Ọrun (the sacred realm) is the abode of sacred and unseen beings, it habituates a countless number of life forces and energies such as Olodumare, the Oriṣas (divine energies), Oku ọrun/Alalẹ/Egungun (ancestors), Oro, Iwin, Ẹgbẹ(variety of spirits).
Olodumare (also known as Eledumare, Eledua, Ẹlẹda, Odumare, Ọlọrun) is known to be the creator of existence, the vessel of all energies. However, Olodumare has never been identified with gender, as a result, the native speakers of the Yoruba language refer to Olodumare as O/Wọn(It/They). As one of the names imply, Olu-ọrun- Ọlọrun is known to be the one that embodies Ọrun and all of its habitants. Olodumare is the source of Aṣe, the life force possessed by everything to come into existence. Olorun isn’t just the Lord over ọrun, It embodies both Ọrun and Aye within and as a result can’t be seen but seen in various manifestations as spirits, humans, animals and plants. As a result, all life forces- in this realm shall call ọrun home.
The Oriṣas are the divine forces- primordial, deified and sometimes personified divinities.
The primordial divinities are the ones known to be involved in the creation of the world we see today- Ogun (The God of iron, clearer of the path for both humans and divinities), Eṣu (The inspector General of Sacrifices, divine messenger and activator), Oṣun (the river Goddess, mother of love and fertility), Ọbatala/Oriṣa NLA (the divine sculptor of humans), Ọrunmila (the giver of wisdom, the one who reveals the unseen to humans, the witness of humans and the destiny).
The deified/personified divinities are ancestors who have been deified for possessing an unnamed Aṣe of Eledua. Sometimes, the deified ancestors are reincarnated to manifest in various forms. The most known deified divinity is Ṣango (Former Alaafin of Ọyọ, The will, fire and thunder of Eledua), Ọya(mother of whirlwind and lightning) there is also Mọrẹmi (mother of liberation), Oduduwa (the father of Yorubas). The use and meaning of names can, however, confuse those with little understanding of the Yoruba Cosmos. In the case of Oṣun (the wife of Sango, Mother of all twins) she is sometimes mistaken to be the primordial Iyami Ọṣun (Mother of rivers, fertility and love) It is no news that Gods/Goddesses possess devotees to manifest in a certain lifetime.
The Oriṣas can be grouped into two categories based on their personalities and operations. There are some with a cool temperament and the ones that have no chills. The ones with the cool temperament are known to be gentle, calm, soothing, reflective and includes; Ọbatala/Oriṣa NLA, Oṣoosi(Hunter, God of focus/Patience), Ọsanyin (Lord of leaves and medicine), Oduduwa (the first Monarch of Ile-Ife and deified patriarch of Yorubas), Yemọja, Ọṣun, Yewa, Ọ̀bà,( Queen mothers ruling respective rivers), Olosa, the Queen mother of the Lagoons to come as one- Olokun (Mother of the Sea, Oceans and Sky waters). They are mostly called upon for guidance, blessings and protection.
A majority of the Oriṣas that have the hot temperament are masculine energies, only a few are feminine. They include; Ogun (the God of iron, war and clearer of paths), Ṣango, Ọbaluaye(the Lord and bringer of pestilence), Ọya, Ṣopona(Lord of smallpox). The hot-tempered ones are usually called upon to bring justice upon violators, protect and defend the land during wars or invasion.
However, the classifications of these Oriṣas doesn’t have a thing to do with good versus evil. All Oriṣas possess their different values- positive and negative- order and chaos. Their modes of operation differ based on their manifestation of the unique Ase, as seen by their personalities. Moreso, they are not ranked in a hierarchy as each of them are relatively important in the Yoruba cosmos. Even when they are invoked in ceremonies, they are summoned based on their roles in the ritual and their relationships with each other.
The Oriṣas, however, engage in the affairs of the world through their mediums- devotees who have been trained and initiated to receive and manifest the divinity within. When the Gods/Goddesses manifest this way, they speak and act through the devotees.
Amongst the Oriṣas, there are two key ones; Ọrunmila and Eṣu- they are the pillars between the sacred and human realms. Ifa is the divination system given to the Yorubas by Ọrunmila. Eṣu is the divine messenger between humans and the sacred realm.
As Ọrunmila is the giver of wisdom and witness to humans and their selected destinies, Ifa offers the knowledge of unseen forces that influence the humans and their abode. The diviner is known as Babalawo (Father and keeper of secret wisdom) or Iyanifa (Mother and Keeper of Sacred realm and wisdom). The diviners use the poetry and rituals of Ifa to understand the cosmic forces. The Ifa system can also reveal to every human what their life path is, what sacrifice is needed from them to live life as chosen by the Ẹda(being) before coming to earth. Ifa can warn about a necessary/reversible evil, its causes, and how to reverse it.
Where Ifa reveals, Eṣu plays the role of an agent to execute the action. Eṣu, the inspector general of sacrifices, the one who accepts or declines the sacrifice given to whatever Oriṣa or ancestor. Eṣu doesn’t choose who he likes or hates when inspecting a sacrifice or offering. He looks into the intentions and conscience of the giver. Eṣu is also the God of crossroads- the revealer of choices one can make- this makes Eṣu the free will of humans, the reason he is called a trickster God- whenever humans summon Esu with woeful and uncalled for intentions, he offers choices and the invoker tricks themselves. Esu is not a devil but the reflection of choices we all make.
