The Yoruba constitute one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, with smaller groups located in Benin and northern Togo. At the turn of the 21st century, the Yoruba numbered more than 20 million. Yoruba also refers to the indigenous language spoken by these peoples, as well as their traditional folk religion and mythologies.

Social, political, and professional organization among the Yoruba is quite diverse, but there are some shared general features. Many Yoruba men are farmers, growing yams, maize, plantains, beans, peas, cocoa, and millet. Others are traders or skilled craftsmen who work in blacksmithing, weaving, leatherworking, glassmaking, ivory carving, and wood carving. Women control much of the complex market system, and they often engage in cotton spinning, basketry, and dyeing.

In precolonial times, the Yoruba formed several kingdoms that eventually became the present-day cities of Oyo, Ile-Ife, Ilesha, Ibadan, Ilorin, Ijebu-Ode, and Ikere-Ekiti. The ancient city of Ile-Ife, located in southwestern Nigeria, remains a location of tremendous religious significance as the site of Earth’s genesis, according to Yoruba mythology.

What is Yoruba Religion?

Yoruba folk religion is a unique, centuries-old blend indigenous beliefs, proverbs, myths, legends, poems, and songs influenced by the sociocultural contexts of the western part of Sub-Saharan Africa. Even among the Yoruba who are now Christian or Muslim, aspects of ancient Yoruban religious customs still survive and thrive. It is estimated that about 20% of Yoruba practice the traditional folk religion of their ancestors.

The traditional Yoruban folk religion has a complex and extensive hierarchy of deities, comprised of a supreme creator and some 400 lesser deities and spirits called Orishas. Many of these deities are associated with their own cults and priests. They may appear in the form of a natural feature, like a river or a mountain. However, they also serve as a reflection of mankind – they eat and drink, love, marry each other, and enjoy music and celebrations. Orishas serve as intermediaries between man and Olodumare (or Olorun), the supreme creator, and the rest of the divine world. A couple of the most influential Orishas include Eshu (known as Legba by some) the divine messenger who delivers sacrifices to the supreme creator, and Ifa, the god of divination, who interprets the wishes of the supreme creator to mankind.

The Yoruba religion holds that all people experience Ayanmo, which refers to the idea of destiny, or fate. As part of this concept, there is an expectation that all will eventually achieve a state of oneness with Olodumare, the source of all life and energy. Further, Yoruban spirituality emphasizes the importance of reincarnation, which is afforded to those who lead a virtuous, kind, and good existence. 

Followers of Yoruba folk religion – or those who integrate it into their lives – participate in celebrations during which sacrifices are offered to deities that influence rain, sunshine, the harvest, and other elements. During these folk festivals, the Yoruba people often reenact particular folk tales and myths. For a Yoruban, to avoid participatison in these ceremonies would be to reject or turn one’s back on his or her ancestors.

Followers of traditional Yoruban folk religion, in general, successfully co-exist with their non-traditional neighbors. In fact, the Christian church in Nigeria often blends their annual programming into the indigenous harvest celebrations. While the Yoruba people celebrate their gods, their Christian friends and family offer thanks to their own God during public events, and worship for the good of their collective communities.

Prejudice in Yorubaland

According to The Cable’s Simon Kolawole, the Yoruba are sometimes accused of “ethnic arrogance,” priding themselves as being the most educated and most sophisticated ethnic group in Africa. He claims that the Yoruban elite will often state that “the rest of the country is holding us back.” However, other tribes are often accused of the same thing, including the Hausa-Fulani and Igbo.

With this being said, colorism exists as a pervasive issue in much of Africa, and the Yoruba are sometimes looked upon unfavorably because they are largely dark-skinned. Conversely, the Igbo in the southeast are seen as largely light-skinned. The Hausa in the north tend to vary widely in skin tone. Several studies have examined the impact of skin tone on employability, income, mate selection, political involvement, and income on the African continent. A noteworthy study, centered in Nigeria, confirmed that skin tone benefits tend to skew towards the lighter variant in terms of employability and socioeconomic outcomes. This also holds in the marriage market. For this reason, many individuals may take to bleaching their skin to boost their chances in marriage. With this being said, to our knowledge, there has not been any research conducted regarding the influence of skin tone in a religious context among Yoruba peoples.