Opele Ifa, the Divining Chain
The most common divining chain is made from the seed pod known as opele from which the chain takes its name. It comes from the tree, Schrebera golungensis. This seed pod has a distinctive pear shape and naturally splits open at the base, with the two halves splaying out from the top, where they are joined. On the concave inner surface of each half is a marked ridge.
Other items which have at one time or another been used to make divining chains include:
The opele Ifa is about three to four feet long and usually consists of eight halves of seed shells or pods joined by sections of chain three to four inches long. The chain is held in the middle so that there are four shells or seeds hanging on the right and four hanging on the left.
ORIGIN & USES OF OPELE
Opele is a symbol of over indulgence - i.e., it talks too much, is prone to dishonesty and it is greedy). As such, opele is used to remind us to always practice restraint and to be respectful of our elders. Refusal to heed this warning may result in a life of difficulty and futile efforts. The Holy Odu OturaIwori is illustrative:
The sturdy man as strong as the Ogun of the main road
Ifa’s message for Oga, the Opele
When going on Ifa’s message to Onko land
He was advised to offer ebo
He refused to comply
The inhabitants of Onko land
He who stays at home and knows about the slaughtering of all Ifa animals
- Holy Odu OturaIwori
It is Opele's greed that prevented her from receiving offerings given to Ifa. All the animals slaughtered for Ifa are given to Ikin instead of Opele, who was used in casting Ifa and who recommended that the animals must be used to feed Ifa but received none of the offerings in question.
Similarly, opele is synonymous with being unsettled and agitated, which are unfavorable traits, according to Yoruba traditional values. See what Ifa teaches on this subject:
He cast Ifa for Opele
When going to the live the life of being carried about
He was advised to offer ebo
He failed to comply
Travelers to Ipo and Ofa towns
Can’t you see the prediction of Ifa as it has come to pass
- Holy Odu OkanranOwonrin
Here, opele was advised to sacrifice to present being carried around, without enjoying the benefits of a stable lifestyle. Opele refused to sacrifice and was consequently forced to being the travel companion of the babalawo, who is an itinerant priest.
The chain is thrown with the right hand, and tossed in such a way that the two lines of shells fall parallel with each other. Each of the eight seeds or shells can then fall with either the concave inner surface or the convex outer surface facing upwards. The ends of the chain have various items attached to them so that the diviner can establish which is the left and which is the right figure (it being essential to know which is the first and which is the second column, to prevent the reverse figure being read by erroneous juxtaposition of the columns).
Half a seed shell falling with the concave surface facing upward is equivalent to a single line on the tray, while a fall in the 'closed' position with the convex outer surface up, is the equivalent of a double mark. Divination with the chain of seeds, though regarded as inferior to ikin Ifa (palm nuts) is more rapid, but otherwise the two systems are identical. They employ the same set of figures with the same names and rank order, and the same verses.
Bascom explains: the divining chain is said to 'talk more' than the palm nuts, but it is regarded as an inferior instrument, less reliable than palm nuts for deciding important questions. It is also spoken of as Ifa's servant... a number of Ifa diviners employ only the chain, because they dislike using the palm nuts . . . the divining chain arrives at the same interpretation through the same set of figures and verses more rapidly, and answers more questions than are usually asked when the slower method with palm nuts is employed. In addition to convenience, there are instances wherein an individual can only receive divination using opele. Let's consider what Ifa teaches in the Holy Odu ObaraOse:
The madmen took off
But he recognizes fire
This was the Ifa cast for Opon, the divination tray
When going to cast Ifa for Onitagi Olele
He arrived in the home of Onitagi Olele
He advised him to offer sacrifice in order to ward off war
After offering the sacrifice
War erupted again in greater force
When Opon offered the sacrificed for Onitagi Olele
He sprinkled the Iyerosun into the sacrifice
The sacrifice was totally rejected
They went to call on Opele, who no Iyerosun
Opele the Awo of Onitagi Olele
He was the awo who cast Ifa for Onitagi Olele
When weeping in constant fear of war
He as advised to offer all what was obtained by inheritance as sacrifice in
order to ward off war
Now, you Opele, who has no Iyerosun, enter into the water
And shake your body into my sacrifice
Before long, not to far
Come and join me in the midst of all the good things of life.
- Holy Odu ObaraOse
Among the Fon of Dahomey the chain is called the agummago, but is used in much the same way as the opele. The diviners see the fall of the seeds not as a matter of chance but as by an act controlled by Ifa, the deity of divination. Any interference with the free fall of the chain by the diviner garbles the message which Ifa wishes the client to receive: hence the ritual of throwing the chain is governed by very precise rules. That is, the babalawo uses the opele to discern the nature of the client's problem, then determine the appropriate sacrifice, medicines and observances. Together, these elements make up the distinct method by which babalawos diagnose and treat clients.
Learn more: ObafemiO.com
Bascom, Williams. Ifa Divination
Origunwa, Obafemi. Fundamentals of Orisa Lifestyle
Ajayi, Bade. Ifa Divination Process