The Myth of Purity

Planting of baobás seedlings in a Candomblé terreiro during the 2014 Festival Latinidades: Griots of the Black Diaspora, Brasília. Fora do Eixo on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Ayodeji Ogunnaike

Between the 1930s and 1960s, sweeping conceptual and practical changes, restructuring, and debates arose in the Yoruba-derived traditions of Brazilian Candomblé and Cuban Santería found in the United States, which were all driven by one concept: a return to a purely African tradition. Curiously, this concern with purity is largely absent in the practice of Oriṣa worship in Yorubaland in southwestern Nigeria, the site of the return that purists advocate. An examination of Yoruba proverbs, mythical narratives, and ritual practices or discussion of other aspects of Yoruba culture and religion challenge and complicate the notion of “purity” within a Yoruba context and the recreation of Yoruba religious traditions in the Americas.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, a “serious internal debate among priests” of the Brazilian Oriṣa tradition of Candomblé emerged over the African “purity” of various facets of their religion. In Brazil, the Nagô/Quêto nation (or subdivision)—though not particularly large numerically—began to root out “Creole corruptions”1 and to focus on “purely” Yoruba features, launching a profitable trade in West African spiritual goods. The movement had a “transformative influence on the broader Candomblé priesthood”; the Nagô/Quêto nation grew from a “distant third” in terms of numerical rank to a clear first; and its emphasis on purity brought the issue to the forefront of Candomblé’s practice and representation.2

The most significant consequences of the rise of the Nagô/Quêto nation and its discourse of purity were: the increased prevalence of the Yoruba Oriṣa Ṣango/Xangô (because leaders drew on the religious traditions of Ọyọ, where Ṣango is the patron deity) and Oriṣanla/Oxalá (adopted as a symbol of purity because of his senior status in the Yoruba pantheon and his association with the color white) and the subsequent rejection of “Creole corruptions,” such as worship of and spirit possession by caboclos, native Brazilian ancestral spirits. The caboclo spirits represented a challenge to the theme of purity, since they do not exist in Yorubaland, are believed to be ancestors of mixed European and native Brazilian decent, and “embody little concern for cultural and racial purity.”3

In the United States, the debate about purity in Santería took place between the Cuban practitioners and the African Americans with whom they had begun to share their tradition. A prime example is the collaboration between the Cuban Cris Oliana and the American Oseijeman Adefunmi, who founded a Yoruba Temple in New York. The two parted ways in 1964, however, because Adefunmi thought the Cubans were “remaining too Catholic in their approach.”4 Adefunmi and other African Americans did not support the incorporation of Catholic elements (such as the veneration of saints) that are deeply ingrained in Santería,5 because of their European origins, and the Cubans did not approve of public displays of their religious practices and festivals because of the historical development of Santería as a more closed and private tradition in Cuba.

Adefunmi’s “intention to purify the religion of ‘Catholic/slave vestiges’ was central to the project that became known as ‘Yoruba reversionism,’ “6 and the culmination of this movement was the foundation of Ọyọtunji African Village in South Carolina, a culturally Yoruba village that aspires to return to a traditional Yoruba way of life free of European influences. Ọyọtunji literally means “Ọyọ rises again” (referring to the Yoruba empire of Ọyọ). The importance of purity for Ọyọtunji practitioners has even led them to criticize Yoruba practitioners in Nigeria for wearing Western clothes, causing “a growing divide in the Americas between people who align themselves with Santería-Lukumi traditions and those who align themselves with Yorùbá traditionalists”—and even between African American practitioners and those in Nigeria—over the issue of purity.7

In The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade argues that, for traditional societies (such as that that produced Yoruba religion), the mythical time of the ancestors should be understood not as a fixed period in the linear, “profane” past, but rather as a world of archetypes existing in a time outside of (or before) time, or in a primordial era that is constantly enacted and recreated in a cyclical human time. Given this framework, for practitioners of Oriṣa traditions in the Americas, the sacred origin and archetypes are removed in both mythical time and space. Thus, Yorubaland becomes a symbol of racial identity and a physical sacred origin free from racial oppression. Or, as Tracey Hucks puts it: “Africa became for African Americans part of a larger system of symbols involving primordial origins,” moving the mythical origin onto the physical plane.8 In Nigeria, however, without the separation in space, this idea of the primordial return largely exists only in mythical time. With the displacement of both heritage practitioners and converts to the diaspora, having the return to sacred archetypes take on more of a horizontal (physical and profanely temporal) than a vertical (primordial or atemporal) dimension seems quite natural.

Discourses around purity relating to Candomblé and Santería also reflect the ideas found in Melville Herskovits’s Myth of the Negro Past, published in 1941 during the height of the purity movement in Candomblé and just before the debates between Cuban Santeros (practitioners of Santería) and African Americans. Herskovits asserts that Africans in the Americas retained many “Africanisms” and “survivals” in their new cultural contexts, and his model fits in quite nicely with the debates over African purity: in both cases, the “Africanisms” that survived were sought out by African Americans and the Nagô/Quêto nation, and the features deemed to have been corrupting or leading the religious traditions to the other end of the spectrum—such as Catholic saints in Santería or caboclos in Candomblé—were jettisoned.

