Creations stories hold me captive. It’s a fascination that began when I first marveled at how the tellers of Genesis were somehow privy to certain basic aspects of the event we now call the Big Bang, as well as to the formation of the universe and the evolutionary history of life on Earth. I became even more interested when I gained an understanding of the correlation between the story of the Fall of Man and the complexification of consciousness that occurred as a result of the evolution of the human brain, an event that naturally caused the early human to be “expelled from a state of innocence” into one rife with self-consciousness and inner conflict. For me, the intuitive depth of creation stories inspire wonder, and so I found myself rapt as I was drawn into Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief by E. Bolaji Idowu.
Idowu, the First Patriarch of the Methodist Church of Nigeria from 1972 to 1984, published his first book, a theogony and cosmogony of the Yoruba religion of West Africa, in 1962. It was the result of his doctoral thesis, an heroic effort considering it was written during a violent anti-witchcraft craze led by both Christians and Muslims targeting Yoruba priests and priestesses. Idowu’s aim was to dispel the idea “circulated abroad and widely accepted… that the religion of West Africa is something without any real value – something in which barbaric crudeness is mercifully relieved by a touch of the ridiculous.” Clearly, however, the Yoruba religion was met with more than just condescension during Idowu’s time. For some it evoked a brutal fear, perhaps not just by perceived threats of differences, but also or perhaps even more so by similarities, for the Yoruba religion has many things in common with the Abrahamic religions, including but not limited to a Fall of Man and an underlying monotheistic concept of God.
The Yoruba include several clans united by language, tradition and religion, and Idowu assures us that a careful study of their ancient “myths, philosophy, liturgies, songs and sayings” reveal Olodumare to be “the origin and ground of all that is.” His existence is “beyond question,” and “it is upon this basic faith that the whole superstructure of Yoruba belief rests.” As such he is credited with being the “Prime Mover of things.” He is called Elede (“Creator,”) Elemi (“Owner of life,”) Oba-Orun (“the King who dwells in the Heavens,”) and Oba ti kol’eri (“the One clothed in White Robes.”) He is holy, immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, and the “Judge or Final Disposer of all things,” and he is also credited with bringing the principle divinities into existence to minister “the functions connected with the creation and theocratic government of the earth.”
The Yoruba creation myth is told, Idowu explains, in a way that children can understand and goes as follows: Olodumare sent his arch-divinity, Orishnia, down to the watery earth to oversee its solidification and otherwise prepare it for humanity, a task he accomplished in four days with a packet of loose earth, a five-toed hen, and a pigeon. Though the fifth day was reserved for rest and worship, the project continued when Olodumare sent Orishnia down to the earth again, this time to plant four sacred trees to provide juices, oils and food. Meanwhile, the hen and pigeon had multiplied to provide other sources of nourishment, and when the planet was thus sufficiently prepared, Olodumare sent Oreluere, a pre-existent human being, to lead a group of his kind down to populate the earth. At this time, Orishnia was given the job of molding the human’s physical forms “from the dust of the earth,” but the ultimate responsibility of breathing life into the forms was reserved for Olodumare.
The oral traditions explain that during this early stage of humanity, “heaven and earth were so close that travel between the two realms was possible and all beings could contact Olodumare directly as needed.“ Idowu describes it as “a kind of Golden Age,” but then an event occurred that caused a “frustrating, extensive space” or “barrier” to “cut (man) off from the unrestricted bliss of heaven.” The details concerning this event are varied, but all versions include a grievous sin such as the stealing of food from heaven or a defiling of it by the “dirty hand of a woman.” For me, these stories are all ways of describing the split in human consciousness that resulted from the evolution of the human brain, and it didn’t surprise me to note the cause of the great rift being attributed, in one version at least, to the mythologically notorious female, yet another similarity with the Abrahamic religions. Could this “frustrating, extensive space” be the highly-developed emotional brain, or limbic system, that literally separates the cerebral cortex from the brain stem? Or could it be the cerebral cortex itself? Or both?! Idowu doesn’t offer any interpretations, but he does tell us how the Yoruba Fall of Man played out in their beliefs and religious practices. “It considerably enhanced (the divinities) mediatory status,” he explains, and it is upon these divinities, or Orisha, and the culturally rich and spiritually demanding form of worship that they inspire that I wish to focus my wonder onto next. So, who are the Orishas?
Idowu tells us that they are “…beings with personal, if not physical, certainly anthropomorphic qualities which make them individual realities to their worshipers….” They are complex characters with likes and dislikes and, accordingly, mood swings. Individually, each has been assigned a certain department or departments of reality over which they rule. In Cantos Lucumi – a los Orishas, Thomas Altmann provides a reference for “the orishas and their various aspects.” For example, Ogun is “the oricha of the forge, of the metal iron, of weapons and war,” Chango is “the oricha of fire and thunder, of virility and male sexuality,” and Orunmilla is “the oricha of divination.”
