Yorùbá cosmologies in the Americas

Zainabu Jallo

Many people in the Americas and the Caribbean trace their ancestry to West Africa. Although in West Africa so-called traditional religions such as the Yorùbá worship of Òrìṣà have declined considerably under the influence of Islam and Christianity, religions derived from West African cosmologies are predominant in the transatlantic diaspora. Here ritual practices in honour of Yorùbá Òrìṣà have been blended with diverse indigenous and Christian belief systems. While nurturing a diasporic consciousness in a tribute to their African ancestry, American and Caribbean Orixá religious traditions have, over the years, transcended racial markers to accommodate just about anyone who wishes to subscribe to its beliefs.

Priestess Mãe de Santo Tânia Pereira de Jesus explains what happens during a Candomblé initiation ritual in the Terreiro Ilê Logundê Alakay Koysan. An excerpt from the documentary “Leben mit den Göttern. Afrobrasilianischer Candomblé in Salvador da Bahia (Life with the Gods. Afro-Brazilian Candomblé in Salvador da Bahia).” With kind permission of the Weltkulturenmuseum Frankfurt/Mona Suhrbier.

From the early 1500s, slave ships from Africa adorned with the flags of Portugal began to arrive in the first slave port in the Americas, Salvador da Bahia, the first capital city in a North-Eastern state of Brazil. In the nineteenth century, Yorùbáland became one of the major slave-exporting regions in Africa. This enforced migration was the first phase of transferring different forms of African religions – of which the Yorùbá Òrìṣà was prominent – to other regions of the world. Following the abolition of the slave trade in the 1900s, the voyages undertaken by freed slaves as well as other Africans between Bahia and the West African port city of Lagos resulted in the transmigration of more Yorùbá-speaking people to Brazil. Through this transatlantic experience a Yorùbá identity emerged in Brazil that also appealed to many people who did not originally come from a Yorùbá heritage, but who subscribed to the Brazilian Yorùbá religious identity through conversion.

Through forced migration religious practices based on Yorùbá cosmologic beliefs developed not only in Brazil but across the Americas. The worship of Orixás emerged in almost every region where Yorùbá-speaking slaves were transported. Regional examples can be found in the Candomblé and Umbanda religions of Brazil, Santéria in Cuba or Vodou in Haiti, which derives from doctrines of Dahomey (located in the present-day Republic of Benin).

Religions of African genus in the Americas and the Caribbean are territorially varied. What many of them have in common, however, are similar sacred rites, dogmas, ritual lingua and even reverence of the same gods, spelled and pronounced with slight phonological differences that disclose a shared ancestry. Central to many of them is the belief in Olódùmarè as the supreme deity, assisted by intermediary deities called Orixás. That is also the case for Candomblé practitioners, known as povo do santo (people of the saint). Orixás are believed to be affiliated to specific elements of nature, who come to earth where they possess humans in a trance. At the same time, the Orixás are characterized by emotions that bring them closer to human beings. Orixás feel indignation, envy, they love excessively and are also passionate. Each Orixá also has a specific symbolic classification composed of colours, food, songs, prayers, locations, physical spaces and schedules. In addition to the veneration of anthropomorphic deities, the Yorùbá ritual ceremonies comprise spirit possession via music and dance, blood sacrifices and healing. Sacred drumming and dancing are integral parts of Candomblé rituals.

Batá drumming for the Orixá Oshun in Cuban Santéria
Video © Tim Harrison / Wikimedia commons

In Brazilian Candomblé, the effort to retain religious practices under indigenous configurations has led to the development of different sects (referred to as naçãos). The Ketu faction, named after one of the Yorùbá’s ancient capitals in today’s Republic of Benin, is the largest, followed by Jejé and Bantu. Following the introduction of a Civil Code in 1890, the practice of Candomblé was demonised and severely prosecuted by the Catholic Church and practitioners encountered police repression as the authorities described the practice of Candomblé as black magic, sorcery and generally a menace to Brazilian society. Its survival was partly by virtue of the persistence of worshipping Òrìxàs in the guise of Catholic saints. For a purely oral religious practice with no liturgical scripts, Candomblé is remarkably enduring, transcending its ancestral markers to become one of Brazil’s most popular religions.

Header photo © Toluaye / Wikimedia commons