Yoruba shamanism - A. B. Ellis - E-Book

Yoruba shamanism E-Book

A. B. Ellis

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The striking resemblance which the Yoruba religious system bears to that of the ancient Greeks can scarcely have escaped notice. Olorun, the sky-god proper, now being gradually displaced by the more anthropomorphic Obatala, resembles Uranus, who was displaced by Kronos. In Greek mythology Kronos married his sister Rhea, the earth, and the Yoruba myth makes Obatala marry Odudua, who also represents the earth, though the qualities of Aphrodite appear to predominate. Olokun answers to Poseidon, Ogun, worker in iron, to Hepoestus, Orisha Oko to Priapus, Osanhin to Aesklepius, Orun, the sun, to Helios, and Oshu, the moon, to Selene. Zeus' messenger, Hermes, the lightning, was the protector of plunderers, and Shango is the god of lightning and plunder. Ifa, as the, god of prophecy, and the being who wards off evil and affords help, resembles Apollo, who, in Homer, is perfectly distinct from the sun-god, though identified with him in later times. The spirits of the trees answer to the Hama-dryads, and we have river-gods and sea-spirits. Metamorphosis to a brook, spring, or lagoon is common, and we have one example of a girl, being transformed, like Daphne, into a shrub. The gods, when consulted, gave oracular responses that differ in no essential particular from the answers given by the Oracle of Delphi. The Yorubas, like the Greeks, offer human sacrifices in time of national need. Dancing was, with the Greeks, intimately connected with worship, as Lucian says: "You cannot find a single ancient mystery in which there is not dancing;" and by the Yoruba every god of note has his own dance, which is sacred to him, and known only to the initiated.

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Yoruba shamanism


Yoruba shamanism



THE tendency which we noted in the case of the Ewe speaking peoples to replace gods which were purely local, and only worshipped by those dwelling in the vicinity, by tribal gods, and by gods worshipped by an entire people, has in the case of the Yoruba tribes been very fully developed, and all the gods possessing any importance are known to and worshipped by the Yoruba-speaking peoples as a whole. The effect of increasing the number of general objects of worship has been to diminish the importance of the local objects of worship, the genii loci, who, except in Jebu and in some of the remoter districts, have been so shorn of their power as now to- be scarcely above the level of the fairies and water-sprites of mediæval England, or, which is perhaps a closer parallel, of the Naiads and Hama-dryads of ancient Greece. This of course is what was to be expected, for the general objects of worship govern, between them, all the phenomena which most nearly affect mankind; and the special function of each genius lociis thus now vested in some other god, who is believed to be more powerful, because he is worshipped over a larger axea and has a more numerous following. Gods, however, which are purely tutelar have not been so much affected, and tutelary dieties of towns and of individuals are still common, because the native, while enrolling himself as a follower of a general god, likes also to have a protector whose sole business is to guard his interests; and who, though his power may be limited, is not likely to be distracted by the claims of others to his attention.

The term used by the Yoruba tribes to express a superhuman being, or god, is orisha, and as it is used equally to express the images and sacred objects, and also as an adjective with the meaning of sacred or holy, it answers exactly to the Tshi term bohszon, the Gã wong, and the Ewe vodu. The word orisha seems to be compounded of ori (summit, top, head) and sha (to select, choose); though some natives prefer to derive it from ri (to see) and isha (selection, choice), and thus to make it mean "One who sees the cult."


