3874 – Opon Ifa or geomantic divination tray from Nigeria

Physical description:
A dark wooden tray with a plain centre and a carved border which features faces, animals and other figures. The associated objects range in size but all may be comfortably held in one hand. They include natural and man-made elements of various kinds, including carved figurines, pieces of wood, bone, teeth, and buttons among others. In fair condition; both the board and objects seem well worn through use.
Museum classification:
Divination
Size:
30 cm diameter
Information:

A tray, with attendant pieces, used by a diviner, probably Yoruba, Nigeria. 19th century.

The face at the top of the board represents Eshu, a messenger deity who acts as a medium between the human and spirit realms, specifically to Ifa, the God of divination. This particular board was used with the accompanying objects; a question was asked, objects selected and scattered across the board, and their position was read to provide the answer.

The basic form of divination is described here by Eileen Moyer from The University of Iowa Museum of Art:

"To begin the divination process the babalawo sits facing the door, so that light streams across the tray, allowing no shadow to fall on it.  The tray is covered with a thin layer of wood dust. The diviner holds sixteen palm nuts between his hands and shakes them, closing his hand to capture a few. He makes a mark in the dust of the tray based on whether the nuts in his hand are even or odd in number.  This is repeated eight times, with the eight resulting marks indicating a verse that is recited by the babalawo.  The verse discloses the forces that have brought misfortune and suggests solutions to the problems (Bascom 1969). The process, by which an Ifa diviner learns the Odu, or verses, involves extensive education, which can span an entire lifetime.  The diviner, who is highly respected by the community, is consulted during all important rites of passage in Yoruba life and is able to influence directly the policies of the society (Drewal 1989)."

https://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/chapters/divination/divination-techniques/?start=4

See Drewal, Henry, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought , 1989.

The set consists of:

1 x wooden board, dark wood, 43 mm border with various carvings including (clockwise from top) a face, grooved triangular pattern, tasselled charm string, scorpion or aligator style figure, diamond/zig zag style pattern, spiral, splayed figure (possibly a frog?), fish, comb, male figure, grooved triangular pattern, 293 mm

1 x wooden figurine, light coloured wood, arms folded with ribs carved, metal eyes 75 mm 

1 x large white animal tooth with a flat base, carved three grooves, 48 mm 

1 x carved wooden charm with hole at one end, light coloured wood, letters around base spell JANET, 65 mm 

1 x roughly cyclindrical piece of dark wood with split emerging down one side, 44 mm 

1 x wood and metal object, axe shaped head made of metal placed through a piece of wood, 40 mm 

1 x double headed wooden figure bound with black cord, with two white cowrie shells at either end and looped in the middle, 85 mm

1 x open square shaped wooden object, three complete sides and the fourth being two points almost touching, 65 mm

1 x necklace, rust coloured leather cord with brass arrowhead style pendant, 258 mm

1 x bone, yellowish and discoloured and worn, hole at one end, 92 mm

1 x animal molar tooth bound with white cord, 48 mm

1 x dark wooden object, possibly root or carved to represent a snake like figure, 30 mm

1 x shell, grooved on one side, with a hole through which a close fitting metal ring is fixed, 37 mm

1 x metal hollow oval object, covered with black substance at either end, with four roughly rectangular openings around the middle, 50 mm

3 x approximately spherical matt black objects, material uncertain, 30 mm

1 x worn and discoloured glass, flattish sides, 27 mm

1 x wooden three pronged carved object, with notches all over the surfaces, slit on one end perhaps indicating a mouth, 60 mm

1 x approximately oval object, material uncertain, with ridged black object - possibly a seed or shell? - embedded in one side, 35 mm

1 x animal tooth, curved, with hole at one end and broken off at the other, 60 mm

1 x yellowed knucklebone, origin uncertain, 31 mm

1 x dark wooden object shaped like a seal handle, ring carved around base, with cylindrical hole down the middle, 50 mm

1 x bone object, slightly tapered rectangular shape with a hole in one end. 6 circular indentations along one side, end is notched, 61 mm

