixteen possible permutations for the other
half of the chain, there are in all two hundred and fifty-six possible figures
(odu) for the chain as a whole. By combining the name for the figure of the
right half with the name for the figure of the left half of the chain, compound
names are given to all two hundred and fifty-six figures.

By the alternate method these same two hundred and fifty-six figures are
derived by a process known as “beating” palm-nuts. Sixteen palm-nuts
(ikin) are held in the right hand, struck against the palm of the left hand, and
raised again after a new grasp has been taken. As the sixteen nuts form a
large handful, some usually remain in the left hand after each trial. When
one is left, the diviner makes two lines in wood dust on his divining tray;
whereas when two remain, he makes one line. Otherwise the try is not
counted. Eight such sets of marks, again arranged in two parallel lines of
four sets each, constitute a figure in which the double and single lines corre-
spond to the “heads” and “tails” of the chain of seeds. Both methods of
divination lead to the same set of figures, known by the same names; and
from this point on the procedure for both is exactly the same.

Associated with each of these figures are a number of “verses” (es?) which
apply to that particular figure alone. When the diviner has arrived at one of
the two hundred and fifty-six figures, he begins to recite its verses aloud.
Since the client does not state his question to the diviner, the verses are
recited at random. The client listens quietly through irrelevant verses until
the diviner gives one that deals with his problem, and takes this as the answer
to his question. Any figure may include verses dealing with a number of
questions, and therefore provide answers to a number of types of problems:
death, sickness, gaining wealth, taking a wife, and so on.

The verses generally follow the pattern of describing a previous divination
in remote times for some legendary character, including a statement of his
problem and the sacrifice that was prescribed for him. They tell how that
character either sacrificed and prospered, or failed to sacrifice and met with
misfortune. They conclude by stating or implying that the present client is
confronted by the same problem and should make the same sacrifice. In
many cases, as in the following example from the figure Irete-(I)rosun, the
statement of the lot of the legendary character upon making or refusing to
make the sacrifice is expanded into one of the typical West African folktales.
“Oropa Niga; to fight and stir up dust like Buffalo; parched dust on the top of
rock” was the one who cast Ifa for Leopardwhen he was going to take land for a new
house. They said that he should make a sacrificeso that someone else should not re-
ceive the profits of his labor, and so that someone should not call upon the help of
another in order to get the best of him. They said he should sacrifice one bag of
corn-skinsand four pigeons, and that he should carry these to a garden by a body of
water. Leoparddid not sacrifice,because he relied upon the strength of his own arms.
One day Leopard, Goat, and She-goat were going to select land on which to build
a house. When Goat arrived at the piece of land, he cleared the ground and then re-
turned home. On the following day Leopardcame to this same piece of land. When he
arrived he found that someone had cleared the ground, and he asked, “Who has
cleared the ground for me?” He dug the dirt to make the mud for the walls, and re-
turned home. On the followingday Goat again came to this piece of land. He saw that
someone had broken the groundand he asked, “Who has dug the dirt for me?” He be-
gan to build the walls; he built one layer and then went home. On the following day
Leopardwent to this piece of land. When he arrived he found that someone had built
one layer of the walls, and he asked “Who has built one of the layers of the walls of
my house for me?” Then he built the second layer of the walls and went home. On the
following day when Goat came, he found that another layer had been built upon that
which he had made, and he asked, “Who built another layer for me on the one that I
built?”

In this way the wall was finishedand ready to be roofed. Goat made readyand went
to cut rafters;he carriedthese back to the place where the house was. On the following
day Leopardwent to cut rope. He brought it back to the piece of land, and found that
someone had brought rafters to the site of the house. He asked, “Who has brought
rafters to my house for me?” He put down the rope and went home. On the following
day Goat made ready and went to the house to erect the rafters. He found the rope
there and asked, “Who has brought rope to my house for me?” He began to erect the
rafters, and when this had been finishedhe went home. On the following day Leopard
came to erect the rafters,but he found that someoneelse had done it. He asked, “Who
has erected the rafters of my house for me?” He began to thatch the roof with leaves,
and finishedthatching it. On the day after this happened, when Goat came to thatch
the house, he found that someone had thatched it and he asked, “Who came and
thatched my house for me?” He said that on the next day he would move to his new
house.

