African Guidance from Cowrie Shells

This simple form of guidance has been practiced for millennia by the Yoruba people living along the coastal areas of West Africa. The system uses sixteen cowrie shells–oval-shaped shells available in many craft shops or found in inexpensive jewelry at places like the Dollar Store.

Find out how these shells can help you to answer yes-or-no questions, here:

Cowrie shells have two sides. One is flat and smooth with a narrow serrated opening. This side is known as the “mouth.” The other side is rounded but has been broken with a sharp, pointed object to leave a larger opening. This side is known as the “eye.” Your yes or no answer depends on the number of mouths you get, according to the chart below.

Draw a circle on the ground in front of you or on a piece of cloth or paper placed on the table.

Take sixteen prepared cowrie shells and hold them in your hands. Shake them in your hands while you focus on the yes or no question you wish to have answered. Now allow the shells to fall over the circle.

Counting only the shells that fall within the circle, see how many “mouth” sides fell facing upward. If you get 0 to 9 mouths, simply consult the chart below. If you get ten or more mouths, you will need to total those digits. For example, 15 mouths would be 1 plus 5 = 6. Find the corresponding number below for your answer.

1 Yes
Freedom, spirit, creation, take charge now

2 No
Partnership, unity, uncontrolled energy, need for diplomacy

3 Yes
Frustration, caution, learning for happiness, hard work

4 Not Yet

Opportunities, talents, expansion, be with others

5 Yes, but use caution

Power to create or destroy, think before doing

6 Not yet

Sacrifices, compromises, caring, inner strength, victory

7 Yes, but use caution

Victory, love, women, uneasy relationships, intuition

8 Not yet

Learn to plan and communicate, think carefully

9 Yes
Very emotional, stressed out, need time to think, births

0 No

Delay necessary, absolutely no

If you are dealing with a reduced number (the 15 that makes 1 plus 5 = 6, for example), it is a “stronger” form than a single simple number. It therefore gives more of a challenge, or is more strongly positive or negative. Here is an example: in a question about love life, a simple 7 would indicate victory in love with somewhat uneasy relationships, but 16 reducing to 7 would indicate that a victory might well be hard won, with some challenges along the way. In either case, the person involved should listen to her or his inner voice.

Adapted from The Book of African Divination, by Raymond Buckland and Kathleen Binger (Inner Traditions, 1992). Copyright (c) 1992 by Buckland and Binger. Reprinted by permission of Inner Traditions.
Adapted from The Book of African Divination, by Raymond Buckland and Kathleen Binger (Inner Traditions, 1992).


K s Goh
KS Goh7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Mayhre Borrett-brockway

Interesting , Thank you.