12 Most Popular Yoruba Gods and Goddesses
The Yoruba ethnic groups [found primarily in the western bank of the Niger River, West Africa] are known for having a very rich and diverse array of deities (known as Orishas) that they believe help steer the affairs of not just the individual but the broader society as a whole.
The Orishas (or Orisa), who could either be bad (ajogun) or good (egungun), are often represented as natural forces or everyday human endeavors. So, for example, the Orisha Ogun is the Yoruba god of war and of Iron, and some inhabitants of the Yorubaland even believe that Ogun is also the patron divinity of truck drivers.
Then there is the orisha Ibeji who in the Yoruba pantheon is the god of twins. The closest equivalent of the goddess Venus/Aphrodite in the Yoruba religion is the orisha called Oshun, the feminine goddess of beauty, gracefulness, and fertility.
Below World History Edu delves right into the origin stories, powers, symbols and worship of the 12 most famous Yoruba gods and goddesses.
Olurun is revered as the chief god of the Yoruba pantheon. The supreme ruler of the Heavens, Olurun permeates everything that there is or will ever be in the universe. He is the proprietor of the source of all creation, virtue and knowledge in the universe.
In Yoruba, his name evokes a meaning of “ownership” or “rulership”; and to many devotees of the Yoruba religion, Olurun the Almighty is seen as the all-father, omnipotent and omnipresent god.
It is for the above reason why Olurun is not directly worshiped by the Yoruba people. There aren’t any images or shrine erected in his honor. Neither do the Yoruba people offer sacrifices to him; instead he is often worshiped through the agency of the Orishas – his sons and daughters.
As a manifestation of the orisha Olodumare, Olurun is believed to be a colossal force that does not bother with human affairs. Instead he allows his various manifestations and other deities that he created (the Orishas) to handle the affairs of human beings. In simple terms, Olurun can be seen as the equivalent of the Almighty God in most Abrahamic religions.
Oduduwa is believed to be the divine king in the Yoruba religion. He holds the title of the first Ooni of Ile-Ife in Ife, the Yoruba holy city located in Osun State in south-western Nigeria.
The Yorubas regard Oduduwa as the first ruler of a unified Ife. Thus many of his descendants went on to become deities and kings in their own rights.
Also known as Ooduwa or Oòdua, this orisha has been described as the “leader and father of the Yoruba race”. As a warrior, he vanquished forces that sought to harm the people of Ife.
After he died he became a prominent and feared deity of the Yoruba people, who describe him as an omnipotent being and the creator of the physical reality.
In addition to being the patron deity of blacksmiths, Ogun is the deity of hunters and truck drivers. The latter carry amulets of Ogun that they believe can save them from road accidents.
In some traditional courts in Yorubaland, people kiss a piece of iron in the name of Ogun when giving testimonies. Some of Ogun’s most common symbols are dog, iron, and palm frond/branch. His altars often contain many objects made of iron.
Regarded as sometimes aggressive and straightforward, Ogun’s most sacred animals are splitting cobra or the blacksnake. Some of the items used during rituals and festivals in honor of Ogun are alligator pepper, kola nuts and palm wine, mall rats, roosters, salt, snails, and yams.
The Yoruba people believe that Ogun only accepts male animals as sacrifice. Therefore, it was not uncommon for animals such as ox, billy goat, rooster, and red snakes to be sacrificed in his honor.
In his role as the god of metallurgy, Ogun can be seen as the ancient Greek equivalent of Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire and forges.
To the Yoruba people, the orisha Aganju was either the father of Shango or his brother. Aganju was the ruler of the ancient Oyo Empire before he went on to become a deity in the Yoruba pantheon.
It is believed that his sword had the ability to shoot out fire. In some cases, Aganju was seen as the manifestation of the orisha Shango, making him Xango Aganju. And similar to Shango, Aganju was also noted for his explosive behaviors and lack of self-control.
To many devotees of Yoruba religion, the orisha Ajaka is seen as a deity of peace. During his reign over the land of Ife, he was depicted as a weak ruler relative to his war-loving brother Shango. As a result, Ajaka was deposed and his brother Shango installed as the ruler.
