Home INTRODUCTION TO AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION CULT OF THE DIVINITIES IN AFRICA

CULT OF THE DIVINITIES IN AFRICA

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1.0 INTRODUCTION

As you have learnt in the earlier unit, the second element in the structure of the African Traditional Religion is the belief in the divinities. The worship of the divinities is more obvious in the African religion than any other forms of the religion. However, it has to be noted that there are several divinities and form of worship from one people group to another. Consequently, this unit shall focus on select divinities from select groups.

2.0 OBJECTIVES

By the end of this you unit, you should be able to:

  1. define who the divinities are 
  2. discuss the worship of some of the selected divinities 
  3. evaluate the position and the role of the divinities in African religion 
  4. give the historical background to the cult of the selected divinities 
  5. discuss the relationship between God and the divinities according to African belief. 

3.0 MAIN CONTENT

3.1 Who are the Divinities?

Iya Olamide, one of the priestesses of African Traditional Religion in her response to the identity of the divinities has this to say:

The Orisha are complex multivalent beings. The Orisha are aspects of God. Since we cannot know God, and the Orisha are a little easier to grasp in our understanding people concentrate more on the divinities. They are forces of nature. As such they exist everywhere. They are also forces in the human mind. Ogun is will. Yemoja is compassion. Obatala is reaon. Oshun stands for self esteem. The Orisha also embody values. They are also principles of life. Yemoja’s principle is that of nurture; Shango is for truth; Obatala stands for ethics; Oshun is for connectiveness and Oya is for change. Some consider the Orisha laws by which we must live our lives. Oshun’s law is love yourself while Shango’s is use your head. The Orisha also have reincarnated on the earth and achieved
Orishahood. There are stories about the apotheosis of Yemoja, Shango, Oya and Orisha-Oko, to name a few.Therefore the Orisha are also ancestors, however, a special category of ancestors.

This presentation on the identity of the divinities from this priestess has corroborated our earlier explanation about the nature and the categories of the divinities. The three different categories of the divinities are important facts that should be not be forgotten. There are the primordial divinities, the divinities of natural phenomenon and the deified heroes and ancestors.

3.2 Selected Divinities in some African Localities

It is absolutely impossible to discuss all the divinities in Africa simply because they are numerous and in different localities. Some are identical though their names are different. For example, there is a Yoruba invocative hymn that attempts to indicate the number of the divinities of Yoruba land. It would be translated thus:

I pay homage homage to the two hundred divinities of the right side
I pay homage homage to the two hundred divinities of the left side
I pay homage homage to the two hundred and sixty divinities that dwell on the way to heaven.

If one goes by this hymn, there would be nothing less than six hundred and sixty divinities in the Yoruba pantheon. Others think that they may be more than that. As had been asserted earlier, the Yoruba pantheon is an example of a full divinity in Africa. We will now treat some of the divinities of Yoruba pantheon and mention their counterpart in other parts of Africa. Other people groups will also be examined so that we can a representative account of the divinities in Africa.

Obatala

Obatala is the arch-divinity in Yoruba land. He is known by other names like: Orisa-nla and Ogiyan. Obatala is the creator-divinity. Myth has it that it was Obatala that Olodumare commissioned to create the earth and equip it with everything that humanity would need. He was also the one commissioned to create the physical bodies of human beings from the dust of the earth. It was however Olodumare’s prerogative to make the physical form made by Obatala a living being- the secret that was withheld from Obatala. Another myth has it that when Obatala grew jealous and curious and attempted to spy on Olodumare to detect how He makes the physical forms turn to living beings, Olodumare made him to fall into a deep slumber only to wake up after all the physical bodies had come alive. Note that this myth is another pointer to the fact that the divinities were not considered to be Deity and were not independent from Deity.
Obatala is regarded as the divinity of purity. The name Obatala implies the King of purity. This is the reason for the white colour of everything associated with him. His temple or shrine must be white-wahed. His priests and priestesses along with the followers are usually dressed in white. His emblems are white chalk and white beads. In fact it is a taboo for anyone to bring palm-oil close to his shrine. There is usually in the shrine water drawn from the spring in the early hours of the morning (that is before anybody gets to the spring). The water must be drawn by a virgin who has not started menstruation or an old woman at menopause. This again implies that blood of any kind do not come to pollute his shrine. The water drawn at drawn too implies unpolluted water. This nature of Obatala demands from his adherents a life of purity, honesty and one set apart from pollution. In all things, Obatala represents the holiness of God.