Olorun is the sky-god of the Yorubas, that is, he is the deified firmament, or personal sky, just as Nyankupon is to the Tshis, Nyonmo to the Gas, and Mawu to the Ewes. As was mentioned in the last volume, the general bias of the negro mind has been in favour of selecting the firmament for the chief Nature god, instead of the Sun, Moon, or Earth; and in this respect the natives resemble the Aryan Hindus, Greeks, and Romans, with whom Dyaus pitar, Zeus, and Jupiter equally represented the firmament. The Tshis and Gas use the words Nyankupon and Nyonmo to express sky, rain, or thunder and lightning, and the Ewes andYorubas, the words Mawn and Olorun to express the two former. The Tshi peoples say Nyankupon lom (Nyankupon knocks); "It is thundering"; Nyankupon aba (Nyankupon has come), "It is raining"; and the Gã peoples, Nyonmo, knocks (thunders), Nyonmo pours, Nyonmo drizzles, &c., while in just the same way the Ancient Greeks ascribed these phenomena to Zeus, who snowed, rained, hailed, gathered clouds, and thundered. Nyankupon has for epithets the following: Amosu(Giver of Rain); Amovua (Giver of Sunshine); Tetereboensu (Wide-speading Creator of Water), and Tyoduampon, which seems to mean "Stretched-out Roof" (Tyo, to draw or drag, dua, wood, and pon, flat surface). Nyankupon and Nyonmo thunder and lighten as well as pour out rain, but Olorun, like the Ewe Mawu, does not wield the thunderbolt, which has become the function of a special thunder-god, and he consequently has suffered some reduction in importance. The name Olorun means "Owner of the Sky" (oni, one who possesses, orun, sky, firmament, cloud), and the sky is believed to be a solid body, curving over the earth so as to cover it with a vaulted roof. Like Nyankupon, Nyonmo, and Mawu, Olorun is considered too distant, or too indifferent, to interfere in the affairs of the world. The natives say that he enjoys a life of complete idleness and repose, a blissful condition according to their ideas, and passes his time dozing or sleeping. Since he is too lazy or too indifferent to exercise any control over earthly affairs, man on his side does not waste time in endeavouring to propitiate him, but reserves his worship and sacrifice for more active agents. Hence Olorun has no priests, symbols, images, or temples, and though, in times of calamity, or affliction, whjen the other gods have turned a deaf ear to his supplications, a native will, perhaps, as a last resource, invoke Olorun, such occasions are rare, and as a general rule the god is not worshipped or appealed to. The name Olorun, however, occurs in one or two set phrasesor sentences, which appear to show that at one time greater regard was paid to him. For instance, the proper reply to the morning salutation, "Have you risen well?" is O yin Olorun, "Thanks to Olorun;" and the phrase "May Olorun protect you" is sometimes heard as an evening salutation. The former seems to mean that thanks are due to the sky for letting the sun enter it; and the latter to be an invocation of the firmament, the roof of the world, to remain above and protect the earth during the night. Sometimes natives will raise their hands and cry, "Olorun, Olorun!" just as we say, "Heaven forbid!" and with an equal absence of literal meaning. Olorun has the following epithets:-- (1) Oga-ogo (Oga, distinguished or brave person; ogo, wonder, praise). (2) Olowo (ni-owo) "Venerable one." (3) Eleda (da, to cease from raining), "He who controls the rain." (4) Elemi, "a living man," literally "he who possesses breath." It is a title applied to a servant or slave, because his master's breath is at his mercy; and it is in this sense also that it is used to Olorun, because, if he were evilly, disposed, he could let fall the solid firmament and crush the world. (5) Olodumaye or Olodumare. The derivation of this epithet is obscure, but it probably means "Replenisher of brooks" (0lodo, possessing brooks). We find the same termination in Oshumaye or Oshumare, Rainbow, and in Osamaye or Osamare, Water Lily, and it is perhaps compounded of omi, water, and aye, a state of being.alive. It may be mentioned that, just as the missionaries have caused Nyankupon, Nyonmo, and Mawu to be confused with the Jehovah of the Christians, by translating these names as "God," so have they done with Olorun, whom they consider to be a survival from a primitive revelation, made to all mankind, in the childhood of the world. But Olorun is merely a nature-god, the personally divine sky, and he only controls phenomena connected in the native mind with the roof of the world. He is not in any sense an omnipotent being. This is well exemplified by the proverb which says, "A man cannot cause rain to fall, and Olorun cannot give you a child," which means that, just as a man cannot perform the functions of Olorun and cause rain to fall, so Olorun cannot form a child in the womb, that being the function of the god Obatala, whom we shall next describe. In fact, each god, Olorun included, has, as it were, his own duties; and while he is perfectly independent in his own domain, he cannot trespass upon the rights of others.


