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Yoruba Spiritual System and Philosophy

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Yoruba Spiritual System and Philosophy

There are various religious systems in Africa that share many commonalties. To discuss them all in their intricacies would take volumes. This page will attempt to focus on the Yoruba spiritual philosophy of West Africa. It stresses an extremely ancient rooted African tradition of working with natural forces and the ancestral realm to better one's life. Its system of divination in fact has led some scholars to remark on its similarity to Eastern philosophical beliefs such as those found among the Chinese in the I Ching. And while it may not be as ancient as Nilotic beliefs, it is the African spiritual system that can be best called a world religion.

The origins of Yoruba religion lie at Ille-Ife', a holy city that is regarded as the cradle of civilization for the Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria. Currently there are 20 million or more people who speak Yoruba as their mother tongue. Yoruba-speaking communities have lived in other West African countries for centuries. When speaking of a "Yoruba spiritual system," we are discussing traditional beliefs of those who speak the language and not the more modern religions some may practice today (Christianity, Islam, etc.) Over the years the Yoruban spiritual system has taken on the characteristics of a world religion. With the trans Atlantic Slave Trade, the Yoruba religion was transplanted in various parts of the western hemisphere. Today it is practiced in a host of different forms. One of these is Vodoun, a mixture of Yoruba, Catholicism, and Freemasonry, in Haiti. It is known throughout South America, the Caribbean, and Central America as Santeria where it is practiced not only by Africans but also the descendants of indigenous peoples (misnomered Indians or Hispanic) that inhabit the region. Worship in the Yoruba religion is based upon the belief in a Supreme Being (Oldumare), the creator of Heaven (Orun) and Earth (Aye); the belief in a multitude of spiritual deities (Orisha); and the belief in ancestral spirits (Egungun)

The Yoruban spiritual system has been described as a pyramid with five layers. At the apex is Oldumare, the Supreme Being. The second layer beneath the Supreme Being is composed of lesser deities called Orisha. Below these deities are ancestral deities called Egungun. While all of the above are noted as spiritual beings, the next two layers of the pyramid consist of human beings. Firstly there are the kings, queens, chiefs, priests and priestesses while at the last layer are devotees. The Yoruba universe has a "heaven" and an "earth" which differs from the Western view. The Yoruba divide the physical world into two planes, the upper Outerworld (Orun) and the world of the living (Aye). This universe is often pictured as sphere. Orun is the home of Oldumare, Creator and Supreme Being. It is also home to the Orisha and the ancestral spirits, Egungun. The heavenly plane (Orun) has two dimensions: simply put, a good heaven and a bad heaven. Earthly deeds and character decide which heaven one travels to when one dies. In traditional Yoruban belief there is no "hell" nor is there a "devil" in the western sense. It was not until 1850AD, with the influence of Christianity and Islam, that a "devil" was assigned to the Yoruba spiritual system.

The Yoruba believe in the existence of spiritual beings or divinities. Called Orishas, they are seen as emissaries of Oldumare from whom they emanated. These Orisha are ancestors whose great deeds earned them divinity. The Orisha are said to recognize themselves and are recognized through a host of different numbers and colors. These polarities which each Orisha exhibits are expressed as personalities called Roads or Paths of the Orisha. This is done through offerings to Orisha of their particular favorite foods and other gifts. One can learn much about these different Orishas by watching the forces of nature at work about you. These Orishas can be contacted during a "bembe" where one or more of their priests will be mounted in a form of highly spiritualized trance possession. This possession by an Orisha is an integral part of Yoruba religious ritual as it serves as a means of communicating with the forces of Oldumare (God).

An example of one of these Orisha is Eshu-Elegba. The youngest, cleverest and most complex of the Orishas, he is heralded as the divine messenger. Possessing 21 distinctly different Paths (personalities), he is considered the keeper of the spiritual life force, Ashe. He is also regarded as the enforcer for he punishes the breakers of divine law. Often wild and rambunctious, Eshu must be appeased first or he may disrupt or misguide prayers and offerings. These offerings are given to a shrine dedicated to him. Eshu enjoys possum, smoked fish, corn, okra, gin, rum, tobacco and palm oil. His colors are black and red and black and white, while his emblems are the comb, whistle and spoon. It was Eshu who was incorrectly given the role of a "quasi-devil" as Yoruba philosophy was influenced by western theology.

Yemoja is another important Orisha in the Yoruban spirtual system. A Nupe princess, Yemoja is the deity of the Ogun River. In the western hemisphere she is associated with the seas, lakes and oceans and is acknowledged as the Queen of such. Yemoja's relation to water makes her a maternal deity who is regarded as the Mother of All. She is associated with the color of the sea, blue, while her symbol are fish. Her number is seven and she has seven paths Like the sea, she is deep and unfathomable. Her sacred animals are the hen, guinea hen, duck, pigeon, lamb and she-goat. Pictured here is Omifunke, a priestess of Yemoja.

The egungun in Yoruba are the ancestral spirits of the people. Annual or biennial egungun festivals are held to request blessings that these ancestors may be able to provide. The layered costume of multi-colored and textured fabrics seen here is worn during the egungun festival. The identity of the dancer is completely thus becoming more like the disembodied spirit of the ancestor that his dance seeks to honor. The word egungun can be translated as "powers concealed." The power and purpose of the costume only comes together in the presence of the spirit-ancestors. The job of the dancer centers around bringing the costume to flamboyant life, and to allow the egungun mask to transform his corporeal human body into something otherworldly and ethereal.

The Babaloawo,Diviner, holds a sacred place in Yoruba spirituality. It is the Babaloawo who calls upon Ifa, the oracle of divination who mediates between the Orishas, Egungun and men. The priest is able to thus suggest actions and give solutions through his divination with these deities. Pictured here is a Babaloawo with some of his tools of divination.

In all of Africa, masks play an important role in religious ceremonies and sacred festivals. This particular Gelede mask illustrates the power of women in a distinct African society. The annual Gelede festival of the Yoruba of Nigeria honors the creative and mighty powers of women elders, female ancestors, and goddesses. Elderly women are affectionately referred to as 'our mothers' among the Yoruba people. These mothers are respected and feared for their spiritual powers that can be used either to benefit or ruin society. They can bring fertility, prosperity, health, and rain to Yorubaland but they can also bring drought and diseases. In the same way, the mothers control fertility of the land and of the people. The Gelede festival is the remedy for the communal distress that is caused when there is a drought or a threat of not having enough children. In the Gelede festivals, the dancers appease the powers of the mothers by paying tribute to them. In this way, they are activating the spiritual powers of the mothers in order to communicate and connect with the generation that is involved in the masquerade. The festival encourages the mothers to use their extraordinary powers for the well-being of the community by ensuring human fertility and fertile lands. This particular mask, with its spiky points jutting out of the serene and calm lower face, probably represents the courage of the respected woman. On each mask, the lower part depicts a woman's face, showing qualities such as serenity, calmness, patience, and "coolness" that are the most sought after by Yoruba women.

This Gelede carving illustrates a woman's head upon which sits birds and snakes. The birds represent the nocturnal powers of women who the Yoruba belief act as witches. This is balanced out by the snakes which symbolize positive feminine qualities of patience and coolness. In Yoruba philosophy witches are respected beings who, if properly respected, can bring blessings to the people. This particular acknowledgement of feminine power is thought perhaps to balance out the fact that in many traditional cultures mostly men are priests.

The annual Epa festival of the Nigerian Yoruba celebrates the important social roles of a town: its chiefs, farmers, warriors, hunters, priests, and women. This very practical nature of Yoruba spiritual system isb a common African trait.


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Multifaces of Word in Yoruba Orature

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Tattoos in Yoruba Culture - Chief Atanda & Osunyemi
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Segun Gbadegesin, Ph.D


The distinctive feature of most, if not all, of literary production is that they were once expressed and transmitted orally. This is true of the "Sermon on the Mount" as it is of Ifa Divination Poetry. It is true of the (sources of) family history of many modern (Euro-American) families as it is true of African communities. An oral tradition exists where the oral transmission of ideas, beliefs and values predominates, and its significance as a means of understanding the life of a people, whether in literate or non-literate cultures, cannot be over-emphasized. In the case of the former, it is probably not obvious. Yet it is true that not every aspect of a people’s history can be recorded. It may also be true that some of the most interesting aspects of history may be overlooked by writers of history even in literate societies. In such cases, we must depend on the chroniclers of the community. In the case of predominantly oral cultures, oral tradition is an indispensable source of history, indicator of deep thought, and transmitter of cultural and religious values. It is through the ocean of the oral tradition of a non-literate culture that we explore their historical being and their contribution to the philosophic world. Those who have despised the African contribution to the world of culture have failed to recognize, as Du Bois did, that as late as the fifteenth century, "African and Asiatic civilizations far outstripped that of Europe"(Du Bois, 1965, p.44). It is in the spirit of Du Bois’s observations that I would like to discuss some aspects of Yoruba oral tradition.

What is oral tradition?

When, in the absence of, or as a complement to writing, the history of a people is (re)constructed through oral testimonies and cultural data supplied by individuals or groups, and this serves as a basis for future reconstruction which is also based on oral transmission, we have an approach to historical knowledge which has been aptly termed oral tradition. Basically, the term means the transmission of facts, values and fiction through oral means. It would not be termed "tradition", however, if it were just a momentary and temporary method of approach to historical knowledge. It is a tradition simply because it is the method that persists, endures and is stable. The term is therefore one that is used by the observer- the scholar- to refer to the source of his/her knowledge of a people’s history and culture. The griots’ chronicle of events, the sages’ myths, legends, cosmological ideas and proverbs, the storytellers’ folktales and the verbal artists’ riddles and tongue twisters, are the constituents of a people’s cultural data. When used adequately, the data provide knowledge that is, to a large extent, reliable and dependable, based as it is, on the tradition of knowing that has been relied upon by the people for generations. It is not all aspects of oral tradition that are originally motivated by the urge to record history. Folktales, proverbs, songs and chants may serve the people primarily as means of entertainment and expressing their ideas of ultimate reality and meaning, though these forms may also serve scholars as a means of understanding their history. The most important defining features of oral tradition are its oral nature and the fact that it is a medium for cultural continuity..

Language, Oral tradition and Yoruba Identity

The matter of defining Yoruba identity in terms of oral tradition appears to present a puzzle. A discussion of Yoruba oral tradition requires an understanding of the history and identity of the Yoruba. For to identify an oral tradition as Yoruba, we need to know who the Yoruba are. However, our knowledge of Yoruba history is also derived from oral tradition, and Yoruba identity is owed to the combined force of its past history and contemporary realities. To put it in another way, we may identify Yoruba oral tradition only if we are able to identify the Yoruba; but our knowledge of Yoruba identity is derived from its oral tradition. We get a sense of Yoruba history, culture and identity, from its historical and mythical legends, folktales and verbal arts. This is how it ought to be, in virtue of the fact that oral tradition is used to construct history, legitimize cultural values and pass judgement on contemporary political realities. The vehicle of thought common to all these usages is language and it may be the candidate for resolving our puzzle. If our knowledge of Yoruba history and identity is derived from its oral tradition, and that oral tradition is transmitted in a language that is uniquely identifiable with the Yoruba people, it would seem that, for the purpose of identifying them, we may use their language. Of course, there is more to identity than language. An individual may choose to not identify with a group of people who speak same language with him/her. However, in the particular case that interests us here, it seems that we have to grant a linguistic basis for Yoruba identity if we attend to the elements of their oral tradition. I will now go on to discuss aspects of Yoruba oral tradition, focussing on legends, myths and proverbs, their defining features, social functions, philosophical relevance and limits in the context of unfreedom in which the Yoruba now find themselves.


These stories about the exploits of traditional heroes embody the main historic records of a people. They may take the form of cosmogonic myths concerning the origin of the people, or historical accounts of migration and conquest of one group by another. In either case, they serve the function of providing a basis for communal identity and solidarity. The legend of Oduduwa serves these purposes effectively for the Yoruba.

Oduduwa is the legendary progenitor of the Yoruba. There are two variants of the story of how he achieved this feat. The first is cosmogonic, the second, political. The cosmogonic version also has two variants. According to the first variant of the cosmogonic myth, Orisanla (Obatala) was the arch-divinity who was chosen by Olodumare, the supreme deity to create a solid land out of the primordial water that constituted the earth and of populating the land with human beings. He descended from heaven on a chain, carrying a small snail shell full of earth, palm kernels and a five-toed chicken. He was to empty the content of the snail shell on the water after placing some pieces of iron on it, and then to place the chicken on the earth to spread it over the promirdial water. According to the first version of the story, Obatala completed this task to the satisfaction of Olodumare. He was then given the task of making the physical body of human beings after which Olodumare will give them the breath of life. He also completed this task and this is why he has the title of "obarisa" the king of orisas. The other variant of the cosmogonic myth does not credit Obatala with the completion of the task. While it concedes that Obatala was given the task, it avers that Obatala got drunk even before he got to the earth and he was unable to do the job. Olodumare got worried when he did not return on time, and he had to send Oduduwa to find out what was going on. When Oduduwa found Obatala drunk, he simply took over the task and completed it. He created land. The spot on which he landed from heaven and which he redeemed from water to become land is called Ile-Ife and is now considered the sacred and spiritual home of the Yoruba. Obatala was embarrased when he woke up and, due to this experience, he made it a taboo for any of his devotees to drink palm wine. Olodumare forgave him and gave him the responsibility of moulding the physical bodies of human beings. The making of land is a symbolic reference to the founding of the Yoruba kingdoms and this is why Oduduwa is credited with that achievement (Idowu, 1962).

According to the second version of the myth, however, there was a pre-existing civilization at Ile-Ife prior to its invasion by a group led by Oduduwa. This group came from the east, where Oduduwa and his group had been persecuted on the basis of religious differences. They came to Ile-Ife and fought and conquered the pre-existing Igbo (unrelated to the present Igbo) inhabitants led by Oreluere. Obviously, there is a connection between the two versions of the story. The political one may be the authentic story of the founding of Ife kingdom through conquest. However, the myth of creation lends it a legitimacy that is denied by the conquest story; just as it appears that it is lent some credence by the fact that, as a result of the embarrassment it caused their deity, the followers of Obatala are forbidden from taking palm wine. Indeed the second version of the cosmogonic myth also appears to foreshadow the political variant. The claim that Obatala got drunk and the task of creation had to be performed by Oduduwa already has some political coloration which is now explicit in the political version of the tradition.


These are stories which have elements of the sacred and divine in them. They serve the purpose of giving meaning to existence and ensuring that the community does not lose hold of its rationale for existence. As quasi-sacred stories, and in view of the purpose they serve, their tellers have to be true to the original story. This is not to deny variations from place to place and from time to time. This can be accounted for, in terms of individual creativity with regard to details, and in terms of the loss of memory that cannot be avoided in the circumstance. An important Yoruba myth with a philosophical significance is the Ayanmo myth which indicates belief in predestination. The belief in predestination is expressed in the concept of ori, and it seems to suggest that the Yoruba have some anxiety about human helplessness in certain situations. However, it also expresses the people’s conviction that human existence has meaning; that human beings are not on a purposeless mission in this world; that they have a mission to fulfill, and a message to deliver — which is the meaning of their existence — and that this mission has been fully endorsed by the creator. Whatever is [or is not] done by them should therefore be explained by appeal to this original mission. The concept of ori expresses this idea (Gbadegesin, 1984). Perhaps, it is their perception of the special place of the physical head to the existence of human beings which suggests to the Yoruba the idea that it must also have a spiritual dimension. Thus, the physical head is believed to symbolize or represent an inner head which is the bearer of a person’s destiny and which therefore is the remote controller of one’s endeavors in the world. It is this inner head which is referred to as ori-inu, or simply, ori .

Looking closely at the myth that is used to express the thought, it appears that the focus is on the explanation of success or failure in personal endeavors. The case of Oriseeku, Orilemere and Afuwape in Odu Ifa is clear on this. These three were about to begin their earth-bound journey from their pre-natal existence. The last rite to perform was the choice of ori (destiny). They had a warning from Orisa-nla to go straight to the house of Ajala without changing course. The first two did as they were told while Afuwape, the son of Orunmila decided to see his father before making a choice. It turned out to be a good decision because in his father’s house, he met two of his father’s divination priests who advised him to offer some sacrifice. He did, and the result was good for him. The other two were not assisted in their choice, but Afuwape was assisted because as a result of the sacrifice he performed, he had directions on what to do to receive favor from Ajala, the maker and custodian of inner heads. On their arrival in the world, the other two noticed that things were going well for Afuwape while they were having difficult times. They reacted with a song:

Emi o mo ‘bi olori n yan ‘ri o
M ba lo yan temi
N go mo bi Afuwape yan ‘ri o
M ba lo yan temi

I do not know where people with good destiny picked theirs
I would have picked mine there too
I do not know where Afuwape picked his good destiny
I would have gone there

To which Afuwape replied:

Eyin o mo ‘bi olori n yan ‘ri o
E ba lo yan t’eyin
Ibikan na la gbe yan ri o
Kadara o papo ni.

You do not know where good destiny is picked
You would have gone there for yours
We picked our destinies from the same source
Only their contents are not identical.

( For an application of this concept to a contemporary case, see Isokan Yoruba Magazine Vol. III, No. II Spring 1997)

This story raises a number of philosophical problems and how much attention was paid to these problems by the initiator of this idea is not now known. For instance, is there favoritism in the choice of destiny and if so, can it be justified? Can an unfavorable destiny be changed? How does the idea of destiny tie up with the idea of moral responsibility? (Gbadegesin, 1991) In spite of these questions, however, what can be assumed is that the story is an aid for the expression of a number of philosophical theses. First, it expresses the Yoruba pragmatic approach to morality. There is no hard and fast rule concerning rightness and wrongness and, in most cases, an individual must take a personal decision and follow it through. Though, people are still counselled by the elders, and there are certain kinds of behavior that are considered wrong (wanton destruction of life), in certain cases, the situation determines what is right to do. This is what happens in the case of Afuwape who decided to violate the instruction of the orisa. Second, generosity pays in the end. As the saying goes, "Igba olore ki i fo" (The calabash of the generous person never breaks). Afuwape was generous with his possessions and it paid off in the end. The importance of sacrifice in Yoruba traditional religion can be recognized by an ardent observer. But, though sacrifice is supposedly for the purpose of pleasing the gods, the sages of the group also know that it is principlally a "means of making one’s close associates taste the fruits of one’s labour and thereby receiving their blessing and support in whatever one wants to do.... Sacrifice viewed as a means of uniting people and strengthening their bonds of relationship and association (Abimbola, 1975, p. 27). Finally, we are here on a mission: to deliver a message. Therefore we are not on our own. This assurrance is expected to provide some solace to the weary. This is one of the points powerfully expressed by Wole Soyinka in The Strong Breed.


These are stories which have no explanatory or historical purposes to serve. They are told as forms of entertainment, with emphasis on the creative and imaginative talents of the artist. Because they are forms of entertainment, they occur in more relaxed atmospheres, and there is no age limit for narrators. A fable could be a dilemma tale or a trickster tale and it may have human or animal characters. It might also perform some moral functions, though this need not be its primary focus. Due to their belief in spiritual forces and supernatural powers, many Yoruba fables involve elements of the supernatural. For instance, in the story of Oro Iroko (Iroko Tree Demon), the son of a farmer was trapped on a tree which was being maliciously cut by a demon. The boy had three magic gourds in his pocket. Each time the demon was about to succeed in cutting the tree, the boy would throw one gourd and the tree would be joined together again. After he had thrown the last magic gourd, he seemed to be at the mercy of the demon. Then he remembered the flute that his father had given him. He blew it loud and sang as follows:

Okemo kerewu, aja ode

The one who cuts in pieces: hunter’s dog

Osopaka gbe won mi, aja ode

The one who swallows at an instant: hunter’s dog

Ogbale gbarawe, aja ode

The one who cleans like a broom: hunter’s dog

Iya nje mi lehin re o, aja ode

I am suffering in your absence: hunter’s dog

At the sound of the flute, all his dogs reported and devoured the demon.


In the Yoruba culture, proverbs are appreciated as the vehicle for words. As one proverb on proverbs puts it: proverbs are the horses for words, for when words are lost, we use proverbs to seek them out. The value placed on proverbs extends to those individuals who are well-skilled in their use. They are revered in the community because they have the ability to get to the heart of a matter through the use of appropriate proverbs. Since proverbs are not immutable, and since they have times and contexts of application, it is important for a skilful verbal artist to know the appropriate time and context for their use. There is what is called "asipa owe" or wrong proverb-making. A person who is able to detect "asipa owe" and come up with a counter proverb is also deserving of respect in the community. Take the following example:

Erin ki i fon ki omo re fon

(Mother elephant and baby elephant do not trumpet at the same time.) ( see Owomoyela, 1988)

This is used to discourage a person from enhancing his/her children’s image through his/her own status. For instance, a politician may be campaigning for an elective position while his son is also interested in a political career. The father’s opponent might discourage them with this proverb. However if the father is also well versed in proverbs, the appropriate response is

Fere ko pe meji ni

(Only if there is not more than one trumpet.)

The point of this response is that the first proverb is irrelevant in this situation because there are more than one position and the father and son have enough resources to compete successfully on their own individual merits.

That the Yoruba are generally pragmatic in their approach to ethics and moral issues is illustrated by their proverbs which may appear contradictory, but which actually are meant to indicate caution. Consider the following pair of proverbs on hard work:

Kira kita k’o mola, ka sise bi eru ko da nkankan

(Strenous laboring does not bring wealth; struggling like a slave does not eradicate poverty)

Ise loogun ise

(Work is the cure for poverty)

An adequate resolution of the apparent conflict here must take account of the fact that the Yoruba are generally against extremes in any direction. To work excessively in order to have wealth is to expose oneself to untimely death. This is what the first proverbs cautions against. On the other hand, to refuse to work is to expose oneself to incurable poverty. This is the point of the second proverb.

Some proverbs arise from observations of natural phenomena and/or human affairs. For instance:

Obe kan ki i mu ki o gbe eeku ara re

(No knife is so sharp that it is able to carve its own hilt.)

This proverb can be interpreted in two ways. First, it is impossible for a knife to carve its own hilt because it cannot cut anything without having a good hilt. Therefore, since it will have to have a hilt in order to cut anything, it cannot cut its own hilt. Second, even after it has got a hilt, however sharp a knife is, it cannot cut or scrape its own hilt. Another knife will have to be used for that purpose. The meaning of this is that however smart one is, one will still need other people to help one with important personal matters. One should therefore avoid arrogance.

While the Yoruba have moral standards regarding the dispensation of justice, they are also aware of the reality of human frailty and the corresponding partiality and injustice that can result. Two proverbs can be used to illustrate this apparent conflict:

A gb’ejo idi kan da, agba osika ni.

(A person who makes a judgement after hearing only one side of a case is a most wicked judge.)

On the other hand, they also know human nature for what it is:

Eniti ko ni baba ni’gbejo, bo ba ro ejo are, ebi ni i je.

( A person who has no mentor on the judgement throne will lose even if he has a clean and just case.)

cf: O da wa l’ejo, o da ‘mo e l’are

(He judged us guilty; but he judged his child innocent)

O f’omo e l’apa re’le And took his child home safely

Ko dun wa o, ejo te e da o dun wa

It doesn’t pain us; your judgment does n’t pain us

B’Olorun ko ba pa wa)

As long as God spares our lives)

Here we have a combination of moral realism and idealism with respect to justice. Each has its use in the Yoruba cultural belief system, a system which places emphasis on moderation in everything.


From the foregoing, it seems clear that various aspects of the oral tradition of the Yoruba are important for enriching the social and moral life of the people and ensuring the continuity of their culture. These are highly effective means of expressing the ideals and values of the communities, teaching young generations the history of their ancestors and helping them improve their self-awareness by giving them the information they need for understanding their identity. Yoruba oral poetry, with its various themes of love, life, praise and death, is especially relevant in this regard. A young child is introduced to the oriki (praise name) of his/her family right from birth, through constant repetition by the female members of the household, who also tease him/her about the significance of his/her birth and the distinguished history of his/her ancestors. At the same time, he/she is encouraged to uphold this tradition and contribute to its distinction. This, among others, is an important function of oral tradition and it is what has kept it alive among the Yoruba in particular, and Africans in general.

But these are trying times for Yoruba culture and its oral tradition. In the first place, the old sages who accept the responsibility of transmitting the culture, are transiting fast to the realm of the ancestors, victims of ill-designed policies by a government that has no interest in the welfare of its citizens. In the second place, the middle age folks, who benefitted from the good old days of Yorubaland, when the glory of Yoruba culture was exhibited for the world in the works of the Fagunwas, the Odunjos, the Ogundes, the Ladipos, the Ogunmolas, the Olatunjis and Isolas, are not now in any privileged position to help their own offsprings, due to a combination of economic, social and political reasons. How can you project a culture when you cannot even be sure of what to expect from a government that is afflicted by Odua-phobia, a government that is afraid of even its own shadow, and which finds threatening any move by Yoruba people to advance the interests of Odua descendants. About a year ago, a foundation was set up to serve the social, economic and cultural interests of our people. Today, its main architect is incarcerated, accused of treason! In the third place, the younger ones, who are expected to serve as the link between the past and the future, have greater problems of life to deal with. How many Yoruba youths are roaming the streets with no visible means of livelihood even when they have successfully made the efforts to acquire education and the skills that come with it? Can we justifiably blame them for any indifference to culture and tradition when their sense of self-esteem has been so badly brutalized?

