Yoruba religion

The Yoruba religion (Yoruba: Ìṣẹ̀ṣe), or Isese, comprises the traditional religious and spiritual concepts and practice of the Yoruba people. Its homeland is in present-day Southwestern Nigeria, which comprises the majority of Oyo, Ogun, Osun, Ondo, Ekiti, Kwara and Lagos States, as well as parts of Kogi state and the adjoining parts of Benin and Togo, commonly known as Yoruba land. It shares some parallels with the Vodun practiced by the neighboring Fon and Ewe peoples to the west and to the religion of the Edo people and Igala people to the east. Yoruba religion is the basis for a number of religions in the New World, notably Santería, Umbanda, Trinidad Orisha, and Candomblé.[1] Yoruba religious beliefs are part of Itàn (history), the total complex of songs, histories, stories, and other cultural concepts which make up the Yoruba society.[1][2][3]


The Yoruba name for the Yoruba indigenous religion is Ìṣẹ̀ṣẹ, which also refers to the traditions and rituals that encompass Yorùbá culture. The term comes from a contraction of the words Ìṣẹ̀, meaning "source or root or origin," and ìṣe, meaning "practice, or tradition," coming together to mean "The source of our tradition," as many of the practices, beliefs, traditions, and observances of the Yoruba originate from the religious worship of the orisa.


A Yemoja priestess in Ọ̀yọ́, Nigeria
Yoruba divination board Opon Ifá

According to Kola Abimbola, the Yorubas have evolved a robust cosmology.[1] Nigerian Professor for Traditional African religions, Jacob K. Olupona, summarizes that Central for the Yoruba religion, and which all beings possess, is known as "Ase", which is "the empowered word that must come to pass,” the “life force” and “energy” that regulates all movement and activity in the universe".[4][5][6] Every thought and action of each person or being in Aiyé (the physical realm) interact with the Supreme force, all other living things, including the Earth itself, as well as with Orun (the otherworld), in which gods, spirits and ancestors exist.[2][7][8] The Yoruba religion can be described as a complex form of Polytheism, with a Supreme but distant creator force, encompassing the whole universe.[9]

The anthropologist Robert Voeks described Yoruba religion as being animistic, noting that it was "firmly attached to place".[10]

Each person living on earth attempts to achieve perfection and find their destiny in Orun-Rere (the spiritual realm of those who do good and beneficial things).

One's ori-inu (spiritual consciousness in the physical realm) must grow in order to consummate union with one's "Iponri" (Ori Orun, spiritual self).[4]

Iwapẹlẹ (or well-balanced) meditative recitation and sincere veneration is sufficient to strengthen the ori-inu of most people.[2][4] Well-balanced people, it is believed, are able to make positive use of the simplest form of connection between their Oris and the omnipotent Olu-Orun: an adura (petition or prayer) for divine support.

In the Yoruba belief system, Olodumare has ase over all that is. Hence, it is considered supreme.[2]


Olódùmarè is the most important "state of existence".[11] "They" are the owner of all heads, for during human creation, Olódùmarè gave "èmí" (the breath of life) to humankind. In this, Olódùmarè is Supreme.[11] Perhaps one of the most important human endeavors extolled within the Yoruba literary corpus is the quest to improve one's "Ìwà" (character, behaviour). In this way the teachings transcend religious doctrine, advising as they do that a person must also improve their civic, social and intellectual spheres of being; every stanza of the sacred Ifá oracular poetry (Odu Ifa) has a portion covering the importance of "Ìwà". Central to this is the theme of righteousness, both individual and collective.[12]

Description of isese symbol


The Yorubas as a people regard Olodumare as the principal force of creation.[13]

According to one of the Yoruba accounts of creation, at a certain stage in the process, the "truth" was sent to confirm the habitability of the planets that were newly formed. The earth, being one of these, was visited but considered too wet for conventional living.[14]

After a successful period of time, a number of divinities led by Obatala were sent to accomplish the task of helping earth develop its crust. On one of their visits to the realm, the arch-divinity Obatala took to the stage equipped with a mollusk that concealed some form of soil; winged beasts and some cloth like material. The contents were emptied onto what soon became a large mound on the surface of the water and soon after, the winged-beasts began to scatter this around until the point where it gradually made into a large patch of dry land; the various indentations they created eventually becoming hills and valleys.[11]