An exact census of the pantheon isn’t possible, in Idowu’s opinion, but sources include as many as 1440 divinities. Some have been added throughout history by hero worship and by priests managing crises, he explains, but the 17 principal divinities themselves are believed to have been brought forth by Olodumare. How? They were either “engendered by Him or they emanated from Him.” As one example, there is a Yoruba myth in which the first arch-divinity, Orisnia, is crushed to bits and scattered by a boulder and the Orisas are “what was found and gathered” of him. The significance for Idowa “lies in the suggestion that Orisa was originally a unity; that this is the Yoruba way of giving recognition to the process of ‘fragmentation’ which comes as a result of giving concrete shapes in the mind to certain outstanding attributes of the Deity….”’
(Note: As I quote various sources, Orisa may also be spelled Orisha and Oricha. Also, some authors chose to capitalize the title while other do not.)
Idowu suggests diffused monotheism as a possible term for categorizing the Yoruga religion, then he tries to resolve the “subtle metaphysical question” as to whether the Orisas are the result of an “intellectual fragmentation” or are “indeed celestial overlords?” In the end, he explains that to the believer “…the divinities are as real as the ministering angels who all down the ages have been a constant source of spiritual comfort to those who believe in their existence.” They are, “in fact, so real to the worshipers that they have, for practical purposes, almost become ends in themselves, instead of a means to an end which, technically, they are according to Yoruba theology,” a point which brings me to the intensity of devotion that the Orishas inspire and require.
Personal worship involves the creation and maintenance of highly symbolic altars which are attended through ceremonial cleansing, invocations, libations, offerings, communication by divination, and offerings. Offerings often include animal sacrifice, a controversial issue in the West no doubt, but on this point Idowa writes, “Sacrifice is of the essence of the religion of the Yoruba as it is of every religion the world has ever known. It is inconceivable to have a religion without some form of sacrifice, however modified or refined it may be.” Communal worship is more elaborate with the additions of very specifically arranged songs and complex music with dance accompaniment in ritual dress all enlivened with the intention of inviting possession.
Individuals are called to become devotees of a specific Orisha either by declaration of the oracle or by possession. Declaration by oracle usually occurs at birth or at a crucial time in a person’s life, but possession, though it can happen any time, usually occurs during ceremony. Idowu explains, “The person may just be standing apart watching, or be one of the worshippers – often singing and dancing – when he becomes ecstasied. Therefore he knows that he is the property of the Orisha to carry out his every behest as vouchsafed by him.” Said another way, “there is something of the divinity in him, …he absorbs the Orisha into his personality and manifests him.” (And in case you’re wondering, both women and men can be possessed by Orishas, an event that is not contingent on gender, i.e. female Orishas can possess men and vice versa.)
There is much the uninformed observer of Yoruba ceremony cannot perceive, including the monotheistic aspect of the religion, the devotees depth of commitment, and the incredible relationship of the music to the Orishas. Though Idowu discusses this relationship, I came to appreciate it more deeply by reading Drumming for the Gods: the Life and Times of Felipe Garcia Villamil, Santero, Palero, and Abakua by ethnomusicologist Maria Teresa Velez. Like Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, this book was also the publication of a dissertation, but Velez’s research was focused on the chants of the Afro-Cuban religions as “viewed through the life of a special person.”
That special person, Felipe Garcia Villamil, holds among many honorable titles that of Santero or priest of Santeria. Santeria is the name given to “a religious practice based on the worship of Yoruba deities syncretized with Catholic saints….” Born in Matanzas, Cuba with both Yoruba and Congo lineages, Villamil is a “master Afro-Cuban drummer and craftsman” who considers his relationship to the sacred bata drums his destiny. Drumming for the Gods tells the story of Santeria and its ritual music, a cultural practice of the African diaspora. It tells the story of how Villamil became a sacred bata drummer, or olubata, and managed to be true to his calling throughout the commodification of Afro-Cuban culture that was a part of the Cuban revolution. It chronicles his experience as an exiled Marielito who arrived in the United States in 1980 as part of the Muriel Harbor exodus, and tells of how the olubata of the Muriel exodus “reconstructed the tradition of ‘the transmission of the voice’ among sacred drums” in the Santeria community that had begun to develop in New York in the 1950s and 60s.
