To examine the Yoruba religion, one must look at the entire area of Yoruba cultural existence. Yorubas are located basically in the southwestern part of Nigeria and in some parts of Benin and Togo. The history of the Yoruba religion seems to be somewhat of a controversial subject in most sources that deal with this topic. There was really no mention of when the religion started or much about the origin of the people because the beginning of their existence was always noted as being in Ife, the center where the Yoruba people descended from heaven. Ife is said to have been founded around a thousand years ago and there was some mention that the Yorubas might have descended from some Middle Eastern heritage.
As far as dealing with the actual origin of the religion itself, it is only referred to as a surviving religion of a “higher” religion. That religion is said to be from the Ancient Egyptian–Religion otherwise known as Khamet or Kemet. Being that the language of the Yorubas is so strongly tied to the culture there are many comparisons analyzed as to why there is a belief that Yoruba religion has been derived from Ancient Egyptian religion. For example, in Lucas’ “The Religion of the Yorubas” word comparisons are made. Such a comparison is made with the Ancient Egyptian God Amon: “The God Amon is one of the Gods formerly known to the Yorubas”. The Yoruba words mon, mimon, “holy or sacred,” are probably derived from the name of the God” (p.21).
Many of the sources which I encountered did not attempt to even approach the topic of the origin of the Yorubas Orisa (Orisha). The Orisa is one of the key spiritual elements of traditional Yoruba religion. It is an example of the many deep rooted meanings of the religion of the Yorubas. The Orisa, according to Baba Ifa Karade’s “The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts,” are a series of Gods or divinities under the Yoruba’s main–God, Olorun or Oludumare. Karade also argues that there are many striking similarities between the ancient Egyptians and the Yorubas. The Orisha are “… an expression of the principles and functions of divine power manifesting on nature”(p.23).
The actual word “Orisha” has a deep meaning itself. For example, the word ori is the “reflective spark of human consciousness embedded on human essense, and sha which is the ultimate potentiality of that consciousness.” This gives a strong example of how strong language is tied to religion. This Ori is the aspect of the human that is in a sense in control of their spiritual actions. The ori is divided into two which can be known as the ori apari and the ori apere. The ori apari represents the internal spiritual head and the ori apere represents the sign of an individuals personal protector. The common Orisa which seem to come up time after time are these major ones: Obatala, Elegba, Ogun, Yemoja, Oshun (Osun), Shango (Sango), and Oya.
Each of these gods has a specific purpose when dealing with the human spirit. Each of the orisas has a specific color and natural environment associated with them. Obatala represents the embodiment of true purity of one’s soul. Obatala is also said to represent ethical purity. Such purity is represented by pure whiteness. There is great measure taken to carry out the importance of this pure whiteness because the temples which worship the divinity Obatala have the color of white in all the instruments of worship. For example, the clothing of those involved with the worship in the temples are white. In addition, all the emblems are kept in white containers and the ornaments are white as are the beads for the priests and priestesses. Obatala is said to be the father of the Orisha and the divinity in charge of the carving of humans out of clay into the form they are today. He is worshiped or appeased by his followers when they want children, revenge for wrong doings, cures for sickness and so on.
Yemoja is the divinity that governs over all the waters or oceans. Yemoja is said to be the mother of all the Orisha. She is the water or ambiotic fluid in the mother’s womb and the breasts which nurture a new born child. She is the Matriarchal head of the entire universe. Her natural environment are the salt water–oceans and the lakes and the colors associated with her are blue and crystal. There is much confusion concerning the subject matter as to who is the chief female divinity because the different sources represent different view points on this subject matter and this was really unclear.
Sango or Shango to non Yoruba speakers is said to be a human that was made into a deity. He was said to be the ruler of old Oyo that was hung (legend has it that he committed suicide by hanging himself to a tree after his failure to amass all the political powr to himself) because of his greed for power. Sango is the god of lightning in addition to being the Orisha of drum and dance. He is also known to change things into pure and valuabe objects. His followers come to him for legal problems, making bad situations better, and protection from enemies. His natural environment happens to be any place that has been struck by lightning, and the base of trees. It is said that no god is more feared for malevolent action than sango.
Ogun is said to be the god of iron and basically everything that becomes iron. He is known for building or clearing paths for the building of civilizations and is the divinity of mechanization. Ogun is considered to be the holder of divine justice and truth. He is also said to be the executioner of the world. Natural environment are in the woods, railroads, and forges.
