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Monday, October 19, 2009

The African Yoruba Religion and its Influence on The New World

The following talk was presented at Palm Beach Community College:

I will be reviewing Yoruba religious concepts presented in The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts by Baba Ifa Karade. I also use as additional reference Harvey Cox’s Fire from Heaven as well as numerous anthropological studies about the Yoruba religion in The New World.

The Yorubas are an African people whose empire until the nineteenth century was centered in western Africa where Nigeria is today. From the Yoruba nation came the largest percentage of the millions of Africans forcibly transported across the Atlantic in the slave trade. This diaspora brought with it a Yoruba culture that came to dominate the subculture of the slave societies in The New World, with an important distinction in the way this occurred in Protestant versus Catholic countries. Catholicism, as I will discuss later, lent itself to being used as a covert front for the ongoing practice of their Yoruba religion by the slaves. In the U.S., this proved more difficult, but aspects of Yoruba worship entered the Protestant religious practices of African Americans.

Today, the Yoruba religion, called Ifa, is practiced not only in its original form, but also in its syncretized form, i.e. in a blend of Catholicism and Ifa. The original form of Ifa is practiced today primarily in Africa, though a small number of African Americans have recently also started practicing it here. In Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, and other Latin American countries, the religion is practiced by substantial numbers in its syncretized form. Immigrants from these countries to the U.S. also practice the syncretized Yoruba religion here.

The influence of this African religion, however, does not end there. The roots of the ecstatic form of worship of today’s fastest-growing religion may also be traced back to the Yorubas. This new religion, which began about 100 years ago in the U.S. and which now numbers more than half a billion people worldwide, is growing at 20 million per year. It already comprises the largest non-Catholic Christian denomination. I’m talking about Pentecostalism, which Harvard professor Harvey Cox says is taking the world like “a spiritual hurricane.”

So what is the Yoruba religion? What are its origins and what are its beliefs and practices, both in original and in syncretized form?

“The origins of the people and culture known as the Yoruba are so wrapped in antiquity that to say exactly where and when it all began is impossible.” [B. I. Karade, p. 1] The oral tradition of the Yorubas maintains that they are practicing the original religion of humans on earth. We also know from their oral accounts that the Yorubas are thought to have lived in antiquity in the mid-Nile region or what is now knowm as Egypt. They then migrated west across Africa sometime between 2000 and 500 BCE to the area now known as Nigeria. Their religion came with them.

That religion, Ifa, embraces the concept of a single supreme god, called Oludumare. This god is believed to have created angels, called orishas, who are emanations of the One Source and whom Oludumare sent to Earth to assist in the spiritual evolution of humankind. In addition to the angelic forces, there are also demonic beings, the ajogun, who are forces whose destructive intent is to waylay the evolution of humankind’s salvation. Finally, the Yorubas believe in the egun. ancestral entities who after having distinguished themselves on the moral plane while on Earth are now guardian spirits. They are held up as models for the living to emulate and have left behind a set of codes for social conduct and individual behavior. These ancestral beings are also believed to reincarnate.

The Yoruba belief in reincarnation is not the Hindu belief of reliving on and on through karma, but one of a constant reliving of morals and values. In fact, reincarnation of good ancestral souls is desired because by returning to Earth, they strengthen the lives and spirits of their descendants. And this leads to another of the Yoruba central concepts, that the family and community take precedence over the individual.

The Yorubas also believe that when Earth was very young, sixteen heavenly prophets, called The Ancients or The Elders, were sent here by the Heavenly Council. Their mission was to elevate the consciousness of the people on Earth. These sixteen prophets also revealed themselves later to a Yoruba man, Orunmila, who is thought to have lived sometime between 4000 and 2000 BCE; that is, while the Yorubas were still in the Nile area. Born of humble parents, Orunmilla became the great spiritual teacher of his people and is now considered by them to be a deified person, comparable to the Son of God in that he is both human and divine. Orunmilla reformulated for his people a system of ethics, religious beliefs, and mystic vision that had already existed eons before his birth.

What are these teachings? In addition to the belief in a single deity with multiple angels, they include beliefs in:

· an earthly versus heavenly consciousness.
· that humans have the means and potential to reach alignment with the divine and reach a state of divine oneness,
· that the endeavor to reach the divine is arduous but that it is our destiny to return to our divine nature and live upon the Earth as a reflection of that divine state,
· and that this destiny can be fulfilled by following a system of moral ethics, by practicing certain rituals and sacrifices, and by divination.

