Essentials of African Traditional Religions - Lesson 3

Tier 3: The Role of Ancestors in the Yoruba Cosmology

In this lesson, you will learn about ancestors' role in Yoruba cosmology. Yoruba culture is a traditional African religion that has a rich history of ancestor worship. Ancestors are considered important in Yoruba society, serving as protective spirits, sources of wisdom and guidance, and communicators with the divine. Ancestral altars play a significant role in Yoruba cosmology, serving as a physical representation of the connection between the living and the dead. You will understand the importance of ancestor worship in Yoruba culture and the role that ancestors play in Yoruba society.

Timothy Tennent
Essentials of African Traditional Religions
Lesson 3
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Tier 3: The Role of Ancestors in the Yoruba Cosmology

Essentials of African Traditional Religions: The Role of Ancestors in Yoruba Cosmology

I. Introduction

A. Background on Yoruba Cosmology

B. Overview of the Role of Ancestors in Yoruba Cosmology

II. Ancestor Worship in Yoruba Cosmology

A. Definition of Ancestor Worship

B. Importance of Ancestors in Yoruba Culture

C. The Ancestral Spirit as a Link Between the Living and the Dead

III. Ancestral Roles in Yoruba Society

A. Ancestors as Protective Spirits

B. Ancestors as Sources of Wisdom and Guidance

C. Ancestors as Communicators with the Divine

IV. The Role of the Ancestral Altar

A. Purpose of the Ancestral Altar

B. Components of the Ancestral Altar

C. Significance of the Ancestral Altar in Yoruba Cosmology

V. Conclusion

A. Summary of Key Points

B. Final Thoughts


  • This lesson covers the essentials of African Traditional Religions, including their definition, characteristics, historical context, and current state.
  • In this lesson, you will learn about African Traditional Religions (ATR), including its definition, historical context, distinct features, practices, and role in promoting social justice.
  • This lesson will give you insight into the role of ancestors in Yoruba cosmology, including the significance of ancestor worship and the role of ancestral altars.
  • This lesson provides an overview of the interaction between Christianity and African Traditional Religions (ATR) in Africa, including its historical background, current state, and implications for the Christian mission in Africa.

In this course, you will gain an understanding of the essentials of African traditional religions, their key beliefs and practices, and their role in shaping African societies. You will explore the beliefs in a Supreme Being, ancestors, and spirits, as well as the rituals and ceremonies that form an integral part of these religions. Additionally, you will learn about the ethical values and social structures that emerge from African traditional religions and how they intersect with Christianity. Finally, you will examine the preservation and future of African traditional religions in the face of modern challenges and opportunities.


Dr. Timothy Tennent

Essentials of African Traditional Religions


Tier 3: The Role of Ancestors in the Yoruba Cosmology

Lesson Transcript


Within level 2, we have seen of course the divinities as well as the ancestors, so now we want to explore the ancestors within the Yoruba system. It’s been long recognized throughout African religions that ancestors are a very conspicuous and important feature of African religions. For the Yoruba, the ancestors represent a very important focus in their cosmology. The ancestors are sources of power. They are capable of acting on behalf of or against their descendants. You have in many cases glorified ancestors that cross family lines and have shrines throughout the cities. And you might say that would be a super-ancestor person that they call “glorified ancestors”. They often will function almost as divinities. They’ll have stories preserved about them about their human origin, which means that they clearly are ancestors. But they often exhibit somewhat less spiritual power than Orisa. And then you have these family ancestors which are generally venerated by a particular family who are the direct descendants of this ancestor’s. So we should really explore both of these classes of ancestors within the Yoruba system.

