Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Yoruba 101

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Daryl Snider
[Note: Our fourth post in the "Religions 101" series comes from Daryl Snider. Daryl has lived in both Haiti and Brazil, where he has seen Yoruba-influenced traditions first-hand. Of reading this chapter of Prothero's book, God Is Not One, Daryl said, "I wish I had read [this chapter] 20 years ago, before I went to Haiti!" While studying at the CJP, Daryl has been blogging at singbiosis, which explores "music in peacebuilding as an agent of healing, storytelling, awareness and reconciliation." Because Daryl is not an adherent to any Yoruba tradition, he does more direct quoting of Prothero in this post, and less freestyling as an insider. He was the adventurous one. :) -bg]

Prothero asked his students to invent their own religions. One, called "Consectationism," has at its goal "to find and follow your own purpose, or 'Lex.' And its ethic is simplicity personified: pursue your own Lex, and don't hinder anyone else from pursuing theirs." This is "surprisingly close the heart of the religion of the Yoruba people," in which each of us has forgotten our destiny.

[Read on for more of Daryl's summarization of Prothero's chapter on Yoruba...]

Forgotten destinies
Before we are reborn, the High God Olodumare allows us to choose our destiny for this life. When we are born, we forget our choice, and we "wander through life veiled from our true purposes, sidetracked by pursuits, in love and work, foisted on us by parents, friends, coworkers, and spouses. The antidote to this forgetfulness is to remember." (204)
  • The human problem is disconnection
  • The solution to this problem is to reconnect ourselves to our destinies, to one another, and to sacred power. This can be accomplished through the techniques of divination, sacrifice, and spirit/body possession, which in combination allow us to truly flourish as individuals and societies. (206)
The spiritual
Olodumare (the supreme being) is aloof and is not directly worshipped; but he is seen as the chief source of power (ashe) (211-2).

Ashe is the power to make things happen, to make things change. It is similar to the life force that the Chinese call qi. "It resides in 'spoken words, secret names, thoughts, blood, beaded necklaces, ritually prepared clothing, earth, leaves, herbs, flowers, trees, rain, rivers, mountains, tornadoes, thunder, lightning, and other natural phenomena.' And it manifests in drumming and dance, poetry and song . . . ashe directs itself toward change . . . ashe is about having real effects in the real world--'as luck, power, wealth, beauty, charisma, children, and love.'. . .Its transformative power can be (and is) used toward both good ends and bad. It connects and disconnects. And when it comes to matters of life and death, ashe gives and ashe takes away." (219-20)

Orishas are superhuman beings (spirits?) that can help us reconnect with, and live out, our destiny through various divination techniques.

The orishas are personifications of natural forces and are present in elements of nature. They have distinctly human emotions and personalities, and the distinction between humanity and divinity is fuzzy. Humans feed Orishas, who in return help humans find their destiny and satisfy their day-to-day needs.

Babalawos (men) and Iyalawos (women) are trained priests and diviners who guide practitioners with a series of memorized verses, selected by signatures spelled out through divining procedures (i.e. casting of palm nuts). These diviners are not oracles, but mediators between clients and the orishas. The wisdom comes from us as clients "recalling what we already know within." They help to "call us back to our original selves, to recover the destinies we chose for this life before it began." (p.205)

Of the orishas, Orunmila and Eshu are most important.
  • Orunmila (orisha of wisdom) delivers messages from the orishas. 
  • Eshu (owner of the power) carries sacrifices from humans to the orishas, and he helps humans find which way to turn at the crossroads. "Perhaps more than anything else, Eshu is associated with change." (212-13)
  • Oshun (orisha of rivers and sweet water), the only female present at creation, in West Africa is an orisha of fertility and childbearing, but in the New World she becomes something of a goddess of love. (214)
  • Obtala ("king of the white cloth") or Orishanla ("great orisha") is the god of human creation, and he is "the oldest and wisest of the orishes, the quintessence of 'cool' . . . A model of patience that makes for peace." (215) "Obtala also played a role in legitimizing the Cuban Revolution of 1959 . . . after Castro and his guerrillas took Havana, a white dove (symbol of Obtala) alit on his shoulder during his speech for national unity [a clear sign]." (216)
  • Ogun (orisha of iron, of creativity, of technology) once created a powerful tool to clear a path for the orishas to unite with humans. He is a great tragic figure who, in a drunken rage, went into war and killed both friends and foes. Upon realizing what he did, he withdrew to the hills as a farmer, beating swords into plowshares. He is depicted as a god of violence and blood, but also a god of justice who fights oppression.
There are many other orishas--different in different traditions.