Obatala leaped onto a high-ground and named the place Ife. The land became fertile and plant life began to flourish. From handfuls of earth he began to mold figurines. Meanwhile, as this was happening on earth, Olodumare gathered the gases from the far reaches of space and sparked an explosion that shaped into a fireball. He subsequently sent it to Ife, where it dried much of the land and simultaneously began to bake the motionless figurines. It was at this point that Olodumare released the "breath of life" to blow across the land, and the figurines slowly came into "being" as the first people of Ife.[11]

For this reason, Ife is locally referred to as "Ife Oodaye" - "cradle of existence".[11][15]


An Orisha (correct spelling: Òrìṣà) is an entity that possesses the capability of reflecting some of the manifestations of Olodumare. Yoruba Orishas (commonly translated "unique/special/selected heads") are often described as intermediaries between humankind and the supernatural. The term is also translated as "Deities", "Divinities" or "Gods".[16]

Orisha(s) are revered for having control over specific elements of nature. They are thus also referred to as Imole. There are those of their number that are more akin to ancient heroes and/or sages than to primordial divinities.[3] These are best addressed as dema deities. Even though the term Orisha is often used to describe both classes of divine entities, it is properly reserved for the former one.[3]

Orishas Attributes
Orunmila / Ọ̀rúnmìlà The Yoruba grand priest and custodian of the Ifa oracle, source of knowledge who is believed to oversee the knowledge of the human form, purity, the cures of illnesses and deformities. Babalawos are Orumila's subordinates as priests and followers.
Eshu / Èṣù Often ill-translated as "The Devil" or "The Evil Being", Eshu is in truth neither of these. Best referred to as "The Trickster", he deals a hand of misfortune to those that do not offer tribute or are deemed to be spiritual novices. Also regarded as the "divine messenger", a prime negotiator between negative and positive forces in the body and an enforcer of the "law of being". He is said to assist in enhancing the power derived from herbal medicines and other forms of esoteric technology.

Eshu is the Orisha of chance, accident and unpredictability. Because he is Olorun's linguist and the master of languages, Eshu is responsible for carrying messages and sacrifices from humans to the Sky God. Also known for his phallic powers and exploits, Eshu is said to lurk at gateways, on the highways and at the crossroads, where he introduces chance and accident into the lives of humans. He is known by a variety of names, including Elegbara.[17]

