An Orisha is a manifestation of Olodumare (God). Orisha involves the veneration of any of the deities of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. They are also venerated by the Edo of southeastern Nigeria; the Ewe of Ghana, Benin, and Togo; and the Fon of Benin who refer to them as voodoo.
Aside being a deity, Orisha activates when a divine power commands and make things happen converging with a natural force or a deified ancestor. It is thus a complex multidimensional unity linking people, objects and powers.
The Ori-inu exists before birth; it comes from God and determines an individual’s character and fate.
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The Nigerian scholar J. Omosade Awolalu divided the Orishas into three categories: primordial divinities, deified ancestors and personified natural forces and phenomena.
In West African religions and in traditions that have been influenced by them, primordial divinities are those that existed long before the creation of the world as it is now known. Some of these Orishas are primordial in the sense that they existed before the creation of human beings.
Deified ancestors are people who lived in this world after it was created and had such a profound impact upon it that their descendants have continued to promote their memory. They were kings, culture heroes and heroines, warriors and founders of cities who had a major influence on the lives of the people and on Yoruba society through their contributions to culture and social life.
In the Yoruba tradition these were individuals who were able to establish control over a natural force and make a bond of interdependence with it, attracting its beneficent action toward themselves and their people while sending its destructive aspects onto enemies.
To achieve this degree of control and interdependence, the ancestors made offerings and sacrifices. Later these ancestors disappeared—often, according to tradition, in a remarkable manner, such as by sinking into the ground, rising into the heavens on chains, committing suicide and not dying, or turning to stone. Such a disappearance was not true death; rather, it was the occasion of the ancestor’s metamorphosis into an Orisha.
When these ancestors disappeared and became Orishas, their children began to sacrifice to them and to continue whatever ceremonies the Orishas had performed when they were on earth. This worship was passed on from one generation to the next.
In their native areas, people formed groups that worshipped and venerated these Orishas. Worship is directed at the Orisha that dwells within certain natural phenomenon like earth, rivers, lakes, lagoons, mountains, certain trees and the wind.
To the benefit of human beings, the Orishas mediate between humanity and these forces of the natural world by putting the tamable aspects of nature under human control while standing between humanity and that part of nature that cannot be tamed, hemmed in or controlled by human beings.
During the 18th and 19th centuries thousands of Yoruba, Bini, Ewe and Fon people were enslaved, uprooted and transported to the Americas. In some locations in the Caribbean and South America, they were able to reestablish the worship of the Orishas and maintain it during slavery and after its abolition.
In the social and cultural environments of the Americas, the Orisha concept underwent some subtle but significant changes. Orisha devotion became a profound influence upon the emergence of such new religions as Vodou in Haiti and Santería in Cuba.
The religion focuses on building relationships between human beings and powerful but mortal spirits called Orishas.
Followers believe that these spirits will give them help in life, if they carry out the appropriate rituals, and enable them to achieve the destiny that God planned for them before they were born.
This is very much a mutual relationship as the Orishas need to be worshipped by human beings if they are to continue to exist.
Orishas can be perceived in the physical universe by initiates and the whole community can share in their presence when they possess a priest during some rituals.
The Roman Catholic element in Santeria is most obvious in the way Orishas are associated with Catholic Saints such as Saint Barbara (Shangó), Our Lady of Charity (Ochún) and Saint Lazarus (Babalú-Ayé).