The orisha (also spelled orisa, orichá; or orixá in Latin America) are spirits believed to reflect one of the manifestations of God in the Yoruba religion. The orishas have made their way from West Africa throughout the so-called New World via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Yoruba religion itself is housed specifically in present-day southwestern Nigeria, as well as the adjoining parts of Benin and Togo. This area is commonly known as Yorubaland. However, the diverse traditions that make up Yoruba religion can be found all over the African diaspora, influencing belief systems such as Santería (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic), Umbanda (Brasil, Argentina, Uruguay), Loa/Vodou (Haiti and the U.S.), Oyotunji (the U.S.), Trinidad Orisha (Trinidad and Tobago) and Candomblé (Brasil, Argentina, Uruguay).
Appreciation for the orishas has finally caught on! Recently, I caught wind that there is a short film out there in the ether: an African superhero movie, as produced by written, directed as produced by Nigerian filmmaker Nosa Igbinedion. According to Igbinedion, he made the short film in order to prove that there is a market out there for sci-fi based on African characters and storylines. Yes! The whole 12 minute film is below. Now that it’s lunch break….
The orishas I featured for my online study are as follows. If you click on the orishas tag at the end of this post, it’ll take you straight to the appropriate place. Ciao!
Olòrún is the owner of the heavens and is commonly associated with the sun. The vital energy of Olòrún manifests in humans as ashé, which is the life force that runs through all living things. The Supreme God, Olòrún, has three manifestations: Olodumare, the Creator; Olòrún, ruler of the heavens; and Olofi, who is the conduit between orun (heaven) and ayé (earth). Olòrún rules orun, while humans live in ayé. Typically, humans do not interact directly with him, but they receive the life-giving energy from the sun and recognize the power of Olòrún over their lives. Olòrún is a god of peace, purity and harmony. He is a primordial orisha and father to Odudua and Obàtálá by his wife, Olokun (who, you have learned is both male and female). In similar manner, no gender is typically assigned to Olòrún, as he transcends human limitations.
One day, Olòrún called Obàtálá to create solid land in the marshy waters. He gave Obàtálá a pigeon, a hen adn some sand. In obedience, the orisha descended to the waters and threw the sand into a small space. He set the pigeon and hen free, which began to scratch the sand and move it around. Soon, the birds covered a large area of the marshy waters and created solid ground.
When the orisha reported back to Olòrún, a chameleon was sent to observe what has been accomplished. The chameleon discovered that the earth was wide by not dry. After some time, the chameleon was sent to inspect the work again. This time, the chameleon found wide, dry land, which was consequently called ife (meaning “wide”) and ile (meaning “house”). All other towns and societies later developed from of Ile-Ife, and it has been respected and regarded as a sacred spot. It remains the home of the Oni, the spiritual leader of the Yorubas.
Babalú-Ayé (also known as Omoluaye, Asojano, or Shopona) translates as “Father, Lord of the Earth”, pointing to his authority over all earthly things – including the body, wealth and physical possessions. He is the orisha strongly associated with infectious disease and healing. In West Africa, he is specifically associated with smallpox, leprosy, influenza, ebola, and Hiv/AIDS. Additionally, Babalú-Ayé is also the orisha who cures ailments, and as such, he is both loved and feared, seen as compassionate and humble, and is often referred to as the “wrath of the supreme god”. People hold Babalú-Ayé’s name in great respect and avoid calling his actual name in the dear of invoking epidemics.
In Santería, Babalú-Ayé is among the most popular orishas, syncretized with Saint Lazarus*, and regarded as particularly miraculous. Babalú-Ayé is publicly honored with a pilgrimage on December 17, where thousands of devoteess gather at the Church and Leprosorium of Saint Lazarus in El Rincón, in the outskirts of Santiago de Las Vegas, Havana. Arará communities in Cuba and its diaspora honor the spirit as Asojano. Both traditions use sack cloth in rituals to evoke his humility. The spirit also appears in Palo (a group of closely related religions developed in the Spanish Empire among Central African slaves of mostly Congolese ancestry) as Pata en Llaga.
In Candomblé, Babalú-Ayé’s face is thought to be so scarred by disease and so terrifying that he appears covered with a raffia masquerade that covers his whole body. He also manifests in Umbanda (a syncretic Brazilian religion that blends African traditions with Roman Catholicism, Spiritism, and Indigenous American beliefs) and Macumba (the name used for all non-Abrahamic religious practices in Brazil during the 19th century).
* There are two Lazaruses found in the Bible: Lazarus of Bethany, brother to Mary and her sister Martha (John 11:1-46). The other is from Luke 16:19-31. Saint Lazarus is the one from the latter Biblical reference, it seems.
Oko (also Orishaoko, Orishaoco or Ocó in Latin America) is the god of agriculture, farming, fertility, and life and death. It is said that he sprung from the body of Yemaja. He is known to be one of the hardest working orishas, as it is his job to feed humanity and keep the crop cycles year-round. His followers enjoy stability, health, vitality and fecundity, and petition him for employment, to keep death at bay, for health, and for assistance in conceiving a child. Ironically, Oko is impotent. As the god of natural fertility, Oko’s image is often given a prominent phallus, thus he often resembles Priapus, the Greek of fertility and the male genitalia, who was primarily a garden-god protecting crops. He is also a peacemaker and arbitrator of disputes, especially those involving women.