1 x black conical hollow talon or spine, 55 mm

1 x shell or bone object, slightly tapered rectangular shape, with a hole in one end and notch in the other. One side carved with chevron pattern, 61 mm

1 x rough metal irregularly shaped disc, discoloured, with a small hole through the middle, 35 mm

1 x metal spoon with handle bent back around into a part spiral, discoloured, 36 mm

1 x metal rod embedded within a smoothed oval of uncertain black material toward one end, 74 mm

1 x wooden object with two prongs, one of which has been broken off and mended, approximately figure shaped, 62 mm

1 x tooth, bottom half and one side stained red, hold through bottom half 

1 x wooden object, shaped like a miniature four legged stool, flat top, 28 mm

1 x object, material uncertain but organic, three sides meeting at a point, with a hole in one side and a notch at one of the open corners. 

1 x carved wooden figure, legs, arms, head, eyes, mouth, buttocks all defined, 50 mm

1 x black object, material uncertain, slightly tapered and conical in shape with several raised ridges along its length, hollow - possibly a horn, 31 mm

1 x wooden object, teardrop in shape, rounded back and open face with seam running down the middle, 45 mm

1 x rounded disc shaped object, material uncertai, facing sides have rough indentations, 30 mm

1 x wooden and metal object, axe shaped head fixed through wooden element, uncertain black material covering blunt end of axe head, 60 mm

1 x approximately disc shaped object, material uncertain but possibly a seed, matte on one side and smooth, red colour with curved line running through the other side, 41 mm

1 x beige coloured stone or bone, irregularly shaped, veined, 40 mm

1 x wooden object, approximately cylindrical shape with both ends narrowed, 56 mm

1 x object, material uncertain, opening with metal ring in one end, notched in several places along its length, crack running down one side, 60 mm

1 x object, material uncertain, dark in colour, cylindrical in shape with hole through the middle like a bead, carved or naturally occuring ridges and holes across surface, 33 mm

1 x wooden cone, notches cut along length, rounded end, 50 mm

1 x wooden object, phallic in shape, notches cut along length, 67 mm

1 x wooden object, cylindrical in shape with hourglass tapering in the middle and a hole through its length like a bead, 30 mm

1 x green/yellowish stone, approximately rectangular in shape, rough on one side and smooth with red patch on facing side, 30 mm

1 x wooden object, tapering at either end, hollowing of one side, 78 mm

1 x wooden object, irregular teardrop shape, rounded to one side and flatter with a cleft to the other, 50 mm

1 x wooden object, twig shaped, wider at one end, 39 mm

1 x 1/5 sol, Peruvian coin, approx 1888-1917, worn with hole in the top, 23 mm

1 x metal object, brass/copper coloured, engraving on front appears to show a musician perhaps, two holes through object, 24 mm

1 x metal object, brass/copper coloured, shaped like a ring holder, 12 mm

1 x brass coloured button, circular, no pattern, fastener bent, 12 mm

1 x brass coloured button, circular, five pointed star pattern, 13 mm

1 x brass coloured button, circular, shield surrounded by wheat, 13 mm

1 x brass coloured button, oval shaped with diamond engraved stripe diagonally intersecting, hinged butterfly style fastening on back, 12 mm

 

Associated figurines include:

1 x roughly hewn wooden figure, face defined with something carried on the head,165 mm

1 x stylised seated or kneeling figure with knees drawn to chest and elbows resting on knees, hands drawn to head, 95 mm

1 x large talon or claw attached to bone, discoloured, 48 mm

1 x wooden figure with head apparently held in arms, legs individually defined, wrapped at groin with copper wire and cloth ribbon of some kind, 108 mm

1 x dark wooden figure, legs and arms defined, arms reaching to head, 81 mm

1 x carved figure, flat base on which it can stand, wrapped with pale cord and coated with uncertain black material, 2 x necklaces, one red, one white, 60 mm

1 x carved alligator standing on a log, notched along the body, some patches of red paint/pigment, 96 mm

1 x dark wooden figure, legs individually defined, head, hole at anus, 9 mm

1 x wooden figure, irregularly shaped, may be a root, legs individually defined, head shape, 80 mm

1 x wooden figure, light coloured, arms reaching to cover face, carving appears to show kind of loincloth/covering,  140 mm

1 x wooden figure, dark coloured wood, legs individually defined, head defined but no other features, 87 mm

Resource:
Object
Materials:
Wood, metal, bone, seeds
Copyright ownership:
MWM

A tray, with attendant pieces, used by a diviner, probably Yoruba, Nigeria. 19th century.