Ogoun / Ògún Orisha of iron, war and metallurgy.
Yemoja / Yemọja Patron of the Ògùn River that flows from Ọ̀yọ́ State, through Ogun State, and empties into the inland area of the Lagos Lagoon; other smaller tributaries and streams are dedicated to Iyemọja throughout Yorùbáland; spiritual mother of Ṣàngó. According to Olorishas, she is the amniotic fluid in the womb of the pregnant woman, as well as the breasts which nurture. She is considered the protective energy of the feminine force.
Oshun / Ọ̀ṣun A second wife of Shango, the one time Oba of Oyo (another Yoruba Orisha, see below), she is said to have entered into a river at Osogbo. The Yoruba clerics ascribed to her sensuality, beauty and gracefulness, symbolizing both their people's search for clarity and a flowing motion. She is associated with several powers, including abilities to heal with cool water, induction of fertility and the control of the feminine essence. Women appeal to her for child-bearing and for the alleviation of female disorders. The Yoruba traditions describe her as being fond of babies and her intervention is sought if a baby becomes ill. Oshun is also known for her love of honey.
Shango / Ṣàngó Associated with virility, masculinity, fire, lightning, stones, Oyo warriors and magnetism. He is said to have the abilities to transform base substances into those that are pure and valuable. He was the Oba of Oyo at some point in its history. He derived his nickname Oba Koso from the tales of his immortality. Shango is the Orisha of the thunderbolt, said to have ruled in ancient times over the kingdom of Oyo. Also known as Jakuta (Stone Thrower) and as Oba Koso (The King Does Not Hang).
Oya / Ọya The third wife of the one time Oba of Oyo called Shango (another Yoruba Orisha, see above), she is said to have entered into the River Niger. She is often described as the Tempest, Guardian of the Cemetery, Winds of Change, Storms and Progression. Due to her personal power, she is usually depicted as being in the company of her husband Shango. She is the Orisha of rebirth.
Osanyin / Ọ̀sanyìn Represented as a one eyed, one hand, and one legged figure, he is the orisha of herbs, plants, magic, and healing.
Babalu-Aye / Ọbalúayé Meaning, "Lord, ruler of the world," and a widely feared orisha, he is also known as Sopona, the deity of smallpox. As Obaluaye, he is the orisha of diseases and sickness. While he has the power to inflict smallpox and other disease, he is also associated with the ability to heal those afflicted with these diseases. In the 20th century, worship of Obaluaye was banned by the British colonial Government as they were believed to purposely infect people with smallpox.
Yewa/ Yéwa Orisha of the Yewa River associated with cemeteries, clarity, beauty, dreams and magic. She lives in the cemetery with Oba and Oya. She brings souls to her sister Oya meaning she is the initiator of the beginning of all change that occurs. Explicit or loud speech near her places of worship is not tolerated. There is also a pataki of how this orisha was able to effectively trick death itself. Also Yewa cannot be venerated near Shango as according to the patakis he molested her. Yewa is also responsible for gifting humans with dreams and imagination.
Obatala / Ọbàtálá Also known as "Orisa-nla," meaning "the big Orisha," he is also known as the Sky father. He is often equated with purity, and represented by "ala," white cloth, and "efun," white chalk. He is regarded as the creator of Earth and shaping humans from clay. He is also known as the protector of the disabled.
Aganju / Aganjù Roughly translating to "darkness of the wilderness," Aganju is regarded as the orisha of the forest, the desert, volcanoes, and the wilderness. He was originally a king of the Oyo empire before being deified after his death
Oshosi / Ọ̀ṣọ́ọ̀sì He is the orisha of hunting and the forest, and is another patron of hunters.
Olokun / Olóòkun A primoridal force present at creation, Olokun, meaning "Owner of the ocean," is an androgynous orisha embodying the ocean. They are the parent of the orishas Aje and Olosa, and represents wealth, healing, and the vastness of the sea.
Aje / Ajé Not to be confused with Iyami Aje, she is also called Aje Saluga. Aje is the representation and the orisha of wealth and economic success. She is also a patron of traders, businesspeople, and markets. The Yoruba word for Monday, is called Aje as it is often the first day of the week when markets open.
Oduduwa / Odùdùwà Regarded as the founder of the Yoruba people and the first Oba of Ife, he is also associated with an androgynous orisha of creation. Most Yoruba people, and their monarchs most especially, claim descent from Oduduwa. He is a father or grandfather of Oranmiyan, Sango, Ajaka, Obalufon, and other Obas of Ife. He is also regarded as an ancestor of the Obas of the Benin Empire.
Ayangalu / Àyàngalú Ayangalu is the orisha of drumming, the patron of the talking drum, and the orisha of Yoruba music. People born into drumming families often have the prefix "Àyàn," in their first or last names.
Ọba / Ọbà The first and most senior wife of Shango, she is the Orisha of the River Oba, and also is the orisha of domesticity, energy, movement, and the flow of time and life. She is most known for being tricked by the other wives of Shango into cutting off her ear and attempting to feed it to Shango.


Irunmọlẹ are entities sent by Olorun to complete given tasks, often acting as liaisons between Orun (the invisible realm) and Aiye (the physical realm).[3] Irunmole(s) can best be described as ranking divinities; whereby such divinities are regarded as the principal Orishas. Irunmole, from "Erinrun" - 400, "Imole" - Divinities or Divine Spirits.


An Egungun masquerade dance garment in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

The Yoruba believe in Atunwa, the possibility of reincarnation within the family. The names Babatunde (father returns), Yetunde (Mother returns), Babatunji (Father wakes once again) and Sotunde (The wise man returns) all offer vivid evidence of the Ifa concept of familial or lineal rebirth.[18] There is no simple guarantee that your grandfather or great uncle will "come back" in the birth of a child, however.

Whenever the time arrives for a spirit to return to Earth (otherwise known as The Marketplace) through the conception of a new life in the direct bloodline of the family, one of the component entities of a person's being returns, while the other remains in Heaven (Ikole Orun). The spirit that returns does so in the form of a Guardian Ori. One's Guardian Ori, which is represented and contained in the crown of the head, represents not only the spirit and energy of one's previous blood relative, but the accumulated wisdom he or she has acquired through myriad lifetimes. This is not to be confused with one’s spiritual Ori, which contains personal destiny, but instead refers to the coming back to The Marketplace of one's personal blood Ori through one's new life and experiences. The Primary Ancestor (which should be identified in your Itefa) becomes – if you are aware and work with that specific energy – a "guide" for the individual throughout their lifetime. At the end of that life they return to their identical spirit self and merge into one, taking the additional knowledge gained from their experience with the individual as a form of payment.


