Yoruba Orixás and their similarities with Greek mythology and syncretism with Catholic saints

Note from BBT: The world of the orixás has long been fascinating to me. Having been into the Brazil thing for two decades now, there were always facets of Brazilian culture that I had never really explored. I first came across the term orixá (or orisha as it is written in English) when I started reading books by the great Afro-Brazilian activist Abdias do Nascimento. At the time, never having heard the term before, it was a bit confusing. On my first trip to Brazil, to the city of Salvador, Bahia, I actually viewed my first Candomblé ceremony.

Candomblé is of course the religion of African origin that is practiced throughout the country. Candomblé is not considered a popular religion in comparison to the more popular religions in the country such as Catholocism or Evangelicalism, with less than 5% of the population openly proclaming themselves followers of Candomblé or Umbanda, a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion. Even with official numbers being relatively small, the popularity of Candomblé and Umbanda cannot be overlooked as, due to religious persecution and negative connotations that still exist among Brazilians, as well as the fact that many followers of these religions identify themselves as Catholics, it is nearly impossible to estimate how many people actually follow these religions in some form.

The influence of Candomblé and Umbanda can also be noted in just everyday comments that black Brazilians make. Spend any amount of time on the various social networks, and you will see plenty of Brazilians conjure up the name of one orixá or another when dealing with whatever situation they are dealing with in life. Each orixá is believed to possess certain powers and forces in life. For example, one may call upon Oxum for guidance in matters of desire and love, Oxalá when experiencing some type of legal issue or when seeking justice or Ogun for strength or protection.

For non-believers or those who follow other religions, Candomblé, Umbanda and orixás can be very misunderstood. I can’t estimate the number of times I’ve had people tell me that Candomblé and Umbanda are evil or the work of the devil. Intriguing, considering adherents don’t actually believe in a devil. As John Mason explains in his book Black Gods: Orisa Studies in the New World, adherents of of Candomblé don’t believe in a devil “because their ancestral West African belief system is not derived from a dualistic theory – good v. evil or God v. the devil – but instead from a cosmological philosophy dealing with the nature of the universe.” 

Candomblé is a monotheistic religion in which the spirits or deities, orixás, act as intermediaries for and that serve the Supreme Being known as Olodumaré or Olorun. Even though there is no actual book equal to the Bible or the Quaran, each orixá has his or her own story or myth. Followers of Candomblé have their own specific orixá that is thought to guide their lives and act as their protective forces. Music and dance are an intrical part of Candomblé rituals as adherents often fall into trances and perform particular dances associated with their orixá. There are literally hundreds of orixás but in general, at least in Brazil, there are perhaps 12-16 that are most well-known, each having his or her own attributes and/or powers.

In various studies, numerous similarities between the orixás and gods and goddesses of more well-known Greek and Roman gods as well as Catholic saints have been found, but what we find is that African gods are little known or taught while attributes of European origin gods have been widely disseminated and have influenced other great mythical figures such as those we find in the Marvel and DC comic heroes and sheroes.

These beliefs, stereotypes, acceptance of European origin gods/myths and rejection of those of African origin was the subject of a dissertation by Jeferson Machado de Assunção who reveals having been attracted to things that were considered “prohibited”. In the dissertation, Exu and Hermes, Assunção proposed to discover why it was that, based on four sixth grade books used in elementary schools made available by Brazil’s Programa Nacional do Livro Didático (National Textbook Program), Greek mythological figures were often used as references while equal Yoruba gods were nowhere to be found.

In his study proposing a decolonization of the school curriculum, he explores seven popular Afro-Brazilian deities in comparison to seven Greek deities. The seven orixás were Exu, Ogum, Xangô and Oxalá, Oxum, Iansã and Iemanjá, while the corresponding Greek gods were Hermes, Ares, Zeus and Apolo; Aphrodite, Athena, Ivy and Poseidon. Assunção opines that “we must learn to speak of Exu as naturally as we we talk about Hermes.”

Recalling his childhood, Assunção speaks of hearing discussions behind closed doors involving Afro-Brazilian religions. His grandmother didn’t officially identify herself as a follower of Candomblé, saying she was Catholic but references to Candomblé were visible in the fact that she attended terreiros (Candomblé houses of worship) and lighting candles for souls. He went to explain that after his parents’ conversion to Protestantism, his parents forced him to distance himself from his grandmother, his father sometimes referring to his grandmother as a “bruxa”, meaning witch.

