Yoruba Cosmology and the existence of Witchcraft

Yoruba Cosmology and the existence of Witchcraft

Yoruba Cosmology and the existence of Witchcraft

-Habeeb Adisa

“Lagos residents of Ajegunle area of Lagos were, yesterday, thrown into shock, after a bird was said to have transformed into an old woman who confessed to being a witch”
-Vanguard newspaper reported on the 22nd of May 2014.

The Yoruba people of western Nigeria are diverse set of various tribes that share a common language and similar cultures, they are considered to be one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria’s population. The Yoruba people are concentrated in the South-western part of the country and there are also smaller scattered groups in Benin,Northern Togo, Ghana, Gambia. They have the population of 20 million at the turn of the 21sr century excluding those in diaspora.

The name Yoruba is an Hausa term used for Yoruba-speaking people who lived in the North “Khariba” and later evolves into “Yariba” and then was used by the missionaries to describe the Southern peoples who speak same language and was eventually assumed by the Yoruba themselves.

It is therefore indisputable that there have been many accounts of the Yoruba cosmology. Nevertheless, this should not be taken to imply that consensus has been reached about how best to represent the Yoruba cosmological beliefs, even if many accounts of a Yoruba cosmology that have been published might lead one to believe otherwise.

There is a system of hierarchy in the Yoruba belief of gods. At the highest rung is the “sky god” Olodumare. He reigns over the spiritual (òrun) and the material (aye) world, which he is ultimately responsible for its creation throughput many lesser ( a step down the pantheon divinities (orisha).

Olodumare is portrayed as distant from both the lesser divinities and created world with which they principally interact. The Yoruba have many number of splendid, elaborate myths detailing the story of creation and various encounters between,the lesser divinities and between the divinities and the material world, human beings included of course.(Courlander,1973)

A step further down the pantheon is reserved for the ancestors (ara òrun) an exceptional few of whom may have been elevated to the Orisha status, whereas, most are in between lifetime in the physical world. The Yoruba traditionally believe that the individual human ‘life ‘ consists of an indefinite series of reincarnations within the same family line.

Taking a step down the pantheon, one enters the physical world ,where human beings as well may be rated on seven different levels, depending on their abilities and talents (Hallen,2000). Events within that world are frequently attributed to activities of the lesser divinities and therefore it is critical importance that there be an avenue or pathway of communication between the spiritual and physical worlds, which is provided by the agency of the diviners (babalawo), the underlying system of divination is known as ‘ifa’ and consists of an intricate and extensive body of oral literature to their clients(Abimbola,1976).

In this Yoruba pantheon there is no personified force of evil,especially one comparable to the Christian or Muslim Satan or evil. Therefore on the level of humanity, individuals usually bear the ultimate responsibility for their immoral(not evil) behavior, especially when such behavior manifest a publicly identifiable pattern. (Hallen,2000; Olupona 2000)

Speaking of witchcraft, however, there have been a lot of debates about the reality of witchcraft.(Bond and Diane, 2000)

Different scholars in the scope of anthropology and philosophy who have studied the phenomenon have established various views based on ethnographic studies they conducted among different African peoples and groups over the years. Based on such studies, Bond and Diane suggests four positions;
Firrst, witchcrafts (beliefs) are real. Second, there are no witches, only the belief in them. Third, they may or may not be real. Fourth, for the study of witchcraft the above are irrelevant.

Some examples include, early anthropologists like Wilson(1951), Middleton(1960) and Warwick(1965) viewed witchcraft as a phenomenon that was used to maintain social disorder in small scale societies. Mbiti argues “the spiritual world of African peoples is very densely populated with spiritual beings, spirits and the living dead”.(2011)

Geofrey Parrinder suggests that in the African cosmological views ” everything in nature is living,or at least pre-living and there is no such thing as absolutely dead matter”.(1969) In otherwords, in the African world view, there are a host of different spirits that exist in the universe (Mbiti). Most scholars agree that this spiritual world is inseparable from the physical world of the living. Hence, Mbiti further argues that the awareness of the spirit world “affects Africans outlook and experiences in life for better for worse”.

Those sickness caused by witches and sorcerers are regarded as severe and life threatening (Moila,2002), consequentially witchcraft is viewed in a positive way because it is used to stabilize “relationship among relatives, neighbors, and numbers of the community hence, enhancing harmonious living.

The power of the witches resides in what Mbiti calls the “mystical order” (1991:41) as rendered in his categorization of African understanding of order and power in the universe.

He further states that this mystical order governs the universe because it is connected to God’s power; therefore, it is viewed as a mystical power fromGod( Olodumare)because “it is hidden and mysterious” and It is believed to be a power that resides in the spirit world “available for use by anyone who knows how to tap it” (Fuller 2001:80).

Nonetheless, only a few people in society may have skills on how to tap, control and use these forces. These mystical forces of the universe are neither evil nor good in themselves, they are just like other natural things at man’s disposal” (Mbiti 1991:166) and can be used to help or harm other people. Those who use these powers to help others are known as witchdoctors; whereas those who use the powers to harm people are witches.

The work of the witchdoctor is to counteract the harm caused by witchcraft (Miller 2012:2). Unlike sorcerers who use materials and other paraphernalia to harm a witch “is believed to have an inherent power to harm other people” (Mitchell 1977:67). It is believed that witches, by using magical power, have the capacity to operate in different forms such as animals, birds, or reptiles, and can hide themselves from people by taking on these other forms (Magesa 1997:185; Behringer 2004:13).

The powers they employ enable them to operate in the spirit realm, and whereas sorcery is exercised when a sorcerer is in his or her conscious mind, witches expedite witchcraft unconsciously (Bellamy 2004:11).

These magical powers and witchcraft practices can be acquired in various ways: voluntary membership, inheritance and acquired(Mitchell 1977:67, 68; see also Fuller 2001:88; Kirwen 2005:228; Magesa 1997:184, 185; Manala 2004:1492).

There are reasons why witchcraft sorcery may be used on a person and they include: jealousy, envy and enmity. This ability to practice dark sorcery made witches the most feared individuals in a community.

Mbiti opines in his conclusion that ” belief in the function and dangers of bad magic, sorcery and witchcraft is deeply rooted in the African life, and inspite of modern education and religions like Christianity and Islam it is very difficult to eradicate this belief (1991).

In conclusion, witchcraft is also regarded as a vice and all connection to African Traditional Religion is viewed as fallacy. In fact, there have been many massacres of witches just to affirm this point.

Governments have responded by passing law categorizing witchcraft activities as a crime in order to scare witches from extra-judicial killings (Geshiere 2006).

Some African countries such as Ghana has also established witch refugee camps to rescue those who have been accused of witchcraft.


Vanguard news report- May 22nd, 2014.
The cosmology of witchcraft in the African context-Samuel Lumwe.
April Gordon , Nigeria’s Diverse people : A reference source book.

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