Jan 24, 2022 by John Lockton
Having just completed a book on the Caribbean, Odyssey’s Child, that features the Yoruba religion, I have made a study of the religion. My interest started years earlier in Rio.

If you want to be in the most joyful place in the world on New Year’s Eve go to Rio. Three million people on Copacabana Beach celebrating around you, everyone dressed in white, the rich in white, favela dwellers in white, no distinction between rich and poor, rich and poor together happily casting white gladiolas and roses into the sea and pushing out hand-made paper boats bearing candles and offerings. The largest New Year's gathering in the world, far larger than the Times Square ball drop. 

Sure mammoth fireworks, advertised as the best anywhere. But you quickly realize you've been captured into something else, one of the largest and most vibrant religious ceremonies in the world. Copacabana Beach, and neighboring Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca beaches, are dotted with thousands of small family alters, pits dug in the sand, a fire in the middle, and around the fire gifts for deceased relatives, food, sometimes booze, and toys if children, too many fires with toys when I was there. And at many points on the beaches bonfires are banked high and around them stumble men and women, mostly black but some white, their eyes fixed and staring, glazed by the powerful potions they have been fed, their pace set by deep throated drums and the rattle of gourds, one and then another calling, screaming out in a language no human has ever spoken. They circle on and on as the night progresses. Sometimes falling, sometimes bodies shaking uncontrollably in seizures, words spewing out of mouths in mindless torrent. The pace of the drum quickens as the night progresses. A crescendo and it ends. Those still standing collapse into the waiting arms of bystanders. Many are lying on the sand, sometimes writhing, spouting streams of gibberish that is being listened to by onlookers as though the wisdom of the ages.

The festival was for Lemanja (or Yemanjá), a principal saint of the Yoruba religion. She is goddess of the waters and patron saint of all women, protector of children, to her followers the provider of vision, inspiration, and the ability to flow smoothly like water through life’s turbulent times, and to everyone dressed in white, her color, making offering on this her feast day she is the provider of prosperity in the new year. The procession I witnessed around the bonfires was an initiation ceremony for the Yoruba religion made particularly holy by being on Lemanja’s day. Many know little about the Yoruba religion as there is much name confusion. When slaves carried it from West Africa they named it differently in different places, Candomble and Umbanda in Brazil and elsewhere in South America, Santeria in Cuba, Voodoo in much of the Caribbean, Central America and the U.S., Trinidad Orisha, Jamaican Kumina, St. Lucian Kele. All the same religion. The fifth largest religion in the world after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and one of the oldest, 5,000 years old in West Africa with roots, some believe, in ancient Egypt. 

Growth of the religion has been exponential in recent years, perhaps the most rapidly growing religion in the world. In Africa it has swept down from West Africa into southern Africa and is making inroads in East Africa. In the new world it is growing rapidly in many countries including the U.S. where practitioners now exceed 500,000. What's fueling the growth? People are attracted to the fact that the religion predates the religion proselytized, some would say force fed, to those who bore colonialism and slavery. It's a way to reestablish connection with one's ancestral origins, and on top of that the religion offers a powerful and compelling spiritual experience equal to that found in any other of the great religions. 

Many ostensible Christians in the Caribbean, and in South and Central America, practice the Yoruba religion and Christianity alone side each other. A business associate of mine has a gorgeous penthouse overlooking Sao Paulo, a distinguished, highly educated man of great wealth. On the wall of his palatial living room is a large cross and in a corner an equally large statue of a Yoruba saint. He delights in pointing this out to visitors, saying, “You never know,” then looking up to heaven as though for confirmation and laughing uproariously. I saw the same thing over and over again with others I met in parts of the Caribbean and South America, shared belief in Yoruba and Christianity. It is no wonder that a prior Pope was quoted as saying everyone in Brazil should be excommunicated. “They aren’t Christian." Or maybe the statement came from the fact that celebrations for Lemanja attract far more people than the Pope ever attracted in Brazil.

In many ways Yoruba is like Christianity. As in Judeo/Christianity there is a single godhead, a supreme all-powerful creator called Olorun. Unlike many religions Olorun is not limited by gender and is surrounded by saints very like the saints of the Catholic faith. These saints, called Orisha, approximately two hundred in number, are prayed to by believers for intersession with Olorun just as Catholics pray for intercession by their saints with God. And again like the Catholic faith a believer will have a particular saint to whom he or she prays, an Orisha chosen as their special comforter and protector. Orisha saints are closely identified with Catholic saints. Lemanja is thought of as the Yoruba Virgin Mary, mother of all and protector of all, and most Orishas are identified with major Catholic saints to whom they often have great similarity in what they offer man. Belief in a Christian Holy Spirit is replaced by belief in Ashe, a life force like Chi in Chinese tradition that is shared by men and gods and contained in all living and many inanimate things. Ashe binds man to the gods and other living things as they try to find destiny in the spiritual sphere. There is a continuous cycle of existence as an individual’s spirit evolves towards transcendence to join with the spirit of Olorun. 

One difference from Christianity is reincarnation. While Buddhists seek to escape reincarnation. And while Christians focus on salvation, Yoruba believers focus on attaining reincarnation by living what we would call a good Christian life. The belief is that if one leads a good life one will be reborn, usually in the same family, and interestingly the sex varies. A boy will be reincarnated as a girl and a girl a boy. One of the attractive features of the religion is there is no favoritism of the male in the religion. Those reincarnated do not remember their prior life but carry with them wisdom from that life. What might the world be like if everyone believed living a good life brought reincarnation and wisdom was carried through at birth?

Seeming tension exists in the religion between the concept of reincarnation for a good life and another concept of the religion, predestination. Stronger than old fashioned Calvinism there is a belief that your life is set before you are born. Does that mean if you do not live the good life that this was predestined? Not necessarily. Individuals are involved in deciding their life course before they're born, what they will be doing in the world, where they will live, who they will love, how they will die. Presumably they set their life course toward a good life. It’s their own fault if they stray and lead a bad life.

The reincarnated forget their destiny when they're born. This is where the voodoo soothsayers come in. People seek out the soothsayers to learn the way the thread of their life leads on important choices, marriage, travel, business start up, and much more. I remember a woman in Cuba, she looked ninety years old but still vibrant and mesmerizing, a cigar stuck in the corner of her mouth, moving cowry shells on a board to divine the marriage prospects for a young girl, the scene one of profound seriousness, onlookers in as referential worship as in any Christian ceremony I have ever attended, mystical. You felt like you were seeing something that had gone on for 5,000 years, which it probably had.

Most of my experience with Yoruba has been in the Caribbean. In Guadeloupe a Yoruba initiation ceremony more magical than the ones I saw earlier in Rio as it was more intimate and intense. On Carriacou a voodoo woman and an education in the potions and charms that are at the center of much of Caribbean life. On a small island in the British Virgin Islands a Yoruba exorcism of devils, called Aloguns, by a green eyed, white haired voodoo woman who towered over me well over six feet tall. This was something. The exorcism took place in a building both a Christian church and a place of Yoruba worship, a large cross at one end and paintings of Yoruba believers in ecstasy on the walls, the ceremony going on for more than an hour with eerie chanting, and with both priestess and subject of the exorcism holding their hands in an alter fire for extensive periods of time. At the end the subject threw up what looked like a liquid of fire while screaming at the top of his lungs and collapsed in a writhing heap on the floor.

My new book, Odyssey’s Child, captures life as it is in the Caribbean and weaves in the magic of Yoruba. I invite you to read Odyssey’s Child for history, culture, people, and all other things Caribbean, an exciting adventure story wrapped in compassion and joy.
Odyssey’s Child
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