Yoruba History Vol. 6


08 February 2021

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The religion of the Yoruba people originated thousands of years ago and is a tradition of nature worship and ancestor reverence (Yoruba Religion, n.d.). The Yoruba worship one god called Olodumare, and also hundreds of deities known as Orishas, who are personified aspects of nature and spirit. The principal Orishas include Eleggua, Ogun, Ochosi, Obatala, Yemoja, Oshun, Shango, Oya, Baba lu-Aiye, and Orunla’ (Yoruba Religion, n.d.). The multiplicity of gods is seen by the Yoruba people, not as messengers or subordinate beings, but as aspects or facets of the same divine force. They are part manifestation of the divine spirit and each Orisha is accessible to different people. This concept is explained in the myth of Orishanla (Obatala) which explains that all divinities are part of the same arch-divinity and that the divine spirit is scattered throughout the world and can be found everywhere: in people, animals, trees and rocks. Olodumare is the considered the Supreme Deity, the creator of the universe, the controller of destiny and the Source Being, who puts beings in person, without which people cannot become a living, rational or ‘intelligent’ being.


The Yoruba conceive of the cosmos as two distinct yet inseparable realms. The tangible world of the living is called aye. The spiritual world of the ancestors, spirits and gods is called Orun. Forces from Orun frequently visit aye and exert a strong influence over the lives of humans. Although the mythology of the Yoruba originated thousands of years ago and today the Yoruba people lead very different lives to their ancestors, their mythology is still an integral part of their everyday life. Possibly one of the reasons the Yoruba mythology retains such a strong influence over the everyday lives of the Yoruba is the people’s belief that the myths of the past must be accessible and essential as a model for the present. They believe that the myths and rituals of their religion are only efficacious when they are, ‘performed regularly according to tenets from the past and creatively re-presented to suit the present.’


The myths of Yoruba have four main functions. Firstly, there are the myths which are basically religious, from these we can learn about the Yoruba world view. Secondly there are the folk-tales, which are considered myths because the protagonists happen to bear the names of gods. Next are the historical myths which often have a political function. Lastly there are the instructional myths. Their major function is to provide and precedent and help the priest to advise his clients on the right course of action.


A question as to the nature of humankind, who controls its destiny and the finality, or otherwise of death has been asked by all humans throughout the ages. The answers to these questions have been speculated and symbolized in myth (Saxby, 1987). The religious myths of the Yoruba show us the world view of the Yoruba. They show us how the creation of the world and everything in it is explained and they explain the meaning of life and death.


The myth of Obatala the creator is a good example of a religious myth which defines the world view of the Yoruba people (see Appendix). In this myth the god Obatala becomes drunk and while so creates cripples and blind people. The myth shows the humanitarian attitude of the Yoruba people. Their gods have taken responsibility for the creation of all people’s including cripples and the blind and so all must be looked after by the Yoruba people and are in fact given special status. The myth of the Sun is another example of a religious myth (see Appendix). The purpose of this myth is to prove the power of divine intervention.


Yoruba myths, like those of other cultures do not always have a deep religious content. ‘Sometimes, gods merely appear as the dramatis personae in the literary invention of a story-teller.’ Good examples of Yoruba myths which can be considered folktales are the stories which feature Ijapa or Tortoise. These Tortoise tales have no religious significance and are popular with children. Like western folktales they are comments on life and the human character. Ogun and the food-seller are another example of a Yoruba myth which may consider a folktale. It tells the story of a poor woman who feeds Ogun and his men who have just returned from war with much booty. The woman gives them everything she has and as reward, Ogun makes her rich with a large part of his booty.


Many of the Yoruba myths are historical and also highly political. According to Ruthven, ‘the politicization of myth is seen most strikingly in the creation of ethno genic fables which enable the politically ambitious to declare themselves heirs to antiquity.’ The Yoruba have many examples of ethno genic fables in their mythology, for example the myth of the creation of the land (see Appendix). This myth tries to establish the claim to seniority of the city of Ife over other Yoruba towns. This claim was later challenged in another myth by the Oyo Empire who claimed that one of their towns was older and therefore more senior.


