An Opon Ifá is a divination tray used in traditional African and Afro-American religions, notably in Ifá and Yoruba tradition. The etymology of Ifá has been a subject of debate. Ifá has been considered an orisha, or a Yoruba god — specifically, as the god of divination. Conversely, some Yoruba circles merely consider Ifá the “great consulting oracle” as opposed to a god or a deity.
A Babalawo (diviner) uses the Opon Ifá in order to communicate with the spirits who are able to identify the causes and solutions to personal and collective problems and to restore harmony with the spirits.
Opon Ifás are flat and usually circular, between 6 and 18 inches in diameter, with a raised outer perimeter carved with figures, objects, or geometric designs. Opon Ifás may also be rectangular, semi-circular, or approximately square. The top of the tray is called the “head” or the oju opon, and the bottom is conversely called the “feet” or the ese opon. Typically, the head is adorned with a carved depiction of Eshu, the messenger of Ifá and the other spirits. Certain trays may have additional representations of Eshu, and trays with two, four, eight, and even sixteen faces have been seen. In such cases, the head of the tray may be designated by cowries.The cowries are also used to spread the sacred divining powder, lyerosun
The peripheral markings of the opon Ifá are not only ornamental, but are also functional. They serve to divide the tray into nine different sections that will contribute significance during consultation. If one were to orient the tray with the feet closest to the body, the oju opon, ese opon, ona oganran, and the ona monu are situated due north, south, east and west, respectively. Additionally, the individual spaces between each (e.g. northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast) designate four more sections. The final section is the space in the center of the tray for a total of nine different sections.[
Rectangular Opon Ifá tray
Usage in Divination
During a divination session, the babalawo first properly orients the tray with the “feet” of the opon Ifá facing towards him. Once properly oriented, an iroke Ifá, or a diviner’s tapper, is used by the babalowo to evoke the presence of Ifá via the rhythmic drumming of the tapper on the surface of the opon Ifá. Then, sixteen palm or kola nuts, the ikin Ifá, are thrown onto the opon Ifá’s wooden surface and the babalowo proceeds to interpret which of the 256 possible sets of odus (signs) are displayed by the nuts. An odun is essentially a word or sign of eight marks that is drawn in the lyerosun spread over the tray. Each of the signs have corresponding verses which must be chanted and chosen according to the client’s particular situation.
Each of the odun are constructed by individually determining each “letter” of the odun in a stepwise manner, starting from the bottom-right division of the border, then the bottom-left. Working up from bottom to top, this process is repeated six more times until the complete odun is constructed and demonstrates how the oju opon, ese opon, ona oganran, and ona munu come into play.[ One method incorporates Ikin Ifa, or sacred palm nuts. Sixteen nuts are held in one hand by the babalowo. With the other hand, he snatches as many as he can out of his handful of Ikin Ifa. If there is one remaining, he draws two vertical lines into the Iyerosun. If there are two nuts remaining, he draws only one line.
Another method incorporates a divination chain known as Opele which replaces the palm or kola nuts, which are reserved for more serious questions. The opele consists of a chain of eight half-kola nuts strung together, each associated with one of the eight letters of an odu and a site along the tray’s border. When the babalowo throws the opele, the half-nuts will land concave up or concave down, heads or tails. A single line represents “heads” while two vertical lines symbolize “tails.” Thus, this binary system of one and two vertical lines gives rise to 256 different odu, each associated with a spirit and certain archetypal situations. Some odu are affirmative, and others are negative. Furthermore, the odu determines what offerings the babalowo prescribes to the client in order for them to achieve their desired ends.