Religions of the world
Ifa: the religion of the Yoruba peoples
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 Candomblé,
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.
|Deities and other supernatural forces: Followers of Ifa believe in:|
||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
|Orisha (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.
|Esu, an trickster deity who generates confusion but
is also a protector.|
|Ibeji, the deity of twins.|
|Ogun, the god of iron, war, justice, and the chase.|
|Orisa-nla, a senior Orisha who created the Earth and humanity.|
|Orunmila, the oracle divinity.|
|Osanyin, the god of magic and medicine.|
|Osun, the goddess of the river Osun|
|Oya, the goddess of the river Niger.|
|Sango, the god of thunder and lightning.|
|Sopona, the divinity associated with smallpox.|
|Yemoja, the goddess of all rivers.|
|Spirits, psychic agencies, or forces of nature. They are often
associated with trees, rocks, rivers, forests, hills, etc.|
|Ancestors 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
|Creation 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
"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
|Belief 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.|
|Belief 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.|
|Belief 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|
|Ceremonies: 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|
|Divination: 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
In 2005, the Ifa divination system was added by UNESCO to its list of
"Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." 8
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
Search of the Amazon.com web site for books on Youruba:
Read reviews or order these books safely from Amazon.com online book store:
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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
E. B. Idowu, "Olodumare: God in Youruba Belief," Page 56.
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
"The Yoruba Religious System," Africa Update Archives, Vol VI,
Issue 3, 1999-Summer, at:
"Ifa religion," New Orleans Mystic, at:
Marta Moreno Vega, "The Altar of My Soul: The Living Traditions
of Santeria," One World/Ballantine, (2001).
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
Ibid, excerpt from Amazon.com at:
"Ceremonies," The Ifa Foundation, at:
"Ifá," Wikipedia, at:
"Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of
Humanity," UNESCO, 2005, at:
Philip Neimark, "The Way of the Orisha,"
Dulue Mbachu, "Christianity vs. the old gods of Nigeria,"
Associated Press, 2007-SEP-04, at:
Copyright © 2007 & 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-SEP-11
Latest update: 2012-MAY-17
Author: B.A. Robinson