Yoruba Religion

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YORUBA RELIGION . The twelve to fifteen million Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria, the Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey), and Togo (topographically the area is defined as that between 6°09°5' 2°41'6° east longitude) are the heirs of one of the oldest cultural traditions in West Africa. Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicate that the Yoruba have lived in their present habitat since at least the fifth century bce. The development of the regional dialects that distinguish the Yoruba subgroups and the process of urbanization, which developed into a social system unique among sub-Saharan African peoples, took place during the first millennium bce. By the ninth century the ancient city of Ile-If was thriving, and in the next five centuries If artists would create terracotta and bronze sculptures that are now among Africa's artistic treasures.

Both Yoruba myth and oral history refer to Oduduwa (also known as Odua) as the first king and founder of the Yoruba people. Some myths portray him as the creator god and assert that the place of creation was Ile-If, which subsequently became the site of Oduduwa's throne. Oral history, however, suggests that the story of Oduduwa's assumption of the throne at If refers to a conquest of the indigenes of the If area prior to the ninth century by persons from "the east." While it is increasingly apparent that the sociopolitical model of a town presided over by a paramount chief or king (ba ), was well established in If and present among other Yoruba subgroups, the followers of Oduduwa developed the urban tradition and enhanced the role of the king. In later years, groups of people who sought to establish their political legitimacy (even if they were immigrants) were required to trace their descent from Oduduwa. Such people were known as "the sons of Oduduwa," and they wore beaded crowns (adenla ) given to them by Oduduwa as the symbol of their sacred authority (a ).

Origin myths, festival rituals, and oral traditions associate the indigenous peoples with batala, the deity (oria ) who fashions the human body. And because he too was an ba, his priests wear white, conical, beaded crowns similar to those reserved for "the sons of Oduduwa." The myths and rituals also refer to a great struggle between batala and Oduduwa at the time of creation, following Oduduwa's theft of the privilege granted by lrun (Olodumare), the high god, to batala to create the earth and its inhabitants. In the town of Itapa, the sequence of rituals that composes the annual festival of batala reenacts a battle between Oduduwa and batala, Oduduwa's victory over and the banishment of batala, and the rejoicing that took place among the gods and humankind with the return of batala at the invitation of Oduduwa. And there is the tradition among the y Yoruba of the unwarranted imprisonment of batala by ango and the thunder god's release of the wandering, ancient king after famine and barrenness threatened field and home.

In these myths and rituals there is a historical remembrance of a usurpation of power and the acknowledgment that a violent conflict and a tenuous reconciliation gave birth to modern Yoruba culture. The remembrance, however, has not only to do with a past time, with historical and cultural origins; it is also a statement about the nature and limits of the authority of kings in defining the moral basis of Yoruba society. It is also about the importance of Ile-If as the symbol of Yoruba cultural homogeneity, while acknowledging the distinctiveness and the independence of other Yoruba subgroups.

There are approximately twenty subgroups, each identifiable by its distinctive variation in linguistic, social, political, and religious patterns born of the history of the region. Among the principal groups are the gba and gbado in the southwest, the Ijbu in the southern and southeast, the y in the central and northwest, the If and the Ija in the central, the Owo in the eastern, and the Igbomina and Ekiti in the northeast regions. Throughout Yorubaland, the social system is patrilineal and patrilocal, although among the gba and gbado there are elements of a dual descent system. The extended family (idile ), which dwells in the father's compound so long as space and circumstance permit, is the essential social unit and the primary context in which self-awareness and social awareness are forged. Thus, dun Egungun, the annual festival for the patrilineal ancestors, is the most widespread and important festival in the Yoruba liturgical calendar. Elaborate masquerades (egungun ), are created of layers of cloths of dark colors with white serrated edges. The costume covers the dancer, who moves about the compound or town with stately pace, occasionally performing whirling movements, causing the cloths to splay out in constantly changing patterns. In movement and appearance the masquerade depicts the presence and power (a ) of the ancestors. The ancestors are those persons who established the "house" (ile ) and the family and who continue to stand surety for its integrity and survival against threats of witchcraft and disease, so long as their heirs acknowledge the ancestral presence.

