Mon | Feb 17, 2020

The Yoruba religion Part I – Belief and practices

Published:Saturday | February 16, 2019 | 12:08 AM
A staff used by devotees of shango, the Yoruba Orisha of Thunder.

The Yoruba people are an African ethnic group in southwestern and north-central Nigeria, and southern and central Benin. The places where they are located are called Yorubaland. They have their own religious perspectives long before the ­introduction of Islam and Christianity.

They believe that before we come to Earth, as we know it, we stand before God and choose our destiny. We make plans to contribute to Earth. We decide where we will live, who we will love, and even the day we die. However, upon arriving on Earth we forget our plans and promises, and spend our time trying to remember them and put them into action.

The God, Olodumare, that we stand before is regarded as IT, neither male nor female. It cannot be all powerful if it is assigned only one gender. This supreme deity is a transcendental (unreachable) god who lives in the sky. He is not approached directly by worshippers, but through intercessors called Orishas.

Orishas intercede between humans and the divine, acting on behalf of or against worshippers on Earth. There are several types of them: those who have been around from the beginning of time, people who have evolved to semi-divinity, and those who exist in the form of inanimate objects such as stones, rivers, trees, etc.

The Orishas do not claim to be perfect, as they have human qualities, a mixture of good and bad characteristics. These mostly Earth gods, who also suffer for their misdeeds, might also have been incarnated into rocks, rivers, mountains, etc. Certain Orishas are associated with different numbers, colours, drumbeats, clothes, etc. This is a form of communication between Orishas and humans.


A sacred life force possesses the two groups. It is called Ashe, and has the power to bring about good and bad changes. It is found in everything, including sacred names. It is sometimes confused with idol worshipping, but it is not. It is about admiring and embracing the sacred force that animate and inanimate things possess.

Yoruba worshippers also believe that there are evil forces, Ajoguns, which carry negative energy that can cause illnesses, accidents, depression, etc. They are equated with demons, and are to be avoided. When people are possessed by them they seek help from diviners who try to get rid of the troubles and tribulations through rituals.

Possession of the body and spirit of followers by Orishas is an important feature of the Yoruba religion. It is done through an elaborate dance ritual in which certain Orishas are evoked with drumbeats or different kinds of chanting. From the point where the possessed has been overtaken by an Orisha, he speaks, acts and even dances not as himself, but as the Orisha that has possessed him.

Another fundamental characteristic of the Yoruba religion is that worshippers do not work towards attaining an afterlife ­salvation, whether in Heaven or Hell, which do not exist in that religiosity. Instead worshippers hope for ­reincarnation, a return to Earth after they have died. However, it is a traditional belief that evil people and those who have taken their own lives will not be reborn.

Some children are regarded as the reincarnation of their ancestors. Such boys are called Babatunde (father has returned), and the girls Yetunde (the mother has come back). The reincarnated child might even come back in a ­different gender.

The Yoruba uses divination to communicate with other realms. Specially trained intercessors called Babalawo (father of secrets) and Iyalawo (mother of secrets) are taught divination through an intense period of training. People consult them to seek help and advice. Yet, they are not psychics, nor do they claim to have special powers in and of themselves.

They are masters of the art of Ifa divination, which involves knowing how to cast divinations with palm nuts and recording the result and reciting the poem ­connected with each result. Much of the interpretation of the reading is left up to the client who does not say why he had gone to the diviner. The client, after listening to four poems, decides which ones best fit his or her circumstances.