How Violence Informs Yoruba Art: Flash of the Spirit Book Review

Art (Fine arts, Performing arts)

The short response must address this question: How does violence inform Yoruba art? I am taking a Religion: Meaning and Purpose in the Arts class. Use the book Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thompson (Vintage Books, 1984) to do this assignment worth 15% of my final grade. Read the book Flash of the […]

How Violence Informs Yoruba Art

Religion in Yoruba society correlates significantly with justice, with their gods showing benevolence to the faithful and retribution towards the offenders. Similarly, as art reflects social norms and order within their community, deity-instigated retribution and violence motifs often recur in their works. Therefore, violence amongst the Yoruba people mostly emanates from deities’ anger, prompting appeasement and artistic relics; however, other artefacts achieve similar results by prompting subjective rather than institutionalized justice, which caused more harm.

Deity-instigated violence significantly influences the Yoruba people, resulting in the widespread use of the relics to appease god’s wrath. For example, the viciousness of the river goddess is alluded to in Yoruba literature, with her quarrelsome tendencies affecting other gods and people. In a Yoruba myth, the river goddess quarrels with Ifa, the god of divination, causing the latter to bring famine to the people’s land (Thompsons, 1984). However, the Yoruba appeased the god by fanning him, thus quelling his anger and ending the scourge. The Yoruba people regarded the river goddess as problematic, with her disposition towards violence resulting in “vengeance, doom, and danger” (Thompsons, 1984, p. 73). Similarly, Yoruba people believed that the river’s depths could only quench her witchcraft and ability to avenge. Therefore, round fans known as adebe were used by the people to appease Ifa, representing the human effort needed to appease the god’s from their anger-driven violence that directly impacted Yoruba lives.

The duality of deities is more prevalent in myths involving Oshun; a female deity married to the fiery thunder. On the one hand, she represents loving, sweet, and calm. However, she also manifests herself as having “warlord power and capacity,” brandishing a sword and ready to kill any individual who angers her (Thompsons, 1984, p.79). Similarly, she uses witchcraft to burn her enemies. Therefore, Yoruba’s religious-driven society incorporated deities that were not only loving and considerate but also violent and destructive. The Yoruba people hung Oshun Kole ornaments in their homes to protect themselves from the goddess’s wrath (Thompsons, 1984). Therefore, the relics protected the Yoruba people from their deities’ violence, making the artworks an indispensable socio-cultural trend amongst the people.

Violence towards the Yoruba transcends mythical–based beliefs and manifest itself in religious artefacts which have the power to harm individuals in their daily life. Amongst such relics is the Ileeshins, whose noose-shaped tip embodied Nana’s ashe, fatal for males to touch but gained metaphysical, judgmental powers when used by women (Thompsons, 1984). According to the myth, a woman wielding the Ileeshin could strike a “cruel, horrible person” by thrusting the staff horizontally and striking the belly of the individual (Thompsons, 1984, p.71). The staff thus handed out justice by violently killing the perceived offender without any institutional judgment but relying only on the Ileeshin bearer’s subjective judgment.

Yoruba art forms play a significant role in presenting retributory concepts that influence people’s concept of justice. The relevance of art in representing myths aimed at exploring the dark side of justice incentivized people to act justly while also helping modern scholars to understand the various influences that guided morality within the community. Therefore, violence-based relics communicated the importance of acting justly within society while encouraging behavioural modification amongst the Yoruba people.


Thompson, R. F. (1984). Black saints go marching in. In Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (1st ed., pp. 71-84). New York, NY: Vintage.

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Published On: 01-01-1970

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