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Brief History of Yoruba | People, Culture, Religion and Tradition

Yorubas are one of the most popular ethnic groups in Nigeria. According to statistics, they make up as much as 35% of the total population of Nigeria. They cover as many as six Nigerian states, namely; Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Ekiti, and Lagos. They also cover large portions of Kwara state, and even Edo state, and the entire Benin Kingdom, originated from Yoruba land. According to legend, one of Oduduwa’s sons was sent to establish the land now referred to as Edo state. Currently, even though Edo state has it’s peculiar dialect and culture, it’s traditional leadership system is almost exactly the same as that of traditional yorubas. The dialect of the Edo people also bears a few similarities to Yoruba, and in some parts of Edo state, indigenes even bear Yoruba names.

The same goes for Kogi and Kwara states. The Fulani invasion drove many of the yorubas far into these lands, and the fleeing locals remained where they landed. To this end, there are quite a number of yoruba-speaking communities in Kogi and Kwara states.


The history of the Yorubas dates back to an era that existed before the ancient Oyo empire of the 17th century. According to legend, the civilization currently known as Yoruba started in ancient Ile-ife. The legend continues that certain deities, Oduduwa and Obatala ‘descended’ from some place ‘above’, created the earth, and began creating humans as well. These same deities would eventually found the Yoruba empire in Ile-ife, which is in modern day Osun state.

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Ife was known as the base and foundation for the Yoruba civilization, but soon, the Oyo empire gained influence and surpassed the Ile-ife base to become the new seat of Yorubaland, up until the late 18th century. Meanwhile, the Bini Kingdom in modern day Edo state, which was founded by one of the sons of Oduduwa, was also growing in influence. Nonetheless, Ile-ife remained as the historical origin of the Yoruba people, and indeed the entire world. Oduduwa, whom yoruba historians claim to have created the world, is said to have undergone this work of creation at Ile-ife. This puts Ile-ife as the site for the creation of the world.


Over time, the yorubas began to do business with the Portuguese migrants in Nigeria. They began to trade agricultural products for the guns and obviously more sophisticated weapons of the Portuguese; however, this was not sufficient to counter a Fulani invasion. The fulanis invaded the land, consequentially pushing them further south of the plain. This led to the eventual downfall of the once-powerful Yoruba empire in the year 1837. In the early 1900s, the yorubas and the fulanis signed a treaty to stop the state of deadly invasions by the latter, but it was short-lived, as they were soon colonized by the British.


Even though the peace treaty betqeen the hausas and yorubas was signed in 1901, causing both the hausas and yorubas to interact peacefully more and more, the yorubas refused to imbibe the Islamic religious practices of the hausas, choosing to persist in the worship of their local gods.

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Yorubas have always been known to be devout traditional worshippers, and they have a total number of 401 different gods – male and female – that they worship and pay homage to. Their gods are referred to as ‘orishas’, and they have designated priests and shrines for worshipping each of them.

However, the Portuguese missionaries succeeded in bringing Christianity into the region, and many adopted this new religion as their way of life. Nonetheless, religious worship of their local deities still persists till today.

Some of the deities that the yorubas worship include:

Male deities (Orishas)

  • Oduduwa – god of Humans
  • Erinlẹ̀ – god of medicine, comfort and healing
  • Ọbàtálá – Maker of human bodies and the god of light
  • Ògún – god of Iron
  • Ṣàngó, also Shango – god of thunder and lightning

Orunmila, which is the God of wisdom

Female deities (Orishas)

  • Oṣun – goddess of love and beauty
  • Aja – goddess of the forest
  • Ọya – goddess of the Niger River and the goddess of fertility
  • Aje – goddess of wealth
  • Yemọja – overall goddess of womenfolk

There are many more, but these are the most important ones in their history.

Leadership system:

As the yoruba kingdom began to grow in influence, it began to establish traditional leadership systems in all its member states. The traditional leadership of yoruba land consists of an ‘Oba’, who is the monarch, as well as Chiefs or ‘Oloyes’, which act as advisers and co-administrators of the kingdom. In the early 20th century, most of the yoruba city states and communities were controlled by Obas.

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Economic Outlook and activities:

Since time Immemorial, yorubas have been known to be proficient farmers and hunters. Primarily, their chief trade or occupation is in farming, while a good percentage of the total population engage in crafts and other forms of businesses.

People and Culture:

Yoruba people constitute one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. The people are also spread across other parts of Africa and the world, particularly in the United kingdom, Carribbean, and the United States of America.

Today’s Yorubas:

Yorubas are the most urbanized individuals in Nigeria, and would easily rank as one of the most urbanized on the African continent.

One characteristic feature about yorubas is that they possess the uncanny ability to come together in large groups, wherever they may find themselves. According to their history, such tendency was birthed when they first began to suffer invasions by the fulanis.

Yorubas are very influential, and are often known to be very religious. Many of the past influential leaders and individuals in this country are yorubas. The likes of President Olusegun Obasanjo, late Chief MKO Abiola, late Chief Obafeki Awolowo, Chief Bola Tinubu, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Biship David Oyedepo, Pastor E.A Areboye, and many other influential giants in Nigeria and Africa in general, are all yorubas.


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