While masquerades for the patrilineal ancestors are found among all the Yoruba, there are other masked festivals that are distinctive to particular areas, reflecting the regional history that has shaped the Yoruba experience. The Yoruba peoples of the southwest (the Anago, Awori, gbado, Ktu, and gba) celebrate the Gld festival at the time of the spring rains. The festival honors awon iya wa ("the mothers"), a collective term for the female power (a ) possessed by all women but especially manifest in certain elderly women and in female ancestors and deities. It is the awesome power of woman in its procreative and destructive capacities that is celebrated and acknowledged. Among the Ijbu peoples of the south the annual festival for Agm, an oria whose power is represented by the chameleon, brings sixteen priest-chiefs famed for their magical or manipulative powers from towns surrounding the capital city of Ijbu-Ode into ritual contests of curse and masked dance with one another and then into the city, where they petition and are received by the Awujale, the oba of Ijbu-Ode. The secret power of the priest-chiefs meets the sacred power of the crown. Each is required to acknowledge the role of the other in the complex balance of power that constitutes Ijbu political life. The lfon and pa festivals are masquerades performed in the towns of such Yoruba subgroups as the Igbomina and Ekiti in honor of persons and families whose lives embodied the social values by which Yoruba culture has been defined in the northeastern area. The helmet masks with their large sculptures are balanced on the dancers' heads and are the focus of ritual sacrifice (b ) and songs of praise (oriki ) throughout the festival. They are images of the sacred power of those who founded the town or contributed to its life in important ways. Thus, while individual masks are associated with particular families, they also refer to the roles of hunter, warrior, king, herbalist-priest, and leader of women, roles that transcend lineage ties and express in their collectivity cultural achievement. Their powers are akin to those of the oria, the gods of the Yoruba pantheon.

According to the Yoruba, there are 401 oria who line the road to heaven. All of them are thought to have been humans who, because they led notable lives, became oria at the time of their death. For example, ango, the god of thunder, was a legendary king of y before he became an oria. The extraordinary number of oria reflects the regional variation in their worship. ango is the patron deity of the kings of y, and his shrines are important in those towns that were once part of the old y empire (c. 16001790). But in Ile-If, or in communities to the south and east, the role of ango and the degree to which he is worshiped diminishes markedly. As one moves from one part of Yorubaland to another, it will be un, goddess of medicinal waters, or Oko, god of the farm, or Erinle, god of forest and stream, or batala or Agm whose shrines and festivals shape the religious life of a people. Furthermore, the oria have multiple names. Some call ango ba Koso ("king of Koso"); others greet him as Balogunnile Ado ("leader of warriors at Ado"). ango is also addressed as Abinufarokotu ("one who violently uproots an iroko tree"), k Iyemnja ("husband of Iyemonja"), or Lagigaoogun ("he who is mighty in the use of magical powers"), names that reveal the varied and distinctive experiences of his devotees and their relationship to the oria. The multiplicity (or fragmentation) of the oria is also a consequence of the historical dislocation of peoples that occurred during the intertribal wars of the nineteenth century. When persons and groups were forced to move from one area to another, their oria went with them, shaping and being shaped by the new world of their devotees' experience.

Of all the oria it is Ogun, god of iron and of war, whose worship is most widespread. It is said that there are seven Ogun, including Ogun of the blacksmiths, Ogun of the hunters, Ogun of the warriors, and Ogun Onire. Ire is a town in northeast Yorubaland where Ogun was once the leader of warriors and where he "sank into the ground" after killing persons in a great rage, having misunderstood their vow of ritual silence as a personal affront. As with other oria, Ogun expresses and shapes a people's experience with respect to a particular aspect of their lives. In the case of Ogun, it is the experience of violence and culture: His myths and rituals articulate for the Yoruba the irony that cultural existence entails destruction and death. One must kill in order to live. And such a situation carries with it the danger that the destruction will go beyond culturally legitimate need, destroying that which it should serve. Thus, to employ Ogun's power, one must be aware of Ogun's character (iwa ) and be cognizant that the beneficent god can become the outraged oria who bites himself.

