Sixteen Cowries

Sixteen Cowries

by William W. Bascom
Pub. Date:
Indiana University Press


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Sixteen Cowries

... a landmark in research of African oral traditions."—African Arts

... a significant contribution to the understanding of Yoruba religious belief, magic, and art." —Journal of Religion in Africa

Yoruba texts and English translations of a divination system that originated in Nigeria and is widely practiced today by male and female diviners in the diaspora. A landmark edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253208477
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/01/1980
Edition description: 2001 Corr. 2nd Printing ed.
Pages: 800
Sales rank: 673,536
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.46(d)

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Sixteen Cowries

Yoruba Divination from Africa to the New World

By William Bascom

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1980 William Bascom
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-20847-7



"Sixteen cowries" (erindinlógún, owó merindínlógún) is a form of divination employed by the Yoruba of Nigeria and by their descendants in the New World. It is simpler than Ifa divination and is held in less esteem in Nigeria, but in the Americas it is more important than Ifa because it is more widely known and more frequently employed. This may be due to its relative simplicity; to the popularity of Shango, Yemoja, Oshun, and other Yoruba gods with whom sixteen cowries is associated; and to the fact that it can be practiced by both men and women, who outnumber men in these cults, whereas only men can practice Ifa.

The differing importance of these two systems of divination in Africa and the Americas probably explains the neglect of sixteen cowries by students of Yoruba culture compared to students of Afro-Cuban culture. There are a great many studies of Ifa divination among the Yoruba (see the bibliographies in Bascom 1961 and 1969, plus important subsequent publications), but I know of only two that discuss sixteen cowries in Africa. One devotes only seventeen pages to the topic (Ogunbiyi 1952: 65-81) and the other less than three pages (Maupoil 1943: 265-268). In contrast a number of publications about sixteen cowries in Cuba, where it is known as dilogun or los caracoles, have appeared (Lachatañere 1942, Hing 1971, Rogers 1973, Cabrera 1974, Elizondo n.d., Suarez n.d., Anonymous n.d.). Although Ifa divination is also practiced and highly regarded in Cuba, sixteen cowries is probably the most important system of divination in the Afro-Cuban cults. In Brazil it is known as 'dologum, edilogum, endilogum (Alvarenga 1950: 157-158), merindilogum, or Exu (Bastide and Verger, 1953: 378).

Whereas Ifa divination is employed by the Ewe and Fon to the west of the Yoruba and by the Benin Edo to the east, and perhaps by other neighboring peoples, I know of only one report of sixteen cowry divination in Africa which may not refer to the Yoruba. This is Maupoil's brief note from Dahomey. He says that it is of Nago (Yoruba) origin and that it is known as Legba-kika. An Oshun worshiper at If§, Nigeria, also called the divination Elegba, another name for Eshu, or Exu, as he is known in Brazil. The names of the deities associated with the figures, as given by Maupoil, are predominantly, but not exclusively, Yoruba, suggesting that his informants were Nago rather than Fon. Provisionally, at least, sixteen cowries may be taken as a specifically Yoruba form of divination. The Yoruba, who number some thirteen million, live in the West and Lagos States and the southern portion of Kwarra State in southwestern Nigeria and in eastern Dahomey, with enclaves farther west in central Dahomey and along the Dahomey-Togo boundary.

Divination with sixteen cowries is employed in the cults of Orishala and other "white deities," and in the cults of Eshu, Shango, Oya, Oshun, Oba, Yemoja, Yewa, Nana Buruku, and, in some towns, Oshosi and Shopona. Yewa is the Goddess of the Yewa River, Oba the Goddess of the Oba River, and Nana Buruku is a goddess associated with a kind of snake that is said to live in the water; the nature of these other deities will be discussed in Chapter III.

The present study is based on information supplied by Salako (Sàlàko), a diviner in the cult of Orishala at Oyo, Nigeria, who was born, initiated, and trained in Igana, a town some fifty miles to the west that was subject to the Alafin, king of Oyo. To my knowledge it is the first serious study of sixteen cowries among the Yoruba and the first collection of its divination verses to be published. Moreover it reputedly represents the total body of divination verses known to a single, knowledgeable diviner.

