Yoruba Definition, History, Beliefs, & Lifestyle (08.06.2018)
There are nearly 50 million people spread across West Africa. The Yoruba, the second largest ethnic group in Nigeria after the Hausa-Fulani, account for nearly 21 percent of the total population of that part of the continent. While most Yoruba are settled in southwestern Nigeria, some communities exist outside the West African country, in countries like Sierra Leone, Brazil, and Cuba.
The Yoruba are the chief ethnic group in the Nigerian states of Kwara, Ekiti, Lagos, Ondo, Ogun, Kogi, Osun, and Oyo, and they also comprise a signficant portion of the population of the Republic of Benin. The people of the Yoruba tribe practice numerous religions. Presently, the majority of Yoruba people say they are Christian. They belong primarily to the Church of Nigeria (Anglican), Catholic, Methodist, and Pentecostal Churches. Muslims make up about a quarter of the Yoruba population, and the rest practice their native Yoruba religion.
Yoruba mythology is possibly one of the oldest in the world, and various religions of the Western Hemisphere such as Candomblé in Brazil and Santería in Cuba have sprung from it. The Yoruba’s own native deities are called orishas. The primary orishas are Obatala, his sister Oduduwa, and their father Olorun. The Yoruba say that Obatala created humanity, and Olorun breathed life into the hollow shells made by Obatala.
The Yoruban religion has an extensive pantheon of orishas. There is an all-knowing deity, some primeval divinities, and some deified spirits. Olodumare (the one with the completeness of all things) and Olorun (the lord whose dwelling is in the heavens) are the names given to the all-knowing God.
The Yoruba believe that Olorun not only created the heavens and the earth, but he also created a number of divinities and spirits (Ebora and Orisa, or Imole). Many celebrated figures of history, including kings and heroes, have also been given divine status by the Yoruba, and they are summoned along with the forces of nature such as Earth, trees, river, mountains, storms, and so on during rituals. The religion also believes that deceased ancestors continue to exist.
Some Yorubans believe in only two major divinities, Obatala and his sister Oduduwa. Both are worshipped independently of their father Olorun and, in some citystates, even precede him. According to one Yoruba legend Olorun created the world and left Obatala and Oduduwa to complete the details. A different interpretation avers that Obatala and Olorun are the same god, with different names. Obatala is regarded as a sculptor god, assigned the task of shaping human bodies. The Yoruba believe that the physically handicapped have been the victims of wrath, but it is Olorun who decides whether or not to infuse these bodies with life. Although he is still secondary to almighty Olorun, Obatala has power over the minor orishas, all 401 of them. There are also numerous other deities in the Yoruban pantheon: Oya, the river goddess; Ifa, the god of divination; Eleda, the goddess of destiny; Ibeji, the twins; Osanyin, Ifa’s companion; and Osun, the goddess of fertility.
Some deities existed deep in the past, before Oduduwa created Earth, while others were mortals, heroes, or heroines who performed some act that impressed the people around them. One minor orisha Shango, the god of thunder, occupies a lofty position in the pantheon of Yoruba deities. Shango, according to Yoruban belief, fashioned thunder and lightning by throwing “thunderstones” to Earth; so anywhere that lightning strikes, Yoruba priests search the nearby areas for stones. This deity’s popularity was probably a direct result of efforts to ward off the numerous tornadoes that perpetually plague western Africa.
Ogun is another of the minor orishas who is widely revered. The god of war, ironworking, and hunting, Ogun is considered the benefactor of warriors, blacksmiths, and those who use metal in some way in their occupation.
The Yoruba believe Ogun can be terrifying in his revenge; if someone dishonors a contract made in his name, they believe swift vengeance will follow.
The Yoruba do not worship Olorun with the kind of reverence normally reserved for a deity of his status. Unlike Shango, who has numerous shrines erected in his honor, Olorun does not have any.
Furthermore neither do the Yoruba offer sacrifices to him, nor does he have a priest in his name. Olorun has the same dimensions as the supreme powers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as the Creator of everything. Still, the Yoruba appear to ignore him in their daily lives. One plausible theory is that Olorun, as a divine persona, developed out of the influences of early Christian or Islamic missionaries. So it may be that the Yoruba find the notion of venerating him as an omnipotent god too overwhelming.
Ifa, the oracle of divination, figures prominently in Yoruban cosmology and functions as a mediator between gods and humans. When a child is born, for example, the parents will call in a babalawo (priest) to identify the spiritual forces that will influence the child and to find out which orisha the child should follow. Cowrie shells and palm nuts are frequently the instruments for the babalawo’s reading.
The babalawo gets Ifa’s attention with a coneshaped “tapper” and uses a carved cup to toss the 16 shells onto a powdered board used for divination (opon Ifa). Eshu (or Elegba) is the messenger of the gods; he is also known as the trickster, much like Hermes of the Greeks and the Roman’s Mercury.
Eshu is the youngest, fastest, and most quickwitted of all the gods, and he finds ways to punish those who neglect the other gods. Eshu brings the sacrifices called for by the Ifa priest to Olorun, the high god, so Ifa and Eshu work together to control humanity’s affairs. Eshu is also the only Yoruba deity whose face is seen in Yoruba art, and his figure is usually decorated with cowrie shells and beads.
The Yoruba treat their ancestors with deference.
Some groups think that ancestors become demi-gods after death, assuming the character of deities. This resembles another aspect of the traditional Yoruban faith, a belief that gods can manifest themselves by taking possession of mediums.
