Yoruba People of West Africa

The Spiritual World: Images of Gods  

As we advance technologically, customs and traditions seem to change or disappear.  These traditions are either replaced, lost or forgotten over time.  The Yoruba people of West Africa have held strong to their traditions.  We are able to see their religious practices and traditions today much like they would have been practiced hundreds of years ago.  The Yoruba dialect of Lukumi is the liturgical language of several branches of the sub-religions born of these traditions: Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble.  These religions started in Nigeria but were combined with Catholicism, by force, when the slave trades began.  Slave owners and missionaries forced their slaves to adopt the Catholic religion.  Depending on the final destination of these Yoruba slaves determined how the branches of this new religion developed.  The slaves that landed in South America held on to their Yoruba traditions and combined Catholicism to develop Candomble.  The slaves that were owned by the Spanish and landed in the Caribbean formed Santeria meanwhile the French slaves syncretized their beliefs to create Voodoo.  The idea behind this syncretism was for survival of the slave and of their African beliefs.  The Yoruba slaves were punished severely if they were caught practicing their African traditions.  What they did to survive was ingenious.  They camouflaged their Yoruba gods by assigning Catholic saints with similar attributes in place of the Yoruba god or “orisha”.  This way, the Catholic calendar would serve as a guide to venerate the orisha but to the slave owner it would appear that they were celebrating their Saint’s feast day.  For example, St. Barbara is syncretized with the Yoruba king, Shango.  Shango day of veneration is December 4; same as St. Barbara Feast day on the Catholic calendar.  A drum party for Shango would appear to be for St. Barbara.

What you are about to see are articles of the Yoruba religion that have made their ways to various museums around the world.  Although these articles are on display, they are the same articles of adoration, devotion and function currently used today.  The Yoruba gods form a pantheon much like the more familiar pantheon of Greek mythology.  The gods displayed within the gallery are the more popular orishas of the Yoruba pantheon with devoted followers worldwide.  Not only will you see interpretations of their images but you will also see articles that represent these gods.  Shango is represented by the double axe while Elegua, the god of the crossroads and pathways, is represented by a walking stick.  Crowns are prominent within the gallery because they represent the path of worship for a devotee of a particular orisha.  Dance staffs are used to “call” the gods during ceremonial dances and the dancer invites the orisha to take possession of his body in an effort to deliver a message to devotees.  Divination boards are used in combination with mathematical equations to help a devotee answer a question brought to the foot of the Ifa priest known as a “Babalawo” a position held only by men.

My goal is to enlighten and inform visitors of my gallery as to the incredible journey the devotees to these gods have made just for the right to practice their beliefs.  The sub-religions are still practiced today but fear of persecution of the past have made these religions very underground and secretive.  There are no churches, no religious texts to follow; everything remains an oral tradition where a devotee learns the ropes from an elder within the religion.  That is why articles such as these are so important because they are a footprint of a greater cultural fabric in our world.  Many of us take our rights and privileges for granted but not many are willing to risk their lives like the Yoruba slaves did to keep their traditions alive.  My hope is that you not only visually enjoy my presentation but that you open your heart to this beautiful culture.                    


"2014 HOLTY TEMPLE OF OBATALA ILE IFE: OBATALA "ORISA NLA" FESTIVAL, ILE IFE, OSUN STATE NIGERIA." YouTube. YouTube, 08 Mar. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2016. <https: / /www.youtube.com /watch?v="UleLVkkwI_8">  

