Obatala, known as Orisa Nla, is an orisha in the traditional African religion of Ifa. According to Yoruba mythology, he is the Sky Father and the maker of human bodies brought to life by Olodumare’s calm breath. This deity is the most ancient of all orishas in this African religion.
Olodumare gave Obatala permission to generate land on the ocean under the sky. As such, Ife was the first Yoruba city built due to Obatala’s efforts. Though there are numerous accounts of a dispute between Obatala and his brother or consort Oduduwa, who likewise had a hand in the earth’s creation. In some narratives, Oduduwa is considered a feminine deity.
We know something transpired between Oduduwa and Obatala, but some of this story has been lost to history. According to some narratives, there was a fight between the two, and Obatala won the struggle. His victory resulted in the assassination of his adversary Oduduwa and his resumption of reign. Even though Obatala fought with Oduduwa, he is generally viewed as a benevolent divinity.
Obatala and Oduduwa’s Conflict
In an alternate creation tale, when Obatala fell asleep due to inebriation, Oduduwa took on the task of making people where Obatala had left off. Other legends state that Oduduwa modified various parts of the primordial earth while his brother was away. The Supreme God, Olodumare, appreciated the value of these deeds and bestowed special accolades on Oduduwa.
Reaping the benefits of his newly acquired status, Oduduwa ascended to the throne of Ile-Ife, the ancient city where the Yoruba believe the first humans resided. When Obatala awoke, he found himself in this scenario. The deity was embarrassed by his previous actions and promised never to drink wine again. As a result, alcoholic beverages are prohibited in all Obatala rituals.
Obatala eventually redeemed himself by choosing the path of purity, and humanity resumed worshiping him as one of the earliest Orishas. However, he contended with his sibling for human domination for a while.
In some accounts, Obatala formed an army with an Igbo group. He ordered his troops to wear ceremonial masks to scare the human populace into submission when they invaded Ile-Ife. It was an attempt to dethrone Oduduwa and overtake the mantle of leadership. However, Moremi, an Ile-Ife woman, uncovered the plot beforehand. Thereafter, Obatala’s army was defeated.
Soon after, people resumed their devotion to Obatala, restoring harmony between the two gods. However, because Oduduwa was still technically the first ruler of humanity, the Yoruba regarded him as the father of all succeeding monarchs.
Symbols of Obatala
In the Yoruba tradition, the white color denotes spiritual purity. And it is with this hue that Obalata is most closely identified. In some translations, the god’s name means “king who wears white fabric.”
Obatala’s attire frequently includes white lace, cowrie shells, an extravagant white robe, white beads, flowers, and silver jewelry. Obatala is also shown with a silver staff called the opaxoro in some renditions.
He is also associated with white doves, a bird described in different folklore legends. In some accounts, however, Obatala himself transforms into a white dove to solve tough problems.
The Child of God
Obatala is the mightiest, most easy-going divinity in the Yoruba tradition. According to the stories surrounding his existence, he is a divine child. Olorun, the father, allowed Obatala, the child, to descend from the sky, construct land on the seas, and fashion human bodies from popo (mud and clay).
This orisha doesn’t have a fixed gender – an androgynous appearance often symbolizes his countenance. Though some narratives indicate that he is the husband of Yemaja. The dynamics of Obatala’s sex make him the deity of all humans, regardless of gender. Obatala has no tolerance for gender disputes in human cultures.
Typically celebrated in September, Obatala’s festivals often draw massive crowds. Worshippers dress in all white, march in the streets, sing melodies and songs, and drum. In these festivities, human society celebrates a community of Orishas, fusing the human and the holy.
In Ile-Ife, worshippers dressed in silver jewelry and white robes approach the Obatala shrine. They recite devotional hymns in unison while playing igbin bells, which are traditional instruments devised to honor him.
The Obatala festival is a ceremonial, spiritual, and religious occasion to honor this well-beloved deity. And because the god had an indelible effect on people’s existence, the Yoruba specifically commemorate him because he mediates between humanity and the Creator (God).
According to legend, Obatala is peaceful, intelligent, and compassionate, and he values balance and harmony. He expects good, upright behavior from his children. No one is allowed to swear or curse in front of him, and no one is allowed to appear nude in his company.
Obatala’s children are strong-willed, yet they are also serene, peaceful, and trustworthy. They can be a bit reserved as they don’t say much. His offspring (children) are generally exceptionally educated and like studying because he is the owner of human heads. Because Obatala is a fan of order and cleanliness, likewise are his children.