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Religions of the world

Ifa: the religion of the Yoruba peoples

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Yoruba refers to a group of cultures linked by a common language. They occupied an area bounded by the Niger River, and including what is now known as the Benin Republic, southwestern Nigeria, and part of Togo. They held a belief system in common: the Ifa religion.

Starting in the 16th century, large numbers of Yoruba natives were transported as slaves to the Caribbean and the Americas. They combined beliefs and practices from their Ifa religion with elements of Roman Catholicism to produce the syncretistic religions of Candomblê, Palo Mayombe, Santeria, Vodun, etc. These are now flourishing in the Caribbean, South America and North America, notably in Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Grenada, the Guyanas, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, St. Vincent, Tobago, and Trinidad.

Information on the Internet can be found using such search phrases as: Yoruba faith, Orisha worship, and Ifa religion. Searching for "Ifa" will not be productive because so many organizations have IFA as their acronym.

The original religions of Africa have been declining over the past century due to the influences of colonialism, Western acculturation and proselytizing by Christianity and Islam. However, in the Americas and Caribbean, syncretistic religions involving African religions are growing rapidly.

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bulletDeities and other supernatural forces: Followers of Ifa believe in:

bullet Olodumare or Olorun as the supreme, self-existing deity. According to author Bolasi E. Idowu:

"He is supreme over all on earth and in heaven, acknowledged by all the divinities as the Head to whom all authority belongs and all allegiance is due. . . His status of supremacy is absolute. Things happen when He approves, things do not come to pass if He disapproves. In worship, the Yoruba holds Him ultimately First and Last; in man's daily life, He has the ultimate pre-eminence." 1

However, Idowu's reference to Olodumare as a male apparently is derived from the author's Christian background. In reality, within Yoruba, Olodumare generally has no assigned gender and is commonly referred to as "it."

He is also referred to as: Oluwa (Lord), Eleda (Creator), Olofin-Orun (King of heaven), Orise (the source of all things) and Oba-Orun (The king who dwells in the heavens). 2

bulletOrisha (a.k.a. Orisa; literally "head guardians"), who are considered as ministers of Olodumare and intermediaries between Olodumare and humanity. Estimates of their number range from 201 to 1,700. These correspond to the Orisha in Santeri and Orixa in Candomblé. They include:
bulletEsu, an trickster deity who generates confusion but is also a protector.
bulletIbeji, the deity of twins.
bulletOgun, the god of iron, war, justice, and the chase.
bulletOrisa-nla, a senior Orisha who created the Earth and humanity.
bulletOrunmila, the oracle divinity.
bulletOsanyin, the god of magic and medicine.
bulletOsun, the goddess of the river Osun
bulletOya, the goddess of the river Niger.
bulletSango, the god of thunder and lightning.
bulletSopona, the divinity associated with smallpox.
bulletYemoja, the goddess of all rivers.

bulletSpirits, psychic agencies, or forces of nature. They are often associated with trees, rocks, rivers, forests, hills, etc.

bulletAncestors from previous generations who have died, become spirits and yet who retain an interest in their families. They can "... influence living members of the family for good or evil, but their influence does not extend beyond their specific families. In short, they act as intermediaries between their living descendants and the orisa or Olorun." 2

bulletCreation story: New Orleans Mystic 3 writes:

"There are many variations on the story of creation and how the Orisha were born from the coupling of Oduduwa and Omonide (Obatala and Yemaya). An example is given in this excerpt from Dr. Marta Maria Vega's "Altar of My Soul:" 4

"The Orisha Olodumare, the Supreme God, originally lived in the lower part of heaven, overlooking endless stretches of water. One day, Olodumare decided to create Earth, and sent an emissary, the orisha Obatalá, to perform this task. Olodumare gave Obatalá the materials he needed to create the world: a small bag of loose earth, a gold chain, and a five-toed hen."

"Obatalá was instructed to use the chain to descend from heaven. When he reached the last link, he piled the loose earth on top of the water. Next, he placed the hen on the pile of earth, and ordered her to scatter the earth with her toes across the surface of the water."

"When this was finished, Obatalá climbed the chain to heaven to report his success to Olodumare. Olodumare then sent his trusted assistant, the chameleon, to verify that the earth was dry. When his helper had assured him that the Earth was solid, Olodumare named Earth 'Ile Ife,' the sacred house."

