Gods & Pantheons: Yoruba

  1. Polynesia
  2. Gods & Pantheons

Orunmila-ifa.jpgThe gods of the Yoruba (called “orishas”) live in Orundu-nla, the sky. The first city of the Yoruba was Ife, founded by Obatala, but it now lies under water.

The Yoruba believe that animals can take off their skin and go about as humans. Monkeys are said to be “wise in many things” and have great powers. They can even send an abiku by becoming one. The abiku are spirits of dead children who torture living children. When they cause a pre-teen to die, that child’s spirit also becomes an abiku.

The numbers 7 and 16 are omens of importance. Twins are also ominous: one who abuses or neglects a twin will be struck with disease or poverty; one who treats twins well will receive good fortune. If twins are pleased with life, good fortune comes to their parents. Twins are protected as Ibeji, the divine twins-who-are-one (as are all twins), son and daughter of Oshun and Shango. Neither twins nor their families may eat the flesh of monkeys.

Yoruba: Eshu

Names: Eshu, Elegbara, Elegba Eshu, Eshu Lono, Legba
Sobriquets: The Hot Fire, Eshu on the Road, Messenger
Symbols: Crossroads, Dog
Status: God
Worshippers: Musicians, Teachers, Translators, Dog trainers, Sorcerors
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: Ordered Good, Chaotic Good, Wisdom 13, Intelligence 12, Etiquette, Teaching, Language
Spirits: Prophet, Protection, Fire, Weather, Prophecy

Eshu is the orisha of chance, accidents, and unpredictability. When the future is uncertain, Eshu is mixed up in it. Eshu tries to turn Orunmila’s divinations aside, so that events take unintended paths. Eshu maintains good relations with Orunmila, however, and Orunmila has saved Eshu’s life. Iku, Death, the only being who does not fear Eshu’s unpredictability, challenged Eshu. While the battle was great, Eshu could not touch death and so was defeated. As Iku rose Eshu’s own club over the fallen orisha to strike, Orunmila took it, saving his friend from destruction.

Eshu is worshipped by teachers and is a master of languages. He is also the orisha of respect, and Ordered Good Exemplars of the Yoruba work through Eshu’s power.

He is worshipped at gateways and entrances, crossroads, and places where accidents occur. He is the messenger between gods and humans.

Priests of Eshu are often well known as translators and teachers. Eshu uses dogs as messengers, and prophets of Eshu will show more respect to dogs than other members of the community might.

As an example of the kinds of tricks Eshu tries on both humans and orishas, once Orunmila decided to visit the town Owo. He consulted the divining nuts. The palm nuts said he could not know what would happen, so he tried again. Again, “even you cannot know” read the palm nuts. Orunmila was in a hurry, so he left. He met Eshu on the road four times going the other way, once each day of travel. The fourth time, Eshu had taken some kola fruit from a tree and put them on the ground, where Orunmila saw them and ate them.

The farmer whose fruit they were appeared, bush knife in hand, and accused Orunmila of stealing. In the ensuing struggle, Orunmila’s palm was cut. Eshu went into Owo and cut the palm of every man in the city, even the farmer and the Oba, or judge, of Owo. Eshu then told Orunmila that everything would be fine in Owo.

Once in Owo, the farmer accused Orunmila of stealing. Eshu spoke in his favor and asked for proof. The farmer told of the fight and the scratch. Eshu called for Orunmila and all in the court to open their hands. All did, and all had the scratch. The Oba said “stranger shall be indemnified for false accusation”, and Orunmila was given gifts of every kind.

Another time, Oya, Oshun, and Yemoja, Shango’s three wives, were at market. Eshu, who was bringing a goat to market, saw that all was peaceful among them. He told them that he had to meet Orunmila and he gave them the goat to sell, telling them to sell it for twenty cowries. If they did so, they would receive ten cowries and he would receive the other ten. They sold the goat, and discovered that they could not divide the ten cowries evenly among the three of them. They called friends over to find a way to divide it evenly, and argued and argued. They received much advice, none of which they accepted.

Finally, Eshu returned and took his ten cowries. They asked him to divide their ten cowries. He gave each of them three cowries and put the remaining cowrie in the ground and buried it. “Whenever someone receives something good he should remember the dead. This is the way it was done in the sky, and so it must be done on Earth.”

