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Yoruba Traditional Religion



The cosmological realms in Yoruba land are the Sky, world and underworld. The sky entails the 'super-sensible world' or metaphysical realm including heaven. This is the abode of God, divinities and nature spirits (sky and earth spirits). The world is the abode of humans while the underworld is the abode of the ancestors (long or recent dead human spirits). Reality of pre-Islam, Christian and colonial Yoruba religion shows that the five elements of African religion (God, divinities, spirits, ancestors, and magic/medicine) are saturated with religious culture. On the other hand, the theogony consists of three relationships. The first relationship is the relationship between God and humans, the second is that between God and divinities; and the third is that between divinities and humans.

The super-sensible world, in African cosmogony, is composed of as well as constituted by five elements namely the Supreme Being, divinities, spirits, ancestors, and magic/medicine. Unlike Christianity or Islam whose faith perspective is centred on Jesus Christ or Mohammed (PBUH), African faith perspective is constituted by the afore-mentioned five components. Belief or faith in the super-sensible world is a vertical relationship (experience of religion) whereas establishing and maintaining cordial relation with one's neighbours is horizontal relationship (expression of religion). Nabofa declared that "the two most essential elements of religion are the experience of religion (faith) and the overt expression of that experience (human actions).

Nabofa stated that an understanding of these two elements easily enables us to appreciate more fully the relationship between religion and culture. Put differently, religious experience is expressed via human actions. In mathematical terms, African religion= faith (in God, divinities, spirits, ancestors and magic/medicine) + actions (religio-culturally expressed). African man experiences these five elements (which is faith in theory) as well as expresses them (which is faith in practice). The plus (+) in the formula indicates interdependence or interpenetration of faith and actions/works to produce true religion. (In biblical parlance, Religion= Faith + Works).

Faith is intangible experience of the supernatural whereas works are tangible expression of faith. The Divine predicate is just but an abstract form of human predicate. For instance, the buildings of church, mosque or shrine are tangible expressions of an intangible faith experience. Similarly, most our cultural actions/variables have religious background, coloration, undertone, underpinning. Our actions convey messages and ideas about our religious experience. Our ideas, values and habits are dominated by religious doctrines. This analysis proves the interface, interlock and interactions between religion and culture. Both faith and works (vertical and horizontal relationships) are essence of religion. Moreover, religion obeys the law of universality (present in all places) and relativity (changing from place to place). Hence, there are no such things as essence and accidents in religion-culture relationship.


Religion is innate, instinctive and habitual in Africa. In Africa, we are religious by nature but nurtured by culture. Africans are religiously oriented in everything they do. Religion is never left out of anything done by the African-birth marriage, farming, trading, fishing, hunting, travelling, holding meeting or conference, learning examination, looking for employment, resting, drinking, going out, jubilation, and mourning. This is why it is often said that in Africa, religion permeates life and the totality of culture.

In Africa, religion is more of a communal activity than individual affair because life in original traditional Africa setting is not an individual venture; everyone is his brother's keeper. Law making and administration are closely related to religion. Economic activities are also closely related to religious activities. The various traditional festivals and other cultural activities are also religiously oriented. Nabofa asserts that without religious activities, life in Africa would become a stand-still; everything would become moribund, the society, including all the individual members, would be little better than a huge corpse.

There is no Orisa in Yoruba land who is not associated with certain morality which adherents must observe. In pre-Islam, Christian and colonial Yoruba land, the fear of the Orisa is the beginning of wisdom. Morality and all code of conduct are believed to be jealously guarded by the ancestors and ethical divinities like Obatala, Orunmila, Oduduwa, Ogun, Esu, Sango, Osun, Oya, Olu-orogbo (Ela), Akire, Idugbe (Atcko or Orisa-oko), among others, who require certain morality from their followers/worshippers. For instance, there are Ten Commandments for Obatala worshippers, which are represented by each of the ten pillars in Obatala palace/temple in Ile-Ife.

Human relating to Orisa and Orisa relating to Olodumare is not just cultural but religio-cultural because nothing is free from religious colouration in Africa. Religion rather than culture drives such relationship. The divinities (primordial and deified personalities), nature spirits (associated with sky and earth) and ancestors (long and recent dead) are both worship and revered religiously to a greater or lesser extent on the continent of Africa, notwithstanding religious change due to the influence of foreign Abrahamic religions (Islam and Christianity), colonialism, western education and other agents of socio-cultural change.

In pre-Islamic, Christian and colonial times, Yoruba society comprises two main religious groups: religious worshippers/patronisers, and functionaries/leaders. In post Islamic, Christian and colonial era, Yoruba society is fragmented into the following three main religious groups Muslims. Christians, traditionalists. It is also possible to have a Yoruba person who doubles as Muslim cum traditionalist or Christian cum traditionalist.



Although they exist in different conflicting models, Yoruba cosmogonic myth of creation reject monogenism, that is, the theory that humans descend from a single pair who we name "Adam" and "Eve" but upholds polygenism (the theory that humans did not descend from a single pair who we name "Adam" and "Eve"). The descent of our entire species is not from one set of parents but several breeding pairs whose population is estimated to be between 3,000 and 10,000. Backing this Ogunade, using Yoruba myth of creation, identified two set of human beings the first set consists of 16 human beings directly created by Olodumare in heaven; the second set were those created by Orisa-nla on earth, using the sand.

