The term Yoruba describes a number of semi-independent peoples loosely linked by geography, language, history, and religion. The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria (see blue area of map) and neighboring Benin, Fon and Togo number over 20 million people. Most live within the borders of the tropical forest belt, but the remnants of the powerful Oyo kingdom include groups that live at the fringes of the northern savanna grasslands. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the Yoruba may have lived in this same general area of Africa since prehistoric times. In the mid-18th century, the slave trade to the Americas dramatically affected all of West Africa. Slaves of Yoruba descent were resettled in Cuba and Brazil, where elements of Yoruba culture and language can still be found.
Traditional Yoruba city-states were sub-divided into over 25 complex, centralized kingdoms. Of these, Ile-Ife is universally recognized as the most senior and most ritually important Yoruba city. The founding of Ife is believed to date to about 850 AD. The rival Oyo kingdom just to the northwest of Ife, was founded about 1350 AD. The Oni of Ife and the Alafin of Oyo are still the most highly respected Yoruba kings in Nigeria. Other major kingdoms were Ijesha and Ekiti to the northeast; the Shabe, Ketu, Egbado, Ijebu, and Awori in the southwest; and the Ondo, Owo, and Itsekiri in the southeast.
For centuries, the Yoruba have lived in large, densely populated cities where they are able to practice the specialized trades that provide goods and services for the society as a whole. Most will commute to the countryside for part of the year to raise staples such as yams and cassava on family farms. Each city-state will maintain its own interpretation of history, religious traditions, and unique art style, yet all will acknowledge the ritual sovereignty of Ife, honor the pantheon of Yoruba gods, and will seek solutions to the problems of everyday life from Yoruba herbalists and divination priests. Such ancient institutions provide a common bond of experience that links all Yoruba sub-groups.
The Gods Traditional Yoruba religion is centered around a pantheon of deities called orisha. When a child is born, a diviner, or babalawo, will be consulted to determine which orisha the child should follow. As adults, the Yoruba often honor several of these deities. According to oral tradition, the high god, Olorun (Olodumare), asked Orishala to descend from the sky to create the first Earth at Ile-Ife. Orishala was delayed and his younger brother, Oduduwa, accomplished the task.
Shortly afterwards, sixteen other orisha came down from heaven to create human beings and live on Earth with him. The descendants of each of these deities are said to have spread Yoruba culture and religious principles throughout the rest of Yorubaland. Respecting the ritual primacy of the holy city of Ife legitimizes both a royal hierarchy and the basic pantheon of Yoruba gods, estimated variously at 201, 401, 601 BCE or more.
Some divinities are primordial, having existed when Oduduwa was creating the Earth, and others are heroes or heroines who left an important impression on the people. Divinities may also be natural phenomena, such as mountains, hills, and rivers that have influenced the peoples' history and lives. Of the hundreds of gods worshipped by the Yoruba, the most popular (some of whom are discussed or otherwise represented in the sections that follow) are Sango (god of thunder and lightning), Ifa ( also known as Orunmila, god of divination), Eshu (the messenger and trickster god), Ogun (god of iron and of war), messenger and trickster god), Ogun (god of iron and of war),