African diaspora religions

According to Professor Adams Abdullahi Suberu, the Yoruba were exquisite statesmen who spread across the globe in an unprecedented fashion;[19] the reach of their culture is largely due to migration—the most recent migration occurred with the Atlantic slave trade, and with Nigerian and Beninoise Yorùbá emigrating to the United States, the UK, Brazil, and other countries of the Americas and Europe. During the colonial period, many Yoruba were captured and sold into the slave trade and transported to Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent & The Grenadines, Uruguay, Venezuela, and other parts of the Americas. With them, they carried their religious beliefs. The school-of-thought integrated into what now constitutes the core of the "New World lineages" which are a variety of Yorùbá-derived contemporary African religions:[19][20][21][22]

The Vodun faith, which originated amongst a different ethnic group (the Gbe speaking peoples of present-day Benin, Togo, and Ghana), holds influential aspects on the African diaspora in countries such as Haiti and Cuba, also New Orleans, Louisiana in the United States.[23]

In Latin America, Yoruba religion has been in intense Syncretism with Christianity, Indigenous religions and Spiritism since the first arrival of African immigrants. In Brazil, the religion of Umbanda was born from the rich interaction of beliefs that Latin America provided. Followers of Umbanda typically consider themselves Monotheistic, but honor Catholic Saints and Orisha as manifestations from god or as Tutelary deities. Umbanda worship also include elements from Native South American rituals such as the ritual use of Tobacco and communication with the spirits of deceased Indian warriors (Caboclo).

In the 1949 documentary Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol en Loíza Aldea, anthropologist Ricardo Alegría noted a similar tendency at Loíza, Puerto Rico, arguing that the affinity between the black population in the municipality and the Catholic saint Santiago Apóstol may derive from the way in which he is depicted as a warrior; a similar theme to some depictions of Shango and Adams.[24] This theory supposed that this resemblance was used by the population as a covert form to honor their ancestral deity.


Yoshiaki Koshikawa, professor of literature at Meiji University, became the first Japanese person to be initiated as a babalawo in 2013.[25]

Nigerian Chrislam

Nigerian Chrislam refers to the assemblage of Islamic and Christian religious practices in Nigeria.[26] Chrislam also refers to the series of religious movements that merged Islamic and Christian religious practice during the 1970s in Lagos, Nigeria. The movement was pioneered by Yoruba peoples in south-west Nigeria.[26]  Chrislam works against the conventional understanding of Islam and Christianity as two separate and exclusive religions, seeking out commonalities between both religions and promoting an inclusive union of the two.[26] Chrislam also occupies a distinct geographical space; Nigeria is often understood to be geographically and religiously polarized, with a predominantly Muslim base in the North, and a predominantly Christian base in the South. However, the Yoruba peoples that occupy the South-Western Yorubaland region of Nigeria are a Muslim-majority ethnic group with a large Christian minority.[26]