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Moreover, Yoruba myth confirms that humans misused their freewill, which not only make life complex but also brought a great gap between sky (heaven) and earth. Before then, the closeness of the sky heaven to the earth was such that people could touch it. But that this sin could be called Original sin (in Christian theological concept) is highly disputable. As far as myths are concerned, the only consequence of human's 'sin' is wide separation between sky and earth. It does not alter human nature: does not make generations born and unborn sinful and thus needing Jesus Christ's sacrificial blood for their redemption; and does not qualify one for eternal doom in the so-called hell fire.

There are three divinities namely primordial, deified and nature divinities. The primordial existed with Olodumare and were specially created by Him. They came to live on earth as men and on accomplishing their missions returned to Olodumare. On the other hand, deified divinities and nature divinities are essentially nature spirits, which are personification of natural objects and forces of the sky (rainbow, stars, wind, thunder, lightning, rain, etc) and earth (hills, mountains, forest, birds, diseases, rivers, animals. etc).

Primordial divinities were spiritual beings emanated from Olodumare but have human bodies. According to myths, the (divinities) used to visit the earth to play and hunt. They came from the heavens by walking on spider’s web, which served as bridge. Then, the earth was a watery and marshy waste. To make the earth more conducive for their habitation, Olodumare commissioned Orisa-nla to structure the earth. There are three phases of creation in Yoruba myth: the formation of solid earth from watery and marshy waste, the equipment of the earth (creation of plant and animal kingdom), and creation of human beings (which is also in two phases as indicated earlier). The 401 divinities descended to inhabit the earth immediately after the completion of the first phase (formation of solid earth). Hence, primordial divinities did not come to earth because man has sinned.



Cyclical eschatology is not the feature of African religion alone: it is also present in world religions like Hinduism or Buddhism that emphasis a cycle of birth and rebirth or Nirvana. At decay, while the soul (which is imperishable) continues to live on in the spiritual calm (the underworld). The souls of the righteous go to enjoy eternal bliss with the ancestors in the underworld). The wicked souls become wandering spirits here on earth. Africans strongly believe in the rebirth of all good departed soul personalities. While the just are reincarnated into the same family, the wandering spirits forfeit this opportunity. This is cyclical eschatology.


There are recent calculated attempt by some school of thought to detach magic/medicine from religion, thus disproving the conceptual schemes of African religion consisting of God, divinities, spirits, ancestors, and magic/medicine. Scholars belonging to this school of thought contend that there is nothing religious about African traditional magic/medicine. Hence, traditional magic/medicine should be removed from the sphere of religions into the sphere of culture. This contention, by new perspective school of thought negates reality. The reality is that traditional magic/medicine also grew out of indigenous religions, and is infused to a greater or lesser degree with the supernatural.

Science, and all other package of culture grew out of religion. Also, western medicine grew out of western religious experiences and experience is one of the three sources of natural meaning. There are claims of experiences flowing from inspiration, revelation, trance and dreams. Are inspiration, revelation, trance and dreams culnatal experience? What are inspiration, revelation, trance and dreams, if not religious experiences? They are religious experiences. Thus, we can conclude that traditional medicine flowed from religious experiences.

Myth itself is another proof of the interface, interlock and interaction of religion with traditional medicine. In Yoruba cosmogony, myth is not necessarily false, it is used to convey reality. The fact remains that African traditional medicine is both natural (scientific, or cultural) and supernatural (spiritual, or religious). Moreover, plants or herbs, animals and even mankind in Yoruba worldview have both natural and supernatural powers. The reality is that the so-called natural meanings of plants/herbs have religious underpinning. This is because everything about the Yoruba is both scientific and religious. There is always a mixture of science and spirituality in their day-to-day activities.

For instance, personnel involved in magic/medicine in Yoruba land include Babalawo, Adahunse and Onisegun ibile. Babalawo is one who consults oracles such as Ifa for knowledge about the past, present or future. Ifa divination is usually in forms of diagnosis or vote-taking which in turn usually involve prescription and offering of sacrifice for all sorts of purposes including (spiritual) healing. Adahunse (one who possess the power to do things independently) is a mystic who possesses the power, for instance to give children to barren families. Onitegun ibile is a medicine maker for healing from natural sickness and from infections of malevolent witches. Evidently, the operations of these personnel are both natural (science) and non-natural (religion).



Witches are grouped with humans as belonging to this world. But the truth is that witchcraft is a spiritual phenomenon whose realm should be located within the realm of nature spirits. The activities of witches, sorcerers and magician are not merely cultural. Witchcraft, sorcery and magic are primarily supernatural phenomena, hence, anything in which the supernatural/spiritual is brought to bear is religious. Hence, rituals, libation, and sacrifices (to a greater or lesser extent) are also religious activities, though clothed in cultural garb.

That the authors failed to recognise witchcraft or witches as primarily a religious phenomenon is an unpardonable mistake on the part of a scholar of African Religion and Belief System. To him, aye or witches are ministering forces (p.39), and thus they are cultural phenomenon. This is another half-truth. It is noteworthy that the efficacies of some plants are in connection with witches. Are the chemical components of the plants the only things that make them efficacies against witchcraft's attacks? The complete truth is that witches are repelled by natural and supernatural powers of certain plants/herbs. The supernatural is always a complement of the natural in traditional magic/medicine. In original African worldview, matter (anything that has weigh and occupies space) possesses both natural and supernatural intelligence. The correct reality is that witches are spiritual/religious phenomenon; and religion cannot be totally divorced from African magic and medicine.

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