The simple notion of “survivals” and disappearances presents a rather static representation of mutually exclusive forces, leaving little room for the dynamic interactions and varying syntheses of forces that transcend retentions and erasures. This is especially the case with Oriṣa traditions: Catholic saints in Santería did not eclipse Yoruba deities but were integrated into an existing framework to represent those deities in a more practical way. The utilitarian focus of traditions such as Yoruba religion in place of a focus on orthopraxy resists binary categorization.

J. Lorand Matory notes that the Nagô nation in Brazil and “Ọyọ religion diverge strikingly around the theme of purity—a theme virtually absent from Ọyọ ritual rationales but pervasive in Candomblé talk and practice.”9 This “New World” concept of purity in Yoruba religions is challenged by the marked lack of uniformity among the Yoruba themselves. In Santería, Ṣango/Changó is actually an amalgamation of several deities from other areas in and around Yorubaland,10 and the god Oriṣanla/Oxalá carries slightly different characteristics and names, including Oriṣanla, Ọbatala, and Oriṣa Funfun, depending on geographic location.

Beyond this diversity among the traditions of the individual Oriṣa, even greater divergences exist. Ifa narratives and mythistory, central to conceptions of Oriṣa worship and everyday practice, vary widely from region to region, and this variation is recognized and accepted by most babalawo, or priests of Ifa. While researching the interaction between Islam and traditional Yoruba religion, I asked a babalawo what he thought of other priests who practice Islam alongside traditional religion. He replied that it could not be done, but qualified his answer by stating, “Here-o! I am not talking of other areas.”11 Instead of one “pure” form of Yoruba religion, I see multiple, often related alternatives that have been developed to serve local needs and to provide a plurality of archetypes for future employment.

In fact, many of the most common aspects of Yoruba religion are not “purely” Yoruba in origin. For example, many Yoruba, including Ṣango’s priests among the Ọyọ, believe that Ṣango was himself a Muslim who came from Nupeland to the north!12 Not only is the most central deity in the debates on purity for the Nagô/Quêto nation and Ọyọtunji Village considered to be something of a foreigner who practiced another religious tradition, but his high priests are proud of that fact. There is even a particular divinatory sign in Ifa—Otura Meji—that in many areas of Yorubaland dictates that the client or someone in the client’s family must become a Muslim, learn to read and write Arabic, dress like a Muslim, or be involved with Islam in some other fashion.13

Islam does not have a monopoly on heterogeneous aspects of Yoruba religion. A babalawo in Modakeke (an ethnically Ọyọ town) with whom I have worked extensively asked me to bring him a large bottle of American cologne the next time I visit because of its powerful ritual effects. I have also observed him using many traditionally non-Yoruba items, such as gunpowder, glass mirrors, and American currency, in his practice. Even among the Ọyọ, traditional Yoruba religion appears to have made a practice of incorporating elements from other traditions.

The best illustration of this dynamic may be found within the Ifa literary corpus itself (under Odu Okanran-Oturupọn), and again deals with the introduction of Islam into traditional life. In this story, a group of Yoruba Muslims had to travel all the way to heaven every year to sacrifice a ram to Olodumare, the Supreme God. The trip became more and more difficult, and many died on the way, so the people were very pleased when an Ifa priest told them Olodumare would accept a sacrifice made on earth instead. Since then, Muslims have sacrificed a ram on earth during the Ileya festival—known in other Muslim communities as Eid al-Kabir.14

This story complicates the idea of purity in several ways. First, it incorporates a foreign, or non-Yoruba, tradition (that of Islam). Second, through a paradigm I refer to as comprehensive religion, it not only accepts the practice of Islam alongside traditional Yoruba religion, but it encourages the seamless integration of the two. Finally, the myth depicts a literal change in the landscape, which requires an adaptation in religious practice that is endorsed by none other than the Supreme God himself! If this mythical change in landscape were to be applied to the changes in the physical and cultural landscape of transatlantic Oriṣa traditions, this section of the Ifa corpus seems to condone new interpretations of and adaptations to the tradition and acceptance of elements that might not be “purely” Yoruba.

This myth also emphasizes how efficacy determines orthopraxy, and how these acceptable practices are derived from vertical precedents (those from sacred and primordial time) as opposed to horizontal ones (those from profane and worldly time): the “purity,” or, more fittingly, the efficacy of the Ileya festival is derived from above and not from behind (the past). It stands to reason, therefore, that there could also be room for Catholic saints or caboclos, even though they have no historical or horizontal precedents. Still, this does not mean that any innovation is pure or legitimate.

Given the Yoruba belief that there are 201 gods (figuratively implying an infinite number), and that each god governs certain domains of life, if those domains were to change or new domains were to come about, it seems fitting that the existing gods might undergo slight changes or new gods emerge. Or, if the population of devotees were to intermarry with others to a great extent, the spirits of the ancestors would no longer all be Yoruba (as in the case of caboclos) and would need to be accounted for in the cosmology.