The lesson of our present predicament is clear. We find ourselves in such a bad shape vis-a-vis the future of our culture because, as a people, our autonomy has been compromised for a long time. Is n’t it the case now that even the most prominent of our Kabiyesis are not free citizens? Can they make claims on the basis of their conscience without risking discipline from the boys in Khaki? Can the Arole Oodua travel out without permission from the representative of the Northern oligachy? In order therefore to bring back the glory of our culture, we have to struggle for genuine autonomy. Our forefathers knew this much when they pressed for a true federal union. They knew that a multi-national state cannot survive and prosper under a unitary system. Yet, since 1966, we have been running a unitary sytem of government. It is time we knew that an arrangement in which the lion is expected to serve as purse-keeper for the tiger is an inherently unstable and unpeaceful one.The two will be advised to hunt separately. There are lessons to learn from them.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The World and Africa New York: International Publishers, 1965 p.44
Isodore Okpewho, African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character and Continuity Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992
Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God In Yoruba Belief Longman: Nigeria 1962.
Segun Gbadegesin, "Destiny, Personality and the Ultimate Reality of Human Existence", Ultimate Reality and Meaning, Vol 7 No. 3 1984 pp.173-188.
Segun Gbadegesin, African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities New York: Lang Publishing, 1991.
Wande Abimbola, Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa UNESCO, 1975
Oyekan Owomoyela, A Ki I: Yoruba Proscriptive and Prescriptive Proverbs Lanham: University Press of America, 1988.


Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and
Contemporary African Realities


Aworan: Representing the self and its Metaphysical other in Yoruba Art

Art Bulletin, The, Sept, 2001 by Babatunde Lawal

Among the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Republic of Benin, the word aworan commonly refers to any two- or three-dimensional representation, ranging from the naturalistic to the stylized (Figs. 1, 2). A contraction of (that which), wo (to look at), and ranti (to recall, that is, the subject), aworan is mnemonic in nature, identifying a work of art as a construct specially crafted to appeal to the eyes, relate a representation to its subject, and, at the same time, convey messages that may have aesthetic, social, political, or spiritual import. (1) It should be emphasized, however, that Yoruba is a tonal language, so that the same word may have different meanings depending on how it is pronounced. (2) For example, because of a change in the vowel tones, the word aworan refers not to a representation--which is aworan--but to its beholder, being a contraction of a (the one), wo (looking at), and tran (spectacle) . (3) The meaning of the root verb wo (to look) remains intact in the two words, linking the beholder to t he beheld.
Aroya: Imaging the Metaphysical Self

Whereas in ayajora (the naturalistic portrait), a Yoruba artist endeavors to summarize the iwa, the fact of being and the observable and recognizable features of the physical self, in aroya (the conceptual portrait), he is more concerned with the essence of the subject or the metaphysical self. This is particularly the case with memorials used in communicating with a dematerialized soul in Ehin-iwa, the Afterlife (Figs. 18, 20). As it is invisible to the naked eye, this Other self--the soul--can only be imagined. For this reason, most altar memorials are stylized to signify the return of a dematerialized soul from telluric existence to "prenatal" spirituality, as well as its ability to be omnipresent and to intercede with the orisa (deities) on behalf of the living. Accordingly, an artist need not know the dead to create an appropriate memorial--though he would be briefed about gender identity or any special mark worn on the face or body to identify the deceased with a family or lineage. However, after leavin g the artist's workshop, the image usually undergoes etutu, a personalization or naming ceremony aimed at establishing a spiritual kinship between object and subject. The ceremony varies from place to place. In some cases, it involves the dipping of a memorial into the water (omi iweku) used in washing the corpse of the deceased and preserved for this purpose. In other cases, the image may be rubbed with the soil (ilepa) collected from the grave of the deceased. Thereafter, a given image may be placed in a shrine, becoming the focus of prayers, oriki (eulogies), and libations intended to influence the deceased.

The shrine figure performs three major functions in Yoruba religion. First, it is an ami (a signifier), objectifying the human essence of the signified, making visible the invisible, and providing a locus of veneration and devotion. Second, since art (ona) commands admiration--as indicated by the popular Yoruba name Onaneye (literally, Art is honorable)--a memorial sculpture is ohun eye (a dignifier), reflecting the high esteem in which the deceased is held. Third, it is aroko (a visual metaphor), embodying a message; for example, the motif of a mother and child reminds a female ancestor of her maternal duties as a provider and nurturer, while a lance-holding male figure implores an ancestor so depicted to play the role of a protector. (98) These functions would seem to account for the frequent use of the equestrian warrior motif (jagunjagun) to memorialize male ancestors, in an attempt to secure their benevolence and divine protection. A nineteenth-century example is said to commemorate Alaafin (king) Ofinra n (Fig. 18), a grandson of Oduduwa and one of the earliest kings of Old Oyo, whose reign is often dated somewhere in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. (99) Yoruba oral traditions identify Alaafin Ofinran, popularly called Sango, as a great magician and warrior who led the Old Oyo cavalry to many spectacular victories, reportedly using his magical powers to attract the thunderstorm to overwhelm his enemies in the battlefield. On his death, he was deified and identified with thunder power. Alleged to have been salvaged from the principal Sango shrine at Old Oyo before its destruction by the Fulani about 1835, this equestrian statue conflates the historical and the mythological aspects of Sango--the warrior king and deified ancestor who now hurls down the thunderbolt from the sky. A similar imagery reverberates in his oriki (eulogy), often chanted in front of shrine images dedicated to him:le world. Iwa denotes not only the fact of being but also the distinctive quality or character of a person. (14)

The Yoruba identify a work of art as ona, that is, an embodiment of creative skills, implicating the archetypal action of Obatala the creativity deity and patron of the Yoruba artist. The process of creating a work of art is called onayiya (literally, ona, art, and yiya, creation or making), a term implicated in the aforementioned prayer for an expectant mother. Yiya derives from the root verb ya, meaning to create, fashion, or make. The fact that the female body mediates Obatala's creation (15) has led some to translate iya, the Yoruba word for a mother, as "someone from whom another life is fashioned" or the body "from which we are created." (16) The term jora denotes a striking resemblance between a child and any of its parents or among members of the same family. Thus, a naturalistic representation is called ayajora, a contraction of a (act of), ya (to create), jo (to resemble), and ara (physical body of the subject). That is to say, the artist's main goal is to capture individual likeness, as in a portr ait of one of the ancient kings (ooni) of Ife (Fig. 1). The reason for the prominence of the head in Yoruba art will be discussed shortly. A conceptual representation, on the other hand, is called aroya (a contraction of a, act of, ro, to think or imagine, and ya, to create) because it is done from memory. (17) For example, the seated female of Figure 2 is far from being a portrait of a known person. Rather, the image is a construct--a figure for an altar signifying the Earth Goddess (Ile) in her symbolic role as the "Mother and Caretaker of the World" (Iya Aye), hence, her appellation Onile (Owner of the House). The two small figures in her hands represent the male and female aspects of nature, whose interaction ensures the perpetuation of life on earth. (18) The emphasis here is not so much on empirical observation as on the use of the mind's eye to visualize and give material form to an idea. The literary equivalent of aroya (conceptual imagery) is arofo (oral poetry)--a shortened form of a (act of), ro (t o think or imagine), and fo (to chant or utter).

Although it has individual and regional variations (just as the Yoruba language has subdialects), the Yoruba sculptural style (evident especially in wood but also in stone and ivory sculpture) is distinguished by stylized figures--standing, kneeling, or riding on horseback--with large heads, elaborate hairdos, and protruding facial features (Figs. 4, 18, 20). (19) Through the apprenticeship system, young artists are trained to create images in the substyle characteristic of a particular region as well as to master and interpret the iconographic conventions (asa) handed down from the past. (20) The fact that much of Yoruba art functions in a religious context has stabilized these conventions, imposing some limitation on the extent of change within the canon, while, at the same time, allowing creativity, innovation, and the incorporation of new elements in time and place. An apprentice graduates after demonstrating enough imo (mastery of time-honored conventions), imoose (technical proficiency), and oju ona (li terally, artistic eye) to practice as a professional. Oju ona can be defined as "design consciousness," (21) or the visual cognition that enables an artist to select and process images from daily experience into schemata or templates (determined by the Yoruba style), which are then stored in pictorial memory, to be retrieved and modified when needed to express an idea. As a result, a well-trained artist does not need a life model or a preparatory sketch to represent a particular subject. A carver, for example, begins by staring intently at the wood while conjuring up the relevant schema from his pictorial memory. Thus, the term aworan signifies much more than an image that recalls the subject. It also alludes to the creative process, especially an artist's preliminary contemplation (a-wo) of the raw material and the pictorial memory (iranti) necessary for visualizing and objectifying the subject. Thereafter, the carver projects the schema onto the wood, reaches for his tools, and follows an established proced ure: (a) sisa (blocking out), using a big adze to reveal mass and volume and to outline the image(s), emphasizing the head(s); (b) onalile (tracking forms), using a smaller adze to clarify the image(s); (c) aletunle (consolidation), using chisels and knives to further define the component parts; (d) didan (smoothening), using knives and abrasive leaves to remove tool marks and rough edges; and (e) finfin (incising), using a knife to accentuate facial features and body parts, cut patterns, and create surface designs. (22) Modeling in clay

(later cast into brass or bronze) follows a similar procedure, though differences in material, tools, and technique invariably produce different results. Carvings tend to look more linear and angular, due to the subtractive technique, while modeled forms have a smoother finish because of the additive technique. According to the artists interviewed in different parts of Yorubaland, the creative process involves three deities, Obatala Ogun, and Esu. Obatala (creativity deity) p rovides the imaginative component, Ogun (iron deity), the tools for transforming the material, and Esu (divine messenger), the vision and ase (enabling power) that facilitate execution. (23)

Oriki: Glorifying the Head in Word and Image

Literally meaning "head praise," the term oriki refers to a eulogy or poem (arofo) glorifying the worthiness of an individual. It is chanted at critical moments to goad the head to action and thereby spur a person to greater achievement. (24) For the head (ori) is perceived as the seat of the ase (enabling power) that determines one's identity and existence, influencing behavior and personal destiny:

If I have money

It is my Ori [head] I will praise

My Ori, it is you

If I have children on earth

It is my Ori to whom I will give praise

My Ori it is you

All the good things I have on earth

It is Ori I will praise

My Ori, It is you. (25)

In effect, the head (ori) is the lord of the body and therefore must be acknowledged and given pride of place. A similar message is apparent in the emphasis on the head in Yoruba art. It is almost always the biggest and the most elaborately finished part of a typical figure sculpture, often adorned with a crownlike coiffure or headgear (Figs. 1, 2, 4, 18, 20). (26) With this complementarity of word and image in mind, the Yoruba linguistic scholar Olabiyi Yai has suggested, "When approaching Yoruba art, an intellectual orientation that would be consonant with Yoruba traditions of scholarship would be to consider each individual Yoruba art work and the entire corpus as oriki." (27) This is because while most oriki (eulogies) undergo changes and embellishment in the course of their oral transmission from one generation to another, they often retain a core of historical or iconographic elements that defines the essence and character of the subject. Moreover, Yoruba artists in the past were expected, as part of th eir training, to familiarize themselves with the oriki of important personalities and the major orisa (deities) in their community and with indigenous theology, which they took into consideration when creating shrines and related images. Thus, apart from their aesthetic qualities, shrine images speak volumes about Yoruba society, its social practices and worldview.

One of the fundamentals of this worldview is that the visible head (ori ode) is no more than an enclosure for the inner, spiritual head, called ori inu, which localizes the ase that empowers the physical self. (28) Although the ase emanates from the Supreme Being, it is mediated by Esu (pronounced Eshu), the divine messenger and principle of dynamism in the Yoruba cosmos. (29) One myth claims that before an individual is born into the physical world, its soul must select an inner head (ori inu) from a collection of ready-made clay heads molded by Ajala, the heavenly potter. Because of their association with personal destiny, these clay heads are abstracted and made to look similar, though each is intrinsically different. The one selected by an individual becomes an integral part of the metaphysical self, constituting the inner core of the physical head and determining a person's lot on earth. (30) In the distant past, most adult Yoruba dedicated an altar called ibori to the inner head in the form of a cone-sh aped object covered with leather and adorned with cowrie shells (Fig. 3). Once used as currency, these shells allude to the wealth that a "good head" can bring to a person. Apart from concealing that person's fate (ipin), the ibori links the self with Esu, who originates the motions, emotions, and actions associated with iwa, earthly existence. As the divine messenger and the omnipresent agency of the Supreme Being in all living things, Esu is asoju (the observer), (31) and thus the catalyst for sight. (32) Esu's connection with the head, especially the face (oju), is illustrated by the popular notion that by blinking his eyes, he can make a person look beautiful or ugly. (33) Even fellow orisa in the Yoruba pantheon depend on Esu for their vision; according to a myth, he once confused Oduduwa's sight, with the result that the latter mistook the divination deity (Ifa) for a leopard and ran away in fright. (34) In other words, Esu activates the face, the site of perception and communication, reflecting the fee lings of pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, and other passions associated with temporal existence and behavior. The Yoruba word for a facade is oju-ile (literally, the face of the house) because the facade is to a house what the face is to the body, an index of identity. The doors of a house open and close just like the eyes. That is why Esu images or staffs are often placed, for security purposes, near the doorway, at the crossroads, and at the town gates. Some have two faces looking in opposite directions (Figs. 4, 5), as though monitoring developments from within and without, from left and right, from above and below, and from nearby and the great beyond. (35) The cowrie shells on this staff denote the blessings that Esu may bestow on those he favors, despite his prankishness. The flute or whistle motif identifies him both as the herald, who coordinates the activities of all the deities, and as a gatekeeper, guide, and detective. He thus exemplifies the principle of intelligence, vigilanc e, and surveillance, among others, in Yoruba culture. No wonder that the Esu image illustrated in Figure 6, one of three once installed in a public square in the middle of the village of Igbajo (about thirty-five miles from Ife) was reportedly vandalized by Ijesa warriors during their invasion of Igbajo in the 1880s; (36) note the damage to the left arm. Incidentally, Esu is anthropomorphized here, combining the look of a child with that of an adult in allusion to the paradoxical, betwixt-and-between nature of the deity and his association with the threshold--a recurring theme in much of his oriki (eulogies):

The short and tall one

Whose head is barely visible when he walks through a peanut farm

Thanks to the fact that he is very tall

But Esu must climb the hearthstone in order to put salt in the soup pot ...

Labolarinde, (37) if you reach the frontier and do not encounter him at the citygate working in the field

You will find him in the vicinity and he is always accessible to everyone, including the infirm. (38)

Ayajora: Portraying the Physical Self

The emphasis on ara (physical body) in the word ayajora reveals the objective of the Yoruba artist in a naturalistic portrait (Figs. 7-15): to capture a recognizable likeness of the subject with an emphasis on oju amuwaye (literally, earthly face), the face one is born with and which identifies one's iwa (telluric existence). This face is time-bound, changing with mood and age. (39) However, the artist frequently ignores the transitory emotional aspects, idealizing only those features that facilitate identity, the emphasis being on jijora, or what Robert Farris Thompson calls a "midpoint mimesis" between absolute abstraction and absolute likeness. (40) In the past, many Yoruba treated the naturalistic representation of a living person with ambivalence for two main reasons. One stems from a popular notion that every living person has a spirit partner ( a "look-alike") in heaven called enikeji (heavenly double) who offers spiritual protection to its earthly counterpart. (41) The creation of a lifelikeness in ar t (a human-made "look-alike") is perceived as a distraction that may jeopardize this relationship, causing the heavenly double to withdraw its spiritual protection. The second reason has to do with the belief that through sympathetic magic, a naturalistic portrait could be transformed into a surrogate for the human body and then manipulated for positive or negative ends. For instance, in preventive medicine called idira or isora (fortifying the body), a portrait, infused with charms, is kept in a secure place or a shrine to immunize the referent from witchcraft and infectious diseases. (42) In sorcery called asasi (evil spell) or edi (tethering), an image may be gagged or strangled or have sharp objects driven into the eyes, ears, or throat to disable, maim, or kill the person it represents. In another type of sorcery called apeje (instruct and obey), the subject is hypnotized, via a sculpted portrait, to act or behave irrationally, such as dancing without music or laughing at random for no justifiable reason . In some cases, a physical likeness is not necessary; giving the image the subject's name or attaching an article from his or her body (such as clothing, a lock of hair, or a nail paring) will suffice. (43)

Yoruba diviners trace most acts of sorcery to awon aye, the evil-minded ones, such as witches, sadists, rivals, jealous neighbors, enemies, or close relations who either have a few old scores to settle or simply envy the success of another individual. Of major concern is Esu, the unpredictable trickster, divine messenger, and controller of fate who could be benevolent at one moment and malevolent the next, capriciously turning joy into sorrow, and vice versa. He is the agent provocateur who plays a lot of pranks with a view to reforming humanity. Like the trickster motif in other cultures, Esu embodies what Lewis Hyde calls the "paradoxical category of sacred amorality" by which societies articulate and regulate their social life and behavior. (44) That is why the Yoruba code of ethics enjoins everyone to be courteous, sociable, respectful, humble, diplomatic, and to "bear both wealth and poverty (45) Also, one must exercise self-control in the face of provocation or temptation; one must learn a lesson from t he Olofefunra myth. According to the myth, Olofefunra, a deity in ancient Ife, had a peculiar way of welcoming visitors to its grove by laughing loudly and making humorous remarks as though he was reuniting with old and long-missed friends. But should any visitor reciprocate, his or her facial features "would remain permanently fixed in the contortion of mirthless laughter!" (46) By the same token, it would be risky to allow oneself to be portrayed in a naturalistic and overtly expressive manner; there is the fear that enemies might read arrogance into an innocent smile, steal the portrait, and instigate a sorcerer to harm the subject through it. (47) This explains why naturalistic portraits are few and far between in Yoruba art and there is little interest in physiognomy, that is, the use of the face to reveal the "soul" or character of the subject. (48)

Ako and Ipade: Naturalistic Second-Burial Effigies for the Dead

However, during second-burial ceremonies for the dead, naturalistic portraits appear with some frequency (Figs. 7-12). (49) This can be attributed to two major factors. The first derives from the belief that the soul of a deceased person now operates at a superhuman plane of existence and so is immune to sorcery. (50) The second is that the mnemonic power of a life-size naturalistic effigy (ako) vivifies the presence of the dead during the second-burial ceremony, enabling mourners to treat the image as if it were alive. The costly ceremony usually takes place some days or weeks after the burial of the corpse and is normally performed only for the rich and famous as well as for those who had lived to a ripe old age and were survived by children. (51) One of the reasons for the ceremony is that it would enable the deceased to carry over to Ehin-Iwa (the Afterlife) the high status achieved on earth. Not until the performance of this ceremony will the soul of the deceased leave the community. Failure of the child ren to do so in time or after a reasonable period may cause the soul to haunt them in the form of a ghost. In addition, as an artist must have been aquainted with the deceased to produce his or her visual likeness, the longer the interval between the first burial (of the real corpse) and the second (of the effigy) the weaker the artist's pictorial memory of the deceased. To circumvent this problem, an artist is allowed to use as a reference point the face of a child who closely resembles the deceased. (52) This partly explains why some second-burial effigies look much younger than the deceased at the time of death. Thanks to modern photography, many families now keep photo albums from which a good picture of the deceased (usually in his or her middle age) may be selected and given to an artist to translate into a second-burial effigy. Since the image is usually costumed, the carver pays most attention to the head, forearms, and legs, leaving the other parts of the body relatively unfinished (Fig. 7). During a typical ako ceremony, the effigy, dressed in the best clothes of the deceased (Fig. 8), would be displayed in his or her residence for a few days to allow friends, relations, and well-wishers to pay their last respects. Specially designated family members chant the oriki (eulogy) of the deceased at regular intervals. For example:

Oronaye (O!)

May you be fortunate

May your fortune last

You, who have the great sword....

The sharp sword that draws blood

The one of great fame

My father is the great one being celebrated

A popular man of Owo

Great men of Owo, my father is the great one being celebrated. (53)

After the indoor ceremonies, the image would be carried in a public procession around the town accompanied by survivors, all singing and wishing the deceased a happy retirement in Ehin-Iwa, the Afterlife:

Do not eat millipedes

Do not eat earthworms

It's what they eat in the Afterlife

That you should eat

May you fare well

Until we cross paths

Until you appear in our dreams

Shall we meet again. (54)

Through the effigy, messages are sent to long-dead ancestors. At the same time, the newly dead is beseeched not to forget the living and to use his or her spiritual powers to protect them. (55) After the public procession, the effigy is buried, destroyed, or abandoned in the forest. (56)

Figure 9 is a portrait of the late Queen Ameri Olasubude of Owo, carved by Lamuren for Olasubude's second-burial ceremony in 1944. The portrait, however, was rejected by the family of the deceased on the grounds that the artist did not achieve enough idealization. For instance, the toes and fingers of the figure are touching one another (Fig. 10) instead of being carved separate, as required by tradition. (57)

Unlike the ako, which is almost always a full figure that can be displayed in a seated position by virtue of its articulated body and limbs, the ipade (a hunter's second-burial memorial) is usually unarticulated. Only the head is finished, with the rest of the body given a rudimentary treatment, as in the portrait of Chief Aniwe, one of the most powerful hunters in Ife before his death in 1962 (Fig. 11). It was carved by Taye Adegun. A short stick nailed to the chest of the figure serves as the shoulders for fitting one of the garments of the deceased (Fig. 12). (58) In some cases, two sticks shaped like a cross and draped with a hat and garment of the deceased may serve as a substitute for a naturalistic effigy. (59) A portrait statue carved by Taiwo Fadipe of the late Chief Akinyemi Osogun of Ife, a high-ranking priest of Ogun (iron and war deity) who died in 1964, was later acquired by the Ife Museum of Antiquities. In 1976, I took a print of the statue to the compound of the deceased, where I compared it with a photograph of him. The statue bore only a faint resemblance to the deceased, but the three marks (abaja) on the cheeks are exactly the same as those on the photograph, conceivably creating enough likeness for those who knew Chief Akinyemi Osogun when he was alive. (60)

That the memorial function of the "lifelike" image has a long history in Yoruba culture seems to be attested by the discovery at Ife of several naturalistic, life-size brass heads dated between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries C.E. (Figs. 13, 14). (61) Some of them wear crowns, while others have holes around the hairline, apparently for securing real headgears or crowns. Amost all the heads have holes at the neck (Fig. 13), indicating that they might have been nailed to wooden torsos and attired in the same manner as the ako. Consequently, Justine Cordwell and Frank Willett have suggested that most of the heads were probably used in funeral or second-burial ceremonies for kings and other distinguished persons. (62) This speculation has been questioned on the grounds that the creation of a funeral effigy for a king (oba) is incompatible with the public perception of him as a divine being who does not die but simply disappears "into the earth." (63) In view of a ceremony in present-day Okuku during which the king of the town makes sacrificial offerings to his "inner head" (ori inu) in a special room inside the palace where many beaded crowns are displayed, though not on portrait heads, Henry Drewal is of the opinion that the life-size Ife brass heads might have been "created to display actual regalia in a shrine context," perhaps during an annual rite of purification and renewal for the king and his people. (64) While the possibility cannot be ruled out altogether, it does not necessarily follow that all the heads performed only this function in the past. Neither does the public perception of the king as divine automatically preclude him from being honored with a second-burial ceremony. Despite the king's liminal status and the secrecy surrounding his death and burial, it is public knowledge that he is a flesh-and-blood human being who reigns and then passes away. The popular saying "Oba mewa; igba mewa" (Ten kings; ten epochs) makes it clear that the notion that the king does not die is only a metaphor for the antiquity and continuity of divine kingship among the Yoruba. As to be expected, a good king would be fondly remembered; a bad one could be impeached by a council of elders (called Ogboni in some areas) and if found guilty of a serious offence, forced to commit suicide or executed. In fact, some unpopular Ife kings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries met with violent deaths at the hands of their subjects. (65) Moreover, a king's mortality is explicit in the word abobaku, referring to "those who die with the king" in order to serve him in the Afterlife. (66) The question then arises: If chiefs and other important persons could be honored with a befitting farewell or second-burial ceremony--to enable them to carry over to the Afterlife the high status achieved on earth--why not the king himself, the most distinguished individual in a given community? That the ceremony was performed for kings in ancient Ife may be inferred from a legend that palace officials once colluded with court artists to delay the a ppointment of a new king. Instead of disclosing the death of the incumbent king to the relevant authorities, these officials installed his effigy in a dark corner of the state room and continued to conduct business as usual, issuing orders on behalf of the dead king. The senior chiefs and members of the public unsuspectingly paid homage to the effigy until the deception was uncovered. (67) This legend has two implications. First, it suggests that the plotters had misappropriated an effigy that could have been used eventually for the second-burial ceremony of the same king and which, predictably, would have received a similar homage and befitting farewell messages. Second, it corroborates the thesis that the holes around the hairline of the life-size Ife heads (Fig. 13) might have been used for securing a beaded crown with veil (some still have bead fragments) that would have covered the face--as they normally do when worn by the king (Fig. 22). (68) The holes around the mouth probably sported a combination of beard and mustache that would have further obscured the face, thus enabling the alleged conspiracy to succeed for a while.