The face at the top of the board represents Eshu, a messenger deity who acts as a medium between the human and spirit realms, specifically to Ifa, the God of divination. This particular board was used with the accompanying objects; a question was asked, objects selected and scattered across the board, and their position was read to provide the answer.

The basic form of divination is described here by Eileen Moyer from The University of Iowa Museum of Art:

"To begin the divination process the babalawo sits facing the door, so that light streams across the tray, allowing no shadow to fall on it.  The tray is covered with a thin layer of wood dust. The diviner holds sixteen palm nuts between his hands and shakes them, closing his hand to capture a few. He makes a mark in the dust of the tray based on whether the nuts in his hand are even or odd in number.  This is repeated eight times, with the eight resulting marks indicating a verse that is recited by the babalawo.  The verse discloses the forces that have brought misfortune and suggests solutions to the problems (Bascom 1969). The process, by which an Ifa diviner learns the Odu, or verses, involves extensive education, which can span an entire lifetime.  The diviner, who is highly respected by the community, is consulted during all important rites of passage in Yoruba life and is able to influence directly the policies of the society (Drewal 1989)."

https://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/chapters/divination/divination-techniques/?start=4

See Drewal, Henry, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought , 1989.

The set consists of:

1 x wooden board, dark wood, 43 mm border with various carvings including (clockwise from top) a face, grooved triangular pattern, tasselled charm string, scorpion or aligator style figure, diamond/zig zag style pattern, spiral, splayed figure (possibly a frog?), fish, comb, male figure, grooved triangular pattern, 293 mm

1 x wooden figurine, light coloured wood, arms folded with ribs carved, metal eyes 75 mm 

1 x large white animal tooth with a flat base, carved three grooves, 48 mm 

1 x carved wooden charm with hole at one end, light coloured wood, letters around base spell JANET, 65 mm 

1 x roughly cyclindrical piece of dark wood with split emerging down one side, 44 mm 

1 x wood and metal object, axe shaped head made of metal placed through a piece of wood, 40 mm 

1 x double headed wooden figure bound with black cord, with two white cowrie shells at either end and looped in the middle, 85 mm

1 x open square shaped wooden object, three complete sides and the fourth being two points almost touching, 65 mm

1 x necklace, rust coloured leather cord with brass arrowhead style pendant, 258 mm

1 x bone, yellowish and discoloured and worn, hole at one end, 92 mm

1 x animal molar tooth bound with white cord, 48 mm

1 x dark wooden object, possibly root or carved to represent a snake like figure, 30 mm

1 x shell, grooved on one side, with a hole through which a close fitting metal ring is fixed, 37 mm

1 x metal hollow oval object, covered with black substance at either end, with four roughly rectangular openings around the middle, 50 mm

3 x approximately spherical matt black objects, material uncertain, 30 mm

1 x worn and discoloured glass, flattish sides, 27 mm

1 x wooden three pronged carved object, with notches all over the surfaces, slit on one end perhaps indicating a mouth, 60 mm

1 x approximately oval object, material uncertain, with ridged black object - possibly a seed or shell? - embedded in one side, 35 mm

1 x animal tooth, curved, with hole at one end and broken off at the other, 60 mm

1 x yellowed knucklebone, origin uncertain, 31 mm

1 x dark wooden object shaped like a seal handle, ring carved around base, with cylindrical hole down the middle, 50 mm

1 x bone object, slightly tapered rectangular shape with a hole in one end. 6 circular indentations along one side, end is notched, 61 mm

1 x black conical hollow talon or spine, 55 mm

1 x shell or bone object, slightly tapered rectangular shape, with a hole in one end and notch in the other. One side carved with chevron pattern, 61 mm

1 x rough metal irregularly shaped disc, discoloured, with a small hole through the middle, 35 mm

1 x metal spoon with handle bent back around into a part spiral, discoloured, 36 mm

1 x metal rod embedded within a smoothed oval of uncertain black material toward one end, 74 mm

1 x wooden object with two prongs, one of which has been broken off and mended, approximately figure shaped, 62 mm

1 x tooth, bottom half and one side stained red, hold through bottom half 

1 x wooden object, shaped like a miniature four legged stool, flat top, 28 mm

1 x object, material uncertain but organic, three sides meeting at a point, with a hole in one side and a notch at one of the open corners. 

