Monotheism in Traditional Yoruba
The Concept of God: The People of Yoruba
The Yorubas, population approximately 40 million, occupy southwest
Nigeria. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria endowed
with rich cultures, and in several ways, one of the most interesting
peoples of Africa. Their tradition gives them a unique place among
African societies. They have contributed to the cultures of the
Caribbean and South America, in particular Cuba and Brazil, where the
Yoruba religion is practiced. Within Nigeria, the Yoruba are one of
the three largest ethnic groupings. According to Idowu (1962), “The
Yoruba comprise several clans which are bound together by language,
traditions, religious beliefs and practices” (p.4).
The purpose of this paper is to describe the monotheistic concept
of God among the Yoruba and their supportive deities. It is our
conviction that any attempt to construct a theory in describing the
concept of God among the Yoruba will not give a true picture.
Therefore, the paper will critique the views of some scholars,
followed by descriptions of the attributes of the Supreme Being
concluding with a discussion of Olodumare as monotheistic God
comparable to the Judeo-Christian concept of God.
One certainty about the Yoruba is the fact that it is very hard to
find an indigenous Yoruba who does not believe in the Supreme Being.
If such a person exists, he or she must have been exposed to non-
African influences. The Yoruba believe in the Supreme Being who is
responsible for the creation and maintenance of the universe (Awolalu
Baudin, a Roman Catholic priest of French descent, wrote about the
Yoruba God in these words:
The Blacks have neither statutes, nor symbols to represent God.
They consider him as the Supreme Primordial Being, author and father
of the gods and spirits. At the same time, they think that god after
beginning the organization of the world, charged Obatala to finish
it and govern it, then withdrew and went into an eternal rest to
look after his happiness (Awolalu 1979, p. 4).
Baudin is absolutely correct when he said, "The Blacks have no
statutes of the Supreme Being" (Awolalu 1979). The reason is that God
“is too great and awesome to be pictured or formed into a concrete
mold" (p. 4). He is everywhere and He is a Supreme Spirit. What is
troubling about Baudin's analysis is that it seems to imply that the
West has a clear understanding of the concept of God in Yoruba
culture. This is not the case as Idowu (1962) notes: “…the authors of
this conception have erred, they erred in that way because they have
been ignorant of that which forms the real core of religion which they
endeavor to study” (p.44).
Idowu (1975) implies that the West does not have a clear grasp of
the concept of God. The concept of God is not a monopoly of the
traditional society. Upon further scrutiny of Baudin's statement, one
notes that he does not appreciate the fundamental idea of God as
conceived by the Yoruba especially with regard to the creation. The
most troubling thing is his racial overture and his condescending
attitude toward the Yoruba.
Another French scholar, Bouche (Awolalu 1979) has this to say:
A Yoruba man thinks that God is too great to deal with him, and
he delegated the care of the blacks to the Orisa. Master of Heaven.
God enjoys abundance and gentle rest, keeping his favor for White
man. That the White man attends God is natural. As for blacks, they
owe sacrifices, their offerings and their prayer to Orisa only . . .
Bouche's observations demonstrate his lack of understanding of
beliefs and symbolism in Yoruba culture as it relates to religious
practices. Bouche's ethnocentrism results in interpretations based on
"personal opinion [which] is inspired by racial pride and blindness."
(Awolalu 1979 p.5). If Bouche had been more culturally sensitive in
his study of Yoruba beliefs, he would have found that the Yoruba
believe that all human beings are created equal by God and are, in
fact, members together of one human race. In addition, we find that
Bouche did not grasp the relationship between the Supreme Being and
the divinities (Orisa) (Awolalu 1979).
In the 19th century, a British officer named A. B.Ellis claimed
Olorun is the sky god of the Yoruba, that is, he is deified
firmament, or personal sky . . . He is merely a natured-god, the
personally divine sky, and he only controls phenomena connected in
the native mind with the roof of the world . . .Since he is too lazy
or too indifferent to exercise any control over earthly affairs, man
on his side does not waste time in endevouring to propitiate him,
but reserves his worship and sacrifices for more active agents . . .
