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The Truth About The Ancient African Yoruba Religion

For most of us, our religion is chosen for us by our family and the culture that we are born into. We are not given a choice as to what spiritual systems speak to us the most truthfully.

At some point in our lives, we begin to either question the religion that we were born into, or we seek to know a truth that is deeper than the mainstream adheres to.

Despite the usual condemnation that we experience when we ‘come out’ to our families that we are leaving the faith, in the Black Conscious community, the desire to explore African spirituality is encouraged. Only with time, knowledge, and exposure does the Seeker come to find the truth for themselves.

The more exposure you are able to gain from different spiritual disciplines, the more likely you are to find one that reflects your unique truth. And as an added benefit, you begin to see connections between other spiritual systems and your own. This is not a coincidence – all spiritual systems share a common African origin and a common truth.

If you have begun your path towards discovering your truth, this article will expose you to one of the oldest and most comprehensive traditional African religions – Ifa. Also known as the Yoruba religion, Ifa has survived into modern times by adapting to other spiritual systems and cultures. It is important to note that the greatest percentage of Africans enslaved and taken to the Americas came from Yorubaland.

Thus, when Roman Catholicism was forced on Yoruba slaves in Cuba, Ifa adapted to become Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha, La Regla de Ifá, or Lucumí. The orishas – divine spiritual forces in the Yoruba religion – were still respected in the form of saints. In fact, the word Santería is a Spanish word that means the “worship of saints”

And when the slaves of Dahomean, Kongo, Yoruba, and other African groups were brought to Haiti, Ifa survived on the island by blending traditional African religion with Christianity to become Voudou.

Candomble - Brazil's interpretation of the traditional African Yoruba Religion

In Bahia and other parts of Brazil, much of the Yoruba way of life remained unchanged. Many Yoruba words are used in the Afro-Brazilian religion known as Candomblé – a Portuguese word meaning “dance in honour of the gods”. And Brazil’s Minister of Culture, Dr. Sérgio Sá Leitão, has said that Yoruba language will now be incorporated into primary and secondary school curriculum.

Today, more than 5.3 Million Yoruba keep the traditional African religion alive from Nigeria to New York and everywhere in between. This article is not a comprehensive guide, but it will give you a fundamental understanding of who the Yoruba are, Yoruba beliefs and traditions, and Yoruba religious concepts.

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Yoruba History

According to Yoruba Religious Concepts by Baba Ifa Karade, Yoruba history began not in Nigeria, but in Kemet.

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The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts
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The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts
  • Baba Ifa Karade
  • Publisher: Weiser Books
  • Edition no. 0 (08/01/1994)

He writes:

The Yoruba history begins with the migration of an East African population across the trans-African route leading from the mid-Nile River to the mid-Niger. Basil Davidson writes,”…migrating peoples undoubtedly used this route from times that were exceedingly remote…that two thousand years ago and more the climate and vegetation would have treated trans-African travelers in a gentler way than they do now.” Davidson continues,”…they came this way from the earliest of times; and their beliefs and their inventions came with them.”

Archaeologists, according to M. Omoleya, inform us that the Nigerian region was inhabited more than 40,000 years ago, or as far back as 65,000 B.C. This civilization has been deemed, in part, the Nok culture. The Nok culture was visited by the “Yoruba group,” between 2,000 and 500 B.C.

The group was led, according to Yoruba historical accounts, by King Oduduwa, who settled somewhat peacefully in the already established Ile-Ife- the sacred city of the indigenous people. However, archaeological evidence suggests the arrival of the Yoruba sparked a sometimes bloody conquest known as the Bantu Expansion that led to the domination of most of the Sub-Saharan continent. More citation and study is needed to confirm this hypothesis.

Oduduwa was the ‘first King’ or Ooni of Ife, whose lineage still rules in Nigeria’s Yorubaland.

King Ojaja II, the 51st monarch of Ife. Surrounded by his attendants, the Ooni receives guests, who must remain physically below him at all times and are only permitted to shake his hand if he initiates the contact [ Andrew Esiebo /Al Jazeera]
Olumide J. Lucus proclaims, “The Yoruba, during antiquity, lived in ancient Egypt before migrating to the Atlantic coast. He uses as demonstration the similarity of identity of languages, religious beliefs, customs, and names of persons, places, and things.”

The key point, or focus, in respect to Yoruba religious evolution, is that the Egyptian order, coupled with the earlier peoples produced the more defined statement of what makes Yoruba.

