In Focus

Iconography of the Ifa divination tray (opon ifa)

The eight segments of this divination tray are separated by a rope-like convention that may refer to the rope a palm wine tapper uses to climb the tree. Beginning at the top of the tray and moving clockwise, Eshu's face appears at each of the cardinal points (segments 1, 3, 5, and 7). Multiple images of Eshu are not uncommon on Ifa divination trays. However, Eshu appears in a double image at the top of this tray. In addition to his face, he appears as a standing male figure wearing a long-tail/phallic hairstyle and brandishing a club.

Eshu's half-shaved, half-hair-covered image refers to a story about Ifa and Eshu's friendship. Ifa—a deity associated with the Yoruba religion, also called Ifa—decided to find out who his real friends were by testing them. His sons announced that he had died. Upon hearing this, deities rushed to Ifa's house and began claiming his property. When Eshu received the news he was in the process of shaving his head. He didn't bother to finish the job, but ran crying to Ifa's house. Upon Eshu's arrival, Ifa stopped playing dead and told his visitor that he was his true friend because he had dropped everything and come immediately. The tuft of hair was to remain on his head as a sign of genuine friendship. The tuft is called ere, meaning "friend".

In the second segment, a kneeling supplicant or sacrificial victim whose hands are bound at his back is held by a standing captor. Beneath these figures are another pair of captive and captor as well as a standing female figure holding an offering bowl (olumeye).

In segment 4, there are a snake and a standing male figure holding a coiled mudfish—Ifa's favorite food—above a copulating couple and Eshu, shown here as a male figure playing a flute. In some stories, Ifa is said to be the offspring of two snakes; and in Yoruba belief, snakes are messengers to the gods. This motif may symbolize human increase.

A drummer plays his hour-glass shaped "talking" drum in segment 6, while a soldier is shown holding a firearm. A standing female holds an osuka, a cloth or twisted raffia "cushion" aloft. This object served as a cushion and support for a load carried on one's head. A male climbs a palm tree. This image may represent a man tapping the tree to obtain the liquid that is fermented and poured as a libation to the gods. The woman holding the osuka perhaps anticipates carrying the liquid tapped from the palm in a filled gourd on her head. In segment 8, the mounted figure likely representing the oba (king), is preceded by a drummer announcing his arrival on the "talking drum" and a nude male figure, probably an emese, or royal messenger.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2005.