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THE YORUBA HISTORY
IN ORDER TO STUDY the religious and cultural definitions of the Yoruba it is important to be somewhat versed in the historical conditions that gave birth to them. Students or aspirants of any religious system are guided by the priestly order and teachers of that system. They are educated in the geographical and political dynamics which clearly have influenced the beginnings and the expansion of their religion. The same holds true for Yoruba aspirants—especially the New World descendants. Although the aspirants seek religious heritage, as well as ancestral origins, many know little or nothing of the history of Yorubaland in Nigeria, West Africa.
As an introduction to this area let it be stated that the origins of the people and culture known as Yoruba are so wrapped in antiquity that to exactly say where and when it all began is impossible. However, the sincere attempt to present a viable description will be undertaken.
The Yoruba history begins with the migration of an East African population across the trans-African route leading from the mid-Nile river area to the mid-Niger. Basil Davidson writes, "....migrating peoples undoubtedly used this route from times that were exceedingly remote ... that two thousand years ago and more the climate and vegetation would have treated trans-African travelers in a gentler way than they do now." Davidson continues, "... they came this way [the route] from the earliest of times; and their beliefs and their inventions came with them."
Archaeologists, according to M. Omoleya, inform us that the Nigerian region was inhabited more than forty thousand years ago, or as far back as 65,000 B.C. This civilization has been deemed, in part, the Nok culture. The Nok culture was visited by the "Yoruba group," between 2000 and 500 B.C. The group was led, according to Yoruba historical accounts, by King Oduduwa, who settled somewhat peacefully in the already established Ile-Ife—the sacred city of the indigenous people. This time period is known as the Bronze Age, indicating that the civilization of both groups were at relatively high levels.
Olumide J. Lucus proclaims, "The Yoruba, during antiquity, lived in ancient Egypt before migrating to the Atlantic coast. He uses as demonstration the similarity or identity of languages, religious beliefs, customs and names of persons, places and things." The key point, or focus, in respect to Yoruba religious evolution, is that the Egyptian order, coupled with the earlier peoples, produced the more defined statement of what makes Yoruba.
In the History of West Africa A.D. 1000-1800, Onwubiko states that, "According to tradition, Oduduwa, the chief ancestor and first king of the Yoruba settled at Ile-Ife. From this point his descendants became the kings and queens of Yoruba cities and territories." The greatest of Oduduwa's descendants was Oranmiyan who became the Alafin or ruler of the Oyo state somewhere around 1400 A.D. Oranmiyan's armies marched across the Southern Sudan and penetrated deep into the great tropical forest conquering and laying the foundations of the Yoruba Empire. Centuries of spectacular glory and achievement followed the reign of Oranmiyan. It was during this great era that Yoruba people re-established Ile-Ife as the sacred-spiritual capital and Oyo as the governmental seat.
The Enslavement Period
Onwubiko's research indicates that "the wars of expansion (amongst the Yoruba) during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not fought to procure slaves for export to the coast but for local service on Yoruba farms. It was not until the eighteenth century that wars to provide slaves for sale to Europeans became important."
Enslavement from European hands began in the 15th and 16th centuries. Around 1530 A.D., the Portuguese began to transport Africans from the West Coast to Spanish mines and plantations in the New World. Later, other European nations became involved. France, England, Holland, and Spain were all very active in the brutal manipulation and deception that somehow became known as the "slave trade."
Islamic jihads (holy wars), incited by Arabic religious fervor, also swept through Africa clear to the western coastal regions. This era lasted from about A.D. 641 through the 19th century. The trans-Saharan slave trade flourished. The Yoruba Nation, now devastated and depleted of its most natural resource—people—eventually collapsed.
It is important to note that the greatest percentage of Africans enslaved for New World labor came from the Yoruba nation. It is also important to note that a large percentage of those enslaved were war-political prisoners of elite classes of soldiers and warrior-priests. As a result, the New World became inundated with a people knowledgeable of their culture and who were initiated members of its higher teachings. It is of no small wonder that Yoruba culture became the dominant theme of African-American transference.
African descendants were transported to New World countries like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and other islands of the West Indies; to Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela in South America; and finally to the colonies and states of North America.
The crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to reach these destinations has been deemed The Middle Passage or the Triangle Trade. Three ports were involved; one was in Nigeria, the other in the West Indies, the other in Europe. It has been estimated that over 75 million captives were taken during the four or five centuries we call the enslavement period.
When Europeans arrived on African soil, the Judeo-Christian missionary zeal was planted as it would be later on American soil. Conversion of Africans to Christianity in spite of enslavement continued. The other side of the reality is that African people were solidly encased in the religion of their own culture and the zeal to implant it also existed—especially among the Yoruba. Maureen Warner-Lewis in her book, Guinea's Other Suns, quotes a study from Mobogunji and Omer-Cooper 1971-1977, "The fact that the Yoruba were dragged into the slave trade in such huge numbers and so soon before the trade was brought to an end had several important consequences.... Their culture and religion tended to dominate the sub-culture of the slave society and to submerge and absorb into itself surviving elements of African culture."
