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Practices and Rituals of The Yoruba Religion: Birth, Death and Reincarnation

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Yoruba can refer to the ethnic group that resided in Yorubaland, a cultural region within Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, in West Africa. It can also refer to the language that many of the inhabitants speak within that region. The use of the word Yoruba in the context that we are concerned with is the religion of Yoruba. The purpose of this research paper is to explore the many rituals and practices that are integral to the Yoruba religion and its continuation through oral and performative traditions. Included in these practices are the Ifá Divination, spiritual song and dance, spiritual clothing, achieving reincarnation, and burial rites.

The most prominent ritual in the Yoruba religion is that of Ifá divination. It is a ritual that seemingly holds all the answers to everything one could possibly question, from personal health issues to make an important decision whether those decisions are for one’s self or for a group of people. These rituals of divination are performed by the Ifá priests known as “Babalawo” or “Iyalawo” which means either the father or the mother of secrets in the Yoruba language. The process of Ifá Divination involves a complex system procedure of sifting pine nuts from one hand to the other and based on how many wind up in one hand at a given time, marks are made on a divination board. This is done 8 times and is known as the Odù. The Odù Ifá is the sacred text of the Yoruba religion and within the Odù Ifá there are “16 major divination figures called Odù Ifá, and there are 16 verses associated with each figure, resulting in 256 Odù” or verses. The Ifá priest whether it be a Babalawo or an Iyalawo will interpret the verses that one got from the divination process and tell them what kind of sacrifices need to be made for this person. “Additionally, there are 16 more that related to the 256 verses, which makes for a minimum of 4,096 Odù, and each of those Odù has associated with it 1,680 ẹsẹ Ifá”. This many mathematically calculated probable outcomes, lead to the Yoruba people to believe that there is no situation that Ifá divination cannot solve.

When one is born into the Yoruba religion, their destiny is determined by an Ifá priest at birth. It is possible to have a bad destiny and still do be a good person, just as it is possible to have a good destiny and still live a malicious life. The goal of a Yoruba’s life is to be reincarnated. If they live a good life and do good deeds and die a natural death, they will be reincarnated as a grandchild, often resembling their former selves as an elder. If not reincarnated in the physical world, they will be reincarnated in the spiritual world, watching over their family. If one lives a bad life, dies and early, criminal death, then they will go to the “’ bad heaven’ (orun bururu), the place of broken pots which cannot be repaired, and are thus unable to reincarnate”. This is interestingly opposite of the ideology of Hinduism and Buddhism in which one performs the reincarnation cycle until they are able to achieve nirvana and no longer exist in the physical world. 

Reincarnation is also mentioned in a passage of the Odù Ifá titled “THE TWIN BROTHERS.” In this passage, two twins were born to a king by one of his favorite wives. Traditionally, twins were supposed to be executed immediately. The king could not bring himself to do such a thing, so he cast his wife and her twin boys into exile, as to not be found out by the rest of the capital. When word broke out that the king had perished, the brothers put on a contest of who could throw a stone the farthest, and whoever did, would return to the capital and claim the throne. The younger of the twins won, so he claimed the throne and took his brother in. Jealousy fell onto the older brother and one day, he killed his brother in the river. He then assumed kingship, as nobody had witnessed the murder. The older brother, sometime later walked by the same place that he had murdered his brother where a fish popped up out of the water and started singing “Your brother lies here, your brother lies here.” The king killed the fish. On a separate occasion, the king passed by the same spot again, and the river sprang up and sang the same song. Onlookers were quick to notice the body of the previous king within the water. The sudden death of the king was explained and the older brother poisoned himself and died. Although this isn’t reincarnation in its ideal form, it was a vengeful reincarnation by the gods to expose the older brother of his wrongdoings and therefore void his chances at reincarnation because of the death he suffered and the actions he performed.

Another common ritual is known as “Ebo”. These are ritual sacrifices in order to both appease the gods and to remedy a destiny of maleficence. Via Ifá divination the Ifá priest determines what must be sacrificed in order to achieve this remedy. 

“Cosmic, supernatural, and spiritual forces are mostly appeased with the following items: rat (Eku), fish (Eja), a male goat (Obuko), pig (Elede), cock/hen (akuko/abo-adie), chicken egg (Eyin-adie), pigeon (Eyele), snail (Igbin), banana (Ogede-omini), white bean cake (Ekuru), palm-oil (Epo-pupa), roasted yam (Isu-sisun), roasted corn (Guguru), kola-nut (Obi) and a bowl of water (sometimes dew-water).”(Enaikele and Adeleke)

Sometimes, these sacrifices can be refused by the supernatural beings if the scriptures of the Ifá divination point to that result. In the tale of Osun, he performs the ritual of Ifá divination and when he is faced with the results, he refuses to sacrifice, but this does not actually alter his predestined path in a negative way. In the words of Teresa N. Washington, it actually, “adds to one’s character and complexity.” There is an account of a Caucasian man attempting to prodùce a human, so he goes and speaks with a diviner who tells him that he needs to sacrifice a goat in order to be able to prOdùce a human. The Caucasian man refuses and the diviner persists in the man’s wish. The diviner tells the man to gather mud in order to make a human; he them shapes the mud to resemble a human figure. The Caucasian man returns after the figure are dry to see that “has no soul and is incapable of speech.” In this case, not sacrificing something, led to negative consequences.

