Deities of the Yoruba and Fon Religions
Deities of the Yoruba and Fon Religions
Vodon. Vodon (known as Voodoo in the African Diaspora) is the most important religious tradition among the West African Fon. Although the independence of this religion from that of the Yoruba is discernible, the remarkable similarities of the two religions in terms of metaphysical structures, overlapping of deities, and the affinities in cults make it possible to discuss the Fon and Yoruba religions together. The Fon, who migrated from Togo to Benin in the seventeenth century, and the Yoruba, one of the three major ethnic groups of Nigeria, have the same ethnic and cultural origins even though their geographic dispersal has located them in different modern states.
Yoruba Religions. Because of their large numbers in West Africa and their wide dispersal through slavery in the Americas, the Yoruba are probably the best-known West African ethnic culture in the world. In Africa, Nigeria and the Republic of Benin have the largest concentration of Yoruba and Yoruba religions. In the Americas, Yoruba cultural influences are most apparent in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Tobago, especially in the religions of the masses, including Vodon, Santéria, Camdomblé, and Macumba, and so forth. (In 1989, it was estimated that more than seventy million African and New World peoples practiced one form or another of Yoruba religion.) Yoruba religions, or religions inspired by them, are arguably the most widely dispersed West African religions, both in Africa and in the Americas. They may also be the most theologically complex West African religions. For example, it is estimated that the Yoruba have a pantheon of as many as six thousand deities. In discussing the Yoruba idea of God, it is practically impossible to isolate a single conception that might encompass the varieties in belief systems from one country to another, or even all the local nuances within a country. The gods discussed here are not a universal Yoruba hierarchy of gods, but rather representatives of the diverse Yoruba religious worldview.
Ideas of God. One of the high-ranking Yoruba gods is Da, the god of order. Da is most prominent among Fon practitioners of Vodon. Da is believed to combine in itself the male and female principles—in fact, to represent conceptually the idea of such a combination, much as the Akan god Odomankoma binds itself with Onyame and Onyankopon, into one Absolute, infinite being. This Absolute is thus a trinitarian Idea that accounts for the creative act called Nature. The position of Da is so exalted among Vodon worshipers that some priests are assigned to minister exclusively to Da. These priests, naturally, are called Da Ayido Hwedo (High Priests of Da).
Olorun. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, Olorun, also known as Olodumare, enjoys a status as exalted as Da among the Fon. Olodu may be translated as “someone who is a supreme head” or “one who ‘contains’ the fullness of excellent attributes.” When the suffix -mare (“unique” or “perfect-in-itself”) is added, the name may be loosely translated as “one who is absolutely perfect” or “absolute perfection.” Olorun is called the supreme deity, and he enjoys the same exalted and exclusive position as the God in any monotheistic religion. With their emphases on perfection in areas such as power, intelligence, beauty, goodness, and justice, Olorun’s key attributes point to the moral concerns of the Yoruba people, who believe that God’s creative power is the source not only of Nature but also of the human moral striving for self- and social perfection. The Yoruba think of Olorun as the creator of Nature, including humans and their souls, and the creator of the lesser spirits and divinities that act as intermediaries between Olorun and humans. Olorun is both omnipotent and omniscient. Thus, he is considered the Oba-Orun (King Who Dwells in the Heavens) and the Impartial Judge, who controls the destiny of all gods and humans and gives each person his or her just deserts. Because his existence, or the idea of his reality, is above and beyond the realm of Nature, Olorun is immortal and holy. That is, Olorun is perfect in power, wisdom, and justice, because he exists in holiness beyond the realm of moral frailty and the possibility of transgression.
Other Deities. The polytheistic aspect of Yoruba religion is most evident in its proliferation of gods. Although they are ultimately subject to Olurun, these gods are more present in the day-to-day lives of believers than the supreme deity. Much as the oba, the earthly king, can be approached by a subject only through a long hierarchical network of intermediaries, Olorun, the King of All Kings, must of even greater necessity be approached in times of spiritual or material need through
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an equal, or even greater, chain of intermediaries. Many ancestral and other spirits, also believed to have been created directly by Olorun, fulfill the role of intercessors.
