What is the Orisa Tradition?

Traditional Yoruba Egungun masquerade

Traditional Yoruba Egungun masquerade

The Orisa (pronounced “Orisha“) tradition is the tradition of the Yoruba people who are from the area once called Yorubaland that is now modern day Nigeria and Benin.

The orisa tradition honors spirit through nature, emphazises good character and seeks to maintain the intergral balance that exists between all creation, including human beings (we often forget that we, too, are a part of creation!).

The Orisa tradition is monotheistic. Orisa practitioners (called aborisa) believe that there is one source, whom we call Olodumare. Olodumare has various aspects or manifestations of Herself (Olodumare is neither female nor male but I am determined to remind humanity about the feminine side of divinity!) that are reflected in the orisas.  The orisas are the energtic, spiritual forces of the cosmos.  Understanding the orisas and learning how to work with them help us to find and maintain the balance necessary for our development and the fulfillment of our destiny.

Some basic aspects of the orisa tradition include:

  • Ori: “Ori” can be translated to mean “head” or “destiny.”  The head is the seat of the destiny, that aspect of ourselves that guides our lives.  Before traveling to earth, we each selected our ori, our heads and our destiny, and we are currently living the result of that selection.
  • Iwa Pele/Iwa Rere: “Iwa” is often translated as character but it goes beyond character.  “Iwa” is existence and the balance that we seek is manifested through a gentle (“pele”) and good (“rere”) existence…which certainly does include gentle and good character!
  • Divination: Divination is an assessment of the energies presently working in our lives.  Divination assists us by helping us to maintain balance and fulfill destiny.
  • Sacrifice: Sacrifice is the giving of the self (through time, energy, ridding ourselves of bad habits) and things (money, objects) in order to achieve increase positivity and/or decrease negativity. Sacrifice sometimes includes animal sacrifice.
  • Egungun and Atunwa: Ancestral veneration, remembering and paying homage to those who came before us and to whose existence we owe our existence, is essential to orisa tradition and practices.  We pay homage to the ancestors, or the “egungun,” through giving offerings and pray for their assistance in our lives.  Our ancestors return as our children through “atunwa” or reincarnation. One day will be ancestors and we will also return!

Some of the more well-known orisa are:

  • Esu (also called “Elegba” or “Elegua”): Esu, pronounced “Eshu,” is an orisa or force of nature we find in theelegba2 mysterious of the forest.  Esu is the holder of ase, pronounced “ah-shay,” the divine power that flows throughout the cosmos.  Esu is the regulator of ase and we always call upon Esu in all of prayers, ceremonies, and rituals because it is his energy that is necessary for our success. His colors are red, black, and white and his number is 3.  Often called a trickster, Esu shows of the truth that lies within our hearts.  Esu is the one who always provides balance…even when it hurts!
  • Obatala: The King of the White Cloth, Obatala is the energy of peace, Obatala2harmony, and “cool-headedness.”  He represents spiritual purity and spiritual light.  Obatala is the embodiment of wisdom.  Obatala is creator of humanity and the owner of all heads.  Orisas own heads, meaning that each person has a type of energy that corresponds to an orisa.  Through divination, one can learn what orisa owns one’s head.  However, until one is initiated into the priesthood of a particular orisa, Obatala owns the head.  Thus, Obatala is considered the owner of all heads.  In nature, Obatala’s domain is the mountains.  His color is white and his number if 8.
  • Yemoja (also called Yemaya): Yemoja is the maternal aspect ofyemonja-200x300 Olorun.  She is the mother and her energy is very much like what most mothers are – protective and nurturing yet upholding one to high standards.  She is the creative force that brings life into the world and her energy is essential for reproduction. Her name means “the mother whose children are as numerous as the fish in the ocean,” pointing to Her role as the mother of us all.  In Nigeria, the birthplace of the Orisa tradition, Yemoja’s energy is found and honored in the the Ogun River but in the Diaspora, she is reflected in the top portion of the ocean. Her colors are blue and white and her number is 7.
  • Ogun: The orisa of iron, Ogun represents the energy behind progress.  Ogun’s is force, raw energy used to empower and propel.  Withhis iron-like nature, Ogun represents truth and justice.  In traditional Yoruba culture people swear on Ogun when making an oath.  It is said that it was energy of Ogun that prompted the Haitian Revolution, in his role as defender of truth and justice.  In nature, Ogun manifests in iron and the tools necessary to construct and build society.
  • Sango: Sango, pronounced “Shango” is probably one of the most popular orisas.  His energy is all things “masculine” – strength, endurance, and manly beauty.  As the lord shangoof thunder and lightning, he embodies spiritual illumination and transformation.  Just as lightning can make the darkest night appear like the brightest morning, so Sango can bring spiritual illumination instantaneously.  He is viewed as the master of strategy, illuminating our strongest points and helping us to attack our weak points head on so that we can move closer to our high selves.
  • Oya: Oya is the orisa of the wind and air.  She is the energy of change and transformation, sweeping out the old, outdatedOya modes of existence and bringing in the new.  She brings the wind that comes with Sango’s thunder and lightening.  Her warrior energy rules over the cemetery; thus she is associated with the ancestors, endings, and transitions in general.  Oya is a warrior woman, with many stories noting her strength in war.
  • Osun: Osun, pronunced “Aw-shoon”, is feminine energy, sensuality, the creation and maintenance of culture, sweetness, joy, and bliss. While Yemoja’s energy is seen in large and life-giving power of the ocean, Osun’s energy is in the “sweet waters” of the lakes, streams, and rivers.  Osun’s energy is the joy of lifeoshun that makes life worth living.  Osun represents new beginnings, the wonders of spring, and the fertile energy of the New Moon.  Osun is my mother; she rules my head and I have been initiated as her priestess.

20 thoughts on “What is the Orisa Tradition?

  1. I am looking for ways to become more grounded. I have been married for eight years and once upon of time had ties to people who were of the Akan and Yoruba tradition. But, I unfortunately have fell off in a major way. It is affecting my self- esteem, confidence and any so many other areas have any suggestions of groups online that I could connect with regularly?

  2. I was raised around Yoruba tradition but i was never fully taught. At this point in my life i am trying to find a balance and sense of peace…Do you have suggestions on how i can learn..I am also on ymib thats how i found your blog here.

  3. good evening>first of all i would like thank you cos i have learnt from you.you are truely a blessing from god.i left a comment on your site last night asking for you help.how do i find out which orisa that i belong to and also how do i set up an altar

  4. my mother coulnt concieve she asked santa barbara for a girl and she would name her after her. here i am . throught out my life i’ve always felt a extremly close conection with chango. i always thought i was child of chango. and a closeness with obatala however, i went to have chango made and the preistest told me that i belong to obatala.. and that i was torn. which is true i feel like my head is being torn in half. im always trying to do good and try to be fair yet my anger at times is so impulsive and hold gruges . its like a battle to keep things calm and feeling rage at the same time….. maybe im crazy !!!!!! but she told me until i satify obatala i wont have peace. and yet i feel like im betraying chango

  5. I want to learn very well about the Orisa, to have an in-depth knowledge of my worthy tradition. I also very importantly want to know which of the orisas owns and controls my head.

  6. Your article is truly insightful, I wish to learn in more detail of the orisa and how to set up the ansestral alters. Your help is greatly appreciated.

  7. Pingback: My Growing [and ever evolving] Understanding of Gender and Sexuality | Alexandra Moffett-Bateau

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