I don't know about you, but I've noticed a very welcome uptick recently in the number of fantasy books inspired by West African folklore.
The Afrofuturism and African futurism movements have paved the way for Black authors across the diaspora to build worlds and tell stories influenced by their heritage.
Thanks to the hit success of books like Tomi Adeyemi's "Children of Blood and Bone," wider audiences are finally getting introduced to the orisha and spirits of Yoruba lore.
But who are these deities, and where do they come from?
[upbeat music] In Adeyemi's novel, the main character is part of the Iku clan that worships the deity Oya and traditionally has powers over life and death.
Oya is a real figure from Yoruba mythology, a collection of stories from the widespread tribe that speaks the Yoruba language.
Oya is one of many orisha, or deities, who can move between the human and divine realms.
With control over the wind, a reputation as a fierce warrior, and a responsibility to watch over the threshold of life and death, Oya is one of the more formidable Yoruba deities, but she is by no means the most powerful.
According to Yoruba mythology, the universe and all of the forces therein were created by a single supreme being, most often known as Olofin.
Also known as Olorun or Olodamare, this genderless creator god is all-knowing, all-powerful and eternal.
It might be tempting to compare Olofin to the Abrahamic God, but they are a unique being and no other deity is like them.
In the beginning of time, Olofin crafted the universe and invented day and night.
They gave divine energy called ase to all the objects and beings and breathed life, or emi, into every living thing.
They did not, however, want to manage every living thing, so Olofin created the orisha to act as intermediaries between Orun, the spiritual heavenly realm, and Aye, the world of tangible, visible things.
There are hundreds of orisha in Yoruba folklore, though it may be impossible to give an exact count because their characteristics are malleable.
A single orisha's name, gender, and parentage can vary depending on when and where you hear the story, though their core traits remain largely unchanged.
Some of the orisha, like Obatala and Orunmila, are primordial figures who were involved in the creation of the world.
Others like Oduduwa or Shango, were mortal ancestors whose deeds led them to be deified into the religion.
And there were many orisha who personified aspects of nature like the spirits who embody the numerous rivers and lakes in the world.
Before the world was created, Olofin and the orisha lived in the sky around a young baobab tree.
Below them stretched a vast ocean ruled by the orisha Olokun.
Most of the orisha were content to explore the sky and enjoy a life of luxury around their baobab tree, but Obatala wanted more.
He looked at the vast ocean below and thought, "Hmm, I could make something with that."
So he asked Olofin if he could build a resting place for living things.
Olofin gave him permission to make land, but left it to Obatala to figure out how.
Obatala went to Orunmila, the orisha of prophecy, for guidance.
Orunmila, whose power of divination made him the sole witness to Olofin's creation of the universe, told Obatala to fashion a long gold chain, fill a snail shell with sand, and gather a chicken and a date palm nut.
Obatala traveled the sky, asking the other orisha for their spare gold, which he forged into a chain to carry him to Olofin's ocean.
When Obatala climbed to the end of the chain, he found that he still had some distance to go.
From his position in the sky, Orunmila told Obatala to pour sand from his shell onto the ocean and immediately drop the chicken.
When it landed, the chicken began to kick the sand around until it formed a huge land mass with hills and valleys.
Obatala jumped down from his chain and planted his date palm nut, which immediately sprouted into a full tree.
That spot became Ife, the legendary cradle of Yoruba civilization that archeologists believe was an urban center by 800 C.E.
Obatala made some wine from the fruit of his tree, and after partaking in perhaps too many libations, began to mold people out of clay.
Many of the figurines were imperfect, with missing limbs or unintended bends, but Olofin breathed emi into them anyway.
When Obatala saw his creations come to life, he vowed never to drink again and assumed responsibility for protecting humans with physical differences.
In some stories, Obatala got drunk before he could complete his task of making land, and his younger brother, the orisha Oduduwa, took over for him.
Regardless of who made the land, Yoruba lore tells of Oduduwa, or Odua, the first king of Ife from whom the Yoruba people are descended.
Olokun was furious that her ocean had been encroached upon without her permission--not even a heads up from Obatala-- so she sent great waves to flood the land.
Those lucky enough to reach high hills besieged Eshu, the messenger orisha of roads and doors, to intervene on their behalf.
Eshu told Orunmila about the flood and he used Obatala's golden chain to climb down and cast spells until Olokun's water retreated.
Notice that the people begged Eshu to take care of the flood, not the supreme creator.
As the messenger orisha, Eshu stands watch at the boundary between the realms Orun and Aye, the two halves of the Yoruba cosmos.