Oya . The female deity Oya, the goddess of waters, is believed to have been a daughter of the primordial gods Obatala and his wife Yemojya. Oya is associated with fertility and acts of creation—probably in recognition of the nurturing role of water in the lives of plants, animals, and humans. Women who wish to become pregnant, in addition to taking the necessary herbs recommended by the Babalawo, may also be advised to make sacrifices of food and drinks to Oya at the bank of a river. In mythology, Oya is a wife of the god Shango—the god of thunder and lightning. Thus, she is sometimes described as the strong wind that precedes a thunderstorm. As Shango’s partner, Oya can be benevolent, especially to women who make sacrifices to her in return for fertility, but she can also perform acts of mischief. As a strong wind she blows off rooftops, fans Shango’s fire, breaks trees, or sweeps over and destroys farm crops.
Oya’s Retinue. In character with the polytheistic and hierarchical nature of the Yoruba earthly and heavenly
ESU AND SHANGO
Esu the trickster god (spelled Eshu in the following translation) had power over even mighty gods, including Shango. This folktale explains how the failure of Shango’s wife Oya to follow Esu’s instructions resulted in tragedy for Shango’s people while making him the god of lightning as well as thunder.
The orisha Shango ruled firmly over all of Oyo, the city and the lands that surrounded it. He was a stern ruler, and because he owned the thunderbolt the people of Oyo tried to do nothing to displease or anger him. His symbol of power was a double-bladed axe which signified, “My strength cuts both ways,” meaning that no one,even the most distant citizen of Oyo, was beyond reach of his authority or immune to punishment for misdeeds. The people of Oyo called him by his praise name, Oba Jakuta, the Stone Thrower Oba.
But even though Shango’s presence was felt everywhere in Oyo, and even beyond in other kingdoms, he wanted something more to instill fear in the hearts of men. He sent for the great makers of medicine in Oyo and instructed them to make jujus that would increase his powers. One by one the medicine makers brought him this and that, but he was not satisfied with their work He decided at last to ask the orisha Eshu for help. He sent a messenger to the distant place where Eshu lived, The messenger said to Eshu: “Oba Jakuta, the great ruler of Oyo, sends me. He said: ‘Go to the place where the renowned Eshu stays. Tell him I need a powerful medicine that will cause terror to be born in the hearts of my enemies. Ask Eshu if he will make such a medicine for me.”
Eshu said: “Yes, such a thing is possible. What kind of power does Shango want?”
The messenger answered: “Oba Jakuta says, ‘Many makers of medicine have tried to give me a power that I don’t already have. But they do not know how to do it. Such knowledge belongs only to Eshu. If he asks what I need, tell him it is he alone who knows what must be done. What he prepares for me I will accept”
Eshu said: ‘Yes, what the ruler of Oyo needs, I shall prepare it for him. In return he will send a goat as sacrifice. The medicine will be ready in seven days. But you, messenger, do not come back for it yourself. Let Shango’s wife Oya come for it. I will put it in her hand.”
The messenger went back to Oyo. He told Shango what he had heard from Eshu. Shango said, “Yes, I will send Oya to receive the medicine.”
On the seventh day he instructed Oya to go to the place where Eshu was living. He said: “Greet Eshu for me. tell him that the sacrificewiE be sent. Receive the medicine he has prepared and bring it home quickly.”
Oya departed. She arrived at the place where Eshu was Eving. She greeted him. She said: “Shango of Oyo sends me for the medicine. The sacrifice you asked for is on the way.”
Eshu said: “Shango asked for a great new power. I have finished making it.” He gave Oya a small packet wrapped in a leaf. He said: “Take care with it. See that Shango gets it all.”
Oya began the return journey, wondering: ‘What has Eshu made for Shango? What kind of power can be in so small a packet?” She stopped at a resting place. As Eshu had presumed she would do, Oya unwrapped the packet to see what was inside. There was nothing there but red powder. She put a little of the powder in her mouth to taste it. It was neither good nor bad. It tasted like nothing at all. She closed the medicine packet and tied it with a string of grass. She went on. She arrived at Oyo and gave the medicine to Shango.
He said: ‘What instructions did Eshu give you? How is this medicine to be used?”