This view of followers of Candomblé or Umbanda is very common in Brazil. I find intriguing that such negative connotations are associated with African origin religions in the minds of millions but then when it comes to Christianity/Catholicism no one questions rituals such as receiving the body and blood of Jesus during communion. Imagery is a powerful thing. I’ll never forget the horrific nightmares I had after watching the 1976 film Carrie.

To this day, I can remember almost barfing up the Reese’s candy bar I was eating when I saw the hand of the lead character, Carrie, reaching up from beneath the stones that sealed her body in hell and pulling a girl down with her. Then there was Carrie’s fanatically Catholic mother who died in the same pose of which Jesus was depicted on the cross after Carrie used her powers to direct numerous knives into her mother’s body.

So, let me get this straight, Europeans developed an entire imagery and mythology based on scaring its followers into believing in a devil and hell but such an ideology doesn’t even exist in Yoruba beliefs but it is the African that is associated with devil worship. What kinda twisted sh*t is that?

But it’s much deeper than that. The way that Europeans have focused humanity itself through a European lens, any other culture is automatically defined as inferior.

As Assunção questions and affirms:

“Who is interested in keeping in the curriculum that we owe to Greece and Rome thanks for the roots of modern science, philosophy and religiosity? The genesis was not in Europe, but in Africa with the first civilizations. To propose the subversion of this order by mythological bias means to deepen aspects of what is called the coloniality of knowledge (Mignolo, 2003), that is, to reflect and theoretically analyze, based on the comparison between mythic narratives of the Yoruban deities and their Greek counterparts, that the construction of European modernity was based, making its worldviews visible and making others invisible, subordinating them.”

It is within this context of European domination that many Afro-Brazilians are calling for a re-introduction to African knowledge, belief systems and mythology. The view of deities must be decolonized in order to return a connection to origin to the African descendant, most of whom have had their bodies and minds colonized by European thought.

I ask, if we find the same and similar mythological elements in African cultures, why aren’t we familiar with it and when we are familiar with it, why is it not viewed with the same status of the Greek, Roman or Nordic? African peoples and culture have an endless source of heroes that could be as equally intriguing as the Black Panther figure that became one of the most popular films in history in 2018. In reality, it’s a well-known secret for those who are familiar with the story of the orixás.

So, how do these orixás compare the famous Greek gods and catholic saints? Let’s compare a few.

Greek mythology, its similarities with Candomblé, Umbanda and syncretism with Catholic saints

Courtesy of Umbanda 24 Horas

Several people have already noticed the similarities between the gods of Greek mythology and some orixás of Umbanda. This post comes as an informative, exposing curiosity and exposing syncretism, which was adopted according to the physical or historical similarity between the figures of this Brazilian religion (with indigenous and African influence) and Catholic saints. Good reading!

Zeus, in mythology, is the god of the gods, thunder and sky. Xangô resembles him for being the orixá of thunder and fire, resembling the god also in his temperament: bold and virile. With the imposition of Catholicism, Xangô was worshiped by Africans as being St. Jerome, a saint who translated the Bible from Greek into Latin and Hebrew, also protector of librarians.

Ares is the god of bloody war, which can be compared to Ogum, an orixá with the same denominations. Saint George, who according to tradition was a Roman soldier and martyr, is the figure that most resembles Ogun in syncretism.

Hades, god of the world of the dead, resembles the figure of Omolu, the orixá of death. Omolu was syncretized as Saint Lazarus, the saint who was miraculously resurrected by Jesus, for his similar appearances; both have wounds all over their bodies.

Hera, goddess of marriage and jealousy, can be compared to the orixá Oxum, who, in addition to reigning over wealth, intimacy, love, beauty and diplomacy, is also expressed through the strength of fresh waters. Now assimilated to Nossa Senhora da Conceição, now to Nossa Senhora Aparecida.

Poseidon is the god of the seas and earthquakes. Iemanjá, the female figure orixá also reigns over these waters. In Brazil, she is syncretized with Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes and both have their parties celebrated on February 2nd.

