|Some Yoruba Deities, Their Greco-Roman (G-R) parallels and Catholic masks|


Any discussion of this subject must begin with Eleggua since He is the Deity Who is opportunity, beginnings, the open road. He is honored at the beginning of any ceremony and at the beginning of every week so that the doors will open and the road will be smooth. In Yorubaland His shrines are located at the door of the compound and are often found at cross roads. He is parallel with the G-R Deity Hermes or Mercury Whose shrines were erected at cross roads so that the commerce of the civilization could move easily. Eleggua was often masked with the Catholic statue Nino de Atocha (who has nothing to do with the shipwreck). The iconography of the statue are elements of the myths of Eleggua: a staff and gourd, a little basket with goodies in it (Eleggua is fond of candy), and a feather in his hat.


Ochun is often referred to as the African Venus. She is the Orisha of conjugal love, marriage, food, the stomach, pregnancy, gold, money, objects of brass and copper, lovely fans and children. She is very fond of dancing, music and loves to drink champagne. She can be very flirtatious. She is syncretized with the statue of La Caridad de Cobre Who is the Patroness of Cuba and whose statue was miraculously found in the ocean off the coast of the city of Cobre - a copper mining town - where Her shrine glistens with gold and copper ex votos from grateful women who successfully sought the help of La Caridad in finding a husband or getting pregnant. The little dark wood statue is most often clothed in cloth of gold dresses and has a baby in Her hands.


Her Yoruba name means The Mother of the Fishes. She is the Orisha of the Ocean and the Moon which influences it. Her G-R parallel may be seen in Demeter, Magna Mater or Vesta. She nurtures and fosters all living things and in some myths is the Mother of fourteen Orisha. She is a dark, large and sweet natured woman, forgiving much but irresistable when angered - Madam Tsunami Herself. She is most often masked with the statue of Our Lady of Regla. The shrine of Regla is the last thing Spanish sailors could see on the European mainland as they passed the Straits of Gibraltar. The statue of O.L. of Regla is of a full figured woman, holding a child, dressed in a frilly skirt - the foam of the waves - wearing a blue cape and standing on the crescent Moon. Regla is one of several European Black Madonnas.


The Orisha Who is the creator of the various elements of civilization: the hoe, knife, anvil, hammer, awl, pick, plow is Oggun. He is the Blacksmith and his G-R parallel is Vulcan. Oggun is the perfectly unself conscious, strong, blue collar working man. He is very sweet and cooperative until enraged and very attractive because of His unselfconscious strength and magnetism. He is syncretized with the Catholic St. Peter who is most often depicted holding two huge metal keys and a rooster at his feet - Oggun is fond of roosters as sacrifices. He is a brilliant and triumphant warrior.


Shango is the Archetype of masculine potentiality at it basic and most rampant. He is a charming and delightful young man who flirts and seduces and is so charming that he is loved by everyone. He is the King of the Drummers and plays so well that none can resist his call to dance. When the Lightning falls straight from the thunderhead clouds to the earth it is Shango hurling bolts towards the earth so that His followers will know that He is still alive. He generates the lightning bolts in a mortar which is full of primordial Fire. As the Orisha of Fire and Lightning He is also the Orisha of War. His G-R parallel is, obviously, Mars. His Catholic mask is not so obvious: St. Barbara. The third century Christian martyr and virgin; the young girl who died rather than submit to the amorous advances of a Roman lothario has become syncretized with Shango. Iconographically, it is not as far fetched as it seems: St. Barbara is depicted with a sword- lightning bolt - and the palm of martyrdom - Shango's sacred tree - in one hand and a chalice - mortar - in the other. She is shown standing in front of a miniature tower - thunderhead - where her father imprisoned her before her martyrdom.


The Creator of the Earth, the One Who pushed the ocean back and established the dry land is Obatala. He is the Elder Orisha because He accomplished these things and organized the Orisha into a civilization on the Earth at the Yoruba city of Ife'. "Oba" in Yoruba means "King" and "tala" means "whiteness". Obatala always wears white clothing and is often depicted as an old man. His G-R parallel is Zeus/ Jupiter Optimo et Bono Who destroyed the Titans and established the reign of the Gods on earth. The statue of the Zeus in His Temple at Olympus was made of ivory plates perfectly fitted over a frame. He is syncretized as Our Lady of Mercy who is shown always dressed in white and often holding a pair of handcuffs which are unlocked. As the Elder Orisha, if you are ever in trouble, He will help you and set things rights.