Obatala is worshipped all over the Yoruba Empire and beyond as seen in the resuscitation of African religions in the West today. Barren women, those afflicted with inexplicable diseases, and those facing problem during the crises of life take their petition to him for solutions. Water taken from his shrine is also given to the sick or invalids for their cure.

Orunmila

Orunmila is the great oracle divinity and is also known as ha. This is a divinity which one can be said is worshipped throughout Africa under different names. However, according to Yoruba mythology, he was said to have accompanied Obatala as a counsellor when Obatala was sent to equip the earth after it has been created. Orunmila is undoubtedly one of the most revered representatives of Olodumare on earth. Great wisdom and power are attributed to Orunmila and Ifa divination is associated with the cult of Orunmila. He is said to declare the will of God and the other divinities.

In addition to his skills and wisdom in matters pertaining to divination, Orunmila can reveal to the Ifa priest (Babalawo) what roots and leaves that can be used in healing a particular ailment. In this field, he is said to be assisted by Osanyin (another divinity that has variously been described as a brother, friend, partner or servant of Orunmila). Yoruba myth has it that Orunmila was present when human destiny was fixed in heaven before they were born. This is why he is called “the witness of destiny” (Eleri-ipin) and this forms the basis for people going to him almost at every stage of life to inquire if they are on the track of their chosen destiny. This singular factor explains why the worship of Orunmila is the most widespread in Africa. Orunmila is believed to be able to give advice to all and sundry.

  1.  According to Bolaji Idowu, Orunmila constitutes one of the elements of the demands and sanctions of morality in Yoruba religion. For instance, an Ifa priest is constrained not to abuse his office in any way or use his position to enrich himself or refuse his services to anybody because of inability to pay the divination fee. It is believed that the Ifa priest should not tell a lie or bear false witness or do anything evil with his powers. They say that anyone who does will forever remain impoverished.

The shrine of Orunmila is usually found in the house of the worshippers or priests. Him emblems include palm-kernels, cowries and a graven and beautified elephant’s tusk. These are kept in a white plate or bowl. Sacrifices are offered to Orunmila from time to time. The fifth day (orun) is however his day of worship when sacrifices are more elaborate. At times through divination, he can be worshipped on request and things to be used in worship are also determined through divination.

Esu

It is unfortunate that many observers and even Africans have misrepresented Esu as the divinity of evil of the Bible (New Testament). If it is compulsory to make a parallelism, Esu best fits the concept of Satan in the early beginnings of Jewish theology, when Esu is seen more as a messenger of YHWH. The biblical concept of the all evil personality that opposes all that is good and represents God does not fit in to the Yoruba concept of Esu. The adherents of Esu see Esu as one of the divinities closest to Olodumare especially on matters of rituals and human conduct. He is therefore seen as the “Inspector General” of rituals. He is expected to watch over the behaviours and conduct of both human beings and divinities. He is expected to make a report on these to Olodumare. He has the authority to approve or disprove of any sacrifice he inspects and it is his recommendation that is finally acceptable to Olodumare.

There are two sides to this divinity that has been described more as a trickster. The one side cuts the picture of a divinity that is dreaded by the people. They believe that by virtue of his office, Esu holds the power of life and death over them as their prosperity of calamity depends on the reports he gives to Olodumare. Usually people attribute all their difficulties to the failures of Esu to perform his duties. People also invoke Esu to punish their enemies and also to offer protection to them against mishaps and mischief. It is also believed that Esu is difficult to placate and to predict.

