In our year-long journey through the world’s religions, so far we’ve explored East and we’ve explored West. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism on the one hand; Islam, Judaism, and Christianity on the other. But now we take a look at a religion that escapes this neat scholarly divide of East and West. It’s also a religion that’s much older than all these others. Some anthropologists say that it’s been practiced for as many as eight thousand years, making it truly primal and aboriginal. Today we look at the Yoruba religion of West Africa and its many versions around the world: Candomble in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad and Tobago, the Ifa priesthood in Nigeria and the Americas. In all, there are between 75 and 100 million adherents of some version of Yoruba religion, placing it securely among the world’s top six global traditions. No less than this!
But now let me ask you: How many of you know about Yoruba religion? Ever studied it before?
So it’s time we got acquainted. If your ancestors came from Africa, you have a personal stake in wanting to know more—to reclaim your heritage. Or perhaps you or your family came from Brazil or Cuba or Venezuela or other countries infused by some version of Yoruba spirituality—this religion is part of who you are. And then, for all of us, whatever our cultural heritage may be, Yoruba religion offers a richly spiritualized example of our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle of the Interdependent Web of All Existence.
What connects us and interpenetrates us are the energies of divine beings known as Orisha, each with a unique identity and way; and then there’s the energies of our ancestors in spirit, the dead who are not dead but live with us still and connect us to our family past and family future. Richness and wisdom in this life consists in learning how to more consciously interact with this “ashe,” this energy, so that we as individuals and communities are put on the path of our destiny and we fulfill the purposes for which we were born. The religion is eight thousand years old, but it still speaks to us today.
Before we turn to Yoruba metaphysics, though, let’s look at a bit of the history. For here, too, we find something absolutely compelling. Tragedy and eventual triumph. How, over a period of roughly four hundred years, the Yoruba nation and Africa as a whole suffered under the brutal hand of the international slave trade. Up to 75 million human beings taken, torn from families and everything they knew and held dear, forced to cross the Atlantic in the dark bellies of ships, made to serve strange masters in the New World.
Just as in our story for today, in which we saw Eshu testing the two friends with his double-sided hat, here he comes again, the Trickster, the Orisha who serves a law beyond our knowing, this time to test the very heart and soul of the religion that honors his name, test its strengths and test its weaknesses. Would it be strong enough to survive the very worst?
And in fact it was strong enough. Says scholar Stephen Prothero, “Yoruba practitioners did what the Yoruba have been doing ever since their Orisha of iron, Ogun, forged a path for the gods from heaven to earth: they adapted to difficult circumstances with courage and creativity.”
While their masters absolutely forbid them to observe their religious traditions, Yoruba practitioners found a way to walk the fine line between obedience to the letter of the master’s law and loyalty to the deep call of the Spirit.
In primarily Catholic countries, like Brazil and Cuba, what this looked like was syncretism—the Yoruba religion married to Catholicism. After all, the similarities between them were striking. Stephen Prothero illustrates: “Both operate in a cosmos with a Supreme Being at the top, human beings at the bottom, and a host of specialized intermediaries in between facilitating communication and exchange across the divine/human divide. And while intellectuals in both speculate about the afterlife, each is heavily invested at the popular level in everyday life. It is not beneath the Orishas (or the saints) to care about our toothaches, our children, our promotions, or our lovers.” In this way was born Candomble and Umbanda and Macumba and Santeria, traditions which hid the Orishas out in the open. Olorun the Supreme Being became Jesus Christ, Ogun the Orisha of iron became Saint Peter, Eshu the Trickster became Saint Martin, and on and on—all the Orishas not lost in the horrors of the Middle Passage found an equivalent in Catholic saints. Nothing would stop the ancient traditions from continuing forward. Go to any botanica today, common in Latino communities here and elsewhere, and what you’ll find are religious candles and amulets that everywhere reflect Catholic imagery, but underneath are the undying spirits of the Yoruba Orishas.
On the other hand, in Protestant majority countries the way forward was more difficult. Lacking the saints and angels of Catholicism, Protestantism did not make a good marriage with Yoruba religion. Yet even then, “the African soul was not extinguished but simply transfigured to meet the Euro-social pressures under New World bondage.” That last sentence comes from Baba Ifa Karade, in his Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts. “The Africans,” he says, “maintained the ‘Africanness’ or religious being through spirituals; getting the holy ghost (a form of possession); shouting; speaking in tongues; intense preaching”—all forms of religiosity seen in many black protestant churches today. In these churches, worship is all about the full participation of every person, as far as possible. They are clapping and they are singing and they and dancing and grooving in the pews or elsewhere. Preacher says something, and people say all right, they say praise the lord, they say amen.