.In fact, each god, Olorun included, has, as it were, his own
duties, . . . he cannot trespass upon the rights of others (p. 5)
Here again, we see the ethnocentrism of western scholars. In the
above observation, first, Ellis displays his lack of understanding
about Olorun by associating Olorun with a "natured god". Second, Ellis
mixes Olorun with Eledaa. What Ellis says is far from the truth (Awolalu,
1979; Idowu, 1975) when he asserted that Eledaa and Olorun mean two
different things. Olorun in the Yoruba terminology refers to the
Supreme Being and Eledaa refers to “He who controls rain” while
Olodumare is "Replenisher of brooks". In actuality, these terms (Olorun,
Olodumare, and Eledaa) are interchangeable for the same God, Olorun.
Eledaa means he who creates in Yoruba language and Olodumare means the
Almighty- the Supreme Being. Ellis’ error is that he ranks Olorun with
the divinities when he said: " Olorun cannot trespass upon the rights
of the others" (Awolalu, 1979, p.5). By others, Ellis implies that
Olorun is in no way superior to the divinities. This is false (Ibid).
The Yoruba people believe that Orisa cannot exist independent of the
Supreme Being. The Yoruba view the divinities as "ministering spirits
and intermediaries between man and the Supreme Being." One can liken
them to the angels of God, who are ministering to the Supreme Being
according to Christian concepts. Ellis clearly demonstrates his lack
of cultural competence when he claims that worship is rendered
entirely to agents who are more active than Olorun. Ellis’ comments
reflect further inaccuracies when he says that the Supreme Being is
too lazy, distant, and indifferent.
In responding to Ellis' fallacies, Fadipe (Awolalu, 1979) says:
No remarks could have thrown into greater prominence the
ignorance of Ellis of the everyday routine life of the Yoruba. Far
from Olorun being a distant conception to the people, the average
Yoruba uses the name, often in proverbs, in prayers and wishes, in
promises, in planning for the future, in attempts to clear himself
of accusations, in reminding his opponent of his duty to speak the
truth, and the like. Indeed, for all General purposes, it is more
natural to invoke the name of Olorun than that of Orisa (p.6).
Fadipe clarifies Ellis’ fallacies and displays the impact of Olorun
on the Yoruba people. S.S. Farrow supports Fadipe and further asserts
that "We find among the Yoruba . . . a belief in a Being called Olorun
whose position is unique in several respects . . . This idea is not
due to Mohammed or Christians" (p. 34). The trouble with Farrow's
honesty in clarifying the concept of Olorun lies with the phrase "A
Being called Olorun" (Lucas 1948). He seems to suggest that God as
conceived by the Yoruba is different from the Supreme God, who is the
Creator of all earth (Lucas 1948; Awolalu 1979).
The best, scholarly research, into the concept of the Supreme Being
among the Yoruba comes from E.B. Idowu. In his book titled Olodumare-
God in Yoruba Belief, Idowu states "Olodumare is the traditional name
of the Supreme Being and that Olorun, though commonly used in popular
language appears to have gained its predominating currency in
consequence of Christian and Moslem impact upon the Yoruba thought" (Awolalu,
Naming God: Yoruba Terminology and Definitions
Our review of these scholars' views of the concept of God has been
an attempt to identify major errors in the scholarly assertions.
Unfortunately most of the scholars reviewed, demonstrated in their
analyses, a lack of cultural sensitivity for those who are racially
To achieve an accurate view of the Yoruba concept of the Supreme
Being, it is important to examine the names and the meanings, which
are associated with the Supreme Being. It should be emphasized that
the Yoruba interchangeably use the terms listed below to describe the
supreme God. To the Yoruba, they are known as “oriki”, loosely
translated as “nicknames”. According to Idowu, the Supreme Being is
“acknowledged by all the divinities as the Head whom all authority
belongs and all allegiance is due. He is no one among many. His status
of supremacy is absolute . . . In worship, the Yoruba hold him
ultimately first and last in man’s daily life. He is the preeminence”
(Ibid, p.53). These names and their definitions follow (see Bascom).
- Olodumare: The concept connotes one who has the fullness
or superlative greatness, the everlasting majesty upon whom man can
- Olorun: The owner (Olorun), the heaven above or the Lord
whose home is in heaven above. Sometimes the Yoruba use Olorun
Olodumare together. This double word means the Supreme Being whose
abode is in the heaven. Olodumare
- Eledaa: The creator. As the name suggests, the Supreme
Being is responsible for all creation.