On the following day, as he was coming, Goat met Leopardon the road, also moving
to the new house. Leopardasked Goat what he wanted at his house. And Goat asked
Leopardwhat he wanted,at his house. They were about to fight, when She-goat said
that they should not fight, that they could live in the house together. So they began
to live together in the house, but one day Goat saw Leopardbring home the body of a
dead animal. When he looked at it moreclosely, he saw that it was the body of his own
Diviner with the chain of eight seeds cast before him.

The Relationship of Yoruba Folklore to Divininng                   I129
father that Leopard had killed and brought home for food. On the following day he
saw Leopardbring home the body of his mother. Goat made ready and went to see a
hunter. He begged the hunter to kill a leopard for him, promisingthat if he did so, he
would give him something. The hunter got ready and killed a leopard for Goat, and
when Leopard met Goat on the road carrying the body of a dead leopard, he was
frightened. He asked Goat how he had been able to kill a leopard, and Goat told
Leopard that he had the evil eye, so that everything he looked at had to die. When
Leopardheard this he jumped into the forest and ran away forever;he did not return
to the house any more. Thus Goat and his wife, She-goat, came to own their own
house.
Ifa says that a certain hunter should make a scarificeso that he will not accidentally
kill a human being during this year; and that someone who is going to take land for a
new house or a new farm should make a sacrificelest someone ask a medicine man to
make medicineagainst him, and so that he will not get into a fight with medicineover
the house. And there is also a child whom we look upon as only a child; we should not
treat him as a child because he has a father who stands behind him. If we should treat
him as a child, his father behind him will undermineus and almost completely destroy
our entire family becauseof the land for this house or farm.
This example demonstrates clearly how a well-known folktale, explaining
why leopards live in the forest and goats live in the town, may form an
integral part of an Ifa verse. The initial statement is interpreted by inform-
ants as the name of the diviner who cast Ifa in the instance which serves as a
precedent for the client. In some verses these “praise names” are closely
related to proverbs in form, but they mean very little to either the client or
the diviner, both of whom get their real understanding of the verse, its
applications, and in some cases the reason why the specific ingredients of the
sacrifice are called for, from the story. Thus in the above verse the three
different situations under which the prescribed sacrifice is applicable are all
derived from the story about Goat and Leopard. That those verses which are
without folktales or myths give only an almost unintelligible introduction
and a set of arbitrary instructions barren of any explanation or interpretation
can be seen by reading only the first and last paragraphs of the verse above.
The Yoruba recognize two classes of stories: the folktales (alQ), like the
one cited above; and the myths, traditions, or “histories” (itan). The folk-
tales are ordinarily told for amusement about the fire on moonlight evenings
during the season of the harmattan. The myths on the other hand are re-
garded as historically true, and are quoted by the old men to settle a difficult
point in a serious discussion of ritual or political matters. Both types, how-
ever, are recited under the same conditions by the diviners as a part of the