1 x carved wooden figure, legs, arms, head, eyes, mouth, buttocks all defined, 50 mm

1 x black object, material uncertain, slightly tapered and conical in shape with several raised ridges along its length, hollow - possibly a horn, 31 mm

1 x wooden object, teardrop in shape, rounded back and open face with seam running down the middle, 45 mm

1 x rounded disc shaped object, material uncertai, facing sides have rough indentations, 30 mm

1 x wooden and metal object, axe shaped head fixed through wooden element, uncertain black material covering blunt end of axe head, 60 mm

1 x approximately disc shaped object, material uncertain but possibly a seed, matte on one side and smooth, red colour with curved line running through the other side, 41 mm

1 x beige coloured stone or bone, irregularly shaped, veined, 40 mm

1 x wooden object, approximately cylindrical shape with both ends narrowed, 56 mm

1 x object, material uncertain, opening with metal ring in one end, notched in several places along its length, crack running down one side, 60 mm

1 x object, material uncertain, dark in colour, cylindrical in shape with hole through the middle like a bead, carved or naturally occuring ridges and holes across surface, 33 mm

1 x wooden cone, notches cut along length, rounded end, 50 mm

1 x wooden object, phallic in shape, notches cut along length, 67 mm

1 x wooden object, cylindrical in shape with hourglass tapering in the middle and a hole through its length like a bead, 30 mm

1 x green/yellowish stone, approximately rectangular in shape, rough on one side and smooth with red patch on facing side, 30 mm

1 x wooden object, tapering at either end, hollowing of one side, 78 mm

1 x wooden object, irregular teardrop shape, rounded to one side and flatter with a cleft to the other, 50 mm

1 x wooden object, twig shaped, wider at one end, 39 mm

1 x 1/5 sol, Peruvian coin, approx 1888-1917, worn with hole in the top, 23 mm

1 x metal object, brass/copper coloured, engraving on front appears to show a musician perhaps, two holes through object, 24 mm

1 x metal object, brass/copper coloured, shaped like a ring holder, 12 mm

1 x brass coloured button, circular, no pattern, fastener bent, 12 mm

1 x brass coloured button, circular, five pointed star pattern, 13 mm

1 x brass coloured button, circular, shield surrounded by wheat, 13 mm

1 x brass coloured button, oval shaped with diamond engraved stripe diagonally intersecting, hinged butterfly style fastening on back, 12 mm

 

Associated figurines include:

1 x roughly hewn wooden figure, face defined with something carried on the head,165 mm

1 x stylised seated or kneeling figure with knees drawn to chest and elbows resting on knees, hands drawn to head, 95 mm

1 x large talon or claw attached to bone, discoloured, 48 mm

1 x wooden figure with head apparently held in arms, legs individually defined, wrapped at groin with copper wire and cloth ribbon of some kind, 108 mm

1 x dark wooden figure, legs and arms defined, arms reaching to head, 81 mm

1 x carved figure, flat base on which it can stand, wrapped with pale cord and coated with uncertain black material, 2 x necklaces, one red, one white, 60 mm

1 x carved alligator standing on a log, notched along the body, some patches of red paint/pigment, 96 mm

1 x dark wooden figure, legs individually defined, head, hole at anus, 9 mm

1 x wooden figure, irregularly shaped, may be a root, legs individually defined, head shape, 80 mm

1 x wooden figure, light coloured, arms reaching to cover face, carving appears to show kind of loincloth/covering,  140 mm

1 x wooden figure, dark coloured wood, legs individually defined, head defined but no other features, 87 mm