Amongst the Yoruba, the 3 most important glorified ancestors are Sango, Orisa-Oko, and Ayekla. Sango is clearly an historical figure, and thought to be one of the leaders of Oyo, one of the central states of northern Nigeria. According to Yoruba legend Sango was a very powerful hunter, and as King of Oyo he ruled with an iron fist. However, the Yoruba soon became very wear of his tyrannical authority, and they arranged a plot to kill him. But he managed to find his way out of this plot and to have these plotters (one of the plotters at least) killed and the result was, this other remaining plotter set out after Sango. In desperation, Sango went out when he realized that he was cornered and hung himself. Well, the followers of Sango went and immediately began to give allegiance to him and various religious sacrifices to him. So they claimed that Sango developed this status as a glorified ancestor, and he still has the power to exhibit tremendous power. There are other versions of the story. One story is that there was no plot against his life, but he was just upset with the obstinacy of his people, and he basically went out in a fit of temper and he hung himself. When they found him hung, they pleaded with him, “Please come back to help us.” And he basically replied – a voice came from the distance “No, I will not come back to you but I will rule you unseen.” So they regard this ancestor as one who rules from a distance.

So there are other stories around the other glorified ancestors that I won’t tell in this brief summary, about Orissa-Oko and Ayekle. But the point is that these glorified ancestors also have stories around them. These stories become legends which are re-told at the family gatherings and these particular ancestors have a power that transcends any particular family. But there’s also this second class of ancestors known as the “family ancestors” and they are worshipped and honored by a particular family. You often ask: “If someone in Africa has a loved one who dies, do they automatically become an ancestor?” How do you determine whether or not a person who dies is an ancestor? Well certainly not everyone who dies becomes a family ancestor. According to the Yoruba, it is Olodumare who ultimately decides who achieves the status of family ancestor, and who just dwells in heaven or is judged and sent to a place of separation, which in Yourba they call the Orun-Apade (meaning the place of potsherds).

However, normally there are three requirements which are generally accepted among the Yoruba which could entitle someone to become an ancestor. First, a person must live a good life. It’s the quality of their life which first commends them into the world of Olodumare and to the Orisa. Secondly, they must attain old age, because that is the surest sign that they have fulfilled their destiny. Age is highly revered amongst Africans in general, and certainly amongst the Yoruba. And therefore it’s not a surprise that they revere those who live to an old age. So it would be very unusual for someone who died young to become an ancestor. Finally, thirdly, they must possess descendants who are willing to continue to perform ceremonies in their honor. So it’s very important that there are people who are willing to acknowledge your role, and who you are and what you were involved in. So this becomes a very important aspect of the practicality of the whole thing. If you don’t have descendants to who are willing to carry on your name and remember you and carry on these functions, ritual functions, then you won’t be an ancestor.

Now because these family ancestors reside at the lowest level of the second tier, it is here that one begins to encounter real difficulty drawing a clear demarcation between what can be called worship – what is truly worship – and what is just venerating or honoring someone who is an exalted mediator or a spiritual functionary but doesn’t really have the full privileges of deity or divinity. Once again, as we look at this study, we’re seeing the differences between the western religious cosmology, which typically involve very clear demarcations of status and what’s what, and in Africa, where you have these very shaded areas, with no clear demarcation which separates humans from ancestors, ancestors from divinities, and divinities from deity.

During my own time and research in Yoruba-land, I was able to interview a number of Yoruba about their view of the ancestors. There’s no doubt that the ancestors are spoken of, and treated with great reverence. Many Yoruba believe they have the power to dramatically affect your life and your relationship with the Orisa, protect you from harm, and so forth. And so in early June, at the beginning of the yam harvest, the Yoruba hold a very popular masquerade festival known as Egungun. During this festival, certain men are completely covered with cloths and special masks and they appear publicly. During the Egungun festival, they believe that the departed ancestor actually comes down and dwells and speaks through the masquerader, and gives instructions or warnings, or even blessings. We talked earlier at the beginning of this three-hour summary on the role of the shamans, and this is a good example of this – where they actually have spirits they believe can inhabit people and can speak through people. And this happens in the Egungun festival. It really highlights also the shading that goes on between the ancestors, whether they be glorified or family ancestors; and the actual leaders of society at that time, because they actually are the ones that speak on their behalf and so forth.

