Introduction to Yoruba Religion


I have been interested in Yoruba religion ever since a Nigerian friend of mine introduced me to some of its beliefs. They made a lot of sense to me and seemed strikingly similar to what I know of Eastern religions that aim towards union with the divine (and thus all things).

I bought a book to find out more: The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts, by Baba Ifa Karade (Weiser Books, 1994).


He classifies Yoruba as a religion since it is “a divine journey to the inner self and to god-consciousness”. Its tenets revolve around that “oneness with the creative essence brings about a wholeness in the potential of the human essence”.

In Yoruba religion, there is one god, called Oludumare or Olorun, who is responsible for creation and the upkeep of what he made. He has deities who help to perform his work and act as links between mankind and himself. These holy messengers are equivalent to angles and are called orisha. In Yoruba, you must believe in orisha if you are to reach god-consciousness. Yoruba angels never fell from god’s grace.

There is a lot of misinterpretation of Yoruba religion, and its New World manifestations (Voudun, Santeria, Candomble, etc), and many confuse mysticism for occultism or “voodoo”. Karade insists on the necessity of understanding Yoruba history in order to understand the faith.


The Yoruba people migrated from East Africa, across the trans-African route from the mid-Nile river are to mid-Niger (explaining supposed similarities between Yoruba and Egyptian culture). They settled in the already-established Ile-Ife, sacred city of the indigenous Nok culture, between 2000 and 500 BC.

The Yoruba Empire grew with wars initially being fought for people to serve their land and only later, in the 15th and 16th centuries, to secure slaves for export. In this way, the Yoruba’s “most natural resource” was depleted with the greatest percentage of slaves sent to the New World, coming from the Yoruba nation. Many were political prisoners of elite soldiers and warrior-priests and initiated in the higher teachings so they had a good knowledge of the culture. They took this with them through the Middle Passage and thus it became a dominant theme for African descendants in the New World.

Meanwhile, on African soil, Europeans were bringing with them Christianity.

What resulted was a synthesis of religions. Some followed an interpretation of Christianity, based on African spirituality and practices, either denouncing or refusing to acknowledge traditional gods. Others kept their traditional beliefs and practices alongside Christianity, integrating them.

In order to keep the orisha alive, the Yoruba consciously disguised them as Christian saints and paid homage to them through Christian social-ritual performances. 

Catholicism made this easier because of its many saints and because the major enslavers were Spanish and Portuguese (Catholics), the religion was able to remain virtually intact. It manifested as Santeria (in Puerto Rico), Candomble (in Brazil), Shango (in Trinidad), Voodun (in Haiti) and Lucumi (in Cuba). Complete with language and cultural mannerisms intact!

It was harder to keep the religion alive where Africans were subjugated by an English Protestant dominant culture. 

There were significantly fewer patron saints and the lack of a tropical environment in North America meant there was little cultural relativity. 

The final straw to cutting the ties, according to Karade, was the practice of inbreeding African-American slaves which meant the end of “fresh ideas and religious fervor from newly-arrived enslaved prisoners”. ‑

November 2014
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