Yoruba: Iku

Iku is not so much a god as a force, death. He is the only being who can withstand Eshu’s unpredictability regardless of fortune: all beings eventually die. Iku is responsible for taking those who should be dead from the earth.

Names: Iku
Sobriquets: Death, Debt-Keeper
Symbols: Coin, Gourd
Status: God
Worshippers: Sick, Dying, Warriors
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: None
Spirits: Prophecy, Order, Death, Prophet, War

When Iku and Eshu fought, only Orunmila’s assistance saved Eshu. Iku is not generally worshipped, and has no prophets.

Oya is the orisha called on to intercede with death on behalf of mortals.

Yoruba: Obatala

Obatala is Olorun’s second son, and Olorun’s representative on Earth. Obatala shaped humans, and founded the first city, Ife. He lived among humans. However, humans became jealous of his farms. They sent stones from a hill down on him, battering him to pieces, and hid the pieces all over. Eshu returned the pieces to the sky, where Olorun gave them life. Each piece became an orisha.

Names: Obatala
Sobriquets: King of the White Cloth
Symbols: White Cloth
Status: God
Worshippers: Architects, Politicians
Moral Codes: Any except evil
Prophets: Ordered, Ordered Good
Spirits: Prophet, Prophecy, Order, Animal, Plant

Orunmila taught the art of divining to Obatala. As all the orishas wish to learn Orunmila’s art of divination, Obatala has been repeatedly requested to teach the art. Only Oshun, one of Shango’s wives, has succeeded.

Obatala saved humans from destruction by flooding when Olokun wished to sink the earth.

The worshippers of Obatala do not drink palm wine. Most do not drink any wine or alcohol. When Olorun decided to place land on the waters, he sent Obatala down to place it. The first creature to grow on the newly-formed land was Agbon, the palm tree. Obatala made wine from it, drank it, became drunk, and fell asleep. Olorun was still waiting for Obatala to finish creation, and had to send other gods down to finish the job, embarrassing Obatala.

Yoruba: Olokun

Olokun is the orisha of wealth and of the sea (which brings forth wealth in the form of food). He has legs like fish, and holds a lizard in each hand. He may also come in the form of a water jug.

Names: Olokun
Sobriquets: Lord of the Oceans
Symbols: Lizard, Water Jug, Fish
Status: God
Worshippers: Seafarers, Treasure hunters
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: Any
Spirits: Prophet, Sea, Weather, Death, Protection

Olokun accepted human sacrifice in the elder days.

Olokun once decided he wished to “sink the earth into the water”, but was prevented from doing so by Obatala.

He lives in a great palace under the sea.

Yoruba: Olorun

Names: Olorun, Oba-Orun, Olodumare, Orisha-Oke, Eleda, Oluwa, Orisa Nla
Sobriquets: Owner of the Sky, King of the Sky, Owner of Endless Space, Creator, Lord
Symbols: Cloud
Status: Ruler (Elder God)
Worshippers: Judges, Rulers
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: Ordered, Ordered Good, Ordered Evil, Wisdom 13, Intelligence 13
Spirits: Prophet, Weather, Peace, Protection, Order

Olorun is the ruler of the sky and the earth beneath the sky. He is orisha to other orishas, and is the father of Orunmila and Obatala.

He is never worshipped as ruler of the gods, but most often as Orisha-Oke (Sky God), also known as Orisa-Nla.

Only in the direst of circumstances can one call on Olorun directly.

Yoruba: Orunmila

Names: Orunmila, Ifa
Sobriquets: The Sky Knows Who Will Prosper, Diviner
Symbols: Palm nuts
Status: God
Worshippers: Sages, Wizards
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: Any, Wisdom 14, Intelligence 10, Charisma 10
Spirits: Prophet, Prophecy, Protection, Sky, War

Orunmila is and knows the art of divining, which is the revelation of Olorun’s intentions toward mankind. Orunmila speaks to humans for Olorun. He is Olorun’s eldest son.

Orunmila is known for his compassion toward humans. Orunmila is always calm, always trying to find the meanings of fate. He is also a close friend to Eshu, even though Eshu tries to turn Orunmila’s meanings aside. When Orunmila became suspicious that all the other orishas wanted his divining tools—his tray and his palm nuts—he decided to see who his true friends were by faking his death. All who came to his wife claimed to have been great friends who lent money with no repayment, who were promised the tray and palm nuts in return. All except Eshu, who came with sorrow that Orunmila was gone and promised to send Orunmila’s wife money that Eshu owed Orunmila. Eshu knew that the secrets of divination were in Orunmila’s mind, not in the tools.