Finally, that second-burial ceremonies for kings were common in the past is evident in the Adamuorisa (Eyo) obsequy of the Awori Yoruba of Lagos. (69) Until recently, a new king would not be allowed to perform certain rites until he had "completed the final funeral ceremonies of his predecessor...which included the staging of the Adamuorisa..." (70) Two of the most memorable Adamuorisa were performed for Oba (king) Akitoye on February 20, 1854, and for Oba Dosumu on April 30, l885. (71) However, unlike the ako figure, which may be carried in a public procession, the Adamuorisa (Eyo) second-burial effigy for a deceased king is displayed inside the palace only. The effigy is usually a banana tree trunk dressed up in expensive clothes and made to look like a real human figure wearing a hat or crown, though the face is covered with cloth. The display is accompanied by drumming and eulogizing, as is done for an ako figure. On the last day of the ceremony, hundreds of Eyo masquerades in white robes participate in a public parade to bid the deceased the last farewell. (72) Since a king's corpse is sometimes dismembered for ritual purposes, a second-burial effigy is, as it were, a "re-membering" of that body, providing a unique opportunity for a farewell ceremony that would enable the deceased to carry over to the Afterlife the high status achieved on earth.

There is ample evidence that the Ife heads might also have functioned in interregnum, succession, and/or coronation ceremonies, among others. According to a Benin oral tradition, before the fourteenth century, the head of a deceased Benin king (oba) was taken to Ife for burial and, in return, a brass head would be sent to Benin along with other royal emblems to confirm the successor on the throne. This is because Oranmiyan, one of Oduduwa's youngest sons, founded the Eweka ruling dynasty in Benin between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and ruled there for a while before returning to Ife, where he eventually died. (73) The Benin practice may very well be a variation on an ancient Yoruba ritual of removing the head of a deceased king and using it for the transfer of royal power to his successor. (74) The latter then kept the head "among his principal objects of worship." (75) Could the need to preserve the heads and memories of famous kings for a longer period have led to the creation of their likeness in brass? If so, could this phenomenon be responsible for the scarcity of the life-size royal heads? As yet, only about sixteen or so have been recovered out of almost fifty rulers on the Ife king list. (76) Even then, only a handful of the heads can now be positively identified with particular individuals. The mask in Figure 14, for instance, is said to represent Ooni (king) Obalufon, the son of Osangangan Obamakin, an Ife indigene who succeeded Oduduwa probably because he sided with the latter in his quest for political supremacy. (77) Obalufon (also known as Alayemoore) ascended the throne after his father's death but reigned for only a short period before being deposed by Oranmiyan, who had earlier left Ife to found ruling dynasties in Benin and Old Oyo. Obalufon was recalled from exile to reoccupy the Ife throne after the death of Oranmiyan. The exact time of his reign is unknown, though some historians are inclined to put it at the beginning of the second millennium C.E. He is said to have changed the t itle of the Ife king from olofin (owner of the palace)--introduced by Oduduwa--to ooni (owner of the land) to indicate the return of the Ife indigenes (that is, the pre-Oduduwa people) to power. (78) Before Obalufon ascended the throne, Ife had been constantly raided by the Igbo, a pro-Obatala group in exile that refused to acknowledge Oduduwa's sovereignty. This group was defeated, pacified, and reintegrated into Ife society during Obalufon's reign, when the city witnessed an unprecedented era of peace, cultural development, and economic prosperity. (79) Obalufon is remembered today as a great patron of the arts and as the one who introduced brass casting to the Yoruba. Thus, it may very well be that the tradition of making life-size brass heads at Ife began during his reign. The stylistic similarity of this mask to the other life-size heads, dated between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, suggests that it was probably made within the same period. (80) Despite the popular legend that Oduduwa originated the bead-embroidered crown (which he then gave to his sons, who subsequently left Ife to become kings in other parts of Yorubaland), Obalufon is regarded as the epitome of that crown, apparently because of his long, peaceful reign and his exemplary leadership. This may explain why at the coronation of a new king in Ife, the crown would first be placed on Obalufon's "head"--a stone image--before being put on a new king's head. (81) The openings below the eyes of the Obalufon mask suggest that it was worn on the face. It is therefore not impossible, as Suzanne Blier has proposed, that the mask might be integrally linked to this ceremony and "the related rites of rulership transition" in the past, reflecting Obalufon's legendary contributions to the early formation of the Ife state and his posthumous deification and association with prosperity and good government. (82)

A terra-cotta portrait head assigned to the same period as the Obalufon mask (Fig. 15) is said to commemorate the usurper Lajuwa, the chamberlain who temporarily seized the throne after the death of Ooni Aworokolokin, Obalufon's successor. There is an allegation that Aworokolokin did not belong to the Oduduwa faction and that he "probably died by some foul means at the hands of his courtiers, after his wife had been abducted." (83) Lajuwa reportedly hid his corpse, wore the royal regalia, and started impersonating the king. The disguise succeeded for some time apparently because, as mentioned earlier, the fringe of the beaded crown normally obscures the face of the person wearing it (Fig. 22). But the trick was soon uncovered and Lajuwa was executed along with accomplices, although his name continues to appear in some Ife king lists. (84) Lajuwa's long, wavy hairstyle might lend some credence to this story in that it seems to betray his mixed ancestry, recalling the legend that Oduduwa and his group came to I fe from the northeast, which some scholars have identified with the Nile valley or the Arabian Peninsula. (85)

Be that as it may, the palace conspiracy cited earlier is so similar to Lajuwa's that one is tempted to take the two as different versions of the same event. Yet they could very well refer to separate events. The chances are that Lajuwa had exploited an established tradition of using an effigy or a human surrogate to represent or impersonate the king when he could not be physically present in court or at a public ceremony. The cover provided by the beaded crown with fringe might have encouraged this tradition, apart from the fact that, in the past, the king frequently used an interpreter who already knew what to say. Even today, some kings are barely audible, leaving the interpreter to speak on their behalf--which conceivably might have made it easier in the past for an impersonator to pass for the king. For example, at Old Oyo, whose ruling dynasty was founded by Oranmiyan (who later returned to Ife to depose Obalufon during his first term in office), a court official called Osiefa specialized in impersonati ng the king legitimately wearing his crown and receiving the same honors due the king when the latter could not be physically present at a particular ceremony. (86) While there is no evidence as yet that a similar official impersonated the king in ancient Ife, it is significant that one of the early Ife kings, Ooni Giesi, often asked his daughter (Debooye) to represent him at certain ceremonies because he was too old to attend. (87) The question then arises: Could some of the Ife life-size heads have been made at the beginning of a new king's reign with surrogate, ritual, memorial, and other functions in mind? (88) The answer to this question must await further investigation. Nonetheless, the prominence given to royal regalia and bearing in many of the underlife-size portraits in the Ife corpus (Fig. 1) hints at a court art patently concerned as much with the personal appearance of the living as with the collective memory of the dead.

After studying them for more than four decades, Frank Willett, along with other scholars, has observed that many of the Ife life-size heads share certain "family resemblances" both in form and style. However, it is not clear at the moment whether all of them were made by only one artist, artists from the same workshop, or artists from different workshops, removed in time and space. (89) The similarities of the faces could be due to the fact that the artists probably did not work directly from life models, and therefore had to depend partly on memory and partly on time-honored formulas for representing the human face. Note that a good majority of the heads have a dignified look, with relaxed facial muscles; there is little or no attempt to express emotion. This idealization recalls the premium placed by the Yoruba on composure, suggesting, at the same time, that the artists might have been working within a stylistic idiom presumably aimed at relating all the individuals portrayed as Omo Oduduwa, or members of the same "extended" family. (90) Jean Borgatti has observed a similar tendency in other parts of Africa, namely, the downplaying of "individual" in favor of "social" identity, when an artist simplifies the face to conform to archetypes handed down from the past, though there is enough room for artistic inventions within a given stylistic convention. (91)

Not all the naturalistic figures from Ife and Owo had functioned in second-burial contexts. This is confirmed by the fact that some are not life-size, while others have their mouths gagged, recalling the custom of muzzling the victims of human sacrifice to prevent them from cursing the headsman. (92) We are also reminded of edi, the sorcery (mentioned above) for rendering a person tongue-tied. One striking terra-cotta figure excavated from Obalara's land (Ife), dated between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Fig. 16), wears a skull pendant around the neck; the face is contorted, with the mouth wide open, revealing the tongue. Other figures from the site have swollen faces. (93) The finding of such representations amid ritual vessels and several human skulls and bones has led to the hypothesis that the site "must have some direct relevance to human death" and that "the terra-cottas also may have played some part in post-mortem ritual." (94) It is significant that the site belongs to the Obalara family. The head of the family is a priest of Owinni, a deified ancestor whose shrine once served as a sanctuary for smallpox sufferers. This fact, as Peter Garlake points out, could very well link the terra-cottas to rites aimed at preventing the recurrence of infectious diseases in the community. (95) Equally intriguing is a fifteenth-century terra-cotta representation from Owo (about eighty miles southeast of Ife) of a basket filled with severed heads slashed on the face (Fig. 17). According to Chief Obadio, the high priest of Oduduwa in Ife, human sacrifice was offered to the deity in the past and that "terracotta human heads adorn the ritual spots." (96) In that case, can we regard this basket of heads from Owo as a variation of the practice at Ife? (97) Or are the heads substitutes for real ones in between major sacrifices? Insufficient archaeological evidence makes it impossible at the moment to answer any of these questions with confidence. What seems to be fairly certain is that in the past, naturalistic por traits had precise, limited, and specialized functions in ritual and ceremonial contexts in which recognizability of a living or deceased person was very important.

Aroya: Imaging the Metaphysical Self

Whereas in ayajora (the naturalistic portrait), a Yoruba artist endeavors to summarize the iwa, the fact of being and the observable and recognizable features of the physical self, in aroya (the conceptual portrait), he is more concerned with the essence of the subject or the metaphysical self. This is particularly the case with memorials used in communicating with a dematerialized soul in Ehin-iwa, the Afterlife (Figs. 18, 20). As it is invisible to the naked eye, this Other self--the soul--can only be imagined. For this reason, most altar memorials are stylized to signify the return of a dematerialized soul from telluric existence to "prenatal" spirituality, as well as its ability to be omnipresent and to intercede with the orisa (deities) on behalf of the living. Accordingly, an artist need not know the dead to create an appropriate memorial--though he would be briefed about gender identity or any special mark worn on the face or body to identify the deceased with a family or lineage. However, after leavin g the artist's workshop, the image usually undergoes etutu, a personalization or naming ceremony aimed at establishing a spiritual kinship between object and subject. The ceremony varies from place to place. In some cases, it involves the dipping of a memorial into the water (omi iweku) used in washing the corpse of the deceased and preserved for this purpose. In other cases, the image may be rubbed with the soil (ilepa) collected from the grave of the deceased. Thereafter, a given image may be placed in a shrine, becoming the focus of prayers, oriki (eulogies), and libations intended to influence the deceased.

The shrine figure performs three major functions in Yoruba religion. First, it is an ami (a signifier), objectifying the human essence of the signified, making visible the invisible, and providing a locus of veneration and devotion. Second, since art (ona) commands admiration--as indicated by the popular Yoruba name Onaneye (literally, Art is honorable)--a memorial sculpture is ohun eye (a dignifier), reflecting the high esteem in which the deceased is held. Third, it is aroko (a visual metaphor), embodying a message; for example, the motif of a mother and child reminds a female ancestor of her maternal duties as a provider and nurturer, while a lance-holding male figure implores an ancestor so depicted to play the role of a protector. (98) These functions would seem to account for the frequent use of the equestrian warrior motif (jagunjagun) to memorialize male ancestors, in an attempt to secure their benevolence and divine protection. A nineteenth-century example is said to commemorate Alaafin (king) Ofinra n (Fig. 18), a grandson of Oduduwa and one of the earliest kings of Old Oyo, whose reign is often dated somewhere in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. (99) Yoruba oral traditions identify Alaafin Ofinran, popularly called Sango, as a great magician and warrior who led the Old Oyo cavalry to many spectacular victories, reportedly using his magical powers to attract the thunderstorm to overwhelm his enemies in the battlefield. On his death, he was deified and identified with thunder power. Alleged to have been salvaged from the principal Sango shrine at Old Oyo before its destruction by the Fulani about 1835, this equestrian statue conflates the historical and the mythological aspects of Sango--the warrior king and deified ancestor who now hurls down the thunderbolt from the sky. A similar imagery reverberates in his oriki (eulogy), often chanted in front of shrine images dedicated to him:

Your eyes are white like bitter kola nut

Your cheeks are round like red kola nut

Fire-spitting masquerader, you frighten the big cat....

Fire in the eye, fire in the mouth, fire on the roof

You ride fire like a horse! (100)


Accordingly, this statue of Sango has a "sight-and-sound" dimension that further deepens the metaphoric meanings of aworan. It may be classified under what W.J.T. Mitchell calls the "imagetext"--an inextricable weaving together of representation and discourse," so that the visible becomes readable, (101) and audible. Contrary to expectations, Sango looks quiet and serene in the statue; the horse is motionless. This manner of representation is part of a complex aesthetic strategy aimed at dissuading Sango from violent eruptions; it is an exercise in "latent ambiguity," underscoring the fact that an artistic representation can hardly do justice to the kinetics of the thunderstorm: the latter is better experienced than represented. The image falls into the category of what Philip Wheelwright calls the "intensive symbol," which conceals and reveals at the same time. (102)

One other important Yoruba tradition of memorial figure is the ere ibeji, a statuette dedicated to a dead twin (Fig. 19). Underlying the practice is the notion that while twins are physically double, they are spiritually one, and thus inseparable. If one of them should die, a statuette is made to localize the soul of the deceased. It is usually kept in a safe place in the house and sometimes given to the surviving twin to play with as if it were a doll, the main objective being to use the statuette to maintain the spiritual bond between the living and the dead. The statuette, made to reflect the gender of the deceased child, is normally commissioned from a carver on the recommendation of a diviner. When completed, the statuette is washed in herbal preparations before being handed over to the diviner, who then invokes the soul of the deceased twin into it. Thereafter, the statuette is treated like a living child, being fed symbolically at the same time as the surviving twin is having its food. If a new dress i s bought for the surviving child, a miniature is acquired for the statuette. The one held by this woman represents her deceased twin brother, who reportedly died about 1895, after which the memorial was carved. (103) The picture was taken in the early 1960s. The smallness of the statue--and twin memorials in general--is both symbolic and functional: on the one hand, it reflects the fact that, in the past, a good majority of the twins died in infancy; on the other, the small size facilitates portability, especially when the statuette is given to the surviving twin to play with or when the mother dances with it in honor of the deceased twin. If both twins should die, another statuette is commissioned, and the two are treated like living children in the hope that they will be born again to the same mother (Fig. 20). (104) Tradition requires the carver to give both statuettes the same facial features to emphasize the oneness in their twoness, even if the deceased twins were not identical. The statuettes are usual ly placed in a shrine (Fig. 23) for contacting the souls of the departed twins in the Afterlife. The belief that they are capable of attracting good fortune to their parents is reflected in the following oriki (eulogy) of twins:

...The intimate two, the royal egrets, the natives of Isokun (105)

Offspring of the colobus monkey of the tree tops.... (106)

The intimate two by-passed the house [womb] of the wealthy

By-passed the house [womb] of the rich and famous....

But entered the house [womb] of the poor

Transforming the poor into a rich person.... (107)

Apepa [sorcery] cannot affect the natives of Isokun....

Both wizards and witches pay homage to the intimate two.... (108)

Ojo a ku la a d'ere: Portraiture, Posthumous Beauty, and Social Identity

The tradition of dedicating shrine figures to the dead is said to date back to an "Edenic" period in Yoruba history called igba iwase (literally, beginnings of existence), when human beings reportedly did not die as they do today. Whenever the physical body became too old or weak to sustain the soul within it, all an individual needed to do was to enter a cave that led to heaven, where the soul would reincarnate in a new body and then come back to resume earthly life. (109) Whoever was tired of living on earth returned to heaven through the cave. Newly embodied souls entered the earth through the same cave. Some powerful figures did not depart the normal way; they simply turned into stone figures. (110) This is called didi ota (the art of becoming stones). According to J. A. Ademakinwa, an indigene of Ife, where many ancient stone figures abound, such a person, prior to death, would commission a portrait that would be hidden in a place known only to a few close friends. It was these friends who secretly burie d the deceased and later announced to the general public that a well-known personality had turned into stone, disclosing where the effigy had been hidden, which would then be set up as a shrine to perpetuate the memory of the deceased. (111) One such stone dated to the early part of the second millennium C.E. (Fig. 21) is said to commemorate Idena, a famous hunter and one of the bodyguards of Oreluere, the custodian of indigenous traditions and domestic morality in ancient Ife, who reportedly teamed up with Obatala to challenge Oduduwa after the latter had usurped the throne. (112) Before being transferred to the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos, the statue stood at the entrance of the Oreluere shrine at Ife, the spot where Idena allegedly turned into stone.

The legend that the ancient ones did not die but turned into stones resonates in the popular Yoruba saying "Ojo a ku la a d'ere, eniyan ko sunwon laaye" (It is death that turns an individual into a beautiful sculpture; a living person has blemishes). (113) In other words, a person's earthly existence begins as a piece of sculpture molded by Obatala and ends with the separation of the empirical self from its meta-empirical Other; the human body becomes a corpse, reverting, as it were, to what it was originally--an ere (sculpture). The phrase "a living person has blemishes" bespeaks the Yoruba tendency to canonize the dead. Their code of ethics demands that a loss of life be mourned, regardless of an individual's foibles before death; even former critics, enemies, and detractors are expected to pay the proverbial last respects to the deceased. Similarly, an artist is obliged to honor the dead with a well carved memorial, and he frequently makes the subject look younger. As Mosudi Olatunji, the famous Imeko carv er, told Robert Farris Thompson in the early 1960s:

If I am carving the face of a senior devotee I must carve him at the time he was in his prime. Why? If I make the image resemble an old man the people will not like it. I will not be able to sell the image. One carves as if they were young men or women to attract people. (114)

So it is that twin memorials (ere ibeji) are often carved to recall people in their prime (Figs. 19, 20), notwithstanding the fact that a good majority of twins died in infancy. (115) If naturalism (ayajora) is required, as in the life-size brass heads from Ife (Figs. 13, 14) or in second-burial ako effigies (Figs. 7-10), the artist idealizes the portrait, transforming it into an ere (sculpture) and emphasizing composure while ignoring accidental facial features such as scars and deformities associated with iwa physical existence. As Rowland Abiodun points out, "The deceased person may have lost an eye, ear or even a few fingers during his life, but the [ako] effigy allows for a reconstruction of these parts." (116) Thus, death transforms the ugly into the beautiful; "a living person has blemishes." A memorial destined for the altar may be criticized while in the workshop of the carver, but once consecrated and placed on an altar, it is no longer criticized because it partakes of the sacredness and spiritual beauty associated with the dead. (117) Thereafter, the focus is on its ritual rather than formal values.

In the past, many Yoruba wore permanent face marks that identified them with particular families, lineages, or subethnic groups. (118) The same marks adorn the faces of secondburial statues, altar memorials, and ancestral masks, thus relating the living to the dead and the human to the divine. (119) As Frank Willett aptly observes, "It is indeed one of the surprises of living in Yorubaland that one does frequently see people whose features remind one very forcibly of a particular sculptural style, yet the sculptures are not portraits of individuals, but they are supposed to look as if they might be." (120) In short, the Yoruba style, particularly in woodcarving, combines the generic with the specific, relating the individual to the collective, stressing "social identity" and thereby epitomizing the quest for unity underlying the Omo oduduwa concept. This quest finds its most popular political expression in the image of the oba (king), the temporal and spiritual head of a given community and a personification of its corporate existence. In the past, the king seldom left his palace except on special occasions, and when he did, he usually wore a beaded crown with veil that partly concealed his face (Fig. 22). However, this tradition has since been modified, so that the king appears more frequently in public today without donning the crown, doing so only on certain ceremonial occasions. Most crowns have a stylized face in the front that serves as the king's official face. The same face (or a similar face--should a new king decide to replace an old crown) identified his predecessors in public and will do the same for his successors. This face, commonly identified with Oduduwa, transforms the king into a masked figure--an icon conjuring up the image of the mythical progenitor, functioning as a paradigm of the oneness of the king and his subjects, on the one hand, and of the reigning king and the royal dead, on the other. (121)

Itunra'nite: Is Obatala a Self-Reflection of the Yoruba Artist?

According to Yoruba cosmology, the decision of Olodumare (Supreme Being) to create humans was prompted by a desire to transform the primeval wilderness below the sky into an orderly estate. Human beings are called eniyan (the specially selected) because, as a divination verse puts it, they are the ones ordained "to convey goodness" to the wilderness below the sky. (122) In other words, divinity abides in humanity, and vice versa. It is therefore not surprising that some of the orisa (deities) allegedly assumed human forms in order to accompany the first humans to the earth--which easily accounts for their personification in shrine sculptures and spirit medium-ship. Ogun, the iron deity, led the way, using his machete to cut a path through the primeval jungle, laying the foundation for Yoruba civilization. (123) The popular name Ogunlana (Ogun paves the way) commemorates this archetypal event, emphasizing the importance (first) of stone and (later) of iron tools in agriculture, urban planning, lumbering, archi tecture, warfare, and art. (124) We are also reminded of Ogun's vital contributions to the human image molded by Obatala, detailing the face and "cutting open" the eyes later activated by Esu. The resultant image--a "masterpiece"--embodies a special ase (transformatory power), inspiring and sustaining the creativity manifested in the visual and performing arts and enabling the Yoruba collective to continually redesign its environment as well as to re-present itself through body adornments and idealized or conventionalized portraiture. As one divination verse remarks:

If I am created, I will re-create myself

I will observe all the taboos

Having been created, I shall now re-create myself. (125)

Three major questions remain, however. Since the creativity deity Obatala also assumed an anthropomorphic form in order to accompany the first humans to the earth, was the archetypal human image a self-portrait? Or was Obatala originally a mortal who once lived in ancient Ife and was deified as an orisa for his phenomenal creative endowment? Or was he a figment of the imagination and a self-reflection of the Yoruba artist? That Obatala was a deified culture hero, if not a self-reflection of the Yoruba artist, is evident in the popular Yoruba saying "Bi eniyan ko si, orisa ko si" (No humanity, no deity). (126) In other words, the worshiped depends on the worshiper for its existence; divinities are human constructs. (127) Put differently, it is eniyan (humanity) that visualized and anthropomorphized the orisa (divinity), Simultaneously inverting the process to rationalize its own creation. This act of self-reflection and self-re-creation (itunra'nite) constitutes the divinities (orisa) into a sort of superhuman Other--an extension of the metaphysical self--providing a basis for involving them in the ethics, aesthetics, poetics, and politics of human existence. It has resulted in a conventionalized form of portraiture that easily relates the self to the body politic, called Omo Oduduwa, (128) on the one hand, and to the superhuman Other, venerated as Olodumare, the orisa (divinities), and deified ancestors, on the other. Whether Oduduwa (the Yoruba mythical ancestor) is an earth goddess or a historical male figure is not an issue here. Much more important is how the concept of a common ancestor (alajobi) has been used to create a sociopolitical framework and a mode of portraiture in which myth and reality, word and image, the human and divine are intricately joined to forge a Yoruba identity out of previously diverse, even if related, groups.

Iworan: Portraiture, Spectacle, and the Dialectics of Looking

Since the face is the seat of the eyes (oju), no discussion of aworan (representation), especially portraiture, would be complete without relating it to iworan, the act of looking and being looked at, otherwise known as the gaze. To begin with, the Yoruba call the eyeball eyin oju, a refractive "egg" empowered by ase (mediated by Esu), enabling an individual to see (riran). As with other aspects of Yoruba culture, the eyeball is thought to have two aspects, an outer layer called oju ode (literally, external eye) or oju lasan (literally, naked eye), which has to do with normal, quotidian vision, and an inner one called oju inu (literally, internal eye) or oju okan (literally, mind's eye). The latter is associated with memory, intention, intuition, insight, thinking, imagination, critical analysis, visual cognition, dreams, trances, prophecy, hypnotism, empathy, telepathy, divination, healing, benevolence, malevolence, extrasensory perception, and witchcraft, among others. For the Yoruba, these two layers of th e eye combine to determine iworan, the specular gaze of an individual. The stress on the root verb, wo (to look at), clearly shows that aworan (portrait or picture) is a "lure" for the gaze--to borrow Jacques Lacan's term. (129) As noted earlier, the term aworan is a contraction of a (that which), wo (to look at), and ranti (to recall [the subject]), alluding both to the capacity of a representation to recall its referent and to an artist's preliminary contemplation (a-wo) of the raw material and the pictorial memory (iranti) involved in visualizing and objectifying the form. As Lacan has pointed out, the act of looking is influenced by a host of factors, such as desire, mood, knowledge, cultural milieu, and individual whims and caprices, and it is a reciprocal process as well. What we see (animate or inanimate) also "sees" us and has a particular way of relating to our eyes. (130) This illusion is most striking in aworan (especially a portrait), which stares back at the aworan (spectator), turning him or her into an iran (spectacle), if not another picture (aworan), (131) The fear that a viewer may subjectively read into a portrait's gaze what was not intended by the artist or the subject may very well be one of the reasons why many Yoruba in the past (especially the rich and privileged) refrained from having themselves portrayed naturalistically or in a manner that may trigger jealousy in the have-nots and awon aye (the evil-minded ones). A divination verse sums up the mutual suspicion associated with the gaze in the following manner:

You are looking at me; I am looking at you.

Who has something up his/her sleeves between the two of us? (132)

Some may resent how a portrait seems to snub them; others may be frustrated by something they see about themselves in that portrait--something they subconsciously want to be but, somehow, cannot be. It is as though the achievements of one person have hindered the progress of another.

