Orishas, also spelled Orisa, are natural forces or supernatural entities of the universe. These spirits are also referred to as deities or gods of the elements in the Ifa tradition of West Africa. They serve as conduits or intermediaries between humans and the Supreme Being (Olodumare) to benefit and help humans enjoy life.
There are innumerable Orishas in the Yoruba system and its derivatives. Some of the most popular Orishas are Orunmila, Eshu, Ogun, Obatala, Sango, Oya, and Yemoja. These spiritual forces embody elements of nature like the river, ocean, thunder, and wind. They are also linked to unique attributes such as wisdom, peace, love, health, and prosperity. Many people desire to connect with these beloved deities for these reasons and more.
Orishas in the Ifa Tradition
The following descriptions outline some of the major Orishas in the Ifa tradition and their attributes. Though keep in mind that these Orishas are revered in many traditions outside of Nigeria. And each society has its own beliefs surrounding the character and nature of these deities within their culture.
Orunmila is the Grand Priest of Ifa. He is the first Orisha to be reckoned with in the history of the Ifa tradition. Orunmila brought the wisdom of Olodumare (the Creator) to earth. The Yoruba people venerate Orunmila as a prophet of Ifa, the spirit of destiny, and Orisha of wisdom and knowledge.
Eshu, also known as Esu or Elegba, is another prominent Orisha of the Ifa spiritual system. This deity understands all the languages spoken in the world and serves as a messenger between humans and the gods. As the harbinger of rewards and punishment, Eshu often instills a sense of fear or trepidation in some. He is known for his pranks, cruelty, unpredictability, and disruptions. Hence, he is often referred to as the ‘trickster god.’
Ogun is the elemental deity of iron, as he was a warrior during his sojourn on earth. He cleared the way for other Orishas to gain entrance to the planet using a metal ax and the help of a dog.
Osun also spelled Oshun, is popularly referred to as the river goddess. Linked to purity, fruitfulness, fertility, calmness, and love, Oshun embraces the attributes of water. She also embodies human characteristics like jealousy, spite, and vanity.
Obatala is one of the most powerful and oldest Orisha in the Ifa religion. He is referred to as the king of white cloth as he is a tranquil judge. Greatly associated with forgiveness, honesty, peace, purity, and purpose, this Orisha is credited with the creation of humans.
Sango or Shango governs the elements of thunder and lightning. He was once a king of the great Oyo Empire. And as such, Sango is one of the most revered Orishas in Yorubaland. The name Shango means to strike, and when annoyed, he brings thunder to burn the enemies or offenders of his children.
Oya is commonly known as the powerful goddess of storms. She comes before thunder in the form of lighting and is a favorite wife of Shango in some traditions. The name Oya means physical action or ‘she tore.’ Oya symbolically depicts the air that humans breathe as she can bring about life or death in the form of hurricanes, storms, or tornadoes.
Yemoja is specifically a water spirit and is often depicted as a mermaid goddess. She is regarded as the mother of all the Orishas (deities) and the giver of life in the Ifa religion. She is believed to have originated from Tapa (Iganna) in the Oke Ogun area, Ogun State, Nigeria. Like Oshun, she is also known as a deity of fertility though her purview is the ocean rather than rivers. She protects sailors, dockworkers, fishers, swimmers, and others who travel by sea.
As indicated, the Orishas in the Ifa tradition are innumerable. They are seen as the messengers of Olodumare, the Supreme Being. Each Orisha has its own distinct personality and set of characteristics that can be called upon to help guide an individual throughout life. Through offerings and rituals, individuals seek to honor and communicate with these powerful forces to receive guidance and direction.
As one grows in your knowledge and understanding of the tradition, one will encounter more and more Orishas. As such, one will grow and advance in knowledge about the character of these beings. And in turn, one can benefit from the many blessings and gifts of these sacred energies.