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A NOTE ON THE YORUBA ORI SA CULTS

Peter McKenzie

In terms of the history of religions, I see Geoffrey


Parrinder's achievement as going a long way towards correcting
the tendency to see the subject largely in terms of Asia and
Europe, East and West, by adding the African continent and
so the remaining North-South quadrants . The point has been
largely taken (1), I believe, despite the publication in the
USA last year of another Religions East and West (2) with a
section labelled 'Primitive Religions' for what does not seem
to fit this schema .

Not only was it immensely valuable to correct and fill


out the scope of the history of religions, but, I believe, the
study of African religion, lacking as it does the texts of
Asian and Near Eastern Religions, forces the student of
religions, in a special way, to leave his own literate world
behind in trying to enter a religious cosmology of a much
more flexible and fluid kind, governed only by oral traditions
which are at best elusive and protean, in their sensitivity
to contemporary events and needs .

It is not my intention to try to see the study of


African religions in any kind of opposition to that of
Eastern religions . To attempt this would be no service to
our subject and no recognition of the way in which Professor
Parrinder has held both directions together in his own life
work .

Honouring the BAHR's former President gives us a timely


opportunity to see all our present work in the study of religion
against a sombre and disturbing background of threatened and

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152 Peter McKenzie

actual decline in our field, both in this country and elsewhere .


Each of us has been touched by the 'death of a thousand cuts'
in one way or another . Suffice it to say that in my own local
area, the number of full-time staff at the University,
Polytechnic and Colleges, engaged in religious studies, has
fallen in recent years from thirteen to four - student interest
remaining much as before . Equally disturbing has been the
fall in standards, resulting therefrom, which no-one cares
to admit . If the aim is to compel reorganization, there may
soon be no one left to reorganize .

If we believe the experience of going out of ourselves


by entering into other religious world views to be an essential
element in developing maturity in today's world (3), then we
must seize every opportunity to resist together the steady
erosion of that which has been built up over past years .
Recalling what Professor Parrinder has achieved for the whole
field of the history of religions, and in particular for the
field of African religions, can serve as some kind of
revitalization, a renewal, a mutual strengthening during
desperate times .

I should like to try to illustrate these points by a


brief excursion into the world of West African religion . To
collect the material for what follows I had to go no further
than London - where the Church Missionary Society archives
for West Africa were kept - or Birmingham where they now are
situated . It is hoped to offer a few historical footnotes
on the Yoruba drisa cults from the period 1846-79, to remind
us of the fascinating world which Professor Parrinder
described and interpreted so well . If there is anything which
strikes the Western student of Yoruba religion it is the cult
of the drisa, the deities, divinities, numina, hierophanies -
the terms could be multiplied, without ever comprehending the
extraordinary diversity of these divine beings or entities .

The presence of Yoruba catechists and 'native pastors'


among the olorisa or followers of the orisa, led the latter
to form judgements about their own feelings and attitudes
towards the drisa, particularly in the face of the challenge
which the catechists' own position represented . One woman
described brisa-worship as 'a sweet thing' . Others shed tears
when images of their drisa were lost in the periodic fires .
An Ibadan chief sent Muslims away declaring that the drisa
were 'Allah' for him and none else (CA2/019 Jnl . 20/9/71) .
William Allen, an Ibadan catechist, came across a woman
happily addressing a group of men and women 'in honour of
her brisa' . Known as 'a true priestess' when presenting
herself at the gate of a town, she was never asked to pay a
single cowrie by way of toll (CA2/019 Jnl . 5/2/73) .

brisa cults L53

Naturally, the relationship of the orisa to the sky deity


Olddumare or 016run was often discussed since the latter was
particularly claimed by Christian and by Muslim alike . There
seems to have been a wide diversity in the views expressed .
One young man told Daniel Coker, 'Idols /I .e . bris] are not
seen, they are representatives of invisible beings - You
worship LOldrun], do you see him?' (CA2/028 Jnl . 23/3/77) .
Many thought of the brisk in terms of procreation . They were
appointed by 016run as 'his agents in creating and forming
children in the womb' (CA2/067 Jnl . 7/10/49) . To Thomas King
a woman declared roundly : 'By Sango I was begotten and by
Lakijena I was brought forth and them will I serve' (CA2/061
Jnl . 6/10/55) . Another woman (also in Thomas King's presence„
in Abeokuta in 1852) sang praises to Ogun, 'founder of all
things' (ibid ., 9/5/52) . The same year a chief declared to
James White in Lagos, 'Ifa made us and therefore we pray to
him' (CA2/087 Jnl . 26/5/52) . But what of Olddumare/Oldrun?
Sometimes the relationship was seen in terms of the creation
myth . Man was created in a shapeless form . Orisa-fila
made the features and Oldrun breathed life into the form . Or,
again : Oldrun gave us our body but the Orisa gave us the face,
eyes and ears . In the ritual process there was much
flexibility as between the powers of 016run and the Orisa .
The rites of the orisa were approved by Olddumare as a right
way of serving him, one man told James Barber in Ibadan in
1855 (CA2/021 Jnl . 4/4/55) . A little earlier James White was
reporting in Lagos that Sango women were requesting children
'from the Deity' . They pray to 016run to grant children,
he added, and also to Sango 'not to /old back God from
giving' (CA2/087 Jnl . 2/7/52) . When the question was put,
they were usually prepared to acknowledge the superiority of
Oldrun, but the ora were quite indispensable (ibid .,
25/12/55) . One woman, on being told about 'the Lord's Day',
replied that she was in favour of a day for 016run provided
that the brisa could be worshipped on the other days of the
week (CA2/023 Jnl . 25/9/57) . Even in the world to come
judgement is to be meted out by an brisa, in this case Ifa,
according to his followers in Abeokuta in 1859 (CA2/018 Jnl .
19/9/59) . However, in Ibadan four years earlier, a Babalawo,
Ifa priest, was interpreting the state of hostilities in which
the city was becoming embroiled, in terms of a complicated
arrangement of divine powers : Oldrun, he said, opened the
door of heaven to Esu and Ogun (two powerful, unpredictable
and aggressive brisi) and sent them down to earth to execute
his vengeance on men upon the earth for their disobedience .
Unless OlOrun/OlOdOmare should call back 9su and Ogun, war
would not cease . However, it was not the 'pleasure' of the
other ar'ssa that the war should continue (CA2/021 Jnl .
14/1/55) .

