The Spiritual Heritage of the Yoruba

Scientific Essay, 2010

36 Pages, Grade: 1.0



It is certain that specialists on the Yoruba religion presented various models of Yoruba religion. The researcher will only cite the following scholars who are authorities on Yoruba religion. Johnson (1921), Peel (1968), Lucas (1948),Fadipe(1970),Idowu(1962), Shorter(1975) and Awolalu (1979)were the early authorities in Yoruba religion. Some recent writers on Yoruba religion are also used in this work. They include Adewale (1988), Oduyoye (2008), Omoleye(2005), Oborji (2005), Olurode and Olusanya(2010) and Etuk (2002). These authors are used because of their major contributions to the Yoruba religion, critical analysis of their work and their relevance to this study. The authors are also cited to support or to compare the researcher’s argument on Yoruba religion as means of linking the spiritual and physical worlds; and to link the Yoruba societal behavior to the spirit word.

The Yoruba, like many African ethnic groups, are highly religious. Most events of their lives have not only religious undertones but are interpreted with religious sentiments. Their religion is highly pragmatic and their worship of deity is to supply material things on earth.1 Adewale points out that the Yoruba traditional religion prayer centers ‘primarily on material things here on earth’. According to him, the contents of the Yoruba’s prayers are divided into three parts. They include owo( wealth ),omo (children ) and Alaafia (peace ).2 Shorter stresses the importance of prayer in African people. He is of the opinion that Supreme Being is experienced directly in life and worshipped directly in prayer. Thus, Africans, through prayers, have concept of ‘strict theism.’ However, there is element of ‘relative theism’ in their religious practices because they can also offer prayers to the Supreme Being through divinities.3 Brinkman affirms that the presence of lower deities and ancestors are not rivals of the Supreme God, rather they compliment the belief in the Supreme God. Lesser gods serve the Supreme Being and worshipping them implies worshipping Him. Hence, because of the relationship between the Supreme God and other deities it is impossible to characterize African religion as monotheistic or polytheistic.4 Parrinder further argues that in African religion and practices, there are concepts of monotheism, polytheism and pantheism. An attempt to remove any one of the above concepts will not give a through picture of the primal religion.5

Harold Turner gives a six major feature framework for understanding of African traditional religion. According to him, they include a sense of kinship with nature, man is finite, weak and impure and he is in need of powers not of his own in the universe. There are spiritual beings in the universe that are more powerful than man is. He has access to tap from such spiritual powers for blessings and protection against evil forces. Others are the belief in the reality of the afterlife, which leads to the cult of ancestors and the fusion of the physical and the spiritual in explaining realities of life in the universe.6

The Yoruba strongly believe in Olodumare, the Supreme Being and the ‘Prime Mover’ who is the Creator of all things, from whom everything on earth and heaven emanated.7 Fadipe argues that Olorun ( Owner of the sky or the Lord of heaven ) is the Controller of destinies who goes nowhere and stands tall in Yoruba religion.8 Olodumare is believed to be the ever-present and at the same time can be seen everywhere. Although the belief in Olodumare stands out in Yoruba spiritual heritage, they also believe in other spiritual beings. According to the Yoruba and other African groups, the existence of other spiritual beings is meaningless apart from the existence of Olodumare who creates and sustains all things.

The Yoruba’s belief consists not only of the Supreme Being and numerous divinities called Orisa, but also of a conglomeration of spirits, ancestral forces and psychic agencies. Hallgren argues that to doubt the existence of Olodumare among the Yoruba and other African ethnic groups would be like doubting the existence of Kings.9 Ullii Beier, a German scholar contends that the Yoruba see the multiplicity of orisa merely aspect of the same divine force.10 Jone, a British scholar contends that the Yoruba believe in the Olodumare, and their thoughts are daily directed to Him through orisa, the lesser gods.11

