There is an old man in Africa. You might find him interesting, especially as this is Black History Month. Today we’re talking African myth and lore. And we’re visiting the Yoruba and the Orishas, which means we have to mention Shango. We’re also joined by Ziki Nelson, who shares a media take on orishas later on below. And we throw in some black superhero thrills.
That old man’s name is Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi III, and he is said to be the traditional ruler of the Oyo Empire, in south-west Nigeria. As an alaafin, he is the inheritor of Oranmiyan, Great Prince of Ife, who found the Oyo Empire some time early in the 14th Century (CE).
What has this to do with the price of salt-cod? Hang in there…
There are about 44 million Yoruba people(which is about the same as the population of Spain if you need a European reference point), most of them living in Nigeria. That might be enough to talk about in itself, but what catches the attention is way in which the Yoruba belief system spread much wider than that. During the transatlantic slave trade, some black peoples, including the Yoruba, managed to preserve something of their native religions and lore.
One aspect of this is the continued reverence of orishas (oricha or orixá in Brazil). Put simply, orishas are spirit beings who may be anywhere from intangible to fully manifest in the flesh. They represent facets of God, the Supreme Deity – manifestation of God’s many faces and natures, if you like.
To some they are demi-gods or gods in their own right. They are key in various religious movements, often worshipped or prayed to for their particular areas of patronage – war, justice, fertility, healing and so forth.
We’re not Yoruba experts here at greydogtales (in fact we know more about the Igbo, from eastern Nigeria, oddly enough). However, we do know that orisha worship continued across various parts of the United States, the Caribbean and South America, especially Brazil. Santeria and Candomblé are two variants, and as so often happened in and around the Caribbean, Roman Catholicism got mixed in there as well.
So who are the Orishas themselves? There are a lot – anywhere from 401 to 17,000, and their exact names vary over time, and between Yorubaland and the branches of belief developed in the Americas. Different branches have slightly different interpretations. These are a few examples, to give you a taste:
- Ellegua/Eshu is the male Orisha of roads and the crossroads, probably the basis of Legba in Haiitian vodu.
- Oya/Yansa, female Orisha of winds and lightning, change and rebirth.
- Oshosi/Oxóssi, male Orisha associated with the hunt, forests, animals, and wealth.
- Oba, female Orisha of marriage and domesticity, supposedly once the wife of Shango.
Each orisha has an associated colour, an appropriate offering and other associations. Some have a number of secondary areas of power or concern. Oxóssi, for example, is associated with blue or green, and suitable sacrifices include goat and guinea-fowl. He’s also linked to contemplation and the arts.
Which brings us to maybe the most ‘popular’ of the Orishas, Shango or Shaango. If people know only one orisha, it’s usually him. And the reason we introduced you to Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi III at the start is this – Shango was once the alaafin of the Oyo Kingdom, the third or fourth alaafin depending on who you read. We’re back in the 14th Century again, by the way.
A mortal man, he became an orisha because of his deeds. Shango rules over lightning, thunder, fire, the drums and dance. He’s a fighter, a warrior orisha with quick wits, a quick temper and is the epitomy of virility. In Santeria he is the master of dance and a sorcerer who spits fire. He is often depicted as a powerful young man with a double headed axe, or with two axes. He can also be called Sango (in Nigeria), Chango and Xango.
We’re mentioning the Orishas now because recently, along with a rise in the production of black speculative fiction, there’s been an upsurge of interest in the Orishas – incomic books, games and writing. Which is cool.
So now, not being black ourselves, we hand over to Ziki Nelson, who kindly put together a few examples of orishas in action for greydogtales (the section titles should give you extra links as well).
Five modern depictions of the Orishas you need to see
When it comes to African mythology, most writers and filmmakers never seem to look past Egypt. However, a group of Yoruba deities known as the Orishas are starting to give the likes of Set and Anubis a run for their money. The Orishas are a group of divine spirits that represent different aspects of reality and nature. From Brazil to Nigeria, the Orishas are loved and revered across the world and this has inspired a number of independent creators to reimagine these deities in a modern context.
Shaango is an urban fantasy comic created by Los Brignoles, an indie comic book publisher based in France. The story is inspired by Shango, the Orisha of thunder and lighting. We follows Ishan Goran, a youth worker who discovers that he’s the modern incarnation of Shango. The story explores the blurry line between defending the innocent and punishing the wicked as Ishan fluctuates between being a hero to a vigilante. On a side note, Shango is by far the most popular Orisha, he has appeared in both DC and Marvel comics as well as a number of independent publications.
It’s not very often you hear African Martial Arts Fantasy in the same sentence but Besouro (aka The Assailant) is the rare (perhaps only) exception. Inspired by the real life exploits of of legendary capoeira fighter, Besouro Mangangá, this film spins a fantastic tale of an Afro-Brazilian fighter bestowed with mystical powers. One of the film’s main characters is Eshu, the Orisha of the crossroad who guides Besuoro on his spiritual journey.
Created by Comic Republic Nigeria, Visionary is another urban fantasy centred on a blood feud between Shango and Oxossi, the Orisha of the forest. Not much has been revealed about the story yet however, last year Comic Republic released a prequel issue (#0). The prequel begins with an intense battle between Shango and Oxossi and then we’re transported to modern day Lagos.
Oya: Rise of the Orisha was probably one of the first attempts to reimagine the Orishas in a modern context. Created by Nosa Igbinedion, this short film follows Oya: orisha of the wind. Oya enters the modern world in human form and goes on a mission to stop Eshu, another orisha seeking to plunge the world into Chaos.
Because of the success of this initial Oya, Igbinedion was able to build enough traction to fund a follow up series Yemoja: Rise of the Orisha. This series is another urban fantasy that follows the story of Amina, a young doctor living in Brazil whose life turns upside down when she becomes possessed by Yemoja, the orisha of the sea.
While most of these projects have been relatively small scale productions one can’t help but feel this is just the beginning. Whether it’s comics, movies or books expect to see more of the Orishas. However, it’s also important to recognise that the Orishas are only a small part of a larger body of traditional African stories.
This article was brought to you by Kugali, a database for African narratives. If you want to discover more modern depictions of the Orishas or other African myths Kugali has curated dozens of films, TV shows and comic.
Our thanks to Ziki, who says of himself: “Ziki is a London based entrepreneur and one of the founders of Kugali. When he’s not stressing out about his company Ziki can be found flying across space and fighting crime … in his dreams of course. Actually, Ziki is working on his first comic book which is due for release later this year.”
You can find Kugali here:
We hope to bring you more in the future. In the meantime we should mention a new comics anthology put together by writer Balogun Ojetade. Balogun is deeply into Afro-retroism – film, fashion or fiction that combines African and/or African American culture with a blend of “retro” styles and futuristic technology.
He’s worked with a number of other black creators, including Milton Davis, who we interviewed last year ( see the rise of sword and soul), on a wide range of exciting projects. Black Power: The Superhero Anthology is just out. It’s over 300 pages of action, where twenty authors bring new perspectives to the superhero concept in original short superhero stories.
You can check it out for purchase here:
See, that made a nice change from Edwardian supernatural stories, scary novels, detectives and lurchers, didn’t it? Never hurts to broaden your mind – unless you use a hammer. If you want to be warned where we’re lurching next time, don’t forget to subscribe (top left). Then you can hide in time…