The people of the Yoruba group, of which there are more than 25 million fall within the boundaries of the nation of Nigeria
in present day. Famed for being the main slaving region, the area and its peoples would play a major role in defining the world; both because they were the main market for slaves
and because so many of its own people became slaves themselves.
Establishing direct evidence of when cities were founded and the line of cultures in many African regions is a very unlikely thing, and it is the same here. We know that the Yoruba people’s great cities of Ife and Benin had been inhabited since at least the end of the first millennia AD, but we are not sure just when they were first founded. The Yoruba though, have always been a dominate culture on the west bank of the Niger River. They absorbed many waves of migration and invasion over the millennia but maintained a distinct group mainly because of their link to the city of Ife, the Yoruba religious center.
Yoruba cities began to fully develop from tribal cultures around the first millennia AD, when the villages (ile) surrounding Ife began to take on a culture of their own. Patrilineal descent would be established in these areas and over time, the villages developed in small scale city-states where the clans lost influence to the new more powerful regional chieftains. The Yoruba civilization that would develop a highly social and urban society during this time, which was characterized by outstanding terracotta and ivory sculptures, as well as advanced metal working. In fact, Yoruba copper was highly developed and the trade that brought the tin and zinc from North Africa or the Sahara bespoke of a developed system of trade.
Ife, though it would be the first city of the Yoruba, never developed into a kingdom or any real dominion; it remained the holy city of the people and retained a distinct control over any other Yoruba cities. The true kingdoms of Ife would develop in the surrounding areas. Among these are the city-states of Oyo, Benin and Yagha, which over time would develop into actual kingdoms.
The peoples of the Yoruba during this time, and actually for much of history, considered themselves distinct from other Yoruba peoples. That is, the people of Oyo saw those of Benin and Yagha as different, as those from Benin saw people from Oyo and Yagha as different. Thus it was that wars between Yoruba peoples were as common as those against other peoples.
Typically, Yoruba nations were basically city-states. Most nations began as cities and the farmland that surrounded them and then grew with time or were absorbed. Both Oyo and Benin are said to have been directly created by Ifa rulers or descendents of Ifa rulers. Benin itself inherited much from Ife, including its caste system, religious ideas and a thriving copper industry.
The Yoruba peoples to this day are the majority of what makes of the African descent populations of the Americas. Because the slave trade was largest out of Oyo and Dahomey and the constant warring between Yoruba peoples, this served to make the Yoruba’s the primary enslaved peoples. Thus the Yorubas. their culture and religious practices can be seen in many places in the Americas, including places like Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and Trinidad where the practices of the Yoruba are still quite visible to be seen today. Haiti’s Yorubas, in fact, were known as Anagos and their beliefs and practices are a major part of Haiti to this day.
The Yoruba heritage was mostly forgotten in the US due to the slaveholder’s tendency to make practicing the old customs a punishable offense. Many times the punishment for this was death. The new age of Yoruba beliefs have risen, in the US, in the last century due to the influx of Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants to the US. The most common form, Santeria, is a mix of Yoruba beliefs and Catholicism and brings the Ifa deities, music, dances and rites with it.
For a detailed pantheon, please see Abandahara’s w/u above.
The most important aspect of the Yoruba religion was how it defined the area’s society. The pantheon was headed by the god Olorun and each performed a specific task. Some of the gods/goddesses where believed to have once been mortal.
The most important of the gods to the development of Yoruba society was Oduduwa. Oduduwa was seen as the founder of the city of Ife, when he created the first dry land on the site of the city, and thus as the direct ancestor of the kings of Ife. Myths of the Yoruba state that Oduduwa, while ruling over Ife, dispatched his sons to rule other cities that they founded. This led to the ability for each city’s king to be able to claim heavenly descent and also allowed Ife to claim the ultimate of heavenly descent and thus their role as the religious city for all of Yoruba land.
The Yoruba did not claim one specific form of their religion. Indeed, during Ife’s heyday, Ife was home to more than 400 cults, all of the lorded over by the king (oni) of the city. The king of Ife, as well as being the religious leader was able to levy trade taxes, claim tithes as his right as religious leader and gain income from dependent cities. The oni himself was typically not directly hereditary in succession, but rather a voted official from the royal family. Once elected, he would disappear from public view and the country would be run by the various officials.