Debate on Olodumare

Before one begins to enumerate the belief of the Yoruba in Olodumare, it is expedient to discuss the debate on the belief on Supreme Being among African theologians. The debate is between the ‘devout scholars’ and the ‘de-Hellenist’ scholars. Idowu, one of the major voices of the ‘devout scholars’ bases his argument on Supreme Being around the African gods. In his argument, he indicates that the supreme role of Olodumare in African religion reveals in His relation to spirits, ancestors and the believers. In other words, the devout scholars stress the authenticity, significance and originality of the belief in the Supreme Being as the basis of monotheistic religion. Idowu, in his apologetic and theological approach recognizes the historical origin and the purity of Yoruba monotheism. Though his argument on monotheism of Olodumare is logically presented, yet his originality of Yoruba monotheism is debatable among religious scholars partly because of the crowd of divinities and spirits. Although, Idowu is aware of the presence of the existence of other spiritual beings and suggests ‘diffused monotheism.’ In his words: ‘Diffused monotheism, this has the advantage of showing that the religion is monotheism, though it is monotheism in which the good Deity delegates certain portion of his authority to certain divine functionaries who work as they are commissioned by Him. For a proper name, we unhesitatingly say that there can be other but, ‘ Olodumareism.’12 Idowu through the Yoruba belief, philosophy, theology and tradition affirms the originality of Yoruba monotheism. Again, he adopts the name Olodumare to prove the unity of the concept of Yoruba religion.

The ‘Hellenist scholars’ are of the opinion that ‘devout school’ is an overreaction to the Western theologians that underestimated the African traditional religion and culture. ‘Hellenist scholars’ further base their argument on the fact that African worldview is not concerned about abstract thinking or the metaphysical. Thus, concepts of omnipotence, transcendence, eternity, omnipresence and providence of Supreme Being are by product of Christianity in Africa.

Lucas, one of the staunch supporters of de-Hellenistic scholars, supports the Yoruba religion as monotheistic religion but differs a little from Idowu’s concept. He uses the word Olorun rather than Olodumare. According to Lucas, there is existence of monotheistic religion in every Yoruba land. He suggests the graduation of status of deities as Olorun (Owner of the sky) as the Supreme Being; but rejects the originality of monotheism of Yoruba religion. In his thought form, the idea of God conceived as monotheism in Yoruba religion is the influence of a higher civilized culture on Yoruba religion. Hence, this concept among the Yoruba is ‘too lofty and too sublime’13 to be originated from them. He also argues that Yoruba religious phraseology is also influenced by ancient Egypt. He points out that ‘the religion of the Yoruba stands in genetic relation to the religion of ancient Egypt.’14

Brinkman gives us a precise distinction of the above two schools of thought. In his words, ‘the devout scholars in particular emphasize the authenticity and originality of African ideas concerning a supreme God, whereas the ‘de-Hellenist’ sees these ideas exclusively as a pious (devout) construction by the devout scholars that no African reality can live up to.’15 The above tension is perennial because the argument continues to generate tension among African theologians. The researcher upholds the Hellenistic views of the Supreme Being because the Yoruba just like many African ethnicities attach more importance to physical objects rather than abstract thinking.

Idowu describes the Yoruba religion as monotheism and if monotheism is the belief in one God, it then follows that Idowu owes us more explanation about his monotheistic description of the Yoruba religion, because the significance of religion is not necessarily based on name but on the attitude of the worshippers to the object of worship. Again, if Idowu recognizes the existence of divinities as one of the beliefs of Yoruba religion and if belief is defined as the habit of mind in which the devotee trusts confidence in some persons or things, this reveals that the Yoruba do not only believe divinities but are also worship them. Where is the monotheism? The existence of divinities negates the biblical monotheism. The researcher appreciates Idowu for recognizing his pitfall on monotheism and his suggestion of the modified monotheism. Whether it is modified monotheism or not, the researcher is of the opinion that monotheism does not fit the description of Yoruba religion because the Yoruba believe in the existence of many gods who are known as orisa.

Again, belief within religious context means a statement of faith or creed of adherents of a religion that is inseparable from worship. Thus, belief in divinities and spirits is essential component of African traditional religion. Yoruba religion cannot be said of monotheistic religion if its adherents believe and repose their confidence in other spirit beings. Hence, Idowu’s monotheism is nothing but painting Yoruba religion with the eye of Christianity.16 His concept of monotheism is contrary to the concept of biblical monotheism where it is forbidden for Christians to have any other god besides the living God.

To the researcher and other Hellenistic scholars, the concepts of omnipotence, transcendence, eternity and providence are nothing but the influence of Christian concept of God on African concept of Supreme Being. Hence, our attributes of God below will be centered not on the abstract concept of God but on the Yoruba anthropomorphic expression of Olodumare.


The Yoruba, just like the Jews in the Old Testament, use anthropomorphic expressions in describing Olodumare’s attributes. Edumare is the Yoruba cognitive description of God. An understanding of the concept of Olodumare will not be fully grasped if we do not understand its etymological meaning. Etymologically, Olodumare comes from the Yoruba compound noun- Odu and osumare. Odu means a chief, bigness and vastness or an exalted person and osumare means rainbow. The suffix mare in osumare means splendour, dazzling, shining and glorious. Thus, Olodumare means the one who has the wholeness of glory and splendour, the one who clothes himself with the glorious light.17 Having known the etymological meaning of Olodumare, we shall now look at the concept and the attributes of Olodumare.

