African traditional religions became the foundation of new religions created out of the experience of Africans in the Americas. Variously called Vodou (Haiti), Santería (Cuba), Candomblé (Brazil), and Orisha (Trinidad), these religions developed in response to the physical, social, and spiritual oppression of slavery and its aftermath. They are as much systems of resistance, retention, and creative adaptation as they are religions. Their persistence and progress into the twenty-first century represent an account of the irrepressible will of the human spirit in the story of Africans in the diaspora.
The term orisha refers to the deities of the Yoruba pantheon. According to Bolaji Idowu (1994), the word is a composite of two ideas: ori, "head," and se, "source," suggesting the relationship between the deities and God Almighty, Olodumare, from whence they came. The strength of this Yoruba foundation/tradition among the religions of the Americas is the result in part of: (1) the numerical concentration of Yorubas in the countries mentioned; (2) their relatively late arrival (end of the eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries) to the Americas; and (3) the sophisticated and resilient structure of their religious beliefs.
Religion became the source and symbol of political resistance—as the Haitian Revolution proved—as well as cultural consolidation among Africans. They were united not only by the servitude of color but also by a common cosmology. During and after slavery, Christian churches demonized African theology, and the colonial state criminalized its practices. Throughout the Americas laws could be found banning or proscribing the use of the African drum, a central medium in Orisha worship.
What had evolved by the end of the nineteenth century, however, was an amalgam of beliefs which, though rooted in Yoruba cosmology, were uniquely adapted to the social ecology of the Americas:
- Rather than forsake their ancestral belief system, Africans throughout the Americas used the Christian customs to which they were exposed to conceal and complement their own traditions. Through such means, Orisha integrated and reconciled what Christians would regard as conflicting theologies.
- Unlike Africa, where shrines, even entire villages, are devoted to one orisha, in Trinidad any number of orisha are represented in a single shrine and invited to participate in the annual ebo, or feast held in their honor. In this way, all the ancestral deities and even new ones are recognized.
- All shrines are in private yards in Trinidad, the majority being owned and led by women, although men continue to administer key ritual functions. Women were usually the more stable partner in the black community, with some acquiring property through their own enterprise after Emancipation.
The more recent history of the Orisha faith in Trinidad has signaled social growth and progress resulting from certain decisive events. The turning point was the Black Power movement of the early 1970s when young, educated, mainly Afro-Trinidadians demonstrated their frustration with the colonial arrangements they had inherited. Some turned—or returned—to their ancestral traditions to satisfy both spiritual and political needs. This African consciousness was given considerable boost by the 1988 state visit of the Ooni of Ife, spiritual head of the Yoruba/Orisha community. The legacy of this visit was the appointment of a head of the local Orisha community and the creation of a Council of Elders. The coming to power of the United National Congress, a Hindu-based party, in 1997 effectively challenged the Christian hegemony that had prevailed in multiethnic Trinidad since colonial days. The Orisha faith received official recognition with the legalization of Orisha marriages and a grant of lands for the development of African religious organizations.
Increasing contacts with Africa and across the diaspora have brought changes to the practice and personality of the religion as well. Prominent artists and middle-class persons have either joined or openly associated themselves with Orisha. Younger practitioners incorporate the Ifa system of divination, offer prayers in the Yoruba language, and celebrate ancestral festivals at this new threshold of the Americas where gods are shedding their masks.
Aiyejina, Funso, and Orisa Gibbons. Tradition in Trinidad. Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies, 2000.
Idowu, E. Bolaji. Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. New York: A & B Books, 1994.
Springer, Pearl. "Orisha and Spiritual Baptist Religion in Trinidad and Tobago." In At the Crossroads: African Caribbean Religion and Christianity, edited by B. Sankerali. Trinidad and Tobago: Caribbean Conference of Churches, 1995.
Warner-Lewis, Maureen. Guinea's Other Suns: The African Dynamic in Trinidad Culture. Dove, Mass.: Majority Press, 1991.
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