The exquisite bronze and terra cotta portraiture of Ifę precedes by eight centuries the earliest written explanation we have of ritual and belief in what is now called “Yorubaland.” In fact, the number of people calling themselves “Yoruba” does not appear to have grown to demographically or culturally significant levels until the mid- to late 19th century, and the first of these were probably the descendants of Oyo, Ijebu, Ekiti, Awori, Egba, and Egbado people captured by slave traders, rescued and re-settled by the British in faraway Freetown, which is now in Sierra Leone. This historical fact dramatizes the oft-overlooked cultural hybridity and historical heterogeneity of the people now called “Yoruba.” Most of them are now Christian or Muslim, but they still normally identify with kingdoms like Oyo or regions like Ekiti, each of which is home to a set of gods worshiped nowhere else or only later disseminated to other regions of the future Yorubaland through marriage, flight during wartime, political influence, or imperial conquest. And even some gods with the same name are, in different regions, identified by different sexes and other characteristics. For example, Odudua is male in some regions and female in others; Ogun is in some regions the god of war and iron, and in others a snake god. As a result of its imperial expansion, Oyo’s gods became widespread over the last half-millenium in West African lands ranging from Ekiti to Egbado. And, after nearly a millennium of involvement in the trans-Saharan or the trans-Atlantic trade, the mythology and the iconography of the gods include numerous accretions of Islam, Christianity, and trans-oceanic commerce, such as Venetian beads and cowry shells from the Maldive Islands. Indeed, altars commemorate multiple homologous transactions with long-distance partners, both from the “other world” (orun) and from other nations.
The royal and domestic altars of Yorubaland tend to host gods from far and wide—from other Yoruba regions, from the land of the Nupe, or Tapa, and, according to some Yoruba people, Mecca. Yet no altar features all of the òrìşà, who are too numerous for anyone to name. Yet, in common, almost all of them are managed through altars made of vessels containing stones, cowry shells, and other symbolically coded items and substances that mime—and indeed—invoke the power of the god within the worshiper or the community of worshipers. For example, river water and river stones invoke the presence of the river godesses Ǫya, Ǫşun, Yemǫja, and Ǫba. Thunderstones, or the celts that many Yoruba people understand make up lightning, invoke the presence of the god of thunder and lightning, Șango. Activated and nourished with animal blood and cooked foods, these and other ritually activated containers of the god’s power (àşę) become the god, and service to them guarantees the god’s beneficent intervention in the life of the worshiping community. Many of the gods also possess people and, through these human “horses,” “mounts,” and “wives” of the god, prophesy and confer peace and good fortune through their benedictions. Other gods do not possess people. For example, the lord of divination, called Ifa or Ǫrunmila, makes his presence known through the palmnuts and the divination chain (ǫpęlę) cast by the babalawo diviners. The permutation of numbers generated through the casting of these sacred tools indexes a body of stories, poems, prayers, and prescribed sacrifices intent upon assuring peace, prosperity, and success for the supplicant. Other gods include the Egungun ancestral masquerade, the spirit of the Oro bullroarer society, and Onilę, the Earth Mother and chief goddess of the Ogboni secret society.
The most famous Yoruba sacred art is elegant, small-scale wooden carvings representing, for example, kneeling priestesses and horsemen, both of whom evoke the presence and efficacy of the god. The two most common sculptural forms are statues invoking the presence of a deceased twin and dance wands surmounted by a double axe, which evoke the power of Sango. Elaborate figurative or geometrical beadwork often adorns the regalia of monarchs and priests, and cowry shells are the most common and distinctive sign of the orisa’s presence, as they are in Brazilian Candomblé and Cuban Santería as well.