Divination Tray, Opon Ifa



Divination Tray, Opon Ifa


Carving, woodwork


late 19th-early 20th Century


West Africa, Nigeria
Yoruba, Ijebu, Ijebu Ode


14 15/16 x 2 3/4 x 14 15/16 in. (37.9 x 7 x 38 cm)

Object Number



Within the conventions of Ifa divination practiced by Yoruba peoples of Nigeria, Eshu is the god (orisha) who delivers the prayers, wishes, and sacrifices of humans to the gods. As a mediator and messenger of the gods, he is closely associated with diviners. He is also a mischievous trickster who represents the principle of uncertainty in life. His will must be interpreted by diviners and can be translated in different ways. Honoring Eshu will encourage clear, favorable messages. If neglected or disrespected, he can wreak havoc and chaos. Thus, a diviner wears an amulet on the arm or waist that represents his humble seeking of guidance from Eshu.

The face of Eshu appears at the top of divination trays; he oversees the diviners' reading of messages gained through various techniques. Calm and balance is achieved in the circular form and symmetry of the tray, for that is the role of divination: to restore balance and confidence in the face of anxiety and disorder. The border is decorated with symmetrically balanced interlace motifs, symmetrically arranged groupings of figures, and mudfish, which are symbols of royalty and rejuvenation.

One method of Ifa divination entails reading the patterns composed by 16 cowrie shells thrown onto the divination tray. Another method is to place white irosun powder over the tray and draw a crossroads pattern in the sand along the four cardinal directions. Then the diviner taps the tray with an iroke to invoke the god of fate and wisdom, known as Ifa or Orunmila. Tapping the divination tray to greet Orunmila opens the channels of communication between human and spirit world. The elegant elongated form of the instrument, combined with the figure of a female devotee, enhances the efficacy of the divinatory appeal. In Ifa ritual paraphernalia, images of women in attitudes of supplication act as intermediaries with the orisha, as women are receptacles of life force (ashe). Shown kneeling, the woman is praying to Orunmila seeking wisdom regarding destiny.

Credit Line

Ex coll. William S. Arnett


Art of Nigeria from the William S. Arnett Collection, Michael C. Carlos Museum, October 15, 1994 - January 2, 1995|
President Chace's Office, Emory University, July 9, 1995 - August 30, 1996|
President Chace's Office, Emory University, May 28, 1997 - March 1999|
Divine Intervention: African Art and Religion, Michael C. Carlos Museum, February 5 - December 4, 2011
Henry J. Drewal, African Artistry: Technique and Aesthetics in Yoruba Culture. An Exhibition of Yoruba Art from the Arnett Collection (Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1980), 40, number 39.|
Hans Witte, "Ifa Trays from the Osogbo and Ijebu Regions," in The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts, edited by Rowland Abiodun, et al. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 71, figure 4.17.


© Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Photo by Bruce M. White, 2009.
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“Divination Tray, Opon Ifa,” Michael C. Carlos Museum Collections Online, accessed December 11, 2018, http://carlos.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/items/show/7474.

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