Monday 21 August 2023

Separating Yorùbá religious tradition from Ìṣẹ̀ṣe

A depiction of Ifa diviner and believers in Isese... during a performance. Pic: courtesy of Guardian Life Magazine.

•history of ancient Yoruba religious belief

•emergence of deitified individuals, Isese practice...and more 

By Ayojinmi Adeolu, Biodun Olojede-Akiola and Bunmi Olokiki

"ISESE l'agba," is a common expression among adherents of what is referred to as 'Yorùbá traditional' religion.

The expression of assertiveness, which means "tradition is elderly" frequently surfaces from adherents to lay claim to their belief in "superiority" of the religion over "foreign religions." What they call 'Isese' (written as Ìṣẹ̀ṣe, pronounced e-sheh-shay) is a religion said to have emerged in Yorubaland (period unknown). Currently being practised since (thousands?) years of unknown date within and outside Africa, Isese's Yorubaland base, in southwest of Nigeria, is the most important in the propagation of the faith. This week, specifically, August 20, adherents of Isese observed their festival across Yorubaland. 

In Nigeria, the faithfuls have been agitating for a national holiday to be declared for the celebration of Isese in similar models that Christmas, Easter and Eid-el-Fitr, Eid-Kabir are observed for Christians and Muslims. In Osun, Oyo, Lagos and Ogun States, holidays have been declared by governments to observe Isese Day. Most likely, in the years ahead, the remaining states of Ekiti and Ondo will declare holidays for Isese. But a national holiday for Isese looks like impossibility given the minority status of the religion in Nigeria.

The Isese religion, according to adherents, should be more widely accepted by the entire Yoruba people compared to what they labelled as 'foreign religions'. Which religions are considered as "foreign" or "imported"? Any religious practice or belief, particularly Christianity, Islam or any other that originated outside Yorubaland is believed to be foreign, according to faithfuls of Isese.

As a faith, Isese may not command majority population in countries of practice, but the religion has helped in spreading, as well as sustaining Yoruba language, especially in the diaspora. The Isese religion is practised 100% in Yorùbá language. Apart from the Caribbean and South America where a hybrid of Yoruba and Spanish is used, most other faithfuls of Isese across the world use Yoruba language.

In Southwest of Nigeria – the base of Yoruba people across diverse religious beliefs  – the demography is almost shared equally between Christianity and Islam. Adherents of Isese are in the minority, and more low on the demographic scale in states such as Kogi, Edo and few other Yoruba parts of Nigeria where the religion is also practised. In countries with Yoruba diaspora such as Republic of Benin, Togo, Ghana, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, Brazil and other parts of the Caribbean, South America, Isese is also among the minority religions.

Isese is a Yoruba word that translates to 'root of tradition in action', for simplified English meaning. As a religion, Isese is no doubt polytheism with as many as over ten deities. If one has to accept that Isese is a Yoruba traditional religion, basically, that means it represents the people's religious tradition. Does Isese truly represent the Yoruba traditional religious belief? The answer to this crucial question lies in being open-minded in an effort to gain broad knowledge on the subject.

What exactly is a tradition? A tradition is an established pattern of thought, carrying out activities and behaviours of people that have been passed from one generation to another. Tradition may be enshrined among people of common identity such as tribe, race, religion, workplace, among other shared behaviours. And culture? Culture is more expansive being peculiar to group of people with common beliefs, customs, clothing, works of art, ceremonies, among other shared factors. 

The common and most important factor in tradition and culture is that they are created by the people. The natural law of creation and powers of human handed over by Olodumare or Eledumare (God) does not allow subjects like culture and tradition, for examples, to create people; the people evolve or create their own pattern of thoughts and behaviours. The Yoruba of old (many centuries past) were not different; God (Olodumare) gave the people power and wisdom that enabled them created and evolved their own tradition. Did the Yoruba people of old (centuries or thousands of years ago) create a homogeneous religious tradition of their own to be known as Yoruba Religion?

To retrieve how the Yoruba people of ancient period evolved their own traditional religious belief, it's important to first find out how the people emerged as a tribe or nation. The origin of the Yoruba has been articulated in many contentious accounts, including myths and historical arguments. According to some accounts, Homo sapiens or humans started evolving in North Africa, and that majority of peoples in West Africa, Yoruba inclusive, had ancestors that lived in the Sahara desert before migrating to Sub-saharan, over thousands of years. Historians and other researchers who stand with the migration line of thoughts further explained that among the ancient tribes of blacks then were a people known as Yuuba whose affinity with Egyptians later had influence on how the language of the Yoruba changed to its current form. However, other accounts argued that Yoruba people never migrated to their current base, rather, they were "aboriginal", created by Olodumare in Ile-Ife, an ancient town in the current state of Osun, Southwest of Nigeria. The Yorubaland, other sources said, started evolving as far back as 7th-11th century BC. 