But the basic pattern of Yoruba worship is underneath all of it. It’s all about raising up ashe, moving it, channeling it. Yoruba worship invites the Orishas to come and manifest themselves personally, but if everyone’s not singing and everyone’s not clapping and dancing and getting into the spirit of things then the Orishas won’t come, and we don’t want that!
“No matter how far a river flows,” goes a Yoruba wisdom saying, “it never forgets its source.” And that has proven true. Yoruba religion has more than met Eshu’s test. It has survived and thrived. “No African group,” writes Yoruba scholar William Bascom, “has had greater influence in New World culture than the Yoruba.” Absolutely what we have here is a story of triumph overcoming the worst of tragedies. A great story, from a great world religion.
But now let’s turn to Yoruba metaphysics—its spiritualized vision of the Interdependent Web. Perhaps the best place to begin here is with this creation myth, which I’ve adapted from Tobe Melora Correal’s telling in her fantastic book Finding Soul on the Path of Orisha. Here’s the story:
In a time out of time, in the highest heavens, one day, Olorun, the Supreme Being of Yoruba religion, wanted to create all that is. So she went to her water pot, which was a gigantic pot, full to overflowing with divine water, water constantly overspilling the sides and yet always remaining full.
Olorun took that pot and tipped it over, and the divine water rushed out into the heavens. Olorun thought that this would begin the creation, get things started, but the first time She did this, the water ended up scorching the universe before anything had a chance to develop. The water from Her pot was simply too full of glory. It was just too hot.
It happened the first time, and it happened every time, until Olorun despaired of ever creating all that is. But then She remembered something. She remembered the existence of another water pot, slightly smaller, which she had made eons ago in a time out of time, and given to her eldest child, Olodumare. Immediately She sent for Olodumare to visit her, and when Olodumare came, She shared Her plans. “Olodumare,” said the Supreme Being Olorun, “when I pour out the water of my glory, stand right here and catch it in your pot. The water in your pot will combine with mine and cool it so that it’s just right for creation.” And that’s what they did. The combined waters of Olorun and Olodumare flooded the heavens, and because the temperature was just right, stars began to wink into existence, the creation began.
Now, in the time out of time, Olodumare had given birth to Her own children. So Olorun said to her, “Olodumare, I have another task for you. See that spot over there? I want you to create a place called Earth, with people on it, and each person with a special destiny for creating goodness and truth and beauty in their lives. This is what I want. So create this place called Earth. Give it the proper rhythms and cycles it needs to grow and develop. And share this great work with your children, the Orisha. Let them drink from the water which has cooled down in your pot, and then send them to Earth to pour it into everything. Let each one do it in his or her own unique way. Let Obatala pour the creative waters in simplicity. Let Orunmila pour it in harmony and stability. Let Oshun pour it in beauty and sensuality. Let Oya pour it in storms and hurricanes. Let Shango pour it in flamboyance. Let Yemoya pour it in maternal love. Let Eshu pour it in a way that tests and disrupts. Let each Orisha pour our creative waters into all nature and all life, in his or her own special way. So may the creation be rich, and diverse, and ongoing.” Thus spoke Olorun, and it was done.
To this day, Olodumare remains in the lower heavens, fulfilling her promise to Olorun, creating and taking care of life on Earth. Her children, the Orisha, still drink Olorun’s magic waters and still pour that magic into everything. Olorun, the Supreme Being and Source of All, still continues to oversee all from Her place in the highest heavens, and her water pot never stops, never stops overflowing.
That’s the story—and from it we can learn so much. That, first of all, spirit comes first, and matter is a manifestation of Olorun’s creative intention. Love holds everything together. Love is not the end result of millions of years of physical evolution but right at the beginning, and is why evolution got started to begin with. Love. Nothing more real that that.
Then there is the fascinating paradox of divine creation, the secret of it. Creation is not so much the coming into existence of something new but the mysterious cooling or contraction of Olorun’s ashe. The theme here echoes insights from other world religious traditions. For example, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, explaining Jewish wisdom teachings, says that “all the worlds—and indeed any separate realms of being—exist only by virtue of the fact that God makes Himself hidden. For when the divine plenty is manifested in its complete fullness there is no room for the existence of anything else. A world can exist only as a result of the concealment of its Creator.” That’s what he says. And it opens up a peculiar predicament, for sure. The proof of God’s existence is nothing but our own existence—the fact that anything exists at all. Yet in order for anything to exist, Olorun must cool down Her sacred waters, God must hide His face, and therefore it can be hard to find God—where is this God, we say—and in the end, because no good reasons for believing present themselves to us, we might end up denying God’s existence. The very condition of creation becomes a reason for denying the creator. Isn’t that something?
Olorun remains in the highest heaven, remote, distant; but Her creative waters are abundantly poured down by a succession of intermediaries: Olodumare and Her children, the Orishas. But now what or who exactly are these Orishas?
Fundamentally they are energy, they are ashe. But they are energy directed in certain ways, infusing nature and human life with order and pattern. Since all ashe has two aspects—a building up aspect and a breaking down aspect, a yin and a yang—each Orisha will manifest accordingly. Take the Orisha known as Oshun.
Here I’m quoting from Tobe Melora Correal. Oshun “manifests in the fresh waters of the river. In her creative aspect, she is present wherever life-sweetening activity exists: springtime, new love, dancing in the streets at carnival, laughter. In her destructive role, she is the vulture stalking the dying, devouring decaying flesh, and picking the bones of the dead.”
Tobe Melora Correal continues: “Though we may take greater pleasure in Oshun’s energy in its warm and inviting life-giving mode, Oshun in her guise as vulture is God working to keep balance in nature. In Yoruba tradition, we value all facets of Oshun’s personality, because the buzzard’s activity in the realm of death is as integral to life’s processes as the birth of a child.” That’s Tobe Melora Correal. In all this, perhaps you hear an echo coming from the mythologist Joseph Campbell, or from psychologist Carl Jung. For the Orishas are like archetypes of the collective unconscious. They function just like that, in nature and in human life. They are in our bodies, our dreams, our stories. They are the very structure of our human being and doing.
So it is imperative that we become more conscious of them in our lives. Part of it is simply a matter of living vitally and richly. If we are too fearful of the vulture and death, then Oshun’s other side of springtime and new love will have a hard time manifesting in our lives in a healthy way. Or take Eshu the trickster. Eshu will keep coming in and putting test after test in our way until we start paying attention.
Yoruba tradition teaches that, before we are born, each of us chooses a destiny to live out. We also choose a particular Orisha who will be like a guardian angel for us, who is most healing and balancing for that particular destiny. But then we are born. Then we endure the trials of life, and all of it can cause us to forget. We start to wear a mask. We get off track. Yoruba religion in all its forms would help us remember, and divination is one of the central ways to this. Think Tarot cards. Think I Ching. Yoruba diviners invoke the Orisha Oronmila, who knows the destiny of everyone, and in the end, the person coming for a reading is able to receive some clarity and guidance and make better choices.
Then there’s worship and ritual, which invokes the Orishas and invites them to show up personally. Music and dance are key here. The rhythm of the drums gives praise to the Orishas and also invokes their power. Each Orisha has its unique rhythm. For Obatala, it is slow and concentrated; for Ogun it is strong and rooted; for Yemoya it is like the tides of the ocean; for Oshun it is all gracefulness; for Shango it is like drawing lightning from the sky; for Oya it is like the whirlwind or hurricane; for Eshu it is all balance. “Through dance,” says Baba Ifa Karade, “spiritual forces materialize in the phenomenal world. The god is said to mount the devotee, and for a time, that devotee becomes the god….”
Joseph Campbell once made this comment, about the search for meaning in life. “People say that [that’s what we’re all seeking, but I don’t think so.] I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances without own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” And that, to me, sums up Yoruba spirituality perfectly. The rapture of being alive. The source is Olorun’s pot which overflows with ashe, and this ashe is given shape and form by the Orishas, who live in our midst and touch our lives in countless ways. Nowhere in the interdependent web of all existence is there an absence of aliveness. No one ever need feel alone or bereft in this universe of love. Tested in the worst way, with 400 years of slavery, Yoruba religion stayed strong and proved that its message was not a flash in the pan. Whatever your beliefs about God and the spirit, know that there’s power here. There’s something happening here. Rapture of being alive.