Yoruba Religion: History and Beliefs

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The Yorùbá people, who inhabit a significant part of Western Africa, including Nigeria, have been practicing their unique set of religious customs for centuries. Yoruba religion is a blend of indigenous beliefs, myths and legends, proverbs, and songs, all influenced by the cultural and social contexts of the western portion of Africa.

Key Takeaways: Yoruba Religion

  • The Yoruba religion includes the concept of Ashe, a powerful life force possessed by humans and divine beings alike; Ashe is the energy found in all natural things.
  • Much like the Catholic saints, the Yoruba orishas work as the intermediaries between man and the supreme creator, and the rest of the divine world.
  • Yoruba religious celebrations have a social purpose; they promote cultural values and help to preserve the rich heritage of the people who follow them.

Basic Beliefs

Traditional Yoruba beliefs hold that all people experience Ayanmo, which is destiny or fate. As a part of this, there is an expectation that everyone will eventually achieve the state of Olodumare, which is becoming one with the divine creator who is the source of all energy. In the Yoruba religion belief system, live and death is an ongoing cycle of existence in various bodies, in Ayé—the physical realm—as the spirit gradually moves towards transcendence.

Entrance to the Osogbo temple compound - Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, Osogbo, Nigeria
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In addition to being a spiritual state, Olodumare is the name of the divine, supreme being who is the creator of all things. Olodumare, also known as Olorun, is an all-powerful figure, and isn't limited by gender constraints. Usually the pronoun "they" is used when describing Olodumare, who doesn't typically meddle in the everyday affairs of mortals. If someone wishes to communicate with Olodumare, they do so by asking the orishas to intercede on their behalf.

Creation Story

The Yoruba religion has its own unique creation story, in which Olorun lived in the sky with the orishas, and the goddess Olokun was the ruler of all of the water below. Another being, Obatala, asked Olorun for permission to create dry land for other creatures to live upon. Obatala took a bag, and filled it with a sand-filled snail shell, a white hen, a black cat, and a palm nut. He threw the bag over his shoulder, and began to climb down from the heavens on a long gold chain. When he ran out of chain, he poured the sand out beneath him, and released the hen, who began pecking at the sand and began spreading it around to create the hills and valleys.

He then planted the palm nut, which grew into a tree and multiplied, and Obatala even made wine from the nuts. One day, after drinking a bit of palm wine, Obatala got bored and lonely and fashioned creatures out of clay, many of which were flawed and imperfect. In his drunken stupor, he called out to Olorun to breathe life into the figures, and thus mankind was created.

Finally, the Yoruba religion also has Ashe, a powerful life force possessed by humans and divine beings alike. Ashe is the energy found in all natural things—rain, thunder, blood, and so on. It is similar to the concept of the Chi in Asian spirituality, or that of the chakras in the Hindu belief system.

Deities and Orisha

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Much like the saints of Catholicism, the Yoruba orishas work as the intermediaries between man and the supreme creator, and the rest of the divine world. While they often act on behalf of mortals, the orishas sometimes work against humans and cause problems for them.

There are a number of different kinds of orishas in the Yoruba religion. Many of them are said to have been present when the world was created, and others were once human, but transcended into a state of semi-divine existence. Some orishas appear in the form of a natural feature—rivers, mountains, trees, or other environmental markers. The orishas exist in a way much like human beings—they party, eat and drink, love and marry, and enjoy music. In a way, the orishas serve as a reflection of mankind itself.

In addition to the orishas, there are also the Ajogun; these represent negative forces in the universe. An Ajogun might cause illness or accidents, as well as other calamities; they are responsible for the sorts of problems typically attributed to demons in the Christian faith. Most people try to avoid the Ajogun; anyone who is afflicted by one might be sent to an Ifa, or priest, to perform a divination and determine how to get rid of the Ajogun.

Typically, in the Yoruba religion, most issues can be explained by either the work of an Ajogun, or the failure to pay proper respects to an orisha who must then be placated.

Practices and Celebrations

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It is estimated that some 20% of Yoruba practice the traditional religion of their ancestors. In addition to honoring the creator god, Olorun, and the orishas, followers of Yoruban religion often participate in celebrations during which sacrifices are offered to the different gods that control things like rain, sunshine, and the harvest. During Yoruba religious festivals, participants are intensely involved in the ritualistic-re-enactment of folktales, myths, and other events that help explain mankind's place in the cosmos.