Ajaka would later have a second stint on the throne following the death of Shango. It was during his second reign that he began to assert his authority, turning into a war-loving deity.
The orisha of thunder, lightning and justice in Yoruba religion is called Shango (or Changó). To some African religions in Latin America, Shango is also called Xangô or Changó.
Prior to his elevation to a deity, Shango was a mortal ruler famously known as the third Alaafin (emperor) of the medieval Oyo Empire (present-day Oyo people of West Africa). His two predecessors were fellow orishas Oranmiyan and Ajaka.
As a king, Shango’s Yoruba kingdom stretched from places in present-day Benin Republic to western Nigeria. The Alaafin was the head of one of the largest Yoruba states. In Shango’s case, he was considered the grandson of the Orisha Oduduwa in Yoruba mythology.
After his death, he was deified as an orisha. Some examples of his manifestations are Airá, Agodo, Afonja, Obomin, and Lubé.
As an orisha, Shango’s go-to weapon was his powerful axe, which he used to bring prosperity and wealth to the Oyo people, making them a force to be reckoned with in the region.
Shango’s wives are the orishas Oshun, Oba, and Oya. His color red perfectly explains why he is sometimes depicted as a violent and unforgiving orisha. It is believed that Shango has the ability to strike down (with thunderstone and lightning) those that offend him or the other gods.
Ayangulu is revered as the first drummer to emerge from the Yorubaland. He was such an amazing drummer that upon his death, the Yoruba people began deifying him.
As the patron spirit of all drummers, Ayangalu benevolently gives those that he deems worthy world-class skills in drum playing. In Yoruba language, the word Ayan translates into “drummer”.
Erinle attained the status of an orisha because of the sheer amount of good deeds he did for his people. A mighty hunter and warrior, Erinle protected his people from a Fulani invasion.
He was also renowned for his prowess in the art herbal medicine and farming. The Yoruba people believe that Erinle did not die; instead he disappeared into the earth and became a river. Over time, his cult began to spring up in so many towns in Yorubaland.
The river that Erinle turned into came to be known as the Erinle River, which is an important tributary of the Oshun River. His name when broken up means “elephant” (Erin) and “house” or “earth” (ile).
In the Yoruba pantheon of gods, Oshun, also known as Ọṣun, is the goddess of fertility, beauty, love and divinity. In the simplest of terms, Oshun is the equivalent of Venus and Aphrodite in the Roman and Greek pantheons respectively.
According to some myths, Oshun is the only orisha allowed to communicate directly with the Supreme Being Olurun (or Oludumare). Often depicted as a peacock, Oshun is also known for her abilities in predicting the destinies of people. In her mortal form, Oshun was the consort of Shango, the god king of Oyo.
The Osun River, a very important river in Yorubaland in southwestern Nigeria, is often associated with the Orisha Oshun. The inhabitants of that region believe that Oshun uses the Osun River to fertilize land, thereby making her a fertility deity.
According to the myth, Oshun is believed to have transformed into the river following a very tragic event that she went through. As a result, the Yoruba people hold the Osun River in high regard, often banning any activity (i.e. mining, fishing, deforestation, and hunting) that they believe could desecrate the river.
At Osogbo, a place near the Osun River, there exist a very important Osun Shrine that comes alight every year during Osun-Osogbo festival and other traditional ceremonies. The shrine is also one of the most visited tourist sites in the area, commonly visited by people from surrounding West African countries and Africans living in the diaspora.
Oba is the orisha of the River Oba, one of the main tributaries of the Osun River. Located in Oyo and Osun States, the Oba River was named after the Orisha Oba who is one of the wives of Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder.
In one of the myths, Oshun tricked Oba to cut off her ear and add it to Shango’s food. Oba was hoping that by doing so she could gain more favor from Shango. Upon seeing the ear in his food, Shango went completely furious and screamed. Both Oshun and Oba then fled the palace before turning into their respective rivers – River Oshun and River Oba.
Oba is commonly worshipped in the town Ogbomosho in Oyo State, south-western Nigeria. Her orisha color is purple or the rainbow, a symbol of fertility and beauty. Some of her symbols include lightning, the sword/machete, and the water buffalo.