Oya was about to say, “He gave no instructions whatever.” As she began to speak, fire flashed from her mouth. Thus Shango saw that Oya had tasted the medicine that was meant for him alone. His anger was fierce. He raised his hand to strike her but she fled from the house. Shango pursued her. Oya came to a place where many sheep were grazing. She ran among the sheep thinking that Shango would not find her. But Shango’s anger was hot. He hurled his thunderstones in all directions. He hurled them among the sheep, killing them all, Oya lay hidden under the bodies of the dead sheep and Shango did not see her there.
Shango returned to his house. Many people of Oyo were gathered there. They pleaded for Oya’s life. They said: “Great Shango, Oba of Oyo, spare Oya. Your compassion is greater than her offense. Forgive her.”
Shango’s anger cooled. He sent servants to find Oya and bring her home. But he still did not know how Eshu intended for him to use the medicine. So when night came he took the medicine packet and went to a high place overlooking the city. He stood facing the compound where he Eved with all his wives and servants. He placed some of the medicine on his tongue. And when he breathed the air out of his lungs an enormous flame shot from his mouth, extending over the city and igniting the straw roofs of the palace buildings. A great fire began to burn in Oyo. It destroyed Shango’s houses and granaries. The entire city was consumed, and nothing was left but ashes. Thus Oyo was leveled to the ground and had to be rebuilt. After the city rose again from its ashes, Shango ruled on. In times of war, or when his subjects displeased him, Shango hurled his thunderbolts. Every stone he threw was accompanied by a bright flash that illuminated the sky and the earth. This, as all men knew, was the fire shooting from Shango’s mouth.
The sheep that died while protecting Oya from Shango’s thunderstones were never forgotten. In their honor, the worshippers of Oya have refused to eat mutton even to the present day.
source : Harold Courlander, ed., “Shango and the Medicine of Eshu,” in his Tales ofYoruba Gods and Heroes (New York: Crown, 1973).
orders, Oya has a retinue of minor goddesses who are either directly subordinate to her or operate within her spheres of influence. Among the most notable of the nine minor feminine deities associated with Oya are Ibaje and Mama Water, who have limited supervisory roles over the tributaries of the River Niger at, respectively, Idah and Onitsha. Other members of Oya’s retinue include Osun, the goddess of the Osun River; Olosa, the wife of the sea god Olokun, who lives with him on the ocean floor and is known to help fishermen who run into trouble with the elements; Oba, the goddess of the Oba River, who is also believed to consort occasionally with Shango; Ochumare, goddess of the rainbow; and Yemojya, Oya’s mother, the moon goddess, who is believed to control the movement of the seas.
Esu or Esu-Elgeba. Like Ananse among the Akan, Esu is believed to be the god who best knows how to deliver offerings and ritual sacrifices from humans to the gods. He is known as “guardian of the crossroads”; that is, he sees in several directions at once and is therefore master of chance and indeterminacy, and he is able to take on different identities. By knowing how things could go wrong or go right, and having the ability to see possibilities that are hidden to humans and even to less clever gods, Esu is admired and dreaded by humans as well as the gods. Even people who do not have Esu as their primary deity sacrifice to Esu as a form of insurance to maximize the chance that the sacrifices made to their own personal deities are mischievously intercepted by Esu and diverted to some other spiritual agent, thus angering the god for whom the sacrifice was originally intended.
Esu as Intercessor. The Ifa, a body of literary work that may be accurately regarded as the Yoruba Bible, includes a story that illustrates how Esu tricked another god into helping a couple to conceive a child. Ede and her husband were having trouble conceiving a child and consulted a Babalawo, who directed them to make a sacrifice to the god Igunugun (whose name means “Vulture”). Unfortunately, Igunugun did not seem to like Ede and refused to honor the sacrifice brought to him, so he left his house. The couple turned to Esu for assistance. Esu ascertained that the sacrifice at Igunugun’s house was adequate for the occasion, so he devised a plan to lure Igunugun back to the sacrifice. Esu took some samples of Igunugun’s favorite dishes, transformed himself into a dog, tracked down Igunugun, and lured him homeward by dropping little bits of the food along the road. Little by little, while picking up the bits of food as they were dropped, Igunugun returned home and, without much thought, ate the sacrifice that Ede had served him.
