Yoruba divination or not

@LynneKelly, I just finished your The Memory Code and was enthralled with all the information that I thought I knew but now know in a much better way.

I was wondering what made the cowrie shells, seeds, and nut throwing practice understood as a divination practice. If knowledge was organized by the different sixteen permutations and the central purpose of the sites were for education where they were found, wouldn’t the items serve a better purpose as a method of review for the students? I use flash cards in different order to do the same.

Others who have read the book are welcome to offer their opinions.

Delighted that you enjoyed The Memory Code.

I don’t fully understand the question. I could only give a brief reference to these methods in The Memory Code and focussed on the mnemonics. I don’t see that education and divination are mutually exclusive. I would imagine they were used for both. As the stories tell of dieties, they have been described as divination by Western academics. I think that is an oversimplified response given the complexity of the informations stored.

I hugely recommend Tedlock, Barbara. (1992). Time and the highland Maya (Revised edition ed.). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

McClelland, E. M. (1982). The cult of Ifa among the Yoruba . London: Ethnographica.
Bascom, W. R. (1980). Sixteen cowries: Yoruba divination from Africa to the New World . Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

These three give lots of detail so you can make your own decision about whether they were divination. It is a term which doesn’t really work, in my opinion, when talking Indigenous cultures. We don’t have words in English which describe they way they mesh knowledge in pragmatic, mnemonic and spiritual forms.

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@LynneKelly I guess I was tending towards wanting the throwing of the items to be a type of review session for the knowledge holder students and not a mystical interpretation of a god’s will. If knowledge was encoded whereby a pattern meant some part of a memory, having thousands of memories would require review often. I ordered a set of 10-sided dice to see if I like reviewing by random number pegs. Thanks for the book references. I’ll check them out.

Hi Doug,

I would say a couple of words of caution to you sir…regarding divination:
The cowrie shell tossing IS a form of divination and I would ask if you really want to be
a part of Santeria.

Learning and remembering permutations of cowrie shell tosses is one thing…doing divination is another.

Consider the source of your divination,


@stefos, I appreciate your concern and would assure you that I have no intent or interest in divination with Deuteronomy 18:10-12 as my guide.


Hi Doug,

Praise God man…Be blessed brotherman :slight_smile:



We don’t have words in English which describe they way they mesh knowledge in pragmatic, mnemonic and spiritual forms.

After I read you book I realised that many of these cultures have not been understood well in the West. The boundaries between memory and writing, knowledge and mythology, is really blurred in their thinking.

Like the memory stick that Spragg gave up. More was lost from the Cayuga Nation than just the stick. The information associated with it has forever evaporated.

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I’ve read about Yoruba divination in the Memory Code, but I’ve not read any further literature on it.

From what I understand, many cultures believe that when you throw dice or holy objects, the way they fall is determined by the gods and is a way of the gods communicating to them. I wonder whether this is why this is classified as divination? But as said above, perhaps the way they think is so different to the West that it is difficult to say.

For us that do not believe in divination, the randomised testing of our memory is a good technique for solidifying recall.


I am also unsure about the degree to which it was divination and the degree of memorisation technique. In The Cult of Ifá among the Yoruba. 1982. E. M. McClelland, page 56 according to my notes, which are not perfect, McClelland talks about the “sacrifice” paid to the diviner being a sheep or ram, cooked chicken or other items which help the priest stay alive.

From reading that and other books, I get the impression that the priest would use the divination practice to retrieve the relevant verses depending on the presenting problem. Some may be more hypothetical, some very practical, some spiritual, but the knowledge was attributed to the gods. There was talk of the way to treat smallpox and other illnesses, for example - much of it quite practical and rational.

My conclusion is that the readings were a mix of what we would call religion and what we would call science and what we would call psychology and what we would call fortune-telling and so on - depending on the client - the term McClelland uses.

The books I mentioned in an earlier post demonstrate that the systems were complex and many genres of knowledge interwoven. And I suspect that Western observers would only glimpse the full extent of the system.

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@LynneKelly, maybe a similar modern equivalent would be a fortune teller who uses any kind of generic symbolism to merge with their acute observation skills in order to produce a meaningful answer. Trickery abounds in that realm to turn charlatans into diviners. But science and Christianity has since taken their respected position away and relegated them to be neighbors with houses of other ill reputes.

I haven’t used Tarot cards since I was a teenager (and won’t) but remember their rich visualization capabilities which probably would confound the seeker of wisdom as much as a handful of cowrie shells tossed in ritual solemnity preceded by prayers and the required sacrifice of value.

So I’m tending towards thinking it was all a show for “reading the tea leaves” that even the shell throwers might have been deceived by and not so much a way to retrieve a prescription from an ordered set of visual images. I will interested to see if the “relevant verses” are used as anything more than a shotgun style prophecy in that it’s large enough to hit something somewhere and thus sustain the credibility of the diviner.

I’ll work with my number peg reviews using my dice and and read up on your great references you gave. I’ve managed to get through Yates and Carruthers and am happy I can return to more modern times.

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Would this be what the Bible calls “casting lots” Acts 1:2 an proverbs 18:18? I’ve pondered over this.

No…this is divination from the Yorba people

Lots are different

Check out a Jewish commentary


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Divination is about expecting a spirit to direct the results but then interpreting the pattern of chance. Think tea leaves and animal entrails. But the method of using lots in Judaism was more about making difficult decisions to keep things fair and unemotional. They could have been wood or stone cubes, but at Qumran lots were smoothed balls, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, made of:

clay measuring 25 ± 5 mm in diameter with partially pierced holes arranged over the surface ranging in numerical value from 1 to 27.

They go on to say that techniques varied and there’s no real one way to do it but I got the sense that instead of throwing dice for a high score like we might think, it was about each person choosing their own marked lot, throwing it into a helmet, and the winner being picked out. One other technique was to throw them all out of the helmet and see which one fell out first. Sometimes a priest would officiate.