What is Yoruba?

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April 29, 2013 By Andrea Court

After my last article I thought perhaps it might be nice to share something of African culture or art. Since I mentioned the Yoruba it is probably a good a place to start.

Let me say quickly that I am no expert in African culture nor art so I am sharing only what I know and have learned myself over the years. I take no responsibility for poorly written essays being tossed back at you with large minus signs next to your grades.

The Yoruba culture is one of the most widespread globally of all African tribal cultures. The origins of the Yoruba people are in West Africa, just in the “bite” and their traditional home crosses the borders of modern Nigeria, Benin and Togo, the largest area being inside Nigeria.

Map showing the homestead of the Yoruba people (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yoruba is not only the name of the language spoken by the Yoruba people it is also used to describe their religion, art and culture. In modern terms we might say some Nigerians speak Yoruba much the same way would say some South Africans speak Zulu but it is not that cut and dry when it comes to tribal and cultural traditions in Africa. The culture, language, art, religion or spirituality and name of most traditional tribal groups throughout Africa define them and their respective heritage. For example, they are Yoruba or Zulu before they are Nigerian or South African, it’s something a lot of people outside Africa don’t seem to understand.

The culture and traditions of most groups of people across the globe are instrinsically interconnected with their art and religion and the Yoruba people are no different. When the slave traders stole them from Africa they could not possibly have imagined they were helping to spread the traditions and religion of these people who endured the most unimagineable horrors in their Atlantic crossing to the America’s and elsewhere.

In the true spirit of the African people they would not let their spirits be broken. They kept their faith and their culture close. You see for an African it is not such a difficult thing to do, African people embody their culture. Nor are they separate from their religion it is a part of their very essence and if Western influence is changing that now, it certainly didn’t back then. It’s probably for that very reason  that Yoruba traditions are so widespread. You will find Yoruba influence and communities throughout the world but most significantly in countries such as Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba and other Caribbean Islands, also in Brazil and Latin America.

Yoruba bronze head from the city of Ife, 12 century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Yoruba civilisation is said to have come into existence in the mythical city of Ile Ife through God sending a deity called Oduduwa who is, according to oral history, the very first ancestor of the Yoruba people. There were sixteen kingdoms of the Yoruba and they were said to have sprung from the limbs of a palm tree that Oduduwa brought from the heavens.  Archaeological digs have confirmed that there is evidence of life dating back to the Stone Age in the region purported to be where Ife was situated.

Understanding Yoruba spirituality or religion may not be especially complicated but I don’t want to misinterpret or misrepresent it in any way and so I approach the subject with vast amounts of caution out of respect, as I would for any religion. Studying religions at university does not a guru make, I simply hope to describe it in terms that might make it more tangible or real to those who have never encountered it previously.

Let’s start at the top shall we. In Yoruba spirituality there are three manifestions of the supreme God: Olodumare who is the Creator, Olorun is the ruler of the heavens (most commonly associated with the Sun) and Olofi who is the channel facilitating communication between Orun ‘heaven’ and Aye ‘earth’.   It should be noted here that the energy of Olorun (ruler of the heavens, Sun) runs through all living things and is their life force, in human being this is called Ashe.

An Orisha is a deity or spirit that reflects one of the manifestations of God.

The word ‘Ori’ literally means ‘head’ and in Yoruba spirituality is a sort metaphysical concept that can be described as a destiny or intuition that represents the human conciousness and is embedded into human essence. In fact Ori is often personified in Yoruba as an Orisha or deity in it’s own right.  The Yoruba belief in Orisha is meant to confirm and never counter or contradict the terms of Olodumare (the creator).

Something I find infinitely interesting is that the Yoruba believe that human beings are able to heal themselves by working with the Orishas (God/s) to attain a balance both physically and spiritually, this seems to have many parallels to Eastern religions and spiritualism. I’m certain that someone has written academic papers on this very thing but I prefer to smile about it quietly and not get into an Academic wrangle with it.  This balance is called ‘iwa-pele’ in Yoruba and when one has achieved this one obtains an alignment with one’s Ori (head, or divine self).  Again a similarity with Eastern spiritualism and in this instance a kind of personal Nirvana; I’d like to think. My reason for thinking this is because according to Yoruba tradion the person who obtains ‘iwa-pele’  finds inner peace and satisfaction with life. To have achieved this would be to have achieved a mastery over yourself and enlightenment or more specifically alignment with God.

Followers of Yoruba spirituality will often draw on the wisdom or experience of others on their path to attaining ‘iwa-pele’. Some may ask for advice or assistance from ancestors where others might  consult divination specialists such as a  ’Babalawo’ the name of an Ifa Priest or Iyanifa which means ‘Ifa’s lady’, to mediate in their problems.  Ifa divination is a vital part of Yoruba life, it is the way in which a ‘diviner’ attempts to interpret the wishes of God and His people.

According to UNESCO and Wikipedia “The cultural and scientific education arm of the United Nations, declared Ifa a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.”

In essence, that is the foundation of Yoruba spiritualism. I really don’t have room to get deeply involved in the subject, much as I would love to. There is plenty of information on the internet about Yoruba art, religion, spirituality and tradition some is sound others not as much but I do hope my article will inspire those of you whose curiosity may have been piqued to look further into this intensely rich and fascinating civilisation and culture especially it’s current evolutions and practices in daily life around globe.

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