So the world of the dead is very much involved in the present society, and it controls and affects and speaks to many events in the life of the community. I had the privilege some years ago of interviewing a Yoruba man about the Egungun festival. This person attends the festival every year, and it’s a highlight for him. And I thought it would be good to interview him, and I won’t go through the whole interview. But I’ll just share a few things with you that I thought were interesting. I asked him first of all “What was the meaning of the Egungun festival?” And he responded that there are two main purposes for the festival. First, he viewed it as a celebration of the tradition, of our language, of our customs – it’s a way to remind the people that you are a Yoruba. Secondly, he argued that Egungun represents and means inter-action with the dead. And he really believed that the dead could help the living, and therefore it’s the most prominent festival of the year. So I asked him, “Well, is this a religious event or a cultural event?” And of course he assured me that in Yoruba-land culture and religion go together, and they’re no different. I also asked him “Do you actually believe that unseen ancestors speak through these masqueraders, or is this just something to represent that in some symbolic way?” Well he admitted, he said that many people do believe it, but for many people it’s just a time for festivities and wine and oftentimes the Egungun perform amazing feats of gymnastics, and the whole thing becomes a very nice enjoyable event for the whole family. But he believes that if you were to publicly deny that the ancestors speak at the Egungun festival, it would be a dishonoring of their past and their sacred ancestors.

It’s also interesting to note that he pointed out that even Muslims and Christians who are Yoruba participated in this event. He believed that this was possible because this was viewed by the Muslims and Christians as simply a cultural event, and was not viewed as participation with evil spirits. And of course he acknowledged that there were people who refused to participate in these, but it was a form of dishonoring your own culture.

So I think this interview really raised a number of questions about the relationship between religion and culture in African Traditional Religion. One of the important things that Christians have found when going into the African context is that the religious life and the cultural life are very much intermixed. And so to get one to leave their religious life without having them feel like they’re rejecting their own culture, their own heritage, their own language, their own family, their people, their background, is a very big challenge, a very important challenge. Yoruba society is deeply embedded in the principle of the inter-connectedness of all of life – all of reality, seen and unseen. And it’s important to maintain harmony and a proper relationship between the various levels and sources of power in the Yoruba cosmology. And you simply cannot take one out of this very easily, and therefore it’s important to recognize how this works out in African tradition.

Well this brings us now to the third and final level of African Traditional Religion as we’re seeing it lived out, particularly amongst the Yoruba, and that is the ritualized power of these mediators and mediums. At the third tier of power in ATR lie various religious leaders who serve to communicate or maintain harmony between the deities, the divinities, the ancestors, and the worshipper. Now the role of these leaders is so diverse, it’s been difficult to characterize these any one way. We talked about how difficult it was to summarize African Traditional Religion with any simple phrase. In the same way, people have called these people “religious functionaries”, “herbalists”, “sacred specialists”, “witch doctors”, “religious leaders”, and so forth. It is something we have to acknowledge – there’s a difference of opinion about what to call them because their role really falls into 2 separate categories based on where you are in Africa.

Some of these ritual power brokers serve more as mediators. A mediator is someone who acts as a go-between in a worshipper’s relationship with the spiritual world. But others are not just mediators; they’re actually what we might call “mediums”. A medium is a person or even objects who a divinity or an Orisa or a sacred ancestor uses to communicate his message. So you become more of a passive vessel than you would if you were a mediator, where you’re a more active participant – the one who bridges the gap between the divinities and man and woman. In Africa the most common mediators are often called priests and medicine women and men (who are also called herbalists); whereas the mediums are more like diviners and prophets and shamans and so forth. But in practice, often the roles of the mediator and the medium are not exclusive, and they frequently overlap one another. It’s not unusual to find in Africa a man or a woman who combines the priestly role, which is the mediator role, with the diviner role, which is the medium role. So that’s there. But we should at least think of these are 2 separate functions, even if we realize that the 2 very much overlap.