Obatala is the chief god of the Yorubas. The name means "Lord of the White Cloth" (Oba-ti-ala.), and is explained by the fact that white is the colour sacred to Obatala, whose temples, images, and paraphernalia are always painted white, and whose followers wear white cloths. Another derivation is Oba-ti-ala, "Lord of Visions," and this gains some probability from the fact that Obatala has the epithets of Orisha oj'enia, "The Orisha who enters man," and Alabalese (Al-ba-ni-ase),[1] "He who predicts the future," because he inspires the oracles and priests, and unveils futurity by means of visions. "Lord of the White Cloth," however, is the translation most commonly adopted, and appears to be the correct one. The god is always represented as wearing a white cloth. Obatala, say the priests, was made by Olorun, who then handed over to him the management of the firmament and the world, and himself retired to rest. Obatala is thus also a sky-god, but is a more anthropomorphic conception than Olorun, and performs functions which are not in the least connected with the firmament. According to a myth, which is, however, contradicted by another, Obatala made the first man and woman out of clay, on which account he has the title of Alamorere, "Owner of the best clay;" and because he kneaded the clay himself he is called Orisha kpokpo, "The Orisha who kneads clay" (kpo, to knead or temper clay). Though this point is disputed by some natives, all are agreed that Obatala forms the child in the mother's womb, and women who desire to become mothers address their prayers to him; while albinoism and congenital deformities are regarded as his handiwork, done either to punish [1. Al-oni (one who. has); ba (to overtake); ni (to have); ase (a coming to pass), "One who overtakes the coming to pass."] some neglect towards him on the part of the parents, or to remind his worshippers of his power. Obatala is also styled "Protector of the Town Gates," and in this capacity is represented as mounted on a horse, and armed with a spear. On the panels of the temple doors rude carvings are frequently seen of a horseman with a spear, surrounded by a leopard, tortoise, fish, and serpent. Another epithet of Obatala is Obatala gbingbiniki, "The enormous Obatala." His special offerings are edible snails. Amongst the Ewe-speaking Peoples at Porto Novo, Obatala determines the guilt or innocence of accused persons by means of an oracle termed Onshe or Onishe (messenger, ambassador). It consists of a hollow cylinder of wood, about 31/2 feet in length and 2 feet in diameter, one end of which is covered with draperies and the other closed with shells of the edible snail. This cylinder is placed on the head of the accused, who kneels on the ground, holding it firmly on his head with a hand at each side. The god, being then invoked by the priests, causes the cylinder to rock backwards and forwards, and finally to fall to the ground. If it should fall forward the accused is innocent, if backward guilty. The priests say that Obatala, or a subordinate spirit to whom he deputes the duty, strikes the accused, so as to make the cylinder fall in the required direction; but sceptics and native Christians say that a child is concealed in the cylinder and overbalances it in front or behind, according to instructions given beforehand by the priests. They add that when a child has served for a year or two and grown too big for the cylinder he is put to death, in order that the secret may be preserved; and is succeeded by another, who, in his turn, undergoes the same fate-but all this is mere conjecture.


Odudua, or Odua, who has the title of Iya agbe, The mother who receives," is the chief goddess of the Yorubas. The name means "Black One" (dit, to be black; dudit, black), and the negroes consider a smooth, glossy, black skin a great beauty, and far superior to one of the ordinary cigar-colour. She is always represented as a woman sitting down, and nursing a child. Odudua is the wife of Obatala, but she was coeval with Olorun, and not made by him, as was her husband. Other natives, however, say that she came from Ife, the holy city, in common with most of the other gods, as described in a myth which we shall come to shortly. Odudua represents the earth, married to the anthropomorphic sky-god. Obatala and Odudua, or Heaven and Earth, resemble, say the priests, two large cut-calabashes, which, when once shut, can never be opened. This is symbolised in the temples by two whitened saucer-shaped calabashes, placed one covering the other; the upper one of which represents the concave firmament stretching over and meeting the earth, the lower one, at the horizon. According to some priests, Obatala and Odudua represent one androgynous divinity; and they say that an image which is sufficiently common, of a human being with one arm and leg, and a tail terminating in a sphere, symbolises this. This notion, however, is not one commonly held, Obutala and Odudua being generally, and almost universally, regarded as two distinct persons. The phallus and yoni in juxtaposition are often seen carved on the doors of the temples both of Obatala and Odudua; but this does not seem to have any reference to androgyny, since they are also found similarly depicted in other places which are in no way connected with either of these deities. According to a myth Odudua is blind. In the beginning of the world she and her husband Obatala were shut up in darkness in a large, closed calabash, Obatala being in the upper part and Odudua in the lower. The myth does not state how they came to be in this situation, but they remained there for many days, cramped, hungry, and uncomfortable. Then Odudua began complaining, blaming her husband for the confinement; and a violent quarrel ensued, in the course of which, in a frenzy of rage, Obatala tore out her eyes, because she would not bridle her tongue. In return she cursed him, saying "Naught shalt thou eat but snails," which is the reason why snails are now offered to Obatala. As the myth does not make Odudua recover her sight, she must be supposed to have remained sightless, but no native regards her as being blind. Odudua is patroness of love, and many stories are told of her adventures and amours. Her chief temple is in Ado, the principal town of the state of the same name, situated about fifteen miles to the north of Badagry. The word Ado means a lewd person of eithersex, and its selection for the name of this town is accounted for by the following legend. Odudua was once walking alone in the forest when she met a hunter, who was so handsome that the ardent temperament of the goddess at once took fire. The advances which she made to him were favourably received, and they forthwith mutually gratified their passion on the spot. After this, the goddess became still mora enamoured, and, unable to tear herself away from her lover, she lived with him for some weeks in a hut, which they constructed of branches at the foot of a large silk-cotton tree. At the end of this time her passion had burnt out, and having become weary of the hunter, she left him; but before doing so she promised to protect him and all others who might come and dwell in the favoured spot wliere she had passed so many pleasant hours. In consequence many people came and settled there, and a town gradually grew up, which was named Ado, to commemorate the circumstances of its origin. A temple was built for the protecting goddess; and there, on her feast days, sacrifices of cattle and sheep are made, and women abandon themselves indiscriminately to the male worshippers in her honour.


