Yoruba Religion and Culture in the Americas

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Yoruba Religion and Culture in the Americas

The Yoruba presence in the Americas is evident in Cuban Santería, Brazilian Candomblé and Xangô, and the Orisha and Shango religions of Trinidad and Grenada. Less well known are the St. Lucian Kele, or Shango cult, and Jamaican Kumina. These diasporic religions are testimony to the memory and determination of those Africans and their descendants who retained their sacred traditions, often in the face of attempts to marginalize or eliminate them. Some returned to Africa to renew their knowledge. Brazilian Candomblé has been nourished by ongoing contact with its sources of origin. In recent years, Nigerian traditional religious leaders have visited Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad.

Many features of diasporic Orisha worship remain close to their origins, including myths, elements of ritual, language, material culture, and the names of deities. Yet changes have also occurred. These reflect the challenges of transmission, societal constraints on practice, and encounters with other cultures. Today, people of all colors can assume a Yoruba identity through initiation into the religion. Religious teachings formerly handed down solely by word of mouth are now available in written form. Equivalents for the plants and herbs used for healing and ritual work have been sought out among the American flora.

This capacity to successfully translate an African culture to a new environmentwhile at the same time absorbing outside influenceswas not simply a product of enslavement, as some scholars have suggested. An openness to other cultural traditions was already a feature of Yoruba society. Recent studies of Orisha cults show how their decentralized nature made them suitable for transmission. However, it must be noted that their vitality in the diaspora contrasts with West Africa, where the cults have largely lost ground to Christianity and Islam.

Religious Syncretism

Many accounts of African-derived religions focus on the syncretism with Roman Catholicism. Devotees identified similarities among the religions and sometimes concealed their gods behind the mask of Catholic saints. For example, Ogun, the orisha (deity) of metalworking and war, is matched with the sword-carrying Saint George in Rio de Janeiro. In Bahia, his counterpart is Saint Antony, the soldier; in Cuba he is linked with Saint Peter, who holds an iron key; and in Trinidad and Grenada, he is linked with Saint Michael the Archangel.

Orisha worshippers in the Americas commonly display images of the Catholic saints among their ritual objects, but the orisha s are represented by the sacred stones and other items that embody their ashe or spiritual power. These are kept hidden from public view. In some cases, practices that originated out of the need for concealment became enshrined in tradition. In Cuban Santería and Recife Xangô, the annual celebrations in honor of the orishas are held on the feast days of their Catholic saint counterparts. Some devotees attend church on these days, though the main rituals are celebrated in the cult houses. The Bahian traditional Candomblés differ in that the annual cycle of Orisha festivals is determined by divination. Catholic baptism is often a prerequisite for initiation into Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé. Similarly, in Trinidad, some Shango priests insist that novices be baptized by the Baptists before initiation. This lack of religious exclusivity is found in West Africa, where some Yoruba celebrate birth, marriage, and burial with ceremonies from more than one religious tradition.

Yet external elements were not always incorporated for reasons of secrecy. Yorubas and their descendants drew not only upon Christianity, but also on Kardecan spiritism and religious practices from other parts of Africa and from Asia. Brazilian Candomblé incorporated elements from the Congo-Angola, Aja-Ewe-Fon, and other African groups. Trinidad Orisha shows Hindu influences, including the use of prayer flags, brought to the island with East Indian indentured laborers. A Cuban avatar of Changó, Sanfancón (San Fan Kung), demonstrates the incorporation of Chinese cultural elements. Yoruba deities and ceremonial structures also appear in practices originating among other African nations.

The Merging of Separate Cults

Focusing on syncretism with Catholicism sometimes leads scholars to overlook other important adaptations. In Africa, each Orisha cult is self-contained as far as devotees are concerned. In the Americas, while devotees of Santería and Candomblé are only initiated into the cult of one orisha, they worship others. Priests and priestesses of separate Orisha cults had to exchange religious knowledge because of the difficulties of reconstituting the cults under slavery. Similarly, declining numbers of worshippers and priests sometimes leads to integration and exchange between cult groups in West Africa.

Each Orisha cult has a dedicated priesthood and a public temple or shrine in Africa. The practice became more secretive and compressed in the Americas. In Cuba, the sacred objects of a number of orishas are housed in the ilé ocha or casa de santo, usually the home of the iyalocha or babalocha. They are kept in covered china soup tureens, called soperas, which are often placed in a canastillero a type of sideboard that may have doors for further concealment. In Trinidadian temples, or palais, the ritual objects or emblems of all orishas, or "powers," are stored in a room called the chapelle. In Grenada they are kept in the home of the priestess. Bahian Candomblé has remained more public and spacious. A terreiro may consist of several buildings. The sacred items of indoor deities such as Oxala or Shango are kept in small shrines called peji. Outdoor gods such as Exu, Omolu, Ossâim, and Oxóssi reside in a garden where plants used in rituals and for healing are cultivated.

