Throughout The Lion and the Jewel, characters reference figures from the Yoruba religion that was and remains prominent in Nigeria. Thus, an overview of the general structure of Yoruba religion and the associations of the deities in its pantheon will be useful.
According to the Yoruba people, all human beings possess “Ayanmo,” or destiny/fate. They are expected to eventually become one in spirit with Olodumare, or Olorun, the divine creator and source of all energy. Each person’s thoughts and actions in Aye, or the physical realm/life, interact with all living things. Each person attempts to achieve transcendence and find their destiny in Orun-Rere, the spiritual of realm of those who do good and beneficial things. Life and death are cycles of existence in a physical body as one’s spirit evolves toward transcendence. Scholar Hal Horton explains, “The Yoruba treat their ancestors with great respect, as might be expected in a culture with only oral records of the past, but anthropologists debate as to whether the rituals dealing with ancestry are religious in nature, or simply respectful. At least a few groups believe that ancestors, after death, become demigods, but only once they have assumed the persona of a true deity. This resembles another facet of the Yoruba faith, the phenomenon of possession, in which mediums take on the characteristics of one or another of the gods. The characteristics of each god are so well stereotyped that mediums as far off as Haiti loll back their heads and cross their legs in the same way when possessed by the lightning god.”
The Supreme God is manifested in three ways: Olodumare, the Creator; Olorun, the ruler of the heavens; and Olofi, the conduit between Orun (Heaven) and Aye. Orishas are entities that have the ability to reflect some of Olodumare’s characteristics. The word “orisha” means “unique," “special,” or “selected heads"; sometimes it is also translated as “deity,” “divinity,” or “god.” They are intermediaries between humankind and the divine. Each orisha has control over specific elements of nature and thus is closer to deity than hero or sage, but some orishas can best be described as the latter. Ade Dopamu explains these spirits further: “Spirits are believed to be apparitional entities which form a separate category of beings from divinities and ancestors. The Yoruba regard them as powers which are almost abstract entities that take on human shape. They are usually associated with natural phenomena like trees, rocks, rivers, lagoons, forests, bushes, hills, earth, mountains, winds, dark groves and unusual places, and these become their abode. These spirits may even inhabit animals or birds or snakes. Such objects as they inhabit are regarded as having certain mysterious powers and they may become the emblems of the spirits. The objects may be used in the preparation of magic and medicine in the belief that they possess magical significance because of the spirits residing in them.”
The main pantheon is as follows: 1) Orunmila: He is the Yoruba Grand Priest and custodian of the Ifa Oracle. He oversees knowledge of the human form, purity, and can cure illnesses and deformities. 2) Eshu: His name is often translated as “The Devil,” but he is more of a trickster. He deals misfortune to those who do not offer tribute or who are novices. He is also known as the divine messenger, an orisha of chance and accident, and as Olorun’s linguist and master of languages. 3) Yemoja: Known as the Mother of Waters and the Nurturer of Water Resources, she is the productive energy of the feminine force. She is in the amniotic fluid in the womb and the milk in the breasts. 4) Oshun: She personifies sensuality, beauty, and gracefulness. She can heal with cool water, induce fertility, and intervene if a baby falls ill. She is the wife of Shango. 5) Shango: He is associated with masculinity and virility, fire and lightning, stones and magnetism, and alchemy. At one point he was said to be the oba (ruler) of Oyo, a major ancient Nigerian kingdom. 6) Oya: Shango’s third wife and a guardian of the cemetery, winds of change, storms, and rebirth.