I will speak of the divinatory, ritualistic, and sacrificial elements of the Yoruba religion later. For now, I will focus on its code of moral ethics. Handed down orally from The Elders is a body or work containing over 439,000 verses which express religious life through mythological, historical, and social development terms. It is the job of the Yoruba priests (who are both male and female) to learn and apply this knowledge and wisdom to facilitate transcendence and salvation for spiritual seekers. One example of these verses is the following:

No matter how powerful wickedness is, righteousness overcomes it in the end. The power of falsehood is transient and ephemeral. Truth although seemingly slow and weak overcomes falsehood in the end.

In addition, handed down from their revered ancestors is the Yoruba equivalent of the Jewish Ten Commandments, except that theirs are thirteen in number.

There is to be no:
1. no practice of wickedness.
2. no stealing.
3. no selfishness.
4. no covenant breaking or falsehood.
5. no hypocrisy.
6. no act of atrocity committed against one’s neighbors.

There is to be:
7. honor and respect to the Elders.
8. protection of the women.
9. truthfulness and uprighteousness.
10. kindness and generosity.
11. sensitivity in respect to person-to-person relationships.
12. chastity in respect to the vows of mates.
13. hospitable directives.

Prayer is also an essential aspect of Yoruba worship. It is done for three reasons: supplication, purification, and elevation of base human qualities. Prayers are often sung or chanted in rhythm or harmony with music. The setting can include candles, incense, water in bowls, and fruits.

Ritual music and dances are also a defining aspect of this religion. Much of the ritual revolves around the belief in the orishas. In some ways, these resemble the angels of our Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture, but they can also be called lesser gods who form a bridge between the human and the divine. Through specific dances and songs, devotees believe they can call upon the orishas to take possession of their bodies, thereby enabling the human to experience the divine. These ritualistic dances and music can also be considered to be a form of prayer.

The Yorubas have identified many orishas, but there are eight who predominate, almost equally divided between male and female deities. A devotee usually identifies predominantly with one of these eight entities, so that all their lives they are considered a “daughter” or “son” of that deity. Each deity has distinguishing characteristics. For example, Oshún is described as the goddess of unconditional love. She is associated with the rivers as a symbol of clarity and flowing motion, but has may manifestations ranging from short-tempered to calm and fluid. She is also the divinity of fertility, and women appeal to her for child-bearing and alleviation of female disorders. Brass, gold, and shining gems are often used in the rituals of her worship.

Divination is at the heart of the ritual ceremonies to the orishas and also of a devotee’s character development. Divination in essence is an attempt to understand the mindset of the gods. It is performed by male and female priests and has three specific objectives: to understand and control the forces in one’s life, to inquire what offerings are expected by the orisha, and to enquire if the offerings have been accepted by the orisha. The priests and priestesses use different implements to aid their divination process, including cowrie shells, kola nuts et al.

Animal sacrifice and other offerings are part and parcel of Yoruba worship. To our Western minds, the nonanimal offerings of fruit, flowers, tobacco, cloth or foods may not be much of a stretch, but the sacrifice of animals perhaps is. The thinking behind this sacrifice though is as follows: the essence of primal power must be replenished and, apart from air, blood is the single most powerful representation of life’s essence. To describe it in an analogy more understandable to us today, when we eat meat, through a transformation of energy within our bodies, that meats coverts into and replenishes our life force. To the Yoruba, blood sacrifice accomplishes this on a more global level.

Finally, Ifa is a nature-based religion. All of nature is viewed as a manifestation of God Essence and as such is revered. But it is not the tree or rock itself that the Yorubas “revere and worship, but the deep energy that brought about its being.” [B. I. Karade, page 21] Think of this concept in terms of our American flag. When we pledge allegiance to the flag, we do so because it is a symbol of something greater, our nation; and that nation, in turn, is a symbol of something else, our sense of the importance of community.

We might better understand the Ifa religion if we accept that “it is through rituals and initiations that the essence beyond the intellect is awakened. That essence is spirit. [But] the culture of the religion must be accepted, for culture and religion cannot be separated.” [B. I. Karade, page 109]

I have described briefly the religion of the Yorubas as it is practiced in the homeland. What happened when this African religion was transported to The New World? The newly arrived Africans were not permitted to practice their native religions. In the Catholic areas, they discovered that Catholicism with its Trinity, the many representations of the Virgin Mary, and its canonization of humans into saints provided them with an opportunity to practice their religion, just with new names. In fact, to this day New World ceremonies are performed in the original African language and in much the same way. However, in the Middle Passage, as the crossing of the Africans is called, the religion suffered one important change in that “the mysticism [of The Old World] has been overshadowed by occultism.” The New World forgot that “the aim of the mystic or priestly powers is not to dwell upon occult powers but to seek that divine essence.” [B. I. Karade, pages xi-xiii]