Priests tell instructional myths to their clients in order to advise them on the correct course of action. One such myth is the myth of Obatala and Ojiya. In this myth a blind fisherman who is having his fish stolen, consults the oracle and makes the proper sacrifices and so is given the gift of sight to enable him to see the thief. He discovers the thief is the god Obatala, and in return for his silence Obatala gives him back his sight permanently. The lesson of this myth is clearly that those who make the correct sacrifices to the oracle will succeed and be rewarded even if their opponent is one of the great gods.


The myths of the Yoruba people are quite clearly not religious scraps or fragments but a complete system of culture, religion and a guide to the Yoruba way of life. The Yoruba people have maintained their mythology by changing it to reflect the world in which they find themselves. Their mythology is undeniably an account of the human situation in all its predicaments and possibilities and while it obviously not only speaks to the Yoruba people but continues to guide their lives, the mythology also has messages which may apply to us all.


Narrow Path


In Tunde Kelani’s The Narrow Path, the story follows a woman by the name of Awero. In her village she is considered very beautiful. She has come of age to be married and she begins considering her options on marriage. Awero is courted by two men. One is a hunter from the Agbade village, and one is a goldsmith from Aku village. Both of these men wish to have her hand in marriage and they both have their own approach to try and win over Awero. The hunter focuses on the love that she would receive in a marriage with him, and he is more subtle. While the goldsmith is more aggressive, and he parades his money at her. Another man enters Awero’s life, the leader of a Troupe in Africa. He forces himself on her, and she is traumatized by this experience. Awero decides to keep the event to herself and chooses the hunter to be her suitor. Her family approves of him and date for her wedding is set. They have a quick marriage. And the hunter is excited about consummating their wedding. But, though the hunter, Odejemi, is excited for their marriage, Awero is having nightmares and is falling into a depression as she thought of everyone finding out her truth. The movie has a happy ending, but political walls are pushed between two villages.


There are a lot of hidden messages in this movie that the film director, Kelani wishes to touch on. One of the main issues is women. In fact, Kelani dedicates this movie to women who have been through the same problems that Awero faced in this movie. Kelani sees the fact that there has been a problem with rape and how it is handled in the Yoruba culture. Looking at this film I think Kelani is calling for change on this issue; I especially see this in Kelani making the technical decision to include the rape scene from the book, in his movie. And then at the end of the movie, and apology from Awero’s rapist is acquired. I think this was Kelani’s way of almost giving closure to the audience on the topic of rape. It was closure for Awero’s story, but also for the audience, because he filmed this movie in a way that made the audience feel a part of her life experiences.


Another theme seen heavily in this movie was politics. There were two neighboring villages in this movie. Set up in the Elerin District, the Orita village and the Agbade village are spotlighted. The Orita village was beginning a brand-new school project in Orita when the walls of the new school were found destroyed by vandals. Unfortunately, the vandals were unknown. Because tensions were already brewing the finger was pointed at the Agbade village. The people of Orita were enraged. So, they decided to retaliate by setting some of the Agbade farms on fire. Both villages are angry with each other, and the district is on the brink of war. Some of the men of Orita are asked to confront the men of Agbade and the misunderstanding is worked out. I think when Kelani decided to incorporate politics, it added to the theme of misunderstanding that flowed throughout the movie. The fact that Awero was deflowered before her wedding was a misunderstanding, because she did not want it. Also, the almost war between the Orita village and the Agbade village was misunderstanding. Overall is believed Kelani’s message in this movie was about judgment. What I got from the movie was that before judging someone else, you should always take a second to hear them out; because assumption in this movie disgraced an entire family, and almost cause a war. I also think Kelani wants to send a message about woman, and to shed some light on some of the harsh traditions imposed on Yoruba women.

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