According to Kwame Gyekye,
The ancestors are certain individuals of the past generations of a lineage who are said to have distinguished themselves in many ways and, in particular, to have led virtuous and exemplary lives worthy of emulation by succeeding generations of the lineage. Such individuals are regarded as… as mortal paragons.
Africans generally do not consider death as the end of the journey in life, only a transition to the state of immortality and in so doing, a link between the other realm and the physical one mortals habituate. Among the Yorubas, death gives more power and prestige- this helps the ancestors oversee the affairs of their younger ones. As a result, an ancestor can be reincarnated. When an ancestor is reincarnated, the male is called Babatunde(Father has returned) or Babajide(Father has risen)- the female is called Yetunde/Yeside(Mother has returned).
The ancestors are venerated in different levels; the ones prayed to as Ara/Oku Ọrun(The immortal/the dead that lives on). To be venerated as such, one must have lived a good life, done good deeds, died a good death, and given the proper funeral rites. One will hear the true practitioners of the Yoruba religion say “Oku Ọrun ki’n sun (the dead ones living don’t sleep)”
Egungun is the mask/regalia that represents the ancestors during festivals or sacred rituals. Certain sacrifices can’t be offered without the presence of the ancestors- many ceremonies would be considered void if the Egungun of the ancestors is absent.
A few African scholars assert that veneration of ancestors is not the same as worship, but veneration is a part of worship. According to Idowu- when African people venerate their ancestors, they go beyond boundaries and this propels observers to refer to the act as worship. A close observation when practised makes it clear that ancestors are not worshipped but venerated to sustain a cordial relationship between offspring and transcended elders- to prostrate/bow is to greet an elder, to feed an elder is to attract their blessing, and this is how the society continues to venerate their ancestors.
During communal ceremonies and festivities, the presence of ancestors as Egungun restores unity. The Egungun would dance; the community would sing, clap and dance along in merriment. According to Awolalu and Dopamu,
The coming together of the people is re-enacted and many people for the first time in the year meet on festival occasions. Men and women are brought together in one crowd and there is usually a sort of social reunion.
It is of a great tragedy that modernization seeks to eliminate the place of ancestors in the Yoruba and African society at large. Originally, the ancestors are consulted through the oracle before any ceremony but today, humans have taken over the positions of ancestors and money is the oracle. As a result, the ancestors depart from us and let us remain in a state of confusion- bad governance, mishaps on ceremonies, joys turning sour. The ancestors by now would be crying for justice, restoration and reinstatement. I can’t help but agree with Kofi Awoonor when he said:
The gods are crying, my father’s gods are crying for a burial… for a final ritual… but they that should build the fallen shrines have joined the dawn marchers singing their way towards Gethsemane… the gods cried, shedding clayey tears on calico; the drink offering had dried up in the harmattan and the fetish priest is dressing up for the Easter service.
Having explored the role of the ancestors in the society, it is understandable that colonialism displaced the position of ancestors. According to Alamu A.G,
The current paradigms of the ancestors as well as their achievements indicate that they must be remembered, praised and celebrated, but cannot enjoy such a powerful position and influence that they once enjoyed. The post-independence terrain does not guarantee such a place anymore.
We must venerate our ancestors because they lead the way long before us. Understanding the place of the ancestors in our society eventually puts us in position to be venerated as well. We are our ancestors because we are a seed from the family tree that sprouted from one seed.
Oro is the spirit of fierceness, tempest, or provocation- he is the personified executive power. When Oro haunts the forest, neighbourhood of towns, he makes a whirring, roaring noise to avert perpetrators and trespassers of his community. Due to the fierce nature of Oro and his provocation, women are to shut themselves in and avoid looking out on the pain of death. Where Egungun comes out for social activities, Oro comes out for political and security reasons- criminals condemned to death are for Oro as Oro fiercely wards off thieves and corrupt political practices. When a valuable person is assassinated, Oro is called upon to assist the victim to find justice. Oro is not a spirit to be toyed with or invoked when there are order and peace in the community. Unlike Egungun which prays for the community, Oro only comes out to execute a state of emergency. In other words, the Oro may be considered an Oriṣa of its own.
Iwin is a spirit that likes to travel, looking for the human worthy enough to serve. The closest to translate it as is the fairy. Just like in the English fairytales and the famous Genes- Iwin assists humans to carry out activities on command by calling out their names.
Ẹgbẹ (Sacred Mates)
Ẹgbẹ means group/society. It is the classification of spirits in the sacred realm. There are more than groups/societies in the sacred realm.
Ẹgbẹ Emere (Spirits of Children that can transcend through realms), Ẹgbẹ Abiku (Spirits of Children who tend to teach relatives a lesson or not comfortable with the affairs of the lifetime they visit), Ẹgbẹ Omi (The marine spirits).
The Ẹgbẹ spirits are the ones in human form many may consider weird, dangerous, or unnatural. They come with special attributes- healing people emotionally and spiritually- high intuition to judge and guide. The Ẹgbẹ are not the same as the Oriṣas, they all have missions before coming to this earth and unlike everyone else, they remember who they were, what Ọrun is and how to transcend between both realms without death. They are the ones with the knowledge of all truth as they are the ones to ensure the continuum of the universe- creating causes and effects, maintaining order when there is chaos and bringing an end to the wicked.
Not all humans that we see walking the surface of this realm are ordinary. some are Gods/Goddesses, some are spirits, some are initiates, few are all, and many are clueless.