The story of how different tribes could tell each other apart lies within the Odù Ifá, the sacred text of Yoruba. The passage titled “HOW TRIBAL MARKS CAME TO BE USED” it tells a story of a king sending two of his slaves on a mission to do something for him. One slave comes back successful and the other comes back having nothing to show for the journey. The slave that did nothing receives “a hundred and twenty-two razor cuts all over his body.” The King’s wives took a liking to how the scars on the second slave’s body looked after they had healed and from that point on he “…decided that cuts should in future be given, not as punishment, but as a sign of royalty…” From then on in order to distinguish members from one tribe from a member of another tribe, “two cuts would be a sign of royalty and, various other cuts came to be marks of other tribes”.

Yorubas oftentimes have a kind of festival to reminisce and celebrate the past. There is oftentimes a conflict between some Yorubas, however. Some of them were slaves themselves and others slavers and proud of the power their ancestors held, enslaving other people. The performing dancer/singer has the right to reveal anything private about themselves or their history during their ritual if they so choose to do so. Although these competing histories are very much connected to each other, they are not an excuse for violence between those who were on different sides of history. They recognize now, that they are all one people. “The festivals, marked by dance and music (songs, recitation, chants, and instrumentation) are vital to inducing spiritual emotion in the worshippers and spurring them to greater action while also teaching about communal history.” Of course, the Yorubas hold this festival for much more than reminiscing about slavery, other communal topics and less divisive topics are celebrated as well. It is quite interesting as the medium of ritual song and dance has stayed relatively consistent throughout the time since slavery, in its formal sense, ended in Yorubaland in the late nineteenth century. In (Performing Trauma: The Ghosts of Slavery in Yoruba Music and Ritual Dance) the Yoruba being interviewed, who are as old as 96 years old, say that they can remember hearing and seeing the same rituals performed when they were children at these exact same types of festivals. 

As for clothing, during the aforementioned festivals and times of spiritual need, Yorubas wear the Egungun. This clothing is worn by Egungun masqueraders that take the form of ancestors who are returning to listen to the grievances of their people and “to bless them with human and crop fertility and also with general prosperity ”. When the masqueraders wear these, they are no longer human, they are a representation of ancestral spirits coming back to Earth. The masqueraders are referred to as “babi mi (my father) or baba wa (our father) whenever they appear, either during festivals or on special occasions.” The colors of the Egungun correspond to the favorite colors of the deities, as to copy how the deities themselves dressed, if the incorrect colors are worn, then the deities will accept no offerings. These Egungun costumes “are often astonishing and fragile constructions of fabrics, leather, or small threads to which monkeys’ skulls, cowries, necklaces, and various medicines are attached” When the costumes are not being worn for special events they sit upon a stand, reminiscent of armor stands from medieval times; these stands are made of ahun wood, the same wood used for the masks they wear. Interestingly, when the costumes are not in use, they are taken very good care of, but when they are in use, sacrificial animal blood is poured onto them in the name of worship. The craftsmanship can be appreciated by those outsides of the religion and these costumes are one of the pieces that made African Art become so popular to the masses, but the true meaning of the costumes could never be fully understood by an outsider.

The ritual of burial rites is also popular amongst the Yoruba people. It is referred to as Ìsààró and “marks the exit of the aged women from this world to the world beyond”. This burial procedure is performed by the chief head of the masqueraders. It is also a requirement that the children of these deceased women perform this burial service, if not performed by their children, then the woman may not have a good passage into the beyond, and is a bad omen for her children that still exist in the physical world. 

To conclude, the Yoruba religion is rich in spiritual rituals and practices that include divination, reincarnation, burial rites, masquerading costumes, and song and dance. All of these rituals are performed in order to appease to the gods so the gods will accept them into the great beyond and allow them to be reincarnated back into the physical world. Yoruba people may do these to make offerings to the gods in spiritual ways such as singing and dancing or much more physical ways such as the sacrifice of animals and/or personal belongings. This religion is very oral tradition derived and most of those traditions are derived from the Odù Ifá, their sacred text that they use as a moral and legal code for everything that may possibly happen in the physical world. It has stark contrasts to other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism as well as contrasts to the Abrahamic religions as well in regards to reincarnation and sacrifice, respectively. This, however does not make it a close-minded religion. Although they have thousands of verses with answers to seemingly every situation, it is highly interpretive of the individual on whether to follow these verses, sometimes with no negative consequences at all. Furthermore, this religion is deeply rooted in its own history. Its the history of slavery, both foreign and domestic, has shaped it to be what it is today, unifying.  

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Practices and Rituals of the Yoruba Religion: Birth, Death and Reincarnation. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 26, 2022, from
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