The Buffalo Woman who grows a red beard when She goes into battle and whose lightning bolts run horizontally across the sky is Oya! She is the Queen of War. She is the most passionate and splendid lover of Shango. When the storm rages, the thunder rolls and the winds bellow She and He are passing over head and making love. The tornadic winds which hop skip and jump across the plain tracing random patterns of terrible destruction/ making way for new creation are her work when psyched out. She is the Orisha who brings change which, if resisted, results in destruction. As such, She is associated with the gates of the Cemetery which She is said to "own". Her G-R parallel is Hecate and, in some of Her aspects, Athena the Warrior the Berserker Woman. Her Catholic syncretization is La Candelaria: A statue of the Virgin depicted with a huge candle and wearing a blood red cape heavily embroidered with flowers. Candles, flowers are associated with the dead and burials and the color deep red is reminiscent of blood which is freely spilt in war and associated with other expressions of death.

These are only a few of the Yoruba Orisha. The word "Orisha" means "ori" head "sha" owner. Each individual is believed to have an Deity Who "owns" her head. In Catholicism this is approximate to the concept of the Guardian Angel. More later.

The language of the Yoruba people. It is related to other languages of southern Nigeria, foremost Igbo, and has traditionally been classified in the Kwa family, which includes the main Akan languages of Ghana to the west. But the Yoruba-Igbo group might in fact belong with the Benue-Congo family to the east, whose main branch is Bantu.

Yoruba has eleven vowels. A dot under the letters e and o indicates a mid-low pronunciation (as in bear, saw). An n after a vowel makes it nasalized: there are four nasal vowels an e.n in un.

There are three essential tones, high, mid, and low. High tone is indicated by an acute and low tone by a grave; but tone marks are not normally written. The name of the language is Yorùbá. The name of Lagos is Èkó. The tones also interact with each other phonetically and grammatically.

The letter s. (s with a dot under it) is like English sh: as in Sade and Wole Soyinka. Yoruba also has the common West African labiovelar sounds, KP and GB pronounced simultaneously: with the tongue in the back of the throat for K or G, but with the lips closed for P or B. Yoruba has an ordinary b as well as gb, but it doesn't have an ordinary P, so the KP sound is written p.

Almost all nouns begin with a vowel.

Adjectives generally derive from verbs or nouns. Where there is an adjectival verb, such as ga 'be high', korò 'be bitter', the dependent form is made by (usually) a reduplicative prefix with í: ó korò 'it is bitter', omi kíkorò 'bitter water'.

An adjective can be derived from a noun with 'have, with': kókó 'lump', ó ní kókó 'it is lumpy'. This assimilates to a vowel: irun 'hair', ó nírun 'it is hairy'; and with all other vowels the n becomes l: agbára 'strength', ó lágbára 'it is strong'.

Verbal sentences start out easy -- ó nírun jù 'it is too hairy', ó nírun tó 'it is hairy enough', ó nírun púpò. 'it is very hairy' -- but seem to run into a formidable array of aspect and topic marking. I have never managed to stray beyond the first few chapters of Teach Yourself Yoruba.

The second person singular is a familiar tu form: the plural is used for respect, as in European languages.

The numerals are complicated. The basic forms of the numbers one to ten are ení èjì è.ta è.rin àrún è.fà èje è.jo. è.sán è.wá. These are used for counting. A series beginning with m and a change to high first tone are used for totals; another series with a reduplicated initial vowel at mid tone is for counting cowries, the former money, and is still used in set expressions and for teaching. After that it gets complicated.

Yoruba is one of several major West-African languages including Ibo and Edo that have existed along the region's tropical belt for at least 4,000 years. It is spoken by approximately 30 million people. The language's influence is detectable among the African Diaspora in various places around the world including Brazil, Cuba and some Caribbean islands where Creoles with a decidedly West-African bent are spoken. There are several markedly different dialects that are mutually intelligible for the most part though these are gradually giving way to a single, standard, more modern form.

Counting higher than 10 in Yoruba is actually easy because it follows a predetermined formula. One to ten reads as follows, okan (or eni), eji, eta, erin, arun, efa, eje, ejo, esan, ewa. Din, with a nasal n, means less or short while le, with the e ending pronounced -ay means more. Now, with 20 being ogun, 19 becomes 20 less 1 or mokan din l'ogun (verbal shorthand for mokan din ni ogun). 21 reads mokan le l'ogun or 20 and 1. So...

