Probably one of the most frustrating characterizations of Africa (as if it is possible at all to characterize an entire continent with a single word) is the term animist. The religious system from community to community varies so greatly that it simply does not do justice to these traditions when we blanket them all under the “animist” umbrella. As we have seen in Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, the Yoruba religious tradition is a vastly complex and integrated structure in their lifestyle. Since my edition of this play includes a helpful overview of Yoruba cosmology, I’m dedicating my post to better understanding the Yoruba belief system so that we also do not make the mistake of oversimplifying religion in Africa.
The Yoruba cosmos consists of two parts, the aye, essentially the human realm, and the orun, where the spiritual realm resides. This concept is normally represented by the image of a spherical gourd, where both realms fit together tightly. An especially intriguing element of Yoruba belief is that the creator, Olodumare, does not have a sexual identity. In my opinion, this is an incredibly modern, progressive, and intellectual view of the world. (I mean really. If the transcendental were truly transcendental, then why would they be sexual beings?) Another important element to understand regarding Yoruba conception of the world is that time is circular, not linear, as we traditionally believe in the Western world. Therefore, ancestors are a constant presence in the human world. The article aptly summarized, “They are departed but not deceased. They can be contacted by their descendants for support and guidance and can return to the world either for short stays…” (71). The aye and the orun intersect in various manners, one of which being via ancestors. However, the relationship between these two realms can be fully understood through the Yoruba adage, “The world is a journey, the otherworld is home” (72).