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How the Yoruba religion has evolved.

Started by Atipo, Nov 15, 2022, 05:16 PM

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Its important to understand Yoruba religion is not one concrete thing. Because the different Yoruba subethnic groups, Owo, Ondo, Egba, Ife, Ekiti developed separately but convergently, we have slightly different version of the same religious beliefs.
I'll separate these groups into Western Yoruba (Egba, Oyo, Owu, Ibolo, Awori, Lagos) and Eastern Yoruba peoples (Ife, Ekiti, Akure, Ondo, Ijebu, Akoko, Owo).

All these people along with the Igala people (not Yoruba but closely related to us) and Itsekiri people, plus some others, are regarded as Proto-Yoruboid. The Proto-Yoruboid people were sisters of the Proto-Edoid, Proto-Igbo, Proto-Fon, Proto-Ebira, Proto-Nupe, etc. Thus our languages are from the same root, Proto-Volta-Niger, which was probably spoken around 1000 BC. Of these languages, Yoruba-Edoid-Akoko/Arigidi-Igbo are the most related, and likely branched from the same dialectal group of Proto-Volta-Niger, while the Nupe-Oko-Idoma, Gbe, Ayere, and Ukaan form their own individual groups.

Thus, its important to note that the traditional beliefs of the Yoruba, Edo, Igbo, Igala, and Urhobo are very much easy to trace to a common root.
The ancient original term for deity in Igala, Edo, and Urhobo, and Yoruba is ẹbọ or ẹbọra, literally meaning, "that which is worshipped." It was originally like that among the Ọ̀yọ́ Yoruba but that shifted and the Western Yoruba consider ẹbọra as a term for like inferior forest spirits like iwin.

Now we were talking about how while most people know the deities of the Yoruba religion as "orisha," that is a Western Yoruba concept. No other Yoruba speaking or Igala/Edo/Urhobo refer to "Orisha" as all the deities, they are ẹbọ. Igbo divinities are known as "alusi/arunsi," I'd have to do further research on its possible etymology.

Òrìṣà originally refers to one deity, a sky deity, whom we know as Ọbàtálá now, also called "Òrìṣàla." (Obatala was a title of a leader in Ile-Ife, who is regarded as the first ruler of a unified Ife kingdom, when he died he was deified as a divinity who's worship combined with that of "Orisa.")
How do we know this? Well, all the sister cultures of the Yoruba have a similar concept of Orisa, Lisà by the Fọ̀n, Òlìsè by the Igbo, Òsà by the Ẹdó, Oyisa by the Urhobo, and Oricha by the Ebira people. In these cultures, "Orisa," is a single deity of the sky. In almost all these languages, the word for deity is ẹbọ/ẹ́bọ/ẹ̀bọ́. This meaning is still retained in the Yoruba language as ẹbọra, and most Eastern Yoruba peoples consider ẹbọra = deity, not orisha.

This concept of "Orisa" referring to a single divinity can still be seen in some aspects of Yoruba culture. In the Odu Ifa and Oriki, "Orisa" is often used to refer to only Obatala. In Yoruba names, for example, Oosawemimo (Orisha cleaned me well), its referring to a single deity, in the same way we could have names like Osunwemimo, Oyamemimo, Ogunfunmi, Eegunbiyi, Sangosanya, Obasanjo, Olofinyokun, etc.

I've seen a similar concept happen in the Americas, where all deities were called "esus" or "leguas" after Esu Elegba, who was their main divinity. Its also important to note that different divinities were likely called orisha before colonialism, but has simply spread.

Divering into a bit of linguistics, I think its important to note for some reason the Western Yoruba language seemed to have underwent far greater language change from the original Proto-Yoruboid language than Eastern Yoruba or languages like Igala. Thats why some people regard Eastern Yoruba people to be more older, but thats also because we have evidence of many ancient Eastern Yoruba settlements (and bones that date to a much older time) than in the Western Yoruba side, because that was settled later. Settlements like Ọ̀bà near Akure (Eastern Yoruba) date to about 600 AD, and we have found human remains dated to over 10,000 years ago, (they may have not necessarily been of Proto-Yoruboid descent), meanwhile early settlements among the Western Yoruba don't show much complex civilizations until the 1100s when Ọ̀yọ́ comes into play.

