The Horse in Yorùbá Culture and Candomblé

Dallas Museum of Art

Present in the coat of arms of the Nigerian republic, the horse is deeply connected to the culture of the country, from the Islamic peoples who introduced it to the Yorùbáland. It is estimated that Òyó was established as a city in 1400. According to Stride & Ifeka (1971), the first monarch of Òyó would have been Oranmiyan Omoluabi Odede, originally from Ifé, who would be succeeded by his eldest son, Dada Ajaká, a king with no military spirit, who would be deposed and succeeded by Sàngó, his younger brother, who would prove to be an extremely combative monarch. After his death, Ajaká would have returned to the throne, presenting himself much more violent and combative. However, it would be Kori, Ajaká’s successor, who would conquer the area known as the metropolitan Òyó, beginning a century of enormous expansion. With the death of Aláàfin Olúwásò and the arrival on the scene of his son, the eighth Aláàfin, Onigbogi, Òyó faces collapse at the hands of the powerful Nupé army, whom the Òyó called Tapá, and who were led by Tsoede (Stride & Ifeka 1971), around 1535, and the royal family went into exile in the kingdom of Borgu (Oliver & Atmore 2001). This period of exile lasted 80 years, during which the Nupe took over the region of Òyó. The 17th century marked the period of the reconquest of Òyó, thanks to a well-organized army, with strong armor and, above all, mounted on horseback. With a new military power, Òyó is reconquered and a new capital is erected, Òyó-Igboho.

The Horse in Religion

This short historical passage introduces the theme of the horse. In Yorùbá culture, the horse is therefore associated with royalty, representing the superiority of the kingdom of Òyó. According to oral and textual sources, Sàngó was an excellent rider, having owned a royal stable of 10,000 horses. This aspect is extremely present in SàngóÕs cult, where it is stated that his initiated, élégún Sàngó, are ridden by him. At the same time, due to the speed that the horse possesses, allowing fast and long-distance movements, he is associated with lightning, mythical-natural weapon that Sàngó would use to defeat his enemies.

In Candomblé, the horse is equally present, in the mythological, musical and choreographic aspects. In fact, if in the cult of Òsoòsì (Oxóssi) the presence of the horse is quite evident, since during the xirê — i.e., the praiseworthy part of Candomblé that precedes the invocation of Òrìsàs (Orixás) into trance — at the moment Oxóssi is greeted, the members of the terreiro present at the “roda” perform the gestures of the mount, pulling the reins of the horse from one side to the other, indicating a change of course, in the case of Sàngó (Xangô) this aspect is not particularly evident or not widespread among the members of Candomblé. Nevertheless, it is precisely in his cult that the horse is most obviously present, with enormous emphasis on ritual trance. Sàngó’s dance with his hands closed and arms extended, side by side, is commonly interpreted as symbolizing the carriage of the double-edged axes (oxé) and/or the sère (xére; instrument containing the seeds that invoke the sound of rain). However, this dance represents, at least equally, the ferocious mount of Xangô towards battle. At the same time, the rhythm called Alujá is sung. The alujá is a fast rhythm, of a military nature, whose variations produced in the larger atabaque, the hwm, the soloist, variations known as “folds”, reproduce the advance of the Òyó cavalry in charge of the enemy.

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "The Horse in Yorùbá Culture and Candomblé," in Adarrum, Fevereiro 27, 2020,

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