Compared to Ifa divination with its manipulation of sixteen palm nuts or even the casting of its divining chain, sixteen cowry divination is simple. The cowries are cast on a basketry tray and the number of shells facing mouth up are counted. There are only seventeen positions or figures — n + 1, or zero to sixteen. However, memorizing the verses is as difficult and time consuming as learning those of Ifa. The cowry shells that are used in divination are not the ones (owó eyo) that were formerly used as money, but a smaller cowry (owó ero). The basketry tray (àte) is flat and of the type that is used in displaying beads, salt, and other small materials for sale in the market (see verse A40).

The seventeen figures of sixteen cowry divination have names, many of which are cognates of names of the Ifa figures. In Table 1 the initial numeral indicates the number of cowries facing mouth up, and this followed by the name of that figure. Because the order of the figures in Table 1 differs from that in which their verses were recited by Salako, the latter order has been identified in alphabetical sequence for ease of reference to individual verses. For example, A40 indicates the fortieth verse of Eji Ogbe, the figure which has eight shells with their mouths facing up. Following the letters are the names of the deities or other superhuman entities associated with the figures, as given by Salako. The final column of numerals indicates the number of verses recorded for each figure.

All these names also apply to figures in Ifa divination (Bascom 1966) except Eji Oko (2), Ejila Sebora (12), and Opira (0). As in Ifa, there are alternative names for a number of the figures, some of which are given in the Appendix. Also in the Appendix, Table 2 presents the names of the figures given by other Yoruba sources, and for Dahomey, Brazil, and Cuba; Table 3 presents the deities and other superhuman entities associated with the figures by some of the same sources.

When the figure (odù) has been determined by the first toss of the cowries, the diviner begins to recite the verses (ese) that are associated with it. The verses contain the predictions and the sacrifices to be made, based on the case of a mythological client which serves as a precedent. Unless he is stopped by the client, the diviner recites all the verses that he has learned for that figure. As in Ifa divination, it is the client who selects the verse that is applicable to his own case. And as in Ifa, more specific information can be obtained by making additional casts of the cowries to choose between specific alternatives (ibò) on the basis of the rank order of the seventeen figures.

For some reason that was not explained, both the order in which the figures are listed in Table 1 and the order in which their verses were dictated by Salako, 8-10-9-1-2-4-5-3-6-7-11-12-13-14-15-16-0, differ from this rank order, which he gave as 8-10-4-3-2-1-12-11-9-7-6-5-13-14-15-16-0. In choosing between the right and left hand, the right hand is indicated with a single throw if 8, 10, 4, 3, 2, 1, or 12 appears. If 11, 9, 7, 6, or 5 appears, a second throw is required; if then one of these less powerful figures appears, the right hand is selected, but if one of the more powerful figures appears on the second throw, the left hand is chosen. If 13, 14,15, 16 or 0 appears on either the first or second throw, neither hand is indicated—there is no answer.

Ogunbiyi does not discuss ibo or this rank order, but some confirmation comes from the Cuban sources. The "major figures" in Cuba are given as 1-2-3-4-8-10-12-13-14-15-16, and the "minor figures" as 5-6-7-9-11 (Hing 1971: 60; Rogers 1973: 23; Suarez n.d.: 37-38; Anonymous n.d.: 6). However both Hing and Rogers say that it is the left hand that is indicated when a major figure appears on the first throw. Cabrera (1974: 188) gives 1-2-3-4-8-10 as major figures and 5-6-7-9-11-12 as minor figures.

Unlike Ifa divination (Bascom 1969: 54-58), there are no simultaneous choices between five specific alternatives, according to Salako. The choice is restricted to two alternatives, right hand and left hand. The choice between more than two alternatives is made only by asking about them in sequence and receiving "Yes" or "No" answers. The client holds a small object in each hand, for example, the breast bone of a small tortoise symbolizing the unknown (àimo) and a small pebble symbolizing long life (àìkú), and asks Orishala to indicate by the sixteen cowries which hand is selected.

Thus when the verse has predicted a blessing, the client may learn its nature by asking "Yes" or "No," in the following order, whether it is a blessing of long life (ire àikú), a blessing of money (ire ajé), a blessing of wives (ire obinrin), a blessing of children (ire omo), or a blessing of a new place to live (ire ibùjókó). These are similar to the five kinds of good fortune selected simultaneously in Ifa divination: long life, money, marriage, children, and defeat of one's enemy. If none of these five blessings is indicated by the cowries, it is understood that the answer is all blessings (ire gbogbó) or peace and contentment (àláfíà).