It should be pointed out, however, that naturalistic effigies of the dead are not treated with the same suspicion, being primarily intended to mark their last physical, even if symbolic, appearance among the living. The popular saying "Oku olomo ki i sun gbagbe" (Those survived by children do not sleep forgetfully) (133) explains why most second-burial portraits have their eyes wide open (Figs. 7-12). It is an appeal to the departed to remain vigilant in the Afterlife, protecting the interests of their living relations and interceding with the deities on their behalf. (134) When installed indoors, seated on a stool, a second-burial effigy receives many salutations, becoming apewo (a focus of the gaze) and recalling the phrase "It is death that turns an individual into a beautiful sculpture; a living person has blemishes." (135) Some relations would look at the effigy straight in the eyes while chanting the oriki (eulogy) of the deceased, imploring its soul not to stay too long in the Afterlife before reincarn ating as a newborn baby. Former peers may talk to the image, calling the deceased by name and pledging to assist in completing any unfinished project or in ensuring that the toddlers left behind do not suffer. In 1967, at the second-burial ceremony (ipade) of a hunter at Ifo, near Abeokuta, I witnessed what the Yoruba would call awosunkun, that is, "look and cry." The effigy had just been delivered to the family by the carver and was taken to the backyard of the house for a dress rehearsal before the real ceremony began in the evening. It was rendered in the same style as that of Chief Aniwe (Figs. 11, 12), except that it had three vertical marks (pele) on the cheeks. Placed against the wall, the effigy was fitted with a cotton smock (dansiki) and a pouchlike hunter's cap (adiro). Then, some people knelt down and prayed in front of it. But the children of the deceased just stared speechlessly at the effigy, unable to control the tears welling up in their eyes and running down their cheeks. For them, it was a sad reminder of a physical self--once full of life, energy, and enthusiasm--now gone irretrievably with the past, to be encountered in an immaterial form only in dreams, visions, and flashes of memory, according to the dirge cited earlier. (136)

Whereas most second-burial figures are life-size and intended for public and open-air display, a good majority of the altar figures are smaller in scale, being designed to fit into private, prosceniumlike indoor spaces or small rooms serving as sites for offering periodic prayers and sacrifices to the deities or ancestral dead. Here the view of the figures is restricted to a handful of people such as the priest in charge or the owner of a given altar and those seeking spiritual assistance. Nonetheless, the diminutive and schematized forms of most altar figures, barely visible in the dimness of an indoor shrine, tend to place the figures at a considerable remove from the worldly, creating an illusion of an otherworldly space into which a beholder gazes in awe of the sublime (Fig. 23.) (137) With protruding eyes and looking like extraterrestrial beings, the figures (especially those with well-defined pupils) return the viewer's gaze so fixedly as if seeing beyond the visible or reading the viewer's mind. In the scopic encounter (and from the author's personal experience) one soon begins to identify with, or see oneself in the figures--not necessarily in the Lacanian sense of a mirror image in which the self is alienated (138) but, rather, in a futuristic sense (as the figures are not mimetic) of what this mortal self shall eventually and inevitably become: an ere (sculpture). This calls to mind, once again, that popular saying "It is death that turns an individual into a beautiful sculpture...." Some altar figures (especially those without clearly defined eyes) seem to look inward, as if in a reverie, or as if meditating on the fate of humanity. (139)

The Yoruba ambivalence toward the gaze is summed up in the popular phrase "Ejeji la a wo eniyan; bi o ba se yinyin, a se eebu" (We look at a person in one of two ways: either to commend or to condemn). (140) The positive aspect, which elicits commendation (iyin), has to do with the adun (pleasures or benefits) derived from looking or being admired. What attracts and nourishes the eyes (oju) is the ewa (beauty), isona (creativity), or ara (tour de force) manifested in a given spectacle, portrait, or a work of art in general. Any striking evidence of the beautiful or the virtuosic is said to fa oju mora (magnetize the eyes), ba oju mu (fit the eyes), becoming awowo-tun-wo (that which compels repeated gaze) or awoma-leelo (that which moors the gaze. (141) The genuine or a precious object is called ojulowo (literally, the eyes have money), implying that the object is so unique that "the eyes can spend any amount to look at it." An image is designated awoyanu (literally, that which causes the viewer to gape) if it manifests such an incredibly high artistic skill as to suggest the use of occult powers. Consequently, the Yoruba use the same term, dun (delicious), for a palatable meal and a memorable spectacle, both arousing a desire for more. In the words of a Yoruba poet:

What do we call food for the eyes?

What pleases the eyes as prepared yam flour satisfies the stomach?

The eyes have no food other than a spectacle....

Never will the eyes fail to greet the beautiful one;

Never will the eyes fail to look upon one-as-elegant-as-a-kob-antelope.

"Egungun masks are performing in the market; let us go and watch them."

It is because we want to feed the eyes." (142)

Thus, for the Yoruba, a verbal description, however vivid, can never match a direct observation. This is illustrated by the popular saying "Irohin ko to afojuba" (Listening to a report is not the same thing as being an eyewitness). The term aworeriin (look and laugh) often refers to a funny-looking image or a satirical performance, although it may also be applied to a poorly executed portrait that exposes the subject to public derision. Any image or spectacle (such as a performance by Gelede masks) that entertains and educates at the same time is called awokogbon (look and learn). The term awodunnu (look and feel the sweetness in the stomach), on the other hand, refers to a spectacle or image that fills one with joy. Yemoja, a fertility goddess and the source of all waters, is often called Awoyo (literally, the sight that fills the stomach) because of the popular belief that looking at her altar figure or into a pot of sacred water with pebbles from the Ogun River (which is sacred to her) fills her devotees' wombs with children. (143)

So far, we have dealt with the benefits of looking. What are the positive sides of being looked at, directly, or indirectly through one's portrait? Compliments (iyin) from admirers about one's physical endowment, character, taste, dress, or achievements boost one's ego and confidence and may also facilitate social mobility within one's community. One becomes a gbajumo, the Yoruba term for a celebrity, which literally means "someone known to two hundred [many] faces." (144) Since only a few achieve such a status, most people find solace in the possibility of obtaining the spiritual benefits of the gaze from Olodumare (Supreme Being) and the orisa (deities). As a matter of fact, the root verb wo (to gaze or look at) also means to nurture, to look after, or to cure, (145) as evident in the prayer for a newborn child, "Olodumare a woo" (May the Supreme Being look at or after it). In this context, wo (look at or after) is synonymous with toju (literally, bring up under the eyes), meaning to take care of. A medical facility is lle itoju (literally, a house for health care). A successful treatment is iwosan, a contraction of i (act of), wo (being gazed at), and san (be cured), or iwoye, that is, i (act of), wo (being gazed at), and ye (be saved). In preventive medicine, as mentioned earlier, the portrait of an individual may be kept in a shrine to immunize the subject from infectious diseases or sorcery. Now and then, a woman who conceived and had a child after offering sacrifices to an ancestor or a particular deity may return to its shrine to deposit a votive mother and child figure portraying herself and the child. (146) That such portraits are under the protective gaze of the ancestors or orisa is obvious in popular Yoruba names like Ogunwoo (Iron deity, look after this [child]) and Sangobamiwoo (Thunder deity, help me to look after this [child]). The following invocation to Ifa (the divination deity) sheds more light on this phenomenon:

Ifa, fix your eyes upon me and look at me well

It is when you fix your eyes upon one that he is rich;

It is when you fix your eyes upon one that he prospers. (147)

This type of gaze is called oju rere (the benevolent eye) or oju aanu (the merciful eye). (148) It follows, therefore, that the Yoruba altar, called ojubo (literally, face of the worshiped), functions as a kind of mask that facilitates ifojukoju, namely, "a face-to-face communion" between the worshiper and the worshiped, enabling the latter to appreciate the oriki (eulogy) rendered in its honor. (149) It is worth noting that the most sacred symbol of a deity--an organic substance or a collection of charms--is usually concealed inside a wooden bowl with a face carved on it to provide an ocular outlet for its content (Fig. 24). Such a face also implicates Esu the agent of sight and receiver and courier of all the sacrifices offered to a deity. (150)

This brings us to the consequences of being looked at in a negative manner. To begin with, any transgression of the social, moral, or dress codes often attracts frowns (ibojuje), uncomplimentary remarks (eebu), and such actions as may affect one's reputation or career. However, the gaze most feared by the Yoruba is that of an aje (a woman with mystical powers) or an oso (her male counterpart), whose oju okan (mind's eye) is deemed to have both beneficent and maleficent aspects. Its maleficent aspect, called oju oro (poisonous eye) or oju buruku (evil eye) generates--according to popular belief--enigmatic rays that penetrate the victim's body, either directly or through a portrait, causing high blood pressure, mental derangement, malignant sores and tumors, paralysis of the limbs, infertility in men and women, epileptic seizures, and debilitating diseases, among other effects. Anyone who dies suddenly after complaining of seeing strange faces in dreams is suspected of being a victim of awopa (literally, killer gaze). This term is also used sarcastically for an incompetent doctor (known for wrong diagnoses) and whose patients are more likely to die than survive their illnesses. (151)

Aiwoo!: The Politics of Image Concealment

The emphasis on observable representations in the current discourse of the gaze tends to ignore a practice common in sub-Saharan Africa whereby images are deliberately concealed to stress their ontological significance or "affecting presence." (152) For instance, among the Baule of Cote d'lvoire, as Susan Vogel has observed, "the act of looking at a work of art, or at spiritually significant objects, is for the most part privileged and potentially dangerous. ... The power and danger of looking lie in a belief that objects are potent, capable of polluting those who see them." (153) The Yoruba have a similar concept, as expressed in the popular admonition "Eni to ba wo iwokuwo, yo ri irikuri" (Whoever looks at the forbidden will see the fearful). In other words, delightful as looking may be on certain occasions, it could be fraught with danger at times. This is because eyin oju, the refractive "egg" called the eyeball, could weaken or be extinguished like a lamp if exposed to the sight of the "forbidden," which , in Yoruba thought, may range from ghosts to potent charms and images. Such phenomena are called awofoju (literally, look and be blinded) or awoku (literally, look and die), depending on the mystical powers attributed to them. (154) Only initiates or those whose eyes are ritually protected may safely look. The images in this category derive their mystique partly from folklore and partly from the fact that they are frequently covered up when displayed in broad daylight. For example, before being taken out of the shrine for a special ceremony in the forest, the stone images of the creativity deity Obatala (right) and his consort Yemoo (left) are wrapped in white cloth (Fig. 25). Tradition requires that the bearers of the images chant a special incantation, which, as Phillips Stevens puts it, "will cause the images to become lighter and their bearers more comfortable. If the incantation is not sung with a will, or if it is neglected entirely, the bearer of the images will tire and become weak." (155) Conscious of the onlookers, who keep a safe distance, the bearers often turn the occasion into a performance, using cadence and body language to dramatize the sacredness and heaviness of the wrapped images.

Whenever an exceptionally potent image is to be exposed in a public ritual that takes place mostly at night, a curfew is usually in force. During the event a voice warns intermittently, "Don't look at it! [Aiwoo!] ]"; 'You see it, you die! [Wori, Woku!]"; "Don't look at it! [Aiwoo!]." This is particularly the case with the Agan, a mythological being that comes out on the eve of the annual festival of masks (Odun Egungun) honoring the "Living Dead." The Agan image (sometimes represented by a bundle of charms, a carving, a masked figure, or spirit medium) is enveloped in darkness and closely guarded by attendants holding whips. As the procession approaches an area, the residents are cautioned to put out all the lights within and outside their houses to ensure total darkness. Now and then, an eerie voice cuts through the night, followed by a chorus proclaiming the Agan's supernatural power. For example:

Agan's arms are smaller than the sand fly's

Its tail is not as big as the ant's

Yet 1,460 men lifted Agan

And could not lift it to knee level. (156)

One divination verse hints at the dire consequences of spying on the Agan:

Do not set your eyes on me

No one looks at the Orombo (157)

If the Agan comes Out in daytime

Trees will fall upon trees; palms will fall upon one another

Forests will be razed to the ground

The savannah will burn out completely

This is what the Ifa oracle predicted for Mafojukanmi [Do-Not-Set-Your-Eyes-on-Me]

Popularly called Agan. (158)

According to Peter Morton-Williams, a British anthropologist who did fieldwork in Yorubaland in the 1950s, the Agan was accompanied by other "unlookable" beings during the Egungun festival at Ota:

It is important here to draw attention to the calculated use of sound effects and picturesque language against the darkness of the night, to project a surreal vision of the unseeable while, at the same time, denying the people confined indoors access to its material representation. (160) The ultimate aim is to control visual behavior and instill a reverential fear of the sacred so complex that the mere realization that one has seen the forbidden may precipitate the psychosomatic complications popularly associated with awofoju (look and be blinded) or awoku (look and die).

My escort to Ota had spent the night with his kinsmen, shut in another house, and he told me the next day that they had all been very much afraid, for they believed that Agan and Mariwo had magic which enable [d] them to "see" and attack anyone they wanted, wherever he was hidden in a house. On the last night of the festival, there is again a terrifying incursion, under the same conditions, with people locked in their houses with lights extinguished. This visitation is of Aranta. The Aranta is said to be accompanied by the voice of many animals and birds, and the sound of "witchcraft," made with a variety of voice-disguisers. (159)

New Forms, Old Values: Contemporary Developments

Since the turn of the twentieth century, Yorubaland, like other parts of Africa, has been witnessing unprecedented cultural, political, and economic transformations due to the impact of Western education, modern technology, and increasing urbanization. Yet many Yoruba have not totally abandoned their ancient customs. Mass conversion to Islam and Christianity, both of which associate traditional sculpture with paganism, has led some Yoruba to adopt new forms as camouflage in order to continue with those indigenous values to which they are still emotionally attached. While modern photography has encouraged a good majority to record important events in their lives through individual and family portraits, the fear lingers that a printed image is susceptible to sympathetic magic. Hence, individuals keep their photograph albums in a secure place to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. Some Yoruba herbalists advise that one should hold one's breath while posing for a photograph to immunize the image again st sorcery. Photographs now play major roles in a number of public and private ceremonies, either alone or in conjunction with sculptures carved in the traditional style.

The image on the lap of the seated woman in Figure 26 (carved by Ajayi Ibuke in 1970) represents the current king of Oy6, Alaafin Oba Lamidi Adeyemi II, who is required to be present, in spirit but not in person, at certain public ceremonies intended to promote the social and spiritual well-being of his subjects. I took this picture in Oyo in 1972 at the grand finale of the annual festival in honor of Sango, one of the ancient kings of Old Oyo who was deified and is now associated with thunder power (Fig. 18). The carved image has a photograph of Oba Adeyemi attached to stress his liminal role as a living representative of Sango on earth. (161) All the important guests arriving at the venue bowed before the "photo-sculptural" image of Oba Adeyemi, and during the ceremony it was the focus of attention. The drummers, dancers, and Sango-possession priests performed before it most of the time. During the intervals, praise singers entered the performance arena, moving back and forth in front of the image and chant ing the king's oriki (eulogy). The audience responded intermittently with "Ka-bi-ye-si!" (Long live the king!). At the end of the ceremony, the chief possession priest faced the image, as if it were the king himself, and wished him good health, long life, and the continued blessing of Sango. In fact, when not in use, this carved portrait is usually kept inside the Sango temple in the Koso area of town, an act that metaphorically places the king (Oba Adeyemi) under the divine and protective gaze of Sango.

Enlarged photographs are now a popular substitute for carved effigies in second-burial ceremonies, being buried in the same manner as the effigies. (162) In some cases, a second-burial memorial for a hunter (ipade) may be no more than an assemblage of flintlocks, hunting dress, hat, and charms, in front of which is displayed a photograph of the deceased. Those who can afford the expenses now commission naturalistic, Western-type memorials in cement, stone, or marble in honor of deceased parents. (163) Yet, in times of crisis, these memorials often double as shrines for clandestine rituals enlisting the spiritual aid of the dead.

There is a peculiar use of photography in twin rituals that denies the specificity of its naturalism in order to emphasize the oneness in the twoness of twins. For instance, if one of the pair should die without leaving behind a photographic image, the surviving twin is photographed in the dress of the deceased, becoming its proxy in the photograph, whether or not they are identical. This photographic image thereafter serves as a means of maintaining the twins' togetherness in life and death. If the twins are of the same sex, the photographer sometimes exposes the image of the surviving twin twice on the same paper, so that the living and the dead (represented by the living) appear to be sitting side by side in the print. But if the twins are of the opposite sex, the surviving twin is photographed in a male dress and then in a female's. The two images are eventually combined in the final print as if the twins had posed together (Fig. 27). (164) Such photographs are thought to have spiritual powers and are som etimes placed in shrines, receiving offerings of food like the carved statuettes. (165) As Marilyn Houlberg observed in the field, "The life of the survivor is said to depend on the existence and veneration of the photograph, just as it would be in the case of a wood image." (166) Through this photomontage technique, contemporary Yoruba photographers perpetuate old values in new forms, especially the tradition of deemphasizing individual identity for a collective one, which, in the case of twins, affirms their sameness.

In sum, despite the impact of Western aesthetics and modern technology on the Yoruba, they have not completely given up their belief in the ontological, mnemonic, and ritual significance of aworan (representation). Art in the traditional styles continues to be made, though it is gradually being modified to reflect the dynamics of change. Naturalistic portraits of living persons (in oil painting and other media) are now a commonplace in Yorubaland, due, in part, to a growing acceptance of the documentary function of modern photography and, in part, to a significant decline in the fear of sorcery, especially among the elites in the urban areas. Sometimes, as we have seen in twin memorials, the physical likeness inherent in photography may be ignored to make it serve a conceptual and ritual function, so that the same form may be duplicated to represent the self and its metaphysical Other. In short, a strong belief in an interface of the visible and invisible, the tangible and intangible, the known and unknown ma kes it evident that the act of looking and seeing in Yoruba culture is much more than a perception of objects by use of the eyes. It is a social experience as well, involving, on the one hand, a delicate balance of culturally determined modes of perceiving and interpreting reality and, on the other, individual reactions to specific images and spectacles.


The first version of this article (titled "Beyond Physiognomy: The Signifying Face in Yoruba Art and Thought") was presented at a special session of the African Studies Workshop, University of Chicago, Jan. 27, 1998. I am grateful to Ralph Austen, Andrew Apter, Fredrika Jacobs, Howard Risatti, Robert Hobbs, Sharon Hill, Allan Roberts, Polly Nooter Roberts, and the anonymous Art Bulletin readers for their thoughtful comments. Special thanks are due to John T. Paoletti and Perry Chapman for their criticisms, insights, and suggestions, Lory Frankel for her meticulous copyediting, and Ulli Beier, George Chemeche, Justine Cordwell, Ron Epps, Robin Poynor, Robert Farris Thompson, Frank Willett, and Richard Woodward for photographic assistance. I would also like to acknowledge the research support provided by the Faculty Grant-in-Aid and the School of the Arts Research Leave programs, Virginia Commonwealth University. Translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

(1.) See Babatunde Lawal, "The Role of Art in Orisa Worship among the Yoruba," in Proceedings of the First World Congress of Orisa Tradition, ed. Wande Abimbola (Ile-Ife, Nigeria: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ife, 1981), 318-25. Whereas aworan is a generic term for all artistic representations, the word ere refers to an image in the round, that is, a piece of sculpture. The word ere denotes an intricate design or pattern, although it is also used to describe a tour de force manifested in the visual and performing arts.

(2.) For example, awo means plate; awo, fishing net; and awo, secrecy.

(3.) See also A Dictionary of the Yoruba Language (Lagos: Oxford University Press, 1968); and R. C. Abraham, Dictionary of Modern Yoruba (London: University of London Press, 1958).

(4.) Richard Brilliant, Portraiture (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991), 11.

(5.) See Samuel Johnson, The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorates (Lagos: Church Missionary Society, 1921); Saburi 0. Biobaku, ed., Sources of Yoruba History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973); Wande Abimbola, ed., Yoruba Oral Tradition (Ile-Ife, Nigeria: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ife, 1975); Toyin Falola, ed., Yoruba Historiography (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991); and Abiodun et al. In his extensive study of oral tradition in Africa and other parts of the world, Jan Vansina has demonstrated that, while they may not be as reliable as written documentation, oral traditions "embody a message from the past" and so can contribute much to the reconstruction of the past, provided that they are used with caution and correlated with independent evidence. See Vansina, Oral Tradition as History Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); and idem, Art History in Africa (London: Longman, 1984).

(6.) The city's name Ife is an abbreviation of Ile-Ife, meaning "the place from where civilization spread to other lands." The two names are used interchangeably in the literature on Yoruba art. For consistency, I use Ife throughout this article, except in quoted passages and bibliographic references.

(7.) Notwithstanding the fact that they spoke different dialects of the same language, each kingdom was independent of the other and identified by a distinct name. The term Yoruba formerly applied only to the Oyo subgroup. However, after the British colonization of Nigeria in the 19th century, the term was used to categorize all the kingdoms speaking the same language as the Oyo. For a good introduction to the history and culture of the Yoruba, see G. J. Afolabi Ojo, Yoruba Culture: A Geographical Analysis (London: University of London Press, 1966); and Robert S. Smith, Kingdoms of the Yoruba, 3d ed. (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988). For a comprehensive survey of Yoruba art, see Robert F. Thompson, Black Gods and Kings, Yoruba Art at U.C.L.A. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971); and Drewal et al.

(8.) J. Olumide Lucas, The Religion of the Yorubas (Lagos: Church Missionary Society, 1948), 93-97; Ulli Beier, "The Historical and Psychological Significance of Yoruba Myths," Odu, Journal of Yoruba and Related Studies I (1955): 19-22; and Idowu, 25-27. For details, see Biodun Adediran, "The Early Beginnings of the Ife State," in Akinjogbin, 77.

(9.) For details, see John Wyndham, Myths of Ife (London: Erskine Macdonald, 1921), 13-34; Phillips Stevens, "Orisa-Nla Festival," Nigeria Magazine, no. 90 (1966): 187; Idowu, 18-27; Fabunmi, 6-7; Smith (as in n. 7), 14; and Isola Olomola, "Ife before Oduduwa," in Akinjogbin, 51-61.

(10.) Adediran (as in n.8), 90; and Isaac Akinjogbin, "The Growth of Ife from Oduduwa to 1800," in Akinjogbin, 98.

(11.) For details, see Abiodun A. Adediran and Samuel A. Arifalo, "The Religious Festivals of Ife," in Akinjogbin, 305-17; and Joel Adedaji, "Folklore and Yoruba Drama: Obatala as a Case Study," in African Folklore, ed. Richard M. Dorson (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1972), 321-39. See also Blier, 3, 386.

(12.) For a review of the evidence, see Robin C. Law, "The Heritage of Oduduwa Traditions: History and Political Propaganda," Journal of African History 14, no. 2 (1973): 207-22; Ade Obayemi, "The Yoruba and EdoSpeaking Peoples and Their Neighbours before 1600," in History of West Africa, ed. J.F.A. Ajayi and Michael C. Crowder, vol. 1 (London: Longman, 1971), 196-263; Isola Olomola, "The Eastern Yoruba Country before Oduduwa: A Reassessment," in The Proceedings of the Conference on Yoruba Civilization, ed. Isaac A. Akinjogbin and G. 0. Ekemode (Ile-Ife, Nigeria: Department of History, University of Ife, 1976), 34-73; Ulli Baler, "Before Oduduwa," Odu, Journal of Yoruba and Related Studies 3 (1956): 25-42; Robin Horton, "Ancient Ife: A Reassessment," Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 9, no. 4 (1979): 69-150; and Samuel 0. Arifalo, "Egbe Omo Oduduwa: Structure and Strategy," Odu, Journal of West African Studies, n,s., no. 21 (1981): 73-96. To further reinforce the Omo Oduduwa doctrine, the Yoruba al so call themselves Omo e k'aaro, e o ji ire? (Those who love to say, "Good morning, did you wake up well?)--alluding to the emphasis on courtesy in their culture. The quest for social harmony is emphasized in the proverb "E k'aaro e o ji ire ki i s'omo iya ija" (figuratively, Good neighborliness and quarrelsomeness are not compatible).

(13.) Idowu, 71. This prayer is necessary because Obatala is characterized in some myths as a habitual drinker who, when drunk, creates albinos, hunchbacks, cripples, and other disfigured persons.

(14.) For details, see Wande Abimbola, Iwapele: The Concept of Good Character in Ifa Literary Corpus," in Abimbola (as in n. 5), 389-418; Lawal, 1974, 239-49; Rowland Abiodun, "Identity and Artistic Process in Yoruba Aesthetic Concept of Iwa," Journal of Culture and Ideas 1 no, 1 (1983): 13-30; and idem, "The Future of African Studies: An African Perspective," in African Studies: The Future of the Discipline, Symposium Organized by the National Museum of African Art (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), 63-89.

(15.) The identification of the female body with procreation was probably responsible for the taboo in the past that a woman should not engage in sculpture because it might interfere with her reproductive power. Hence, only postmenopausal women were allowed to do figurative pottery. Although this taboo is still strong in rural Yorubaland, it is no longer honored by the Western-educated Yoruba in the urban areas, who now allow their daughters to specialize in sculpture in art school.

(16.) See Beier, 19-20. Another Yoruba word for mother is iye or yeye, which means, according to several field informants, "the one who laid me [ye] like an egg." Because of the tonal nature of the Yoruba language, it is significant to note that while ya means to visualize or fashion in any medium. Ya means to draw. I am grateful to several Yoruba artists for the ideas expressed in this paragraph, most especially, Michael Labode of Idofoyi, Ayetoro, Ganiyu Sekoni Doga of Imeko (both interviewed in 1971), Ajayi Ibuke of Oyo (interviewed in 1972-73), Gbetu Asude of Ife (interviewed in 1971); and George Bamidele of Osi Ekiti (interviewed in 1973).