Oko’s New Yam Festival
There is an annual festival held for Oko when the yam crops are ripe. These new yams, alongside all kinds of different vegetables, are cooked and placed in vessels in the streets for everyone’s consumption. It was once common practice, during this festival, that priestesses gave themselves to all Oko’s male worshippers. In fact, every man had a right to sexual intercourse with the priestesses. Social standards have since changed however, and it is now only consenting slave-girls or women of low social standing who are used for the pleasures of the men at this time.
Orí is both an orisha, as well as a metaphyscial concept. He is the god the Yoruba people believe supervises people’s choices in heaven. Literally, ori means ‘head’ or ‘mind’, referring to spiritual intuition and destiny. Orí could be considered as a personal god or a sort of guardian angel, accompanying people for life. When someone has a balanced character, they obtain an alignment with their Orí or divine self. Even the gods are believed to have their own Orí, directing their personal lives. Both men and gods must consult their sacred divination palm-nuts daily in order to learn what their Orí wishes. As such, Orí is both an orisha and a collective concept, who is feared even by Orunmila.
Olokun or Olocún, as he is called in Latin America is both male and female, depending on what region of the world he is worshiped. For the sake of James‘ depiction, we will refer to Olokun as a male orisha. Olokun is the owner of the oceans – combining two terms: Olo (meaning owner) and Okun (meaning oceans). It is just as well as his representation is that of water and birth, making his essence important as a majority of the human body, brain and lungs are made up of water. Some say he was the first spirit to inhabit the earth, before all the other orishas. His role within the relationship to the orisha is “awo” (the mysteries of nature) during the Maafa, or what is sometimes referred to as the “time of sorrows”, referring to the trans-Atlantic slave trade or Middle Passage, thus making him the patron orisha of descendants of the Africans carried away during the slave trade.
Olokun also signifies unfathomable wisdom: the specific instinct that there is something worth knowing, perhaps more than can ever be learned, especially the spiritual sciences that most people spend a lifetime pondering. He also governs material wealth, psychic abilities, dreaming, meditation, mental health and water-based healing. Olokun is one of many orisha known to help women who desire children. He is also worshiped by those that seek political and social ascension, which is why Heads of State, royalty, entrepreneurs and socialites often turn to Olokun to not only protect their reputations, but propel them further among the ranks of their peers.
In the syncretic practices of Cuban Santeria, in which African orishas are associated with Catholic Church saints, there is no saint associated with Olokun. In Haitian Vodoun, Olokun is worshiped as Met Agwe, the admiral of the seas.
Yemoja – Olokun Connections
Some Afro-Cuban lineages worship Olokun in tandem with Yemaja. In the past, Santeria worshipers considered these two to be manifestations of each other. However, westerner devotees believed that they are distinct, albeit kindred energies that were paired together during the Maafa (Middle Passage) as a way of preserving both orisha traditions.
As a young orisha, Obàtálá’s was bold and brash, a strong warrior who witnessed many traumatic things in battle. Those experiences are said to have tempered him, enabling him into a life of justice and the law (both man-made and karmic law). Followers caution that in inviting him into a legal case where the petitioner is guilty yet seeks justice, Obàtálá’s punishment is particularly harsh.
In Brazil, Obàtálá has been syncretised with Our Lord of Bonfim. He is the subject of the large religious celebration, the Festa do Bonfim, which takes place in January in Salvador, Bahia, a city in Brazil. Faithfuls wash the church steps with a special water, made with flowers.
In Santeria, Obàtálá has been syncretised with Our Lady of Mercy.
Obàtálá founded the first Yoruba city, Ife, and is known to some as Orisha-Nla or Olufon.
Ọba (also known as Obbá) is the orisha of River Ọba, which located in Oyo and Oshun states. Due to the wars in the 19th century, her centers of worship moved to the more secure town of Ogbomosho. Traditionally, she is known as Ṣàngó‘s first wife. She was tricked by Osún into cutting off her ear and attempting to feed it to her husband.
The Story of Oya’s Ear
Ọba’s humiliation by a rival co-wife is one of the most well-known myths. There are several variations to the story, but the most common version of the myth found in West Africa, Brazil, and Cuba says Ọba cut off her ear to serve to her husband Ṣàngó as food, after being deceived by Osún into thinking this would garner Ṣàngó’s attention. Once Ṣàngó saw the ear and realized Ọba had mutilated herself, he chased her from his house and into permanent exile. While this story is known in many parts of Yoruba country, it was not recognized by Ọba’s priest in Ogbomosho. One Cuban variation of the myth excludes the wives’ rivalry entirely, explaining Ọba’s self-mutilation of both ears as an effort to feed Ṣàngó after the household runs out of goat meat. At this time, Ṣàngó was in need of food for his struggle against Ogún. By comparison, in other versions of Yoruba Ifa (the traditional religious system of the Yoruba people), the story inverts somewhat: Ọba cuts off her ear at the advice of Ifa and her bodily sacrifice successfully ties Ṣàngó to Ọba, until Orunmila himself steals Ọba from Ṣàngó.
Osún’s deception notwithstanding, the real rivalry in the royal household was said to have been between Ọba and her husband’s third wife, Oyá. Apparently, Ọba was the only one of Ṣàngó’s wives who could give birth to imperial heirs, which incited great jealously and anger among the other wives.