Yoruba Mythology: The Orishas of the Yoruba Race
Just as most beliefs, the Yoruba culture includes a world of myths, allegories, poetry and the love and wisdom of the Ifa divination system which helps to remind the Yoruba people of their past and customs that have survived through history and have helped shape their literature and religion as we know it today.
Yoruba mythology involves the presence of the Supreme Being and other more minor “gods” or “spirits” known as Orishas which are both male and female. The exact number of Orishas is not known, but it is said to be about 401. Either way, the Orishas are spirits sent out by the Supreme Being to help humanity succeed on earth and teach them all they need to know spiritually.
Most orishas are said to come from the spirit realm to become incarnated as humans on earth. They lived as normal humans but had great wisdom and power during their existence. On the other hand, some practitioners believe that the Orishas were ordinary humans who were divinized after they died because of the way they led their lives and others physically and spiritually.
In this first phase of the four-part series of this article, we will take a look at the Supreme Being and some of the popular Orishas in Yoruba mythology.
The Supreme Being
The Supreme Being in the Yoruba religion is omnipotent, transcendent, all-knowing of good and evil and is the definitive source of all things in the universe. He is not directly involved in earthly matters but allows the Orishas to answer human concerns through divination, possession and sacrifice. This is why the Yoruba worship him through the Orishas; although there are no shrines or sacrifices done directly in his name the Yorubas call on him when the Orishas seem unwilling or are incapable to help. The Supreme Being has three manifestations that carry different names, and they are Olodumare, Olorun and Olofi.
This is one of the three manifestations of the Supreme Being. The name is derived from the Yoruba phrase “O ní odù mà rè,” which means “the owner of the source of creation that does not become empty,” or “the All-Sufficient”. Yorubas believe that Olodumare is the source of all and this shows belief in His ability as the creator of everything in the Universe and the sustainer of all things. Yorubas believe Olodumare created all other forces of the universe to help continue the evolution of the universe. He also symbolises a divine entity with no father or mother and that simultaneously is and is not bound by space, time and dimension.
There are those who also worship Olodumare directly. Olodumare/Olorun/Olofin originates virtue and mortality and bestows the knowledge of things upon all persons born. Yoruba believe Olodumare created all other universe forces to help continue the Universe’s evolution.
This name is a contraction of the words, “oni” which denotes ownership and “orun” which means the Heavens; abode of spirits. So it means “The owner or ruler of the heavens.”
This is another name of the three manifestations of the Supreme Being. Olofi is the ruler of the earth and is known as the conduit between Orún (Heaven) and Ayé (Earth).
Odùduwà ( Ooduwa, Odudua or Oòdua):
Oduduwa was a Yoruba divine king, according to tradition. He was the ruler of the Yorubas and he held the title of the Olofin of Ile-Ife; the Yoruba holy city. During his brief reign in Ife, He was both the political and spiritual ruler of the Yoruba people and is revered as the hero, warrior, leader and father of the Yoruba race. He is the progenitor of many independent royal dynasties in Yorubaland and he was divinized after death.
There are many stories about the origin of Oduduwa. Some claim he’s the son of Lamurudu, who migrated from Arabia; some claim he’s a runaway prince from the kingdom of Igodomigodo (later Benin Empire). Some sources say he was a nobleman and warrior from Oke-Ara in Eastern Yorubaland, there are still very few sources to back these theories. Also, in prehistoric accounts, Oduduwa as an Orisha, usurped his brother, Obatala’s responsibility to create the earth. He took the pouch given to Obatala and used it to create land which caused a great feud between the two siblings which was settled by Olodumare.
Also known as Orisa Nla, He is believed to be the Sky Father and the creator of human bodies which were brought to life by the breath of Olodumare. He is the oldest of all Orishas and was authorised by Olodumare to create land upon the water beneath the sky. Due to his efforts, the first Yoruba city, Ife was founded. eldest of Olodumare’s children (the Orishas). He is the Orisha of light, spiritual purity, and morality. Olodumare commanded Obatala to create the earth, although Oduduwa usurped his role when drunk and sleeping. He built Ife, the first Yoruba city and created human bodies brought to life by Olodumare’s breath.
According to the oral traditions of Ife, the mortal Obatala was the founder and king of Ife during its classical period. His kingly position was challenged by Oduduwa. However, Obatala was able to emerge victorious in the contest and it led to the murder of his rival Oduduwa and the retrieval of his throne.