There are an indefinite number of orishas in Africamythical figures are sometimes given, such as 401 or 1,444. However, surveys of specific towns show that a finite number of cults are important for inhabitants. Between twenty and twenty-five orishas are worshipped in Cuba, with perhaps fifteen being the most popular. In Bahia, around twelve orishas find devotees in nearly all terreiros.

Societal conditions and a new geography made certain orishas less relevant. Obatala, the creator of human-kind, remains important everywhere, as does Eshu-Elegbara, the guardian of social order and the messenger of the gods who is invoked at all ceremonies. The most widely revered orishas, both in Africa and the diaspora, are those connected with aspects of daily life, such as motherhood, love, wealth, health, and sex. Sometimes their functions are modified: in Cuba and Brazil, Yemayá/Yemanja, the goddess of the River Niger, is associated with the sea. Hence, in Cuba, the cult of the African sea god Olokun has gradually been subsumed into that of Yemayá. This tendency to fuse orishas, or, conversely, for an orisha to split off into different avatars, ensures the flexibility and adaptability of the system of worship. In Cuba these avatars are known as caminos and in Brazil as firmas. Obatala, an orisha with numerous regional manifestations in West Africa, has a profusion of caminos, each having different characteristics and syncretized with different Catholic saints. Another example of this flexibility is the way in which the myths of the orishas retain their African historical references and fields of experience while acquiring others relevant to their new environment.

The prominence of one orisha, Shango, whose cult plays a central role in the installation of kings of Oyo, is a feature of diaspora worship. In Cuban Santería, rituals and items specific to Changó's cult, such as the kingly crown, the mortar, and batá drums, appear in the rituals of all orishas. In Brazil, orisha worship is called Xangô in Alagôas and Pernambuco, and in Trinidad and Grenada, Shango. St. Lucian Kele is named after the ikele beads of Shango worshippers. There are historical reasons for this. Following the collapse of the Oyo empire, the Shango cult spread throughout Yorubaland with the dispersal of refugees. A larger proportion of slaves from that region were transported to the Americas late in the slave trade.

Yet the traditions of other Yoruba subgroups are also apparent. Some Bahian Candomblé houses are identified as Ketu or Ijexá (Ijesha). In Recife Xangô there were formerly Ijesha and Egba cult groups, though today the differences between them survive only in music and songs. In the Cuban province of Matanzas, there are cult groups

called iyesá (Ijesha) and egguado (Egbado). Differences between this and Havana Santería are found in the ritual use of plants, ritual language, dances, and musical instruments.


In West Africa, devotees petition orishas for children, wealth, health, and long life. In the Americas, worshippers rarely petition the gods for fertility, perhaps because in the past enslaved women were reluctant to bear children. Ceremonies are performed to offer praise or thanks or when specified by divination. As in Africa, they involve blood sacrifice, drumming, and possession trance, which offer devotees a direct experience of the divine. Spiritual power, or aché/axé, is received during these ritual encounters.

The merging of Orisha cults is apparent in that, even in ceremonies to honor one orisha, all the gods are praised in turn. Each deity is distinguished by particular drum rhythms, dance steps, symbols, colors, sacrificial animals, and offerings. The prayers and songs are generally in a form of the Yoruba language.

A Trinidad drum dance starts and ends with Catholic prayers. Eshu is sent away by means of a song. Then Ogun is summoned, followed by the other orishas. In Grenada, the ceremony begins with invocations to the deities in French patois interspersed with African words. At a Cuban tambor or toque de santo, the liturgy, called oro, begins with prayers in Lucumíthe Cuban form of Yorubato pay homage to Olofin and the ancestors. Then the orishas are called down one by one, beginning with Elegguá, as befits his role as opener of paths, followed by Ogun and the rest. At a Bahian obrigação, the annual public ceremony to honor an orisha, the liturgy to call down the orisha is called xiré. Percussion is an important feature of ceremonies, though drums are sometimes replaced with gourds or box drums, recalling past laws restricting the use of African instruments.

