The religion of the Yoruba people in West Africa, who live in Nigeria and Benin, is a thousands of years-old tradition of nature worship and ancestor reverance.
In addition to the worship of one God, named Olodumare, the Yoruba worship dozens of deities known as "Orishas" who are personified aspects of nature and spirit. The principal orishas include Eleggua, Oggun, Ochosi, Obatala, Yemaya, Oshun, Shango, Oya, Babalu Aiye, and Orula.
Orisha worship was spread to the new world through the slave trade. In order to preserve their religious traditions against Catholic repression, the African slaves syncretized the orishas with Catholic saints. Thus Shango came to be depicted as Sta. Barbara; Obatala as Our Lady of Mercy, etc. The religion took deep hold in African communities in Brazil and Cuba especially, and eventually spread to mixed race and European-American communities in these countries. After the Cuban revolution of 1959 the religion, known in Spanish as Santeria or La Regla de Ocha, spread to the United States (especially New York City and Florida), Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
Central features of the religion are its drumming and dancing celebrations known as tambors. At the tambors elaborate altars are created, and then food is offered to the Orishas. Depending on the nature of the celebration, percussionists and drummers (often playing the sacred 3-piece bata drums) play precise rhythms directed to specific Orishas while those present sing call-and-response songs in archaic Yoruba (called Lucumi in Cuba), causing the Orishas to descend and possess initiated priests and priestesses of the religion. The rhythms and forms of Yoruba religion are said to be fundamental to the development of many forms of African American music from gospel to blues and jazz, and to musical forms such as Salsa and Latin Jazz.
An excellent resource documenting the roots of African-American culture in Yoruba and other African religions is "The Flash Of The Spirit" by Robert Farris Thompson, available in paperback. Many well-known Latin musicians are devotees of Santeria. Carlos Santana, for example, has incorporated Orisha-themes and rhythms into several songs, including "Hannibal," which includes a Yoruba chant to Shango.
Ironically, while in the New World Yoruba religion is in a period of modest ascendency, in Nigeria itself it is being eclipsed by forms of Islam and Christianity, especially evangelical protestantism.
The Orisha of the Crossroads.
Eleggua is the Orisha honored at the beginning and end of all ceremonies. He is said to be the force in nature which makes communication possible between humans and the orishas, and who brings magic into the realm of the possible. He lives at the crossroads, and is honored by devotees every Monday with offerings like rum and cigars. He is meaning in coincidence.
He is often depicted as a mischievous child, and has a definite reputation as a trickster. Eleggua is one of the three Warriors, Orishas who are received by devotees as a prelude to full initiation into the mysteries of the religion.
He is syncretized in spiritualism with various Catholic saints including El Nino de Atocha, the Infant of Prague, St. Anthony, and St. Jude.
The Orisha of the Oceans and Motherhood.
Yemaya is the great mother goddess of Santeria; the maternal force of life and creation. She is said to be the mother of many other Orishas, and is believed to live in the ocean. She has many aspects, one of them being Yemaya Okute, a fierce warrior. In Brazil her devotees set up elaborate beach front altars each New Year's Eve, setting out food and candles to be washed away by Yemaya (there called Iemanja) with the morning tides.
In 1994 the disco group River Ocean (featuring salsa vocalist La India) rocked the dance floors of New York with the song "Love and Happiness" which celebrated the powers of Yemaya and her sister Orisha Oshun, goddess of love, beauty and material wealth.
She is syncretized in spiritualism with Our Lady Of Regla and Mary Star Of The Sea.
The Orisha of the Mountains and Creativity.
Obatala, which means "King of the White Cloth" represents the spiritual unity and interrelationship of all things. He is said to have many aspects, many of them androgynous or female. He is credited with creating humanity, and while becoming drunk on palm wine, is said to have accidentally created the crippled and deformed.
He is syncretized in spiritualism with Our Lady Of Mercies.
Click here to go to a discography of Orisha music recordings.