The Yoruba World



The Yoruba World

The Yoruba speaking peoples of Nigeria and the Popular Republic of Benin, together with their countless descendants in other parts of Africa and the Americas, have made remarkable contributions to world civilization. Their urbanism is ancient and legendary, probably dating to A.D. 800-1000, according to the results of archaeological excavations at two ancient city sites, Oyo and Ife. These were only two numerous complex city-states headed by sacred rulers (both women and men) and councils of elders and chiefs. Many have flourished up to our time. The dynasty of kings at Ife, for example, regarded by the Yoruba as the place of origin of life itself and of human civilization, remains unbroken to the present day.

In the arts, the Yoruba are heirs to one of the oldest and finest artistic traditions in Africa that remains vital and influential today. By A.D. 1100 the artists at Ife had already developed an exquisitely refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in terracotta and stone that was soon followed by works in copper, brass and bronze. Large figures portraying an array of social roles have been found in the region of Esie.

Of the series of remarkable Yoruba kingdoms over the last nine centuries, one of the earliest was Oyo, sited near the Niger River, the “Nile” of West Africa. Straddling this important trading corridor Oyo and its feared cavalry flourished between 1600 and 1830 and came to dominate a vast territory that extended northward to Borgu country, eastward to the Edo, westward to the Fon, and southward to the coast of Whydah, Ajase, and Allada. In Allada the presence of the Yoruba divination system known as Ifa was documented in an early divining tray.

Another Yoruba kingdom in the southeast, Owo, maintained close ties to Ife and also experienced the powerful artistic and cultural influences of Benin between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both were changed in the process – Owo artists supplying fine ivory work to the court at Benin, and Owo royalty adapting and transforming many Benin titles, institutions, and the regalia of leadership in the process.

The Ijebu Yoruba kingdoms (1400-1900) of the coastal plain were shaped by many of these same factors. These Yoruba became masters of trade along the lagoons, creeks, and rivers as well as masters of bronze casting and cloth weaving. They were the first Yoruba to establish trading ties with Europeans in the late fifteenth century. Over the next four centuries, the Yoruba kingdoms prospered and then declined as the devastating effects of the slave trade and internecine warfare of the nineteenth century took their toll. The stage was set for the ascendancy of the British and the advent of colonial rule at the end of the nineteenth century.

One of the effects of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century disruption was the dispersal of millions of Yoruba peoples over the globe, primarily to the Americas – Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, and Brazil – where their late arrival and enormous numbers ensured a strong Yoruba character in the artistic, religious, and social lives of Africans in the New World. That imprint persists today in many arts and in a variety of African-American faiths that have arisen not only in the Caribbean and South America, but also in urban centers across the United States. Yoruba philosophical, religious, and artistic tenets, ideas, and icons have transformed and continue to transform religious beliefs and practices and the arts of persons far beyond Africa’s shores.

There are several fundamental concepts that are distinctive to a Yoruba world view. They provide a foundation for comprehending the dynamics of Yoruba art and culture through time and space. Furthermore, these concepts are expressed in words, images, and actions. All three modes of expression contribute to the shaping of Yoruba culture and our understanding of it. Here, we concentrate on concepts conveyed in words and images that seem to permeate a wide variety of forms, media, and contexts. In the Yoruba view, all arts are closely related and are often meant to be understood and seen as images in the mind’s eye. Such mental images (iran) are related to oju inu (literally “inner eye” or “insight”). Thus, both the words and the forms considered in this chapter embody concepts that are pervasive and enduring markers of Yoruba civilization.

The Yoruba Cosmos

The Yoruba conceive of the cosmos as consisting of two distinct yet inseparable realms – aye (the visible, tangible world of the living) and orun (the invisible, spiritual realm of the ancestors, gods, and spirits). Such a cosmic conception is often visualized as either a spherical gourd, whose upper and lower hemispheres fit tightly together, or as a divination tray with a raised figurated border enclosing a flat central surface. The images clustered around the perimeter of a tray refer to mythic events and persons as well as everyday concerns. They depict a universe populated by countless competing forces. The intersecting lines inscribed on the surface by a diviner at the outset of divination symbolize metaphoric crossroads, orita meta (the point of intersection between the cosmic realms). The manner in which they are drawn (vertical from bottom to top, center to right, center to left) shows them to be three paths – a symbolically significant number. These lines are always drawn by Yoruba priests at the outset of divination to “open” channels of communication before beginning to reveal the forces at work and to interpret their significance for a particular individual, family, group, or community. Thus the Yoruba world view is a circle with intersecting lines.