Let’s just first explore for a moment the role of mediation amongst this third level of religious functionaries. The three most important mediatory roles within African religion are priests, chiefs (some are called kings), and herbalists. Now the word “priest” is properly used as an official servant of a god or someone who normally ministers at a shrine or a temple in some official capacity. The primary function of a priest is to perform the rituals in order to petition the gods or preserve harmony within the society. The shrine or the temple is the place where the priest performs the rituals, and is a still a very prominent feature of African towns and cities. They often dress in white, they smear their bodies with lines of white or red chalk, and I had the privilege of interviewing several of these priests in my time in Nigeria, and I found that they often would dress in complete white, perhaps with sandals on in order to do their work. Some of them would smear their bodies with white chalk or red chalk, and often these priests would be associated with a particular Orisa or divinity. When I was in Oyo state, for example, I was shown 4 separate shrines to or associated with Ogun, one with Sango, and another with a priest who specializes in what’s called Sonponno, which is smallpox gods.

Now that reveals, I think, a lot. It reveals some of the complexity of the priestly role with the Ogun, who is an Orisa; the Sango a glorified ancestor; and with the small pox gods where he acts as an herbalist. He isolates sufferers and treats them for disease like a doctor. These are very diverse functions that you might find in the priestly function of a mediator.

The second kind of mediator that you find are the chiefs. Now in African traditional communities, chiefs are accorded tremendous respect, and they’re viewed as just under the Orisa themselves, and in some cases with the glorified ancestors. The chief differs from the priest in that his primary functions are not ritual, they’re more political. We often associate a chief with a political figure more than a religious figure. And this is true, but once again remember how in Africa the demarcation line between a priest and a chief would not be as pronounced as perhaps our own mental categories would permit. Because a chief in the African context (and certainly the Yoruba is no exception), is the custodian of all the ancestral traditions. And sometimes that means in some cultures, in west Africa especially, they may be responsible for performing these religious rituals, but even when the chief does not perform specifically religious duties or priestly rituals, he still remains the symbolic head over all the priests. And over all the community, the chief is the top dog. He is the head of the community, and therefore is regarded with a lot of religious awe, and is an important link in this hierarchy which leads all the way down to nature itself.

Another example of people who function in this mediatory way would be the herbalists. Now the herbalists are known often as medicine men in popular language. They’re trained in the curative properties of herbs, of plants, barks and roots, and therefore they’re often called in the west “herbalists”. These people are often self-employed, and you’ll pay them for their services. And these people can be very popular in the religion, because they do know so much about medicines and purgatives and so forth that are derived from herbs, and they are used for treating a wide range of common ailments that are present in west Africa.

There are certain herbalists who specialize in certain types of sicknesses or specific diseases, and what qualifies the herbalist for a role in the religious power structure of African thought is that these recipes consist not only of the mixture of herbs and other material objects, but also of the appropriate invocation at the sacrificial time, in order to bring blessing on the rituals. So this is a person that really does blends the seen world – that is, various herbal mixtures and so forth -- but also taps into the unseen world, the world of spiritual powers, spiritual healing and so forth. So it’s like a medical doctor, but a medical doctor that is not living in the enlightenment world-view, which cuts off any transcendent, or much transcendent capacity. So, there you have examples of the people who perform in the mediatory way.

Then we have of course the mediums. Now these are people I mentioned like diviners or prophets, or shamans and so forth, who function as spiritual mediums. Through divination, the divinities are able to actually speak through these yielded human vessels. Now there are different kinds of diviners. There are those who try to discern the will or the mind of the deities through some kind of divination, and those who allow themselves to be possessed by spirits, and physically allow this spirit to speak through them, and both of these are practiced quite widely in Nigeria and other places where the Yoruba are dominant.

There’s for example the famous Bori cult – that’s a cult that encourages spiritual possession. It’s something that brings the realization of how the African religion actually works. In fact in my own experience, when I was in Nigeria, I was actually going to visit someone. I was trying to get access to some of these high priests so that I could interview them. And I wanted to do that in Ife, where I could actually see the Ifa cult in its central location. I mentioned to you that Ife is to west Africans, especially the Yoruba, the way that Mecca is for Muslims or Jerusalem is for Jews. It’s a very important spiritual center, and I had access to it, so I wanted to be able to go there and to interview some of the priests there. So I got on the side of the road some bush-meat, and I offered it to this man as a special gift, which he received, and he eventually brought me out to introduce me to this special high priest who allowed me to interview him, and to explain to me how he did his divination.