Yoruba Beliefs, Culture, and Traditions

There are over 60 million Yoruba people and they represent over 20% of Nigeria’s entire population. This makes them one of the largest ethnic groups in all of Africa.

Present day Yorubaland – Birthplace of the Yoruba Religion

If there are three things the Yoruba are known for (besides Ifa), it is their style, their food, and their art.

Yoruba style is called Aso-Òkè (pronounced ah-SHOW-kay) short for Aso Ilu Oke which literally means clothes from the countryside. Yoruba fabrics are the same hand woven high quality textile that has been in the region for centuries. Yoruba clothing is usually so well made, it can be handed down across multiple generations with specific colors and patterns are usually worn by members of the same family or group.

The Yoruba ‘uniform’ for women consists of a large wrapper tied like a wrap-around skirt, a loose fit blouse worn, a head tie, a shawl, and a scarf.

Yoruba men wear a Buba – a loose fit top/shirt – loose fit trousers, a large robe worn over the Buba, and a soft cap called a fila.

In Yorubaland, wearing the Fila cap to the right means you are married. Wearing the cap to the left means you are single.

Yoruba cuisine features dishes like moin moin, akara (bean cakes), amala, plantains, ekuru, jollof rice and cassava. Cassava makes up a large part of the Yoruba diet, and some believe this is why Yorubaland has the highest rate of twins in the world at around 4.4% for all maternities.

The Yoruba are also known for the sculpting traditions that they inherited from the Nok culture. These sculptures were originally made of terra cotta clay, but when the Yoruba brought new material to the region, sculptures were cast and carved in bronze.

Bronze workers are considered so important to Yoruba culture that it is said that one of the Orishas – Obalufon – watches over them as their patron saint.

Olódùmarè, Orunmila, And The Orishas

One of the first concepts and potential points of confusion that Seekers may encounter is how the concept of ‘God’ and angels are expressed in the Yoruba religion.

The Yoruba believe in a supreme and central deity, called Olódùmarè. Also known as Eledumare, The Almighty is genderless hence, it is common to hear references to “it” or “they” (although this is meant to address a somewhat singularity). And because Olódùmarè is omnipotent, it is referred to as Olorun or ‘almighty’.

God is not a separate and distant force, but a part of all things in nature. In The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts, Baba Ifa Karade writes;

The Yoruba contend that the study of nature is foremost. Nature is viewed as the manifestation of Olodumare’s Essence through degrees of material substance. That essence, translated as she, is the inherent force of all creation.

Olodumare/Olorun is in all things as the ashe is the primal essence of all things. It is not the tree, the rock, the statue, that African ancestors revere and worship, but the deep energy that brought about its being.

In maintaining the “nature religion” the ancestors were able to keep and also strengthen the very real connection between all things and human beings.

Orunmila – whose name translates as ‘Only Heaven knows the way to salvation’ – is deemed the Prophet if Yoruba religion and culture. It was he who developed and expounded upon the system of esoteric worship known to this day as Ifa. Ifa is defined as the religion – or cosmic intelligence – of Yoruba cultural expression.

It is said that as the Son of God, Orunmila was present during the creation of all things in conscious form. But Orunmila had a physical presence around 2,000 BC.

Of all Yoruba divinities, Orunmila is the most esoteric. He acts and speaks, yet has no physical form. There are no sculptured reflections of Orunmila himself. All references of him are expressed through the divinatory implements utilized by the priestly order dedicated to his teachings.

A video of the ifa divination system

Those of this sacerdotal order are known as Ifa Priests or babalawos, meaning ‘Father of Mysteries’. A Babalawo’s female counterpart is known as an Iyanifa.

If Olódùmarè/Eledumare/Olorun represents the presence of God in the Yoruba religion, then Orishas represent angelic forces that serve as intermediaries between man and God.

Orisha as a term, is actually the combination of two Yoruba words. Ori which is the reflective spark of human consciousness embedded in human essence, and sha which is the ultimate potentiality of that consciousness to enter into or assimilate itself into the divine consciousness.

In Her-Bak: Egyptian Initiate it is written that:

“The Yoruba maintain that worship of the Orisha assist in the development of iwa-pele or balanced character and balanced attitude. That the most important purpose of a person on Earth is to come and exhibit that character and attitude”

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Her-Bak: Egyptian Initiate
  • Publisher: Inner Traditions
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Orishas are intercessors between the world of humanity and divine and protectors of humanity. There are 7 Principal Orishas observed across all manifestations of Yoruba religion. The chart below, taken from The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts lists them and their attributes.