- Alaaye: The word means the living one. This means that
the Yoruba believe that God is everlasting.
- Elemi: Elemi is the keeper of life. Used to refer to the
Supreme Being, it suggests that all living Beings owe their breath
of life to the Supreme Being. It is believed by the Yoruba that when
the keeper of life withdraws "life breath", the living soul dies.
- Olojo Oni: This word means the owner and controller of
this day or of the daily happenings. To call Him Olojo Oni portrays
that all men and women totally depend of the Supreme Being.
Attributes of the Supreme Being
To further enhance understanding of Yoruba belief, it is also
necessary to explore the characteristics of Olodumare that
differentiates God from other things that He created.
- He is the Creator. Among the Yoruba, the myth of creation
holds that in the beginning the world was a marshy, watery
wasteland. Olodumare and some divinities lived in heaven, descending
and ascending by means of spiders' webs or a chain. They frequently
visited the earth, particularly for hunting. Humankind was
non-existent because there was no land (Parrinder 1986).
One day, Olodumare summoned His Chief, Orisa-nla, to his presence
and commissioned him that He (Olodumare) wanted to create firm
ground. For materials, Olodumare gave him loose earth in a snail
shell, a pigeon and a hen. Orisa-nla descended to the marshy
wasteland. He threw the earth from the shell. He put the chicken and
the hen on earth, and they started to scratch and scatter the soil
about. Orisa-nla reported to Olodumare that the work had been
completed. Olodumare then dispatched a chameleon to go to inspect
the work. The chameleons told Olodumare that the work was done but
not dry enough. The chameleon was sent the second time. This time
the report was that the land was wide and dry.
Olodumare next instructed Orisa-nla, the chief divinity, to equip
the earth. Orisa-nla took with him Orunmila, the oracle divinity, as
his advisor and counselor. The mission was to plant trees and to
give food and wealth to humans. He provided the palm tree to be
planted to provide food, drink, oil and leaves for shelter.
Following the equipping of the earth, Orisa-nla was asked to lead a
delegation of sixteen persons already created by Olodumare. To
populate the earth, Olodumare asked Orisa-nla to mold human forms.
Orisa-nla molded human forms and kept them lifeless. Occasionally,
Olodumare would come and breathe life into these forms. All that
Orisa-nla could do was to mold the lifeless, human forms, but he
lacked the power to give them life. The creation of life was
entrusted to the Supreme God, Olodumare. It is said that Orisa-nla
became envious of Olodumare for not sharing the ability to create
life with him. So one day, when he had finished molding human forms,
he hid himself in with the forms overnight so that he could watch
Olodumare. But, Olodumare, being all knowing, put Orisa-nla to
sleep, and when he awoke, the molded human forms had come to life (Parrinder
1967). This is the story of the creation as told by the Yoruba.
- He is Unique. The Yoruba believe that Olodumare is
unique. This means that He is the only one; there is no one like
Him. It is this belief in his uniqueness that prevents people from
creating graven images or pictorial paintings of Him. There are
symbols or emblems but no images for nothing can be compared to Him.
Perhaps, this is the reason foreign observers of the people's
religion mistakenly assume that Olodumare is a withdrawn God about
whom men are uncertain.
- He is Omnipotent. As omnipotent, the Yoruba
believe that with Olodumare, nothing is impossible. They describe
Him as "Oba a se kan" meaning the King whose works are done to
perfection. The idea is that when He sanctions something it is
easily done. The Yoruba have a saying: "A dun ise bi ohun ti
Olodumare lowo si, a soro bi ohun ko lowo si (anything that receives
the approval of Olodumare is easy; what he does not sanction is
difficult)". This is why He is known as "Olorun Alagbara"-the
powerful God. He is also called "oba ti dandan re ki iseke", the
king whose biddings are never unfulfilled.
- He is Immortal. The Olodumare never dies. The
Yoruba believe that it is unimaginable for Elemi (the owner of life)
to die. They praise him by singing "A ki igbo iku Olodumare” meaning
He is an unmovable rock that never dies.
