The birth of twins in Yoruba society is common yet auspicious. According to Yoruba tradition twins are imbued with the supernatural ability to bring to their family happiness, health and prosperity. Twins also are believed to ward off disaster. However, their temperaments are believed unstable as twins can also bring about disaster, disease and death. This instability explains why people in the Yoruba culture often treat twins with special care; twins receive the best food, clothes and jewelry. The affection given to them is to prevent these powerful beings from using their powers for evil ends.
The Ere Ibeji Cult
In the event that one or both twins dies in infancy, precautions must be taken immediately, to counteract the danger implicit in such an event. After consultation with the Babalowo (an Ifa priest), the ere ibeji twin figurine, is made. A commissioned sculptor carves the small wooden figurine which will serve as a symbolic substitute and dwelling place for the soul of the departed. The Babalowo will then perform the traditional ritual of transferring the soul of the deceased to the ere ibeji figurine. The Yoruba word ibeji means twin (ibi=born; eji=two; ere=sacred image).
While the ibeji cult is a way of honoring the ere ibeji figurines and the soul that is believed to dwell within them, there is no cult worshiping the manifestation of a specific ibeji god.
The abundance of ere ibejis can be explained by the amazingly high birthrate of twins among the Yoruba. The Yoruba have the highest birthrate of twins of any culture. There are 45.1 twin sets born out of every 1,000 births (4.5%). The Yoruba also have the highest twin mortality rate, hence the high number of ere ibejis.
Physical Characteristics of Ere Ibeji
Ere ibejis are usually about ten inches high, standing erect and are naked. Most often they stand on a round base. Their arms are always hanging down at their sides, usually at a slight angle. Almost all are trouserless except those from the Abeokuta area (see map). The arms are often disproportionately long while the legs are very short. The body can either have soft, round lines or have a sharp-angled, two-dimensional style. The navel is often crowned and curved. The genitalia are carved out carefully. The male’s chest is decorated with tribal marks, and the female’s breasts as well as her posterior are very prominent. The head is disproportionately large with the ears set to the back and supported by the columnar neck. The face and coiffure have the greatest range of variation. They are carved in great detail and are covered with marks of tribal distinction and belonging. Older and well cared for ere ibejis will exhibit a thick patina, usually of a reddish-brown color (see “Rites and Rituals”). Very often, the face has been worn smooth or the lips will have a rough texture due to the regular feeding rituals.
Legend and Myth
Twins are also called ejire, or “two who are one.” According to Yoruba tradition, everyone on earth has an ancestral guardian spirit or soul counterpart in the sky that duplicates his or her actions. This soul is constantly and cyclically reborn. Twins are thought to have a double soul. Because there is no way of distinguishing the twin who is a divine being from the mortal twin, both are treated as sacred.
The first born twin in Yoruba society is called Taiwo, from the expression “To-aye-wo,” which means “having the first taste of the world.” The second born, called Kehinde (meaning “arriving after another person”) is ironically considered the senior twin. Kehinde, the second, sends out Taiwo as a scout to see what the world looks like. Kehinde is described as the more careful and intelligent of the two. On the third day after a twin birth, the Babalawo is visited. He is the Ifa priest who is responsible for driving out the evil spirit that may be in or around the newborn twins. He dedicates the twins to the Orisha Ibeji (or spirit-god of twins). Babalowo’s power is so great that he can actually decide over the life and death of the twins.
There are many reasons that the birth of twins can be an unsettling event. While a great number of children are considered desirable in Yoruba culture, multiple births are comparable to the way in which animals reproduce. For this reason, the Colobus monkey, is scared to twins. The monkey is similar to humans in that when a mother monkey does produce two babies, one baby is carried on her back and the other on her front, just as a human mother of twins would carry her children. The Yoruba believe that the twins, while still in the womb, negotiate with the monkey so that they can be born as humans instead of monkeys. The Colobus monkey as well as the twins are considered capricious and lively. Both can flee to the “above” whenever they want to; monkeys can climb into the trees and twins are believed to be able to die at will and go above to the spirit world. Often the monkey is present in households with twins. It is always treated kindly and never driven away. It is thought that deceased twins who are unhappy and unable to find a home with their families (i.e., they are not satisfied within their ere ibeji or are not treated properly) live inside monkeys. Twins are sometimes referred to as “children of the monkey.”
Caring for the Ere Ibeji
Because the ere ibeji is considered the depository of the deceased twin’s soul, it is often treated with extreme and loving care. Caring for the ere ibeji is initially the mother’s responsibility. If the surviving twin is a girl, as she reaches the appropriate age, she will gradually take over the care. The ere ibeji is carried on the mother’s back, wrapped in her robe in the same fashion as a living child. Courtesy Marilyn Hammersley Houlberg.
In this way, she honors her deceased twin as well as displays her status as the mother of twins, which guarantees her special attention. Ere ibejis often have a special place in the home where they are kept. They are usually placed on the family twin altar which is mainly kept in the mother’s quarters or sleeping room. Sometimes the ere ibeji is stored in a closed container.
Rites and Rituals
Periodic rites and rituals are performed for twins both living and dead. Weekly and larger monthly feasts are given in their honor. Certain foods are thought to appease twins. Foods such as palm-oil, kola, maize, fowl and bananas are often fed to twins. Beans and palm oil are particularly important. If one twin is alive and the other is deceased, both are fed at such rituals. The mother smears food (usually a bean paste) on the ere ibeji’s mouth as she feeds the living twin. Ere ibeji are ritually washed, dressed, fed and put to bed each night. They are usually well-dressed and adorned with chains, rings, beads, cowrie shells, carved amulets, clothing and other miscellaneous items. Marilyn Hammersley Houlberg notes the effects of the modern world on some of the ere ibejis she saw: “Lately, ere ibeji have been observed to wear Nigerian half-pennies instead of cowries, diverse objects such as Virgin Mary medals, plastic measuring spoons, earrings with airplanes and other contemporary objects.” Ere ibeji are anointed regularly using ground redwood or camwood and palm oil. Their coiffures are dyed repeatedly using indigo and more recently Reckitt’s® blue rinse or Robin Blue® dye.
Mothers will often dance, sing and beg for alms in the market place or more recently in station houses. The songs are in praise of twins and onlookers give equal amounts of money for each twin. This not only aids the mother and her twins but also brings fortune and luck to the benefactor. Sometimes a mother does this of her own accord. In other instances, a diviner or priest tells her that this is what the twins wish. This is another way in which the Yoruba try to appease the twins. If the woman can afford it, she will be accompanied by a drummer and/or a young girl to help her carry the twins.