Before her amour with the hunter, Odudua bore to her husband, Obatala, a boy and a girl, named respectively Aganju. and Yemaja. The name Aganju means uninhabited tract of country, wilderness, plain, or forest, and Yemaja, "Mother of fish" (yeye, mother; eja, fish). The offspring of the union of Heaven and Earth, that is, of Obatala and Odudua, may thus be said to represent Land and Water. Yemaja is the goddess of brooks and streams, and presides over ordeals by water. She is represented by a female figure, yellow in colour, wearing blue beads and a white cloth. The worship of Aganju seems to have fallen into disuse, or to have become merged in that of his mother; but there is said to be an open space in front of the king's residence in Oyo where the god was formerly worshipped, which is still called Oju-Aganju-"Front of Aga-nju." Yemaja married her brother Aganju, and bore a son named Orungan. This name is compounded of orun, sky, and gan, from ga, to be high; and appears to mean "In the height of the sky." It seems to answer to the khekheme, or "Free-air Region" of the Ewe peoples; and, like it, to mean the apparent space between the sky and the earth. The offspring of Land and Water would thus be what we call Air. Orungan fell in love with his mother, and as she refused to listen to his guilty passion, he one day took advantage of his father's absence, and ravished her. Immediately after the act, Yemaja sprang to her feet and fled from the place wringing her hands and lamenting; and was pursued by Orungan, who strove to console her by saying that no one should know of what had occurred, and declared that he could not live without her. He held out to her the alluring prospect of living with two husbands, one acknowledged, and the other in secret; but she rejected all his proposals with loathing, and continued to run away. Orungan, however, rapidly gained upon her, and was just stretching out his hand to seize her, when she fell backward to the ground. Then her body immediately began to swell in a fearful manner, two streams of water gushed from her breasts, and her abdomen burst open. The streams from Yemaja's breasts joined and formed a lagoon, and from her gaping body came the following:--(l) Dada (god of vegetables), (2) Shango (god of lightning), (3) Ogun (god of iron and war), (4) Olokun (god of the sea), (5) Olosa (goddess of the lagoon), (6) Oya (goddess of the river Niger), (7) Oshun (goddess of the river Oshun), (8) Oba (goddess of the river Oba), (9) Orisha Oko (god of agriculture), (10) Oshosi (god of hunters), (11) Oke (god of mountains), (12) Aje Shaluga (god of wealth), (13) Shankpanna (god of small-pox), (14) Orun (the sun), and (15) Oshu (the moon).[1] To commemorate this event, a town which was given the name of Ife (distention, enlargement, or swelling up), was built on the spot where Yemaja's body burst open, and became the holy city of the Yoruba-speaking tribes. The place where her body fell used to be shown, and probably still is; but the town was destroyed in 1882, in the war between the Ifes on the one hand and the Ibadans and Modakekes on the other. The myth of Yemaja thus accounts for the origin of several of the gods, by making them the grandchildren of Obatala and Odudua; but there are other gods, who [1. The order, according to some, was Olokun, Oloss, Shango, Oye, Oshun, Oba, Ogun, Dada, and the remainder as above.] do not belong to this family group, and whose genesis is not accounted for in any way. Two, at least, of the principal gods are in this category, and we therefore leave for the moment the minor deities who sprung from Yemaja, and proceed with the chief gods, irrespective of their origin.