As with Ogun, each of the oria, in the diversity and individuality of their persons and attributes, may be understood as providing an explanatory system and a means of coping with human suffering. Rarely does only one oria lay claim to a person. Ogun or ango or un may dominate one's life and shape one's perception of self and world, but other oria will have their artifacts on the shrine, as well as their claims and influence upon one's life. Just as the Yoruba dancer must respond to the multiple rhythms of the drums, so must the soul attentive to the powers of the oria respond to their diverse claims. The complexity of the response may overwhelm one. But as in the ability of the dancer to be conscious of and respond to every instrument of the orchestra, so in sacrificing to all the oria who call, the worshiper (olusin, "he who serves") can know the richness of life and its complexity and can achieve the superior poise, the equanimity of one who possesses ase amid the contradictions of life. Thus, when one considers the configuration of oria symbols on a devotee's shrine or the cluster of shrines and festivals for the oria in a particular town or the pantheon as a whole, as a total system, one discerns that the total assemblage of oria expresses in it totality a worldview. And it is in the reality of this worldview that Yoruba experience, at the personal and social levels, is given coherence and meaning.

In addition to the oria of the pantheon, there is one's personal oria, known as ori inun ("inner head"), which refers to the destiny that one's ancestral guardian soul has chosen while kneeling before lrun prior to entering the world. It is a personal destiny that can never be altered. Birth results in the loss of the memory of one's destiny. But one's "ori -in-heaven," which is also referred to as ekejimi ("my spiritual other"), stands surety for the possibilities and the limits of the destiny that one has received. Hence, one must make one's way in life, acknowledging one's ori as an oria who can assist one in realizing the possibilities that are one's destiny. One can have an ori buruku ("a bad head"). In such a case a person must patiently seek to make the best of a foolish choice and seek the help of the other oria.

In oria worship it is the wisdom of runmila, the oria of Ifa divination, and the work of Eu, the bearer of sacrifices, that stand for the meaningfulness of experience and the possibility of effective action. The vast corpus of Ifa poetry, organized into 256 collections called odu (also known as oria ) is a repository of Yoruba cultural values. It is the priest of Ifa, the babalawo ("father of ancient wisdom"), who knows Ifa and performs the rites of divination. Using the sixteen sacred palm nuts or the opele chain, the priest divines the odu whose verses he will chant in addressing the problem of the suppliant and determining the sacrifices that must be made. For the Yoruba, every ritual entails a sacrifice, whether it is the gift of prayer, the offering of a kola nut, or the slaughter of an animal. In the Ifa literature, sacrifice (b ) has to do with death and the avoidance of such related experiences as loss, disease, famine, sterility, isolation, and poverty. It is an acknowledgment that human existence is ensnared in the interrelated contradictions of life and death. But sacrifice is also viewed as the reversal of the situation of death into life. Sacrifice is the food of the oria and other spirits, and one sacrifices that which appropriately expresses the character (iwa ) of the particular oria or spirit of one's concern. Hence, Ogun receives a dog, the carnivorous animal that can be domesticated to assist the hunter and warrior. Sacrifice is the acknowledgement of the presence of powerful agents in the world, and the sacrificial act brings the creative power of the oria, the ancestors, or the mothers to the worshiper; sacrifice can also temporarily stay the hand of Death and ward off other malevolent spirits (ajogun ). Such is the power of Eu, the bearer of sacrifices, the mediator and guardian of the ritual way, the "keeper of ase."

Those who have observed the ritual way and achieved the status of elders in the community may also become members of the secret Ougbo (Ogboni) society. Although Ougbo is found throughout Yorubaland, its role and rituals vary from one region to another. Ougbo members, who come from various lineage groups, worship Onile ("the owner of the house"). The "house" (ile ) is the image of the universe in its totality, of which the Ougbo cult house is a microcosm. The dan of the Ougbo society, which are small, brass, linked staffs that depict male and female figures, are the sign of membership and the symbol of the Ougbo understanding of reality. The secret of the Ougbo appears to be that its members know, and are in touch with, a primordial unity that transcends the oppositions characterizing human experience. Expressing the unity of male and female, the dan and their owners possess the power of adjudicating conflicts among persons or groups; when blood has been shed illicitly (as in a murder) it is the Ougbo members who must atone for this "violation of the house."