(17.) The carver Ganiyu Sekoni Doga of Imeko drew my attention to a cognate term, arogbe, a contraction of a (act of), ro (to think or imagine). And gbe (to carve).

(18.) The Earth Goddess is frequently represented on the altar as a pair of male and female figures to symbolize her androgynous nature and the fact that she transcends the manifestation of gender in the physical world. For more details, see Babatunde Lawal, "A YA GBO, A YA TO: New Perspectives on Edan Ogboni," African Arts 28, no. 1 (1995): 36-49, 98-100; Peter Morton-Williams, "An Outline of the Cosmology of the Oyo Yoruba," Africa, Journal of the International African Institute 34 (1964): 243-60; and E. Roache-Selk, From the Womb of the Earth: An Appreciation of Yoruba Bronze Art (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1978).

(19.) Although Yoruba artists have produced works in various media, ranging from clay and ivory to stone, iron, and brass, a good majority of them are in wood. This is partly because wood is easy to sculpt and partly because much of Yorubaland lies in the rain-forest zone with abundant trees for carving.

(20.) For more details, see Peter Lloyd, "Craft Organizations in Yoruba Towns," Africa, Journal of the International African Institute 23 (1953): 30-44; and Abiodun et al.

(21.) Abiodun, 1990 (as in n. 14), 76-77.

(22.) See also Kevin C. Carroll, Yoruba Religious Carving (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1967), 94-95; and Tunde Akinyemi, "Ise Ona Sise," in Ise Isenbaye, ed. T. M. Ilesanmi (Ile-Ife, Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo University Press. 1989), 257-59.

(23.) I am especially grateful to indigenous carvers suds as George Bamidele of Osi Ekiti, Ajayi Ibuke of Oyo, and Ganiyu Sekoni Doga of Imeko for their hospitality during my fieldwork. For more information on ase, see Pierre Verger, "The Yoruba High God: A Review of the Sources," Odu, University of Ife Journal of African Studies 2, no. 2 (1966): 19-40; and Rowland Abiodun, "Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics: The Concept of Ase," African Arts 27, no. 3 (1994): 68-78, 102-3.

(24.) For more information on oriki, see Chief J. A. Ayorinde, "Oriki," in Biobaku (as in n. 5), 63-76; Bolanle Awe, "Notes on Oriki and Warfare in Yorubaland" in Abimbola (as in n. 5), 267-92; and Karen Barber, I Could Speak until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women, and the Past in a Yoruba Town (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).

(25.) Wande Abimbola, Ifa: An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus (Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press, 1976), 133-34 (trans.). Yoruba text: "Bi mo ba lowo lowo / Ori ni n o ro fun / Ori mi iwo ni / Bi mo ba bimo laye / Orin ni n o ro fun / Ori mi iwo ni / Ire gbogbo u mo ba ni laye / Ori ni n o ro fun / Ori mi iwo ni."

(26.) For more details, see Babatunde Lawal, "Orilonise: The Hermeneutics of the Head and Hairstyles among the Yoruba," in Hair in African Art and Culture, ed. Roy Sieber and Frank Herreman (New York: Museum of African Art; Munich: Prestel, 2000), 93-109.

(27.) Olabiyi B. Yai, "In Praise of Metonymy: The Concepts of 'Tradition' and 'Creativity' in the Transmission of Yoruba Artistry over Time and Space," in Abiodun et al., 107.

(28.) For details, see Babatunde Lawal, "Ori: The Significance of the Head in Yoruba Sculpture," Journal of Anthropological Research 41, no. 1 (1985): 91-103.

(29.) For more on Esu, see Idowu, 78-83; Joan Wescott, "The Sculpture and Myths of Eshu-Elegba, the Yoruba Trickster," Africa, Journal of the International African Institute 32, no. 4 (1962): 337-54: Juana E. Dos Santos and Deoscoredes dos Santos, Esu Bara Laroye (Ibadan, Nigeria: Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, 1971); and John Pemberton, "Eshu-Elegba: The Yoruba Trickster God," African Arts 9, no. 1 (1975): 20-27, 66-70, 90-91.

(30.) Wande Abimbola, "The Yoruba Concept of Human Personality," in La notion de personne en Afrique: Colloques internationaux du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, no. 544 (Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1971), 80. See also Lawal (as in n. 28), 91-103; and Rowland Abiodun, "Verbal and Visual Metaphors: Mythical Allusions in Yoruba Ritualistic Art of Ori," Word and Image, Journal of Verbal-Visual Inquiry 3, no. 3 (1987): 252-70.

(31.) Christopher L. Adeoye, Asa ati Ise Yoruba (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 30.

(32.) In the Yoruba language, the word oju refers to both the face and the eye; the eyeball is eyin oju (the egg of the eye). The face, as used in this article, also implicates the eyes, except when it is necessary to differentiate the one from the other.

(33.) William Bascom, Ifa Divination: Communication between Men an Gods in West Africa (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1969), 159.

(34.) Ibid., 97.

(35.) See also Nathaniel Fadipe, The Sociology of the Yoruba (Ibadan, Nigeria: University of Ibadan Press, 1970), 285-86.

(36.) Philip Allison, African Stone Sculpture (New York: Frederick Praeger, 1968), 21.

(37.) Labolarinde is the name of the individual being asked to go and look for Esu's figure at the city gate.

(38.) Pierre Verger, Notes sur le culte des Orisa et Vodun a Bahia, la Baie de tous les Saints, au Bresil et a l'Ancienne Cote des Esclaves en Afrique (Dakar, Senegal: IFAN, 1957), 127. Yoruba text: "A le kuru A le ga / O nlo ninu epa atari re nhan firifiri / Opelope giga ti o ga / Esu ni o gun ori aro ni o fi bu iyo si obe. . . . / Labolarinde, ti o ba de bode ti o ko ba ba ni enu odi ni nro oko / On na ni o da oko nibiti arugbo le de." See also Pemberton (as in n. 29), 25; Beier, 28; and Adeoye (as in n. 31), 32.

(39.) For the Yoruba, iwa has two aspects, the external and internal; the one has to do with physical appearance, and the other with character. Both aspects are taken into consideration in the assessment of an individual's beauty (ewa). For instance, a person with a beautiful body but who has an unpleasant character is regarded as no more than a wooden doll, whereas the popular saying asserts, "Iwa I'ewa" (Character determines beauty). For details, see Lawal, 1974, 239-49.

(40.) Robert F. Thompson, "Yoruba Artistic Criticism," in The Traditional Artist in African Society, ed. Warren L. D'Azevedo (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1973), 32.

(41.) For more on the Yoruba concept of the spirit double, see Raymond Prince, "Indigenous Yoruba Psychiatry," in Magic, Faith and Healing, ed. Ari Kiev (New York: Free Press, 1964), 93-94; and Idowu, 173. In the case of twins (ibeji), some Yoruba believe that an individual has been born along with his or her spirit double. For details, see Marilyn Houlberg, "Ibeji Images of the Yoruba," African Arts 7, no. 1 (1973): 20-27, 91.

(42.) Frequently, the patient may be given some herbal mixture to drink or an amulet to wear on the body to link the portrait with the portrayed.

(43.) Informants wish to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the materials. According to them, to prevent abortion or premature delivery, for instance, a piece of twine may be wound around the belly of an image representing the patient. This ritual is called oyun dide (tying of pregnancy). The twine would be removed a few weeks before the baby was due, otherwise, normal delivery would be impossible. In sorcery, the same method may be used to delay or postpone delivery indefinitely. That is why any woman with an unusually long pregnancy is advised to consult diviners to help trace the cause. A patient with persistent or chronic body pain is sometimes given a small effigy to be kept very close to the body so that the pain can transfer into it. After a while, the effigy is thrown into a river to cool the pain. Gagging an effigy may cause the subject to stammer or become incoherent or speechless. This is called edi (muzzling). Another form of edi involves binding up an effigy's limbs with a string to hamper movement or cause paralysis. William Fagg illustrates a bound figure in his book Miniature Wood Carvings of West Africa (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1970), pl. 24, although, according to him, the function of the string is unknown. An image with a swollen leg or scrotum is expected to cause elephantiasis, though the same image may be used to effect a cure. In a special ritual called apeta (invoke and shoot) or apepa (invoke and kill), a clay effigy is procured and then shot at with a gun or poisoned arrow. The subject is expected to die sooner or later. Among the Fon of the Republic of Benin, "power images" variously called bocio (bo, charm, and cio, corpse) and atin vle gbeto (atin, wood, vle, resembling, and gbeto, human being) perform similar functions. Some bocio are portraits of specific individuals, while others represent personified nature forces. For details, see Suzanne P. Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

(44.) Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief Myth, and Art (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998), 7-10. See also Lawal, 1974, 242-43.

(45.) Timothy A. Awoniyi, "Omoluwabi: The Fundamental Basis of Yoruba Traditional Education," in Abimbola (as in n. 5), 379.

(46.) Idowu, 11; and Fabunmi, 8.

(47.) As cautioned in the popular proverb: "Bi isu eni ba tu, nse ni a a f' owo bo o je" (After cooking a good yam, one must cover one's mouth while eating it). In other words, to avoid the jealousy of the have-nots, one must not parade one's good fortune in public. See J. O. Ajibola, Owe Yoruba (Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press, 1979), 63.

(48.) In the past, physiognomy was considered an important aspect of portraiture in the West. For a review of the literature, see Hans P. L'Orange, Apotheosis in Ancient Portraiture (1947; reprint, New Rochelle, N.Y.: Caratzas Brothers, 1982); Flavio Caroli, Storia della Fisiognomica: Arte e psicologia da Leornado a Freud (Milan: Leonardo, 1995); Christopher Rivers, Face Value: Physiognomical Thought and the Legible Body in Marivaux, Lavater, Balzac, Gauthier, and Zola (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994); Fredrika Jacobs, Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa: Women Artists and the Language of Art History and Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Jennifer Montagu, The Expression of the Passions: The Origin and Influence of Charles Le Brun's "Conference sun l'expression generale et particuliere" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); Ernst H. Gombrich, "The Mask and the Face: The Perception of Physiognomic Likeness in Life and Art," in Art, Perception and Reality, ed. Ernst H. Gombrich, Julian Hochberg, and Max Black (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 1-46; and Joanna Woodall, ed., Portraiture: Facing the Subject (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).

See also Daniel P. Biebuyck, ed., Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969); and Robert F. Thompson, African Art in Motion (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974).

(49.) A second-burial figure is called ako if it represents a deceased chief or community leader and ipade if it represents a deceased hunter. However, the ipade may also represent those who are not hunters, including women. See P. O. Ogunbowale, Asa Ibile Yoruba (Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press, 1966), 60-61.

(50.) The following song sung during an ako display in Owo is also significant: "May I be privileged to bury my father / May I be privileged to bury my father / Despite all evil machinations / Despite all evil farces / I will carry my father through the path of honour...." See Abiodun, 10-11. Note the oriki for deceased twins cited below at n. 105.

(51.) For more information on second-burial images, see Justine Cordwell, "Naturalism and Stylization in Yoruba Art," Magazine of Art 46 (1953): 220-25; Willett, 1966, 34-45; Abiodun, 4-20; Babatunde Lawal, "The Living Dead: Art and Immortality among the Yoruba," Africa, Journal of the International African Institute 47, no. 1 (1977): 50-61; and Robin Poynor, "Ako Figures of Owo and Second Burials in Southern Nigeria," African Arts 21, no. 1 (1988): 62-63, 81-83, 86-87.

(52.) Abiodun, 14-15. In other cases, the child, clad in the best dress of the deceased (regardless of whether the dress is Oversize), is led around the town, functioning like a living effigy. If the deceased was a chief, the human surrogate would be greeted, addressed, and paid the same respects as one. However, the human surrogate is not buried like an effigy. See Lawal (as in n. 51), 52.

(53.) Abiodun, 11 (trans.). Yoruba text: "Oronaye o / Wa na ire / Wa a bero toli o / Oluda iramen.... / Agada mimi ye rekun eje / Urogho ola / Ba mi le esule o / Oma owootoon woosin ogho / Urogho ola, ha mi le esule o."

(54.) Yoruba text: "Maj'okunrun / Maj'ekolo / Ohun ti won nje l'ajule orun / Ni ki o ba won je / O di gbere / O di arinako / O di oju ala / Ki a to rira." "For variants of this dirge, see Bade Ajuwon, Funeral Dirges of Yoruba Hunters (New York: Nok, 1982), 66-67; and Babatunde Olatunji, Asa Isinku ati Ogun Jije," in Iwe Asa Ibile Yoruba, ed. Oludare Olajubu (Ikeja, Nigeria: Longman, 1978), 77-78.

(55.) To the Yoruba, the souls of those who died prematurely do not go directly to the Afterlife (Ehin-Iwa). Such souls may relocate in foreign lands, reincarnate in bodies identical to those interred, and continue to live like normal human beings. Some reincarnated souls (akudaaya) may even remarry and have children. For details, see William Bascom, "The Yoruba Concept of the Soul," in Men end Cultures, ed. A.F.C. Wallace (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960), 401-10.

(56.) For more information on second-burial images, see Cordwell (as in n. 51), 220-25; Willett, 1966, 34-45; Abiodun, 4-20; Lawal (as in n. 51), 50-61; and Poynor (as in n. 51).

(57.) Willett, 1966, 37. See also Abiodun, 14-15.

(58.) Frank Willet, "A Further Shrine for a Hunter," Man 65 (1965): 66.

(59.) For an illustration, see Ajuwon (as in n. 54), 132, 133.

(60.) These face marks identify an individual with a particular family or lineage. For illustrations, see Lawal (as in n. 51), pl. 1. Two different views of the image are illustrated in this article.

(61.) See, for example, Cordwell (as in n. 51), 220-25; Willett, 1967, 26-27; and Eyo and Willett, 34. The German anthropologist Leo Frobenius was the first to bring the Ife heads to the attention of Western scholars in the early years of the 20th century. See Frobenius, The Voice of Africa (1913; reprint, New York: Benjamin Bloom, 1968).

(62.) Cordwell (as in n. 51), 224; Willett, 1967, 23, 26-27; and Eyo and Willett, 34.

(63.) See, for example, Rowland Abiodun, review of African Art and Leadership, ed. Douglas Fraser and Herbert M. Cole, Odd, n.s., 10 (1974): 138; and Henry J. Drewal, "Ife: Origins of Art and Civilization," in Drewal et al., 66-67.

(64.) Drewal (as in n. 63), 66-67.

(65.) Akinjogbin, "Ife: The Years of Travail, 1793-1893," in Akinjogbin, 148-49.

(66.) Ironically, even though abobaku is a commonly used term, it is forbidden to say openly that a king (oba) has died (ku). Rather, one must use the euphemism obawaja, meaning "the king has ascended the roof" to join his ancestors.

(67.) See Idowu, 224-25. According to the legend, the next king was so angry with the plotters that he ordered their execution, including all the court artists involved. See also Willett, 1967, 150.

(68.) The fact that the crowns worn by some of the Ife brass and terra-cotta heads do not appear to have a beaded veil (Fig. 1) may indicate that between the 12th and 15th centuries, ancient Ife kings did not cover their face when appearing in public. If so, it would he unnecessary to conceal the face of their second-burial figures. However, the absence of a veil on the crown worn by this figure cannot be taken as incontrovertible evidence that the kings of the time appeared in public without veils. From the dress of the figure, it is evident that beaded ornaments formed an important part of the royal regalia at this time. Indeed, the Are crown, said to predate the arrival of Oduduwa in Ife, had a veil, though it is uncertain whether it was made of heads (see Adediran [as in n. 8], 84-86; an Are crown is illustrated in Omotoso Eluyemi, Oba Adesoji Aderemi: 50 Years in the History of Ile-Ife [Ile-Ife, Nigeria: Ogunbiyi Printing Press, 1980], pl. 25). The Oduduwa dynasty is credited with introducing the bead-em broidered crown with veil and bird motifs to the Yoruba. But according to Olomola (as in n, 12), 56-57, the Oduduwa dynasty would seem to have simply used a preexisting design as a model for its beaded crown. The question then arises: Is the absence of a beaded veil on the crown worn by many of the Ife (post-Oduduwa) king figures due to the technical problems of modeling the veil in clay and casting it in brass? Alternatively, the type of crown worn by a good majority of the Ife figures may very well belong to the category of coronets called orikogbofo (casual headgear) worn by the king within the palace, when his face was uncovered.

(69.) Bode Osanyin, "A Cross-road of History, Legend and Myth: The Case of the Origin of Adamuorisa," in "The Masquerade in Nigerian History and Culture: Proceedings of a Workshop, September 7-14, 1980," ed. Nwanna Nzewunwa (School of Humanities, University of Portharcourt, Portharcourt, Nigeria, 1982, mimeographed), 411-14. One legend traces its origin to the 17th century during the reign of Oba (king) Addo, while another claims that it began in the 18th century when Oba Ologun Kutere was on the throne.


(70.) Ibid., 432-33.

(71.) Ibid., 410; and Michael J.G. Echeruo, Victorian Lagos: Aspects of Nineteenth Century Lagos Life (London: Macmillan, 1977), 69-70.

(72.) As Olumide Lucas (as in n. 8), 145, has observed, "Even the Oba [the reigning king] ... May himself be an Eyo [masquerade] on that day." Since the 1940s, the function of the Adamuorisa festival has been expanded. Whereas in the past it was staged to honor only kings, chiefs, and members of the royal family, today it may also be staged to honor distinguished citizens of Lagos and to mark important events. See Osanyin (as in n. 69), 433.

(73.) Jacob Egharevba, A Short History of Benin (Ibadan, Nigeria: University of Ibadan Press, 1960), 12. According to Egharevba, this tradition stopped when Oba Oguola (who reigned in the 13th-14th century) requested the king of Ife to send a brass caster to teach Benin artists how to cast in metal. An Ife brass caster called Iguehae was later sent to Benin City. See also Willett, 1967, 132; and Paula G. Ben-Amos, The Art of Benin, rev. Ed. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 20-25.

(74.) Nathaniel A. Fadipe, The Sociology of the Yoruba (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1970), 206.

(75.) Ibid., 207.

(76.) For a review of the Ife king list, see Akinjogbin (as in n. 10), 96-121.

(77.) Adediran (as in n. 8), 90; and Akinjogbin (as in n. 10), 96-97.

(78.) Adediran (as in n. 8), 91; and Akinjogbin (as in n. 10), 96-97. Alaafin (owner of the palace), the Oyo title for the king, evidently derives from olofin, which is said to have been first used by Oduduwa.

(79.) Adediran (as in n. 8), 91-93. Until recently, some scholars had assumed that it was Obalufon who led the Igbo raids on Ife because he had been deposed by Oranmiyan (see, for instance, Adedeji [as in n. 11], 326-27, quoting J. O. Abiri; and Blier, 388-89, quoting Adedeji). But, as Adediran (ibid.) and Fabunmi, 17, have pointed Out, the defeat of the Igbo occurred during the second reign of Obalufon (Alayemoore), when the Ife heroine Moremi allowed herself to he captured by the Igbo. She later married the Igbo king, acquired knowledge of the Igbo war strategies, and then escaped. She returned to Ife and revealed these strategies to Obalufon, and the Igbo were routed when next they raided Ife. See also Duro Ladipo, Moremi (Lagos: Macmillan, 1971).

(80.) For a comprehensive review of Ife art and culture, see Willett, 1967.

(81.) Fabunmi, 10-11. See also Adediran (as in n. 8), 90-91; and Akinjogbin (as in n. 10), 98-99, 105.

(82.) See Blier, 385-90. According to Frank Willett, 1967 (150), the Obalufon mask might have been worn by somebody masquerading as the king, possibly playing the role of Obalufon at certain ceremonies.

(83.) Akinjogbin (as in n. 10), 99.

(84.) Willett, 1967, 57, 150; and Sir Adesoji Aderemi, "Notes on the City of Ife," Nigeria Magazine 12 (1937): 3-6.

(85.) Johnson (as in n. 5), 3-8; and Saburi O. Biobaku, The Orgin of the Yoruba, Humanities Monograph Series, no. 1 (Lagos: University of Lagos, 1971), 8-13.

(86.) See Johnson (as in n. 5), 59.

(87.) Akinjogbin (as in n. 10), 104. According to some accounts, Debooye later succeeded her father, although others claim that she became king not immediately, hut several years later. Only a few female kings are mentioned in the Ife king list, the most famous being Luwo.

(88.) At Old Oyo, there was a custom of commissioning a carved, though sylized, portrait of a new king to serve as his surrogate at certain public and private ceremonies. The tradition has survived at present-day Oyo, (see below at n. 161 and Fig. 26). Elsewhere in Africa, among the Kuba of Zaire, it was the practice in the past to make a stylized portrait (ndop) of a new king at the beginning of his reign, which then served as his surrogate on certain occasions. This portrait was also involved in the ritual transfer of royal power from a deceased king to his successor. See Jan Vansina, "Ndop: Royal Statues among the Kuba," in African Art and Leadership, ed. Douglas Fraser and Herbert M. Cole (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972), 41-55; and Monni Adams, "18th Century Kuba King Figures," African Arts 21, no. 3 (1988): 32-38, 88.

(89.) See Willett, 1967, 28-30; and idem, "Stylistic Analysis and the Identification of Artists' Workshops in Ancient Ife," in Abiodun et al., 49-57. Because of the heads' formal and stylistic similarities, Kenneth Murray ("Ancient Ife: Letter to the Editor," Odu 9 [1963]: 71-80) has suggested that a good majority might have been made by one or two artists within a short period. Agreeing with Murray, Blier, 395-99, is of the opinion that, given the fact that most of the heads resemble the Oba1ufon mask (Fig. 14). They may very well be associated with that famous ruler.

(90.) The leading Yoruba historian Isaac Adeagbo Akinjogbin refers to the Omo Oduduwa concept as the "Ebi Commonwealth"; that is, an "extended family." See Isaac A. Akinjogbin, Dahomey and Its Neighbours, 1708-1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 14-17. Some of the Ife heads have striations and raised weals on the face, but we are not sure at the moment that such facial markings refer to particular individuals. Since people with similar facial markings are to be found in the northwestern and northeastern parts of Nigeria, hundreds of miles away from Ife, is it possible that such heads refer to outsiders? It is significant, however, that some Yoruba oral traditions identify Oduduwa as coming from the northeastern part of present-day Nigeria.

(91.) Jean Borgatti. "Portraiture in Africa," African Arts 23, no. 3 (1990): 35-36; see also Borgatti and Richard Brilliant. Likeness and Beyond: Portraits from Africa and the World (New York: Center for African Art. 1990).

(92.) For illustrations, see Willett, 1967, colorpls. V, vl, pl. 62.

(93.) See Peter S. Garlake, "Excavations at Obalara's Land, Ife: An Interim Report," West African Journal of Archaeology 6 (1974): 111--48; and Eyo and Willett, fig. 30.

(94.) Garlake (as in n. 93), 1.16. For other representations of diseased persons in Ife art, see Willett, 1967, 63, p1. 40, figs. 7, 8.

(95.) Garlake (as in n. 93).

(96.) Omotoso Eluyemi, "New Terracotta Finds at Oke-Eso, Ife," African Arts 9, no. 1 (1975): 34. See also Willett, 1967, 68.

(97.) According to Rowland Abiodun, the heads represented in this basket may be those of "strangers," since it was forbidden in ancient times to sacrifice an Owo indigene in local shrines. See Rowland Abiodun, "The Kingdom of Owo, in Drewal et al., 101.

(98.) For details. See Bahatunde Lawal, "From Africa to the New World: Art in Yoruba Religion," in Santeria Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art, ed. Arturo Lindsay (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1996), 3-37.

(99.) Richard Law. The Oyo Empire, c. 1600-c. 1836: A West African Imperialism us tile Era of tile Atlantic Slave Trade (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1977), 32-33.

(100.) Beier, 31. Indeed, the frequency of the equestrian warrior motif in Sango's oriki reflects the critical role played by the cavalry in the heydays of the Old Oyo empire, between the 17th and 19th centuries, when its kings (alaafin) controlled a good part of northern and southwestern Yorubaland. We are also reminded of the importance attached to Sango's apotheosis during the period when his veneration as an ancestor was elevated to a state religion (transforming him into a deity [orisa] and many Sango priests served as tax collectors or resident governors in tributary kingdoms. For more details, see Law (as in n. 99), 104' and Morton-Williams (as in n. 18).

(101.) W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 88-89. He defines "imagetext" as a work that combines image and text.

(102.) Philip Wheelwright. Metaphor and Reality (Bloomington. Ind.; Indiana University Press, 1968). 94-95,

(103.) Robert F. Thompson, "Sons of Thunder, Twin Images of the Yoruba." African Arts 7, no, 3 (1971): 8-9.

(104.) For more on Yoruba twin memorials, see ibid., 8-13. 77-80; Houlberg (as in n. 41), 20-27, 91-92; Mareidi Stall, Gert Stoll, and Ulrich Klever, Ibeji: Zwillingsfiguren der Yoruba/Twin Figures of the Yoruba (Munich: By the authors. 1980); and Babatunde Lawal, "A Pair of Ere Ibeji (Twin Statuettes) in the Kresge Art Museum," Kresge Museum Art Bulletin 41, no. 1(1989): 91-103.

(105.) According to one Yoruba legend, twins were first born in Yorubaland at Isokun village in Old Oyo.

