The Yoruba : Olorun and Orisa

Two problems commonly arise with general accounts of Yoruba religion. Firstly, they often fail to indicate just how extensive are the variations from town to town. Some idea of this can be gained from comparing the detailed accounts of specific communities, such as Bascom’s study of Ife, (1944), Morton-Williams’ studies of Oyo and Egbado (1964a,1967a), or Ogunba’s study of Ijebu (1967). Secondly, some of the accounts, particularly by theologians, tend to make Yoruba religious thought appear far more systematic and coherent than it in fact is. Articulate informants like the babalawo may be able to describe the system as it appears to them, though even here there may be problems (Bascom, 1960: 405). But their accounts remain individual constructions rather than generally accepted bodies of dogma. Most actors are concerned with a body of folklore and ritual technique which will help them in everyday life, and both may vary from place to place. A body of folklore like the Ifa verses (Bascom, 1969b) may present a number of apparently inconsistent versions of the Yoruba world-view. It is not necessary to attempt to reconcile them, and there are obvious difficulties in doing so.

The Yoruba cosmos contains Olorun or Olodumare, the supreme deity; the orisa or lesser divinities; ancestral spirits, and a number of other categories of spiritual beings. Man is made up of both corporeal and spiritual elements, the latter having a variety of functions. These are related to Yoruba beliefs about destiny and reincarnation. Fulfilment of one’s destiny is achieved through avoiding the wrath of the orisa and the attacks of witches and sorcerers. This is done with the help of the orisa and the ancestors, and through piety, divination and sacrifice.

Olorun is to the Yoruba a rather distant figure, apparently playing little part in the day-to-day affairs of men. Idowu uses the analogy of the Yoruba oba who is responsible for the affairs of his kingdom, but who has little contact with his subjects, as most of his dealings with them are through the orisa. He argues that the orisa are, nevertheless, only the ministers of the deity, whose supremacy is clearly recognised. He is the creator, the final arbiter of heavenly and worldly affairs, omniscient, immortal and pure, and the source of all benefits to mankind (Idowu, 1962: 38-56).

The number of orisa worshipped by the Yoruba is very large, though they range in importance from those worshipped by only a single descent group in a single town to those whose cult is found throughout the area. Their nature and origins are varied. Some are personifications of natural features, such as hills or rivers, or of natural forces. Others are divinised heroes given cosmic attributes, such as Sango, the Oyo divinity of thunder and, by tradition, an early Alafin.[1] The important divinities lead hierarchies of minor ones with similar characteristics, symbols and functions. The ‘hard’ orisa are led by Ogun, the divinity of iron, hunting and war, while the benign ‘white’ orisa, particularly important to women, are led by Orisanla, the Yoruba creator. The parallels between these hierarchies and the Yoruba political system are obvious.

The major orisa in a Yoruba town have their shrines and priests with their distinctive dress and insignia. Each orisa has its favourite sacrificial offerings, and its followers observe a distinctive set of food taboos. The same basic symbolism often permeates all aspects of ritual. The followers of Orisanla wear white cloth, and the usual offerings are also white, such as boiled yams or snails cooked in shea butter. Each cult has its own rituals, music, oral literature, dances and divination techniques. To their followers, the orisa bring the benefits of health, wealth and children, but they punish neglect, impiety and the breaking of taboos.

Before the spread of the world religions, there was a close relationship between cult membership and descent (Bascom, 1944: 1ó8; 1969a: 77ó 8). A person normally attended the rituals of the orisa which his own parents had followed, and contributed to their cost, but would only be initiated into a cult if ‘called’, through dreams, sickness, possession or divination. If a woman prayed to an orisa for a child and her request was granted, the child would probably worship the orisa throughout its life. In some areas, the father asked a diviner at birth which orisa his child should follow.

Initiation into a cult involves lengthy training, and can be a period of intense emotional crisis. The cults of some orisa, particularly the ‘hot’ or ‘strong’ ones, involve spirit possession (Verger, 1963; Prince, 1964: 105-9). This usually affects women, though the Sango cult is an exception. The Sango possession priest, or elegun, is a man, but he is dressed in the clothes and hairstyle of a woman. During the Sango festival, he dances in a trance state and gives displays of power. In Ogbomoso in 1971 these included fire-eating, apparently piercing the lips with an iron needle, and turning leaves into cigarettes. During the initiation process, a lengthy torpor is produced, during which behaviour patterns appropriate to the orisa are learned. During the festivals, certain clues, like a particular type of drumming, are enough to send the initiate into a trance state.

Orisa worship involves three types of ritual. Firstly, there are private individual rites, carried out in the house, usually early in the morning. The worshipper greets his orisa, and divines with a kola nut what the prospects are for the day (Awolalu, 1970). Secondly, there are the regular rituals at the orisa’s shrine, and the cycle of these is based on the four-day Yoruba week.[2] Thirdly, there are the annual festivals, much more elaborate affairs involving a large proportion of the population of the town as well as cult members from elsewhere.

The ruler plays an important unifying role in religious life in the town, and the major festivals involve a procession to the palace to greet him and bestow on him the blessing of the orisa. Rulers are expected to participate in the annual festivals on behalf of their community, whatever their own religious beliefs. There are other links between religious and political organisation. In Oyo, many of the chiefs are also cult officials, and some of the most important cults have representatives in the palace (MortonWilliams, 1964a). The Sango cult was important in the administration of the provinces. It was controlled from the capital, and some of the ilari were initiates who could threaten supernatural sanctions, as could the Alafin himself. Elegun from other parts of the kingdom had to come to the capital for the final stages of initiation and to collect their ritual paraphernalia (Westcott and MortonWilliams,1962). Cult officials had to be called in when certain types of misfortune occurred. Sango priests were responsible for purificatory rites when a house was struck by lightning, and the victims had to pay heavy fees for their services. Albinos, hunchbacks, dwarfs and pregnant women were sacred to Orisanla, and had to be buried by his priests, while the clothes and bodies of smallpox victims were disposed of by the priests of Sopona. In the early colonial period, the Sopona cult was banned by the British when the cult members were suspected of spreading the disease deliberately

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