This is a really huge and complex topic, and I’m not going to be able to cover anything close to all of it in one episode. And, in fact, I’m planning to do some more episodes on different aspects of Yoruba mythology and religious practices, as well as the Yoruba influence on practices such as Santeria and Candomble.
We’re going to look at the importance of divination and the idea of the Orishas in Yoruba religion and mythology. To provide context, I’m going to give a little bit of historical background here, first, but again, this is really just sort of the tip of the iceberg in terms of how vast the history of this culture really is.
When we’re talking about the Yoruba people, we’re primarily talking about an ethnic group found in parts of Nigeria, and also in Benin in West Africa. Historically, archeological evidence of the Yoruba civilization dates back to at least the 4th century BCE, although the term Yoruba didn’t come around until the first millennium CE. The earliest Yoruba settlement was a place called Ife or Ile-Ife, which is thought to be roughly 130 miles northeast of contemporary Lagos. Ife was the heartland of Yoruba culture for centuries- with the phase of life between 1100-1600 CE being thought of as a golden age of civilization there. Eventually, Ife gave way to the rise of the Oyo Empire during the 15th century, which ultimately lasted- with many ups and downs- pretty much until the region came under the colonial rule of Great Britain in 1888.
The city of Ife was considered to be the center of the world and the origin of life and of the Yoruba people, and there is a myth concerning how it came to be. The story begins with the supreme God, Olodumare, who is the sort of androgynous all-encompassing ruler of all things heaven and earth. Olodumare sent two brothers, Obatala and Oduduwa down to the watery primordial space below the heavens to create the world and bring people into it. Olodumere gave Obatala a magical bag full of various items- arts and wisdom, and gave Oduduwa kingship over the future world. On the way down from the heavens, Oduduwa gave his brother wine made from palm, which got him drunk.
Oduduwa then took the magical bag and climbed down a chain from the heavens. He threw down handfuls of dirt onto the water and released a five-toed bird- a cockerel. The bird began to scratch at the dirt and wherever it kicked it land began to appear, creating the earth with Ife at its center.
There are a few important concepts that I want to talk about in order to get some basic insight into the Yoruba religion, and these will help us get a better understanding of some of the myths and folktales we’re going to look at.
The first is the concept of ashe- this is a Yoruba word that is often translated as “the power to make things happen.” All things have ashe- people, animals, plants, rocks, trees, and also things like works of art, words, prayers… it is sort of like a spiritual current that flows through everything. Each person, and also each deity, has their own unique ashe- and this was traditionally taken into account in a ritual context- whose ashe was best suited to interact with the divine- as well as in every day life in terms of social organization.
A person’s head- or ori- is considered to contain their ashe, as well as their iwa, which is more like one’s inner nature or personal character… Sometimes in Yoruba art and sculpture people are portrayed with heads that seem disproportionately large compared to their bodies, and this idea of the head, or ori, being the site of ashe and iwa is the reason for this.
So, speaking of heads, one Yoruba folktale that I particularly like is a story of a beautiful maiden and a disembodied head or skull. There are a lot of variants of this story, and this is just one of them.
It begins in a distant land or sometimes in the realm of spirits, where a disembodied head floats around with no body. This head, one day, decides that it would like to know what its like to have a body, so it makes its way to the house of an old woman who is leaning out of the window and asks her if it can borrow a body for a little while. She agrees, and gives the head the body of one of her slaves to use for awhile. The head, now with a torso, continues on. Next he comes to a young man sleeping under a tree and asks, since he isn’t really using them at the moment, if he could borrow the young man’s arms. So, the young man gives him his arms and the head moves on. He comes to a riverbank where a group of fishermen are sitting around singing and mending their nets. As they are all sitting, the head asks if any of them would be so kind as to lend him a pair of legs for awhile. So, he gets a pair of legs, and now has the appearance of a complete human- in fact, a very handsome one!
That evening, he reached a town and saw a group of beautiful young girls dancing while people threw coins or cowrie shells to her. The Head threw all of his coins to one of the girls, who he was quite taken with, and in turn she agreed to marry this handsome stranger and go back to live with him in his own country.
The next day, they set out, but when they came to the river, she was quite surprised when her new husband removed his legs and returned them to the fisherman. Soon after, he gave his arms back to the young man who was still sleeping under the tree, and finally he returned his body to the old woman, who was still leaning out of the window.