Oya is the divinity that is associated with the death or the rebirth into a new life. She is considered to be the wife of Sango. Oya is also known as the god of storms and hurricanes and has power over the winds. She is also the deity that is in charge of guarding the cemetary. Osun (Oshun) is the deity of diplomacy and all giving or unconditional love. She is a river deity because she symbolizes clarity. She is the divinity of fertility and feminine essence. Oshun is said to represent the strenght of feminine love and the power of motherhood. It is she who is appeased when it comes time for a mother to give birth.
Elegba is the messenger of the deities and his major role is to negotiate between the other orishas and the humans and is very close to all the forces of the deities. He is in charge of giving from the humans to the divinities. Elegba is the one who tests the human souls. Even when worhsipping other divinities, he is also worshipped because of his important role in the Yoruba religion. Elegba can both punish and reward and is known for having great wisdom. He is also the divinity who takes the body upon death and the divinity that saves. Although he does not match the role exactly, he is what the western world would call the devil. Elegba is not evil.
It is particularly important to discuss the dieties because they represent such an important aspect of Yoruba traditional religion. The Yorubas have a deep and symbolic meaning attached to each of the divinities which is exhibited through prayer and worhsip. These divinities give the reader some idea of the powerful belief system of the Yorubas. Many scholars or anyone not familiar with the Yoruba system of worship which is based in the belief in more than one god, may see this religion as “superstitious” or “pagan”.
The Yorubas have many festivals to give honor and praise to the many divinities within the Orisa system of belief. The Yoruba festivals are extremely elaborate and have much deep rooted meaning in practice related to them. Certain Yoruba towns have certain orisas which are honored. This is extremely important because it shows the diversity of Yoruba culture and futhermore the facets of traditional Yoruba religion. It would be tedious and quite boring to examine and give an account of every single festival and the villages in which they take place because the Yoruba religion covers so many (actually all) towns in Yorubaland. The discussion could go on forever. However, I will give one account of this widely practiced aspect of Yoruba religion.
Among the people of Osogbo, the Orisa Osun is the center of the town’s attention even though it is worshipped by the people in all areas of Yorubaland. The reason for this vast diversity may be due to the fact that there are major differences in the landscape of each of the villages where the Yorubas settled. Each orisa has a natural environment and a different emphasis may be put on a different orisa. For example, the reason why the people of Osogbo worship osun may be because their town was founded near a river and osun’s natural environment is in fresh rivers and lakes. The historical legend or belief behind the worship of osun is that the people of Osogbo found it hard to find any fresh drinking water for the village. It was the divinity osun who gave the people of Osogbo fresh water. Osun has also been credited to give infertile women children.
In Yoruba traditional religion, life is circular. What is meant by this that in the Yoruba religion, there is no such thing as death. Death is seen as a transition from the physical plain to the spiriitual plain. The life cycle of the Yorubas is very complex. Before an individual is born into the world, they choose a destiny with God (Olodumare) in heaven. The goal is to fulfil the destiny. There is one exception, once a child is born he or she forgets the destiny he or she has chosen. The purpose of this is for the individual to learn and gain wisdom for life in the spiritual plain. The Yoruba traditional religion believes in predestination. It is also important to point out that there is no hell in traditional Yoruba religion. The Yoruba believe that all of one’s wrong doings will be paid for and all good deads will be rewarded. Under the orisa system, the early cycle of life is called “morning”. Morning of one’s life spans from the time of birth to the age of fifty. It is in this time period that the individual learns and experiences life’s most difficult lessons. This also is the time when the Yorubas raise their families. The Yorubas believe that no one is a master in any area of life until they reach age fifty. The time period from the age of fifty until the transition into the spirit realm is called the evening. It is in this time period that individuals enjoy life the most. By this time most Yoruba men and women would have raised their children and have much free time to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The evening is a time period when the Yorubas prepare for their transition. Long life and family are the two most important blessings in Yoruba religion.
The Yoruba believe that there are three types of people: achievers, people who assist achievers, and bystanders. Whichever role one chooses dictates the type of life that the person will live. The babalawo is the most important figure in Yoruba religion on the physical plain. His role is one of great respect and experience. The Babalawo’s training is long and indepth. It is said in some temples of Yoruba divination that Babalawos are said to stay in their temples for seven years before being released into the world to pracitce Orisha. The babalawo, by his knowledge and training, is the link between the divinities and man.
Study the Teaching of Ifa and the Orisha's
Yoruba Traditional Religion
- Contributed By Ifá Bité
- Category: Yoruba Fokelore