Yoruba is an ethnic group of about 30 million people located mostly in southwestern Nigeria with some smaller communities scattered across northern Togo and Benin. Fortunately, Yoruba religion has been one of the most studied of Africa’s religions thanks to anthropologists who have paid close attention to the culture’s art, music, and oral literature in great detail. This information has greatly assisted scholars seeking to examine the religious dimension of Yoruba life.
The earliest analyses of Yoruba religion came from travelers and missionaries writing about the supposed “animistic”, “pagan”, and “heathen” traditions of African cultures. We have the missionary Richard Henry Stone’s In African Forest and Jungle or Six Years Among The Yorubas (1899) and writings from travelers such as M. A. S. Barber. There was the German explorer and anthropologist Leo Frobenius and the British officer Alfred Ellis, and several Baptist missionaries, all of whom provided descriptions of Yoruba cultural life and refer to Yoruba legends of gods and goddesses. A constant tradition of scholarship continues to dedicate itself to Yoruba culture and religion, especially in light of later developments in new religious movements, Christianity, Islam, and colonialism.
It is difficult to view Yoruba religion as being a single religion when it is actually more of a diverse spectrum of local-cult complexes within which the orishas or gods were central. Yoruba has never been a generalized religion as opposed to a collection of communities and practices committed to particular deities. This picture is further complicated when one realizes that most Yoruba people today embrace various forms of Islam and Christianity, and that the religion of Yoruba origin is also practiced in areas outside of Africa by people who are not Yoruba.
The Gods and Spirits
Fortunately, one can point out several commonalities in the historical spectrum of local-cult complexes that unify Yoruba religion. Most prevalent is the belief in the presence and existence of orishas that have been personalized. The orishas are also expressive of natural forces (meteorological phenomena like thunder, rain, wind, etc.) and natural objects like rivers, mountains, hills, and so on. They were often associated with human activities such as farming, healing, and ironworking. There is also belief in a Supreme Being, Olorun or Olodumare, who is believed to be the author of all existence and active in human affairs through the orishas. In addition, we find the commonality of ancestor belief, belief in medicines, a belief in quasi-animate embodiments of power in material substances, and various divinatory techniques.
As noted, Yoruba religion consisted of a spectrum of local-cult complexes varying from village to village. There is the Supreme Being who according to legend sent the orishas to populate the Earth. Many of the orishas are deified ancestors and natural forces to whom devotees dedicated themselves: the thunder god Sango, for example, is believed to have been the fourth king of the town of Oyo and is described as having been powerful, with a thunder-like voice and a mouth that discharged fire when he spoke (hence fire and lightning being associated with him). Throughout the nineteenth century, there were public cults dedicated to Ogun (the presider of iron, politics, and war), the trickster Eshu, Oramfe, Orisa Oko, Ogiyan, and Oke’badan. There were the river deities Yemoja, Osun (also associated with love, fertility, and sensuality), and Oya (also linked to the tornado). There is the chief goddess Oduduwa representing the Earth, the goddess Aja of the forests and animals, and the god of war and hunting Oguri (who was worshiped by hunters). There was a diverse range of gods, around 400, and worshipers could move between cults.
Practices and Rituals
The rituals and practices of the Yoruba varied and involved prayers, songs, poetry, proverbs, and incantations. Rituals were also practical as devotees engaged in chants, praises, music, drumming, and spirit possession. Sacrifices were offered to the orishas and various unseen forces to ensure protection.
Possession was the practice of a minority of priests and initiates. It ultimately made divine power available to human beings when an orisha entered the body. Through possession, the priests and initiates could mediate the power of their gods to the devotees. Sacrifice was another ritual common to all members. These occurred during mundane affairs, as well as in times of need, when the orishas were felt to be angry and in need of appeasement, and during festivals when devotees reaffirmed links to their divine patrons. Sacrifice was a gift exchange between the devotee and the orishas when valuable items, such as cowries or animals, would be offered in return for life and keeping death at bay.
Music was another essential ingredient to worship. The English explorer Richard Lander (d. 1834) described a scene unfolding at the palace of a traditional ruler who was “seated outside his house under its verandah surrounded by about a hundred of his wives and musicians with drums and fife…” Evidently, the use of drums was important in the courts of rulers and in the homes of nobility. They were also used by the common people who had special drums made for particular deities. Chanting and singing were common during ritual and ceremonial occasions, and the drums provided worshippers the means for ecstatic communication and communion with the gods.
The Arrival of Islam and Christianity
The arrival of Islam and Christianity and their mixing with the Yoruba around the mid-nineteenth century had mixed results. Islam combined with Yoruba indigenous belief and produced a so-called “Yoruba-Islam” that expanded through mostly peaceful, decentralized means. There wasn’t much pressure to convert to Yoruba-Islam and many Yoruba Muslims continued to actively worship orishas. Many orishas also became viewed as angels. Early Christian missionaries, moreover, made heavy demands for cultural change when it came to polygamy, slave-holding, and domestic rituals. The missionaries also promoted ethical values that were at variance with Yoruba life, which made it difficult for many Yoruba to convert to Christianity. Later Christian movements, particularly the Aladura (Praying) movement of the1920s and 1930s, however, found it easier to draw in converts when charismatic prophets developed a Christian means for guidance, healing, protection against evil, and the relief of mundane needs. At the same time, the Aladura revivals condemned idols and the orishas who they linked to demons and the powers of darkness. By the 1950s, a majority of the Yoruba were equally divided between Islam and Christianity. Local orisha cults had shrunk and many died off although some beliefs and practices remained. In particular, there were festivals linked to traditional Yoruba religion that continued to be celebrated. Many Muslims and Christians still sought out divinatory services and there was yet a wide belief in witchcraft and magic. But generally, the Yoruba religion had become a pale shadow of its former self, especially when viewed by dominant Muslim and Christian groups as demonic. Some of the Yoruba religion had managed to expand outside the continent where it attracted people not of African descent, such as in Cuba and Brazil.
Many within the Christian (notably the Neo-Pentecostals) and reformist Islamic traditions today have put much effort into stigmatizing and eliminating what remains of Yoruba religion within their traditions. Yoruba-Islam has made more efforts to represent the Islam of a normative Middle Eastern style and Christians present distorted images of traditional Yoruba beliefs and practices. Some Christians have attempted to secularize the orishas by removing them from the category of religion altogether through interpreting them as kings, ancestors, heroes, or great men deified after their deaths. This has enabled the orishas to be treated with respect.
Adegbite, Ademọla. 1988. “The Drum and Its Role in Yoruba Religion.” Journal of Religion in Africa 18(1):15-26.
Peel, J. D. Y. 2015. Christianity, Islam, and Orisa-Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction. California: University of California Press. p. 214-232.