  1. Abimbola, Kola (2005). Yoruba Culture: A Philosophical Account (Paperback ed.). Iroko Academics Publishers. ISBN 1-905388-00-4.
  2. Ọlabimtan, Afọlabi (1991). Yoruba Religion and Medicine in Ibadan. Translated by George E. Simpson. Ibadan University Press. ISBN 978-121-068-0. OCLC 33249752.
  3. J. Olumide Lucas, The Religion of the Yorubas, Athelia Henrietta PR, 1996. ISBN 0-9638787-8-6
  4. Ọlabimtan, Afọlabi (1973). Àyànmọ. Lagos, Nigeria: Macmillan. OCLC 33249752.
  5. Yancy, George (14 February 2021). "Opinion | Death Has Many Names". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 26 December 2022.
  6. Olupona, Jacob K. (1 January 1993). "The Study of Yoruba Religious Tradition in Historical Perspective". Numen. 40 (3): 240–273. doi:10.1163/156852793X00176. ISSN 1568-5276.
  7. Yancy, George (14 February 2021). "Opinion | Death Has Many Names". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 26 December 2022.
  8. Olupona, Jacob K. (1 January 1993). "The Study of Yoruba Religious Tradition in Historical Perspective". Numen. 40 (3): 240–273. doi:10.1163/156852793X00176. ISSN 1568-5276.
  9. Olupona, Jacob K. (1 January 1993). "The Study of Yoruba Religious Tradition in Historical Perspective". Numen. 40 (3): 240–273. doi:10.1163/156852793X00176. ISSN 1568-5276.
  10. Voeks 1997, p. 160.
  11. Bolaji Idowu (1982). Olódùmarè: God in Yorùbá Belief. Ikeja, Nigeria: Longman. ISBN 0-582-60803-1.
  12. Ifaloju (February 2011). "Odù-Ifá Iwòrì Méjì; Ifá speaks on Righteousness". Ifa Speaks... S.S. Popoola, Ifa Dida, Library, INC. Retrieved 8 April 2012.
  13. Opoku, Kofi Asare (1993), "African traditional religion: An enduring heritage", Religious Plurality in Africa, DE GRUYTER, doi:10.1515/9783110850079.67, ISBN 978-3-11-085007-9
  14. Halliday, William D. (8 September 2018). ""Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life" by Edward O. Wilson, 2017. [book review]". The Canadian Field-Naturalist. 132 (1): 78. doi:10.22621/cfn.v132i1.2129. ISSN 0008-3550.
  15. Leeming & Leeming 2009 – entry "Yoruba Creation". Yoruba. Oxford University Press. 1994. ISBN 978-0-19-510275-8. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
  16. Cf.The Concept of God: The People of Yoruba for the acceptability of the translation
  17. Courlander, Harold (March 1973). Tales of Yoruba Gods and Heroes. Crown Pub. ISBN 978-0517500637.
  18. Omobola, Odejobi. "Influence of Yoruba Culture in Christian Religious Worship". International J. Soc. Sci. & Education. 4: 586.
  19. Akintoye, Prof S. A. (2010). A history of the Yoruba people. Amalion Publishing. ISBN 978-2-35926-005-2. ASIN 2359260057.
  20. Brown (Ph.D.), David H. (2003). Santería Enthroned: Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-07610-5.
  21. Oditous (2010). "Anthropology: [Yoruba]". Anthrocivitas Online. Retrieved 27 March 2011.
  22. Karade, Baba Ifa (1994). The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts. York Beach, New York: Weiser Books. ISBN 0-87728-789-9.
  23. Fandrich, Ina J. (2007). "Yorùbá Influences on Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo". Journal of Black Studies. 37 (5 (May)): 775–791. doi:10.1177/0021934705280410. JSTOR 40034365. S2CID 144192532.
  24. Hernández 2002, pp. 125
  25. "Faculty Database - Koshikawa Yoshiaki".
  26. Janson, Marloes (November 2016). "Unity Through Diversity: A Case Study of Chrislam in Lagos" (PDF). Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. 86 (4): 646–672. doi:10.1017/S0001972016000607. S2CID 147663644 via SOAS, ResearchGate.


  • Hernández, Carmen Dolores (2002). Ricardo Alegría: Una Vida (in Spanish). Centro de Estudios Avanzados del Caribe, Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, Academia Puertorriqueña de Historia. ISBN 1563282100.
  • Voeks, Robert A. (1997). Sacred Leaves of Candomblé: African Magic, Medicine, and Religion in Brazil. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292787315.

Further reading

  • Fayemi Fatunde Fakayode, "Iwure, Efficacious Prayer to Olodumare, the Supreme Force" ISBN 978-978-915-402-9
  • Chief S. Solagbade Popoola & Fakunle Oyesanya, Ikunle Abiyamo: The ASE of Motherhood 2007. ISBN 978-0-9810013-0-2
  • Chief S. Solagbade Popoola Library, INC Ifa Dida Volume One (EjiOgbe - Orangun Meji) ISBN 978-0-9810013-1-9
  • Chief S. Solagbade Popoola Library, INC Ifa Dida Volume Three (OyekuOgbe - OyekuFun) ISBN 978-1-926538-24-2
  • The Way of the Orisha by Philip John Neimark: Publisher HarperOne; 1st edition (May 28, 1993) ISBN 978-0-06-250557-6
  • Olódùmarè : God in Yoruba Belief by Bolaji Idowu, Ikeja : Longman Nigeria (1982) ISBN 0-582-60803-1
  • Dr. Jonathan Olumide Lucas, "The Religion of the Yorubas", Lagos 1948, C. M. S. Bookshop.
  • Leeming, David Adams; Leeming, Margaret Adams (2009). A Dictionary of Creation Myths (Oxford Reference Online ed.). Oxford University Press.
  • Morales, Ed (2003). The Latin Beat. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81018-2., pg. 177
  • Miguel A. De La Torre, Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America, 2004, ISBN 0-8028-4973-3.
  • Miguel R. Bances – Baba Eshu Onare, Tratado Enciclopedico de Ifa. Los 16 Meyis y sus Omoluos u Odus o Signos de Ifa.
  • Ológundúdú, Dayọ̀ ; foreword by Akinṣọla Akiwọwọ (2008). The cradle of Yoruba culture (Rev. ed.). Institute of Yoráubâa Culture ; Center for Spoken Words. ISBN 978-0-615-22063-5.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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