Yoruba: Oshun

Oshun was one of Shango’s human wives, and very beautiful. Another of Oshun’s wives was Oya, who was a very good cook but was jealous of Oshun’s beauty. Oshun was desirous to improve her cooking skills and was jealous of Oya’s ability. On the day of a great feast Shango asked them to put aside their rivalries. Oshun did, and asked Oya for help in cooking. Oya almost did, but jealousy overcame her. She said her secret was that she cut off her ears and put parts in all the food she made. So Oshun did this with her own ears.

Names: Oshun
Sobriquets: Healing Love
Symbols: Water, Yellow scarf
Status: Demigod
Worshippers: Unrequited lovers
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: Any
Spirits: Prophet, Prophecy, Sea, Charm

The food was not good. When someone found human ears in their food, Shango demanded to know how it happened. Oya said Oshun put it there, and that the proof was that Oshun had no ears now. Shango removed Oshun’s headdress and sure enough, Oshun’s ears were missing. She told Shango that this was Oya’s secret of cooking. Oya took off her own headdress and her ears were still there. Oshun, in tears, walked out of the feast and far away until she came to a large river. She entered the water and became a spirit of the river, an orisha.

Obatala taught Oshun the art of divination. One day while Obatala was bathing in a river, Eshu stole his clothes. Oshun promised to get them back and return them, in exchange for which Obatala would teach Oshun the art of divination. Oshun then made a deal with Eshu: she would sleep with Eshu and Eshu would give the clothes to Oshun. Oshun returned the clothes to Obatala and Obatala taught her the art of divination.

Yoruba: Oya

Oya is the goddess of storms and dancing. In Yoruba folkdances, women carry rods with Oya’s representations on it.

Names: Oya
Sobriquets: Mother Goddess, Good Mother, Great Mother
Symbols: Dancing Rod
Status: Demigoddess
Worshippers: Mothers, Dancers
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: Ordered Evil, Chaotic, Chaotic Evil, Good
Spirits: Prophet, Weather, Death, Sea

Oya can also control the spirits of the dead and is called on to calm the restless spirits of the night.

Oya was the wife of Shango while Shango was on earth, and commands the ancestors, the Egungun, the living dead who go masked.

She guards cemeteries, and guides the dead to their meeting with Iku.

When Shango died, Oya went to Nupe, but she should not be exiled, and went into the Oya river to become a river orisha. The Oshun and the Oya river never meet.

Yoruba: Shango

Names: Shango
Sobriquets: My Strength Cuts Both Ways
Symbols: Double-bladed axe
Status: Demigod
Worshippers: Warriors, Sorcerors
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: Any except Order alone
Spirits: Prophet, War, Fire, Charm

Shango Dance Wand.pngShango has breath of fire, and a temper to match. His axe is a thunderbolt.

Shango is known for his jealousy. When he lived among humans, his armies conquered most of the cities of the world. People talked most about his two greatest warriors, Timi and Gbonka. He grew jealous, and sent Timi to take the city Ede, expecting his warrior to die in the attempt. But Timi succeeded and Ede became an even greater city under Timi’s stewardship. So Shango sent Gbonka to get Timi, expecting at least one of them to die. But Gbonka used his medicine horn to put Timi to sleep, and brought Timi back alive. Shango used this to put shame into Timi’s heart, and Timi challenged Gbonka. Gbonka’s medicine horn turned Timi’s arrows and then put Timi to sleep again.

Shango went to Gbonka and told him, “this fight is not finished. It must be finished.” Gbonka became angry, and he said “I will fight to the death, but then I will fight with you.” Gbonka and Timi fought again, and again Gbonka put Timi to sleep. This time, Gbonka cut Timi’s head off and threw it into Shango’s lap. Shango became angry and ordered Gbonka burned. But fire would not harm him. Neither would Shango’s fire breath.

Shango and Oya left in shame, and Shango hung himself. Oya returned to get help removing Shango’s body, but when they returned, the body was not there. Thunderstones rained down: Shango was not dead. He had returned to the sky.

  1. Polynesia
  2. Gods & Pantheons