Yoruba Cosmology and History
The Yoruba People, of whom there are more than forty million, occupy the southwestern corner of Nigeria along the Dahomey (present day Benin) border and extend into Dahomey itself. To the east and north the Yoruba culture reaches its approximate limits in the region of the Niger River. However, ancestral cultures directly related to the Yoruba once flourished well north of the Niger River.
The ancient belief system practiced among the Yoruba people is known as Ifa. Ifa theology states that the creation of humankind arose in the sacred city of Ile Ife where Oduduwa created dry land from water. Much later on an unknown number of Afrikans migrated from Mecca to Ile Ife. At this point the Eastern and Western Africans united.
Ife was the first of all Yoruba cities. Oyo and Benin came later and expanded as a consequence of their strategic locations at a time when trading became prosperous. Ife, unlike Benin and Oyo, never developed into a true kingdom. Ife remained a city-state, but had paramount importance to the Yorubas as the original sacred city and the
dispenser of basic religious thought.
It is no accident that the Yoruba cultural influence spread across the Atlantic to the Americas. European slave hunters violently captured and marched untold millions of Afrikans to their demise on crowded slave ships bound for the Americas. Slave wars were launched by the kingdom of Dahomey against some of the Yoruba. Consequently, wars amongst the Yoruba kingdoms made many Afrikan captives available for transportation to the Americas.
Captured Yorubas were sent to British, French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World. Despite bondage and the forceful imposition of European culture, Yoruba traditions survived. In Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad, Yoruba religious rites, beliefs, music and myths are evident even today.
Over time, the cultural memory of diasporic Afrikans has caused a resurfacing of traditional African religion especially Yoruba. Santeria, the adaption of the Yoruba religion with Catholicism, came to the states first with Puerto Ricans in the forties and fifties and later with the flood of Cuban refugees in the sixties. In these places, the pantheon of major Yoruba deities, known as Orisa, has survived virtually intact, along with a complex set of rites, beliefs, music, dances and myths of Yoruba origin.
Until relatively recent times the Yorubas did not consider themselves a single people, but rather citizens of Oyo, Benin, Yagba and other cities, regions or kingdoms. For example, these cities regarded Lagos and Owo, as foreign neighbors. The Yoruba kingdoms warred not only against the Dahomeans, but against each other as well. The name Yoruba was applied to all these linguistically and culturally related people by their northern neighbors, the Hausas.
The term ''Yoruba" is often used interchangeably to refer to both the religion and the people. The religion practiced by the Yoruba is Ifa. Esoterically, Ifa refers to the WORD OF GOD. The Yorubas believe in One Supreme God. The religiosity of the Yoruba permeates their everyday life. It expresses itself in a multitude of ways. The Supreme God, known as Olodumare, created the divinities to serve the Will of Creation and to oversee the governing of the world.
The Divinities are many in number and are called Orisa. The word Orisa, originally Orise, means "head source". The word was first used to designate the arch-divinity Orisanla. Orisanla is the deputy of Olodumare on earth, in a creative and executive function. He is described by some elders as the image of Olodumare on earth. Olodumare’s deputy on earth in matters of destiny and omniscience is Orunmila. Esu is the special relations officer between heaven and earth, the inspector general who reports to Olodumare on the deeds of the divinities and human beings. Other important Orisas that are popularly known are Ogun, Ossosi, Sango, Olokun, Yemoja, Osun, Oya, Aganju, Ibeji and Babaluaiye. Each is a deputy of Olodumare in some area governing Olodumare’s creation.
The Yorubas understand that we are on a spiritual journey back to the Creator. The Yoruba phrase "heaven is our home and earth is a market place" supports this belief. The Yoruba believe we come to earth to develop ourselves spiritually with what is called in Ifa "Iwa Pele" (Gentle and Good Character). Before coming to earth each one must go to Olodumare and have the next step in their mission sanctioned by the Creator. The Orisa are there to help and guide us.
We in this Diaspora thank all those who have given their lives to the pursuit of regaining this knowledge of Yoruba religious practice. May Olodumare’s Will continue to manifest itself in the lives of all His children.