This is one of the many thousands of poems associated with the Ifa oracle of the Yoruba people. There are 256 different Odu or branches of lfa poetry, and many hundreds of different poems are associated with each Odu. The Ifa priest learns these poems during many years of training. Each poem is associated with a set of ‘throws’ of the divination instruments (cowrie shells, kola nuts etc) to indicate which poem is suitable when a client comes to him for advice. He recites the poem to the client who must find his own meaning in the words. The Ifa priest will also direct the sacrifices to be made to the relevant Orisha following the divination.

This poem from the Ifa oracle illustrates how, through a superb description of the tiger’s hide and claws, tiger was granted honour by consulting Ifa and making sacrifice.

Ifa divination was performed for Tiger,
The one with the lovely and shining skin.

Could he possibly have honour?
That was the reason why Tiger performed Ifa divination

He was told that much was the prospect of honour for him,
But he should perform sacrifice:

And he performed it:
He performed sacrifice with ten knives
And one lovely and shining cloth.

The ten knives which he used for sacrifice
Were fixed to his fingers by his Ifa priests
And with it he does havoc to all other animals.
The lovely and shining cloth which he also used for sacrifice
Was used to cover his body
And it made him a beautiful animal.

He was dancing, He was rejoicing,
He was praising his Ifa priests
And his Ifa priests praised Ifa.
He opened his mouth,
And the song of Ifa entered therein.
As he stretched his feet,
Dance caught them:

He said, ‘O Animal created to have honour,
Animal created to have honour,
It is Oosa who gave honour to Tiger, (1)
Animal created to have honour’.

translated by Bruce Alvin King,
from Introduction to Nigerian Literature, 1971


Footnotes

  1. Oosa is the God of Creation, more usually known as Obatala.