There also came into being a type of homogenization or synthesis of the religions. From the African perspective there arose a special Christian interpretation based on African spirituality and practice. Warner-Lewis continues that: "Some [Africans] denounced the traditional gods; others did not even credit their existence. On the other hand, a large number maintained traditional beliefs and practices alongside Christianity, using one spiritual resource to supplement and complement the other." For a people stripped of their fundamental social structures and mores, the concepts of spirit and religion have miraculously survived. The African maintained the "Africanness" of religious being through spirituals; getting the holy ghost (a form of possession); shouting; speaking in tongues; intense preaching, etc. In general, the African soul was not extinguished, but simply transfigured to meet the Euro-social pressures under New World bondage.
Robert Farris Thompson writes in his introduction to Flash of the Spirit that, "The Yoruba are black Africa's largest population, and are creators of one of the premier cultures of the world. The Yoruba believe themselves descended from goddesses and gods, from an ancient spiritual capital, Ile-Ife. They show their special concern for the proprieties of right living through their worship of major goddesses and gods, each essentially a unique manifestation of ashe ... only the most widely and important (deities) survived the vicissitudes of the Atlantic Trade."
These important deities bear the name of orisha, which are the angelic forces of Yoruba context. Among them are Eshu-Elegba, Obatala, Oshun, Ogun, Yemoja, Shango, Oya, and others too numerable to mention. Each require special worship, song, and sacrifice. The ability to keep these deities alive in the world-reality of the Yoruba led to the conscious masking of them behind Christian saints and social-ritual performances. Catholicism, with its numerous patron-saints, made the masking easy. And, since the Portuguese and Spanish were Catholic and also major enslavers of Yoruba elite prisoners, the tradition survived virtually intact.
Among the Euro-speaking colonies, religious sects known as Santeria in Puerto Rico, Candomble in Brazil, Shango in Trinidad, Voodun in Haiti, and Lucumi in Cuba were formed. The Euro-influences, although great, could not deter the African descendants from secretly maintaining their tradition. Even the language of the Yoruba remained, as did cultural mannerisms.
English Protestants, also involved in the slave era, had greater success in "domesticating" the African. Lack of numerous patron saints in the religious construct made it difficult to mask the Yoruba religion. Lack of tropical environments in North America made it difficult for the African to maintain cultural relativity. Finally, the emphasis on inbreeding the African-American slaves brought an end to fresh ideas and religious fervor from newly arrived enslaved prisoners.
Today, many of Africa's descendants are openly embracing the Yoruba faith and practice. Because of political struggles, especially in the 1950s, New World people from the Caribbean found their way to the United States. They were mainly from Cuba, which is often called "little Africa." The Cubans brought with them the Yoruba religion and practice as they had interpreted it. Now, African descendants in the Americas are stepping beyond the Hispanic interpretations, and are returning to the more unadulterated form of life and ancestral religion known as Yoruba. Serious aspirants of this religious movement have connected themselves with Nigerian influenced high-priests, known as babalawos, who now reside in the United States.
ORUNMILA AND THE IFA CORPUS
ORUNMILA is deemed the prophet of Yoruba religion and culture. It was he who developed and expounded upon the system of esoteric worship known to this day as Ifa. Through the study of human nature and divine nature, Orunmila saw that dual levels of potentiality existed. Through him we understand that the study of animate and inanimate, manifest and unmanifest, visible and invisible worlds leads to fundamental understandings of the self-ontology, and that these fundamental understandings bring about the evolution of human spirit, which, in turn, encourages divine behavior, worldly progression, and expanded cosmology.
Orunmila, as with all prophets, is a deified personage who has been elevated to a central point in the creative origin of life itself. According to Yoruba religion, Orunmila is said to hold a position comparable to the "son of God." He is said to have been present (in conscious-divine form) when Oludumare created all beings. Hence, he knows the truth of all beings, and too, the destiny of all beings.
Of all the Yoruba divinities, Orunmila is the most esoteric. He acts and speaks, yet has no physical form. There are no sculptured reflections of Orunmila himself. All references of him are expressed through the divinatory implements utilized by the priestly order dedicated to his teachings. Those of this sacerdotal order are known as Ifa Priests or babalawos, meaning "father of mysteries." Yet, Orunmila did actually exist.
Orunmila's physical origins are shrouded in ancient legend, however, it is believed that he was born of humble West African parents. To the people of the land he was clearly recognized as a divine child, and although poor and crippled, he expressed from the onset divine wisdom and attributes. Orunmila grew to be known as "the little man with the big head." His great intelligence superseded all known teachings and his divine nature was seen as a blessing of the angelic forces.
As Orunmila matured he traveled across the continent of Africa sharing wisdom with the prophets and sages of the land. There is evidence of Orunmila's influence in ancient Khamet/Egypt, and too, in the Essence community of the Judeo-pre-Christian era. Yet, the potency of Orunmila's teachings were directed to the Yoruba people centered around the city of Ile-Ife. It was here, in IleIfe, that Orunmila built his temple on the sacred hill called Oke Tase. It was here in Ile-Ife that Orunmila gained heavenly status. In the translation of his name is the meaning "only Heaven knows the way to salvation," clearly indicating his prophet-messianic status among those who believe in his being.