Eshu ferries notes and sacrifices across the threshold and looks over ritual practices.
According to a Yoruba saying, If Eshu is not acknowledged during a ritual, then life is the bailing of waters with a sieve.
In other words, if you're not going to honor Eshu, why even bother?
This makes even more sense when you consider that Eshu is the trickster of Yoruba mythology.
Ritual sacrifice and prayer are just two of the ways mortals can connect to the orishas' wisdom and power.
The other is through divination that lets humans see the universal forces that influence their lives.
So Orunmila is the other orisha who sits between Orun and Aye as Olofin intended.
Now, I don't know from personal experience, but any parent can tell you that just because you give a being life doesn't mean they'll always follow your directions.
The orisha are no different, and in one Yoruba myth, they decided they were tired of listening to Olofin.
What could a being who lived so far away from the world possibly know about how to run it?
They believed they could do a better job maintaining the world without Olofin's pesky influence.
Instead of punishing the orisha for their disrespect, Olofin held the rains back from the world.
Rivers and lakes evaporated away, crops withered, and animals and humans alike died of thirst.
They cried to the orisha, as they had always done when distressed, "What have we done to anger you?"
The humans never imagined that it was the distant creator god who was causing their pain.
The orisha begged for Olofin's forgiveness, but their cries couldn't carry far enough to be heard.
Many of the orisha tried to reach Olofin's heavenly home but they tired before they reached it.
Beautiful Oshun, the youngest of the orisha who looks after the world's sweet waters, wanted to try.
The other orisha were skeptical that someone so young could accomplish such a difficult task, but Oshun insisted.
She turned herself into a beautiful peacock and flew towards Olofin's distant home.
As she flew, her feathers began to fall off, and as she passed the fiery sun, her feathers smoldered away.
She flew and flew and flew until she didn't think she could fly anymore, but she finally reached Olofin.
By the time she collapsed at their feet, Oshun's feathers were all gone.
Instead of a beautiful peacock, she was an ugly vulture.
Olofin was touched by Oshun's sacrifice, by her courage and persistence, and agreed to send the rains back to the world.
For her troubles, Olofin told Oshun that she alone as a vulture could communicate directly with them.
After this tale, humans can commune with the orisha through Eshu, But anyone who wants to reach Olofin must go through Oshun.
Given her beauty and proximity to the supreme creator, it's no surprise that Oshun was one of the wives of Shango, the woman-loving orisha of thunder and lightning.
Together, they produced Ibeji, a pair of sacred twins.
To this day, twins are special to the Yoruba and mistreating them is said to bring about misfortune.
In history, Shango was one of the first Yoruba kings who ruled from the ancient city Oyo and was closely related to Oduduwa.
In mythology, Shango is one of many who sprang from the body of the orisha Yemoja.
The orisha Shango briefly occupied the body of the mortal king, but also took other forms throughout his immortal life.
The human King Shango's reign was harsh and violent.
Legend says that he was so relentless in his search for power through magic that when he finally obtained dominion over thunder and lightning, he accidentally used it to destroy his palace with his wife and children inside.
Dismayed, Shango fled his kingdom and hung himself, but his mighty power was not forgotten.
Shango was deified as an orisha after his death or should I say that his identity as the orisha was discovered after the king's death.
Either way, King Shango's spirit didn't follow the typical path of other dead mortals.
Someone who lived a long good life could expect to join the ancestors in Orun after they died.
If it was part of Olofin's plan, they might be reincarnated.
Unlike Hinduism's karmic reincarnation, where a soul can return in any number of random forms based on their behavior in a previous life, atunwaye is the belief that you will be reborn into your own family.
Your actions in this life determine your family's future fortune.
So if you misbehave, you won't come back as a cockroach.
You'll be born into poverty as your great-grandson.
These stories and beliefs from Yoruba mythology are a small part of a colorful, dynamic culture that goes back almost 2000 years.
They are preserved in Isese, a Yoruba philosophy, way of life and religion, which is still practiced by many.
Today, there are roughly 50 million people, spread between parts of Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, and Togo, who speak the Yoruba language.
Yoruba and Isese influence can be seen in Caribbean spiritual practices like Santeria and Candomble.
But now that you know a bit more about atunwaye, the intervening orisha and supreme Olofin, I'm willing to bet that you'll start to notice West African influence all over modern media.
But believe me when I say I've barely scratched the surface of Yoruba mythology here.
So comment below with your favorite stories or figures from Yoruba lore and don't forget to thank Eshu