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Orishas (singular: orisha) are spirits or gods that play a key role in the Yoruba religion of West Africa and several religions of the African diaspora that derive from it, such as Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican Santería and Brazilian Candomblé. The preferred spelling varies depending on the language in question: òrìṣà is the spelling in the Yoruba language, orixá in Portuguese, and orisha, oricha, orichá or orixá in Spanish-speaking countries.
According to the teachings of these religions, the orishas are spirits sent by the supreme creator, Olodumare, to assist humanity and to teach them to be successful on Ayé (Earth). Rooted in the native religion of the Yoruba people, most orishas are said to have previously existed in òrún - the spirit world - and then became Irúnmọlẹ̀ - spirits or divine beings incarnated as human on Earth. Irunmole took upon a human identity and lived as ordinary humans in the physical world, but because they had their origin in the divine, they had great wisdom and power at the moment of their creation.
Some believers and practitioners of the Ifá religion, where the pantheon system of orishas originates, believe that orishas are a different class of divine beings who became deified, divinized or transformed after their departure from their human state on Earth. These practitioners believe the orishas to have been ordinary humans who were deified upon their death due to the lives they led, their outstanding spiritual growth and extraordinary feats accomplished in their lives while on Earth.
The orishas found their way to most of the New World as a result of the Atlantic slave trade and are now expressed in practices as varied as Santería, Candomblé, Trinidad Orisha, Umbanda, and Oyotunji, among others. The concept of òrìṣà is similar to those of deities in the traditional religions of the Bini people of Edo State in southern Nigeria, the Ewe people of Benin, Ghana, and Togo, and the Fon people of Benin.
Yoruba tradition often says that there are 400 + 1 orishas, which is associated with a sacred number. Other sources suggest that the number is "as many as you can think of, plus one more – an innumerable number". Different oral traditions refer to 400, 700, or 1,440 orishas.
Practitioners traditionally believe that daily life depends on proper alignment and knowledge of one's Orí. Ori literally means the head, but in spiritual matters, it is taken to mean a portion of the soul that determines personal destiny.
Some orishas are rooted in ancestor worship; warriors, kings, and founders of cities were celebrated after death and joined the pantheon of Yoruba deities. The ancestors did not die, but were seen to have "disappeared" and become orishas. Some orishas based on historical figures are confined to worship in their families or towns of origin; others are venerated across wider geographic areas.
Ase is the life-force that runs through all things, living and inanimate, and is described as the power to make things happen. It is an affirmation that is used in greetings and prayers, as well as a concept of spiritual growth. Orìṣà devotees strive to obtain Ase through iwa-pele, gentle and good character, and in turn they experience alignment with the ori, what others might call inner peace and satisfaction with life. Ase is divine energy that comes from Olodumare, the creator deity, and is manifested through Olorun, who rules the heavens and is associated with the sun. Without the sun, no life could exist, just as life cannot exist without some degree of ashe. Ase is sometimes associated with Eshu, the messenger orisha. For practitioners, ashe represents a link to the eternal presence of the supreme deity, the orishas, and the ancestors.
The concept is regularly referenced in Brazilian capoeira. Axé in this context is used as a greeting or farewell, in songs and as a form of praise. Saying that someone "has axé" in capoeira is complimenting their energy, fighting spirit, and attitude.
The orisa are grouped as those represented by the color white, who are characterized as tutu "cool, calm, gentle, and temperate"; and those represented by the colors red or black, who are characterized as gbigbona "bold, strong, assertive, and easily annoyed". Like humans, orishas may have a preferred color, food, or object. The traits of the orishas are documented through oral tradition.