When the bride saw that her new husband was nothing but a disembodied head, she was filled with horror and ran away as fast as she could. And now that the head had no arms, body, or legs, he couldn’t catch up with her.
In some versions of the story, the girl is initially characterized as being a bit difficult- disobeying the wishes of her parents and refusing to marry any of the men in her town, and she actually ends up getting stuck in the land of the spirits and tending to the ailing mother of the disembodied head. In these versions, the head’s mother usually ends up taking pity on the girl after awhile and summons a magical wind to carry her back to her home, at which point she is much reformed and very eager to listen to her parents.
So, we established that the Yoruba word for head is Ori, and the word for the Yoruba deities is Orisha, which is often translated as “special or unique head.” Each Orisha is connected with a certain aspect of the Great God, Olodumare. And often times certain people will have a special connection with one or more Orishas that help to guide them on their life path. There are 401 Orishas, and it would be impossible to talk about all of them, but we’re going to look at a few.
Shango is the Orisha associated with thunder and lightning. He is also associated with masculine beauty, and he is married or has romantic relationships with three female Orishas- Oba, Oshun, and Oya. Oya is the Orisha of wind, and she can manifest in the form of a gentle breeze or a raging hurricane. She is a fierce warrior, often depicted with a machete. Oshun is associated with rivers and fresh water, love, fertility, feminine beauty and sensuality. Oba is considered Shango’s primary wife. She is the Orisha of the Oba River in Nigeria.
There are numerous myths and folktales concerning the relationship of Shango with these three Orishas, including a good deal of competition between the three lovers over Shango. One very famous story is as follows. It has many variants, but the overall gist remains generally consistent.
Oba was Shango’s first wife, but, polyamory being very common amongst the Yoruba, he soon set his sites on Oshun, the most beautiful Orisha, and she became his second wife. For awhile, he was able to share his affections between the two wives and everything was more or less OK. Then Shango also developed another relationship with Oya. Between the three wives, Shango was spending more and more time with beautiful Oshun and fierce Oya, who was also very beautiful. Oba felt like he was slipping away, and she wanted to reclaim his affection.
Oba shared her concerns with Oshun and Oya, and one of them- sometimes its Oshun and sometimes its Oya- tells her that cooking an exceptional meal will surely win back Shango’s heart. Oba begins working in the kitchen, preparing a special soup for Shango, but one of the other two- again, sometimes Oshun and sometimes Oya- tells her that when she prepares food for Shango the reason he likes it so much is because she cuts off a little piece of her own ear and mixes it into the food.
Determined to outdo the other lovers, Oba cuts off her entire ear and puts it into the soup.
Shango gets home and begins to devour the soup, hardly noticing that Oba’s head is all bandaged up, until he sees something floating in the bowl. He is shocked when he fishes out a human ear, and, realizing that it is Oba’s, he becomes enraged, accuses her of witchcraft, and chases her out of the house. At this, Oba cried so profusely that her tears became the Oba River.
In some versions of this story, Shango is actually moved by Oba’s devotion and the sacrifice of the ear into the soup ultimately does serve to reinforce their bond.
Within the Yoruba religion, continued spiritual growth and striving to attain balance in one’s life are very important concepts, and these require regular involvement with the Orishas, often through highly complex divination practices.
Divination, called Ifa, is a big part of Yoruba religious life. It is often done by tossing of palm nuts or cowrie shells on a surface- a special mat or plate. The shells are ritually prepared by an Ifa priest and typically shaved down so the shell is flat, with one side showing the opening of the shell, or mouth, so when they are thrown some will be face up, and some will be face down- and from this, information can be determined concerning the person who is being divined for, often in relation to a particular Orisha.
And this might sound fairly simple on the surface, but when you take into account that there are 401 Orishas and different numbers of shells for different types of divination or different levels of priesthood, and tons of potential outcomes in terms of pattern, placement, and numerology plus a whole canon of knowledge that needs to be acquired before being able to properly interpret the information as well as knowing what actions the person being divined for may need to take in response, it is actually overwhelmingly complex. Actually, in 2005 Ifa Divination was added to the UNESCO list of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
Divination is typically only performed by an initiated Ifa priest who is trained, sometimes over the course of years, to develop the skills and ritual knowledge associated with the practice.