On the other side, people see in Esu an element that can be utilized for human need and progress. And so as it is with other divinities, Esu is approached daily in prayers with gifts to secure his favour and to enable him to confer benefits on them. The belief that Esu can be a medium of having children makes the adherents give their children names like Esubiyi (Esu has given birth to this one).

Ala

This is the Igbo earth goddess. She is the arch divinity of Igbo land. She is regarded as both the spirit of the earth and the queen of the underworld who rules the ancestors that have been buried in the earth. As the mother goddess, Ala is the spirit of fertility. The Igbo believe that she is a powerful beneficent deity. She is also the custodian of public morality. The goddess is a giver and administrator of moral laws and her priests are the guardians of public morality on her behalf.

Crimes, such as stealing, adultery, giving birth to abnormal children such as cripples and twins are offences that must be purged by necessary sacrifice. The shrine of Ala fosters social unity among the Igbo group. Every Igbo village has communal shrine of Ala where she is depicted by a statue of a woman carrying a child on her arms and on her knees. Women pray to her for children. It is believed that the spirit controls the earth and as a result, farmers usually propitiate her before tilling the ground. The Igbo regard this divinity as a mother and a god and according to their belief all that they have derives from this divinity. It is also believed that when a child mistakenly falls on the ground, Ala will take care of the

child.

The priest of Ala is known as Ezeala and is the one that offers sacrifices to this divinity. The sacrifice usually comes up before the planting of crops, during the harvest of first fruits and finally at the full harvest during which special sacrifices are offered to Ala who owns the land on which farming had taken place. Ezeala takes the lead in every ceremony and he is a potent force in all aspects of village life.

Amadioha

This is another popular divinity among the Igbo people. This divinity is also known as Igwe, Ofufe and Kamalu in other localities within Igbo land. Amadioha is highly regarded among the Igbo. He is regarded as the one in control of lightning, thunder and storm. He represents the wrath of God and the manifestation of divine justice. He is the one that punishes witches, thieves, sorcerers and other evil doers. As it is among other African groups parallel of this divinity, the victims must not be mourned because they have been punished for their evil deeds. Their corpses are given to the priests of Amadioha for burial. The burial is immediately followed by sacrifices at the spot where Amadioha had killed the victims It is also held that all the properties of the victims must be handed over to the priest’s of Amadioha immediately after the burial of the victim.

It has to be noted however that Amadioha is not only known for his fearful dealings with the people, he is also regarded as a benevolent god. He gives rain to the people and is also prayed to for soil fertility by farmers. Barren women also pray to him for children while traders approach him for success in their trade

Olokun

Olokun is a divinity among the Edo people. The name, Olokun literally means “the owner of the sea”. This implies that Olokun is the divinity of the ocean and water. It is believed among the Edo that Olokun has been in existence as the eldest of Osanobua’s children, the rest being Esu, Ogun (the divinity of iron), Igiuwu (the divinity of death) and Obiemwen (the divinity of fertility). So it was held that when Osanobua created the earth and needed to appoint a representative from among his

children it was easy for him to appoint Olokun who has already distinguished herself as being head and shoulder above other children in terms of wisdom and health. After Olokun was appointed the vicar on earth, Osanobua endowed her with more wealth, power and wisdom and all that is needed to make life comfortable for people on earth. In addition, all other brother-divinities were placed at her beck and call. This is why Olokun is seen as the divinity of fortune.

Olokun is regarded as a beneficent divinity. It is believed that Olokun has all the material well-being at her disposal and can distribute this to people according to her will. The divinity is believed to send rain and give the soil fertility. The association of Olokun with wealth has actually drawn a lot of people to the divinity. Apart from this, Olokun is regarded as a divinity of morality and purity of heart and body. This is symbolically seen in the emblems which include pots of fresh water drawn from the stream early in the morning, pieces of white chalk and white cloth. Special offerings to the divinity include white fowl and white pigeons. The adherents of Olokun are expected to put on white apparels except the priestess who wears crimson red parrot feather and crimson coloured velvet cloth. The white apparels signify that the adherents belong to a cult of holiness and they are also expected to be pure both in the heart and physically. The priestesses are supposed to be embodiment of purity and honesty.

