The Yoruba have an elaborate hierarchy of deities, each with special duties and functions. They believe in a supreme but remote spirit, Olodumare, also known as Olorun, the lord of heaven and the creator. Some four hundred lesser gods and spirits, known individually and collectively as orisa, are recognized. An orisa is a person who lived on earth when it was first created and from whom present-day people are descended. Although the supreme being is transcendent, he is not removed from men; he is conceived a social being interested in the lives of people. He is accessible, and can be called on at any time.
At one time, Olodumare and the sky that is his abode were nearer to earth than they are now, so near that one could reach up and touch the sky. Man then annoyed God by using the sky for food and wiping his hands on it. As a result, God and the sky separated themselves from the earth. Since that time, Olodumare has controlled the world from a distance.
Earth was a marshy waste, Olodumare and other gods living in heaven above. But heaven and earth were so close that the denizens of heaven used to descend and ascend by means of a spider's web or a chain, going to earth to hunt. Olodumare, to create the solid earth, summoned Obatala (Orisa-nla), the archdivinity, to his presence, telling him to go and create it. (For another version of this story, see: Obatala.) He gave him loose earth in a snail shell, and, as tools, a hen and a pigeon. Obatala came to the marshy waste, threw the earth down, and released the hen and the pigeon, who immediately spread the earth. Land was created. Olodumare sent the chameleon to inspect the work. He reported that the earth was wide but was not yet solid. On the second inspection, the chameleon said that the work was ready. Olodumare then instructed Obatala to equip the earth. He took Orunmila, the oracle divinity, with him as his adviser and councillor. He was given the primeval palm tree that would provide food, drink, oil, and leaves for shelter. He was given three other trees full of juice to supply drinks for the inhabitants of earth, for as yet there was no rain. The original birds, the hen and the pigeon, were to increase on earth. Then Obatala was asked to lead to the earth sixteen persons already created by Olodumare. The head of these first human beings was Oreluere. Instructed by Olodumare, Obatala molded human forms, keeping the lifeless figures in one place until Olodumare came and breathed life into them. Obatala could create human forms, but that was all he could do; the principle of life was given only by the supreme being. See also: Obatala.