Esu’s Trickery. Because of Esu’s capacity for assuming different identities, he is considered a master of dissimulation. He is capable of lying, playing cruel games, and
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telling dirty jokes, or even stealing outright from humans or gods—all the while successfully pretending that he has done nothing wrong. Esu is thus the master rhetorician with whom everyone would prefer to be on good terms, even when one is never certain of his loyalty. Though one can never insulate oneself from Esu’s mischief, trickery, or treacheries, one need not give Esu an excuse to be his natural self.
Esu as Creator of Confusion. Esu is also known to sow confusion in people’s minds. Another story of Esu’s interventionism is about two friends, whose farms were on either side of a road. Deciding to interfere with the farmers’ friendship, Esu painted one side of his body white and the other side black. He then walked down the road on which sides the friends farmed. One friend said, “Did you see that very white fellow who just passed?” just as the other said, “Did you see that very dark fellow who just passed?” Soon they began arguing over whether this fellow was white or black, and the argument got increasingly intense. Just as the friends’ tempers had cooled, and
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they were concentrating once again on their work, Esu walked back up the road in the opposite direction. By this time, each friend was ready to apologize to the other for the “misunderstanding”—but their apologies led to even greater arguments and eventually the end of their friendship. Each told the other: “Sorry, I was wrong, you were right,” and the shouting escalated to a point of name-calling (“You liar!”) and the exchange of physical blows. In sum, Esu represents the Yoruba’s concept of ambivalence and the perpetual human confusion that results from the ontological coexistence of the known and the unknown, the natural and the supernatural.
Odua. Odua (a shortened form of Oduduwa) is considered the creator of the Earth and the ancestral spirit of all Yoruba peoples. (The Yoruba sometimes call themselves “Omo Oduduwa,” Children of Oduduwa.) Some Yoruba believed that Oduduwa once ruled all the Earth, with his capital in Ile-Ife. The king of Ile-Ife, called the Ooni, is regarded as a direct descendant of Oduduwa.
Orisala. Considered the “artisan” who molds human beings at inception, Orisala is believed to work in darkness, carving and shaping humans out of materials in the womb. For this reason, if a child is born deformed in any way, Orisala is held responsible. Likewise, anyone with a congenital deformity is believed to be under his protection. The Yoruba do not treat physical disability as a fault of nature but rather a result of the inscrutable will and wisdom of Orisala. Some Yoruba theologians argue that at times Orisala intentionally misforms individuals as a reminder that God’s will is unknowable and his power infinite. Such actions remind people to make appropriate sacrifices to Orisala so that none of their future children becomes one of these “reminders.”
The Concept of Ogun. Ogun is considered to have begun as a concept and only later become a god. About two thousand years ago, ogun referred to a ritual ceremony held to honor a Yoruba who had distinguished himself at hunting or at war. Because the Yoruba were disturbed by violence and killing associated with these activities, the ritual was meant as a cleansing-of-the-soul process for the hunter or the warrior, so that some form of symbolic harmony could be reestablished within the individual and between him and other humans and the natural world. At a later stage in the development of the Yoruba culture, during the years 500-1590, Ogun grew into the deity known today throughout Nigeria and the Yoruba cultural diaspora.
Ogun the God. The god Ogun is considered the patron of hunters, warriors, and ironworkers (the people who make the equipment used in hunting and war). The Yoruba poet Wole Soyinka has written that Ogun is “the master craftsman and artist, farmer and warrior, essence of destruction and creativity, a recluse and a gregarious imbiber, a reluctant leader of men and deities,” as well as ‘“Lord of the road’ of Ifa.”
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Ogun’s Role among the Gods. According to legend, at the mythical beginning of reality, before the creation of the many gods in the Yoruba pantheon, there existed only one godhead, Orisa-nla, and his slave Atunda. When Orisa-nla became a tyrant, Atunda shattered him into pieces by rolling a rock down into the valley where Orisa-nla was tending his garden. These pieces became the thousands of gods that make up the Yoruba pantheon. (Orisa-nla, or “Great Orisa,” is also a title given to Obatala, who in other Yoruba creation myths is credited with making the dry land and human forms, into whom Olorun breathed life.) After human beings were created by Olorun, the supreme deity, they had no way of communication with the gods until Ogun volunteered to trace a path through the mystical and existential chaos that separated gods and humans. For this reason Ogun is known as “Explorer,” a title that also suits his protégés the hunters, who wander long distances in virgin territory searching for game and must be able to find their way home to the village at the end of the hunt. Because hunting and the harvest are both sources of food, Ogun, by stretching a metaphor, has also been characterized as the “owner” of the harvest and rainy seasons, periods when the earth in West Africa is full of abundant nourishment from vegetables and crops. Also by extension, modern people who work
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with metals—including technologists and technicians such as engineers or car mechanics, as well as barbers, surgeons, and cooks—have adopted Ogun as their patron. Thus, it could be argued that Ogun is among the most traveled and longest surviving of the ancient Yoruba gods and remains a constant presence in the psyche of the religious Yoruba.