(106.) The Yoruba associate twins with time. Colobus monkey because this animal often gives birth to two babies at a time,

(107.) Tradition requires mothers of twins to dance frequently in public in honor of their living children or to appease the souls of deceased twins. On suds occasions, they are showered with gifts of all kinds by relatives and onlookers to enable them to meet the expenses of taking care of themselves and the children.

(108.) O. Daramola and A. Jeje, Awon Asa ati Orisa Ile Yoruba (Ibadan. Nigeria: Onibon-Oje Book Industries, 1967), 282-83.

(109.) According to the myth. The Supreme Being withdrew this privilege, replacing it with death.

(110.) See also Idowu. 13. There is a tendency among the Yoruba to regard as embodiments of ancient ancestors sculptures accidentally washed out of the ground by floods or recovered its the course of laying building foundations. Such sculputures are usually placed on altars with a view to harnessing the spiritual power of the souls they represent. The town of Esie, about ninety miles from Ife, has more than eight hundred such stone figures. The present inhabitants of the town claim that their ancestors found the sculptures in the town when they first settled there in the 18th century, so these figures are venerated as petrified aborigines. For more details, see Allison (as in n. 36), 21-24; and Phillips Stevens, The Stone Images of Este, Nigeria (New York: Africana. 1978).

(111.) J. A. Ademakinwa, Ife: Time Cradle of the Yoruba (Lagos: Pacific Printing Works, 1953), 40-41.

(112.) Idowu, 22; and Fabunmi, fig. 2.

(113.) Adegboyega Sobande, "Isinku ni Ile Yoruba," Olokun, no.9 (1970): 26.

(114.) Cited in Thompson (as in n. 40), 58. Thompson's interviews with several indigenous Yoruba carvers and critics reveal that one of the most important criteria for an ideal sculpture among the Yoruba is that it should represent the subject in the prime of life (see esp. 56-58). I have documented similar comments from carvers in Osi Ekiti, Oyo, and Ayetoro in northeastern, northcentral, and southwestern Yorubaland respectively. Frank Willett (1966, 37) has also observed that an ako second-burial effigy of the late mother of Chief Sasere Adetula of Owo (carved in 1943 by Ogunleye Ologan) "represents her as a yotmng woman...." The fact that this phenomenon is evident in both naturalistic and stylized portraits shows that it is deeply rooted in indigenous Yoruba aesthetics and cannot be explained solely by the practice of modeling the face of a second-burial effigy after that of a child who closely resembles the deceased. A similar tradition has been recorded in Benin City. According to a legend, King Ewuare of the 15th century once commissioned the royal brass caster and woodcarver guilds to make his portrait. The woodcarvers portrayed him as he really looked in old age, whereas the brass casters depicted him as a much younger man. King Ewuare was displeased with the woodcarvers and demoted them. See Borgatti and Brilliant (as in n. 91), 32, quoting Ben-Amos (as in n. 73). For a discussion of the concept in other parts of Africa, see Thompson (as in n. 48), 5-7. It should be noted, however, that not all Yoruba representations emphasize the prime of life. In the edan ogboni, a pair of male and female brass figures that serves as an emblem of the Ogboni society, the stress is on maturity. It signifies the desire of members for long life and prosperity. See Lawal (as in n. 18), 37-38.

(115.) For more on Yoruba twin memorials, see n. 104 above.

(116.) Abiodun, 8.

(117.) See Lawal, 1974, 245.

(118.) Illustrated in Lawal, 1996, 236-37.

(119.) For more on Yoruba masks, see Drewal et al., passim.

(120.) Frank Willett, African Art, rev. Ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993). 212-13.

(121.) For more on Yoruba crowns, see Robert F. Thompson, "The Sign of the Divine King: Yoruba Beaded-Embroidered Crowns with Veil and Bird Decorations," in Fraser and Cole (as in n. 88), 227-60; and Ulli Beier, Yoruba Beaded Crowns: Sacred Regalia of the Olokuku of Okuku (London: Ethnographica, 1982).

(122.) Cited in Akinsola Akiwowo, Ajobi and Ajogbe; Variations on the Theme of Sociation (Ile-Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press, 1983), 11. See also Lawal (as in n. 104), 23-24.

(123.) See, for instance, Idowu, 84-85.

(124.) Polished stone axes and iron tools are sacred to Ogun, suggesting that the one preceded the other in his iconography.

(125.) E. M. Lijadu, Ifa: Imole re ti ise Ipile Isin ni lle Yoruba (Ado Ekiti, Nigeria: Standard Press, 1908), 35. Yoruba text: "Nje bi a ba te mi, ngo tun ra mi te / Eewo ti a ba ka fun mi, ngo gbo / Tite la te mi, ngo tun 'ra mi te,"

(126.) Idowu, 60; and Wole Soyinka, Myth. Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 10.

(127.) For details, see Karin Barber, "How Man Makes God in West Africa: Yoruba Attitudes towards the Orisa," Africa, journal oft* Ɔkyeame Kwame International African Instittute 51, no. 3 (1981): 724-45.

(128.) The Omo Oduduwa doctrine assumed a new aspect in 1945 when Yoruba students in London formed the Egbe Omo Oduduwa (Oduduwa Descendants Club), a cultural organization charged with the responsibility of advancing the cause of the Yoruba in colonial Nigerian politics. The organization eventually developed into a political party (the now defunct Action Group) whose membership included non-Yoruba politicians. The leader of the party, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was fond of wearing a special hat that soon became fashionable among his followers, enabling them to project a common identity at party rallies and conventions. See Arifalo (as in n. 12), 72.

(129.) Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981).

(130.) Ibid., 67-119. For a recent review of the literature on the gaze, see Margaret Olin, "Gaze," in Critical Terms far Art History, ed. Robert F. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 208-19.

(131.) The word iran (spectacle) should not be confused with iran (generation) or iran (the tail of a tortoise), even though the three words have the same pronunciation.

(132.) Lawal (as in n. 118), 39. Yoruba text: "O nwo mi, mo nwo o,/ Tani seun ninu ara wa."

(133.) See Idowu, 205; and Olatunji (as in n. 54), 79. Fairly naturalistic memorials also occur on the superstructures of Gelede headdresses during a special farewell ceremony intended to terminate the participation of a deceased member in the annual festivals.

(134.) See Abiodun (as in n. 97), pl. 103.

(135.) Having grown up in, and traveled throughout, Yorubaland, I have witnessed several second-burial ceremonies involving naturalistic memorials such as ako, ipade, ajeje, and related forms, like the Eyo Adamuorisa (Eyo) effigy of Lagos. Igbogbo, and Ijebu, Unfortunately, most of these opportunities predated my research interest in the subject. More recently, I encountered other ceremonies while on social visits to some towns but had no camera on me to record them.

(136.) However, the Yoruba believe that the soul of a deceased parent can be reincarnated as a grandchild and begin a new life on earth. Lawal (as in n. 51), 50-61.

(137.) For illustrations, see Ulli Beier, A Story of Sacred Wood Carvings from One Small Yoruba Town (Lagos: Nigerian Printing and Publishing Company, 1957).

(138.) See Bice Benvenuto and Roger Kennedy, The Works of Jacques Lacan: An Introduction (London: Free Association Books, 1986), 55-58.

(139.) The inward look on the face of certain altar sculptures has led some scholars to compare it to the countenance of devotees possessed by a deity.

(140.) I am grateful to Chief Ifayemi Eleburuibon, a famous Osogho-based Yoruba diviner, for drawing my attention to this saying taken from the divination versa (Idikan), in an interview on July 6, 1998.

(141.) For Yoruba chants meant to attract positive gazes, see David A.A. Adeniji, Ofo Rere (Ibadan, Nigeria: University of Ibadan Press, 1982).

(142.) Adeboye Babalola, "Ounje Oju," Olokun 9 (1970): 39: "Ki l'a npe l'onje oju? / Ki l'o nyo oju bi oka ti nyo ikun? / Oju ko l'onje meji bikose iran.... / Meji pataki n'irufe re / Idan, orisi iran ni / Ewa, orisi iran nu l'eyi / Oju ki irewa k'o maa ki i / Enia ki iko adarabiegbin k'oma wo o.... / "Eegun npidan l'oja, je a lo wo o." / Onje oju la fe fi fun un...."

(143.) For details, see Lawal (as in n. 118), 39 n. 3, 128-29.

(144.) The word gbajumo can be etymologized as igba (two hundred), oju (faces or eyes), and mo (know).

(145.) Abraham (as in n. 3), 667.

(146.) See William Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria (New York: Holt and Winston, 1969), 111.

(147.) Idowu, 77 (trans.). Yoruba text: "ifa te ju mo mi ki o wo mi 're / Bi o ba te 'ju mo 'ni la l'owo l'lowo / Bi o ba te ju mo 'ni la ri're."

(148.) In her review of the literature on the subject, Margaret Olin (as in n. 130), 209, notes, "There is usually something negative about the gaze as used in art theory." This may partly be due to an emphasis on the "evil eye" in Judeo-Christian thought. According to Jacques Lacan (as in n. 129), 115, whose theory is a major influence on contemporary hermeneutics of the gaze, "there is no trace anywhere of a good eye." In his words (118-19), "The eye may be prophylactic, it cannot be beneficent--it is maleficent. In the Bible and even in the New Testament, there is no good eye, but there are evil eyes all over the place." The existence among the Yoruba of the notion of a good eye (oju rere or oju aanu) contradicts this assumption and calls for a more open-minded approach to the subject. For a critique of the paranoid implications of the Lacanian theory of the gaze, see Norman Bryson, "The Gaze in the Expanded Field," in Vision and Visuality: Discussions in Contemporary Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 104-8.

(149.) As a result, flattery, drumming, dancing, and commemorative displays are often employed to influence the deities in Yoruba religion, as Andrew Apter has rightly observed. See his Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 99. For other implications of the face in Yaruba art, see Lawal (as in n. 28), 91-103.

(150.) Wande Abimbola, Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa (Zaria, Nigeria: UNESCO, 1975), 233. That the other orisa (deities) depend on Esu for vision is most evident in the iconography of Ifa, the divination deity. Most divination trays (opon Ifa) have at least one stylized face said to represent Esu, enabling Ifa to reveal the past and foretell the future. See also Bascom (as in n. 33), 34; and Hans Witte, "Ifa Trays from Osogbo and Ijebu Regions," in Abiodun et al., 58-77.

(151.) Abraham (as in n. 3), 667.

(152.) For a survey, see Mary H. Nooter, ad., Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals (New York: Museum of African Art; Munich: Prestel, 1993).

(153.) Susan Vogel, Baule: African Art/Western Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 110.

(154.) According to popular belief, shortly after its abandonment at the crossroads, a second-burial effigy would momentarily be animated by the ghost of the deceased and its eyes would be filled with tears as the mourners return home. If the effigy is buried, the ghost would stand on the spot, sadly staring at the mourners. Tradition enjoins the mourners not to look back after disposing of the effigy; whoever does so runs the risk of seeing the tearful face of the figure or the ghost and would subsequently die if certain propitiatory rites were not performed.

(155.) Stevens (as in n. 9), 194.

(156.) Oludare Olajubu and J.R.O. Ojo, "Some Aspects of Oyo Yoruba Masquerades," Africa, Journal of the International African Institute 47, no. 3 (1977): 269.

(157.) The term Orombo alludes to the unseeable.

(158.) Solomon O. Babayemi, Egungun among the Oyo Yoruba (Ibadan, Nigeria: Board Publications, 1980), 8-9 (trans.). Yoruba text: "Ma foju kan mi / Enikan ko gbodo foju kan Orombo / Nijo Agan ba jade osan / Igi a ma wo lu igi, ope a ma wolu ope / Igbo a ma jona tagbatagba / Odan a si jona teruwa teruwa / A difa fun Mafojukanmi / Ti i je Agan." Solomon Babayemi translates the name Mafojukanmi figuratively as "You must not see my face," which is correct. But I prefer the literal translation of the name, which is "Do not set your eyes on me."

(159.) Peter Morton-Williams, "The Egungun Society in South-Western Yoruba Kingdoms," in Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the West African Institute of Social and Economic Research (Ibadan, Nigeria: WAISER, 1956), 95. I had a similar experience as a child growing up in Yorubaland. In some towns, the sound of bull roarers (oro) would fill the air as the procession moved from one ward to another, as if deliberately intended to awake the uninitiated, stressing the fact of their exclusion. In some cases, a sacred image may be brought out in daylight but concealed. Among the Ijebu subgroup, women are not allowed to see the charm of the Agemo masks, even in a concealed form, because of its use to reinforce the patriarchal social system. Women are therefore warned in advance to stay indoors: "Orisa is treading the highways / Lord of Life / Who dares behold him? / Who dares scan the features of the god! / A chance glance, a chance death! / Swellings on your body like ripe corn! / Glimmering shadow! / A s urreptitious glance, a surreptitious death." See John Pemberton, "The King and the Chameleon: Odun Agemo," Ife: Annals of the Institute of Cultural Studies (Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife) 2 (1988): 52. In other cases, a sacred image may be seen by the general public but not at close range. A good example is the headdress of the Iya mask, which represents the Great Mother among the Ketu and Egbado subgroups. The mask usually comes out at night during the annual Gelede festival that is held in her honor. When the mask appears in the dance arena, all lights must be extinguished. For details, see Henry J. Drewal, "Art and the Perception of Women in Yoruba Culture," Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines 17, no. 4 (1977): 553.

(160.) Similar traditions of concealment have been observed in other parts of Africa and are exemplified by the so-called acoustic masks, which appear only at night, using sound rather than visibility to indicate their supernatural power. For details, see Rosalind I.J. Hackett, Art and Religion in Africa (New York: Cassell, 1996), 55-56; and Edward Lifschitz, "Hearing Is Believing: Acoustic Aspects of Masking in Africa," in West African Masks and Cultural Systems, ed. Sidney L. Kasfir (Trevuren: Musee Royale de l'Afrique Centrale, 1988), 221-27.

(161.) Since such an image is made at the beginning of an alaafin's reign, one can only wonder whether or not a similar tradition obtained in ancient Ife with which the life-size brass heads may be associated, one way or the other.

(162.) Sometimes, a framed photograph of the deceased may be carried in a public parade before the corpse is interred; in other cases, photographs are carried in a public procession during annual memorial celebrations. For illustrations, see Margaret T. Drewal, Yaruba Ritual.' Performers, Play, Agency (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1994), fig. 3.4. For Western influences on contemporary Yoruba portraiture, see idem, "Portraiture and the Construction of Reality in Yorubaland and Beyond," African Arts 23, no. 3 (1990): 40-49, 101. See also Stephen F. Sprague, "Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba See Themselves," African Arts 12, no. 1 (1978): 52-59, 107.

(163.) See Drewal, 1990 (as in n. 162), 40-49.

(164.) Sprague (as in n. 162), 57.

(165.) Ibid. See also Houlberg (as in n. 41), 26-27; and idem, "Collecting the Anthropology of African Art," African Arts 9, no.3 (1976): 18-19; Susan Vogel, ed., Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art (New York: Center for African Art; Munich: Prestel, 1991), 44-47; and Olu Oguibe, "Photography and the Substance of the Image," in In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1996), 243-46.

(166.) Houlberg (as in n. 165), 18.

Frequently Cited Sources

Abiodun, Rowland, "A Reconsideration of the Function of Ako, Second Burial Effigy of Owo," Africa, journal of the International African Institute 46, no. 1 (1976): 4-20.

Abiodun, Rowland, Henry J. Drewal, and John Pemberton III, eds., The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).

Akinjogbin, Isaac A., ed. The Cradle of a Race: Ife from the Beginning to 1980 (Portharcourt, Nigeria: Sunray, 1992).

Beier, Ulli, Yoruba Poetry: An Anthology of Traditional Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Blier, Suzanne, "Kings, Crowns, and Rights of Succession: Obalufon Arts at Ife and Other Yoruba Centers," Art Bulletin 67 (1985): 383-401.

Drewal, Henry J., and John Pemberton with Rowland Abiodun, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (New York: Center for African Art, 1989).

Eyo Ekpo and Frank Willett, Treasures of Ancient Nigeria (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980).

Fabunmi, Michael A., Ife Shrines (Ile-Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press, 1969).

Idowu, E. Bolaji, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, rev. Ed. (New York: Original Publications, 1995).

Lawal, Babatunde, 1974, "Some Aspects of Yoruba Aesthetics," British Journal of Aesthetics 14, no. 3: 239-49.

-----, 1996, The Gelede Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture (Seattle: University of Washington Press).

Willett, Frank, 1966, "On the Funeral Effigies of Owo and Benin, and the Interpretation of the Life-Size Bronze Heads from Ife," Man, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, n.s., 1: 34-45.

-----, 1967, Ife in the History of West African Sculpture (New York: McGrawHill).

Babatunde Lawal is professor of art history, Virginia Commonwealth University. He has published extensively on traditional and contemporary African art, most recently The Gelede Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture (1996). A new book, Sango: Art, Spirit Mediumship, and Thunder Power in Yoruba Culture, is nearing completion [Department of Art History, School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University, P0 Box 843046, Richmond, Va. 23284-3046,].

COPYRIGHT 2001 College Art Association
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group


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Yoruba Culture

Dept. Of African and Asian Studies
University of Lagos, Lagos, Nigeria
July 29, 2004
Lagos, Nigeria


Yorubic Medicine: The Art of divine Herbology
Yorubic Medicine: The Art of divine Herbology by Tariq Sawandi

Yorubic medicine is indigenous to and widely practiced on the African continent. Yorubic medicine has its roots in the Ifa Corpus, a religious text revealed by the mystic prophet, Orunmila, over 4,000 years ago in the ancient city of Ile-Ife, now known as Yorubaland. Within the last 400 years, this healing system has also been practiced in the day-to-day lives of individuals in the Caribbean, and South America, in large part, because of the traditions brought over by African slaves arriving in the Americas.

Orunmila's teachings were directed at the Yoruba people which centered around the topics of divination, prayer, dance, symbolic gestures, personal and communal elevation, spiritual baths, meditation, and herbal medicine. This ancient text, the Ifa Corpus, is the foundation for the art of divine herbology. Although Yorubic medicine has been practiced in Africa for over 4,000 years, its fundamental principles are little known to Westerners around the world. Among the various medical techniques for diagnosis and treatment, Yorubic medicine provides an important and valuable system worthy of study. The purpose of Yoruba is not merely to counteract the negative forces of disease in the human body, but also to achieve spiritual enlightenment and elevation which are the means of freeing the soul.

As with all ancient systems of medicine, the ideal of Yoruba herbology is to condition the body in its entirety so that disease will not attack it. (The term Osain is also used to describe Yorubic herbology. The word "Osain" means "the divine Orisha of plants". I will also use this term throughout the essay.) Many Westerners take it for granted that "African medicine" is a vague term for a collection of medical "voo doo". This myth about African medicine creeped in over centuries of misunderstandings. What is left is the negative image of primitive "voo doo" witch-doctors. This "voo doo" mentality is devoid of the sacred realities born of African thought in respect to religion, philosophy, and medicine. Therefore, the reader must separate witch-doctor myths from the genuine article when considering African herbal medicine.

In order to understand the system of Yoruba medicine, it is important to have some knowledge of the historical conditions that gave birth to this African art of healing. Many factors and dynamics were involved which influenced the beginnings and the development of this indigenous medicine.

The Yoruba history begins with the migration of an East African population across the trans-African route leading from the mid-Nile river area to the mid-Niger.1 Archaeologists, according to M. Omoleya, inform us that the Nigerian region was inhabited more than forty thousand years ago, or as far back as 65,000 B.C.2 During this period, the Nok culture occupied the region. The Nok culture was visited. By the "Yoruba people", between 2000 and 500 B.C. This group of people wer led, according to Yoruba historical accounts, by King Oduduwa, who settled peacefully in the already established Ile-Ife, the sacred city of the indigenous Nok people. This time period is known as the Bronze Age, a time of high civilization of both of these groups.

According to Olumide J. Lucue, "the Yoruba, during antiquity, lived in ancient Egypt before migrating to the Atlantic coast." He uses as demonstration the similarity of identity of languages, religious beliefs, customs, and names of persons, places and things.3 In addition, many ancient papyri discovered by archaeologists hint at an Egyptian origin.

Like almost everything else in the cultural life of Egypt, the development of science and medicine began with the priests, and dripped with evidences of its magical origins. Among the people, amulets and charms mere more popular than pills as preventive or curatives of disease. Disease was considered to them as possession by evil devils, and was to be treated with incantations along with the roots of certain plants and mystical concoctions. A cold for instance, could be exorcised by such magic words as: "Depart, cold, son of a cold, thou who breakest the bones, destroyest the skull, makest ill the seven openings of the head!...Go out on the floor, stink, stink, stink!" In many ways, this provided an effective cure, known today by various contemporary medicine as psychosomatic. Along side the incantations that were used, the sick patient was given a foul tasting concoction to help ward off the demon housed in the body.

The Egyptian principles of magic and medicine

There was a tendency of Egyptian physician and priest to associate magic with medicine. From such origins, there rose in Egypt great physicians, surgeons, and specialists, who acknowledged an ethical code that passed down into the famous Hippocratic oath. The Greeks derived much of their medical knowledge from Egyptian physicians around 750 B.C. The influence of Egyptian medicine was so great on European culture that even to this day Egyptian concepts still have its signature in modern Western medicine. For exemple, when a medical Doctor writes a prescription he uses the Egyptian symbol for health(Jupiter) with the symbol for retrograde= Rx This means, "I curse your health in retrograde" = death.

During the reign of King Menes, there developed a body of knowledge which centered around magic, medicine, philosophy and religion which is known as the Memphite Theolopy. Egyptian priest physicians saw the ideal of medicine as a magical principle: "that the qualities of animals or things are distributed throughout all their parts". Consequently, within the universe contact is established between objects through emanations (radiation), the result might be sensation or cognition, healing or contagion.4

There is no doubt the Memphite Theology played a major role in evolving Egyptian medical theory. To them, magic and healing was "applied religion". The Memphite Theology is an inscription on a stone, now kept in the British Museum. It contains theological, cosmological, and philosophical views of the Egyptians. It is dated 700 B.C. And bear the name of an Egyptian Pharaoh who stated that he had copied an inscription of his ancestors.

According to the Memphite Doctrine, "The primate God Ptah, conceived in his heart, everything that exist and by his utterance created them all. He first emerged from the primeval waters of Idun in the form of a primeval Hill. Closely following the Hill, the God (Atum) also emerged from the waters and set upon Ptah...out of the primeval chaos contained 10 principles: 4 pairs of opposite principles, together with two other gods: Ptah, Mind, Thought, and Creative utterance. While Atum joins himself to Ptah and acts as Demiurge and executes the work of creation.

Water is the source of all things creation was accomplished by the unity of two creative principles: Ptah and Alum, the unity of Mind (Nous) with Logos (creative utterance). Atum was Sun-God or fire-God Opposite Principles control the life of the universe. The elements in creation were fire (Atum), water (Nun), Earth (Ptah) and Air. The gods whom Atum projected from his body were:

Shu (Air)
Tefnut (moisture)
Geb (earth)
Nut (sky)

Who are said to have given birth to four other Gods:

Seth (opposite of good)
Nephthys (unseen world)

The Egyptian concept of cosmology, like the Chinese doctrine of Yin and Yang, and the East Indian system of Tridosha (Pitta, Vata, and Kapha), offered a comprehensive explanation of the natural forces of the universe. There were other ideals which the Egyptians developed such as the Doctrine of the Soul. They believers that the soul and body were not two distinct things, but one in two different aspects, just as form related to matter. The soul is the power which a living body possesses, and it is the end for which the body exist, the final cause of its existence. By the time the Third Dynasty arrived during the reign of King Zoser, Imhotep, the great African physician had expanded on much of the earlier theories of medicine. Imhotep is regarded as the "real Father of Medicine". He diagnosed and treated more than two hundred diseases. Imhotep and his students knew how to detect diseases by the shape, color, or position of the visual parts of the body; they also practiced surgery, and extraction of medicine from plants. Imhotep also knew of the circulation of the blood, four thousand years before it was known in Europe. His sayings and proverbs, which embodied his philosophy of life, were handed down from generation to generation. He is best known for his saying, "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we shall die."

Imhotep also promoted health by public sanitation, by circumcision of males, and by teaching the people the frequent ipse of the enema. Diodorus Siculus, the historian tells us: "In order to prevent sicknesses they look after the health of their body by means of drenches, fastings and emetics, sometimes everyday, and sometimes at intervals of three or four days. For they say that the larger part of the food taken into the body is superfluous, and that it is from this superfluous part that diseases are engendered."

The habit of taking enemas was learned by the Egyptians from observing the "ibis", a bird. That counteracts the constipating character of its food by using its long bill as a rectal syringe. Herodotus, the Jewish historian reports that the Egyptians, "purge themselves every month, three days successively, seeking to preserve health by emetics and enemas; for they suppose that all diseases to which men are subject proceed from the food they use."

We can see that the Egyptians recognized the connection between food (disease) and the cause of certain pathological diseases. In Africentric science, all life (i.e. Elements) is created by harmony and recreates harmony. A disease is viewed as harmonizing healing crisis of the body. When a person gets overloaded with waste, toxins from constipating junk foods, drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, sodas, fried foods, bleach white flour, enriched flour, white rice, dairy products, cooked pig and blood in meat, salt, white suger, incorrect food combinations (i.e. Protein and carbohydrates=meat and bread or potatoes) the body reacts with a healing crisis (cleansing reaction). This cleansing is called a disease by Western medicine. Actually, the disease is the "food itself". Western medicine tries to cure the body from curing (cleansing) itself with a cure (drugs) and/or surgical mutilations. Oddly enough, Western doctors blame the cleansing reaction.