Such an image also has temporal implications since the Yoruba conceive of the past as accessible and essential as a model for the present. They believe that persons live, depart, and are reborn and that every individual comes from either the gods or one’s ancestors on the mother’s or the father’s side. In addition, rituals are efficacious only when they are preformed regularly according to tenets from the past and creatively re-presented to suit the present.

Orun: The Otherworld

Olodumare (also known as Odumare, Olorun, Eleda, Elemi) is conceived as the creator of existence, without sexual identity and generally distant, removed from the affairs of both divine and worldly beings. Olodumare is the source of ase, the life force possessed by everything that exists. Orun (the otherworld), the abode of the sacred, is populated by countless forces such as orisa (gods), ara orun (ancestors) and oro, iwin, ajogun, and egbe (various spirits), who are close to the living and frequently involved in human affairs.

The orisa are deified ancestors and/or personified natural forces. They are grouped broadly into two categories depending upon their personalities and modes of action – the “cool, temperate, symbolically white gods” (orisa funfun), and the “hot temperate gods” (orisa gbigbona). The former tend to be gentle, soothing, calm, and reflective and include: Obatala/Orisanla, the divine sculptor; Osoosi/Eyinle, hunter and water lord; Osanyin, lord of leaves and medicines; Oduduwa, first monarch at Ile-Ife; Yemoja, Osun, Yewa, and Oba, queens of their respective rivers; Olosa, ruler of the lagoon; and Olokun, goddess of the sea. Many of the “hot gods” are male, although some are female. They include: Ogun, god of Iron; Sango, former king of Oyo and lord of thunder; Obaluaye, lord of pestilence; and Oya, Sango’s wife and queen of the whirlwind. The latter tends to be harsh, demanding, aggressive and quick-tempered.

This characterization of the orisa has nothing to do with issues of good and evil. All gods, like humans, possess both positive and negative values – strengths as well as foibles. Only their modes of action differ, which is the actualization of their distinctive ase (life force), as expressed by their natures or personalities (iwa). Furthermore, the gods are not ranked in any hierarchy. Their relative importance in any given part of the Yoruba world reflects their relative local popularity, reputation, and influence, and the order in which they are invoked in ceremonies has to do with their roles in the ritual and their relationship to each other.

The gods regularly enter the world through their mediums – worshippers who have been trained and prepared to receive the spirit of their divinities during possession trances in the course of religious ceremonies. When the gods are made manifest in this way, they speak through their devotees, praying and giving guidance.

While all the gods periodically journey to the world, two sacred powers, Ifa and Esu/Elegba, stand at the threshold between the realms of orun and aye, assisting in communication between the divine and human realms. Ifa, actually a Yoruba system of divination, is presided over by Orunmila, its deified mythic founder, who is also sometimes called Ifa. Esu/Elegba is the divine messenger and activator.

Ifa offers human the possibility of knowing the forces at work in specific situations in their lives and of influencing the course of events through prayer and sacrifice. The diviner, or babalawo (“father of ancient wisdom”) uses the rituals and poetry of Ifa to identify cosmic forces: the gods, ancestors, and spirits, and the machinations of the enemies of humankind personified as Death, Disease, Infirmity, and Loss: certain troublesome entities such as egbe abiku (spirit children), who may cause newborn children to die and be reborn frequently thus plaguing their parents until rituals and offerings can set matters right; and the sometimes evil-intentioned persons known collectively as araye (“people-of-the-world) who include aje (witches), oso (wizards), and others.

While Ifa symbolizes the revealable, Esu/Elegba is the agent of effective action, who also reminds one of the unpredictable nature of human experience. Esu’s constant and often unsettling activity reminds humans of the need for guidance in lives of engaged action. Esu, who bears the sacrifices of human to the orisa and other spirits, is the guardian of the ritual process. A verse from Ifa warns that if Esu is not acknowledged, “life is the bailing of waters with a sieve.”