Shango. The god of thunder and lightning, Shango is said to have originated as a human being, the grandson of Oduduwa. The warrior Oranmiyan, a son of Oduduwa, is supposed to have been part of a military expedition from Ile-Ife, his father’s country, to Nupeland, in northern Nigeria, where he met and married a Nupe princess. Shango is said to be the product of this marital union, but, like most other stories of origin shrouded in myths and legends, this one is not fully documented. Some scholars, including Samuel Johnson, think that Oranmiyan may have been just an able lieutenant to Oduduwa and elevated to the status of “son” by Shango’s followers as a means of enhancing Shango’s prestige. Johnson connects Shango to an historical king of Oyo, who was so tyrannical that his council forced him to commit suicide. After Shango hanged himself on a tree, his few, but inventive, sympathizers sought to whitewash the reputation of their leader. Perhaps in collusion with the elders of the Oyo, who would rather disguise their shame over the king’s misrule, Shango’s followers claimed that ever since the king had hanged himself on a tree, lightning had been randomly striking and killing some of the oldest and most valued trees in the country. These acts of nature were interpreted as a signal from the dead monarch that, unless he were appeased, he would continue to strike trees and then humans, until he had exacted enough revenge for the humiliation he had suffered. Hoping to prevent further lightning strikes, the Oyo agreed to say that Shango had not hanged himself but rather transformed himself into a deity. Thus, Shango became the god of thunder and lightning and attained almost the same level of power as Ogun. Shango resides in the sky, from where he controls the power of light—including, in modern times, electricity. The largest government-operated electric utility company in present-day Nigeria has as its national logo a statue of Shango rescuing light from the darkness. Shango is, as it were, the “Divine Electrician.” Although he is generally considered benevolent, Shango is nevertheless capable of dispatching thunderstorms to destroy villages or people who have incurred his displeasure. Shango’s favorite color is red. He is capable of turning against a follower who owes him a debt of regular sacrifice. Yet, he is also known as a protector of the helpless and an enforcer of justice. For example, he might pursue a doctor who misuses his expertise to kill rather than cure unsuspecting patients. Whenever a doctor, a hunter, a farmer, or someone in another walk of life is killed by lightning in the course of duty, it is often believed that Shango is fighting with the god-protector of that person’s profession, or that the person owes a sacrifice to Shango, or that he had immoral motives for undertaking the task during which lightning struck.
The Cult of Shango. When a person is successfully initiated into the cult of Shango, he is considered to have been “mounted,” or possessed by the god. During this mount the initiated behaves as though in a trance, perhaps jumping up and down or making uncontrollable, twisting body movements, while uttering largely incomprehensible words in a deep, guttural, thunderous voice that is considered peculiarly Shango’s. This pattern of behavior is supposed to mirror Shango’s temperament. The words are called “fire”; the body movements are considered the shock of the god’s electricity. The initiated may be “brought back” to normal behavior only after he or she has become exhausted and a sacrifice of Shango’s favorite foods—lamb with palm oil, kola nuts, and yam porridge—are prepared for the consumption, on behalf of Shango, by the exhausted and by then ravenous devotee. Probably because of the rhythmic “mounting” of the initiation, the Yoruba consider Shango the god of dance.
Wade Abimbola, ed. and trans., Ifa Divination Poetry (New York: NOK, 1977).
Sandra T. Barnes, ed., Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New, expanded edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).
E. Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, revised and enlarged edition (Plainview: Original Publications, 1995).
Samuel Johnson, The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate, edited by O. Johnson (London: Routledge, 1921).