The Orishas

ACI Artist Leader Stephen Hamilton

 Project: "Yoruba Empowerment in Nigeria" 

 Placement: Osogbo, Nigeria  

Hometown: Boston, USA 

The Orishas are the powerful spirits of the Yoruba religion. They are agents of Olorun/Olodumare/Eledumare, the creator and sustainer of all things. They are the manifestations of primordial energies—energies both creative and destructive. They are the conduits, in which life and all civilizing forces entered the world. They are near innumerable in number. 1001, 2001 and 4001 are often cited as they are as numerous as the powers of the creator. These beings descended from Orun, the Orisha of the sky/heaven.  These beings entered the physical universe as agents of Olorun’s limitless power to create the world. The Yoruba have numerous stories of how this came to be. One of their stories is from the Odu Oshe Otura. The story documents how seventeen irunmole (primordial deities) entered the universe to create the world.  Each ironmule did so with his own power gifted to him by Olodumare. Among the seventeen ironmules was Oshun, the only woman who joined them on this first journey. When they excluded her from their work, creation fell into chaos. The ironmules were only able to complete their work when they begged her forgiveness and included her in the process.  When they did so, balance between male and female energies were reconciled and creation resumed.

The Orishas entered the mortal world, completed epic feats, lived, died and then reincarnated into the world to complete even more amazing tasks. They are immortal energies that represent a core part of Yoruba philosophy and belief. Through slavery, the incredible ancestral forces spread to the West. To this day, in places like the United States, Cuba, Trinidad, and Brazil, Orishas are worshiped. The Orishas worshiped in the West include but not limited to Shango, Oya, Orisha, Ogun, Oshun, and Yemoja. Shango is the owner of fire, smoke, and thunder. Oya is the Orisha of the winds, the marketplace, destructive and violent change. Ogun is iron and war. Oshun is fertility, feminine powers, fresh waters. Yemoja  is motherhood, saltwater, rivers. Through centuries of terror, destruction, pain, and tragedy, the Orisha were reborn again. They were reborn in forms both ancient and new at the same time.

Worshipping of the Orishas requires dedication, time, but most of all, it requires sacrifice. Ebbo—or rather, sacrifice is at the core of Yoruba belief. Sacrifice is crucial, and necessary for all things to happen. Each Orisha has their own foods and objects that they favor and others that are taboo. The components of the sacrifice are also determined by consulting the Ifa oracle. Consulting the Ifa oracle is a complex process learned by the Babalawo/Iyalawo (fathers and mothers of secrets) and the priests of Ifa/Orunmila Deity of Divination, who memorize the vast and complex ifa corpus. This corpus, divided into the 256 odu not only holds knowledge of creating proper Ebbo, but also the histories, legends, and divine literature of the Yoruba people. I will be expanding on the Ifa tradition in my next blog post. As I spend more time in Osogbo, and among people who are very active in Yoruba traditional religion, I understand even more the beautiful complexity of these beliefs.