Utility is valued so much more than historical precedence that there is even a Yoruba saying, Oriṣa ta kẹ kẹ kẹ, ti o gbọ, ta gẹ, gẹ, gẹ, ti o gba, oju popo ni ngbe, which, roughly translated, means, “If your god doesn’t listen when you praise it, or doesn’t help you when you worship it, get rid of it!” For the tradition-alist Yoruba, if or when something as central as a god is no longer efficacious, it is simply to be discarded and replaced by something else that is, no matter how “pure” it might be. Examined in this way, trying to rid an Oriṣa tradition of syncretisms, mixings, or innovations because of horizontal origins might not actually lead to the reinstatement of a “pure” Yoruba religion.

While I believe that the heterogeneous nature of traditional Yoruba religion and its emphasis on utility greatly outweigh issues of horizontal orthopraxy, the issue of efficacy also lends itself to a more vertical type of orthopraxy. For example, there was (and still is) a high demand among practitioners in Brazil for items such as kola nuts and soap made from specific medicinal herbs, because there is no effective substitute for them in specific rituals. Since the time of the ancestors, the babalawo have been memorizing verses from the sacred Ifa corpus exactly as their masters taught them, and they are always careful to recite the appropriate phrases when making sacrifices, because if the wrong words were uttered, the whole ritual would be compromised. The focus on certain forms of orthopraxy does not preclude the emergence of new efficacious rituals or adaptations or substitutes for older ones.

A purist discourse that seeks a return to Yoruba religion in its original state is problematic for three main reasons. First, there is so much diversity even within the worship of specific Oriṣa themselves, not to mention traditional Yoruba religion as a whole, that one would invariably have to choose and privilege one specific interpretation and representation over others. Second, many elements of Yoruba religion as practiced in Yorubaland are not natively Yoruba, as the foreign aspects of Ṣango’s identity make evident. Third, the tradition itself is inherently dynamic and readily adopts new additions and interpretations, provided they are efficacious and have vertical or primordial precedents. Thus, the emphasis that purist discourses place squarely upon the concept of historical and ethnic precedence and purity might actually result in a rupture with the original tradition in Nigeria rather than with the continuity it seeks to reinstate.

Both sides in the debate often stress certain forms of “purity.” In the case of the conflict between Cuban santeros and new African American initiates, the Cubans sought a continuation of their tradition as practiced in Cuba, and the African Americans sought a symbolic return to the tradition from Nigeria. Adaptations such as removing features drawn from the society of the oppressor would, in my opinion, be just that: adaptations. I believe it is important to name them as such instead of identifying them as a return or reversion. Such a sudden ossification of a dynamic, heterogeneous, and flexible tradition would itself be a “striking divergence,” as Matory puts it.15

As with the translation and recreation of all religious traditions in a new setting, lines must be drawn between adaptations and complete departures. For transatlantic Oriṣa traditions, these lines are perhaps better drawn according to specific locations in space and time and derived from vertical rather than horizontal precedents. I would like to challenge and complicate the idea of Yoruba purity and purity in Yoruba religion to propose a discourse that analyzes particular situations and the subsequent most appropriate interpretations of Oriṣa traditions. Otherwise, a return to a “purely authentic” form of Yoruba religion would leave us with very little of a tradition at all.


  1. Luis Nicolau Parés, “The Nagôization Process in Bahian Candomblé,” in The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World, ed. Toyin Falola and Matt D. Childs (Indiana University Press, 2004), 198, 191–192.
  2. J. Lorand Matory, Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé (Princeton University Press, 2005), 120, 121.
  3. Ibid, 136.
  4. For a full account of Adefunmi and Oliana’s collaboration and later split, see Carl Monroe Hunt, Oyotunji Village: The Yoruba Movement in America (University Press of America, 1979), 28.
  5. Tracey E. Hucks, Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism (University of New Mexico Press, 2012), 151–152.
  6. David H. Brown, Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 279.
  7. Kamari Maxine Clarke, Mapping Yorùbá Networks: Power and Agency in the Making of Transnational Communities (Duke University Press, 2004), 14, 10.
  8. Hucks, Yoruba Traditions, 94.
  9. Matory, Black Atlantic Religion, 136.
  10. Brown, Santería Enthroned, 116.
  11. Ifasola Onifade, interview by author, Osogbo, June 14, 2009.
  12. Matory, Black Atlantic Religion, 138.
  13. Watch a recitation and interpretation of this verse at ask-dl.fas.harvard.edu/content/130-otura-meji.
  14. Watch a recitation and interpretation of this verse at ask-dl.fas.harvard.edu/content/812-kanran-tutu-oturup-n.
  15. Matory, Black Atlantic Religion, 136.

Ayodeji Ogunnaike is a doctoral student in African studies and religion at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences whose work focuses on Yoruba religious traditions, including Islam, Christianity, and Oriṣa worship, with a particular focus on Ifa divination.

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