The concept of universal harmony is character istic to African thought. Africans believe there is a harmony in the universe - the circling of the planets, the tides of the earth, the growth of vegetation, the lives of animals and. People all are related. All that is in the universe emanated from the same source, one universal Mind.

The ancient Egyptian priest looked out at the universe, and noted the ratios of the different planetary cycles, and counted the rhythmic periods in nature. They also calculated the ratios of the human body. They put together a "sacred" geometry which were a set of mathematical ratios and proportions. They believed that these ratios if used in the sound of music and the architecture of buildings (pyrimids), this would resonate with the life forces of the universe and thus enhance life. The ancient physician/priests of the Nile Valley were said to have been instructed in temples which were called "Per Ankh." In today's language they would be called the "House of Life".

Of the thousands of medical papyri originally written, less then a dozen have been discovered, and of that number, the Ebers Papyrus and the Edwin Smith Papyrus are deemed the most profound. The Edwin Smith Papyrus was published in 1930 by James Henry Breasted, who had spent ten years translating the document. This papyrus describes 48 different injuries to the head, face, neck, thorax and spinal column and the appropriate surgical methods for attending to them. It is suspected that the Eighteenth Dynasty scribe who was responsible for copying the original text only wrote the first 48 cases dealing with the upper third of the body. There are more than 90 anatomical terms referenced in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, and there are more than 200 terms listed in various Nile Valley medical literature.

This papyrus is also of great importance because of its use of the word "brain" and references to the neurological relationship between the brain (spinal cord and nervous system) and the body. The Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1500 B.C.) explores a broad range of medical science and includes chapters on the pulse and cardio-vascular system, dermatology, gynecology, ophthalmology, obstetrics, tumors, burns, fractures, intestinal disorders and much more. There is also considerable evidence that physicians in Egypt (also Kemet) practiced circumcision, brain surgery and were extremely well versed in gynecology and obstetrics. By 2000 B.C. Physicians in Egypt had already created an effective organic chemical contraceptive. This formula consisted of acacia spikes, honey and dates, which were mixed in a specific ratio, and inserted into the girl thingy. Modern science has since discovered that acacia spikes contain lactic acid, which is a natural chemical spermicide.

Pregnancy and fetal sex tests were conducted by Egyptian herbalist who soaked bags of wheat and barley in a sample of a woman's urine. Urine from a pregnant woman was known to accelerate the growth of certain plants; if the barley sprouted, it meant that the woman was pregnant and was going to give birth to a female child, and if the wheat sprouted it meant that she would give birth to a male child. The urine pregnancy test was not rediscovered by modern science until 1926 and the wheat/barley sex determination teat was not developed until 1933.

In 1987, the National Academy of Sciences published a report by the National Academy of Engineers entitled Lasers: Invention to Application. In a chapter titled "Lasers in Medicine", the author, Rodney Perkins, M.D., suggests that a form of laser therapy was actually used in Egypt. Dr. Perkins states that: "The use of the laser in medicine and surgery has a relatively short pedigree of less than two decades. Although the range of laser radiation extends both below and above the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, that radiation is, in a sense, only a special form of light. The use of other forms of light in medicine has a longer history. There is documentation that the ancient Egyptians recognized and used the therapeutic power of light as long as 6,000 years ago. Patches of depigmented skin, now referred to as vitiligo, were cosmetically undesirable. Egyptian healers reportedly crushed a plant similar to present day parsley and rubbed the affected areas with the crushed leaves. Exposure to the sun's radiation produced a severe form of sunburn only in the treated areas. The erythema subsided, leaving hyperpigmentation in the previously depigmented areas."5

When looking at Nile Valley Egypt and its contributions to natural and herbal medicine, it must be understood that we are not just talking about Egypt alone. We must consider the whole continent which extends over 4,000 miles into the geography of Africa. Many tribes and African nations contributed their share of herbal and medical wisdom. This would include the Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, and dozens of other African nations. The Nile Valley, however, became something of a cultural highway which made it a great historical stopping place for wisdom and knowledge.

Out of Africa came the world's first organized system of herbal and medical science. This knowledge was so profound, much of it passed from the Egyptians to the Phonicians, the Yorubas, India, Syria, Babylon, the Middle East, the Greeks, to the Romans, and from the Romans to Western Europe. The three major herbal systems, Ayurveda, Chinese Traditional Medicine, and Western herbology were extracted from the knowledge created by the priests and wise men in the Nile Valley. When this gigantic work is completed, I believe the evidence will reveal information that will amaze humanity.

Early in its history and its development, Nile Valley civilization created a basic way of life that attracted teachers, and priests from other parts of Africa, always enriching the original composite composition of the Nile Valley. By the time the Yoruba people made their journey to the Nile Valley, led by the mystic prophet Orunmila, Egyptian priests had accumulated centuries of herbal and medical knowledge. The Yoruba's drew from this treasure chest of wisdom, and incorporated it into their own religious and cultural customs. The key point, in respect to the evolution of Yoruba medicine, is that Egyptian knowledge, coupled with the earlier Nok people, produced the outcome of Yoruba herbal practices.

From a conceptual standpoint, Osain herbalism is a religion, a philosophy, and a science, Born from this concept is the idea that oneness with the Creative Essence brings about a wholeness in the human essence. Seekers, or aspirants of the system of Osain, or Yoruba, seek to bring themselves into alignment (balanced health) with his spiritual being (immortal reality), and his relationship with the Divine Cause. This is achieved through herbs, spiritual baths, right living, diet, rituals, and self-development which are meant to maintain a healthy and happy life. Thus, Osain is a divine journey to the inner self which encompasses all aspects of life.

As envisioned by the ancient prophet, Orunmila, of Yoruba, the Ifa Corpus (Cosmic Intelligence) is the text of Osain herbalism. Orunmila saw that dual levels of potentiality existed in the human body. Through him, we understand that the study of animate and inanimate, manifest and unmanifest, visible and invisible worlds leads to fundamental understandings of the processes of growth and life cycles of trees and plants, the lives of insects, animals, and. Human nature. Through the guidance of Orunmila, the principles of Yoruba Cosmology evolved: "The Self-Existent Being (Oludumare), or the One Source, who is believed to be responsible for creation and maintenance of heaven and earth, of man and women, and who also brought into being divinities and spirits (Orisha) who are believed to be his functionaries as intermediaries between mankind and the Self-Existent Being (Oludumare)."6

It was through the Ashe (Nature) that matter and forces of creation evolved from. This was created by Oludumare for a divine purpose. The union of the Orisha (angelic forces) and Aba, (human development) gave birth to the dual potentiality of the human spirit. It is the goal of man to align his earthly consciousness with Ori (the physical and spiritual head) in order to connect with his divinity.

The Orisha, which are the angelic forces of Yoruba context: Elegba, Obatala, Oshun, Ogun, Yemoja, Shango, Oya, and others too numerous to mention. In the herbal context, each require special herbs and foods to bring out the life force energy that bring about their qualities. This "bringing about" is a dual endeavor as the herbalist need follow certain guidelines and practices to efficaciously heal or correct imbalance of physical health.

"Orisha" as a term, is actually the combination of two Yoruba words (I discovered that the root word is from the Egyptian god Osiris who had other qualities, "Osh", meaning many, and "iri", meaning to do or many eyed. Osiris came to mean Omniscient). "Ori" which is the reflective spark of human consciousness embedded in human essence, and "sha" which is the ultimate potentiality of that consciousness to enter into or assimilate itself into the divine consciousness.7 From this idea, we can see that given the right encouragement of the human consciousness, man can heal himself along with the use of herbs and foods as special inducements. From this standpoint, the Orisha assist in the development of (iwa-pele) or balanced character. This is the premise of true Yoruba medicine. The connection between one's consciousness (Ori) and one's behavior (iwa-pele) is clearly seen as a way of maintaining a correct attitude towards nutrition and lifestyles in order to ward off sickness (negative spirits) and disease.

Disease according to the theory of the Ifa Corpus, is caused by oppressive forces known as "ajogun". The Orisha are spirits of heaven-sent, to continually wrestle with the human nature in order to uplift it -- to purify it. The "ajogun" are the "demonic" beings. They are all earthly and heavenly forces whose destructive intent is to off-set the human body. It is the job of the Oloogun (medicine healer) to help the patient overcome the opposing forces that disrupt their health.

When understanding the African's use of demonic and spiritual agencies in medicine, it is important to understand that this concept is used merely as a cosmic-tool to explain physical phenomena in nature which is unique to African thought. When the Europeans came into Africa and saw the African dancing in a frenzy with their bodies covered in ashe, they did not understand or comprehend, so they labeled it primitive, savage and backward. They hadn't made the connection between the Creator, spirits and their manifestation in nature as the African had done. The Western mentality couldn't understand because of their materialistic way of seeing.

Because the Osain system have many Orisha which serve different purposes, we will only focus on Erinle-Orisha, the Orisha of medicine. The seven major Orisha are examined in table one. (The Yoruba's were obviously inspired with the seven Orishas by the ancient Eygptian's concept of the seven openings in the head.)

Table 1: The Seven Major Orisha

Orisha Attributes

Obatala Creator of Human Form, White purity, Cures illness and deformities.
Elegba Messenger of the Orisha, Holder of Ashe (pover) among the Orisha, he is prime negotiator between negative and positive forces in body, enforces the "law of being". Helps to enhance the power of herbs.
Ogun Orisha of Iron, he expands, he is divinity of clearing paths, specifically in respect to blockages or interruption of the flow vital energy at various points in the body. He is the liberator.

Yemoja Mother of Waters, Sexuality, Primal Waters, Nurturer. She is the amniotic fluid in the womb of the pregnant woman, as well as, the breasts which nurture. She is the protective energies of the feminine force.
Oshun Sensuality, Beauty, Gracefulness, she symbolizes clarity and flowing motion, she has power to heal with cool water, she is also the divinity of fertility and feminine essence, Women appeal to her for child-bearing and for the alleviation of female disorders, she is fond of babies and is sought if a baby becomes ill, she is known for her love of honey.

Shango Kingly, Virility, Masculinity, Fire, Lightning, Stones, Protector/ warrior, Magnetism, he possesses the ability to transform base substance into that which is pure and valuable.

Oya Tempest, Guardian of the Cemetery, Winds of Change, Storms, Progression, she is usually in the company of her counterpart Shango, she is the deity of rebirth as things must die so that new beginnings arise.

In the body, the Erinle-Orisha can be understood in terms of metabolic energy which activates, or stimulates the other Orisha. Each Orisha is characterized by certain attributes and is in charge of specific organ functions. Each has its dual force of ajogun (demonic force) and Orisha (positive force). The Orishas also have special places or main locations in the body where they can accumulate, or cause havoc and disease. Therefore, it is important to use the corresponding herbal treatment to correct the derangement.

Table 2: Physical Correspondences

Orisha Physical Correspondences
Obatala brain, bones, white fluids of the body
Elegba sympathetic nervous system, para sympathetic nervous system
Yemoja womb, liver, breasts, buttocks
Oshun circulatory system, digestive organs, elimination system, pubic area (female)
Ogun heart, kidney (adrenal glands), tendons, and sinews
Shango reproductive system (male), bone marrow, life force or chi
Oya lungs, bronchial passages, mucous membranes

EWE (Herbs)

The use of herbs and plants, called ewe in Yoruba, is of great importance. Herbs are picked for medicinal, and the spiritual powers they possess. In Yorubaland, herbs are gathered by the Oloogun, or by the various types of herbalists who inhabit the regions where Osain is practiced. The population can usually obtain herbs either by private practice or from the marketplace in town. In the Americas and the Caribbeans, Osain based practitioners are also directed to use herbs as medicine. Here the Oloogun or priests, as well as devotees alike gather herbs for medicine, baths, and religious artifacts. Because of the wide-spread practice of Osain in the New World, Nigerians and people from other African countries have begun to set up herbal businesses in increasing numbers. More and more indigenous herbs are now being made accessible to devotees here in the Americas. It is said that ewe (herbs) are for the "healing of Nations" and many health food stores provide them in powder, leaf, and capsule form. Adherents to the traditional practices of Osain are usually advised to use herbs as medicine before going to Western allopathic drugs for healing. There are many books written on the subject of herbology. Therefore, researching the possibilities of herbal use is recommended. Table 3 below shows herbal directives. They provide examples of the ewe based on the presiding Orisha correspondence. It is best that novices seek out divination before attempting to get and prepare herbal formulas. It is also advisable to rely on priests and qualified herbalists to begin the healing process before getting involved with the properties and powers of herbs yourself.

Table 3: The Ewe and Presiding Orisha Correspondences

Orisha Ewe (HERBS) for Medicinal Usage
Obatala Skullcap, Sage, Kola Nut, Basil, Hyssop, Blue Vervain, White Willow, Valerian
Elegba All Herbs
Oshun Yellow Dock, Burdock, Cinnamon, Damiana, Anis, Raspberry, Yarrow, Chamomile, Lotus, Uva-Ursi, Buchu, Myrrh, Echinacea
Yemoja Kelp, Squawvine, Cohosh, Dandelion, Yarrow, Aloe, Spirulina, Mints, Passion Plower, Wild Yam Root
Ogun Eucalyptus, Alfalfa, Hawthorn, Bloodroot, Parsley, Motherwort, Garlic
Oya Mullein, Comfrey, Cherrybark, Pleurisy Root, Elecampane, Horehound, Chickweed
Shango Plantain, Saw Palmetto, Hibiscus, Fo-ti, Sarsaparilla, Nettles, Cayenne

The following is a recommended way to prepare these herbs: The herbs can be used along or in combination with other herbs. Add the herbs to a pot of mildly boiling water (to prepare a decoction). Let the herbs steep for about thirty minutes before straining. The remaining herbal solution is then prepared as a tea. In some instances the herbal solutions are used in diluted form for enemas. Enemas are among one of the most effective treatments in cleaning out the colon which is the seat of many diseases. In Osain, sugar should never be added to herbal solutions. Honey may be used, however, along with some lemon.

Diagnosis and Treatment

As one can see, we have a useful system of categorization which applies to all levels of disease and treatment. To understand the application of Osain herbology, lets's take as an example a person suffering from a bronchial-pulmonary condition including cough, and spitting of white mucus. The approach of Osain herbology would be to determine which of the Orishas are out of alignment. Osain would do this by taking into account the patient's manifest symptoms along with locating the main areas in the body where the mis-alignment (disease) occurs. Our patient would be considered to have a mis-alignment in the "Oya" and "Obatala" Orishas. Oya Orisha predominates in the lungs, bronchial passages, and the mucous membranes. The Obatala Orisha is responsible for white fluids of the body which is located in the throat region of Orisha/Obatala (also known in Yaga as the 5th Chakra, see diagram 3). The condition can be corrected by prescribing the patient with Comfrey and Sage, as an herbal tea, or applied externally by a spiritual bath.

From this example, one can get an idea of the wholistic treatment approach of Osain Herbology. However, the emotional and spiritual causes of disease would be taken into account in order to appease the negative forces of ajogun to make the cure complete according to traditional Yoruba religious practices. This would include herbs, spiritual baths, symbolic sacrifice, song, dance, ani prayer, as well as a change of diet.

Some may argue that there is a fine line between "medicine" and "superstition" in the rituals of Yorubic healing arts. The art of medicine, as Yorubic practitioners understand. It involves practices by which human beings hoped to be able to understand and control the forces of the universe. Myth, legend, drama, ritual, dance, in addition to whatever it may be, are vehicles for carrying profound knowledge about the human experience. Every culture has its roots in esoteric concepts, philosophies, and religious practices. Constructively using spiritual archetypes allows man to energize and intensify life to a surprising degree. A careful study of history will show that Europeans developed from a background of taboos, and superstitions, as well as mythical beliefs. The Chinese thought Westerners barbarians and made no attempt to learn from them until recent.

The Yorubas believed that the Orishas of the celestial world were emanations of Oludumare (The One Source) who conceived the universe by a series of emanations, and in this way it is possible to reconcile the unity of God with multiplicity. The One Source was the First Cause or Creator, the necessary Being in whom essence and existence were one. It is through incantations, drums and dance, and special herbs that one can communicate to the human body by awakening the internal Orishas, and thus return to unity, spiritual light, and health.

Western medicine deals in the area of eliminating the symptoms that have manifested in the physical body, while Yorubic healing deals with the elimination of the root source of the problem. All illness is the result of imbalance of the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects in the body. The Yorubic healer who cures the person of the symptoms has to dissipate the negative energies. Unless he addresses the cause of the disease, the sickness will eventually come back.

The only complete healing for a ailment must include a change of "consciousness" (Ori) where the individual recognizes the root cause and does not wish, or feel compelled to violate its pain. So the Western doctor, by removing the discomfort through drugs, has temporarily taken away the motivation (iwa-pele) for their patient to look for the true healing. However, as the patient's state of consciousness asserts itself, they will again violate the same natural law and eventually have another opportunity to receive motivation in the form of a new ailment to learn what they are doing wrong. Whenever we listen to our bodies, it moves to provide us with the training and the appropriate knowledge that we need to regain our balance.

The Integration of Yoruba medicine into Planetary Herbology

I have tried in this essay to accomplish the first part of a pleasant assignment which I rashly laid upon myself about two years ago: to integrate African medicine into the scheme of Planetary Herbology. It is no exaggeration to say that this work would not have been possible without the pioneering work of Dr. Michael Tierra. My goal was to add to the tremendous work Dr. Tierra laid out in integrating Eastern and Western philosophies and the principles of Chinese, Japanese, Ayurvedic, and North American Indian herbal medicine.

After close study of the herbal principles applied in African medicine, I noticed the fundamental unity and similarities within and between other herbal systems. Namely, Ayurvedic, North American Indian herbology, Western, and Chinese herbology. This was due pertly because of the historical, and cultural links of each of these systems. Yet, it is well to remember that the meeting of cultures have also triggered tremendous creative explosions in medicine and philosophy. East Indian medicine was born in a meeting of the Black Dalilia (the Black Untouchables) and Indo-Europeans. Chinese herbology adopted some of its principles with the meeting of Egypt. Japanese medicine was born in a meeting with Chinese culture, and Western herbology sprang from a meeting of the ancient Greek and Egyptian priests. These are only a few illustrations; much of what I find exciting and interesting.

Let us look at the correspondance between Western herbology and the Egyptian system. The Hypocritic humoural theory was taken from Egyptian Magical Principles (see diagram 1). The basis of this theory was the belief that the human body was made up of the four elements of which the whole material world was composed: fire, air, earth and water. It was also believed that each element possessed certain qualities: hot, dry, wet, and cold. These elements could be mixed in more ways than one, and the various mixtures gave rise to different temperaments and "humours". The proper balance of elements preserved the health of the body, and a lack of balance led to illness which called for the doctor's healing magic. The Yoruba priests adopted this same system with sleight modifications. In the Yorubic system, the four elements became: Shango (the fire element), Oya (the air element), Yemoja (the water element), and Elegba (the Ashe, or earth element).

Traditional Chinese Medicine places primary emphasis on the balance of qi, or vital energy. There are 12 major meridians, or pathways, for qi, and each is associated with a major vital organ or vital function. These meridians form an invisible network that carries qi to every tissue in the body. Under the Yoruba system, the major meridians are the 7 Orishas. The flow of vital energy is represented by Ogun, which is the divinity of clearing paths, specifically in respect to blockages, or interruption of the vital energy at various points in the body (see table 1). Upon close study, it becomes evident that the Orisha modes correspond very easily to the Chinese concept of qi. Also in Traditional Chinese medicine, the vital energy comprises two parts: Yin and Yang. They are considered opposites masculine and feminine, heavenly and earthly. The theoretical equivalent of Yin and Yang in Yoruba is represented by Oshun (the divinity of feminine essence), and Shango (the divinity of virility, and masculinity). It is interesting to note that just as Yin represents the quality of cool and Yang the quality of hot, Oshun represents the power to heal with cool water, and Shango is represented by fire (heat).

Physical and spiritual balance in Yorubic medicine is best described by the concept of "Aba", or human development. Aba is a circle in the center which is aligned with the seven Orishas, each of which is represented by smaller circles of the opposite colors of black and white. The smaller circles represents the ever changing nature of Orisha (spirit) and ajogun (demon), and each Orisha demonstrate that each contains the potential to transform into its corresponding demon (or disease). (see diagram 4) It is the job of the African healer to bring the internal Orishas into alignment. This coincides with the Chinese belief that the universe is forever changing through Yin and Yang.

In the Yoruba system, the seven Orisha's have many counterparts, or partners that bring about various qualities or spiritual forces. This reciprocal relationship, in turn, gives rise to the four elements, and other attributes which influence the physical world. (see diagram 5)

As in Western and Chinese herbology, the Yoruba system incorporates environmental and emotional states. Yoruba priests believe that the Orishas govern a law of human passions and desires which, if improperly indulged, or violated, will prevent a person from gaining spiritual benefit from the external acts of rituals. Demons, or negative spirits enters the body through the five senses, the imagination and the carnal appetites. The Chinese also recognize the "seven emotions" as causes to disease. The "seven emotions", or "evil vices" approximates "the law of human passions and desires" in Yoruba medicine. For example, under the Yoruba system, someone suffering from guilt can bring on a multitude of evil spirits, or illnesses, The Elegba Orisha, is the primary negotiator between negative and positive forces in the body. The emotion of guilt can put Elegba into a negative disposition, which in turn, can effect the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Physically, the negative disposition can cause chronic digestion problems, and a weakening of the immune system.

Shango Orisha represents the fire element and is hot and dry in nature. It is considered to be the Protector/Warrior, and possesses the ability to transform base substance into that which is pure and valuable. It is associated with the color red. It's season is summer.
Elegba Orisha represents the earth element and is dry and cold in nature. It is the Messenger of the Orisha, Holder of Ashe among the Orisha, and is associated with the colors red, black, and white,

Yemoja Orisha represents the water element and it is cold and wet in nature. It is the Mother of Waters, and is associated with the color blue and crystal. It's season is winter.
Oya Orisha represents the wind, or air element and is hot and wet in nature. It is responsible for the winds of change, and is associated with the color reddish-brown. It's season is spring.
The Oloogun (priest) may prescribe the patient various herbal combinations to be included in a spiritual bath to cleanse the person of negative influences which have impacted upon their aura essence. The spiritual bath is given along with prayers and incantations especially designed to help ward off the negative spirits. As in Tradition Chinese Medicine, the Yorubic priests help to cure physical symptoms by treating the emotional vice that lead to the ailment in the first place. Like other traditional medicines with a long history, Yorubic medicine focuses on the individual and what imbalances may be contributing to or causing illness or disease.

Now let's look at Ayurveda in light of Yorubic herbal principles. I found that there were many comparisons between the two systems. As I mentioned earlier, racially and linguistically, the East Indians and Africans have a common origin, going back to the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Dravidians. Ayurveda developed in contemporary contact and mutual influence from these ancient societies. Note the startling resemblance between the linguistic terminology of Yoruba and Ayurveda, very often the same sounding words, meanings, and similar spellings. These similarities in names can hardly be coincidental:


Ayurveda holds that the body is governed by three basic biological principles, or doshas, that control the body's functions. These doshas and the functions they govern are:

vata -- movement
pitta -- heat, metabolism
kapha -- physical structure

The Indians believe that each individual has a combination of doshas. Imbalance of these doshas is the cause of disease. A Vaidya (Ayurveda doctor) seeks to achieve health throuhh the balancing of the three doshas. The Oloogun's under the Osain system utilize a similar concept. They believe that the body is composed of seven Orishas which exist in focal points of the body. These Orishas are in harmony when in perfect alignment, and the result is balanced health. They believe that when a person is in spiritual alignment, demons cannot produce illness. At the very foundation, both systems draw from religious and philosophical view points, which brings a mind/body approach to medicine and life. Ultimately, the beliefs of Indians are similar to those of the Africans. Both are also rooted in the belief of supernatural forces for the minor ills of life. Oblations, charms, exorcisms, astrology, oracles, incantations, vows, divination, priests, fortune-tellers, and demonic spirits are a part of the historic picture of Africa and India. It should come as no surprise, then, that in Osain and Ayurveda, symptoms and diseases that could be viewed as mental thoughts, or feelings are just as important as symptoms and disease of the physical body.

In terms of therapeutic approaches, both systems have many comparisons. Ayurveda uses the Panchakarma for purification and removal of toxins in the body. Osain utilizes the spiritual bath for this same purpose. Ayurveda and Osain saw purification as a means of purging the body of possible infections and impurities, a practice which has proven to have a rational basis. It is recorded that the ancient Hindus used ritual purification in minor cases by such simple ceremonies as being sprinkled with holy water, and in major cases by more complicated methods, culminating in the Panchakarma. This purification consisted in drinking a substance called ghee, or clarified butter. A little more to the taste of Africans was the religious precept to use the spiritual bath; here again a hygienic and spiritual measure, highly desirable in Osain medicine, clothed in a religious form to expel the evil spirits that might have entered the body.

