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Religion and Philosophy: Obatala

500-1590: Religion and Philosophy: Obatala



Human Origins. Part of the creation mythology of the Yoruba people, Obatala is one of several Yoruba deities thought to have been living people. In the Yoruba cosmology he is one of the sixteen envoys (orisa, or deities) whom the Supreme God assigned “to create some order out of the confused watery mass on earth below.” According to what Omofolabo S. Ajayi describes as “the sacred myth,” Obatala was in charge of creating “solid earth” and human forms, which he then presented to Olorun “to breathe life into.” According to one myth, Obatala got intoxicated one day, after drinking palm wine offered him by Ogun, and started being sloppy in his creation. He fell asleep, and when he woke up, Oduduwa had usurped his place, becoming the ruler of all the Earth from his capital at Ile-Ife. Thereafter, “Obatala’s people became known as the ‘Igbo ’ while Oduduwa’s were the ‘Ife.”’

Earthly Ruler. A “civic myth” about Obatala’s earthly role suggests that he may have been one of Oduduwa’s lieutenants. Resenting his fate after failing to topple the usurping Oduduwa, he went into exile in Igbo ’s grove, his friend Obawini’s settlement. Obatala later returned to Ile-Ife, and he is believed to have been its fourth ruler.

Figure of Peace and Order. Because of his exploits on Earth and the peace he brought to his people, Obatala was deified after his death. Thus, his earthly heroic deeds became part of his godly attributes. As a deity, Obatala exemplifies humility and purity. According to Ajayi, the trials Obatala underwent during his lifetime made him humble and pure, “turning him into the archetypal symbol of peace and (balanced) social values.” Ajayi recounts a story about Obatala’s meekness. On his way to visit his friend Shango (the god of thunder and lightning), Obatala became the object of mischief by the trickster god Esu. As a result Obatala was falsely accused of stealing a horse from the angry Shango, who, unaware of the alleged thief’s identity, threw Obatala into jail without due process under the law. The humble Obatala did not reveal his identity and remained imprisoned for seven years. During that time Yorubaland was plagued by “diseases, famine, wars, infertility, premature deaths, and other disasters.” Finally, the Ifa system (whose messenger was Esu) revealed the truth; Obatala was released, and peace returned to Yorubaland.


Omofolabo S. Ajayi, Yoruba Dance: The Semiotics of Movement and Body Attitude in a Nigerian Culture (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1998).

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