The Art of Cowrie Shell Divination
Divination is an indispensable part of Santeria. Those who follow the traditions of Santeria rely on the advice and guidance that they receive from the Orishas, as well as from their departed ancestors to help them make decisions and work through difficult times. Unlike fortune telling, divination is a sacred ritual that incorporates sanctified tools in its practice.
These rituals require intensive training and follow extremely specific procedures. Very few men and women have the spiritual energy to become a specialist in divination. Priests and priestesses, known as Olorichas, work for years to hone their skills to be able to communicate with the spirits to obtain answers to questions or guidance regarding specific situations.
Many centuries ago, cowrie shells became a popular tool in divination ceremonies. These sacred shells are said to be the doorway through which we can access the world of the ancestors, the world that holds infinite knowledge and wisdom and a timeless view we cannot otherwise tap into.
Certain cultures believe that the magic comes from its resemblance to a half-open eye. Other groups see a similarity between the cowrie and female genitalia, and consequently they have become symbolic of fertility.
The shells were tossed onto a table, grass mat, sacred cloth or wooden board and then interpreted based on how they fell. The shaman or priest would infer meanings based on the grouping, position and inclination of the shells. Throwing cowrie shells has long been a practice in insight, and one that is rich in history and tribal tradition.
Obi Divination derives from the ancient religions of the West African people. Obi divination’s primary use is to answer simple questions with “yes” or “no” answers. It is most typically used to get a simple yes/no answer to questions about a person’s life. Obi is one of the most widely used forms of divination in the Orisha religions.
The word obi means kola nut in the Yoruba language. Kola nuts were traditionally used in the divination practices of Santeria and are still used in Africa during the divination ritual. Obi divination is most commonly performed with four pieces of kola nut.
In the United States, this system of foretelling events incorporates the reading of cowrie shells in place of the traditional kola nut. The cowrie shell has protective properties and was first used by shaman and sorcerers for magical protection. They quickly became popular for use in divination rituals.
The four shells represent the past and the future and are considered to be male or female. The person conducting the divination will hold four shells in his or her hand as they pray over your question. The Oloricha will blow on the shells and then toss them onto a table or the floor and examine how they fell. The Shaman then interprets the shells. If no clear response is obvious, the consultant may be asked to throw the shells again.
Cowrie shells can fall either up/open or down/closed. It is possible for sixteen different outcomes to occur. These possible outcomes are grouped into five answers. They are:
Alafia: four mouth-up cowries
This is the most blessed of responses. Alafia is a “Yes” to whatever you asked about — and you may be gifted with more than you wished for or your desires may come to fruition sooner than you hoped. Alafia means "peace." It represents all of the light that is available and able to assist you. Although this is a very positive answer, it still requires one more throw of the cowries if you want to see exactly how stable and long-lasting this "yes" might be.
Etawa: three mouth-up, one mouth-down cowries
A "Maybe". Etawa is not a definite response. One has turned against three others. Therefore while three say yes, there is an element of dispute in the answer. If you need a quick answer, Etawa leans to a “yes”. However, it is not a definitive answer. Like Alafia, when you get Etawa, it is advisable to make another throw.
Ejife: two mouth-up, two mouth-down
This is an unequivocal “Yes”. The balance between light and dark indicates a definite affirmative answer. Once you have this perfect yes there is no further need for interpretation or a re-toss of the shells.
Okanran: one mouth-up, three mouth-down
“No.” What you asked will not. Okanran is a firm no. Three have teamed up against one. The strong level of opposition is an indication that much work is needed before the blessings in question could come to fulfillment.
Oyekun: 4 mouth-down cowries This is a very strong “No”. If you receive this reading, you may want to consider participating in a spiritual cleansing in order to clear away the negativity that surrounds this issue in your life. Oyekun represents total darkness and the spirits of the dead can speak through this answer.
Diloggun divination is practiced by followers of the La Regla de Ocha religion to ask questions of the Orishas. This system of fortune telling is not commonly used among hoodoo practitioners, because one must be initiated in the religion to learn it. The system uses 16 cowrie shells that have been opened, consecrated and empowered (through blood sacrifice) to speak for the Orishas.
Each Orisha has his or her own set of diloggun, however Eleggua’s diloggun are used for general consultations because he has the ability to speak for all of the Orishas. His set of cowries has 21 shells (only 16 of which are used in a reading). Almost all of the other Orishas have 18 cowries in their set.
Odu (odun) refers to one of the many patterns that fall when an Oloricha throws the diloggun when doing a reading. There are 16 basic patterns, known as the "parent" odu, but the first throw of the diloggun is always a composite, made up of two parent odu. This opening pattern is called the entoyale, and it gives the diviner important information about the general themes that need to be addressed during the reading.
Depending on how the shells fall, any of 256 possible composite patterns can turn up, and each one has its own specific characteristics that the diviner must be able to interpret. Each odu is represented by a number, which stands for the number of shells that fall face up on the mat. The possible outcomes of a single throw are:
- Okana (one mouth up)
- Eji Oko (two mouths up)
- Ogunda (three mouths up)
- Irosun (four mouths up)
- Oche (five mouths up)
- Obara (six mouths up)
- Odi (seven mouths up)
- Eji Ogbe (eight mouths up)
- Osa (nine mouths up)
- Ofun (ten mouths up)
- Owani (eleven mouths up)
- Ejila Shebora (twelve mouths up)
- Metanla (thirteen mouths up)
- Merinla (fourteen mouths up)
- Marunla (fifteen mouths up)
- Merindilogun (sixteen mouths up)
There is also a seventeenth possibility, Opira (no mouths up), which indicates significant problems with the reading (either on the part of the client or the diviner).
After the outcome of the reading has been determined, more questions are asked in order to reveal the proper interpretation. Yes or no questions are asked by the Oloricha and sixteen cowrie shells are selected to answer the question. The answers to these questions reveal whether there are blessings or obstructions in the client’s future.
The odu can relay important information to us and provide useful insight into human nature and what is to come for us in our future. Anyone wishing to connect with their energy can simply put some cowrie shells in their pocket or wallet to attract insight and financial success. Cowries can also be thrown into a moving body of water such as a river or ocean while a wish is being made. Fertility, protection, wealth, and blessings of all kinds can be found in these tiny, precious shells. These are the prized treasures of our ancestors, and we can still benefit from them today.