"Before he retired to the uppermost level of heaven, Olodumare decided to distribute his sacred powers 'aché.' He united Obatalá, the Orisha of creation, and Yemayá, the orisha of the ocean, who gave birth to a pantheon of orishas, each possessing a share of Olodumare's sacred power. At last, the divine power of Olodumare was dispersed. Then one day, Olodumare called them all from Earth to heaven and gave Obatalá the sacred power to create human life. Obatalá returned to Earth and created our ancestors, endowing them with his own divine power. We are all descendants from the first people of the sacred city of Ile Ife; we are all children of Olodumare, the sacred orisha who created the world." 5

bulletBelief in magic: Oogun, egbogi and isegun refer to magic. When magic is used to cure or prevent disease, it is called medicine. Attempts to protect a person from sorcery, improve their financial situation, bringing good luck, etc. are referred to as magic.

bulletBelief in witchcraft: Aje, eye and osonga refer to witchcraft. This is typically performed by female witches who are believed to harm people or property through the use of their psychic power.

bulletBelief in sorcery: Oso, oogun ika or oogun buburu refer to sorcery or bad magic. These involve attempts to harm or kill persons or destroy their property through the use of negative rituals. 2
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Ifa practices:

bulletCeremonies: Within Ifa, there are numerous ceremonies and rituals used for personal protection, improving one's health, achieving goals, preparing for pregnancy, obtaining wisdom and knowledge, removing negative spirit energy, becoming more productive, becoming married, etc. 6

bulletDivination: Babalawos (initiated priests), are believed to be able to contact Orunmila during their divination rituals. He is the Youruba orisha of wisdom, prophecy and ethics. The ritual involves the babalawo transferring palm nuts from one hand to the other. If either one or two nuts remain in the original hand, that number is recorded by making single or double marks in powder on a divination tray. Sixteen such transfers point to one of sixteen possible combinations from | | | | to || || || ||. The process is repeated, giving another one combination out of 16. Together, these point to one of 256 possible "odu" (combinations). Associated with each odu is a traditional set of "Ese" (verses) which explain their meaning.

"... the diviner then determines whether the Odu comes with Ire (which is poorly translated to mean good luck) or Ibi (which could be viewed as obstacles or impediments to success). After this process the diviner now determines appropriate offerings, spiritual disciplines and/or behavioral changes necessary to bring, keep or compel success for the person receiving divinatory counsel." 7 In some traditions, the individual seeking guidance makes the final interpretation.

In 2005, the Ifa divination system was added  by UNESCO to its list of "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." 8

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Destruction of native religious artifacts in Nigeria:

According to Dulue Mbachu of the Associated Press:

"Generations ago, European colonists and Christian missionaries looted Africa's ancient treasures. Now, Pentecostal Christian evangelists -- most of them Africans -- are helping wipe out remaining traces of how Africans once worked, played and prayed."

"As poverty deepened in Nigeria from the mid-1980s, Pentecostal Christian church membership surged. The new faithful found comfort in preachers like evangelist Uma Ukpai who promised material success was next to godliness. He has boasted of overseeing the destruction of more than 100 shrines in one district in December 2005 alone."

"Achina is typical of towns and villages in the ethnic Igbo-dominated Christian belt of southeastern Nigeria where this new Christian fundamentalism is evident. The old gods are being linked to the devil, and preachers are urging not only their rejection, but their destruction. ..."

"Ukpai, the evangelist, tells followers the artifacts bear 'curses and covenants' linked to the gods they represent."

" 'Since the curses and covenants do not automatically disappear when we repent, Rev. Dr. Uma Ukpai is a man called by God for the total liberation of mankind,' he says on his Web site, claiming to have the spiritual backing of Jesus to break the curses."

The original western missionaries to Nigeria were typically Roman Catholics and Nigerians. They condemned most traditional practices as Paganism. But they later incorporated some traditional dances into church liturgy.

Isidore Uzoatu at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in southeastern Nigeria is a specialist in the history of Christianity in Africa. Uzoatu said: "Where the older Catholic and Anglican denominations are more tolerant, the Pentecostals reflect more strictly the idea of a jealous God that would brook no rival."

The National Commission for Museums and Monuments is urging people who do not want to retain sacred objects to take them to local chiefs. Omotosho Eluyemi, a senior official of the Commission, said: "We are ... telling the Christians that they can't detach themselves from their past, that there is a beginning to their history." 10

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. E. B. Idowu, "Olodumare: God in Youruba Belief," Page 56. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

  2. "The Yoruba Religious System," Africa Update Archives, Vol VI, Issue 3, 1999-Summer, at:

  3. "Ifa religion," New Orleans Mystic, at:

  4. Marta Moreno Vega, "The Altar of My Soul: The Living Traditions of Santeria," One World/Ballantine, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

  5. Ibid, excerpt from at:

  6. "Ceremonies," The Ifa Foundation, at:

  7. "Ifá," Wikipedia, at:

  8. "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity," UNESCO, 2005, at:

  9. Philip Neimark, "The Way of the Orisha,"

  10. Dulue Mbachu, "Christianity vs. the old gods of Nigeria," Associated Press, 2007-SEP-04, at:

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Copyright © 2007 & 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-SEP-11
Latest update: 2012-MAY-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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