Eastern Yoruba people also call deities, imọlẹ̀ or umọlẹ̀. This word is probably much younger than ẹbọ since it only really shows up in Yoruba and Itsekiri, but the concept is very ancient. It means "the ones that mold the land," and refers to the fact that our ancestors believed that life derives from the ground, not the sky. It is the ground that provides food, it is from the ground that water emerges from, and it is the ground that we return to. When we see stories of Yoruba deities on earth, after they "die" they don't ascend to heaven, (even if we believe they exist in the sky and the hills), they return to the ground "wọ́n wọlẹ̀." Some of them may become rivers or hills, but they are always associated with the land. It was alẹ̀/ilẹ̀ (land) that sustains us. Igbo culture is called Ọmẹnala (ala meaning land). This word is the same as an Ekiti ancestral spirit we believe is the spirit of our land, Ẹmilalẹ̀. I'm not exactly sure what Emilalẹ̀ means literally, but it may be "Breath of life is the ground."

The concept of deities primarily living in ọ̀run is much newer concept. While we associated sky deities like Ọbàtálá with the sky and deities with the hills, we believed they were more connected with the ground. I think later on as Yoruba culture developed we looked more towards the heavens. However, we have almost certainly always had a sky deity, since Proto-Niger-Congo times. We had a thunder deity, divinities who were associated with rain, etc. But they were always worshipped via the ground. We still pour sacrifices to Ọbàtálá via the ground even if he is the sky deity. Even if Shango lives in the wind and the sky through thunder and rain, we still offer orogbo to the ground. Only "recent" stories explain that entities like Oduduwa descended from the heavens. If you look at documentations of ancient Yoruba oral history, people say those deities emerged from the ground or the sea.

Just like how Ọmenala as a concept refers to all Igbo culture, relegating concepts like Ẹmilalẹ̀ as a just a "god" or a "divinity" is inadequate. They are the origin of our town, the very spirit of which our society exists on. Thats why blasphemy doesn't really exist, Ẹmilalẹ̀ we believed is the source of our lives and denying it doesnt do anything. The umole/ebora aren't abstract concepts to some extent, they are what we see all around us, plants, wind, rain, dirt, minerals, rocks, metal, water. That is the core of the beliefs of our ancestors and should still be recognized as the core of Ìṣẹ̀ṣe.

A lot of this is still part of my ongoing research (historical-linguistical-cultural-religious), so I'll
continue to update this as I learn more.

For resources I got this from, I highly suggest "Yoruba: A new History" by Akin Ogundiran, and of course seeking out the Odu Ifa and oriki from one's family and Oriki of the orisha from elders, as well as books of the history of Eastern Yoruba people (so History of the Ekiti by Monsignour Oguntuyi, etc).


Ẹ ṣé gaan ! I appreciate you sharing this from Ẹgbẹ́ Ọmọ Odùduwà. You really opened my eyes about the historic practice of giving libations on the ground. I recalled a verse from Odu Ifa about where it was said Ogun felt shame for his rage, and entered the ground, only to come back up to the surface if a chain was pulled.

 You also gave more insight to how isese functioned more as scientific/spiritual fact of the elements of nature. Such as wind or rain. Therefore disputing the natural elements of the world really did not cause a "religious" conflict between villages and subethnic groups.

Also it makes sense that Òrìṣà originally referred to Obatala, Òrìṣàla. Obatala is seen as the eldest orisha. So that seems to correlate to how the term orisha originally just referred to the sky entity.

~Manifest destiny from within~


Cant believe I forgot but there are few other constants in terms of deities

Almost all Yoruba sister cultures have the concept of Ifá, known as Ífá, Fá, Ìhà, Afa, or Aha. Igala ajé Igbo cultures share the concept of Egwugwu (Egungun) as well as that of Ògún (Ogou or Gou)


Yes thanks for remembering that fact.. I wrote a little bit about Esu and Ekwensu here: The demonization of Esu and Ekwensu

Both were revered as negotiators. Also represented chaos, consequence, capable of deceiving someone etc.
~Manifest destiny from within~