Irrespective of the date and place of the first Yorùbá persons or people on earth, there is a common point of agreement, among all accounts: Olodumare (God) created the Yoruba people. So, in searching for the true Yoruba tradition, specifically in religious belief, the exact place of origin plays little or no role. Even, if it's agreed that the first Yoruba people were created, or descended into Ile-Ife from the sky, whatever pattern of life they (Yoruba) chose to live then, evolved around the belief in Olodumare, their Creator, irrespective of where and when. 

So, how the Yoruba emerged – either by migration or as as first aborigines – in their current place in the southwest of Nigeria is not the issue, as regards digging into their religious practice of ancient eras. The well established fact that the early Yoruba believed in Olodumare is a crucial factor to help in determining whether or not the Isese religion represented the faith or worship tradition of the people as far back as ancient periods. 

Still on excavating the traditional religious beliefs of the earliest Yorùbá, it's also crucial to recall the contentious  patriarch, Oduduwa's lifetime before he was posthumously deified. Was Oduduwa, the founder of the Yoruba nation? According to legends, Olodumare placed Obatala in the position of creating the earth and the humans that would populate the world. The myth further explained that Obatala presented his creations to God (Olodumare) who was expected to "breathe life into” them. Before Obatala's creations receive life from Olodumare, he (Obatala) got drunk from palm wine and fell asleep. On waking up, Obatala, the myth continues, realised that his brother, Oduduwa had taken over his place and became the ruler of the earth.

Among historians, there are people who never agreed with the mythology of Oduduwa being the founder of the Yoruba. While Reverend Samuel Johnson's book on History of the Yorubas says that Oduduwa came from Mecca to Ife, other accounts argued that he was a prince in the ancient Benin royal family who came to Ile Ife. Among such scholars whose works on Yoruba cosmology has been referenced is Omofolabo S. Ajayi and Dr.O.S.B. Omoregie.

From all accounts that captured the life and time of Oduduwa, there seemed to be no records that he was the first human to arrive at Ife (from wherever). Also, when his dynasties spread beyond Ife, there were people already existing across what was (and is) known as Yorubaland. And if the territories that Oduduwa's dynasties extended to were already populated by some people, a crucial question may be asked. Did those people share Oduduwa's religious belief? The answer to this question, most likely, lies in the troubled nature of the Yoruba confederates that were plagued with many wars, in much later centuries.

Probing into the spiritual life of Oduduwa, It has been established that Oduduwa believed in Orunmila, a spirit with wisdom, divination and destiny attributes. As a religion or way of life, the practice of Isese, currently,  includes worship through deities, otherwise known as òrìṣàs (or orisha, oricha for variations in diasporic pronunciation). The deities include nearly the main 30, such as Odùdùwà, Ọbàtálá, Sango, Osun, Ògún, Oya, Èsù, Aje, Àyàngalu, Osanyin, Obà, Ọbalúayé and Olòókun, among others listed in no particular order. Some sources have argued that the orisas are as many as hundreds. For example, Ile-Ife is said to be known as 'a town of 401 deities.' At the top of all the deities, according to the Isese belief, is the Supreme Being known as Olódùmarè or Eledumare (God).

However, the basic and commonality among the emergence of all the deities of Isese is that, each of them was human before being deified or immortalised as idol by admirers. Having established who the deities of the Isese religion were or are, it's now easy to, critically, place Yoruba traditionAl religion in proper perspective within the context of religious worship. 

The Yoruba cosmology recognises the presence of the Supreme Being, Olodumare, which confirmed that they (Yoruba people of ancient era) believed in the same source of creation from God. Scientifically, historically, even mythologically, it's not in dispute that humans emerged on earth before the creation of belief such as culture, tradition and religion. And that the Yoruba have been in existence with the belief in the Supreme Being known as Olodumare (God) has also been established, even by the myth woven around the orisas. It's therefore safe to say that the tradition of the Yoruba, before the emergence of the orisas, was the belief in monotheism - One God.

Irrespective of where the Yoruba of the pre-orisa era were – Ile-Ife, the Nile, Egypt or Middle East – makes no difference as regards their religious belief then. The belief of the people in the supremacy of Olodumare (God) over any other beings had been established by Oduduwa. However, there was no record, historically and mythologically that some Yorùbá did not accept the orisas. Despite lack of records of non-orisas adherents, among the Yoruba of that era, the people's belief in oneness of Oludumare, which predated the orisas era had already established the true tradition of the people. 