In Yoruba spiritual heritage, Olodumare is the Supreme Being whose power is not comparable. He is highly lifted up to the extent that no person can compare Him with anything. His majesty is beyond comparison. In the whole of Africa, no tribe has an image for God; yet, His presence is felt everywhere.18 The Yoruba believe that the Supreme Being is the ‘ultimate reality’, He is supreme and transcends all history; He is the source, the root, the cause and the ground of the religious formulation of the Africans.19

The Yoruba believe that Olodumare is real and personal. According to them, Olodumare creates acts, sees, blesses and punishes. They also believe in the transcendence of Olodumare. Thus, Olodumare is eternal, permanent, unchanging, reliable and dependable. Idowu summarizes the belief of the Yoruba in Olodumare as follows:

Yoruba theology emphasizes the unique status of Olodumare. He is Supreme over all on earth and in heaven, acknowledged by all the divinities as the Head to whom all authority belongs and all allegiance is due. He is not one among many; not even ‘Olodumare-in-council.’ His status of Supremacy is absolute. Things happen when he approves; things do not come to pass if he disapproves. In worship, the Yoruba hold Him ultimately First and Last; in man’s daily life, He has the pre-eminence.20

Olodumare as a King

Kingship is a basic feature of Yoruba spiritual heritage. The Yoruba brought their sociological interpretation into their theology and philosophical thinking about Olodumare. In the Yoruba sociological order, kings are highly respected because they are divine and representatives of their ancestors. Any time kings go out; they cover their faces with masks which are an integral part of their crown. Kings are not approached directly but through intermediaries. In the Yoruba social structure, it is a taboo for any person to approach the king directly; such a person must go through an intermediary. This sociological order is carried into Yoruba religion. The Yoruba believe that Olodumare is holy, mighty and incomparable. He must not be approached directly but through divinities and ancestors who serve as intermediaries between Olodumare and the Yoruba. Hence, Yoruba appeal or make sacrifices to Olodumare through divinities and ancestors.21

The Yoruba describe Olodumar e as Oba Orun or Olofin Orun – the King in heaven. They also see Him as the King second to none. He is Oba bi Olorun ko si - incomparable King. The one who has omnipotent power and His jurisdiction is seen in everything in the universe. Because God is the King who is all-knowing and all-seeing, the Yoruba say, Oba a-rinu-rode-Olumoran-okan – One who sees both the inside and outside of everyman, the Discerner of hearts. By consequence, Yoruba believe that the earthly king is powerful and very important but his power is limited when compared with God

Olodumare as the Creator

In Yoruba theology of creation, Olodumare is Eleda - the Creator. He is the Prime Mover of all things from whom everything both in heaven and on earth originated. In Yoruba’s cosmogony, Olodumare assigned and commissioned Orisa-nla, the arch-divinity to mould the human being from the soil. According to their account of creation, Orisa-nla was under the supervision of Eleda. Orisa-nla was to mould lifeless body while Olodumare breathed life into the lifeless body and it became a living being. This implies that the ultimate creation of human being is rested in the hand of Olodumare.22 Eleda does not only create but possesses the ultimate power to sustain everything He has created. Eleda, the Creator does not depend on the creatures but all creations depend on Him.23

God as a Judge

Another equally great attribute of God in Yoruba spiritual heritage is seen in justice. The Yoruba believe that God is the perfect Judge. Judgment of God involves: rewards, punishment and retribution. Thus, God is perfect in discharging His judgment. According to the Yoruba, God is the impartial Judge. He executes judgment without fear or favor. The Yoruba say, Oba a-dake-dajo – ‘The King who passes judgment in silence.’ It must be pointed out here that because God is morally just, His judgment is just and final. He rewards the righteous and punishes offenders.24

God as the Controller

As pointed out, Eleda created the universe through Orisa-nla, the arch–divinity; so the Yoruba strongly affirm that Olodumare controls and maintains the universe He has created. The Yoruba believe that the sun, the moon and the stars are under the control of Olodumare. Spirits, ancestors and divinities are created and controlled by Him. Olodumare did not only create them to be His messengers, but also use them to maintain orderliness in the universe.

