The root of the word divinity is the Latin divus, which is closely related to the Greek word dues; it means “godlike.” The less common but acceptable usage of the word refers to the operation of transcendental powers in the world. In African cosmology, the belief in divinities—referred to as orisa (among the Yoruba), abosom (among the Akans), and vudu (among Ewe-Fon)—presupposes belief in the existence of supernatural beings or forces that control the affairs of the world. In the theocratic government of the universe, the divinities are held to be lower than the Supreme Being, but higher than ancestral spirits. This entry provides a basic description, discusses the relationship between the divinities and the Supreme Being, and offers a categorization.
The origin of the divinities is not definite because of the differing beliefs regarding their coming into being. Oral traditions from a number of African societies assert that the divinities are emanations or offspring of the Supreme Being. The Akans of Ghana say explicitly that the abosom are the children of Onyame. Among the Edo, Olokun is held to be the son of Osanobwa, whereas among the Yoruba, Orisa-Nla is said to be the offspring of Olodumare. Generally, divinities in Africa are believed to be beings that were brought into being distinctively with unique and supernatural destiny.
It is difficult to state the precise number of the divinities. Yoruba oral tradition puts the census of divinities at varying numbers from 201, 401, 600, to 1,700. This pluralism of divinities probably results from the fact of a plural society, but in this diversity of many divinities, there is unity under one Supreme Being.
The divinities may be male or female. For example, among the Yoruba, Orunmila and Sango are male, whereas Oya and Yemoja (Yemonja) are female. Divinities are held to be responsible for all the good and evil that happen on Earth. Humankind, therefore, can receive the prosperity, good health, protection, wives and children, and all forms of good fortunes by offering regular sacrifices to the divinities. However, refusal to offer sacrifice or show gratitude may incur their wrath on oneself.
Each divinity has its own local name in the local language, which is descriptive either of the function allotted to the divinity or with the natural phenomena with which the divinity is associated. Divinities may well be described as “domesticated” spirits because they are a tutelary part of the community establishments.
They act as custodians of the people's morality. In this capacity, they act as watchdogs for the Supreme Being and as checks against the excesses of human beings. They often represent instant justice and may be called on to vindicate the just. For example, Ogun is fierce, but not evil. He demands justice, fair play, and integrity. He is also protective of the poor and the dispossessed.
Relationship to the Supreme Being
The divinities are believed to share aspects of the divine nature and status of the Supreme Being. This implies that the divinities are not nebulous laws; they are specially brought into being to minister to the Supreme Being: Olodumare (Yoruba), Onyakopon (Akan, Fante), Mawu-Lisa (Ewe), and Chineke (Igbo). Divinities are of ethereal substance: They can permeate Heaven and Earth, the sacred and the profane. This is why the African divinities are perceived by devotees through the senses and organically. As a result, artists can design the sculpture of some divinities.
The relationship between the divinities and the Supreme Being is patterned along the sociological order of the people. In many African societies—the Yoruba, Akans, Edo, Fon, and Ewe, among others—life follows a cultural pattern. The king or paramount chief is at the apex of the social pyramid, and below him are the common people. So God as the head is believed to have appointed the divinities as the executive of the Earthly theocratic society.
Because the divinities are brought forth by God, they owe their existence to Him because they have no absolute existence of their own. Their authority is therefore derived and delegated. Divinities are believed to be the ambassadors of the Supreme Being. They could also be referred to as Heads of Departments. Each has its own definite portfolios in the Supreme Beings' monarchical government. They exercise great authority in the governing and operation of the world. They are also intermediaries between the Supreme Being and human beings, especially with reference to their particular function.
Orisa-nla is the arch-divinity among the Yoruba. He is believed to have been saddled with the responsibility of the creation of the solid Earth and the molding of human frames. He is referred to as orisa mori-mori (moulder of heads). To the Ewe of Volta Region of Ghana and Togo as well as Fon people of Benin Republic Mawu-Lisa is the arch-divinity. The arch-divinity of the Igbo-land is Ala, also called Ani. As the great mother goddess, she is the spirit of fertility and queen of the underworld. Sango is in charge of thunder, and Ogun is responsible for all activities connected with iron, warfare, and hunting. Orunmila is God's deputy in matters of wisdom and knowledge. He is always consulted in matters of confusion or uncertainty. This same divinity is called Fa by the Ewe and Fon people of Dahomey. To them, Fa is the speech of Mawu in all matters affecting human destiny.
Some names represent the natural phenomena that are believed to be the manifestations of the Supreme Being. For example, among the Yoruba, Jakuta (thunder divinity) called Hevie by the Fon of Dahomey is an expression of the wrath of God, whereas among the Igbo Ojukwu the god of small pox represents the anger of God. Oya manifests in strong winds, tornadoes, and lightning. She is also the initiator of feminine leadership.
Categories of Divinities
In some societies, especially those of the Yoruba and Bini where the gods are hierarchically arraigned in pantheon, there are basically three main classes of divinities. These are the primordial divinities, divinities associated with natural phenomena, and the deified ancestors.
Primordial divinities are divinities of Heaven who had been with God from the creation and participated in the work of creation. Among the Yoruba, Obatala or Orisa-nla is said to have come to the Earth to assist Olodumare in the creation of the Earth. Ogun helped in the construction of roads to Ife. Esu, also known as Elegbara, was forced down to the Earth to take over the responsibility of a midwife between evil and good forces. Osun was sent to represent the power and the sacredness of womanhood. When they got to Earth, they became energy and forces through which the will of Olodumare for humankind came into reality.
Other divinities came into being as a result of the personification of natural features. These include spirits associated with hills, mountains, rivers, rocks, caves, brooks, lakes, trees, and thick (dense) forests. Such places may be set apart as sacred. Mountain divinity among the Yoruba is Orisa-oke (the divinity of the mountains). Most of the river divinities in West Africa are principally feminine. Among the Yoruba, some of the river divinities are Osun, Yemoja, and Oya. Among the Edo people, Olokun, a masculine divinity, is the lord of the seas. Tano, a prominent divinity of Asante pantheon, is associated with River Tano. Bosompo is connected with the sea while Bosomtwe is linked with a lake.
Finally, there are deified personalities. Among Africans since the times of the ancient people of Kemet, some individuals who had lived on Earth, through the process of transition became divinities. The first human to be deified was Imhotep, the builder of the first pyramid. Indeed, the great philosopher of the 18th dynasty, Amenhotep, son of Hapu, was also deified. These individuals are deified because while they were alive they manifested some measures of prowess in war, practice of medicine, or styles of rulership.
Some deified personalities include Oduduwa, who is regarded as the ancestor of the Yoruba. He is believed to have lived and ruled in Ilé-Ifè, the capital city of the Yoruba. Sango was the fourth Alaafin (king of Oyo). Sango is now believed to be in Heaven, from where he controls the thunder and lightning. In Dahomey, Gu, the god of iron and war, was a smith. He is now the patron of blacksmith. Among the Igbo, the thunder divinity is amadioha, and among the Edo, he is Jakuta. Among the Nupe, he is soko-egba, “the one who throws god's axe.” Okomfo Anokye, the great priest of Asanteman, may be included in this pantheon.
- oral tradition
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