Mysticism In Traditional Yoruba Culture

“I’m training to be a Yoruba priestess,” she said with her face scrunched in utmost sincerity.

The confession from the young African-American student disgusted the Nigerian students, at the Georgia State University forum, including me. But the lady was not swayed. She stood up and said that in a few years, she will be a full fledged practitioner of the Yoruba traditional religion. That was about 5 years ago. I still remember it.

Priestess of Yemanja, Yoruba Goddess/Mother of the Sea

Priestess or “Mae” Susana Andrade on the “Day of Yemanja”, goddess of water, in Montevideo, Uruguay. Copyright © Jason Rothe 2010

Growing up, I’d always considered African-American “afrocentrics” as extreme wannabes. I mean, they really, really want to connect with their African roots and in doing so, they often explore mysticism and spirituality, areas that many Africans are cautious of if it doesn’t pertain to Islam of Christianity. They cut off their permed hair and wear their kinky tresses saying things like “nappiness is happiness.” They love India Arie.

Growing up as a Nigerian-American “afrocentric” individual, I came across a number of black Americans whose introduction into African culture led them to the study of the Yoruba people. “Are you Yoruba?” They would ask me, though I physically look nothing like a Yoruba person.

The study of Yoruba culture remains fiercely popular among African-Americans seeking to “find their roots.” Knowledge of it makes you a bona fide “afrocentric.” It is the mysticism, the drumming (brought to the mainstream American audience by the late Babatunde Olatunji), the dancing, and the customs of the people (for example, the elaborate baby naming ceremonies) that fascinate many.

Praying Obatala priests in their temple in Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria

Praying Obatala priests in their temple in Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria

The traditional Yoruba religion, Ifa, has spread throughout the African diaspora. You can find it wholly and partially practiced in the Caribbeans, Latin America, North America as the tradition was brought to the New World from captured African slaves transported through Trans-Atlantic route.

There’s even a traditional Yoruba village in the United States called the Oyotunji African Village located in northern Beaufort County, S.C. Organized in the 1970s by the late Efuntola Oseijeman Adefunmi in an attempt to reclaim ancestral Yoruba customs and tradition, the Oyotunji village serves as a tourist attraction and a mecca for African-American followers of orisha-centered religions. Most of the people who live in this village are African-Americans, many of which have never seen Africa. They simply desire to get closer to their African roots.

It could be perceived as a noble gesture, giving up what you’ve known your whole life, for example the Christian faith, to take on a completely foreign spiritual system, like the student who boldly declared that she is studying to be a Yoruba priestess. While this is happening, I find many Yoruba people who shun the traditional spiritual beliefs of their ancestors, which of course they have a right to do – it’s a free world. After referring to a woman at my church as Yewande for many years, I suddenly had to learn the new name she had chosen for herself: Kemi. She and her entire family had changed their surnames as well to reflect their maturation in the Christian faith.

Within the last four years, I, myself have taken an interest in traditional African spirituality and the Yoruba religious system of orishas has stood out in its complexity. I researched the practice of the religion among the African-American community and was truly amazed by how passionate these people were about it. In my practice, I interviewed Jacob Olupona, a leading authority on African studies.

Olupona wrote a piece, The Sacred City of Ile Ife ,that was featured today in Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper. Of course, anyone attempting to get understand the traditional spirituality of the Yoruba, must understand the significance of Ile Ife.

“In The Pivot of the Four Quarters, Wheatley indicates that no place in sub-Saharan Africa has such cosmic significance as the Yoruba city of Ile-Ife.

Unlike the political, commercial, and administrative cities of Ibadan and Lagos, contemporary Ile-Ife is a ceremonial city par excellence; like the cities of Banaras, Jerusalem, and Mecca, in the people’s imagination it is the preeminent sacred place, beyond the secular and profane.

I begin with Ile-Ife’s various sacred place names, because epithets vividly show the significance of sacred cities. Stephen Scully argues in his book Homer and the Sacred City that “human centers such as Troy are richly and complexly described through the epithets attached to them.” Citing an earlier study by Paolo Vivante, Scully contends that “city epithets, whenever they occur, bring out the essential aesthetics and contextual quality of place names.” These epithets serve “as a resource of power and a medium of signification in their own right.” They are “visual and concrete in nature, and thereby evocative of an essential and generic quality” of whatever they qualify.

Ile-Ife’s inhabitants have conferred numerous sacred Yoruba names on their city. It has been called Ife Oodaye, “The Expansive Space Where the World Was Created,” referring to the cosmogonic myth asserting that ritual creation occurred in this very place, and as Ibi Oju Ti Mo Wa (Where the Day Dawns). In Yoruba creation myth, Ile-Ife is conceived of as the place where the sun rises and sets, the center of origin of the universe. Ile-Ife is also called Ife Ooye, the place of survival or the city of life, because, like Noah’s ark, it was a place of refuge from a primordial deluge that destroyed earlier settlements and left survivors to establish a new era. Various oral sources refer to Ile-Ife as the place where the 201 gods came down from heaven to live and interact with humans on earth.”

Author Michael Crowder discusses the cultural relevance of Ile Ife in his book, which I am currently reading, A Short History of Nigeria. On page 53, Crowder writes: “The Yoruba creation myth that probably parallels this event talks of Ile Ife as the origin of life. In the the beginning the earth was covered with water. Olorun, the supreme god, let his son Oduduwa down a chain carrying a handful of earth, a cockerel and a palm nut. Oduduwa scattered the earth over the water and the cockerel scratched it so that it become the land on which the palm tree grew. Its sixteen branches represented the sixteen crowned heads of Yorubaland, probably the heads of the main settlements established by the newcomers. Unfortunately we still know very little about ancient Ife, which is revered today as the original home of the Yoruba.”

By Chika Oduah

2 responses to “Mysticism In Traditional Yoruba Culture

  1. as a Yoruba I’ve always been fascinated by western religious believes I.e. Christianity and the eastern religion islam. I belong to a mystical fraternity elaborating on mysticism as it’s core area. my question is what is mysticism called in the Yoruba circuit and were can it’s practioners be found in the Yoruba land.

  2. I am located in the dallas fort worth area and im looking for a yoruba priest or priestess to get me an oracle reading. I just came home from prison and its important that i do this. Im alsi trying to see the cost of having one travel to yazoo city federal correction to give a reading to the brothers in the community within. Ase

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