In the Yoruba pantheon of gods, Orunmila is known as the orisha of wisdom, knowledge and divination. His knowledge and understanding of the human life and the entire creation process is unrivalled, except by the Supreme Being Olurun.
The Yoruba people believe that Orunmila was present at the beginning of time, making him a primordial Irunmole. After creation of the Earth and human beings, Orunmila became the chief priest of Ifa. In that role, he trained many of his disciples to become priests (Babalawo) and priestesses (iyanifa) of Ifa. He tutored them in spiritual knowledge and ethics, enabling the priestesses and priests of Ifa to properly guide the people towards a path free of the wrath of the gods and other bad spirits (ajogun).
Some examples of Orunmila’s epithets are Igbakeji Oludumar (the “Second in command to Olodumari”) and Eleri ipin (the “witness of fate”).
Orunmila is also a revered healer; he is the orisha Yoruba people beseech for solutions to their problems.
Known in Yoruba religion as the Sky Father, the orisha Obatala was the deity who created human beings after which the breath of Oludumare was infused with the body.
Obatala is generally seen as the father of all the Orishas. According to some versions of the myths, Obatala was ordered by Oludumare to create land upon the water beneath the sky. Owing to a heavy dose of alcohol that he took on that day, Obatala was unable to perform the task assigned to him. The task of creating land on the primordial ocean then fell to the orisha called Oduduwa.
Obatala’s efforts were also crucial in setting up the first Yoruba city called Ife. He thus became the first mortal king of Ife. However, he would later lose his throne to Oduduwa.
The loss of his throne is reenacted every year in a festival called Itapa in Ife. During the festival, Obatala is generally depicted as a dying and rising god. On the seventh day of the festival, it is believed that Obatala leaves his temple and spends the following day in his grove. On the ninth day, Obatala returns with a huge procession to his temple in Ife, at which point sacrifices and prayers are offered to him.
Some of his most preferred animal sacrifices are white hen, pigeon, snail, and guinea. Woe to anyone who presents him with a sacrifice that contains alcohol or crab as he strictly forbids those kinds of offerings.
Owing to his color being white, the Orisha Obatala prefers offerings that are in white, such as white rice, cream, white bread and milk. This explains why he is always depicted in white clothes with a staff called Opaxoro. The orisha Yemoo is often seen as Obatala’s spouse. The dove is his most sacred symbol. Obatala is often regarded as one of the oldest orishas and the shaper of human beings. In some versions of the myth, he serves as Olodumare’s representative on Earth.
Origin and Significance of the Orishas
The Orishas are the manifestations of the Supreme god Olurun. They are spirits sent down to our world by Olodumare (a manifestation of Olurun) to offer guidance to all of his creation and the human race in general. They teach and guide humans on how to live a healthy and successful life.
The Yoruba orishas are often categorized based on their colors. For example, the orishas that have white as their color are often calm, gentle and levelheaded. However, Orishas that have red or black as their color act in a bold, assertive and sometimes outrightly aggressive manner. Orishas also have favorite foods and objects. For example the orisha Obatala hates offerings that have spices in them.
Many of the orishas started off as mortal humans and then became deities upon their deaths. This elevation in status came as result of the important things that they achieved during their time on earth. Therefore, it was not uncommon for renowned ancestors, kings, warriors and clan leaders to be deified in the Yoruba pantheon.
The exact number of orishas in the Yoruba pantheon is unknown. Some Yoruba people believe that there are as many orishas as one can possibly think of, plus one more.
Interesting facts about the Yoruba Orishas
When all hope is lost, or when the other Orishas seem incapable of fixing a situation, it is not uncommon for the Yorubas to beseech the supreme deity, Olurun, who they believe is not bound by time or space.
Even though Olurun is seen as an aloof god, the Yoruba people believe that he is the deity that keeps watch over everyone, including the numerous Orishas, at night.
Ifá is the term the Yoruba people give to the name of their religion and belief system. It is also believed that the orisha Orunmila was the one who revealed this belief system to the Yoruba.
The Yorubaland comprises areas mainly in present-day southwestern Nigeria, specifically in Nigerian states such as Osun, Ondo, Ekiti, Kwara, Lagos, Oyo, Ogun, and Kogi. There is also a sizable population of Yoruba people in some parts of Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana.