Yoruba Overview

The Yoruba Lukumi religious belief system espouses that Olodumare (owe-low-DOO-mah-RAY), or God, manifests in Creation. That Creation consists of humanity collectively, and nature. God is far too vast, expansive, and powerful for any one of us individually to understand completely. Human beings are not equipped physically or spiritually to handle the divine spiritual energy, or ase (ah-SHAY) that God manifests, in its entirety. So, God is best understood through the individual orisha (owe-REE-shah), who are emissaries of God, and the lessons they impart. These lessons are imparted through our relationships with one another, and nature. Olodumare is like a multi-faceted diamond. Each orisha represents one of Olodumare’s many facets. By applying the lessons we learn from the orisha to our relationships, we can begin to understand the fullness of God and Creation.

Each orisha, and the ase Olodumare endows them with, represents an aspect of God in nature, as well as an aspect of the human psyche, and each orisha connects us individually to God spiritually through nature. Each of us has an ori (owe-REE), akin to the Christian concept of the soul, which holds our destiny. The ori is like a mini, personal orisha who never leaves us. The ori is spiritually connected to one of the major orisha, who is assigned to us to be our “crown” or head spiritual guardian. That orisha, in turn, is spiritually linked to God. So, we are spiritually connected to God through our ori, our orisha, and nature. In order to begin to understand God, therefore, one must study nature. There are many orisha, and each has attributes that trigger or activate their God-given, divine ase, including elements of nature, colors and numbers.  The major orisha include Orunmila (owe-ROON-mee-LAH), Eleggua (eh-LEH-gwa), Obatala (owe-BATA-lah), Yemoja (yeh-moe-JAH), Ogun (owe-GOON), Shango (SHONG-go), Oya (awe-YAH), and Oshun (owe-SHOON).

Orishas are not God.  They are also not gods.  They are orisha.  There is no word for them in the English language.  Orishas are at once God’s messengers and reflections of aspects of God’s ase, who exist purely as ase. Orisha energy may manifest in ways that we describe as “masculine” or “feminine.” Orishas may have attributes that we associate with people, but they are not people. They are divine spiritual emissaries, and teachers. The orisha each have individual names and characteristics that symbolize the aspect of God they represent.

Hence, the aspect of God that is maternal, mothering and life sustaining manifests in the natural world as the ocean, where all life on earth came from, and which symbolizes the vastness and power of maternal love as a result. This life sustaining element is considered by the Yoruba to be feminine, and is represented by the orisha Yemoja, who is the orisha of motherhood, childbearing, the vastness of life, and a deep all-encompassing love for mankind. Yemoja’s symbols include the ocean, the moon which affects the tides,  the number seven, like the seven seas, and the colors blue and white, which are the colors of the ocean.

The aspect of God that represents sudden change and upheaval manifests in the wind. The wind is the element of the orisha Oya.  Oya is another feminine energy who symbolizes rebirth and sudden cataclysmic change in life and in nature.  Oya is reflected in the number nine, earth tones, and wind storms, among other things. The wind can be gentle like a breeze, or powerful like a hurricane.  And just like a hurricane can destroy things and force us to clean up whatever mess, debris and damage is left behind, so too  Oya represents the things that happen to us which may be difficult and tumultuous, but which also clear the way for us to make new beginnings.

Orunmila is the orisha of divine consultation. He is the prophet of the religion who ascended to heaven without dying. His is a masculine ase, and he is the orisha who witnesses each person’s destiny before our ori (owe-REE), or soul comes to earth. Before we are born, our ori stands before Olodumare, with Orunmila as a witness and chooses the destiny we want to have on earth: who we will be born to, where we will be born, and what kind of life we will lead. Because he is the witness to each person’s destiny, Orunmila is the orisha who we turn to for assistance with bringing balance into our lives through the manifestation of our destiny on earth. He is also the orisha we turn to for help if we decide we would like to change our destiny. After our ori chooses and accepts its destiny in heaven, it travels to earth to manifest physically through the process of birth, as a human being. During the process of the transition from the spiritual realm to physical manifestation on earth, our ori loses track of its destiny. Orunmila reminds us of our destiny when we consult him for advice. The way Orunmila does this is through a system of divine consultation known as “Ifa” (ee-FAH). Priests of Orunmila, called babalawos (baba LAH woes), are given the ase and training that is necessary to consult Orunmila after they have been initiated to his sacred order. There are many methods of divine consultation in the Yoruba religion that allow priests of the various orisha to tap into the divine energy that reveals the truth about an individual’s destiny. Ifa is the collective name for these methods. Ifa is also a name for the Yoruba religion. Orunmila’s colors are gold and green, and his number is 16.

Eleggua is the Divine Messenger of the orisha. He is the orisha of communication, who takes messages from humanity to the orisha, and vice versa. Eleggua is propitiated first in religious ceremonies because of the important role he plays as the messenger to the orisha. He can be a trickster, and uses drama and confusion to teach people lessons. His natural element is the crossroads. He is the holder of ase. His colors are red and black and his numbers are 3 and 21.

Obatala is the father of the orisha. He is the oldest of the orisha and holds a place of special reverence as a result. He is the orisha who was charged by Olodumare with the task of creating humanity’s form, and placing soil on the earth. His name means “King of the white cloth” oba (king) tala (white cloth). His ashe manifests wisdom, purity morality, strategy, high intelligence, and peace-making. His color is white and his number is 8.

Ogun is the warrior of the orisha. He is the orisha of iron, war, courage, strength, justice, oaths, stability, protection and transportation. He is the creator of civilizations, the black smith, the path-maker, and the executioner. He is associated with rum and tobacco.  His ase can be found in forests and trees. His number is 7 and his colors are green and black.

Oshun is the youngest of the orisha. She is also the most beautiful. Oshun’s ashe represents sensuality, love, beauty, graciousness, grace, money, luxury, and the arts.  She is associated with gold, brass, oranges, pumpkins and cowrie shells. Her natural element is rivers, and places with fresh water, such as waterfalls and ponds. Her number is five and her colors are yellow, orange, gold and brass.

Shango is the king of the orisha. He is very masculine, and loves to dance. He is associated with drums, virility, masculinity, business, fire, lightning, and magnetism. He is a great warrior. His colors are red and white. His number is 6.

In addition to the orisha, another important component of Yoruba religion is eggun, or the communal spirit of the ancestors.  It is eggun that blesses us, and opens the way for the orisha to work in our lives. Because eggun are familiar with life on earth, it is eggun that is the arbiter and judge of humanity. When we do wrong, it is eggun who punishes us. When we do good, it is eggun who opens the way for blessings to come to us through the orisha and our ori. Eggun is therefore essential to our lives, and must always be respected.