In the Protestant U.S., the Africans were also not permitted to practice Ifa. Unlike those transported to Catholic lands, however, they found no easy way to disguise their religion. In addition, a greater emphasis on inbreeding rather than on importing slaves minimized the renewal of religious fervor and purity via the newly arrived Africans. Just as importantly, however, the religion of their oppressors lacked the numerous patron saints and the deification of women of the Catholic religion. The lack of a tropical environment also made it difficult to maintain the integrity of their rituals. Even so, slaves maintained the Africanness of their religious expression through spirituals, shouting, intense preaching, etc.

Which leads me to Pentecostalism. This religion is a very experiential one. It believes that each person can directly and personally experience God through receiving the Holy Ghost. In its more demonstrative form, this is manifested through “speaking in tongues,” also called glossolalia. To the extent that Pentecostalism has a theology, it is one that is often sung. It would startle many, including perhaps the majority of its practitioners, to find out that the roots of its ecstatic worship possibly could be traced to the Yoruba religion. The elements of trance, ecstasy, visions, dreams, and healings were very familiar to the Yorubas, and certainly dancing, jumping, and speaking in tongues have many parallels with orisha possession. So how was the link made between the Yorubas and Pentecostalism?

The Pentecostal religious movement began in 1906 in a former stable on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Under the leadership of a black American, William Seymour, a community of humble servants and tradespeople—black, white, Asian, and Latino—joined in unprecedented equality to worship God in a new way. Principally, but not exclusively, that new way incorporated the direct experience of spirit through speaking in tongues. According to Harvey Cox, “At Azusa Street, a kind of primal spirituality that had been all but suffocated by centuries of western Christian moralism and rationality reemerged with explosive power.”[H. Cox, page 101]

The mission’s leader, Seymour, had grown up in the enthusiastic milieu of Southern black religion. Led by this descendant of African slaves, the multiracial Azusa community sparked an international spiritual revival. Word spread out quickly about the exhilarating and unorthodox Azusa Street revival, and visitors came from all over the world to observe. Within two years, the movement had fanned out to fifty countries. About this, Harvey Cox says, “[The] resurfacing of archetypal modes of worship, elements that lie close to the surface in some cultures but are buried more deeply in others, helps explain why the movement raced across the planet with such electrifying speed.” [H. Cox, page 101]

Yet even in the early days, seeds of dissension emerged in the movement. Among the mission’s early visitors was Seymour’s former theology teacher, a white man. Upon visiting, he was shocked to discover a highly exuberant atmosphere marked by songs, testimonies, spontaneous sermons, joyous shouts, prayer punctuated by sobs and tears, intercessions for the sick, and speaking in tongues. But he was even more appalled by the mixing of the races. He went away vociferously condemning the mission for being too much of a ‘darkey revival.’” [ibid. page 61] Sadly, a movement that had begun in a spirit of racial equality soon divided in the U.S. along rigidly racial lines. But the fire of that revival would not go out completely, and today the spirited expression of an enslaved people whose soul would not die dances across the globe in the Pentecostal movement.

Copyright Protected, 1995, 2009

1 comment:

A Cuban In London said...

Many thanks for including this link in your comment, Judith. It's fascinating how the Yorubas, regardless of geography, were able to practise their religion in a similar way. Where I see the difference is the dances, though (of course, I would, wouldn't I! :-D). I've taken Yoruba dance classes taught by a Nigerian. I have seen performances of candomble and the differences between the two of them and our very own "santeria" is striking. One factor could be that Yorubaland was divided in sixteen kingdoms (if my memory serves me right). The majority of the slaves brought to Cuba came from Oyo, whereas the ones taken to Brazil came from elsewhere.

Many thanks for the link and for the post.

Greetings from London.

About Me ¿Quién soy?

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My writing frequently explores multicultural themes. Born in Puerto Rico, I moved at a young age to the U.S., where my parents became Pentecostal ministers. Early immersion in Latino and religious cultures preceded later experiences as a businesswoman, a White House Fellow, and life aboard a trawler cruising from Martha’s Vineyard to South America. These sometimes incompatible worlds have given me a respectful outlook toward differing points of view. My short stories, poems, and essays reflect my own inclusive, yet sharply defined, journey across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. I recently published Peace on the Journey, a poetry collection which explores the theme of renewal in the face of adversity. @peaceonjourney