If the verse has predicted evil (ibi), the client may inquire in sequence whether it is death (ikú), disease or illness (àrùn), a loss (òfò), a fight (ìjà), or a court case (oràn). These are also similar to the five kinds of evil selected simultaneously in Ifa divination: death, illness, fighting, the want of money, and loss. If none of these five kinds of evil is selected, it is understood that the answer is all kinds of evil (ibi gbogbó). The client may then inquire, for example, whether the evil indicated is predicted for himself, his wife, his child, his elder sibling, his younger sibling, or a friend.

The client may then ask what is necessary to insure the promised blessing or to avert the predicted evil. This is done by asking in the following order whether a sacrifice (ebo) to Eshu is required, or whether it is to be given to the Egungun (Égún), Orishala (Orìsà), the client's head (orí), children "born to die" (Egbe Ogbà), Orunmila (Ifá), Orisha Oko, Yemoja, the Earth (Ile), an iroko tree, an ose tree, ground inside the house (ale ilé), Shopona, or witches (àwon àgbàlagbà). Salako maintained that it is never necessary to mention more than these fourteen alternatives; one of them is sure to be chosen.

However, if the first alternative (ebo) is indicated, meaning that a sacrifice is to be made to Eshu, it is necessary to inquire whether it is to be offered at the chunk of laterite (yangi) that serves as his shrine in front of the house, at a crossroads or fork in a path (orita meta) where he is said to live, in the back yard (ehinkùnlé), or at a refuse heap (àtàn). As in Ifa divination, the objective of divination is to determine the correct sacrifice, and nothing is gained if it is not offered. As stated in several verses (C18, D3, F15, F16), "Offering sacrifices is what helps one; not offering does not help anyone."

Salako's full name is Maranoro Salako, omo Gbonka Igana. His first name means "Don't send spite" (Ma rán oró). The second is his orisha name meaning "Open white cloth and hang it" (So àlà ko) at the shrine of Orishala. It is a name given to boys who are born in a caul (àlà, oke) and who are thus identified as sacred to Orishala and destined to become his worshipers. The last three words identify Salako as a child of chief Gbonka at the town of Igana.

Salako identified his deity (òrìsà), Olufon or Orisa Olufon, as a kind of Obatala. However, on other occasions he said it is the same as Obatala (King of the white cloth), Orisala (Deity of the white cloth), Orisanla (Great deity), Obalufon (King Olufon), or Obanla (Great king). On other occasions he identified Obanla as another name for Olurun or Olodumare, the Sky God.

It is safe to say that Orisala, Orisanla, and Obatala are alternative names for the same deity. However, it is indeed difficult to determine whether these other names are different names for the same deity, names for different manifestations of the same deity, or names for different deities. All are "white deities" (òrìsà funfun), for which I have recorded some ninety-five names; many are derived from place names and some are said to refer to children of Orishala. Salako said that each "white deity" has its own group of worshipers and its own separate house of worship (ilé òrìsà), but the houses are similar and only the worshipers know the differences between them; all are from Orishala and all worship him. They use only white things: white beads (sese efun) and white cloths, and bracelets, staffs, and fans of whitish lead (òjé) similar to pewter. They cook with shea butter (òri) or oil from melon seeds (egùnsi) instead of the reddish-orange palm oil (epo) that others use, eat white kola nuts (obì ifin) instead of the usual reddish kola nuts (obì yipa), and drink maize beer (otín sekete) or gin (otín òyìnbó) instead of palm wine (emu). Snails and white chickens are favorite sacrifices for Orishala and the other white deities.

Orisha Ogiyan, whose worshipers practice flagellation, seems to be a distinct "white deity," or at least a quite different manifestation of Orishala. So does Orisha Rowu or Orisha Lowu, described as the first son of Orishala. The hill deities (òrìsà òkè), for whom I have recorded another sixty-five names, are also considered to be "white deities." Orisha Olufgn may be more precise, but in discussing Salako and his divination with sixteen cowries, I shall use the more common name, Orishala.

