By Chelsey Shannon, editor
At this cusp between Black History Month and Women’s History Month, I’d like to highlight two books by Luisah Teish and Sunni Patterson that each venerate an integral piece of African diasporic culture and shared history: the Yoruba religion, a complex belief system originating with the Yoruba people of present-day Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.
By the 11th century, the Yoruba were “the leading cultural force in southern Nigeria,” according to Robin Walker, British scholar and author of When We Ruled: The Ancient and Medieval History of Black Civilisations, creating early urban centers still extant today, including the city of Lagos. From a rich cultural basis “have Yoruba philosophy, religion, and literature developed, all of which blend ancient truths and divine moralities with reason,” writes Yemi D. Ogunyemi, a Nigerian literary philosopher.
As a result of the migratory patterns created by the atrocity of the transatlantic slave trade, Yoruba religion spread from West Africa to North, South, and Central America as well as to the Caribbean, eventually forming the basis for other religions, such as Santeria and Umbanda. Enslaved people kept their indigenous spirituality and culture alive through song, ritual work, and oral traditions of sacred literature. Syncretism enabled these beliefs to survive even under the surveillance of enslavers who would otherwise have stamped out this remembrance of ancestral practices, values, and beliefs—a vital form of resistance to colonialism and slavery alike.
The spiritual and existential wisdom of the Yoruba faith endures. Today, connection with Yoruba religion and culture can be a healing form of cultural sovereignty for descendants of enslaved Africans and other members of the West African diaspora. The religion retains a robust global presence, with an estimated 100 million practitioners worldwide.
In her forthcoming book A Calabash of Cowries (out Feb. 28, 2023), Luisah Teish—who is an Ìyánífá, or high priestess, of Ifá, a sacred divination system within the Yoruba religion—offers a collection of myth and folktales based in the Yoruba tradition, a captivating blend of traditional tellings and reinterpretations of ancient wisdom through a contemporary eco-feminist lens. Artists Nedra Williams, Carla Johnson, and Gail Williams enriched her work by contributing their visual interpretations of the Orishas, key spirits of the Yoruba pantheon.
We Know This Place, the unmissable debut collection of poet, performer, and priestess Sunni Patterson, also includes several praise poems to the Orishas, shedding lyrical light on the poet’s personal regard of each deity.
Read on to meet some of the Orishas as Teish and Patterson’s words honor these ancient spirits.
“OLOKUN: The owner of the deep, the bottom of the ocean. A merman with a split tail, He is keeper of all the wealth at the bottom of the sea and the primordial waters. All the water on the earth flows from Olokun.
Although Olokun is regarded as male in Benin, where he is well worshipped, the female aspect of the deep ocean is identified as Yemidirigbe in neighboring Yorubaland. She is a mermaid with pale skin, sparkling eyes, and green seaweed hair. She is sometimes envisioned wearing a ‘beard of authority.’
In the diaspora, They are merged into an androgynous/gynandrous deity and referred to as Yemaya-Olokun.”— Luisah Teish, A Calabash of Cowries
“[…] O, Golden Lady
it is Your face
You are distinctly divine
And I can’t say enough times
that when you come to my Mother
you better come smart
because Her honey is sweet
but Her blade is sharp […]”— Sunni Patterson, “Oshun,” We Know This Place
“OBBA: Shango’s appointed wife, affiliated with the Obba River. A strong but quiet woman, She is orderly, frugal, diligent, and accommodating. She wears a simple garment with a large head wrap of pink, red, or lilac fabric. She rules the home and endures the challenges of daily life. Her virtues are discipline and devotion. Her weaknesses are misplaced compassion and self-sabotage.”— Luisah Teish, A Calabash of Cowries
“[…] Wild Women have hurricanes in their bellies
releasing a flood of lessons
Wild Women fly free
watch their ways,
how they rip and shred
who can understand Her
this winding Niger river of a woman
One who is unafraid to tear away
only to roam
and the become the wind
She who speaks in gusts and cyclones
blasting us back to high ground
high consciousness […]”— Sunni Patterson, “Oya (Wild Women),” We Know This Place
“SHANGO: The ruler of the powerful kingdom of Oyo. The son of Obatala, He is both the lord of thunder and the spirit of humans, ego, and political organization. He is envisioned as a dark-brown-skinned man with alluring eyes and a winning smile. He is attractive, sexy, and charming. His virtue is courage. His colors are red and white. He is hot tempered with a thundering voice. He carries a double-headed axe. He is always victorious in battle. When He speaks, fire flows from His mouth. He wears a crown of turtle shell beads and carries a bag of magical items on His cowrie shell belt. He owns a striking white horse. His number is six.”— Luisah Teish, A Calabash of Cowries
A final offering comes in video form: Sunni Patterson co-wrote the lyrics for “Mighty Egun,” a song presented as part of the Algiers Ancestor Festival 2022. “Egun” is the Yoruba term for ancestors, who are a key part of the Yoruba spiritual tradition and world-sense. From the music video’s caption:
“According to historians, it is said that Algiers held ‘the largest single group of enslaved men, women, and children living in Louisiana.’ The festival honors those enslaved beings who were brought to these shores to labor, build, and create infrastructure in the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas.”
I am so grateful for all of these artists’ work toward keeping Black cultural history and pre-colonial spirituality beautifully present, and deeply proud to have had a part in bringing these two books to the world.
A Calabash of Cowries: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times is available for preorder now.
We Know This Place is available for purchase now.
Featured image is of the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, a roughly four hundred-year-old Yoruba shrine and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Osogbo, Nigeria. Image by Carsten ten Brink.