Ifa (Orunmila), god of divination, fate, and wisdom, informs mortals of the wishes of Olorun, the sky god, the god of destiny; he was appointed by the supreme god to protect and rule the people. He is consulted before any action is taken—from choosing the time of marriage, building a house, or entering an agreement, to going to war or making peace. Coming after Sango in order of eminence, he has the title of Gbangba, explanation, demonstration, proof. Ifa's secondary attribute is to cause fecundity; he presides at births, and women pray to him to be made fruitful. Obatala causes the woman to become pregnant, while Ifa forms the child in the womb.
Ifa first appeared on the earth at Ife, but his parentage and origin are unexplained. He tried to teach the inhabitants of Ife how to foretell future events, but they would not listen to him, so he left the town and wandered about the world teaching mankind. After roaming for a long time, Ifa fixed his residence at Ado, where he planted on a rock a palm nut from which sixteen palm trees at once grew up. Ifa has an attendant, Odu, and a messenger, Opele. Ifa, the oracle of divination, is named after the deity who controls it. No serious decision is taken without consulting it: a whitened board is employed, about two feet long and eight or nine inches broad, on which are marked sixteen figures. These figures are called “mothers.” The sixteen palm nuts are held loosely in the right hand, and thrown through the half-closed fingers into the left hand. If one nut remains in the right hand, two marks are made, and if two remain, one mark. In this way is formed the sixteen “mothers,” and from the order in which they are produced certain results are deduced. The interpretation is in accordance with established rule, but that rule is known only to the initiated. The basis of divination is a series of 256 figures (odu) or permutations, each with a name; one of these is arrived at either by casting a chain of eight seeds or by “beating” palm kernels. Each permutation has a number of verses associated specifically with it, each verse being related to a problem which may be similar to that with which the client is confronted. The client does not confide the problem or question that has brought him to the diviner. When, therefore, a throw has been made, the diviner recites the verses of the figure at random while the client listens for a verse dealing with a problem similar to his own and interprets it as he will. Each verse contains specific instructions for solving a problem, the commonest suggestion being that the client should offer a sacrifice.
Some time after settling at Ado, Ifa became tired of living in the world, and accordingly went to dwell in the firmament, with Obatala. After his departure, mankind, deprived of his assistance, was unable to properly interpret the desires of the gods, most of whom became in consequence annoyed. Olokun was the angriest, and in a fit of rage he destroyed nearly all the inhabitants of the world in a great flood, only a few being saved by Obatala, who drew them up into the sky by means of a long iron chain. After this outburst of anger, Olokun retired once more to his own domains, but the world was nothing but mud, and unfit to live in, until Ifa came down from the sky, and, in conjunction with Oduduwa, once more made it habitable. See also: Esu, Fa, Legba, Obatala, Oduduwa, Sango.