7 major Orishas of the Yoruba Religion

The Creation Story of the Yoruba Religion

Every religion on the planet shares a similar creation story, and the Yoruba religion is no different. In fact, as proof of the Yoruba – Kemet connection, the stories of the beginning of all things are remarkably similar.

In the beginning, there was only the sky above, water and marshland below.

The chief Orisha Olorun ruled the sky, and the feminine Orisha Olokun ruled what was below.

Obatala, another Orisha, reflected upon this situation, then went to Olorun for permission to create dry land for all kinds of living creatures to inhabit.He was given permission, so he sought advice from Orunmila, oldest son of Olorun and the Orisha of prophecy.

He was told he would need a gold chain long enough to reach below, a snail’s shell filled with sand, a white hen, a black cat, and a palm nut, all of which he was to carry in a bag.

All the Orisha contributed what gold they had, and Orunmila supplied the articles for the bag.

When all was ready, Obatala hung the chain from a corner of the sky, placed the bag over his shoulder, and started the downward climb. When he reached the end of the chain he saw he still had some distance to go.

From above, he heard Orunmila instruct him to pour the sand from the snail’s shell, and also immediately release the white hen.

He did as he was told, whereupon the hen landing on the sand began scratching and scattering it about.

Wherever the sand landed it formed dry land, the bigger piles becoming hills and the smaller piles valleys. Obatala jumped to a hill and named the place Ife.

The dry land now extended as far as he could see.

He dug a hole, planted the palm nut, and saw it grow to maturity in a flash. The mature palm tree dropped more palm nuts on the ground, each of which grew immediately to maturity and repeated the process. Obatala settled down with the cat for company.

Many months passed, and he grew bored with his routine.

He decided to create beings like himself to keep him company.

He dug into the sand and soon found clay with which to mould figures like himself and started on his task, but he soon grew tired and decided to take a break.

He made wine from a nearby palm tree, and drank bowl after bowl. Not realizing he was drunk, Obatala returned to his task of fashioning the new beings; because of his condition he fashioned many imperfect figures.

Without realizing this, he called out to Olorun to breathe life into his creatures.

The next day he realized what he had done, and swore never to drink again, and to take care of those who were deformed, thus becoming Protector of the Deformed.

The new people built huts as Obatala had done, and soon Ife prospered and became a city. Today, Ile-Ife is located in Osun state, southwestern Nigeria and is considered the sacred city of Yorubaland.

All the other gods were happy with what Obatala had done, and visited the land often, except for Olokun, the ruler of all below the sky.

She had not been consulted by Obatala, and grew angry that he had usurped so much of her kingdom.

When Obatala returned to his home in the sky for a visit, Olokun summoned the great waves of her vast oceans and sent them surging across the land.

Wave after wave she unleashed, until much of the land was underwater and many of the people were drowned.

Those that had fled to the highest land beseeched the Orisha Eshu who had been visiting, to return to the sky and report what was happening to them.

Eshu demanded sacrifice be made to Obatala and himself before he would deliver the message.

The people sacrificed some goats, and Eshu returned to the sky.

When Orunmila heard the news he climbed down the golden chain to the earth, and cast many spells which caused the flood waters to retreat and the dry African land reappear.So ended the great flood.

Yoruba Religion and Language Resources

The Yoruba religion is a complex and sophisticated system designed to achieve one central goal for its practicioners: The development of iwa-pele (balanced character) and assimilation into ones divine consciousness (iponri) using kiki (moral teachings), divine intervention from the Orishas, and protection against Ajogun (wicked forces) with the guidance of Babalawo and Ifaniya (Priests and Priestesses).

If you want to go deeper, here are books that are currently on my shelf that may need to be on yours, too.

Ifa: A Complete Divination
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The Yoruba Religion: Introduction to its Practice
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Yoruba is a tonal language, meaning a word that is spelled the same but pronounced differently may have a significantly different meaning. For instance, the word aro can mean cymbal, indigo dye, lamentation, and granary, depending on intonation. For this important reason, we do not suggest trying to learn the Yoruba language using books. You must be able to hear words pronounced from a native speaker. If you are interested in learning the language, here are three resources I suggest.

Yoruba is so much more than a religion – it is a way of life.

As Baba Ifa Karade writes, “It is a human beings destiny to reach or return to [their] divine state internally-heavenly and to live upon the Earth-plane existence as a reflection of that divine state. This is the supreme reason for true religious involvement.”

What do you think?

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