According to Osain herbology, medicinal herbs, spiritual baths, prayers, and meditation is the cornerstone of health. Many of the herbs users in Osain are specifically selected to effect a particular Orisha in the body, including the energies and therapeutic properties inherent in the nature of the herb. The herbal properties are absorbed into the human dimensions end assist in the dissipation of negative influences. The ewe(herbs) are also classified and used in order to enhance one's Ashe. This is essential in Yoruba medicine in order to bring one's nature back in contact with the inherent force of all creation. This "contact" with the inherent force involves a tri-lateral process which includes:

Nature (Ashe)
Angelic forces (Orisha) ------------------ ewe (herbs)
Humans (Physical forms)

By enhancing the ashe in the human form, the spiritual channels are increased in power in order to allow the internal Orishas to gain leverage over the oppressive negative forces which are upsetting the balance of the body. Now let us compare the Western system of classification with the herbal properties of the presiding Orisha correspondence:

Obatala: Antispasmodic, stimulants, nervine, diaphoretic
Elegba: All herbs (herbs used for harmonizing)
Oshun: Alteratives, blood tonics, cholagogues, emmenagogues, antipyretics, expectorants, carminatives
Yemoja: Perturient, tonics, diuretics, cholagogues
Shango: emmenagogues, astringents
Ogun: Rubefacients, antianemics, antihemorrhagics, nutritive tonics, cardiac tonics, diuretics
Oya: Antituesives, demulcents, expectorants, antiphlegmatics. Bladder infections, prostate planets, impotence, wasting diseases.

The Planetary system of herbology also recognizes environmental energies at the core of its principles. Environmental energy is also categorized in herbs using the Osain system of herbology. Furthermore, herbs are categorized. According to numbers, colors, and directions.

Table 4: Color, Number, and Natural Environment

Orisha Color Number Natural Environment
Obalata White 8, 24 Mountains, Woods
Elegba Red and Black, White and Black 1, 3, 21 Woods, Crossroads, Gateways
Yemoja Blue and Crystal 7 (salt water) Oceans, Lakes
Oshun Yellow 5 (fresh water) Rivers, Lakes
Ogun Green and Black 3 Railroads, Woods, Forges
Shango Red 6, 12 Places struck by lightning, base of trees
Oya Reddish-brown, Rust, earth tones 9 Cemetary, places hit by Hurricanes, Storms

It is believed by Africans that where a plant grows also effects its spiritual powers (energy) to heal. For instance, the Oya Orisha is considered the Guardian of the Cemetery. Any plants that are found growing in cemeteries, are said to have the enhancing powers of Oya. More specifically, the Oloogun priest will search for cemetery plants growing in brownish-rusty areas which is believed that Oya Orisha hides its spiritual powers. The number nine is associated with the number of Orisha counterparts which also accompany Oya Orisha. Yemoja Orisha, the Mother of Waters, is said to contain her powers in Lakes, and oceans (salt water). Plants in these areas are used to help protect energies of the feminine force. Examples of some of the herbs used under this classification is kelp, aloe, and Squawvine which have traditionally been used to treat female imbalances in the amniotic fluids in the womb of pregnant women. The direction that a plant is picked in a particular area is also important under Yorubic medicine. The Orishas are said to concentrate their spiritual energies in particular directions just as the internal Orishas reside in different parts of the body. After comparing the Yoruba system of direction with the "four directions of herbs" classified in the North American Indian medicine wheel, I discovered striking similarities.

Oshun, is represented by the color yellow. This Orisha indicates medicines which effect the circulatory system, digestive organs, and the elimination system. Its direction is East.

Ogun, is represented by the color green. This Orisha indicates medicines which tone the tendons, and sinews. Its direction is south.

Elegba, is represented by the color black. Medicines indicated are herbs which effect the Brain and nervous system. Its direction is West.

Obatala, is represented by the color white. This Orisha indicates white purity, and herbs that cure human deformities. Its direction is North.

The four directional energies that correspond perfectly with the wisdom of the Native Americans were: 1) Oshun; 2) Ogun; 3) Elegba; and 4) Obatala. Again, Yoruba medical principles give us a system which harmonizes with the directional energies given in Planetary Herbology. One can perceive a universal wisdom that is common in every culture and system of herbal medicine. If the universal energy is One, then the foundation on which the four energies rest is Universal Energy. In other words, if the universal center is the source of all great herbal inspirations, then these four directional energies are the vehicles through which the inspiration becomes manifest. There is no other explanation for the similarities between herbal systems around the world. Every ancient culture taught the "sacred four". They indicated that we must pass through all four aspects, or directions, if we are to be complete and balanced human beings.

In earlier times, working these herbal principles was something that medicine men. Today, we are left to universal energies into was done by the great work these things out on our own. This can be an illuminating process. The essay I have given is by no means complete. It is merely a basis to establish the integration of African Medicine into the family of Planetary herbology. I invite your questions and suggestions for the topics given. I look forward to our dialogue.

Tariq Sawandi (A.K.A. Darrell Williams) can be reached as follows: 3B04-210, P.O.B. 3466, Corcoran, Ca. 93212



The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts by Baba Ifa Karade (Samuel Weiser, Inc.; York Beech, Maine; 1994), p. L
Michael Omoleya, Certificate History of Nigeria (London & Lagos: Longman Group, 1986), p. 15
Cheikh Anta Diop, Precolonial Black Africa (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, co-published with Lawrence Hill, 1992), p. 216
Stolen Legacy by George James (Julian Richardson Assoc.)
Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization by Anthony T. Browder (The Institute of Karmic Guidance, Inc; 1992)
Omosade Awolalu, Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites (White Plains, NY: Longman Groups, 1979) p. 3
The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concept , ibid., p. 23


Thank you very much for so much interesting information on Yoruba tradition. I hope this will be also interesting.

John Pemberton III

Yoruba religion
(from Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987. Vol.15, p.535 -538).

The twelve to fifteen million Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria, the Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey), and Togo (topographically the area is defined as that between 6°0-9°5' 2°41'-6° east longitude) are the heirs of one of the oldest cultural traditions in West Africa. Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicate that the Yoruba have lived in their present habitat since at least the fifth century BCE. The development of the regional dialects that distinguish the Yoruba subgroups and the process of urbanization, which developed into a social system unique among sub-Saharan African peoples, took place during the first millennium CE. By the ninth century the ancient city of Ile-Ife was thriving, and in the next five centuries Ife artists would create terracotta and bronze sculptures that are now among Africa's artistic treasures.
Both Yoruba myth and oral history refer to Oduduwa (also known as Odua) as the first king and founder of the Yoruba people. Some myths portray him as the creator god and assert that the place of creation was Ile-Ife, which subsequently became the site of Oduduwa's throne. Oral history, however, suggests that the story of Oduduwa's assumption of the throne at Ife refers to a conquest of the indigenes of the Ife area prior to the ninth century by persons from "the east." While it is increasingly apparent that the sociopolitical model of a town presided over by a paramount chief or king (oba), was well established in Ife and present among other Yoruba subgroups, the followers of Oduduwa developed the urban tradition and enhanced the role of the king. In later years, groups of people who sought to establish their political legitimacy (even if they were immigrants) were required to trace their descent from Oduduwa. Such people were known as "the sons of Oduduwa," and they wore beaded crowns (adenla) given to them by Oduduwa as the symbol of their sacred authority (ase).
Origin myths, festival rituals, and oral traditions associate the indigenous peoples with Obatala, the deity (orisa) who fashions the human body. And since he too was an oba, his priests wear white, conical, beaded crowns similar to those reserved for "the sons of Oduduwa." The myths and rituals also refer to a great struggle between Obatala and Oduduwa at the time of creation, following Oduduwa's theft of the privilege granted by Olorun (Olodumare), the high god, to Obatala to create the earth and its inhabitants. In the town of Itapa, the sequence of rituals that composes the annual festival of Obatala reenacts a battle between Oduduwa and Obatala, Oduduwa's victory over and the banishment of Obatala, and the rejoicing that took place among the gods and mankind with the return of Obatala at the invitation of Oduduwa. And there is the tradition among the Oy Yoruba of the unwarranted imprisonment of Obatala by Sango and the thunder god's release of the wandering, ancient king after famine and barrenness threatened field and home.
In these myths and rituals there is a historical remembrance of a usurpation of power and the acknowledgment that a violent conflict and a tenuous reconciliation gave birth to modern Yoruba culture. The remembrance, however, has not only to do with a past time, with historical and cultural origins; it is also a statement about the nature and limits of the authority of kings in defining the moral basis of Yoruba society. It is also about the importance of Ile-Ife as the symbol of Yoruba cultural homogeneity, while acknowledging the distinctiveness and the independence of other Yoruba subgroups.
There are approximately twenty subgroups, each identifiable by its distinctive variation in linguistic, social, political, and religious patterns born of the history of the region. Among the principal groups are the Egba and Egbado in the southwest, the Ijebu in the southern and southeast, the Oyo in the central and northwest, the Ife and the Ijesa in the central, the Owo in the eastern, and the Igbomina and Ekiti in the northeast regions. Throughout Yorubaland, the social system is patrilineal and patrilocal, although among the Egba and Egbado there are elements of a dual descent system. The extended family (idile), which dwells in the father's compound so long as space and circumstance permit, is the essential social unit and the primary context in which self-awareness and social awareness are forged. Thus, Odun Egungun, the annual festival for the patrilineal ancestors, is the most widespread and important festival in the Yoruba liturgical calendar. Elaborate masquerades (egungun), are created of layers of cloths of dark colors with white serrated edges. The costume covers the dancer, who moves about the compound or town with stately pace, occasionally performing whirling movements, causing the cloths to splay out in constantly changing patterns. In movement and appearance the masquerade depicts the presence and power (ase) of the ancestors. The ancestors are those persons who established the "house" (ile) and the family and who continue to stand surety for its integrity and survival against threats of witchcraft and disease, so long as their heirs acknowledge the ancestral presence.
While masquerades for the patrilineal ancestors are found among all the Yoruba, there are other masked festivals that are distinctive to particular areas, reflecting the regional history that has shaped the Yoruba experience. The Yoruba peoples of the southwest (the Anago, Awori, Egbado, Ketu, and Egba) celebrate the Gelede festival at the time of the spring rains. The festival honors awon iya wa ("the mothers"), a collective term for the female power (ase) possessed by all women but especially manifest in certain elderly women and in female ancestors and deities. It is the awesome power of woman in its procreative and destructive capacities that is celebrated and acknowledged. Among the Ijebu peoples of the south the annual festival for Agemo, an orisa whose power is represented by the chameleon, brings sixteen priest-chiefs famed for their magical or manipulative powers from towns surrounding the capital city of Ijebu-Ode into ritual contests of curse and masked dance with one another and then into the city, where they petition and are received by the Awujale, the oba of Ijebu-Ode. The secret power of the priest-chiefs meets the sacred power of the crown. Each is required to acknowledge the role of the other in the complex balance of power that constitutes Ijebu political life. The Elefon and Epa festivals are masquerades performed in the towns of such Yoruba subgroups as the Igbomina and Ekiti in honor of persons and families whose lives embodied the social values by which Yoruba culture has been defined in the northeastern area. The helmet masks with their large sculptures are balanced on the dancers' heads and are the focus of ritual sacrifice (ebo) and songs of praise (oriki) throughout the festival. They are images of the sacred power of those who founded the town or contributed to its life in important ways. Thus, while individual masks are associated with particular families, they also refer to the roles of hunter, warrior, king, herbalist-priest, and leader of women, roles that transcend lineage ties and express in their collectivity cultural achievement. Their powers are akin to those of the orisa, the gods of the Yoruba pantheon.
According to the Yoruba, there are 401 orisa who line the road to heaven. All of them are thought to have been humans who, because they led notable lives, became orisa at the time of their death. For example, Sango, the god of thunder, was a legendary king of Oyo before he became an orisa. The extraordinary number of orisa reflects the regional variation in their worship. Sango is the patron deity of the kings of Oyo, and his shrines are important in those towns that were once part of the old Oyo empire (c. 1600-1790). But in Ile-Ife, or in communities to the south and east, the role of Sango and the degree to which he is worshiped diminishes markedly. As one moves from one part of Yorubaland to another, it will be Osun, goddess of medicinal waters, or Oko, god of the farm, or Erinle, god of forest and stream, or Obatala or Agemo whose shrines and festivals shape the religious life of a people. Furthermore, the orisa have multiple names. Some call Sango Oba Koso ("king of Koso"); others greet him as Balogunnile Ado ("leader of warriors at Ado"). Sango is also addressed as Abinufarokotu ("one who violently uproots an iroko tree"), Oko Iyemonja ("husband of Iyemonja"), or Lagigaoogun ("he who is mighty in the use of magical powers"), names that reveal the varied and distinctive experiences of his devotees and their relationship to the orisa. The multiplicity (or fragmentation) of the orisa is also a consequence of the historical dislocation of peoples that occurred during the intertribal wars of the nineteenth century. When persons and groups were forced to move from one area to another, their orisa went with them, shaping and being shaped by the new world of their devotees' experience.
Of all the orisa it is Ogun, god of iron and of war, whose worship is most widespread. It is said that there are seven Ogun, including Ogun of the blacksmiths, Ogun of the hunters, Ogun of the warriors, and Ogun Onire. Ire is a town in northeast Yorubaland where Ogun was once the leader of warriors and where he "sank into the ground" after killing persons in a great rage, having misunderstood their vow of ritual silence as a personal affront. As with other orisa, Ogun expresses and shapes a people's experience with respect to a particular aspect of their lives. In the case of Ogun, it is the experience of violence and culture: his myths and rituals articulate for the Yoruba the irony that cultural existence entails destruction and death. One must kill in order to live. And such a situation carries with it the danger that the destruction will go beyond culturally legitimate need, destroying that which it should serve. Thus, to employ Ogun's power, one must be aware of Ogun's character (iwa) and be cognizant that the beneficent god can become the outraged orisa who bites himself.
As with Ogun, each of the orisa, in the diversity and individuality of their persons and attributes, may be understood as providing an explanatory system and a means of coping with human suffering. Rarely does only one orisa lay claim to a person. Ogun or Sango or Osun may dominate one's life and shape one's perception of self and world, but other orisa will have their artifacts on the shrine, as well as their claims and influence upon one's life. Just as the Yoruba dancer must respond to the multiple rhythms of the drums, so must the soul attentive to the powers of the orisa respond to their diverse claims. The complexity of the response may overwhelm one. But as in the ability of the dancer to be conscious of and respond to every instrument of the orchestra, so in sacrificing to all the orisa who call, the worshiper (olusin, "he who serves") can know the richness of life and its complexity and can achieve the superior poise, the equanimity of one who possesses ase amid the contradictions of life. Thus, when one considers the configuration of orisa symbols on a devotee's shrine or the cluster of shrines and festivals for the orisa in a particular town or the pantheon as a whole, as a total system, one discerns that the total assemblage of orisa expresses in it totality a worldview. And it is in the reality of this worldview that Yoruba experience, at the personal and social levels, is given coherence and meaning.
In addition to the orisa of the pantheon, there is one's personal orisa, known as ori inun ("inner head"), which refers to the destiny that one's ancestral guardian soul has chosen while kneeling before Olorun prior to entering the world. It is a personal destiny that can never be altered. Birth results in the loss of the memory of one's destiny. But one's "ori-in-heaven," which is also referred to as ekejimi ("my spiritual other"), stands surety for the possibilities and the limits of the destiny that one has received. Hence, one must make one's way in life, acknowledging one's ori as an orisa who can assist one in realizing the possibilities that are one's destiny. One can have an ori buruku ("a bad head"). In such a case a person must patiently seek to make the best of a foolish choice and seek the help of the other orisa.
In orisa worship it is the wisdom of Orunmila, the orisa of Ifa divination, and the work of Esu, the bearer of sacrifices, that stand for the meaningfulness of experience and the possibility of effective action. The vast corpus of Ifa poetry, organized into 256 collections called odu (also known as orisa) is a repository of Yoruba cultural values. It is the priest of Ifa, the babalawo ("father of ancient wisdom"), who knows Ifa and performs the rites of divination. Using the sixteen sacred palm nuts or the opele chain, the priest divines the odu whose verses he will chant in addressing the problem of the suppliant and determining the sacrifices that must be made. For the Yoruba, every ritual entails a sacrifice, whether it is the gift of prayer, the offering of a kola nut, or the slaughter of an animal. In the Ifa literature, sacrifice (ebo) has to do with death and the avoidance of such related experiences as loss, disease, famine, sterility, isolation, and poverty. It is an acknowledgment that human existence is ensnared in the interrelated contradictions of life and death. But sacrifice is also viewed as the reversal of the situation of death into life. Sacrifice is the food of the orisa and other spirits, and one sacrifices that which appropriately expresses the character (iwa) of the particular orisa or spirit of one's concern. Hence, Ogun receives a dog, the carnivorous animal that can be domesticated to assist the hunter and warrior. Sacrifice is the acknowledgement of the presence of powerful agents in the world, and the sacrificial act brings the creative power of the orisa, the ancestors, or the mothers to the worshiper; sacrifice can also temporarily stay the hand of Death and ward off other malevolent spirits (ajogun). Such is the power of Esu, the bearer of sacrifices, the mediator and guardian of the ritual way, the "keeper of ase."
Those who have observed the ritual way and achieved the status of elders in the community may also become members of the secret Osugbo (Ogboni) society. Although Osugbo is found throughout Yorubaland, its role and rituals vary from one region to another. Osugbo members, who come from various lineage groups, worship Onile ("the owner of the house"). The "house" (ile) is the image of the universe in its totality, of which the Osugbo cult house is a microcosm. The edan of the Osugbo society, which are small, brass, linked staffs that depict male and female figures, are the sign of membership and the symbol of the Osugbo understanding of reality. The secret of the Osugbo appears to be that its members know, and are in touch with, a primordial unity that transcends the oppositions characterizing human experience. Expressing the unity of male and female, the edan and their owners possess the power of adjudicating conflicts among persons or groups; when blood has been shed illicitly (as in a murder) it is the Osugbo members who must atone for this "violation of the house."
The worldview of the Yoruba is a monistic one. The universe of their experience is pervaded by ase, a divine energy in the process of generation and regeneration. Ase is without any particular signification and yet invests all things and all persons and, as the warrant for all creative activity, opposes chaos and the loss of meaning in human experience. Thus, for the Yoruba the universe is one, and it is amenable to articulation in terms of an elaborate cosmology, to critical reflection, and to innovative speculation.


James S. Thayer

(From Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol.11, p.68).

OLORUN is the high god of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. He has also been referred to as Olodumare, which is believed to be an older name for this god. Olorun is considered the king of the gods, and his name means literally "the owner of the sky."
As the high god, Olorun stands in relation to the other Yoruba gods as a father stands to his children, and these other gods, or orisa, are in fact considered to be his children. Olorun, as in many West African religions, is a remote deity without any traditional cult that worships him directly. In this respect Olorun is similar to the high gods of neighboring peoples in Nigeria, such as Osanobua (or Osa) among the Edo (Benin) people.
However, he is not forgotten or ignored by the Yoruba. It is believed that all offerings and prayers ultimately find their way to Olorun, but he accepts offerings and makes his wishes known through lesser gods. Esu, a Yoruba deity who serves as Olorun's messenger, carries the wishes of Olorun to the orisa and the prayers of the people from the orisa to Olorun. Furthermore, Olorun is remembered in most rituals, at least in the traditional conclusion, "May Olorun accept it." In many proverbs and figures of speech, the name and figure of Olorun are prominent, as in the morning greeting "May Olorun awake us well" or the proverbs "No one but Olorun may put a crown on a lion" and "Olorun drives away flies from the tailless cow."
Olorun is also important in the Yoruba pantheon in that he determines the fate of each person. Prior to birth, a person's ancestor guardian soul kneels before Olorun and receives a destiny. This destiny is forgotten at birth, however, and can only be rediscovered through divination. Although Olorun can modify individual destinies in certain ways, the amount of time given to people on earth remains fixed. Olorun is also seen as a powerful moral agent insofar as he judges each soul after death. People who have lived moral lives are rewarded with a brief afterlife that is followed by reincarnation. Evildoers, on the other hand, are never reincarnated and are sent by Olorun to the "place of potsherds" where they suffer in a peppery, hot, atmosphere.
The figure of Olorun became more prominent during the colonial era, probably as a result of Muslim and Christian emphasis on monotheism. Although he was always believed to be the high god, Olorun formerly had no specific temples or cults dedicated to him; now, however, temples dedicated to him may be found in Yorubaland. Moreover, the modern Yoruba say that Olorun is the giver of law and the controller of life and death. Since 80 percent of all Yoruba claim allegiance to either Islam or Christianity, scholars have raised the possibility that these attributes or functions are accretions for Olorun under the indirect influence of the monotheistic traditions. In the original form it seems that Olorun may have been far more remote, removed from any interference in natural, historical (except mythic), or social events, although early tradition does associate Olorun with the afterlife and the process of reincarnation. Furthermore, Olorun figures initially in the creation myth—he gave the task and materials of creation to one of his sons, Obatala, but it was another son, Oduduwa, who was destined to finish the creation. In general, however, the orisa play a more prominent role in these areas.
Despite the sparsity of rituals attached to him in Yorubaland, Olorun has diffused to the New World, particularly to northeastern Brazil. There he tends to be identified with God, the father of the Christian Trinity, and according to local theology he works primarily through his principal orixa (orisa), Jesus Christ, referred to as Oxala or Zambi. However, Olorun is sometimes even identified as this principal orixa, so the transference is ambiguous. The day dedicated to Oxala is Friday, thought to be a possible survival from Islam. The permutations from Africa to the New World are many — Olorun has been reported as a deity in the Shango cult of Recife, Brazil—so there is no simple way by which this Yoruba high god can be traced to the New World.

Отредактировано Stranger (2011-03-01 21:27:22)


James S. Thayer
(from Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol.13, p.60).

SANGO, one of the most complicated and venerated of Yoruba gods, is worshiped throughout much of West Africa under other names. In this sense Sango is comparable to the Ewe deity So and to the Ga deity Gua.
Sango is the god of thunder and lightning. Even though he is said to be a beautiful orisa ("deity"), he is much feared. People who have been struck by lightning and not killed must undergo extensive rituals involving propitiatory offerings. If a person is killed by lightning such rituals are obligatory even before the body can be buried (and it can be buried only by priests of the Sango cult). Moreover, no one can sleep in the house of the dead person until these rites have been performed.
The myth of Sango relates that he was a historical figure, the fourth king of Oyo. At that time the kingdom of Oyo stretched from the kingdom of Benin to that of Dahomey. Sango was said to have been a fearsome and tyrannical king, literally breathing out smoke and fire. He discovered a charm by which he could call down lightning, but when he did so, the lightning destroyed his house and family. Overcome with despair, Sango hanged himself. Other versions of the myth relate that he was taken up to heaven during a storm; still others talk of his disappearance into the earth. Nonetheless, he is thought to be the controller of thunder and lightning from that time.
Sango's cult is universal among the Yoruba. At the sound of thunder, it is customary for Yoruba to say, "Welcome to your Majesty" or "Long live the king." The shrines of Sango consist of a three-pronged, forked branch set in the ground. In the crotch of this branch is placed a bowl containing "thunder axes." These artifacts are actually Neolithic stone tools or axheads dug up by Yoruba farmers; they claim that they are the evidence of the presence of lightning and thus of Sango. The head priest of the Sango cult is responsible for initiating the "king," or alafin, of Oyo into the cult mysteries. The king of Oyo claims lineal descent from Sango.
In Yoruba country the ritual paraphernalia of the Sango cult is recognizable by the appliquйd leather shoulder bags worn by the priests and by the batons, adorned with human figures, that they carry. Many of the rituals invoking Sango have to do not only with thunder or lightning but also with healing. In days past, Sango was thought to be especially efficacious in the treatment of smallpox.
The emphasis on healing is particularly evident in those areas where large numbers of Yoruba settled outside their native land. In Sierra Leone, where many Yoruba slaves were freed, a cult of Sango thrived throughout the nineteenth century. In the New World, the cult of Sango is a type of possession cult, whereby one of the priests or adepts is "mounted" by Sango during a festival or ritual. Such a cult is found in Brazil, Cuba, and in various parts of the Caribbean. Often Sango is found in a syncretized form as a Christian saint. In Trinidad, for example, Sango is often equated with, or identified as, Saint John, and in Cuba he is associated with Saint Barbara.
Regardless of the form he takes, Sango continues to be associated in the New World with thunder and lightning and with cures for certain diseases. His colors are red and white, and he is offered sacrifices in times of need.

Отредактировано Stranger (2011-03-01 21:28:36)


Fontomfrom or Bomaa is the most complex of all musical types of the Akan of Ghana. It is a series of warrior dances that are performed in religious, ceremonial and social contexts at the courts of chiefs.


Multifaces of Word in Yoruba Orature

There were other ideals which the Egyptians developed such as the Doctrine of the Soul. They believers that the soul and body were not two distinct things, but one in two different aspects, just as form related to matter.

The soul is the power which a living body possesses, and it is the end for which the body exist, the final cause of its existence. By the time the Third Dynasty arrived during the reign of King Zoser, Imhotep, the great African physician had expanded on much of the earlier theories of medicine. Imhotep is regarded as the "real Father of Medicine". He diagnosed and treated more than two hundred diseases. Imhotep and his students knew how to detect diseases by the shape, color, or position of the visual parts of the body; they also practiced surgery, and extraction of medicine from plants. Imhotep also knew of the circulation of the blood, four thousand years before it was known in Europe. His sayings and proverbs, which embodied his philosophy of life,.

Such sculputures are usually placed on altars with a view to harnessing the spiritual power of the souls they represent. The town of Esie, about ninety miles from Ife, has more than eight hundred such stone figures. The present inhabitants of the town claim that their ancestors found the sculptures in the town when they first settled there in the 18th century, so these figures are venerated as petrified aborigines...???

actual-exams actual exam

Отредактировано Flayinglion (2013-06-24 11:40:31)

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