“For Santeros, bata drums are not just musical instruments,” Velez explains, “they are a spiritual entity (Ana) in and of itself…. They have to be ‘born’ from a previously consecrated set of drums which transmits to them the ‘voice’ that is the power to talk to the orishas.” Through diverse playing techniques the drummers create a complex melodic effect or “conversation” that calls the Orichas to descend. “It is said,” Velez writes, “that the bata ‘speak tongue,’ meaning that they imitate the ritual language used to address the deities – Lacumi, a language that has origins in several Yoruba dialects. Yoruba is a tonal language,” she explains, “in which intonation has semantic value – intonation that can be imitated by the drums.” The drums are layered with chants that engage the Orishas as well, some which are intended to provoke the reluctant Orisha with jokes or double entendre.
(Note: As an important aside, Lacumi refers to a Creole language that resulted from the mixture of Spanish with Yoruban and the languages of other African peoples during the Cuban slave trade, and translates literally, “Don’t kill me.”)
Percussionist, educator, and cultural worker Carolyn Brandy explains in “Devotional Music of the Orishas” that the dancing that accompanies the songs and drums for the Orishas is equally complicated, with each dance portraying the attributes of one specific Orisha. Cantos Lacumi gives us a few details, for example, Ogun (weapons and war) “dances with his machete, Ochosi (the hunt) “with his bow and arrow,” … and Ochune (female sexuality) “dances with her fan or with her mirror.” Once possession had been accomplished, the deity “participates in the ritual, answering questions, giving advice,… and enticing others to dance.”
How intriguing! My Lutheran experience pales in comparison! And I am lucky to note this not just by reading a few books, but by my recent participation in an experiential class offered by Carolyn Brandy at The California Institute of Integral Studies. Though I only learned some basic rhythms and dance moves, non-ritually, I was brought to tears by just a glimpse into the cultural richness, communal spirit, deep roots, and spiritual reverence of this religious community. And those rhythms – they even have a hypnotic effect, (on me at least,) when played badly by beginners! I was also moved by a story that was told of one particular Orisha, Ochune.
As I was pacing around my house trying to decide whether or not to end this paper with that story, I wandered into the living room to mull it over on the couch. Looking up at the mantle above my head, I saw a yellow candle that I hadn’t noticed before, (my housemate must have put it there,) and recognizing it as the type of candle sold in Santeria stores, I looked to see the image on the front and saw that it was a candle for Ochune. Clearly, my decision was made.
A more detailed description of Ochune tells us that she “is the orisha of fresh water, of rivers and creeks. She is the deity of female sexuality, of love, eroticism, and sensuality, of gold and honey, beauty and vanity.” But she is also the Orisha who “saves the world,” and so has become, for some, a feminist icon. As the story goes, a crisis occurred a very long time ago, one that all the other principle divinities, (16 of the 17 are male by the way,) raced to solve while ignoring Oshune, (who was incredibly beautiful by the way,) and who was all the while saying, “I know what to do.” But it wasn’t until all their attempts had failed that the other divinities turned to Oshune to say something along the lines of, “Oh, well. Go ahead. Give it a try.” It was then that Oshune turned herself into a vulture and, in that form, was able to deliver a message to Olodumare that saved the world.
And so Oshune, the principal divinity that embodies female sexuality, has been the topic of many academic papers and was dubbed “the first women emancipator” by George Ajibade of Obafemi Awolowo University in the Yoruba sacred city of Ile Ife, Nigeria. Though according to myth she was underestimated by the other principle divinities, she overcame their delusions of superiority when she revealed “…latent or innate qualities and powers which Olodumare had given her.” This myth teaches that we, as human beings, will solve the grave problems we face as a a whole when we value all of our voices, especially those that have been suppressed. For me and I am sure for many, it stresses the importance of honoring our universal feminine attributes, in ourselves and others, regardless of gender, race, age, class, physical ability or physical appearance. And it beautifully teaches the importance of really, really, really paying attention! And that means listening to that inner voice that persistently, and often quietly says, “I KNOW WHAT TO DO!”
To see dancers portraying Oshune in a folkloric performance, click the link below or copy & paste the following series of tags into your search box.
YORUBA, SANTERIA. OCHUN OSHUN Folclorico de Oriente Santiago de Cuba
Ajibade, George Olusola. “Negotiating Performance: Osun in the Verbal and Visual Metaphors,” Knights of Imhotep Library website.
Altman, Thomas. (2000.) Cantos Lakumi: a los Orichas, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Brandy, Carolyn. “Art as Sacred Practice,” course reader.
Velez, Maria Teresa. (2000.) Drumming for the Gods: The Life and Times of Felipe Garcia Villamil. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Idowu, E. Bolaji. (1994.) Olodumare: God in Yoruba Religion. African Tree Press.
All images, with the exception of book covers, are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. This article is published under the Creative Commons 4.0 License.