Last month a friend gave me a unique gift. With my permission, she delivered my details to a diviner, otherwise known in Yoruba as babalawo and paid for a life path reading for me. To backtrack, a few weeks before this we had our first conversation in years in which she spoke about how she had powerful dreams and brought up her connection with Osun. I was curious to learn more about this connection and from there we delved into Yoruba religion. I queried her about Osun, the Yoruba goddess of love, beauty and childbirth, and my friend brought up the life path readings.
“It used to be that all Yoruba children when born were taken to the babalawo to have a reading,” she said. “It was through this reading that parents would understand the personality of their child, and be told by the diviner specific quirks about their child and how to ensure that child’s success in this world.”
I was curious so I asked her if there was any way for me to know my own life reading, about which Orisa I am primarily aligned with. At that point, my friend gracefully offered to introduce me to the man she called Baba.
My interest in African history, culture and religion started closer to home more than seven years ago. I recall feeling amazed, and interestingly a combination of duped and ashamed, when I first read about the Orisas. Prior to that point, I had known absolutely nothing about Yoruba religion, this despite being born into a proudly Yoruba family. I felt duped because it hurt that such stories had been kept from me living a privileged life in Abuja, all I had previously know of African religion was that it was evil and demonic. Ashamed because before that point, I was very familiar with European history while I knew next to nothing about any pre-colonial African history.
For the past seven years I’ve approached Yoruba, and African, history cautiously.
My life path reading was delivered to me via email, and reading through it was literally like reading an open book about my life. With the most hidden parts of me on display. I did not completely understand why I had been linked with Esu. (Since the advent of Christianity, Esu has mistakenly being associated with the Christian Devil as the “personification of evil”). And in truth, I did not understand this connection until last night. However this post is not all about me even though what I am sharing in this post is due to my stumbling into the amazing world that is Yoruba cosmology.
Yoruba cosmology presents a picture of Man, a solitary individual, picking his way (aided by his Ori or Destiny, chosen by himself before coming to earth) between a variety of forces, some benign, some hostile, many ambivalent, seeking to placate them and ally himself with them in an attempt to thwart his rivals and enemies in human society. Among the hostile powers are the eniyan or witches, and the Ajogun which are personified evils such as Death, Loss, Sickness, etc. Among the benign ones are the ancestors who revisit their descendants in the guise of egungun (masquerades) and the Orisa. Over them all is Olodumare, the High God who is not approached directly by humans, and his two intermediaries, Esu the ambivalent trickster and Orunmila the god of wisdom who reveals Olodumare’s will to humans through divination.*
In the Yoruba cosmos, there is the Otherworld and the World we inhabit. At the top of both worlds is Olodumare, then there are Spirits, Ancestors and the Orisa. The Orisa are numerous in number, some say there are 201 Orisa, others say 401, yet others say 1,600. Some Orisa are worshipped in specific towns, others are more popular yet appear differently depending on location. Generally the Orisa are “hot”, “moderate” or “cool” depending on their temperaments. “Hot” Orisa would include Sango (Orisa of thunder, lightning and rain), or his wife Oya (Orisa of the winds). “Moderate” Orisa with variable temperaments would be Yemoja (Orisa of brooks and streams) and Osoosi (Orisa of the hunt), while Obatala (Chief of the gods) and Osanyin for example are “cool” Orisa. Esu and Ifa are both messengers and intermediaries between the Orisa and humans. Esu is the trickster and presents uncertainty, while Ifa (Orisa of divination) represents certainty. It does not come surprisingly that Orisa with different temperaments don’t get along well,
In Oshogbo, the centre of the cult of Oshun, the river goddess…the Ataoja (king) told me that [Esu] and Oshun were married and later added that Oshun herself is very cunning and has witchcraft. It was clear that the marriage of Oshun and Eshu expressed the fact that they shared some characteristics. But for the peaceful and patient members of the Orisha Funfun (lit. White Gods) [the colour white is associated with the "calm" Orisa] cult -a cult devoted to the creator gods- Eshu is totally evil. One such cult official said: ‘Eshu has no wives and no children; he is too wicked. No one will live with him and that is why he is homeless and must live in the crossroads and in the market.’ It is abundantly clear that the tempestuous and vengeful nature of Eshu clashes with the justice-loving and non-violent temper of the Orisha Funfun worshippers. They are Eshu’s greatest despisers. In their concern with creation they cannot tolerate Eshu’s destructiveness. To them, for whom justice, peace, and patience are prime virtues, Eshu is considered lowly, contemptible, and even ugly.
Yet not only Eshu worshippers, but also Ifa priests and members of the cults of the so-called hot or hard gods (e.g. Shango, the god of thunder and lightning, Ogun, the god of iron, and Shopona, the god of smallpox), describe Eshu not only as a god who may give children to his devotees, but also as a very handsome and vain man.**
In the World where the living resides, there are the ones who have knowledge, that is those that are familiar with and know of the Orisa. The knowledgeable ones include Kings and Queens, priests and priestesses, diviners, those who have been initiated in certain cults devoted to certain Orisa and maskers. There are also the unknowing ones, strangers, those who have not being initiated and children.
Yoruba religion is quite flexible, there is no need to go to a priest to worship. In the past, more than today, each compound or group of homes had a shrine for the Orisa worshipped in that compound. However, a compound could have several shrines dedicated to different Orisa worshipped by individual members of the household who have “special relationships” with that Orisa. Devout people would visit the shrine first thing every morning to pray and leave small offerings such as kola nut. After every four days, came the Orisa’s special day when all members of the household meet at the shrine and an elder prays and makes the offering, while the Orisa’s oriki is usually chanted.
The four-day calendar was used by the Yoruba before European contact, today some say that the four-day calender is dedicated to the Orisa while the Gregorian calendar is reserved for “business”. In the Yoruba calendar, there are 4 days to 1 week, 7 weeks to 1 month, 93 weeks to 1 year and 12 months to 1 year.
Among some Orisa cults, there would be grand meetings every sixteen days or every month when all cult members would assemble in the head of the cult’s house for devotions and pay contributions to the “rotating fund” which I know still exists today.
With no strict rules, a devotee could visit a shrine whenever they wanted or could move on to worship another Orisa if they felt that the Orisa they were devoted to was not helping them. I mentioned Esu but at least four other Orisa were listed in my life path reading. However, others can be attached to certain Orisa through initiation into cults devoted to the Orisa.
Despite the manifold negative portrayals of African religion, more and more practitioners are beginning to publicise the religion in order to dispel negative stereotypes that are attached to African religions. I enjoyed watching a series of videos in which a babalawo, Chief Adelekan explains Yoruba religion, while shedding light on artefacts at the Manchester Museum.
In this video, Chief Adelekan mentions that in the past the babalawo were the doctors and healers. He also confirms my dear friend’s words on taking babies to the babalawo to know their futures. He refers to it as “the journey of life” being told to the parents of the child by babalawo.
I also recommend this video in which Chief Adelekan speaks of modifications being made to Yoruba religion to get rid of the misinformation out there. I’m reminded that my friend got Baba to email me, this shatters a lot of myths with regards to how African religion is practised.
My journey into the Yoruba cosmos continues.
*How Man Makes God in West Africa: Yoruba Attitudes Towards the “Orisa”
Author(s): Karin Barber
Source: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 51, No. 3 (1981), pp. 724-745
Published by: Edinburgh University Press
**The Sculpture and Myths of Eshu-Elegba, the Yoruba Trickster. Definition and Interpretation
in Yoruba Iconography
Author(s): Joan Wescott
Source: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 1962), pp.
Published by: Edinburgh University Press