- He is Omniscient. Olodumare knows everything.
There is nothing hidden from Him. He is the wise one. Everything is
within the reach of Olodumare. The knowledge of God penetrates all
things (Mbiti, 1975). The Yoruba people often describe Him as "A-rinu-rode
Olumo okan " (the one who sees both inside and outside).
- He is King and Judge. The Yoruba see the Olodumare in the
important position of King. The people often call Him "Oba Orun"
(the King of Heaven). He is sometimes referred as "Oba dake dajo",
the King who sits in silence and dispenses judgment.
- Olorun, the sky God. Olorun, who is known as
Olodumare, is the Sky God which is reminiscent to the
Judeo-Christian God and the Muslim Allah. The sky God is the creator
of all things and other deities, and, like the Nyame of Ashanti and
other West African cultures, He stands above and beyond other lesser
gods. Unlike other deities, Olodumare is not worshipped, prayers are
addressed to him but no sacrifices are offered. Not only does
Olodumare create, sustain and protect men, He also shields men from
mechanizations of other men. Nevertheless, Olodumare is neither so
remote nor unconnected that He does not intervene in affairs on
earth. Most of the sacrifices prescribed by Babalawo-the, his
priest, are taken to Olorun by Eshu. According to the Yoruba, all
men are children of God. As the deity who assigns and controls the
individual destinies of mankind, Olorun can be considered as the God
of Destiny. What should be emphasized is that the Yoruba give the
Supreme Being various names and that the deities do not live
independent from the Supreme Being -Olorun. He is their creator.
The Role of the Divinities
To complete the reader's understanding of Yoruba belief, it is also
important to understand the divinities. The paper will now identify
the divinities and explain their roles.
- Eshu, the Divine Messenger. Eshu, also known as
Elegba or Elegbara, is the youngest and cleverest of the deities (Bascom,
1969). He is the divine messenger who delivers sacrifices prescribed
by the Babalawo to Olorun after they have been placed at his shrine.
The shrine is made up of a simple chunk of literate (red sand) found
in Ife, Nigeria. The Yoruba people believe Eshu is a trickster who
delights in making trouble; that he serves other deities by making
trouble for human beings who offend or neglect them. As an
illustration, let’s say Sango, a God of Thunder, desires to kill a
person with lightning. He must first ask Eshu to clear the road for
him. Eshu may use various punishments at his disposal. The Yoruba
knows Eshu as the law enforcer because he punishes those who fail to
make sacrifices prescribed by the high priests and rewards those who
do. When any of the deities desire to reward those on earth, they
send Eshu to do it. Western scholars have made concerted efforts to
paint Eshu as the equivalent of the Judeo-Christian "Devil". This is
not true. Eshu's role is that of a messenger who delivers sacrifices
to Olorun and does good for other deities. His remarkable
even-handedness in his role as divine enforcer is not consistent
with identification as Satan by Christians and Muslims (Bascom
1969). Regardless of what deity one serves, everyone prays to Eshu
frequently so that he will not trouble them.
- Ifa, the God of Divination. Ifa is the god (deity) of
divination and a close friend to Eshu. He is known as the clerk for
other deities and he is thought of as the high priest (known in the
Yoruba language as Babalawo). Babalawo is often described as a
learned man or scholar because of his knowledge and wisdom in the
Ifa verses. He serves as the interpreter between the gods and
humans. Olorun, the Supreme God, gave him power to speak for the
gods and communicate with human beings through divination. For
example, when a god of Thunder or any deity wants a special
sacrifice, he sends messages to the human beings on earth through
Ifa. Importantly, Ifa is the one who transmits and interprets the
wishes of Olorun to mankind. He prescribes the sacrifices that Eshu
carries with him. Whatever personal deities one may worship, all
believers in the Yoruba religion turn to Ifa in time of trouble.
Based on the advice of the Babalawo, appropriate sacrifices to Eshu
are identified and made through Eshu to Olorun (Bascom 1969). Not
all worshippers of Ifa can become Babalawo. The title of Babalawo is
only given to special worshippers who have a vast mastery of Ifa. It
requires an expensive initiation plus years of apprenticeship to
learn the figures, sacrifices and medicines.