Now I think it’s important to take a moment to think about divination in the African Traditional Religion – again, we’re looking at how it is among the Yoruba, but it’s something that is very prominent all across African religion. Divination involves some kind of manipulation of spiritual realities. And normally, there are different forms of divination that can be done, based on the seriousness of the concern that you have. I found this to be true amongst the Yoruba.

The first form of divination would be basically a simple cord or chain which has four concave half-shells of nuts that have been cast into iron and strung together on strings. So there are four of these on each half – a total of eight of these half-nuts. And they can either land facing upward, where the concave is facing up, or facing downward, where the convex is up. In either case, this is something that becomes a very important part of the divination patterns. So what you do is, the priest will take this chain, he would spin it around, with these essentially four half-nuts on each side of the chain, and he spins it from the middle. He throws it to the ground, and these little nuts (they’re actually in the shape of cola nuts) land with showing either a convex or a concave surface. Now if you have eight of these, and they can either land facing up or facing down, if you do the math, you realize that the total pattern of these eight different nuts can produce 256 different possible combinations. And each of these 256 possible combinations – each of these is known as an “odu”. Now an “odu” is a hymn which they connect with each of these patterns. So what generally happens is, if he throws the chain down, and we’ll say he has on the left one up and on the right one up, on the left one down, on the right one up, on the left one down, on the right one down, and then the bottom two are both up – let’s just say that was his pattern. Well, that would represent and “odu”. And he would recite, based on that, a poem, which was associated with each of these patterns. So there’s 256 main hymns and when the priest sees the pattern, he would immediately know which hymn is associated with that. Now that’s a basic divination. Quickly, you can stop someone on the street and say “I’m going on a journey, I need to know if I’ll be successful or not.” They’ll take your money, they’ll spin the divination chain, it’ll produce these patterns of ups and downs which create a larger odu pattern, and then that will be recited, and then interpreted in some creative way to connect the odu pattern with the actual story or the concern that you have to be connected to.

Now that is what we call simple divination – it’s quick divination, but the second kind is based on the same idea but it’s far more complex and far more involved. This is used when people face very important decisions. It’s used at times when people are in a life crisis. The most common times for this are the birth of a child – when you’re afraid that the child may die; or you want to know what your horoscope is (in this case, you would look at the stars to determine a persons’ destiny and then get some feedback on what it means); finding the right husband or wife; or if someone dies and you want to know the reason for their death. All of the key junctures of life are bound up with this divination. So when I went to visit this priest, I made it very clear of course that I had no interest in engaging in divination. I was simply going as a scholar trying to understand it and learn about it. And I made this very clear, but I wanted to observe him and take pictures of him performing the divination. So he agreed to this. So this assistant to the priest, when I met him, entered the room holding a round wooden board – view it as a large pancake – it was about an inch or an inch and a half thick, and it’s a fairly large, maybe the size of three dinner plates – the size of a trash can lid or maybe a little larger. It was a very large, beautiful, carved wooden board. The carvings were mainly around the edges of this circular carved board, and I found out that these carvings were essentially four of the Orisa that we’ve talked about in this summary. These are Orisa who watch the Ifa proceedings, and Orunmila, who is at the head of the board, so essentially the Orisa are brought in to this. And then the Babalawo (the person who is doing this is called a Babalawo there) produced a small bag of a little like beige powder of some kind, and sprinkled it on to the divining board, and smoothed it out with his fingers. So you basically have this wooden circular board, and it’s spread very evenly and very thinly with sand. Next, he brought in this round, hand-carved wooden box, also carved with beautiful designs, and also identified with various Orisa. The lid was lifted, and it revealed four equal sections inside this box, around a central section which contained sixteen palm nuts. Now I think I mentioned earlier that the number 16 is very important in the Yoruba mythology -- there were 16 cola nuts that they used to start the earth’s productivity, there were 16 original humans – things are all based on 16. There are several books written about how the number 16 is important in Yoruba religion. So, when you look down, you see there are these palm nuts. But he made a point of letting me know that there are these 16 nuts which he then held in his right hand. Now these nuts are not huge, nor are they tiny nuts, and so it wasn’t easy to hold all 16 of these nuts in one’s right hand. But this guy had a pretty good-sized hand. And then he tried to grab all if the nuts out of the right hand by using his left hand. This is part of the divination.

