Yoruba Religion and Myth

Hal Horton '93 (English 32, 1989)

The faiths of the Yoruba peoples of Western Nigeria vary significantly from one part of the region to another; the same deity may be male in one village and female in the next, or the characteristics of two gods may be embodied in a single deity in a neighboring region; in the city of Ile Ife alone the trickster god is worshipped under three different names. These variations inevitably arose as the myths were passed by word of mouth; add to them the incorporation into the Yoruba faith of facets of outside religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, and understanding the faith becomes difficult indeed. The religions, however, share a similar structure, described by E. Bolaji Idowu as "diffused monotheism"; a single omnipotent creator-god rules over the universe, along with several hundred lower gods, each with a specific domain of rule.

Shango, the god Wole Soyinka refers to in his poem "Hunt of the Stone", occupies a major position in the pantheon of the Yoruba, although he holds a less important position in neighboring ethnic groups. Shango (also spelled Sango and Sagoe) creates thunder and lightning by casting "thunderstones" down to earth; wherever lightning strikes, priests search the surrounding area for the thrown stone. The Yoruba believe these stones have special powers, and they enshrine the stones in temples to the god. Shango has four wives, each personified by a major Nigerian river; his chief wife, Oya, is represented by the River Niger. One myth about Shango tells of when he was human and ruled as the fourth king of the ancient Yoruba capital of Oyo. He had a charm that could cause lightning, with which he inadvertently killed his entire family. In remorse he hanged himself, and upon his death he became deified. Although the "foremost national deity", according to some, the Yoruba do not consider him the most powerful or even the most important god; rather, his popularity may have resulted from attempts to ward off the frequent tornadoes that strike western Africa.

Curiously, the Yoruba never actively worship their all-powerful god, variously known as Olorun ("the owner of the sky") or Olodumare (roughly translates as "the almighty"), among many other names. Unlike Shango, who has dozens of shrines erected to him, Olorun has not a single shrine; the Yoruba never make sacrifices to him, and he has no priests. He plays much the same role as do the Judeo-Christian and Islamic gods-- he is "the creator of all things, the almighty and all-knowing, the giver of life and breath, and the final judge of mankind", according to Geoffrey Parrinder-- and yet the Yoruba apparently ignore him in their day-to-day lives. A theory explains that perhaps Olorun developed through the influence of early Islamic or Christian missionaries, as a simulacrum of the gods of those religions. This finds support in the argument that the Yoruba find the concept of an almighty God so overwhelming and remote that they cannot relate Olorun to their reality.

Some Yoruba legends have a pair of gods, Orishala (Obatala, Orisa-nla) and his wife Odudua, as supreme creating deities, either independent of almighty Olorun or preceding him. One legend has Olorun creating the world and then leaving Obatala and Odudua to finish up the details; other interpreters have considered Olorun and Obatala one and the same. Obatala, often a sculptor-god, has the responsibility to shape human bodies; the Yoruba consider the physically deformed either his votaries or the victims of his displeasure. Olorun, however, reserves the right to breathe these bodies to life. In some places, Obatala also rules over all of the orisha, or minor gods, as king, although still subordinate to Olorun. The orisha (of which Shango is one) traditionally number either four hundred one or six hundred one. The Yoruba explained to early missionaries that these minor gods descended from the single almighty god, just as Jesus was the son of the Christian god.

Among these orisha, the Yoruba see the god Ogun as among the most important. The god of war, of the hunt, and of ironworking, Ogun serves as the patron deity of blacksmiths, warriors, and all who use metal in their occupations. He also presides over deals and contracts; in fact, in Yoruba courts, devotees of the faith swear to tell the truth by kissing a machete sacred to Ogun. The Yoruba consider Ogun fearsome and terrible in his revenge; they believe that if one breaks a pact made in his name, swift retribution will follow. A legend that illustrates Ogun's importance tells of the orisha trying to carve a road through dense jungle; Ogun was the only one with the proper implements for the task and so won the right to be king of the orisha. He did not, however, care for the position, and it went to Obatala.

Some regions combine Ogun with the trickster god, Eshu. Eshu, or Legba as he is also known, has mistakenly been identified by Europeans with with the Devil in the past.

The Yoruba pantheon, however, has no evil gods; a more accurate comparison would be between Eshu and the Satan of the Book of Job, to whom God assigns the task of trying men's faith. One myth dealing with Eshu illustrates his mischieviousness: Eshu, posing as a merchant, alternately sold increasingly magnificent gifts to each of a man's two wives; the ensuing battle for the husband's favor tore the family apart. Surprisingly, Eshu also serves as the guardian of houses and villages. When worshipped in this tutelary position, his followers call him Baba ("father"). Eshu also serves as the god of Ifa, a sophisticated and complex geomantic divinatory tool which uses nuts, signs, and increasing squares of the number four to predict all facets of the future. Geoffrey Parrinder claims that Ifa is the "only instance of writing practised in modern times among the pagan and non-Islamic peoples." It has remained enormously popular, and still today many Yoruba do not make any major life decision without consulting it.

Shokpona, the god of smallpox, apparently became an important god in the smallpox plagues that were transmitted by various inter-tribal wars; the Yoruba also blamed Shokpona's wrath for high temperatures, carbuncles, boils, and other diseases that resemble small-pox symptoms. Shokpona once terrified some Yoruba so greatly that they feared to say his name; they used instead such names as Elegbana ("hot earth") and A-soro-pelerum ("one whose name it is not propitious to call during the dry season"). Priests of Shokpona wielded immense power; it was believed that they could bring the plague down on their enemies, and in fact the priests sometimes made a potion from the powdered scabs and dry skin of those who died from small-pox. They would pour the potion in an enemy's house or a neighboring village to spread the disease. Today, however, smallpox has been all but eradicated; the priests of Shokpona have lost power and the cult has vanished.

Some gods, such as Olokun, appear only in certain regions. Olokun ("owner of the sea"), alternately a god or a goddess, lives under the sea with his (or her) soldiers and mermaids; a popular legend tells of Olokun trying to conquer the earth by means of a great flood. The worship of Olokun occurs, predictably, in the southern coastal regions.

The Yoruba treat their ancestors with great respect, as might be expected in a culture with only oral records of the past, but anthropologists debate as to whether the rituals dealing with ancestry are religious in nature, or simply respectful. At least a few groups believe that ancestors, after death, become demigods, but only once they have assumed the persona of a true deity. This resembles another facet of the Yoruba faith, the phenomenon of possession, in which mediums take on the characteristics of one or another of the gods. The characteristics of each god are so well stereotyped that mediums as far off as Haiti loll back their heads and cross their legs in the same way when possessed by the lightning god.

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