Soteriology: A Comparative Study of Yoruba Ifa Mythology and Christianity (Series no. 5)

The Doctrinal And Philosophical Dimension of the Two Religions

 Yoruba Ifa Mythology – Doctrines and Practices

Some of the central issues in Yoruba Traditional Religion can be understood in terms of five fundamental beliefs or basic themes, which Idowu described as the structure of Afrel[12]. These include belief in God, belief in divinities, belief in spirits, belief in ancestors and belief in mysterious powers[13]. Ifa doctrine stipulates that God as the Supreme Being created Heaven and earth; He also brought hundreds of divinities and spirits (Orisa, Imole, and Ebora). Historical figures, such as kings, culture heroes, founders of cities, and so on, were deified and are invoked along with personifications of natural forces such as earth, wind, trees, river, lagoon, sea, rock, hills, and mountains. The Yorubas believe the Orisas‘ are emissaries of Olodumare from whom they emanated. Each Orisa exhibits the polarities, expressed as personalities called ‘Roads’ or ‘Paths’ of the Orisa. Offering Orisa the particular favorite foods and other gifts are done through offerings. These Orisas are contacted during a bembe where one or more of their priests will be mounted in the form of highly spiritualized trance possession. This possession by an Orisa is an integral part of the religious ritual as it serves as a means of communicating with the forces that supposedly lead to Olodumare (God). 

 The five layers of the Yoruba Spirituality are Olodumare (the Supreme Being); Orisa (deities); Egungun (the ancestral deities); the Kings, Queens, Chiefs, Priests and Priestesses; and the devotees. The first three layers consist of spiritual beings, while the last two layers consist of human beings. The Yoruba universe has a “heaven” and an “earth,” which differs from the Western view. The Yoruba divides the physical world into two planes, the upper Outer-world and the world of the living (Aye). This universe is often pictured as a sphere. Or is the home of Olodumare, the Creator and Supreme Being. It is also home to the Orisas, ancestral spirits, and Egungun. The heavenly plane (Orun) has two dimensions: good Heaven and bad Heaven. Earthly deeds and character decide which Heaven one travels to when one dies. It was not until 1850 AD, with the influence of Christianity and Islam, that a “devil” was assigned to the Yoruba spiritual system[14].


Orisas are regarded as guiding spirits, and according to Ifa, every person has a guiding spirit. Ifa literary corpus consists of two parts, namely Odu and Ese. The corpus is divided into 256 distinct volumes called Odu, and each Odu is sub-divided into numerous chapters identified as ese. The number of Odu is known, but the number of ese in each Odu is unknown.There are two main categories of Odu. The first category is the sixteen principal Odu known as Oju Odu. The second category is the two hundred and forty called Omo Odu, or Amulu Odu (Minor Odu). These Odus‘ are regarded as divinities in their own right. The Odu myth says they came from Heaven as promised by Orunmila to perform some of the functions he used to perform when he was on earth. When the sixteen principal Odu came from Heaven, Ofun meji was their leader. The myth says the ranks of the sixteen principal Odu changed on earth from the one in Heaven; the ranks according to the myth was reversed in their order of procession when they reached the frontier gate separating Heaven from the earth so that the 16th and the most junior Odu became the first. So on until the first Odu, the most senior became the 16th. 

Hence the ranking of the sixteen-principal Odu was completely reversed and the new order became permanent: Eji Ogbe, Oyeku Meji, Iwori Meji, Odi Meji, Irosun Meji, Owonrin Meji, Obara Meji, Okanran Meji, Ogunda Meji, Osa Meji, Ika Meji, Oturupon Meji, Otua Meji, Irete Meji, Ose Meji, and Ofun Meji. Today Eji Ogbe is regarded as the most senior Odu, but any time an Ifa priest casts Ofun Meji, he hails him as king, saying heepa (I hail you). The Minor Odus’ are also regarded as divinities; their names are a combination of two principal Odus.’ The 240 minor Odus’ usually are arranged in twelve groups. Each group is known as Apola (section). The twelve groups bear the names of twelve of the sixteen principal Odus’. The Ifa priests to arrive at the signature of each Odu use both the sacred palm-nuts and the divining chain alternatively.

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