Yoruba Creation Story
The Yoruba creation story has two main variations. One is cosmogonic, while the other is political. The cosmogenic version also has two versions.
The first version of the cosmogonic creation story goes as follows. In the beginning, all that existed was the sky and water. A supreme being named Olorun (Olodumare) ruled the sky above, while the goddess Olokun ruled the watery world below. Along with Olorun in the sky, there were also many Orishas. The Orishas were both male and female however, Olorun was neither male or female, but instead an all-powerful supreme being. Olorun and the Orishas lived around a young baobab tree which provided everything that they needed. Olorun told the Orishas that the vast sky was theirs to explore. All the Orishas except one were content to live and explore the sky.
Obatala was the Orisha who was not content with living around the baobab tree. Like all other Orishas, he had certain powers but he wanted to put his to use. Obatala looked below the clouds and mist in the sky, and realized that there was an empty ocean below the sky. Obatala went to Olorun and asked for permission to make something solid in the waters below. That way there could dry land for all creatures to inhabit.
Olorun was pleased that Obatala wanted to do something constructive, and gave Obatala the permission to create land in the waters below. Obatala went to Orunmila, the oldest son of Olorun and the God of prophecy, and asked him what he should do to prepare for his mission. Orunmila told Obatala that he would need a gold chain long enough for him to reach the waters below, a snail’s shell filled with sand, a white hen, a black cat and a palm nut. Orunmila and the other Orishas helped Obatala find the items he needed and Obatala went on his journey.
Obatala hung the chain in the corner of the sky and began to climb down. When he climbed halfway down the chain, Obatala realized that he was leaving the world of light and entering the world of twilight. He continued to climb down, and when he got to the end of the chain, he realized that it was too high for him to jump down safely. He wondered what to do and then he heard Orunmila’s voice which told him to use the sand in the snail shell. Obatala did as he was told, he pulled out the snail shell from his bag and poured out the sand into the water below. Orunmila then instructed Obatala to free the white hen. Again, Obatala did as he was told. The hen landed on the sandy waters below. She began scratching the sand, scattering it around. Wherever the sand landed, dry land was created.
Obatala watched dry land grow beneath him and decided to jump down onto the ground below. He named the place where he landed Ife (Ile-Ife). He saw that the land was barren so he dug a hole and buried the palm nut from his bag into the hole. The tree quickly grew and reached it full height, grew palm nuts which dropped to the ground and grew other trees. Obatala used bark from the trees and built a house. He took the black cat out from the bag and settled with it as his companion.
Some time passed and Obatala grew bored. He decided to make beings like himself who would be his companions. He began to make figures out of clay, but quickly grew tired and took a break. He went to a palm tree and tapped some wine out of it. He drank some of the wine and without realizing he was drunk, he continued working on his creations. When he was done he called out to Olorun to give life to his creations. He fell asleep, and the next day, he realised that some of his creations were deformed. He swore to never drink again and promised to forever protect those who become deformed because of him. This is how Obatala became the protector of the deformed.
Obatala’s creation saw his hut and began to construct their own homes around the hut. The people that Obatala created needed food and they began to work the earth. Since iron did not yet exist, Obatala gave his people a copper knife and a wooden hoe. The people grew grains and yams and Ife grew from a small village to a prosperous city. Since Obatala completed his mission on Earth, he was given the title “Obarisha” the king of Orishas. When his work on Earth was done and Obatala grew tired of being the King of Ife, Obatala climbed back the golden chain and went back to the sky. From then on, Obatala spend half his time in the sky and half in Ife.
The second version of the cosmogonic story does not credit Obatala with the completion of the task. According to this version Obatala was given permission by Olorun to come to the waters below and create land and a new society. However, Obatala got drunk even before he got to the earth and he was unable to do the job. Olorun got worried when he did not return on time, and sent Oduduwa to find out what was going on. When Oduduwa found Obatala drunk, he simply took over the task and completed it. Thus, Oduduwa created land. The spot on which he landed from heaven and which he redeemed from water to become land is called Ife and is now considered the sacred and spiritual home of the Yoruba. Obatala was embarrassed when he woke up and, due to this experience, he made it a taboo for any of his devotees to drink palm wine. Olodumare forgave him and gave him the responsibility of molding the physical bodies of human beings. The making of land is a symbolic reference to the founding of the Yoruba kingdoms, and this is why Oduduwa is credited with that achievement and is seen as the progenitor of the Yoruba people.