Cowrie shell reading can trace much of its roots to the religious beliefs and practices of the Yoruba people of West Africa.
Traditionally cowrie shells, or sometimes palm nuts, were used by Yoruba male priests as a form of fortune telling known as Ifá divination. Cowrie shell reading is thought to have been brought by slaves to the Americas approximately three to four hundred years ago. Today it still widely practiced in Africa and by the descendants of slaves, but interestingly, women now seem to be the primary practitioners in the Americas.
Cowrie shells themselves are thought to have first been brought to West Africa by early Arab traders and were an important form of currency during the times of slavery. In terms of divination, cowrie shells are thought to possess specials powers. The open side a cowrie shell resembles a mouth with teeth and it is believed by practitioners that the shells can actually “talk” to the person performing the reading. The opposite side of the shell, referred to as the “closed side”, is rounded. This rounded side is often filed down flat, so that it exposes the hollow interior of the shell, but it is still referred to as the closed side of the shell.
Today there are many variations on how cowrie shell readings can be performed. In a typical reading, the reader will receive the question and then perform a prayer or blessing on the shells or deity before the shells are gently tossed onto a straw mat. How the shells land (open or closed) and the patterns they form can determine the answer to most types of questions.
One of the simplest forms of readings found in Obi Divination which can use as few as four shells to answer “yes” or “no” types of questions. In this type of reading, the four shells can give up to five different types of answers:
Alafia occurs when all four shells land in the mouth up or open position. Alaifa is considered to be both a very positive "yes" answer with an added blessing on the question being asked.
Etawa occurs when three shells land in the open and one lands in the closed positions. This is considered a 'maybe" answer to the question.
Ejife occurs when two shells land in the open and two shells land in the closed positions. This represents a perfect balance and a "yes" answer to the question. The fact that the shells are in balance though also indicates that the matter is ettled and that no further questions should be asked.
Okana Sode occurs when one shell lands in the open and three land in the closed positions. This is considered a certain "no" answer, however the results can still possibly be changed through prayers and offerings.
Oyekun occurs when all four shells land in the closed positions. This is considered a very strong “no” answer with very negative energy. In this case, blessings and spiritual cleansings should also be made to ward off any harmful influences which may be speaking through the reading.
In its more complex forms, such as Diloggun Divination, sixteen or more shells can be thrown twice to generate up to 256 unique patterns each with unique symbolism and meanings. This form of cowrie shell reading can take years of training to master is usually practiced only by specially trained priests who must perform rituals before, during and after the reading.
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