- Odua, the Creator of the Earth and His Allies. Odua, is
known as Oduduwa. The people of Yoruba believe that he is the
creator of the Earth. He is considered as the progenitor of all
Yoruba and the first to rule the earth as king of Ife.
- Orishala, the God of Whiteness and His Allies. Orishala
or Oshala is best described as the God of Whiteness. He is believed
to be the creator of mankind, having made the first man and woman.
He has the role of fashioning the form of human beings in the womb
before they are born. Working in the darkness with a knife, he
shapes their bodies like a carver, and then separates the arms,
legs, fingers and toes and opens the eyes, nose and mouth. He is
also called Olorun the sculptor. Those that he fashioned as albinos
(afin), hunchbacks (abuke), cripples (aro), dwarfs (arara) and mutes
(Odi) are sacred to Orishala. They are not the result of mistakes;
he makes them to mark them as his worshippers so that his worship
will not be forgotten. Orishala is known as "King of the White
Cloth" (Obatala). His worshippers may wear other clothes, but white
is the proper attire.
- Ogun, the God of Iron. Ogun is the God of Iron and the
patron of all those who use iron tools. He is known to be the patron
of hunters, and various warriors and, thus, God of war, a patron of
blacksmiths, barbers and, in recent times, a patron of locomotives
and automobile drivers. The Yoruba’s believe that without Ogun,
people could not have their hair cut, farms could not be tilled,
paths and water holes would be overgrown with weeds and no one could
have made fire without the strike lights which were used before
matches were imported. The other deities are dependent on Ogun
because he clears the path for them with his machete. He is renowned
as a blacksmith and a warrior. If Ogun is annoyed or fighting with a
person any of the following could cause the death of that person.
For example, the person may be bitten by a snake, shot by a hunter,
injured in a traffic accident, cut with a knife or a blacksmith may
pound his finger. Ogun is always used for swearing an oath just as
Christians use the Bible for swearing oaths.
- Oranmiyan, the Son of Ogun and Odua. Oramiyan or Oranyan
is said to have two fathers, Ogun and Odua. A myth tells how Ogun
brought back many slaves from war and gave them all to Odua, the
king, except a woman known as Lankange. Because Ogun loved Lankange,
he kept her himself. When Odua learned of Ogun’s deed, he commanded
Ogun to bring Lankange to him. Before Ogun did, he explained that he
had intercourse with the Lankange. Nevertheless, Odua took Lankange
as his wife. When Lankange gave birth to Oranmiyan, the son was half
white skinned like Odua and half black skinned like Ogun (Bascom,
- Shango, the God of Thunder. Shango is the God of Thunder
and the son of Oranmiyan. Living in the sky, he hurls thunderstorms
to earth killing those who offend him or setting their houses
ablaze. Shango fights with troublemakers and those who use bad
medicines to harm others, as well as worshippers who offend him.
Shango is likened to fire because when he spoke, fire came from his
mouth. He is revered for his magical powers. According to myth,
Shango left Ile Ife (a town in Southwest Nigeria) when he was
defeated in a magical contest and hung himself. When lightning
flashes, his worshippers shout: "The King does not hang himself" (Oba
ko so) (Tidjani-Serpos, 1996).
The people of Yoruba, like the Akan of Ghana, have acknowledged
Olorun 's providential care and other lesser gods that people approach
when in trouble. It is believed that most of the lesser gods are
agents of Olorun or the Supreme God. Olorun does not destroy life, he
creates and nourishes life. He is the one who assigns destiny. When
Olorun gives you sickness, he provides one with the appropriate
medicines. Before a child is born, the guardian souls appears before
Olorun, the Sky God to receive a new body, new breath and its destiny
for its life on earth. Kneeling before Olorun, this soul is given the
opportunity to choose its own destiny. It is believed that the soul
may make any request be it reasonable or unreasonable. Destiny
involves a fixed day upon which the soul must return to heaven and it
involves the individual’s personality, occupation and luck. The time
of one's death cannot be postponed, but other aspects of one's destiny
may be modified by human acts. The deities help individuals enjoy the
destiny promised by God (Olorun). As a result, throughout one's life,
one makes sacrifices to his ancestral guardian and the deities. The
charms and medicines are prescribed by Babalawo to assist individuals
when in trouble. When one is in trouble, one consults a diviner of the
God of Ifa (Babalawo) to determine what should be done to improve
one's lot on earth.