154 Peter McKenzie

One of the fascinating questions with regard to the


bris'a, as indeed with the phenomenological category of deities,
is how an 'orisa, or deity, forms itself (4) . On this subject,
James White, who spent the whole of our period in Badagry,
Lagos and especially Otta, was inclined to interpret the bris`a
in terms of pure euhemerism . They were human beings who
acquired fame during their lives and were deified after death
(CA2/087 Jnl . 23/10/73) . There is also some support for this
view, although in modified form, from present scholars (5),
but our particular evidence suggests otherwise . An 'orisa can
form itself from some small hierophany, after which it tends
to grow . William Allen of Oke Arcmg, Ibadan, saw some women,
while going to their farms, place 'knots of grass on a stone
behind the city wall' . He asked them about the meaning of
their action and received the reply : It is to prevent
sickness and death from entering the town . Then they added :
'It is an 'orisa which has also given us children' . As far as
the catechist could ascertain, this hierophany had appeared
first to children who, whenever they were late in returning
home, made a knot of grass and placed it on the stone . It
would intercede for them with their parents, just like a major
orisa such as Ifa or ~$u, and they would escape punishment
(CA2/019 Jnl . 30/8/73) .

We come even closer than this to the birth of an 'orisa


in Abeokuta some years earlier . William Allen learns that
people in his district of Ajemo are going in groups to offer
sacrifice to a newly revealed orisa . This time the bris'a
manifested itself in and through a large rock about 50 feet
around . It had become exposed by people digging clay to
build houses until it began to overhang the clay pit where,
after the rains, people could go to wash . One night, after
children had been playing in the pool by day, the rock
collapsed onto the pit completely covering it . A woman cried
out : drisg ni, bri n1 - 'It is an bra . !' Then she added
by way of schematizing or rationalizing the numinous, 'It is
a motherly one .' So the brisa had been disclosed in its
essential form of tremendum and fascinosum . And the 'motherly
rock' representative of 'invisible being' became the focal
point for sacrificial offerings (CA2/018 Jnl . 15/5/59) .

These orisa may seem homely beside the great and


powerful deities : hsu for Otta or Gbuku for Igbessa, Ori!~a
Iroko, the tree deity of Ogudu, South of Otta, and others .
(CA2/087 Jnl . 23/5/55, 18/2/62 and 17/12/62) . There was also
the dreaded Orisa Owo, the river deity able to divine and
punish witches (ibid ., 5/3/65) ; further discussion of these
may be left until some later time . We have, I believe and
hope, said enough to convey something of the rewards

ari cults 155

experienced by those of us who, coming into the Ibadan heritage


of Geoffrey Parrinder, were attracted into studying religion
in West Africa .

NOTES

1 See Chapter 1 of History of Religions, Proceedings of the


13th Congress IAHR, Lancaster, 1975, ed . Michael Pye and
Peter McKenzie, Leicester 1980 .
2 Ward J . Fellows ; Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1979 .
3 See Jacob Neusner, 'Stranger at Home : The task of religious
studies', inaugural lecture of the Dept of Religious Studies,
Arizona State University, October 1979 .
4 See A . Brelich, 'Comment se forme un dieu?', in Proceedings
of the 12th Congress IAHR, Stockholm 1970, ed . C . J .
Bleeker et al ., Brill 1975, p . 136f .
5 See J . 0 . Awolalu, e .g ., in Orita 2, 2 (1968), pp . 79-89 .

PETER McKENZIE is Senior Lecturer and Head in the Dept of


Religion at the University of Leicester . He is editor of the
Leicester Studies in Religion and co-editor of History of
Religions, Proceedings of the 13th Congress IAHR, Lancaster
1975 .

Dr Peter McKenzie, Dept of Religion, University of Leicester,


University Road, Leicester LEI 7RH .

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