The Yoruba traditional religion believes in many orisa (deities) created by Olodumare, the supreme being. The anthropomorphic nature of the orisa gives us an insight into color symbolism in Yoruba culture (Adejumo, 2002). One way to gain a better understanding of orisa lifestyle is to explore color symbolism and its relevance Yoruba mysticism.
Let us consider one verse of Ifa, which tells of a time when the orisa Orunmila embarked upon an epic journey of considerable difficulty.
Orunmila was coming from heaven to earth. He wanted to know of he would be successful there. The awos told Orunmila that he was going to be successful. Eventually, however, the road of fate would lead him to a place that is known for witchcraft. They said, "Orunmila, in order to enjoy long life, you must sacrifice. In addition, you must cling to Obatala and appease awon iyaami osoronga." Orunmila heard and complied.
As predicted, Orunmila was very successful in his priestly duties. In the process, he had heard a great deal about a town called Imure. It was notorious for witchcraft. In fact, it was said that every citizen of Imure was either a witch or a wizard. Not only that, it was common that a visitor who went to Imure could be captured and eaten as part of their annual feast. One day, Orunmila decided to visit Imure.
Before departing, however, he consulted Ifa, at which time he was advised to make a sacrifice. He was told to give red, black and white cloths to Esu. He was told to give Ogun a dog, a rooster and a tortoise. Finally, Orunmila was told to offer two pigeons, which he would bring along with him on the journey to Imure. Orunmila complied and then set out on his journey.
As fate wold have it, Orunmila arrived at Imure just as they were beginning their annual festival. The inhabitants were excited to receive him, as they intended to capture Orunmila and feast on his flesh. They gave Orunmila special accommodations and awaited the opportunity to overtake him.
It was then that Esu went into action. He transformed himself into a townsperson and raised doubts about the stature of the visitor. He said that they should test his strength before capturing him. Esu proposed that the entire town should enforce a strict dress code; the next day, everybody should wear white in the morning, red in the afternoon and black in the evening. If Orunmila failed to comply, they should use this as a justification for capturing him. They all agreed with the plan.
Now, Esu went to Orunmila. He brought with him the white, red and black fabrics that Orunmila had sacrificed earlier. Esu went on to explain to Orunmila that there was a plot to capture and eat him. In order to protect himself, Esu told Orunmila should wear white in the morning, red in the afternoon and black in the evening.
The next day, Orunmila appeared in the morning, wearing all white cloth. The people of Imure were surprised. But they were confident that it was just a coincidence. Surely, Orunmila would not be prepared to change his clothes in the afternoon. That would be their opportunity to capture him. In the afternoon, everybody went home to eat and rest, including Orunmila. After lunch, Orunmila opened his front door and walked out into the street, wearing red cloth. The people of Imure were astonished. How could this be?!?! They still had one more trick up their sleeves. They were absolutely certain that Orunmila would not be prepared to wear black cloth in the evening. So, they would plan to capture him at sunset. After dinner, when Orunmila opened the door and came out for his evening stroll, the people of Imure could not believe their eyes. Orunmila was wearing black clothes. It was then that they recognized Orunmila as above average.
The story above reveals how the Yoruba chromatic system is traditionally grouped into three chromatic categories. The first group is known as "funfun," which is commonly recognized as "white." In reality, however, funfun represents a spectrum of colors that can include turquoise, blue, silver, chrome, and other icy colors. Symbolically, funfun connotes peace and purity. Orisa funfun are practically accepted as the ‘good ones’. People wearing white are not expected to do evil.
Funfun is mostly associated with Obatala worshippers. They clothe themselves in white cloth, white beads and other white ornaments. Their temples, images, shrine, and other paraphernalia are also white. The worshippers of Obatala must offer him white food. During the Obatala festivals, the sacrificial meal is usually the bloodless animals like snails cooked in Shea butter instead of palm oil. Obatala worshippers are thought to be morally upright and truthful (Idowu 1962). They are expected to be clean and pure in their hearts and behavior, as the white color symbolizes.
The next group of color is referred to as "pupa," which can be translated as "red." “Pupa" also encompasses any color that relates to hot, fiery characteristics, such as orange, dark yellow, gold. The color of fire is regarded as red which suggests danger and fearful individuals or creatures. "Pupa" has the psychological dimension of a dangerous personality who possesses a trait of aggression, who lacks patience and might get angry very easily. The "pupa" personality is very dangerous and can be wicked. The associated deities are those that are involved in carrying out acts of aggression and bloodshed.