16-merin din l'ogun (20 less 4) 18-meji din l'ogun (20 less 2) 23-meta le l'ogun (20 and 3) 25-marun le l'ogun (20 and 5)

The switch from le to din occurs after 15, 25, 35 etc. There are 5 easy exceptions to this formula; 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 are mokanla, mejila, metala, merinla and marunla respectively. Why this is so, I know not.

The people of the Yoruba group, of which there are more than 25 million fall within the boundaries of the nation of Nigeria in present day. Famed for being the main slaving region, the area and its peoples would play a major role in defining the world; both because they were the main market for slaves and because so many of its own people became slaves themselves.

Establishing direct evidence of when cities were founded and the line of cultures in many African regions is a very unlikely thing, and it is the same here. We know that the Yoruba people’s great cities of Ife and Benin had been inhabited since at least the end of the first millennia AD, but we are not sure just when they were first founded. The Yoruba though, have always been a dominate culture on the west bank of the Niger River. They absorbed many waves of migration and invasion over the millennia but maintained a distinct group mainly because of their link to the city of Ife, the Yoruba religious center.

Yoruba cities began to fully develop from tribal cultures around the first millennia AD, when the villages (ile) surrounding Ife began to take on a culture of their own. Patrilineal descent would be established in these areas and over time, the villages developed in small scale city-states where the clans lost influence to the new more powerful regional chieftains. The Yoruba civilization that would develop a highly social and urban society during this time, which was characterized by outstanding terracotta and ivory sculptures, as well as advanced metal working. In fact, Yoruba copper was highly developed and the trade that brought the tin and zinc from North Africa or the Sahara bespoke of a developed system of trade.

Ife, though it would be the first city of the Yoruba, never developed into a kingdom or any real dominion; it remained the holy city of the people and retained a distinct control over any other Yoruba cities. The true kingdoms of Ife would develop in the surrounding areas. Among these are the city-states of Oyo, Benin and Yagha, which over time would develop into actual kingdoms.

The peoples of the Yoruba during this time, and actually for much of history, considered themselves distinct from other Yoruba peoples. That is, the people of Oyo saw those of Benin and Yagha as different, as those from Benin saw people from Oyo and Yagha as different. Thus it was that wars between Yoruba peoples were as common as those against other peoples.

Typically, Yoruba nations were basically city-states. Most nations began as cities and the farmland that surrounded them and then grew with time or were absorbed. Both Oyo and Benin are said to have been directly created by Ifa rulers or descendents of Ifa rulers. Benin itself inherited much from Ife, including its caste system, religious ideas and a thriving copper industry.

The Yoruba peoples to this day are the majority of what makes of the African descent populations of the Americas. Because the slave trade was largest out of Oyo and Dahomey and the constant warring between Yoruba peoples, this served to make the Yoruba’s the primary enslaved peoples. Thus the Yorubas. their culture and religious practices can be seen in many places in the Americas, including places like Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and Trinidad where the practices of the Yoruba are still quite visible to be seen today. Haiti’s Yorubas, in fact, were known as Anagos and their beliefs and practices are a major part of Haiti to this day.

The Yoruba heritage was mostly forgotten in the US due to the slaveholder’s tendency to make practicing the old customs a punishable offense. Many times the punishment for this was death. The new age of Yoruba beliefs have risen, in the US, in the last century due to the influx of Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants to the US. The most common form, Santeria, is a mix of Yoruba beliefs and Catholicism and brings the Ifa deities, music, dances and rites with it.


For a detailed pantheon, please see Abandahara’s w/u above.

The most important aspect of the Yoruba religion was how it defined the area’s society. The pantheon was headed by the god Olorun and each performed a specific task. Some of the gods/goddesses where believed to have once been mortal.

The most important of the gods to the development of Yoruba society was Oduduwa. Oduduwa was seen as the founder of the city of Ife, when he created the first dry land on the site of the city, and thus as the direct ancestor of the kings of Ife. Myths of the Yoruba state that Oduduwa, while ruling over Ife, dispatched his sons to rule other cities that they founded. This led to the ability for each city’s king to be able to claim heavenly descent and also allowed Ife to claim the ultimate of heavenly descent and thus their role as the religious city for all of Yoruba land.

The Yoruba did not claim one specific form of their religion. Indeed, during Ife’s heyday, Ife was home to more than 400 cults, all of the lorded over by the king (oni) of the city. The king of Ife, as well as being the religious leader was able to levy trade taxes, claim tithes as his right as religious leader and gain income from dependent cities. The oni himself was typically not directly hereditary in succession, but rather a voted official from the royal family. Once elected, he would disappear from public view and the country would be run by the various officials.

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