Typically the outcome of any given divination will result in the person being divined for being required to make ebo- which is generally some sort of sacrifice, in order to overcome an obstacle, prevent an obstacle, or generally continue their spiritual growth and relationship with one or more particular Orishas. This can be something as simple as an offering of food to an Orisha or something much more complex and challenging, such as giving up a bad habit. Regardless, failure to make the appropriate ebo universally results in misfortune.
One folktale illustrates this quite clearly. It is the story of a farmer, called Akinsa, whose crops are suffering from a severe draught. Even his animals are looking pretty haggard and he’s kind of at the end of his rope. So, with nothing to lose, he somewhat reluctantly goes to see the diviners.
The Orisha Eleggua, himself, divined for the farmer, but the farmer was still, in his mind, arguing with everything the Orisha said. Eleggua is considered to be the messenger to the other Orishas.
Eleggua eventually told him that the Orishas were offering him an ebo. All he had to do was make an offering of a plate of food, and his luck would improve.
That evening, Akinsa went back to his house. He only had a few small steaks and some beans and rice left in his kitchen. He knew that if he offered these to the Orishas he might not eat again, himself, for several days. He looked out at his crops, laying dead in the fields, and began to doubt that this ebo would change anything. The crops were already dead, he thought. Even if it rained, they wouldn’t come back to life.
He began to get angry. He went outside and screamed up at the heavens. “All of you diviners are liars! And you gods, you are no more powerful than mortals! How will you bring my crops back to life? How will you feed my animals? How will you feed me?”
He went back inside and began to chow down on the food. With his mouth full he muttered, “This is my ebo!” With that, a piece of meat got stuck in his throat. He couldn’t breathe, and he choked to death right there- just before everything went dark, he saw out the kitchen window that the skies were darkening like it was about to rain.
Some of the Orishas and other elements of Yoruba religion made their way to the Americas through what we’ve euphemistically come to refer to as the “Atlantic Slave Trade,” when over 11 million people were brought from Africa, and primarily from West Africa, to work as slaves in the New World from the 15th – 19th century. From the Yoruba, many of the people who were sent over as slaves were originally members of the elite- warriors and priests who had been initiated into roles that involved a deep knowledge of the Yoruba religion. And despite the best efforts of the Church to suppress traditional African religions amongst the slaves, many elements of the Yoruba religion, including many of the Orishas, survived in the Americas the Caribbean and are represented in Santeria or Lucumi, Candomble, to an extent in Vodou, and in other religions or spiritual practices as well. As these practices developed, they often combined elements of other African tribal beliefs systems, sometimes the beliefs of the existing indigenous people, as well as forming syncretic relationships with aspects of Catholicism- particular the Saints. In fact, Santeria literally means “worship of the saints” in Spanish.
That last story about the farmer actually comes from a collection of Santeria tales of the Orishas.
In that story we got an idea of the dangers associated with failure to make ebo. This next story shows, conversely, how those who do make ebo are rewarded.
This story is about the crocodile, who was once a very beautiful and fragile creature. In fact, originally the crocodile was so beautiful that all of the other fish and frogs were envious of its soft skin and they ganged up on it. While the crocodile was gently eating grasses along the riverbanks, the fish would nip at its skin and the frogs would croak noisily at it. After lots of torment from the other creatures, the crocodile took to hiding amongst the reeds in fear.
One day Eleggua found the crocodile cowering in the reeds and asked it, “You are such a huge creature, why do you put up with this stuff?”
The crocodile explained that the frogs and fish harassed him constantly. Eleggua told the crocodile that he needed to make ebo. He told him to bring twenty-one coconuts and twenty-one iron spikes. The crocodile had never heard of making ebo before, but he trusted the Orisha. So, that night, when his tormenters were all sleeping, he crept around and gathered the coconuts and rusty nails.
The next day, he returned to Eleggua with the ebo. “Open your mouth,” said the Orisha. He put the nails into the crocodiles mouth and they became his teeth. Next he broke the coconuts and arranged the shards of shell on the crocodile’s back. These became his tough scales.
After this was done, the crocodile slid back into the water. Fish bit at him and broke their teeth on his new scales. Still, the bites were irritating, and the crocodile chomped the fish into pieces with his new sharp teeth and ate them. They tasted much better than the grasses he was used to eating. Since that day, the crocodile has been king of the river.