According to oral tradition, Orunmila is described as a Yoruba man who came to Ile-Ife in order to teach a system of ethics, religious belief, and mystic vision. It must be reinforced, however, that Orunmila, as all prophets, merely assessed and delivered systems of conscious evolution by means of life study, ritual, and spiritual-heavenly beliefs that existed eons before his birth. The elders of Ifa maintain that they are practicing the original religion of humans on Earth.
Orunmila, in this sense, is not seen as the creator of Yoruba religion per se. However, Orunmila is the structural originator. He is the focal point of ancient religious practice for this era of human existence. The exact time frame of his presence on Earth is difficult to determine. To place his worldly existence at about 4,000 years ago or 2,000 B.C. is but an approximation.
The teachings of Orunmila provide religious aspirants with the means and potential to reach what is called, in Yoruba translation, alignment. By studying the Ifa corpus (the once oral scriptures passed from one priestly generation to the next), devotees strive to reach a state of divine oneness. That oneness comes about when one's earthly consciousness (known as Ori) is developed and elevated to the place of unification with one's heavenly consciousness (known as Iponri). Orunmila teaches that such an endeavor is arduous, difficult, and takes years of soul searching and effort. Those who embark on the journey (irin ajo) need do so with a pure heart, and with sincerity, for although the attainment is glorious, the pitfalls are horribly devastating.
Wisdom, ritual, and transcendence are the key elements of Orunmila's teachings and they are bound by African cultural interpretation. There is no difference here in light of all world religions. Destiny, however, brings about deeper thought. What is our destiny? What is your destiny? It is important to somewhat determine this before setting out to reach it.
Destiny (ayanmo), from a religious point of view, describes a person's return to the inner realization of primal essence or divine being. Orunmila, as all true prophets, preached that humans must return to their divine nature. It is a human being's destiny to reach or return to her/his divine state internally-heavenly, and to live upon the earth plane-existence as a reflection of that divine state. This is the supreme reason for true religious involvement.
Orunmila continues in his religious corpus known as Ifa that one's destiny can only be reached through:
a. the divinatory processes left to us by the ancestors;
b. prescriptions of ritual and sacrifice to the spiritual dimensional beings whose forces impact upon human development and evolution;
c. the moral ethics to which humans must adhere in order to be victorious over oppressive human and spiritual forces.
The Ancients/Elders, who are the Ifa corpus, are known in total as the odu. The odu are comprised of sixteen heavenly prophets who existed when the earth was very young. Sent to earth by the Heavenly Council they imparted their divine essence and prophesized. They relied on both heavenly (Orun) and earthly (Aye) life experiences so as to relate to and then elevate the consciousness of the people. These sixteen ancients revealed themselves to Orunmila and are now said to be his heavenly disciples from a timeless cosmic eternity.
Each of the odu represents the epitome of Yoruba proverbial wisdom and religiosity. Each contains an enormous amount of verses (ese) and moral teachings (kiki) expressed through mythological, historical, and social development (itan) as seen through religious eyes. The priestly of Yoruba are set to learn and apply the knowledge and wisdom of the odu so as to present ways of transcendence and salvation to spiritual seekers. Each of the 16 major odu (Oju odu or Olodu) and the 240 minor odu (Omo odu or Amulu) is said to contain 1,680 verses making such an endeavor a great one. And, although no one priest is said to be able to reach such a degree, the objective is to continually strive for greater insight and understanding.
Orunmila was able to reach the conscious height of the odu and thereby reveal the holy messages that they embody. The ability to achieve this state is manifested in the ability to divine. Each odu has its own mark-pattern and its own accounts, rituals, ethics, and morals. Within each odu there exist revelations of the angelic and oppressive forces known as orisha and ajogun respectively. The orisha are angels of heaven sent to continually wrestle with the human nature in order to uplift it—to purify it. The ajogun are the "demonic" beings. They are warlocks, wizards, witches, and all earthly and heavenly forces whose destructive intent is to waylay evolution and off-set humankind's salvation. The ancestral entities (egun) also dwell within the realm of Ifa. It is they who are the guardian spirits whose directives are to provide the continuation of family line, heritage, and identity as a people united. It is they who have made the history, and have set the codes of social conduct and individual behavior.
Excerpted from The HANDBOOK of Yoruba Religious Concepts by Baba Ifa Karade. Copyright © 1994 Baba Ifa Karade. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A Note to Readers
Chapter 1: The Yoruba History
Chapter 2: Orunmila and the Ifa Corpus
Chapter 3: The Orisha as Angelic Forces
Chapter 4: Divination, Sacrifice, Initiations
Religious Phrases of the Yoruba
About the Author
Posted December 25, 1999
'The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts','Ojise' and 'Imoye' are all excellent books on the Ifa Religion. Each is a building block to a greater understanding of this religion. They are a valued resource for everyone from the novice to the priestly.
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