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The Orisha (Orisa)

Brittney M. Walker | 3/24/2010, 5 p.m.

The Yoruba people are deeply connected to oral tradition, their ancestors and nature. In the Yoruba religion, these elements play significant roles and contribute to overall spiritual wealth and understanding. Being in tune with the Creator and the orisa is a natural way of life.
The Creator, or God, is called Olodumare. He is unique, immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, transcendent as well as king and judge of all. The Creator is the ultimate life source and is all-powerful.
Yoruba oral tradition says the earth and heaven were together, connected by a spider web. One day, Olodumare decided to shape the earth for living. He commanded the first orisa, Obatala to oversee the formation of the earth. Obatala (Orisa-nla) worked on earth, shaping people and forming resources. But he only had the power to form things, not give life.
Olodumare, the only source of life, breathed life into Obatala's empty vessels.
In the Yoruba religion, the orisa are the Creator's agents who work in the lives of humans and in nature. Although there are between 200 and 1,700 orisa, there are only a few primordial divinities (those who existed with God before the creation of humans) who should be recognized.
Obatala is the earliest orisa God created. He is responsible for many things, including the shaping of unborn babies in the womb. Myths say children born with deformities were the infants he set aside. They are special and precious to him. He is also the lord of peace, harmony and purity and ruler of all things white.
In the Yoruba creation story, Orunmila is the divinity who plays the role of counselor or intermediary between Olodumare and Obatala. As a divinity who dwells in both heaven and earth, he mitigates on behalf of man. He is a counselor for other divinities as well. Orunmila is especially gifted with knowledge and wisdom; therefore he is consulted on important occasions. Some traditions suggest he was born a human rather than being a primordial divinity.
Oduduwa is considered a controversial figure because many Yoruba people consider him an androgynous divinity, though he is more widely accepted as a female. Some see him as a primordial divinity as well as a deified ancestor. Others say he is the father of the Yoruba people. However, some traditions consider Oduduwa the wife of Obatala and the chief female orisa.
Confusion also still reigns because oral traditions suggests Oduduwa was the creator of the earth, although other stories suggest it was Obatala. To resolve the issue, elders of the Yoruba people have adopted that it was a shared assignment between the two orisa.
Esu, a prominent figure in Yoruba tradition, is one who often is mistaken for being the "evil one."
However he is not; but he is responsible for trying the heart of man. Unlike the Christian devil, Esu loves man and would like to test the true character of humans. He also knows the heart of the Supreme Being and relays messages from the Supreme Being to humankind. Additionally, he maintains a close relationship with Orunmila, who is known for his wisdom.
J. Omosade Awolalu, author and researcher writes in "Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites," "If a person refuses to do the bidding of the Deity and the divinities, Esu will make life uncomfortable for him or her. Esu's chief function is to run errands for both man and divinities and to report their deeds to the Supreme Being. Yoruba worshippers make sacrifices to the orisa. As sacrifices are made, Esu delivers them to the divinities. Yoruba traditions also say he sometimes provokes humans to behave badly so sacrifices must be made to the gods. Divinities also hail him.
Ogun has two stories. One tradition says, when the divinities first came to the earth and as they were trudging along, a dense brush blocked their way. While no others could break through, Ogun offered his services and cleared a path. From then on, the divinities hailed him as great.
The other story portrays Ogun as an earthly warrior; a son of Oduduwa. In the darkest days while ruling over the people in a town called Ire, Ogun promised he would always be there for his people. To this day, the people of the land say he has never let them down. It is also believed he is the source of wealth and prosperity and he stands for justice.
Some similarities to the orisa may be found in the current-day saints of the Catholic religion and even in Biblical characters. While enslaved Africans dispersed throughout the Diaspora typically were not allowed to practice their traditional religions, they often used Catholicism to mask their true worship for the orisa. We will visit that next time.