According to the Yoruba myth of the revolt of the one thousand and seven hundred (1700) divinities, some divinities wanted to be self-governing as well as to control the universe. They did not want to be responsible to Olodumare. They asked Olodumare to allow them to control the universe for sixteen (16) years without taking orders from Him. Olodumare advised them to rule the universe for sixteen (16) days as an experiment. They all agreed with joy and pride. Immediately they left, Olodumare who has the absolute control of the universe switched off the machinery of the universe and the whole universe started to work contrary to its original course. These divinities tried to put everything in order, but all their labors were in vain. They found the universe ungovernable. Hence, within eight (8) days, they failed woefully. They realized their folly and came back to their senses. They went back to Olodumare and asked for forgiveness. Olodumare forgave them and switched on the machinery of the universe and everything began to work normally. This myth reveals the supremacy of Olodumare over everything He created.25

A comprehensive expression of the Yoruba belief in Olodumare is beyond the scope of this research. It is sufficient to establish that Yoruba believe in Olodumare who is All-powerful, the Sustainer and the Controller of all creation. Olodumare is uncreated, Immanent and all prayers are directed to Him through intermediaries. He is the Creator and the Controller of the universe but also the source of all wisdom, power, and strength and He is above everything that He created.26


Next to Olodumare are Orias- divinities . According to Idowu, the existence of Orisa is meaningless apart from Olodumare, who is their Creator. According to the Yoruba, divinities are the ministers of Olodumare and function in the theocratic government of the Olodumare. The total number of divinities varies between 201, 401, 600 and 1700.27 Divinities emanated from Olodumare; they are therefore considered divine beings. They are brought into being to serve Olodumare in maintenance of orderliness in the universe. They also serve as intermediaries between human beings and Olodumare. Each orisa has portfolio of office, sacred place of worship, worshippers and priests or priestesses who lead worship in the shrine. They receive sacrifices and Yoruba pray to Olodumare through them.28


1 R. Burgess ‘Freedom from the Faith for the Future: Nigerian Pentecostal Theology in a Global Perspective,’ Penteco Studies, 7 (2) 2008, 47.

2 S. A. Adewale, The Religion of the Yoruba: a Phenomenological Analysis (Ibadan: np. 1988), 55-58.

3 Aylward Shorter, Prayer in the Religious Traditions of Africa (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1975), 8-13.

4 Brinkman, The Non –Western Jesus, 212.

5 E. G. Parrinder, ‘Monotheism and Pantheism in Africa,’ Journal of Religion in Africa, 3(2) 1970, 81-88.

6 H. W. Turner, ‘The Primal religions of the World and the Study’ in: Victor Hayes (ed.), Australian Essays in World Religions (Bedford Park: Australian Association for World Religions 1977), 30-32.

7 Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, 30.

8 Fadipe, The Sociology of Yoruba Religion, 281 .

9 R. Hellgren The Good Things of Life: A Study of the Traditional Religious Culture of the Yoruba People (Sweden: Plus Ultra 1988), 23.

10 Ulli Beier, Yoruba Myths (Cambridge: Cambridge university Press, 1980), 62.

11 R. W. Jone, ‘Orisa Oko, the Goddess of the Farm and Agriculture’, Nigerian Magazine, 23, 1946, 118-121.

12 Idowu , Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, 221 .

13 J.O. Lucas, The Religion of the Yorubas, Lagos: (1948), 35-37.

14 Lucas, The Religion of the Yorubas, 342.

15 M. E. Brinkman, The Non-Western Jesus, 210.

16 Etuk, Religion and Cultural Identity, 164.

17 Oduyoye, The Vocabulary of Yoruba Religious Discourse, 31-33.

18 Awolalu and Dopamu, West African Traditional Religion, 117.

19 F. A. Oborji, Towards A Christian Theology of the African Religion, 2 .

20 Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, 56.

21 Awolalu and Dopamu , West African Traditional Religion, 118-119.

22 Awolalu and Dopamu, West African Traditional Religion, 47-48.

23 Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, 35.

24 Idowu, Olodumaree: God in Yoruba Belief 39.

25 Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, 54 -55.

26 S. Ola Fadeji, ‘Biblical and African Names of God: A Comparison’, Ogbomoso Journal of Theology, 5, December 1990, 30-32.

27 P. A. Dopamu, ‘The Yoruba Religious System in Africa’, African Update Archives 6 (3), 1999, 5.

28 Awolalu and Dopamu, West African Traditional Religion, 70-73.

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The Spiritual Heritage of the Yoruba
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