The ancestors (oku orun, osi, babanla, iyanla) constitute another major category of beings in orun. They are departed but not deceased. They can be contacted by their descendants for support and guidance and can return to the world either for short stays in the form of maskers called egungun, or as part of new persons in their lineages who are partially their reincarnation. A young female child revealed to be the incarnation of her grandmother, for example, will be named Yetunde (“Mother-has-returned”). The grandmother continues to exist in orun, but part of her spirit, or breath, emi, is a constituent element of the new child.

Aye: The World of the Living

Aye, the world, is the visible, tangible realm of the living, including those invisible otherworldly forces that visit frequently and strongly influence human affairs. The importance and omnipresence of the otherworld in this world is expressed in a Yoruba saying: “The world is a marketplace [ we visit], the otherworld is home” (Aye l’oja, orun n’ile). A variant of this phrase, Aiye l’oja, orun n’ile (“The world [life] is a journey, the otherworld [afterlife] is home”), contrasts the movement and unpredictability of life with the haven of the afterworld that promises spiritual existence for eternity. Individual goals and aspirations in the world include long life, peace, prosperity, progeny, and good reputation. Ideally, these can be achieved through the constant search for ogbon (wisdom), imo (knowledge), and oye (understanding).

Yoruba society is traditionally open, but with long history of monarchical and hierarchical organization. Nevertheless, decision making is shared widely – consensual rather than autocratic or dictatorial – and an elaborate series of check and balances ensures an essentially egalitarian system. Just as all the gods are equal in relation to Olodumare, so too all lineages are structurally equal in the sacred king. At the same time, the possibility of mobility is fundamental, depending on how one marshals the forces in the environment. The situation is remarkably fluid and dynamic. Within this context, there is some recognition of rank, yet distribution of responsibilities and authority are given more importance than hierarchy. Seniority is based on the age of the person, the antiquity of the title, and the person’s tenure in office. Such an ideal for social interaction is rooted in the concept of ase, the life force possessed by all individuals and unique to each one. Thus ase must be acknowledge and used in all social matters and in dealings with divine forces as well.

Ase: Life Force

Ase is given by Olodumare to everything – gods, ancestors, spirits, humans, animals, plants, rocks, rivers, and voiced words such as songs, prayers, curses, or even everyday conversation. Existence, according to Yoruba thought, is dependent upon it; is the power to make things happen and change. In addition to its sacred characteristics, ase also has important social ramifications, reflected in its translation as “power, authority, command.” A person who, through training, experience, and initiation, learns how to use the essential life force of things is called an alaase. Theoretically, every individual possesses a unique blend of performative power and knowledge – the potential for certain achievement. Yet because no one can know with certainty the potential of others, eso (caution), ifarabale (composure), owo (respect), and suuru (patience) are highly valued in Yoruba society and shape all social interactions and organization.

Social processes encourage the participation of all and the contribution of the ase of every person. For example, members of the council of elder men and women, known as Osugbo among the Ijebu Yoruba and Ogboni in the Oyo area, have hereditary titles that rotate among many lineages, and there are other positions that are open to all in the society, as well as honorary titles bestowed on those who have made special contributions to the community. Members stress the equality of such positions in emphasizing their distinctive rights and responsibilities. All are seen as crucial to the successful functioning of the society as evident in Osugbo rituals. The members share kola nut, the drummers play the praises of titles, individuals take turns hosting a series celebrations, each person has the opportunity to state opinions during debates, and all decisions are consensual. Osugbo members stress the autonomy of their individual roles while at the same time asserting their equality in decision making. At various times some will dominate while others acquiesce, which is entirely in keeping with Yoruba notions of the distinctive ase of individuals and the fluid social reality of competing powers that continually shape society.

Rituals to invoke divine forces reflect this same concern for the autonomous ase of particular entities. Those invoked first are not more important or higher in rank, rather they called first in order to perform specific tasks – such as the divine mediator Esu/Elegba who “opens the way” for communication between humans and gods. The recognition of the uniqueness and autonomy of the ase of persons and gods is what structures society and its relationship the otherworld.


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