Yams are significant thanksgiving symbols to the Yoruba, whose main vocation is farming. As a consequence, even communities that rely principally on fishing present freshly gathered yams to the deities before eating any themselves. The Eje Festival, for example, is a yearly event in ItebuuManuwa, where the Yoruba leader offers yams to their god of the sea, Malokum, to the ancestors, and to local spirits and divinities believed to control the harvest and the productivity of the land.
Origins and History
The Yoruba tribe was known to be the most developed sub-Saharan African community before the era of British dominance began. The tribe had become affluent because they controlled major trade routes. The Yoruba were, however, not a strong confederacy, with differences often leading to wars between the city-states. The territory was subdivided into 25 centralized, more or less autonomous states ruled by hereditary kings. In theory the Yoruba consider the old city of Ife-Ife as the oldest city with primary authority in religious matters; at the same time they also acknowledge the political authority of the rulers of the rival city of Oyo. Oyo’s ruler once held sway over the leaders of other cities, though this privilege could not always be exercised. The Oni of Ife-Ife and the Alafin of Oyo remain the most respected rulers in Nigeria.
The majority of the states were in the hands of hereditary monarchs and councils made up of guild leaders, nobles, and merchants. The power exercised by the two civil authorities was different from one city-state to the next. Some had a monarch with more or less total sovereignty, while in others the councils were dominant, and the king was simply a nominal head. Each city-state has its own version of history, religious observances, and artistic style; still, all agree that Ife-Ife retains ritual authority, all worship the Yoruba gods, and all look for solutions to problems in their lives to the god Ifa. All the major Yoruba kingdoms trace descent from a single ancestor, the first king of Ife-Ife, usually called Oduduwa.
While Oduduwa was still alive, his sons and grandsons spread out from the city to establish their own kingdoms.
It is no surprise that the cultural influence of the Yoruba extended beyond the African continent to the Americas. Europeans in search of slaves captured millions of Africans, stuffed them into crowded ships, and brought them across the Atlantic Ocean. It was not a pleasant journey, and many people died during the crossing. Yoruba slaves were transported to French, British, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies. In most of these places Yoruba traditions endured in spite of the Catholic Church’s aggressive, often cruel, techniques for making converts. In Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad, and Cuba, Yoruba rites and rituals, dance, music, and myths are popular. In Haiti the people of the Yoruba tribe were called Anagos. In Afro-Haitian spiritual activities Yoruba rites enjoy a high place, and numerous deities that originated in Yoruba are still worshipped. In South America’s biggest country Brazil, Yoruba spiritual activities are called Shango or Anago. In Cuba, these practices are called Lucumi.
Holidays and Religious Observances
Although most of the peoples who trace their heritage to the Yoruban past have since nominally, at least, become Muslims or Christians, their ancestral spiritual roots remain strong and viable, and they continue to observe ancient festivals with dancing, drumming, and elaborately carved masks. The masks, rituals, and mythologies may differ from one tribe or nation to another, but the focus and purposes of contemporary observances reflect those of ancient Yoruban spiritual beliefs. Among the most important of these are the Shango Festival, the New Yam Festival, Egungun observances, and a variety of initiation and harvest festivals. The Yoruba spiritual system reflects a practical approach to relations between those who inhabit the spirit world and the world of mortals.
The Shango festival honors the orisha of thunder and lightning (energy), an ancestor who hanged himself, according to legend. The festival, celebrated toward the end of July on the Gregorian calendar, generally goes on for 20 days, with a hereditary priest offering numerous sacrifices at Shango’s shrine. The last day of the festival Shango takes possession of the priest, who acquires magical powers as a consequence. After he has eaten fire and gunpowder, the ritual procession heads to the Oba’s palace where a great feast is held, accompanied by palm wine, roast meat, and more dancing. Because many people have abandoned traditional spiritual practices, Shango’s priests are no longer as rich or powerful as they were in the past.
The ancestral spirits of the Yoruba peoples, called egungun (which translates as something like “powers concealed”), are invoked during annual or biennial festivals. According to legend, the egungun ritual originated because the dead body of an Ologbin father, of the lineage of King Oyo’s griots (“praise-singers”), had just been left atop an ant hill.
To appease his anger at such careless neglect, the egungun ritual, with its complex dance and elaborate costume, was first performed.
During these observances, dancers don multicolored, layered costumes. The object of both dance and dancer is to enliven the costume and enable the mask he wears to change his mortal flesh so that he sheds his identity and becomes ethereal, taking on the qualities of the ancestral spirit he celebrates in the dance. Only the spirits, however, can imbue the costume with power.
With the exception of a few titled women, egungun is an exclusively male cult.
Not only are women generally forbidden to appear when an egungun such as Oro performs, it is also believed that a woman who sees the ceremony will die soon.
The New Yam Festival (called Iri-ji), certainly one of the largest and most important Yoruba observances, is a New Year’s celebration that takes place in August of the Gregorian calendar, although the specific day is locally determined. The Yam Festival marks the end of one agricultural cycle and the start of a new one. On the eve of the festival, the yams left over from the previous harvest are disposed of because only fresh yams can welcome the new year.
Before the festivities begin, either the eldest male of the community or the king offers the new yams to gods and ancestors to show appreciation to them for the yam harvest. Then the prepared yams can be given out to the gathered villagers.
Among the Yoruba people elderly women, addressed as “our mothers,” are respected and feared because they possess spiritual powers that can be used to help or harm the community. The purpose of the annual Gelede festival is celebration of the creative powers of women elders, female ancestors, and goddesses. The Gelede festival resolves the distress caused by drought or not having enough children by paying tribute to women’s power and asking that they use their extraordinary powers to ensure the fertility of the people and the land.