The Study of Yoruba Religious Tradition in Historical Perspective

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Jacob K. OluponaAfrican-American and African Studies University of California Davis, CA 956 16, USA

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This essay presents an overview of past and recent scholarship in Yoruba religion. The earliest studies of Yoruba religious traditions were carried out by missionaries, travellers and explorers who were concerned with writing about the so called "pagan" practices and "animist" beliefs of the African peoples. In the first quarter of the 20th century professional ethnologists committed to documenting the Yoruba religion and culture were, among other things, concerned with theories about cosmology, belief-systems, and organizations of Orisà cults. Indigenous authors, especially the Reverend gentlemen of the Church Missionary Society, responded to these early works by proposing the Egyptian origin of Yoruba religion and by conducting research into Ifá divination system as a preparatio evangelica. The paper also examines the contributions of scholars in the arts and the social sciences to the interpretation and analysis of Yoruba religion, especially those areas neglected in previous scholarship. This essay further explores the study of Yoruba religion in the Americas, as a way of providing useful comparison with the Nigerian situation. It demonstrates the strong influence of Yoruba religion and culture on world religions among African diaspora. In the past ten years, significant works on the phenomenology and history of religions have been produced by indigenous scholars trained in philosophy and Religionswissenschaft in Europe and America and more recently in Nigeria. Lastly, the essay examines some neglected aspects of Yoruba religious studies and suggests that future research should focus on developing new theories and uncovering existing ones in indigenous Yoruba discourses.

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