Sokogba

Sokogba is the thunder divinity of the Nupe. This divinity has a close resemblance to Sango among the Yoruba and Amadioha of the Igbo. He is seen as representing the wrath of God upon the disobedient. His presence is manifested in thunderbolts and lightening. He punishes moral offenders such as thieves, wizards, sorcerers and witches.

However, he is not always seen as a god of destruction the adherents believe that Sokogba is capable of procuring the fertility of women who are barren. Such prayers are offered on behalf of the needy by the priest of the divinity. When this is done, children that are born are possessions of Sokogba. The priest, Kuti as he is called, is notified of the birth of such a child who will in turn inform the divinity through a sacrifice asking for long life for the child. After the sacrifice, the child is handed over to the priest.

Tano

Tano is regarded as the greatest of the Ashanti divinities. He is often described as king as his other name, Takora, signifies. He is also seen as the father of water gods. The Ashanti people see him as the creator divinity and the principal temple is located near the source of River Tano at Obuase. Other shrines are also erected near rivers. The emblems of Tano include stones taken from river beds, a brass pan or basket in which these emblems are placed and sometimes medicinal herbs are also included. Tano is worshipped by other ethnic groups. His worshippers are expected to keep some taboos including the one which forbids the menstruating women from coming near his shrine.

3.3 Position and Duties of Divinities

Divinities hold a prominent position in African Traditional Religion as far as the adherents are concerned. They are real to the people and are believed to exist with definite functions or duties and each of them functioning within its jurisdiction.

Firstly, the divinities function as intermediaries between God and humanity. They are always at hand. The people approach God through these divinities and as such they receive daily sacrifices. As such, the divinities can be described as semi-autonomous agents, each being the executive head of his or her department in God’s monarchical government. Secondly, the divinities are able to foretell the future and prevent misfortune. They however derive this power from God, from whom they derive their existence. This is one of the reasons the divinities are approached on all occasions of life. For example, they are asked to protect crops and in times of war they are consulted to ensure victory. Even in times of peace they are sacrificed to as a token of appreciation.

3.4 Relation of the Divinities with God

The best area to look for a means of understanding the relationship between God and the divinities in African Traditional Religion is the sociological pattern of the people of Africa. For example, among the Yoruba, Nupe, Edo, Fon and Ewe where there is a hierarchical social structure, the religion also show the same trait. In the above mentioned societies, there is always a paramount ruler whether he is called King or Oba or paramount chief. He is followed by lesser chiefs, the village heads, the ward heads and the ordinary people. This concept is transferred to the religious or theological thinking. Thus in their concept God is seen as the Supreme Ruler of the universe who had appointed the divinities as the executive and administrative heads of the earthly theocratic society. Thus the divinities are not seen as having any independent existence apart from God. The relationship of the divinities to God in African religion can be summarized thus:

  1. They are brought into being by God and the people regard them as sons and daughters of God. 
  2. They have no absolute existence apart from God because their powers and authorities are meaningless apart from God 
  3. They are ministers of God in a theocratic government 
  4. They act as intermediaries between God and humanity. 

However, though they are subservient to God, the divinities constitute a powerful force in the supra-sensible world in the African thinking.

4.0 CONCLUSION

In this unit, you have read about various divinities from various parts of Africa and what they are supposed to be to their adherents. Apart from this, you were exposed to the position and the role of these divinities as well as their relationship with God.

5.0 SUMMARY

The following are the major points you have learnt in this unit:

  1. The divinities hold a prominent position in African Traditional Religion. 
  2. They are brought into being by God and the people regard them as sons and daughters of God. 
  3. They have no absolute existence apart from God because their powers and authorities are meaningless apart from God. 
  4. They are ministers of God in a theocratic government 
  5. They act as intermediaries between God and humanity. 

6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT

Discuss about the divinities of God’s judgement

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