“Crown of Òbàtálá (adé Òbàtálá).” High Museum of Art Atlanta. Web. 27 April 2016. http://www.high.org/Art/Permanent-Collection/CollectionDetails?deptName=African%20Art&objNum=2006.230&pageNumber=1#.VyDiYPkwi71   “Dance Staff for Èsù/Elégba.” High Museum of Art Atlanta. Web. 27 April 2016. <http: / /www.high.org /art /permanent-collection /collectiondetails?deptname="African%20Art&amp;objNum=1980.500.72&amp;pageNumber=0&amp;search=true#.VyDsB_kwi71">   “Dance Staff for Shango (Ose Shango).” The Baltimore Museum of Art. Web. 27 April 2016. <https: / /www.google.com /culturalinstitute /asset-viewer /dance-staff-for-shango-ose-shango /rwgbzwab6qgvpa?projectid="art-project">   “Divination Board for Ifa Priest.” Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Web. 27 April 2016. < http://collections.lacma.org/node/175474>   “Ere ibeji twin figures.” Royal Ontario Museum. Web. 27 April 2016. <https: / /www.google.com /culturalinstitute /asset-viewer /ere-ibeji-twin-figures /hqh_anlcc0nleq?projectid="art-project">   “Get To Know An Orisha - IBEJI TWINS.” YouTube. YouTube, 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 27 April 2016. < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfgDa45Brmw>   “Ifa Divination Tapper (Iroke Ifa).” The Baltimore Museum of Art. Web. 27 April 2016. <https: / /www.google.com /culturalinstitute /asset-viewer /ifa-divination-tapper-iroke-ifa /swfvkwtqgwotlw?projectid="art-project">   “Shango.” Kenya National Archives. Web. 27 April 2016. <https: / /www.google.com /culturalinstitute /asset-viewer /shango /dgfxcqtmq1z-lg?projectid="art-project">   “The Ifa Divination System.” YouTube. YouTube, 28 Sep. 2009. Web. 27 April 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9lGVF6jYN4   “Yoruba Andabo – Eleguà.” YouTube. YouTube, 28 Dec. 2013. Web. 27 April 2016. <https: / /www.youtube.com /watch?v="NC-u1wtu-Bk">   “Yoruba Andabo – Changó.” YouTube. YouTube, 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 27 April 2016. <https: / /www.youtube.com /watch?v="PlxLjwBXIQ8">    “Yoruba Beaded Crown.” Corning Museum of Glass. Web. 27 April 2016. http://www.cmog.org/artwork/yoruba-beaded-crown


A Yoruba king (oba) is identified in public by a conical, beaded crown (adé) with a veil that transforms him into a living embodiment of Odùduwà, regarded as the first king of the Yoruba people. The bird at the top of the crown recalls the Yoruba creation narrative, which describes how Odùduwà used a bird to create the first land in Ilè Ifè at the beginning of time. The bird identifies the king as a descendant of Odùduwà and emphasizes his role as an intermediary between his subjects and the òrìsà, or gods, in the same way that a bird mediates between heaven and earth.(High Museum of Art)
"Crowning" is the initiation of a devotee to the priesthood of a Yoruban orisha. This crown is dedicated to Obatala; creator of earth and father to mankind. (Corning Museum of Art)
The Yoruba have a very high rate of twin births. This occurrence and the strong belief in the exceptional power of these extraordinary children gives origin to a very distinctive and intimate art form: the ibeji figures. Because they are believed to be powerful spirits, twins must be taken care of whether alive or dead. When a twin dies, a diviner is consulted for advice on who should carve the memorial image or images at the centre of the twins’ cult. The wooden figures have to be washed, fed and cared for as the living children would be to insure the ibeji protection upon the family. (Royal Ontario Museum)
Followers of Shango—the Yoruba thunder god and the deity associated with divine justice—carry dance staffs on ceremonial occasions. The kneeling female figure depicted on this dance staff represents a priestess or devotee of Shango. Shango is symbolized by the double-axe-blade motif, which refers to thunderstorms (Neolithic axe-heads are described as having being thrown down from the sky by the thunder deity) (The Baltimore Museum of Art)
Shango is the god of thunger among the Yoruba, and he has a metaphysical relationship with the Ibeji (carved effigy of children of multiple births). Shango priests are often identified with a neolific axe head baton (representing thunder bolts) reflecting his authority in the Shango cult. (Kenya National Archives)
In this dance staff made to honor Èshù, two faces look in opposite directions. Èshù is a deity honored by the Yoruba people of Nigeria and known throughout the African Diaspora as Elegua or Elegba. Èshù mediates opposing forces to bring together different worlds. He bears messages from the ancestral and spiritual realms, opens doors, and guards crossroads. Shrines to Èshù are placed wherever there is potential for conflict. Though known as a mischief-maker and agent provocateur, Èshù ultimately works to promote order and harmony in the universe. Èshù teaches wisdom, reminding people to look at the world from more than one point of view. (High Museum of Art)
Divination tappers are one of the tools used by an Ifa priest in his communication with spirits and consultations with Ifa deities. It is struck against a diviner’s tray to call Orunmila, the god of fate, to the proceedings. Followers of the Ifa religion would visit an Ifa priest who would act as a go between within the physical and spiritual world to obtain guidance, directions or answers to situations or problems. One of the ways that the priest would communicate with the spiritual realm would be to gently roll or tap the tapper against a powder coated divination board to summon the spirits or deity. This figurative tapper has been carved with a a woman devotee in a supplication pose. (High Museum of Art)
Divination Board for Ifa Priest is consecrated through a special ceremony. Boards today have not changed much in their design. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
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