In Yoruba society, religion is equally important as politics and kinship. Religion is a part of Yoruba daily life. Yoruba religion is monotheistic, meaning that a single God (Olodunmare) rules over the universe, with several hundred lower deities, Orishas, who are personified aspects of nature gods and ancestral spirits. Even though there are over a thousand, there are at least four hundread and one recognized Orisas in the Yoruba pantheon. Some of the most important Orisas are: Ogun, the god of iron and war; Sango, the god of thunder; Obatala, the god of arch divinity of Yorubaland; Elegba, the god of crossroads; Yemoja, the goddess of the oceans and otherhood; Oya, the goddess of the winds, the whirlwinds, and the gates of the cemetery; and Osun, the goddess of love and fertility.
Orisas are best understood by observing the forces of nature they rule over and the endeavors of humanity. They can be natural phenomena, such as mountains, hills, and rivers. They can also be recognized through numbers and colors which are their marks. The devotees to each orisa can usually relate their past to their respective god. The deities are worshipped either annually or at fixed times.
Olodumare, also known as Olorun, is the central force of the Yoruba traditional religion. He is said to have established land and given life and breath. Myths say that Olodumare asked Orisanla’s brother, Oduduwa to descend from the sky to create the first Earth at Ile-Ife. Then, sixteen other orisas came down from heaven to accomplish the task of creating human beings to live on Earth. All the Orishas are said to have transcended from Olodunmare.
Ogun is the god of iron and war. Blacksmiths, warriors, and all who use metal in their profession are said to be patrons of this orisa. Ogun also presides over deals and contracts; in fact, in Yoruba courts, devotees of the faith swear to tell the truth by kissing a piece of iron or a machete that is sacred to Ogun. The Yoruba consider Ogum fearsome and terrible in his revenge. A legend that illustrates Ogun’s importance tells of the orisas trying to carve a road through a deep jungle. Ogun was the only one with proper implements for the task and won the right to be king of the orisa. He did not want the position though, and it went to Obatala. Ogun is identified by the colors green and black.
Sango, the god of thunder, rules over lightning, thunder, fire, drums, and dance. Sango’s storms and lightning being a purifying moral terror with bodlness. He is a hot blooded and strong-willed orisa with a quick temper and wit. His colors are red and white, which resembles his virility. One myth about Sango tells of when he ruled as the fourth king of the ancient Yoruba. He had a charm that could cause lightning, with which he inadvertently killed his entire family. To be forgiven for his sins, he hanged himself, and became deified. He tried to exceed his own limits and thereby destroyed what he cherished most. Sango’s devotees regard him as the embodiment of great creative potential. His dedication to power over life is evident in his shrines.
Obatala is the god of arch divinity of Yorubaland. Known as the “King of the White Cloth”, Obatala represents the spiritual unity and interrelationship of all things. He is known to be the creator of the world and humanities. Obatala is the source of purity, wisdom, peacefulness, and compassion. Everything on Earth that is pure belongs to him. As the sculpture-god, Obatala has the responsibility to evolve human bodies. He is responsible for the normal and abnormal characteristics. Therefore, the Yorubas say that human deformities are often a result of his errors. A pregnant woman who speaks negatively of Obatala is likely to have a defective child. These children are called Eni Orisa, or the children of Obatala. His followers appeal to him for children, the avenging of wrongdoing, and the cure of deformities.
Elegba (Eleggua) is the god of crossroads, meaning he is the owner of opportunity and the roads and doors into the world. He is a child-like messenger between the orisas and human beings. Without his approval, nothing could be done. He is always honored first before any other orisa because he opens the doors between the worlds and opens the door for life. He is said to be the force in nature who brings magic into reality. Devotees give offerings and honor to him on mondays and on the third day of every month. With his child-like behavior he is known as a trickster, yet his tricks are simply opportunities to learn lessons. His colors are red, white, and black which exemplify his contradicting nature.
Yemoja (Yemalla) is the goddess of the sea, moon, and motherhood. Her name, a shortened version of Yeye Omo Eja means “Mother Whose Children are the Fish” reflects the fact that her children are unaccountable. She is said to be the mother of many Orisha, generous, and giving. All life started in the sea, the amniotic fluid inside the mother’s womb, is a form of sea where the embryo must transform and evolve through the form of a fish before becoming a human baby. She represents the mother who gives love, but does not give her power away. Yemalla also owns the collective, subconsciousness. Her worship is indeed ancient and annual or at fixed times.
Sopona (Shokpona), the god of smallpox, apparently became an important god in the smallpox plagues that were transmitted by various inter-tribal wars; the Yoruba also blamed Sopona’s wrath for high temperatures, carbuncles, boils, and other diseases that resemble small-pox symptoms. Sopona once terrified some Yoruba so greatly that they feared to say his name;they used instead such names as Elegbana (“hot earth”) and A-soro-pe-leerun (“one whose name it is not propitious to call during the dry season”). Priests of Sopona wielded immense power; it was believed that they could bring the plague down on their enemies, and in fact the priests sometimes made a potion from the powdered scabs and dry skin of those who died from small-pox. They would pour the potion in an enemy’s house or a neighboring village to spread the disease. Today, however, smallpox has been all but eradicated; the priests of Sopona have lost power and the cult has all but vanished.
A Famous Olofin, or Yoruba King, was once imprisoned by his enemies in a hut without any door or roof-opening, and left to die of starvation.
As he sat gloomily on the ground, the Olofin saw a little mouse running across the hut. He seized his knife, exclaiming: Rather than die of hunger, I will eat this mouse!
But on second thoughts he put away his knife, saying: Why should I kill the mouse? I shall starve later on, just the same.
To his surprise the mouse addressed him in the following words:
Noble King! Greetings to you on your generosity! You have spared my life, and in return I will spare yours.
The mouse then disappeared into a hole in the ground, and returned some time afterwards followed by twenty or thirty other mice, all bearing grains of corn, gari, and small fruits.
For five days they fed him in this manner, and on the sixth day the hut was opened by the Olofins captors, who were astonished to find him still alive and in good health.
This Olofin must have a powerful charm! they declared. It appears that he can live without eating or drinking!
Thereupon they released him, gave him a war-canoe, and let him return in freedom to his own country.
A King named Chango sent two slaves to a distant country on an important mission.
In due course they returned, and he found that one slave had achieved successfully what he had been sent to do, while the other had accomplished nothing. The King therefore rewarded the first with high honours, and commanded the second to receive a hundred and twenty-two razor cuts all over his body.
This was a severe punishment, but when the scars healed, they gave to the slave a very remarkable appearance, which greatly took the fancy of the King’s wives.
Chango therefore decided that cuts should in future be given, not as punishment, but as a sign of royalty, and he placed himself at once in the hands of the markers. However, he could only bear two cuts, and so from that day two cuts on the arm have been the sign of royalty, and various other cuts came to be the marks of different tribes.