The practical
Action > Belief; Life > Afterlife

"Orisha devotees are practitioners more than believers. Their practice consists of various techniques for communication and exchange between human beings and orishas. These techniques aim at connection--narrowing the gap between earthly and heavenly realms." (232) "The power of connectivity." (233)

"The focus, as with Israelite religion, seems to be living long and well on earth rather than attaining immortality elsewhere." (234)

Yoruba religion maps out "a system of signs and wonders out of which one can make meaning from seemingly small and unrelated things . . . Every moment presents a possibility to reconnect with the orishas and, through them, with your destiny and the harmony that pursuing it brings." (210)

"The Yoruba are particularly adept at putting religion in motion, however. Here spirit and matter dance cheek to cheek. Wisdom is embodied . . . The orishas are associated with particular parts of the body, and therefore with particular illnesses." (236)

"But the orishas are also recognizable in drumming patterns . . . and dancing steps. . . In fact, dance is so central to this religious tradition that some have referred to it as a 'dancing religion.'" "Yoruba trance dancing is often referred to as spirit possession, but that is not quite right, since the orisha possess both the body and the spirit of the devotee." (237)

West Africa is the homeland of the Yoruba people: Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Sierra Leone. "Yoruba-derived religions are also scattered across the African diaspora created by the transatlantic slave trade--in Brazil and Cuba, Colombia and Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Grenada, St. Kitts and St. Vincent, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, Uruguay and Trinidad and Tobago." (221-2)

"Today descendants of these slaves continue to preserve and practice . . . Santeria (literally 'the way of the saints,' also known as Lukumi and La Regla De Ocha) in Cuba; Candomble, Umbanda, and Macumba in Brazil; the Orisha Movement (aka Shango) in Trinidad and Tobago; Kele in St. Lucia; and, to a lesser extent, Vodun in Haiti." (223)

Yoruba penchant for secrecy makes even unofficial numbers elusive, and the stigma that these traditions are 'primitive' and even 'Satanic' keeps many practitioners under cover." (224) In all, there are tens of millions of adherents today. (225)

Syncretism and elasticity
Evangelical and Pentecostal missionaries demonized Yoruba orishas; Yoruba practitioners adapted and syncretized their traditions with those of both Christianity and Islam. Drumming was prohibited in Haiti and US slave states, so Yoruba practitioners adapted their religion as necessary to hold on to their traditions and culture. In Brazil and Cuba, they "kept their religious traditions alive by marrying them to Catholicism."

Some Yoruba reformers are trying to "decatholicize" it. "In Brazil, the popular and powerful Bahian priestess Mãe Stella has challenged all Candomble practitioners to take off the fig leaf of the Catholic saints and worship African orishas in the open, without apology, guilt, or fear . . . Another effort to take orisha devotion 'back to Africa' is Oyotunji African Village . . . in rural Beaufort County, South Carolina . . . as [a refuge] for African Americans interested in wearing African clothes, taking African names, and living an African lifestyle." (227-8)

"Yoruba religion boasts a vast and sophisticated corpus of sacred stories, historical accounts, morality tales, poems, and proverbs that remind us of our individual and shared destinies, and promise to connect us with one another, with creation, and with the divine . . . It should be noted that, while Yoruba culture is ancient, Yoruba identity is modern." (230)

"Like Hinduism, Yoruba religion rests on practice more than faith . . . Again like Hinduism, Yoruba religion is almost endlessly elastic, greeting foreign religious impulses with a yes rather than a no, adopting, adapting, and absorbing these impulses and reinventing itself along the way." (231) "Yoruba religion does not evangelize or anathematize." (232)

One key to the survival of Yoruba religion, particularly during its migration to the New World is its elasticity. "Another source of the success of Yoruba religion is orality [no texts, hence adaptable] . . . Yoruba culture has traditionally been both elastic and accommodating. While Christians have long concerned themselves with keeping their faith pure by inoculating their doctrines against impurity, the Yoruba tradition has been happily mixing with 'outside' influences for millennia." (238-40)

"Might it be that religion's primary purpose is to make sense not of death but of birth, not of destruction but of creation? . . . Perhaps where religions really compete is on the question of how to flourish." Yoruba religion is all about flourishing in life; it is about connecting with the our destiny, other humans, the natural world and the spiritual dimension. (240-1)

Questions in Summary
What is “real” for this religion? (And in the converse, what is not real?) Everything is real: the line between natural and the spiritual is blurred.
How is the “real” organized for this religion? The natural and spiritual worlds are fully integrated; meaning (ashe) is found in every detail.
What is valuable and what is not valuable for this religion? Valuable: Finding one’s true destiny and living in harmony with all
Not valuable: Belief or the afterlife
Where does real knowledge come from for this religion? Through connection & communication with the orishas, but also from within.
What must followers of this religion do? What must they not do? Must: Seek one’s destiny in connection with the orishas through ritual sacrifice & practice, with help from babalawos/iyalawos (priests), and live harmoniously. Must not: offend orishas or remain disconnected (alone)

Does it matter that we were raised in societies that were shaped by these faith traditions? Do our cultures and our political and social systems reflect these underlying ways of thinking about the world? Yes, of course faith traditions matter! They shape our worldview from an early age.

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