The Yoruba People of Southwest Nigeria are one of the most interesting and important peoples of Africa and no African group has had greater influence on New World culture.
This influence persists as Yoruba religious tradition, remains the world's most prevalent religion of African origin, increasingly practised in slightly varying forms throughout South America, the Caribbean, the United States of America and Europe.
The Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in Sub- Saharan Africa and one of the most important owing to the impact their art, culture and religion has had not only on Africa, but on the world as a whole.
The oral history of the Yoruba describes an origin myth, which tells of God lowering a chain at Ile-Ife, down which came Oduduwa, the ancestor of all people, bringing with him a cock, some earth, and a palm kernel. The earth was thrown into the water, the cocked scratched it to become land, and the kernel grew into a tree with sixteen limbs, representing the original sixteen kingdoms.
They are an ancient people with roots that date as far back as one 1500 BCE and were the rulers of the great Oyo kingdom, a West African empire that stretched from Southwest Nigeria to Zaire and Sudan. From the city of Ile-Ife a great cultural and philosophical tradition began which has fascinated historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, artists, and other students of Africa till this very day.
Portuguese explorers claim they "discovered" the Yoruba cities and kingdoms in the fifteenth century, however cities such as Ife and Benin, among others, had been standing at their present sites for at least five hundred years before the European arrival and colonisation.
The arts of the Yoruba are as numerous as their deities, and many objects are placed on shrines to honor the gods and the ancestors. Varied masking traditions have resulted in a great diversity of mask forms. Additional important arts include pottery, weaving, beadworking and metal smithing. Historically, the Yoruba were primarily farmers, growing cocoa and yams as cash crops. The traditions of bronze casting and wood sculpture, theatre, and other art forms date back over a thousand years and prove the sophistication of the African in arts and crafts.
Traditional Yoruba belief is based on the worship of a supreme deity called Olodumare and various deities known as the Orisa and Irunmole's. The system of divination called IFA-Orunmila through the holy Odu's (Holy verses) spread not only throughout Yorubaland of West Africa but to other countries arouund the world.
The Yoruba claim to at least 401 deities; in truth, however, there are more than these. The complexity of their cosmology has led Western scholars to compare them to the Ancient Greeks and their impressive pantheon.
Yoruba religious mythology holds that in primordial times a deity known as Obatala descended from Heaven to a water laden earth, spread a handful of soil that would form the continents, and settled onto a spot that would later be called Ile-Ife. Obeying his mandate from God himself, Obatala molded from clay the very first human beings at that very place and where God, first gave men and women his greatest gift, the breath of life.
Yoruba religion and cultural beliefs has undergone a phenomenal surge in popularity and interest.
The Yoruba's from the west coast of Africa forced into slavery who were sent to British, French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America, the West Indies and the America's mainatined Yoruba traditions using the roman catholic religion as a disguise to name and worship the Orisa's.
In the West Indies Yoruba culture and religious practice of Yoruba deities has been maintained through Ifa-Orisa, Voudoun and Santeria, today's societal adaptation of Ifa-Orisha with Catholicism.
In Latin America Yoruba religious practice gave birth to new world religions such as Umbanda, Lucumi and Candomble.
The pantheon of Yoruba deities has survived virtually intact, along with a complex of rites, beliefs, music, dances and myths of the original Yoruba origin which continues to grow in identity and practice around the world.
Credit: Daniel Couch, (Attribution Non-Commercial)
Edited by Yoruba Foundation Library.