Apollo, a god of the sun, of truth, and of the consciousness of righteousness, reminds much in his sensible temperament of the orixá Oyá (or Iansã), which is also similar to Zeus, controls the air, thunder and storms. She is syncretized as Nossa Senhora das Neves, a saint who asked a couple, through a vision, to build a temple in their honor. This temple should be located on top of a hill whose peak would be miraculously covered with snow in the middle of summer.

Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo, goddess of the hunt and the borders between cities and forests. Much like Oxóssi, orixá of hunting and forest, who is syncretized as São Sebastião, the martyr who died with three arrows in the chest during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian.

Demeter is the goddess of crops and seasons. Okô is the orixá of work and agriculture. Syncretized in the figure of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, who is the figure of Jesus himself at the exact moment of death.

Dionysus is the god of wine, arts and orgies. He is very reminiscent of the trickster of the lapa, Zé Pelintra, who is fond of the same drink in question, in addition to being an excellent samba dancer of gafieira.

Hermes, god of medicine, commerce and thieves, is also the messenger of the gods. And Exu, the fire orixá, guardian of villages, houses and cities, look at this: he is also the messenger of the orixás! Exu’s syncretism, however, is highly complex. Due to his playful temperament, his strong colors and mainly because his object of work is a trident, he was wrongly syncretized as being the Satan of Christian religions. The Africans, however, syncretized him as Santo Antonio, that saint that the girls insist on leaving upside down to arrange marriage!

Hephaestus and Omolu

Hephaestus, god of iron, artisans, technology, fire and many other things. He can be compared, both to the already seen Ogum and also to the already seen Omolu. Ogun, in addition to the orixá of war, is also the orixá of metals and weapons. Omolu, like Hephaestus, was abandoned by his mother after his birth, and according to legend for the same reason: physical appearance.

We have heard countless versions of associations between Greek gods and African deities, with many saying that one can come from the other and vice versa. Whether one is the evolutionary form of the other we will never know, but that they are extremely associated in their form of worship, habitat, tools and other things, this is undeniable.

Source: Assunção, Jefferson Machado De. “Exu e Hermes: um xirê intercultural?” Institute of Education/Multidisciplinary Institute Program for Graduate Education, Contemporary Contexts and Popular Demands (PPGEDUC), Seropedic/RJ. Available online. Accessed December 28, 2020. Umbanda 24 Horas, Igor de Oxum

About Marques Travae 3664 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this article. I would suggest a correction in your comparison of the pantheons. First also, you should include the Norse Gods as they offer an even more direct comparison to the Orixa than the Greek which were closely based on Egyptian pantheon.

    However as for the article. I think it is incorrect to place Xango with Zeus and Oxala with Apollo.

    I would suggest flipping these, as Oxala is the “Sky Father” of all Orixa who gave life to humanity with the aid of Olodumare. Oxala is more directly compared to Zeus in the Greek pantheon and to Odin in the Norse pantheon.

    While Xango is a better comparison to Apollo but even better when compared to Thor of the Norse gods.

    Thanks

    • Hey there Khalil. I appreciate the comment and it’s good to know there are people interested in this subject. For me it’s fascinating.

      Let me just say this, I’ve read various opinions and comments of people who are familiar with mythical gods and orishas, and sometimes there is a disagreement over which characteristics match up better with a particular god. In this very article, there was this debate over which comparison would have been better.

      I see what you’re saying because I’m accustomed to the debate. The article is divided into two sections. My opinion and introduction is first, followed by the article that I translate.

      As I credit the writer for the text, it’s necessary to keep his text as he originally wrote it.

      The other thing is, I’m familiar with some stories from the Nordic tradition but the article specifically approached the comparison between Greek gods, Catholic saints and orishas. So that’s why the Nordic wasn’t touched on.

      Maybe, if you don’t mind, I could add an addendum at the end just to recognize the comparison you made, which is a view that others have expressed too.

      • Hey, yeah that’d be awesome. I have a special place for the Norse stories. Unlike the Greek gods who are said to be immortal, the Norse gods were mortal. And they were fighting a historic war against an enemy who as destined to defeat them. But the fought anyway knowing they would die, which is why Vallhalla is understood the way it is. To make inevitable death worth it. To me reading the stories as a kid, they were a metaphor for Black people. This was before I discovered Orixa of course. 🙂

        Thanks man.

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