Cowrie-shell divination

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A throw of merindinlogun, resulting in four "open" shells (odù irosun).

Cowrie shell divination refers to several distinct forms of divination using cowrie shells that are part of the rituals and religious beliefs of several religions. Though most well-documented in West Africa as well as in West African derived Afro-American religions, such as The Regla de Ocha Santeria, the Regla de Ifa, Candomblé and Umbanda,[1][2][3] forms of cowrie-shell divination have been documented in other regions, including East Africa and India.[4]

In West African religion and its diaspora[edit]

In West Africa[edit]

Several forms of cowrie-shell divination are distributed broadly throughout West Africa.

While there are many variants using from eight to 21 cowrie shells, West African-derived forms most commonly use 16 cowrie shells on a prepared table or on a mat on the ground, interpreting the patterns that result which are known as Odu. Before casting the shells, the priest/priestess invokes and salutes the Orishas, and puts questions to them. It is believed that the Orishas answer the questions by influencing the way the shells fall on the table.

In the diaspora[edit]

Forms of West African cowrie-shell divination are found in Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico where they play an important role in religions like Candomblé and Santeria. Most of these are closely related to Ifá and employ 16 cowries.

In Brazil, it is called jogo de búzios (Portuguese for "cowrie game") or merindinlogun (Yoruba for "sixteen") by its practitioners, although the two names may designate somewhat different systems.

In Cuba, it is often called diloggun, after the Yoruba merindinlogun.[5]

Though they share a common root, Cuban and Brazilian cowrie shell divination have subsequently developed in partial independence from West African practice and each other. For example, among Cuban diviners, the first throw of the shells involves throwing them twice to derive a composite odu. This system approximates that which originated in Ifa (see Odù Ifá section of Ifá religion).

Relationship to Ifa and Ocha[edit]

Cowrie-shell divination is derived from the Ifá divination practiced by Yoruba priests in Africa. Priests of Ifá in Cuba and the Cuban diaspora are called Babalawos. Babalawos do not use cowrie shells, but instead the epuele chain, made of pieces of kola nut or coconut shell on a metal chain. Babalawos consult with Orula, who is considered the most skilled of all the Orichas in terms of divination. The cowrie-shells, called dilogun, are used by priests and priestesses of Ocha, who are commonly called Santeros and Santeras. Both men and women who have been initiated into the religion can read cowrie shells, but only men can be Babalawos. The two systems of divination are related, although separate. Both involve memorizing the pattern that falls on the mat, related to Odu, which carry sacred messages from the Orichas.[6] There are a combination of 256 possible odu and a skilled diviner can interpret the meaning of each one, depending on the orientation of the reading. If the reading comes in Ire, the client will experience good fortune, and if it comes in Osorbo, the client faces obstacles that can be overcome with the help of the Orichas.

The practice of divination with cowrie shells was brought to the Caribbean basin with the slave trade, primarily in the 19th century. Cowrie shells, which were used as currency in Africa during the time of the slave trade, are frequently used in ornaments and dresses associated with the Afro-American cults Are made of steel.

Divination ritual in Afro-Brazilian religions[edit]

Cowrie shells.

The cowrie shell, as collected from a beach, has a flattened side with a longitudinal slit, and a smooth, rounded side. Like a coin, the shell has only two stable positions on a flat surface, with the slit side facing either up or down. A few cowrie-shell diviners use the shells in this natural state; then the outcome of the throw, for each piece, is either "open" (slit up) or "closed" (slit down).

Most priests, however, use modified shells whose rounded part has been ground away, creating a second, artificial opening. The two stable positions of the shell are still called "open" or "closed" for divination purposes. In most candomblé houses (temples), "open" still means that the natural opening is facing up; but some traditions (mainly in the Candomblé Ketu sect) use the opposite convention.

Natural opening
Artificial opening
Cowrie shell modified for divination, showing the natural and contrived openings.

The number of "open" shells is used to select an item (odú, which are the same as the principal list of Ifá divination) which direct the diviner to a fixed list of oracular verses (ẹsẹ).


  1. ^ Pierre Fatumbi Verger (1954): Dieux D'Afrique Paul Hartmann, Paris (1st edition, 1954; 2nd edition, 1995). 400 pages, 160 photos, ISBN 2-909571-13-0.
  2. ^ Pierre Verger, Notas Sobre o Culto aos Orixás e Voduns. 624 ages. Portuguese translation by Carlos E. M. Moura. Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, 1999 ISBN 85-314-0475-4
  3. ^ José Beniste (1999), Jogo de Búzios - Um Encontro com o Desconhecido. Editora Bertrand Brasil, 290 pages. ISBN 85-286-0774-7
  4. ^ J. Wilfrid Jackson (1917). Shells as Evidence of the Migrations of Early Culture. London: Longmans, Green, & Co. (pp. 144-45, 170)
  5. ^ Ocha ni'lele (2003). The Diloggun: The Orishas, Sacrifices, Proverbs, and Prohibitions of Cuban Santeria. Destiny Books.
  6. ^ Cynthia Duncan, Ph.D. About Santeria

7. Anne Regourd, with the collaboration of A. Julliard, "Le jet de coquillages divinatoire en Islam arabe et en Afrique subsaharienne : première contribution à une étude comparative", Journal of Oriental and African Studies 11(2000-2002), 2003, 133-149. 8. Anne Regourd, "Divination par lâcher de coquillages (wad‘) à Sanaa, Yémen", Annali dell’Istituto Università degli Studi di Napoli «L’Orientale» (AION), 69/1-4 (2009), 37-57, 2012.