Artist. King. Artist/King. Warrior. Vanquished. Oduduwa adversary. Oduduwa older brother. Deity. Drunkard. Creator. Peace maker.
Yoruba history is full of conflict. Actual conflict in historical events and conflict in the retelling of such events. Such conflict appears in answering the not-so-simple question of who Obatala was or is.
Obatala is elevated for some Yoruba as Orisanla , a god, the creator of all human beings. Festivals hold annually in his honour in many Yoruba communities in the Homeland and in the Yoruba diaspora of Latin America and the Caribbean. In the Yoruba religion he is deeply revered.
To others he was a defeated king.
Trying to understand Obatala from a current day angle is reminiscent of the 6 blind monks and the elephant.
The 6 blind monks each groped a different aspect of the elephant and came to very different conclusions about what an elephant is. Wall , spear, snake, tree, fan and rope depending on whether the flank, tusk, trunk, knee , ear or tail was felt.
Yoruba people in the Homeland and the diaspora , ‘blinded’ by the hundreds of years between the actual events and now, have contrasting views about who Obatala is /was. King, warrior, drunk, creator, etc etc…
We know only what has been passed down to us orally. And so what we believe about Obatala depends on what our ancestors believed about him.
Obatala the man?
For those who accept that Obatala was an actual man who lived once in Yoruba land,they agree that
- he lived at the same time as Oduduwa ie 10th / 11th Century
- there was a struggle for domination between the two (this represented somewhat in the creation story as well)
- Obatala ruled the indigenous people around Ife in Yoruba land before Oduduwa
- Obatala was given to occasional drink ( in the creation story as well)
- Obatala was defeated by Oduduwa
- Oduduwa’s historical achievements dwarf Obatala’s as his kingdom came to an end through Oduduwa. (Even in the Yoruba creation story, Oduduwa took over the creation of human beings which was botched by a drunken Obatala)
Above explains then why Obatala would be seen by some Yoruba as an actual man , a warrior, one who liked his drink…
Obatala the god?
The Yoruba , as noted by OB Lawuyi, being very religious ascribed spiritual meanings to objects, humans and events, eg Thunder was the wrath of God, iron the symbol of war or conflict, water the sign of fertility and political heroes became gods. So not unusual then that the two principal characters in the forming of the new Yoruba political order became gods…
But how has the defeated Obatala come to be represented in the Yoruba religion as the overall king of the Orisa, and elevated even higher than Oduduwa?
Some versions of the conflict between Oduduwa and Obatala say NOT that Obatala was humiliated in defeat , but that he avoided conflict and ceded power to the warlike Oduduwa. Obatala the peacemaker….
And so like that other peace loving man from Christian history, Obatala ceded his status as king. In so doing he displayed god-like character over and above his rival Oduduwa who was more concerned with power and land, and ascended in Yoruba folklore from man to supreme god. Obatala the supreme Orisa…..
Finally, some interpreters of tradition say that the period before Oduduwa was a peaceful and creative one , and that that “period when Obatala title was supreme,” was when ” the artistic masterpieces of Ile Ife were produced”- Ade Obayemi. ( Masterpieces presumably the Ife bronzes and terracottas). Obatala the creator….
Sounds like a reasonable explanation. Obatala, king, chief artist , Ile Ife master piece creator ( it was during his era after all ) and peace maker, a gentle creative man who instead of plunging his people further into war and chaos handed over his leadership to a newcomer, and became a god.
A colourful character, who managed the feat of transforming from defeated king to supreme god, Obatala is a favourite Yoruba topic for which many books and publications have been written.