Some traditional Yoruban religious beliefs are still practiced today, despite the introduction of strong Christian and Muslim influences. Although the Yoruba belief system is complex, it centres around the idea that there is one god who is the source of creation, and that there is a pantheon of deities working below him.
The main, or ‘supreme’, god is known as Oludumare and is thought to be the force behind all life and creation. Whilst Oludumare is prayed to, it is a remote force that may not be symbolised or represented.
In contrast, the ‘Orisa’ are the deities that work below him. Some of these had specific functions, such as overseeing war or hunting, whereas others were associated with natural locations, such as rivers and hills. Other members of the Orisa were thought to be embodied in natural objects and animals. Contact with the Orisa was principally established through sacrifice.
An unusual member of the Orisa is Esu. He was interpreted by Christian missionaries and European colonialists as the Yoruban equivalent to devil due to his chaotic, deceptive personality. Unlike other Orisa, Esu is the only one who is pictorially depicted.