The worldview of the Yoruba is a monistic one. The universe of their experience is pervaded by a, a divine energy in the process of generation and regeneration. A is without any particular signification and yet invests all things and all persons and, as the warrant for all creative activity, opposes chaos and the loss of meaning in human experience. Thus, for the Yoruba the universe is one, and it is amenable to articulation in terms of an elaborate cosmology, to critical reflection, and to innovative speculation.


The best general introductions to Yoruba religion are E. Blaji Idowu's Olódùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief (London, 1962) and Robert Farris Thompson's Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA, 2d ed. (Bloomington, Ind., 1976). Idowu's study contains a wealth of primary data and is an important contribution by a Yoruba scholar, although the presentation is compromised by an uncritical use of Christian theological concepts and categories. Thompson's highly readable, insightful, and brief essays analyze the Yoruba worldview in terms of Yoruba art. This approach has been further developed by William B. Fagg and John Pemberton III in Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa, edited by Bruce Holcombe (New York, 1982). In addition to an anthology of Fagg's essays on Yoruba art, this volume includes texts by Pemberton, which discuss seventy works of art in the context of Yoruba history, rituals, and cosmology, and an extensive bibliography.

The most important specialized studies on Yoruba religious thought and practice include those on Ifa poetry and divination rites by 'Wande Abimbla, Ifá: An Exposition of Ifá Literary Corpus (Ibadan, 1976), and William R. Bascom, Ifa Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa (Bloomington, Ind., 1969). Abimbola has edited an extensive collection of essays, Yoruba Oral Tradition (If, 1975), that provides an excellent introduction to Yoruba scholarship in the areas of archaeology, history, art, and religion. Of special note for their substantive and methodological contribution are the essays by Babatundi Agiri on the early history of y and by Rowland Abiodun on Ifa art objects. Specialized studies of oria worship by John Pemberton III and Karin Barber offer contrasting approaches and alternative interpretations to that of Idowu; Pemberton's "A Cluster of Sacred Symbols: Oria Worship among the Igbomina Yoruba of Ila-rangun," History of Religions 17 (August 1977): 126, pursues a structuralist analysis, and Barber's "How Man Makes God in West Africa: Yoruba Attitudes towards the Oria, " Africa 51 (1981): 724745, combines a sociological with an oral history approach. The best study of masked festivals is Henry John Drewel and Margaret T. Drewal's Gèlèdé: A Study of Art and Feminine Power among the Yoruba (Bloomington, Ind., 1983). See also the special issue of African Arts 11, no. 3 (April 1983), edited by Henry John Drewal, on the arts and festivals for Egungun.

New Sources

Adeoye, C. Laogun. Igbagbo and Esin Yoruba. Ibadan, Nigeria, 1985.

Ajuwon, Bade. Funeral Dirges of Yoruba Hunters. New York, 1982.

Apter, Andrew. Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society. Chicago, 1992.

Barnes, Sandra T., ed. Africa's Ogun: Old World and New. 2d ed. Bloomington, Ind., 1997.

Gleason, Judith Illsley. OYA: In Praise of an African Goddess. San Francisco, 1992.

Komolafe, Kolawole. African Traditional Religion: Understanding Ogboni Fraternity. Lagos, Nigeria, 1995.

Matory, James Lorand. Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion. Minneapolis, 1994.

Murphy, Joseph M. Osun Across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas. Bloomington, Ind., 2001.

Olupona, Jacob K. Kingship, Religion and Rituals in a Nigerian Community: A Phenomenological Study of Ondo Yoruba Festivals. Stockholm, 1991.

Peel, J.D.Y. Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba. Bloomington, Ind., 2000.

Pemberton III, John, and Funso Afolayan. Yoruba Sacred Kingship: A Power Like That of the Gods. Washington, D.C., 1996.

John Pemberton III (1987)

Revised Bibliography