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How man makes God in West Africa: Yoruba attitudes towards the Orisa

  • Karin Barber

The idea that gods are made by men, not men by gods, is a sociological truism. It belongs very obviously to a detached and critical tradition of thought incompatible with faith in those gods. But Yoruba traditional religion contains built into it a very similar notion, and here, far from indicating scepticism or decline of belief, it seems to be a central impulse to devotion. The òrìṣà (‘gods’) are, according to Yoruba traditional thought, maintained and kept in existence by the attention of humans. Without the collaboration of their devotees, the òrìṣà would be betrayed, exposed and reduced to nothing. This notion seems to have been intrinsic to the religion since the earliest times. How can such an awareness be part of a devotee's ‘belief’? Rather than speculate abstractly, as Rodney Needham does (Needham 1972), about whether people of other cultures can be said to ‘believe’ at all, it seems more interesting to take a concrete case like the Yorba one where there is an unexpected–even apparently paradoxical–configuration of ideas, and to ask how these ideas are constituted. Only by looking at them as part of a particular kind of society, with particular kinds of social relationships, can one see why such a configuration is so persuasive. The notion that men make gods is by no means unique to Yoruba thought. It is present to some degree in a number of traditional West African religions, and in some, such as the Kalahari one, it can be seen in an even more explicit form than in the Yoruba one. A comparison may help to show how it is the constitution of social relationships which makes such a notion not just acceptable but central to the religious thought of the society.

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  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
  • URL: /core/journals/africa
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