The Yoruba believes that when one dies, one makes farewell visits
to the clan members. If a person lived a full span of life, his
multiple souls proceed to the afterworld where the Sky God lives. When
the soul reaches heaven, the soul gives an account before Olorun. If a
man has been good and kind on earth his souls are sent to good heaven
(orun rere). If his deeds have been bad, such as poisoning his
neighbor, committing murder and engaging in deceit he is condemned to
bad heaven (orun buru) or to “orun apadi” (hell) by the Sky God. Those
who did not live their full life remain on earth as ghosts. For
example, one whose life was cut short by an automobile accident will
exist on earth as a ghost. One thing is certain about the destiny
assigned; any mortal cannot change it.
If every human being comes to the world with a prefixed destiny,
and if Olorun is so kind, how do the Yoruba’s explain occurrences of
premature death? The people in Yorubaland try to react to such
incidents in the following ways: First, the person might have offended
the lesser gods thereby bringing the punishment to himself. Second,
the person might have been destined to the occurrence and this is what
he requested from Olorun before being born. Third, a Yoruba person may
blame other persons for putting a "spell" on him thereby causing the
misfortune. Consequently, the Yoruba people believe in Olorun's power
of benevolence yet they hold that it is possible for both men and
supernatural powers to induce men to engage in certain acts that will
interfere with Olorun's appointed destiny for each individual human
being. So when misfortunes occur no one blames Olorun instead the
Yoruba believe that it is the untrustworthiness of agents (deities) of
Olorun that are responsible (Agyakwa 1996, p.59).
The central question is: How could the African Creator, such as the
Olodumare be Supreme yet unworshipped? The answer to this question has
led S.S. Farrow, J.O. Lucas and, others to misunderstand the functions
and the relationships between the deities and Olodumare (Awolalu p.
7). In response to Farrow and Lucas, John Mbiti and Bolaji Idowu
clarify this misunderstanding that has beset African monotheism. These
eminent scholars offer evidence that" African supreme Gods were, in
fact, closely involved in human affairs and were objects of religious
worship in many societies" (Ray 2000, p. 25-26). Both scholars
emphasized that the “African concept of God rightly fits the model of
Judeo-Christian monotheism" (Ibid.). Bolaji Idowu in Olodumare: God in
Yoruba Belief presents evidence that the concept of the Supreme Being
is a Monotheistic principle of the Yoruba religion. According to Idowu,
Yoruba religion is a "diffused monotheism" in that the many Yoruba
divinities are "no more than conceptualizations of attributes of
Olodumare" the Yoruba Supreme God (qtd. in Ray). As Ray points out in
African Religions: Symbol, Ritual and Community ", Idowu based his
interpretation on the fact that Yoruba religion conceives Olodumare as
the ruler (Oba) and the lesser gods can be thought of as his
ministers, analogous to the political hierarchy of the tradition in
which the Yoruba king rules through subordinates of his ministers (see
Awolalu, p. 17-18; Ray 2000, p. 26). Another different perspective
that supports Idowu’s observations is offered by Philip John Niemark’s
work: The Way of Orisha which regards Olodumare as a supreme God of
the Yoruba religion which means that the Yoruba God is monotheistic.
He perceives many orisha or deities as "energy" forces or
intermediaries to Olodumare, who deal with human beings in their
everyday affairs or frustrates the fulfillment of destinies on earth
(See Neimark, p.14 and Ray. p. 26). In order to put the argument of
whether the God of Yoruba is monotheistic to rest, Ray writes:
Like a Yoruba ruler, or oba, Olodumare reigns supreme in the
distant sky and rules the world through his intermediaries, the
orisha The sky dwelling Olodumare is transcendent, all knowing, and
all-powerful. Unlike the orisha, he has no temples or priests, and
no sacrifices or offerings made to him because his will cannot be
influenced or changed. Yet Olodumare may be invoked by anyone,
anywhere, at any time and let him know their needs (Ibid. p. 10).