Salako was born in lie Gbonka, the house of chief Gbonka, in Igana about 1880. He says that he was about fifteen years old and knew how to make a farm before Captain R. L. Bower bombarded Oyo and destroyed the palace of the Alafin in 1895, in Salako's words, "When Bower came to Oyo and fired guns 'pepe'" (Nigbàtí Bawà wá si Oyo wá lú pepe). Shortly after his birth he was taken to an Ifa diviner and his foot was placed on the divining tray; the diviner consulted Ifa and confirmed that he belonged to Orishala. He was not initiated until he was fifteen because his mother's mother did not have enough money. The expenses of his initiation were paid by his father and by his mother's mother, who was a worshiper of Orishala. When she was nineteen years of age, Adeygyin, his younger sister by the same mother, was also initiated in Igana, and his father paid for it.

As described by Salako, for initiation the sponsors must provide fish (eja), rat (eku), Tullberg's rat (emo), pangolin (aka), tortoise (ahun), elephant meat (eran àjànàku), guinea fowl (etù), hen (adie), pigeon (eiyelé), snail (ìgbín), and soap (ose). After the initiate's head has been completely shaved and a small cut (gbere) has been made in his scalp, bits of these ingredients and some hair from near the cut are pounded together and fashioned into a small lump about the size of a large cowry shell and put on the cut. This "medicine" must not fall off, but when he goes to sleep his senior wife or his female sponsor takes it off and keeps it for him to put on again after bathing the next day. This is done for seven days, and thereafter the initiate must never shave his head again. He may plait his hair like a woman, as Salako did. He can carry things on his head, but he must cover his head with a cloth whenever he goes outside, even at night. At his death his head is shaved to take the orisha away (láti mú òrísà kúrò lórí re, tí ó bá ti kú).

As chosen by Orishala through casting sixteen cowries, a cock, ram, or snail is killed for the deity and the blood or the water from the snail's shell is put in the initiate's mouth. At this time Orishala "mounts" the initiate, takes possession of him in a trance, and speaks through him. Salako said, "Orisha mounts a person" (Orìsa gun ènìà) or "Orisha enters his body (Orisà wara re). Thereafter any initiated person can be possessed when dancing and Orishala can speak through him. Both Salako and his younger sister have been so possessed after their initiation, but they cannot speak like the official "mount" (elegùn). This person is chosen by specific alternatives, casting the sixteen cowries while naming the initiated cult members in order of seniority —not in terms of relative age, but the dates of their initiation. The person so chosen must make an atonement (ètùtù) and must hold a celebration (iwúyè) like that of a chief to mark his or her installation. Neither Salako nor his sister became an official "mount," but when their mother's mother died the sister was chosen in the same fashion to take care of her shrine.

The new initiate is given a symbol of Orishala to take home, a white piece of bone or ivory (irin) which is treated with blood from the cut in his head. He may add others if he wishes, but he must not lose this first one. He may also buy sixteen cowries for his personal shrine, but he does not need to learn how to divine with them. Salako's sister, for example, is ignorant of their use.

Salako learned how to divine in Igana from his babalorisha, who initiated him. He said it took him three years to learn how to use the cowries and three more to learn the verses. At the age of fifteen, it would seem that the first period probably took less time, and the second more. Later he learned the uses of leaves and herbs, and after he began his career as a diviner he continued to learn new verses by listening to other diviners. Learning continues throughout a diviner's lifetime.


Excerpted from Sixteen Cowries by William Bascom. Copyright © 1980 William Bascom. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part One: Sixteen Cowries

Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. The Divination Verses
Chapter 3 The System of Belief

Part Two: The Verses of Sixteen Cowries
Chapter 4 Eji Ogbe 8 cowries
Chapter 5 Ofun 10 cowries
Chapter 6 Osa 9 cowries
Chapter 7 Okanran 1 cowrey
Chapter 8 Eji Oko 2 cowries
Chapter 9 Irosun 4 cowries
Chapter 10 Ose 5 cowries
Chapter 11 Ogunda 3 cowries
Chapter 12 Obara 6 cowries
Chapter 13 Odi 7 cowries
Chapter 14 Owonrin 11 cowries
Chapter 15 Ejila Sebora 12 cowries
Chapter 16 Ika 13 cowries
Chapter 17 Oturupon 14 cowries
Chapter 18 Ofun Kanran 15 cowries
Chapter 19 Irete 16 cowries
Chapter 20 Opira 0 cowries

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