Ifa verses.
By and large the myths or histories are distinguished by having deities or
legendary figures as characters rather than animals, and by explaining or
justifying present-day ritual behavior. But as Boas has pointed out, because
of the ease of substitution of characters and explanatory elements, these
distinctions do not make it possible to classify any plot as either a myth or a
tale in the generic sense. In some verses the deities Ifa and Eshu appear in
the role of trickster instead of Tortoise; but there are many others, like the
one above, where the characters are animals, and some in which Tortois
himself is the trickster. And in the Ifa verses, the purpose of both myths and
tales is to justify the prediction that is made and to explain to the client why
a particular sacrifice is necessary.
It is obvious that these stories are not recited by the diviners simply for
the amusement of their clients, and that their function is not limited to
providing entertainment or aesthetic satisfaction. They are not non-utilitar-
ian, but have a practical application of a type that can be compared to the
use of elaborate costumes, carved masks, or highly decorated paraphernalia
in religious ceremonies. It is generally accepted that graphic and plastic art
in primitive cultures is seldom pure art; in this instance we have a case of
applied art in the field of literature. The verbal incantations, the myths, and
the songs used as a part of magical and religious ritual can also be cited as
examples of “applied” literary art.
While the full significance of this point may not have been previously
recognized, it is implicit in the attempts that have been made to distinguish
myths from folktales on the basis of whether or not they are employed as a
part of ritual. However since both myths and folktales, according to the
‘Yoruba categories, are associated with the ritual of divination, a distinction
between them on this basis is no more satisfactory than one based on the
type of characters which appear in the plot. The real basis of the Yoruba
categories seems to be whether the accounts are to be regarded as fact or
fiction.
The special relationship that exists between Yoruba divination and folklore
has further significance. The existence of a group of professionals who system-
atically learn folktales and recite them to outsiders in connection with
their work is a factor to be considered in accounting for the profusion of folk-
tales in West Africa. The diviners are recognized as knowing more folktales
than anyone else, but it is taboo for them to tell these tales except as a part
of their divining.
Before beginning to practice a Yoruba diviner must know at least four
verses for each two hundred and fifty-six figures, or a minimum of over a
thousand verses. Besides the verses themselves he must also learn the elabo-
rate sacrifices and the “medicines” or magical formulae which accompany
them. It is easy to understand why it takes from four to twenty years to
learn divining, and why most diviners continue to study all their lives. It
is said that there are sixteen verses for each of the two hundred fifty-six
figures, or over four thousand verses. While it was impossible to determine
the number of verses for any one town, and even less for the tribe of three
million individuals as a whole since the verses vary somewhat from town to
town, this seems to be a traditional, and not necessarily an accurate answer.
Each diviner learns only a portion of the total universe of verses known in
his town. Some of the better diviners say that they know about eight verses
for each figure, and about fifty for one or two important figures.
The diviners claim that all folktales have been taken over for secular pur-
poses from the Ifa system as revealed by the gods. It is of course just as
probable, a priori, that the stories were incorporated into the system of

divination from the common body of folk literature. About half of the one
hundred and eighty-six verses recorded in Yoruba by the author have myths
or folktales as explanations. It may be, however, that in some cases the
informant did not learn the verse complete with the story, or that he omitted
the story in reciting the verse. While all diviners will admit that they have
heard some folktales for which they do not know the corresponding Ifa verses,
they claim that such verses do exist and that other diviners would know
them. Out of ten folktales taken at random from those recorded by Frobenius
in the towns of Ibadan and Ife, six were matched with Ifa verses by a single
diviner in the latter town. The verse given above, for example, may be com-
pared with Frobenius’ “Der Ziegenbock verjagt den Leoparden.”2
The Ifa system of divination is practiced not only by the Yoruba, but by
the inhabitants of Dahomey3 and Togoland4 as well, and in the New World
by the Negroes of Brazil5 and Cuba.6 The fact that this relationship between
folklore and divination probably holds wherever Ifa divination is practiced
raises certain questions. Does it hold for the Jukun whose apparatus, as
Meek has remarked,7 resembles the Yoruba chain of seeds? Does it hold for
the systems of divination of the Bambara, the Fulani of Macina, and the
Mossi, for that of Mohammed Ez Zenati, for that used in Algeria, all of which
are based on sets of sixteen similar figures?8 Does it hold for other types of
divination in West Africa? Are the folktales in East and South Africa con-
nected with divination? And is such a relationship to be found anywhere
outside of Africa and the areas of African influence?

Journal of American Folklore
Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.

2 L. Frobenius,Die Atlantische G6tterlehre,Atlantis io (Frankfurta. M., 1926) 248-50.
3 J. Bertho, La Science du Destin au Dahomey (Africa 9: 359-78, I930). M. J. Herskovits,
Dahomey (New York, 1938) 209-14.
4 J. Spieth, Die Religionder Eweer in Siid-Togo (Leipzig, I9II)
I89-225.
6 A.  Ramos, O Negro Brasileiro (Rio de Janeiro, 1934) 38. Idem., As Culturas Negras No
Novo Mundo (Rio de Janeiro, I937) 136.
6 F. Ortiz,Los Negros Brujos (Madrid, 1906) 58.
7 C. K. Meek, A Sudanese Kingdom (London, I931) 326-8.
8 L. Tauxier, La Religion Bambara (Etudes Soudanaises, Paris, I927)       220-7. C. Monteil,
La Divination chez les Noirs de l’AfriqueOccidentaleFrangaise(Bulletin du Comit6 d’&ltudes
Historiques et Scientifiques de l’Afrique Occidentale FranQaise (I4: 27-136, 193I)). E. Doutt6,
Magie et Religion dans 1′Afrique Nord (La Soci6te Musulmans du Maghrib, Algiers, I909)
du
377-9.