Pupa is the symbol of Ogun and Sango worshippers. The Yoruba generalize all colors that have elements of red or close to red as topola, such as yellow iyeye safa, and sienna (pupa rusurusu). Red signifies blood, danger, fire and searing emotion. It is a strong color for Sango; Ogun and Sanponna. Ogun, for example, is the orisa of iron and anything associated with iron. He is always referred to a being associated with war and warriors, hunters, smiths and anybody who uses or deals with iron. It said that Ogun drinks blood; the blood of circumcision and scarification, of the hunt, of war and of sacrifice. Since Ogun is always thirsty for blood, he has to be appeased to prevent bloodshed either by gunshot or accidents related to iron. His worshippers wear red all over Yoruba land including Ire, Ondo, Ilesha, and Oka-okoko.
Sango, the orisa of thunder and lightening, is powerful and temperamental. He is a great fighter who wears bright colors particularly red. His shrines are mostly found in Oyo, Ede and Ibadan, where the worshippers both male and female wear red clothes. The shrines objects and the walls are painted or decorated with red cloth. Sometimes the backgrounds of the shrines walls are spotted with white showing the relationship between Sango and Sanponna. The followers of Sanponna wear red with spotted white and beads of red and white round their necks. Sanponna is feared because of the deadly disease, smallpox and other pestilences, which he inflicts on people.
A person inflicted by smallpox can appease orisa by raising a temporary white flag. The use of white color instead of red is to calm the orisa down. In addition to the white flag, palm wine in big gourds, need to be kept at the shrine entrance of Sanponna. However, both palm wine (white) and palm oil (red) are to be kept at the entrance of the house of the patient with smallpox infection. Also, camwood powder mixed with palm oil is used in rubbing the body of the victim for quick healing.
"Dudu" is the last group of colors, and can be translated as "black." Dudu also includes any color that is dark with a resemblance of the earth. Brown, and leafy dark greens and moss greens are also considered dudu. The psychological type of dudu is a down-to-earth, practical, earthy sort of personality. It is a symbol of the secret and mysterious world. Deities and gods under this category are usually worshipped in the night and behind closed doors.
The Yoruba consider all dark shades as black (dudu). This includes: Prussian blues, as in (aro) indigo for dying clothes: magenta or purple (ayinrin): dark-green algae as in (ewedu) vegetable with green leaves; umber (alawo dudu), lamb-black as (eedu) charcoal and sky blue (ofefe). Black (dudu) is associated with Esu, as well as Orunmila, whose ikin (palm nuts) become black after years of use.
When we consider the story of Orunmila's journey to Imure town, his ability to manipulate white, red and black cloth suggests a high level of mystic capacity. In other words, Orunmila demonstrated how he could match the spiritual vibration required at different times of the day. That is, he could be cool and benevolent, which is associated with white cloth. Likewise, he could be firey and dangerous, represented by the red cloth. Finally, he could be earthy and mysterious, represented by the black cloth.
In the Holy Odu OgundaMeji, Ifa tells us of Ogun's son, whose name is Ina. When Ogun's wife was expecting, he went to consult Ifa. The babalawo advised Ogun that he would have a son who would become great and whose name would be known all over the world. Here, the sacred text says the following:
These were Ifa's messages to Ogun
Who woulld beget one child
Whose influence would be felt the world over
He was advised to offer sacrifice
The babalawo said that Ogun must offer one he-goat, a bundle of white cloth, red cloth and black cloth so that the boy would be born safely and have a good reputation as well. Ogun offered the he-goat for safe delivery, but failed to make the sacrifice for good reputation.
Ina was born safely, but arrived with intense drama. For one, the hands of the midwife who tended his birth were severely burnt as soon as she touched him. Then, after his first bath, they tossed his bath water into the bushes. When the water touched the bushes they immediately caught fire.
As Ina grew up, any time he was happy, he wore white, red and black cloth, which his father had refused to sacrifice at the time of his birth. At those times, when his energy was highest, destruction would follow. Consequently, Ina's reputation become synonymous with fear and trepidation.
At the same time, however, because he was the son of Ogun, Ina was indispensable. Nobody could cook without him. No house could be kept warm without him. Even Ogun himself could not perform blacksmithing without him. As a result, while some were trying to get rid of him, others were clamoring to get closer to him.
Eventually, the wise ones assembled and they declared, We must figure out a way to manage Ina, son of Ogun. They devised a plan. Ina must be respected for who he is and not placed in places that are not suitable to his nature. When we see him clothed in white, red and black cloth, we will withdraw at once. Thus, if ever a farm or a home was burned, the owner himself was deemed irresponsible for mismanaging Ina, which is fire.
Ifa says that we shall not extinguish the flame of youth. Instead, we will learn to manage that flame in a way that it is constructive to collective well being.
Johnson O. Oladesu. The Construal of Yoruba Colour Philosophy and Symbolism.