For a Yoruban to avoid participation in these ceremonies would be to essentially turn his back on his ancestors, spirits, and gods. Festivals are a time in which family life, dress, language, music, and dance are celebrated and expressed side by side with spiritual belief; it's a time of building community and making sure that everyone has enough of what they need. A religious festival may include ceremonies to mark births, marriages, or deaths, as well as initiations and other rites of passage.

During the annual Ifa celebration, which falls at the time of the yam harvest, there is a sacrifice made to Ifa, as well as a ritualized cutting of the new yam. There is a great feast, with dancing, drumming, and other forms of music all folded into the ritual celebration. Prayers are said to ward off premature deaths, and to offer protection and blessings to the entire village for the coming year.

The festival of Ogun, which also takes place on an annual basis, involves sacrifices as well. Prior to the ritual and celebration, priests take a vow to abstain from cursing, fighting, sex, and eating certain foods, so they can be seen as worthy of Ogun. When it's time for the festival, they make offerings of snails, kola nuts, palm oil, pigeons, and dogs to soothe Ogun's destructive wrath.

Yoruba religious celebrations have a social purpose; they promote cultural values and help to preserve the rich heritage of the people who follow them. Although many Yoruba people have become Christian and Muslim since colonization, those who practice the traditional religious beliefs of their ancestors have managed to coexist peacefully with their non-traditional neighbors. The Christian church has compromised by blending their annual programming into the indigenous celebrations of the harvest; while traditional Yoruba are celebrating their gods, for instance, their Christian friends and family members are offering thanks to their own God. People come together for this dual-faith celebration to offer prayer for the mercy, protection, and blessings of two very different types of deities, all for the good of the entire community.

Reincarnation

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Unlike many western religious beliefs, Yoruba spirituality emphasizes living a good life; reincarnation is part of the process and is something to be looked forward to. Only those who live a virtuous and good existence earn the privilege of reincarnation; those who are unkind or deceitful don't get to be reborn. Children are often seen as the reincarnated spirit of ancestors who have crossed over; this concept of familial reincarnation is known as Atunwa. Even Yoruba names like Babatunde, which means “father returns,” and Yetunde, “mother returns,” reflect the idea of reincarnation within one's own family.

In the Yoruba religion, gender is not an issue when it comes to reincarnation, and it is believe to change with each new rebirth. When a new child is born as a reincarnated being, they carry not only the wisdom of the ancestor soul they possessed before, but also the accumulated knowledge of all of their lifetimes.

Influence on Modern Traditions

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Although it's most commonly found in the western part of Africa, in countries like Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, for the past several decades, Yoruba religion has also been making its way to the United States, where it is resonating with many black Americans. Many people find themselves drawn to Yoruba because it offers them a chance to connect to a spiritual heritage that predates colonization and the Transatlantic slave trade.

In addition, Yoruba has had significant influence on other belief systems that are considered a part of the African diaspora. African traditional religions like Santeria, Candomble, and Trinidad Orisha all can trace many of their roots back to the beliefs and practices of Yorubaland. In Brazil, enslaved Yoruba brought their traditions with them, syncretized them with the Catholicism of their owners, and formed the Umbanda religion, which blends African orishas and beings with Catholic saints and indigenous concepts of ancestral spirits.

Sources

  • Anderson, David A. Sankofa, 1991, The Origin of Life on Earth: An African Creation Myth: Mt. Airy, Maryland, Sights Productions, 31 p. (Folio PZ8.1.A543 Or 1991), http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/CS/CSGoldenChain.html  
  • Bewaji, John A. "Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief and the Theistic Problem of Evil." African Studies Quarterly, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 1998. http://asq.africa.ufl.edu/files/ASQ-Vol-2-Issue-1-Bewaji.pdf
  • Fandrich, Ina J. “Yorùbá Influences on Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 37, no. 5, May 2007, pp. 775–791, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0021934705280410.
  • Johnson, Christopher. “Ancient African Religion Finds Roots In America.” NPR, NPR, 25 Aug. 2013, https://www.npr.org/2013/08/25/215298340/ancient-african-religion-finds-roots-in-america.
  • Oderinde, Olatundun. "The Lore of Religious Festivals Among the Yoruba and its Social Relevance." Lumina, Vol. 22, No.2, ISSN 2094-1188
  • Olupọna, Jacob K. “The Study of Yoruba Religious Tradition in Historical Perspective.” Numen, vol. 40, no. 3, 1993, pp. 240–273., www.jstor.org/stable/3270151.