Opoku (1978) supports Ray’s position that it is erroneous to
describe the Yoruba religion as polytheism. According to Opoku,
. . . ‘polytheism’ is grossly inadequate as a description of
African traditional religion, for a religion cannot be said to be
polytheistic merely because there exist many divinities in that
religion. The key question with regard to polytheism remains the
relationship between the gods in the pantheon, and here, the
religious beliefs of the Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks, which
are examples of classical polytheism, can throw considerable light
on our understanding of the term. In classical polytheism, the gods
in the pantheon were all independent of one another. One of the gods
might be regarded as the chief, but he was never regarded as the
creator of the other gods.
In African traditional religion, however, the picture is quite
different. God, or the Supreme Being, is outside the pantheon of
gods. He is the eternal Creator of all the other gods, and of men
and the universe. This makes Him absolutely unique, and He is
differentiated from the other gods in having a special name. This
name is always in the singular, and it is not a generic name, like
Obosom (Akan) or Orisha (Yoruba). All the other divinities have a
generic name in addition to their specific names. This is the
Africans’ way of showing the uniqueness of God (p. 5).
This illustrates the hierarchical structure of the Yoruba
tradition. According to Awolalu he regrets that some people who write
on Yoruba religion fail to appreciate the interaction of culture and
how this transmits into Yoruba religious beliefs. The use of the
secular realm to illustrate monotheism of the Yoruba concept of God is
to demonstrate the position of the Oba as "pontifex maximus" (Awolalu,
p. 17) and significantly, that Olodumare represents the conceptual one
God as perceived in western culture. Awolalu notes that in this
manner, Olodumare has the final say (Awolalu, p. 17). This
misinterpretation of the position of the Olodumare has led
Tidjani-Serpos to caution us that:
Yes, we can, with humility and tolerance, critically listen to
the critique of our cultural heritage, without, however, refusing to
be fully in tune with our time. We can calmly and quite openly
discuss our past without choosing to look at our own culture from
the standpoint of other peoples value (Tidjani-Serpos: 1996, p.18).
That is the reason scholars such as Mbiti, Idowu, Awolalu, just to
mention a few, do not want to institute a debate between the ancients
and modern beliefs but rather to set the record straight.
Early researchers were biased and prejudicial in their analysis
about the Yoruba concept of God. What we have learned by examining the
concept of God by the Yoruba is that the Yoruba religion is
monotheistic. From various names given to Olodumare, a clear picture
of God emerges. He is seen as the Lord of the sky, the Creator of all
mankind, the Giver of life and He is seen as invisible. Because of the
invisibility of God, the Yoruba make no concerted efforts to erect a
shrine of Him or any kind of "physical representation" (Opoku, p. 18).
Although, the deities are revered, they are created by God to serve
specific functions just as the angels are created to serve God.
- Agyakwa, K. O. (1996). The problem of evil according to Akan
and Whiteheadian metaphysical systems. ÌmódòyE: A journal of
African philosophy, 2, 45-61.
- Awolalu, J. O. (1979). Yoruba beliefs and sacrificial rites.
London: Longman Group Ltd.
- Bascom, W. (1969). The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria.
New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
- Idowu, E. B. (1962). Olodumare: God in Yoruba belief.
Ikeje: Longman Nigerian Plc.
- Idowu, E. B. (1975). African tradition religion.
Maryknoll, N. Y.: Orbis Books.
- Lucas, J.O. (1948). The religion of the Yorubas. Lagos,
- Mbiti, J. S. (1975). Introduction to African religion.
Postsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd.
- Niemark, P. J. (1993). The way of Orisha. New York:
- Opoku, K. A. (1978). West African traditional religion.
Accra, Ghana: FEP International Private Ltd.
- Parrinder, G. (1954). African traditional religion.
Westport: Greenwood Press.
- Parrinder, G. (1967). African mythology. New York: Peter
- Parrinder, G. (1969). Religion in Africa. New York:
- Ray, B.C. (2000). African religions: Symbol, ritual and
continuity (2nd ed). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:
- Tidjani-Serpos, N. (1996). The postcolonial condition: The
archeology of African knowledge: from the feat of Ogun and Sango to
the postcolonial creativity of Obatala. Research in African
Literatures, 27, 3-19.