The choices of religious tradition of the Yoruba of Oduduwa era clearly existed in two beliefs: 1. Belief in oneness of Olodumare (God). 2. Belief in Olodumare, but also in Orunmila and worship of the orisas that were created by humans. For the Isese people, they have chosen adherence and worship of orisas while also believing in Olodumare and Orunmila.

Fairly reviewing the two beliefs, it can be concluded that one came before the other in order of creation. The then Yoruba people's belief in Olodumare, clearly, was the first choice and established religious tradition of the people. In 21st century Nigeria, some Yoruba people who don't believe in Isese have argued that the belief in Olodumare was the traditional religion of the Yoruba people right from creation by God. Did Oduduwa lay a foundation for monotheism? "The belief and worship of the orisas, now known as Isese religion, was alien to the Yoruba tradition of old (thousands or hundreds of years ago)," critics of Isese have explained.

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And the fact that Oduduwa, the patriarch of the Yoruba, did not worship Olodumare through any known deity showed that the Yoruba religious tradition was monotheism, other observers noted. For example, Oduduwa didn’t worship Sango for the clear fact that the two of them lived generations apart; the latter was a grandchild of the former. As Isese is all about worship of deities, as intermediary route to God, then the practise is not Yoruba religion or Yoruba tradition established by Oduduwa, the critics of Isese explained further.

Some Yoruba Christians and Muslims have noted that Oduduwa had shown the way in how to belief in One God, meaning that "Imo Olorun l'okan' l'agba" (belief in One God is the eldest faith), and was the first traditional belief of the Yoruba people. These Christians and Muslims argued that "Isese 'ko l'agba" (Isese is not the eldest faith) because it came much later after the Yoruba had already "embraced the belief in one God (Olodumare)." Indeed, from many accounts of the life of Oduduwa, it was not established that he worshiped any deity. 

If Oduduwa believed in Orunmila and practised Ifa divinity should that be enough to question his religious loyalty to monotheism and Olodumare? Irrespective of the doubt over Oduduwa's monotheism spiritual life, it was most likely that there were other people – families, individuals or sub-tribes – who had as many as diverse spiritual life along belief in one God during and after Oduduwa.

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As it has also been established that the orisas did not create the Yoruba people, the worship of such deities cannot be described or labelled as 'Yoruba traditional religion.' For example, people call non-Christian, non-Islamic, non-Isese rituals and non-court marriages as 'Yoruba Traditional Weddings'. Truly, Yoruba traditional wedding comes without any religious attachment. This clearly confirmed that a people's tradition has nothing to do with any religion. Isese or Ise'se as a religious belief is different from Yoruba tradition and is not Yoruba tradition or culture. It's therefore unintelligent to describe any religion as 'Yoruba Traditional Religion'. Isese is not traditional religion of the Yoruba nor is it Yoruba traditional religion.

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The reality of the embarrassment that worshiping deities has brought to some Yorùbá is coming to the open. Currently, some traditional rulers in Yorubaland are either openly, or covertly distancing themselves from the deities. For example, in a BBC News Yoruba interview, Ọṣilẹ̀ of Ègbá Òkè-Ọnà, Oba Adedapo Tejuoso agreed that Ọbàtálá and other orìṣàs are humans and are not worthy of being deitified or worshipped. In fact, in Ogun State, where Oba Tejuoso is based, there is a new law that has removed Isese rituals from being compulsory for traditional kingship and chieftaincy process.

As much as we have established the fact that Isese was never (and is not) Yoruba traditional religion, it's also important to state that anybody has the choice to worship whatever they believe in. The major purpose of this article is to put records straight in defence of the earliest Yoruba people of ancient era who believed in One God before some individuals, much later, were deitified as gods. There was no doubt that some Yorùbá people of the ancient era chose to worship their dead ancestors as gods. But not all Yoruba of that era fell for such anti-God practice of worshiping their dead ancestors or great-great-grandparents of many generations past.

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In specific details, were there communities – no matter how few or minority among the Yoruba of Oduduwa era or post-Oduduwa – who did not share in the belief of worshiping deities? We shall answer these questions in the Part-2 of 'Separating Yorùbá religious tradition from Ìṣẹ̀ṣe'.

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  1. This write up is incredibly bias and lacks a lot objectively. An awful attempt at revisionism and an embarrassing degradation of Yoruba culture from someone who has obviously endorsed a foreign belief system to the point of zealotry.

    1. Religion and tradition are quite a controversial subject among Yorubas. For these writers to put up this side of the argument with such depth, whoever is responding should bring
      clear cut points, not just disagreeing . I like to read an alternative view, disagreeing point by point.

    2. This was written by self hating Yorùbá who obviously have been thoroughly indoctrinated and duped by their colonial masters

  2. All I can say that this article is straight up trash

  3. A terrible waste of words. Poorly written by any standard.