The way it works is that the 16 nuts are just about the right size so that it is virtually impossible for a man to pick up all 16 nuts with one grab of the hand. So oftentimes, either one will fall out, or two will fall out. Now what I observed when he did this was that, if 2 nuts fell out of his left hand in trying to grab all these, then he would make one line in the sand. If only one fell out, he would make two marks in the sand. Now why they didn’t make one mark with one nut or two marks with two nuts, I don’t know. But it was done just the opposite of what you might expect. If he caught 15 and dropped one, he made two marks; if he caught 14 and dropped two he made one mark in the sand. If for some reason he would have grabbed them all, or he would have dropped three nuts, then he would just do it over again. So the point is you would eventually do this until you had the odu pattern again. You’d go through this eight times, and each of the eight times you either put one mark down or two marks, which is just the same pattern that you got when you spun the smaller divination chain, where everything either fell down either concave or convex. The result is you were able to create a pattern of either single or double strokes that result in a certain Ifa pattern.

So, when I observed this, this was the following pattern that came up: it was a one, two, two, two, one, two, two, one. That was the pattern that I had, and I mentioned that there are 256 possible patterns, but this is the one that just happened to fall out when I was watching this particular divination. Now I was told just as a little aside here that in the early days, the Ifa diviners would operate in teams, and they would each share stories about Orunmila’s great storehouse of knowledge and wisdom, and there would be great association with each of these hymns. But in modern times, these priests often work in isolation, and they may not know all of the associations with the various odus that others know – apparently there are multiple stories that could be attached to the odus. But certainly I guess if you’re going to do this for a living you have to know at least the 256 main stories so that would be able to answer based on what you saw.

Now that one that I fell, the 1, 2, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1 pattern, this was what he recited in English: “I do not meet the sky god when I go walking. And a brass gong is sounding ‘Goro, goro, goro.’ It does not look at the god of whiteness. I do not answer the call of the sky god. A bell that has no clapper does not answer the call of the god of whiteness.” Now under a real divination (which is not what I was involved in), this would be explained and applied to a specific situation that corresponded to the seeker, and would most certainly draw upon other sub-stories that might be associated with this particular odu. Just so, I’ll finish the story on a Christian note. When I walked after meeting with this leader, we walked outside and I presented him publicly with a leather-bound version of the NIV Bible, which he deeply appreciated. The man was fluent in African languages, but also in English. And we had a public discussion of the Christian faith. And so it was quite remarkable to have this experience in Africa, and I wanted to have this discussion because once I came outside of course the whole village gathered around, and I wanted them to know that I was a clear Christian – I wasn’t coming there to just simply perform divination, which might give added credence to this man. But on the other hand it was important to see first-hand what’s involved and to be able to look at this in that kind of structural way.

So the point of this survey is to see how African Traditional Religion is structured, and then to also see the nature of this in terms of how it actually applies to a very specific situation amongst the Yoruba. Now what we’re going to see is that if you were to look (and we don’t have time in this brief to survey), but if you look at other religious activity in west Africa or in east Africa, then you’ll find similar kinds of stories, similar kinds of rites of passage, and similar types of experiences that are used which fill in the blanks in this particular situation. And the way that divination is done, of course can be slightly different. The role the ancestors play can in some cases be non-existent; in other cases it may be quite dramatic. Some ATR expressions will have a strong influence of the ancestors but hardly any divinity; some will be strong on the divinities and light on the ancestors; others will have more of an equal position – all of these things are things that are different. We looked at Olodumare as the high god amongst the Yoruba. But if you were to look in other situations, like among the Zulu, you have Yay-Zulu, who is the head of the Zulu religion. You have other examples of this in other parts of the world. And so because of this you’ll find that you have to go through and look at how each of these societies would describe this and the kind of things that they do.