In Yoruba society, seniority is important. People will curtsy, bow, or prostrate themselves before their elders and betters as a mark of respect. Orisha worshipers in the Americas also physically express their deference to the gods and those with religious seniority. Respect for the ancestors is also important. However, the egungun masquerades, which offer communication with the ancestors, are generally no longer found in the Americas, though there is evidence of their former existence in Cuba. This may be because, unlike the Orisha cults, they were dependent on kinship systems destroyed by the Middle Passage and slavery. However, in Bahia there is a secret society of egún, which has a special priesthood, and Recife Xangô cult houses have a balé, or house of the dead. In Cuban Santería, Kardecan spiritism offers cultic possibilities for dealing with the dead, which are called eguns. Many santeros have a little altar to the spirits called a bóveda espiritual (spiritual vault).


In Africa, membership in an Orisha cult is normally determined by birth. One consequence of enslavement was the disruption of family lineages, and thus of the inheritance of ritual responsibilities. Today, with a few exceptions, to become the devotee of a particular orisha one must become initiated into the cult. In Cuban Santería this is a staged process. Receiving bead necklaces called elekes or collares is the minimum requirement for becoming a member of an ilé ocha. The next stage is to receive the guerreros (warriors), a Cuban innovation, so called because Elegguá, Oggún, Ochosi, and Osun are regarded as orishas who will "fight" to protect their owner.

Some devotees are recommended to enter into a deeper relationship with one orisha. During this initiation, which takes a similar form in Africa and the Americas, an orisha, determined or confirmed by divination, is said to be "seated" in the initiate's head. In Cuba, a number of other orishas are also received as part of this initiation. This contrasts with both African and Brazilian practice. For a period after the initiation, the omo oricha (child of the orisha ) is required to sit on a mat and eat using the hands. This obliges them to recreate an African experience and identity.

Whereas both men and women head Cuban ilé ocha, priestesses are excluded from some of the higher ritual roles. In traditional Bahian Candomblé houses, the salient role of women marks a departure from Yoruba tradition. Male Candomblé members, called ogan, do not become initiated. In Trinidad, although many temples are headed by male priests, the majority of cult leaders are women. In Grenada, "Queens of Shango" usually come from families in which the cult is popular in the female line.


Divination is an important feature of worship. It enables devotees to shed light on a problem or to determine their destiny. Obí (kola nut) and owó merindinlogun (sixteen-cowry) divination are found everywhere. In Cuba, obí divination is commonly called los cocos, because pieces of coconut have replaced kola nuts. These and other liturgical items continued to be imported from Yorubaland to Brazil after the ending of the slave trade. Another Cuban modification, which reflects the merging of Orisha cults, is that a varying number of orishas speak through the diloggún oracle, including Orunmila. In African owó merindinlogun, only the presiding deity of the particular cult will speak, and Orunmila only ever speaks in Ifá divination. In Brazilian sixteen-cowry divination, called jogo de búzios, only Exu speaks.

Another Cuban modification is that shells are sometimes cast to obtain double figures (mejis) or combinations of odu. This makes diloggún more complex, thus resembling Ifá divination, which is performed by male priests of the cult of Orunmila called babalawo. Yet Cuba is unique in the Americas in having preserved its own version of Ifá with a huge corpus of divination verses. In Recife and Bahia, the babalawo has largely been replaced by babalorixá, who perform sixteen-cowry divination, though elements of the Ifá corpus have survived as part of the knowledge of the mãe or pai de santo.

See also Africanisms; Candomblé; Orisha; Santería


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

Barber, Karin. "Oríki, Women, and the Proliferation and Merging of Òrìsà." Africa 60, no. 3 (1990): 313337.

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

Bascom, William. "Two Forms of Afro-Cuban Divination." In Acculturation in the Americas, edited by Sol Tax (1952). Reprint, New York, Cooper Square, 1967.

Bascom, William. Shango in the New World. Austin: University of Texas, 1972.

Bascom, William. Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba Divination from Africa to the New World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Bastide, Roger The African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology of the Interpenetration of Civilizations. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Brandon, George. Santería from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Cohen, Peter F. "Orisha Journeys: The Role of Travel in the Birth of Yoruba-Atlantic Religions." Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 117 (2002): 1736.

Herskovits, Melville J. "African Gods and Catholic Saints in New World Negro Belief." American Anthropologist 39 (1937): 635643.

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

Murphy, Joseph M. Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Boston: Beacon, 1994.

Peel, J. D. Y. "Syncretism and Religious Change." Comparative Studies in Society and History 10, no. 2 (1968): 121141.

Pollak-Eltz, Angelina. "The Shango Cult and other African Rituals in Trinidad, Grenada, and Carriacou and their Possible Influences on the Spiritual Baptist Faith." Caribbean Quarterly 39, nos. 34 (1993): 1226.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage, 1984.

Voeks, Robert A. Sacred Leaves of Candomblé: African Magic, Medicine and Religion in Brazil. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

christine ayorinde (2005)

More From Encyclopedia.com

You Might Also Like