Ibeji- Yoruba Sacred Twins

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.

Oduduwa, Olofin Adimula, oba and founder of the Yoruba people

Oduduwa, phonetically written as Odùduwà, and sometimes contracted as Odudua, Oòdua, is generally held among the Yoruba to be the ancestor of the crowned Yoruba kings.

Several legends concerning the origin and ancestry of Oduduwa abound in Yoruba and Benin mythology. The Yorubas believe he is the father of the Yoruba’s and progenitor of all Yoruba Oba’s and the Oba of Benin. The Benin believe that he is a Benin prince called EKALADERHAN who was banished by his father, the Ogiso of Benin. His name, the Benins claim, is derived from ‘Idoduwa”, a Benin word meaning fortune’s path, symbolizing the painful exile from his ancestral home. In support of this, they claim, Oduduwa’s son Oranmiyan later returned to Benin to rule the Empire around 1,000 AD. Oduduwa is believed to have had several sons (16 in number) who later became powerful traditional rulers of Yoruba land, most notably Alafin of Oyo, Oni of Ife, Oragun of Ila, Owa of Ilesha, Alake of Abeokuta and Osemawe of Ondo. Yoruba tradition holds that Oduduwa fled from Mecca to Ile-Ife, bringing with him the Ifa religion which was under persecution in Mecca. He established it firmly in Ile-Ife and founded the Ogboni cult to protect the ancient customs and institutions of his people. The Oduduwa shrine is still worshipped today in Ile-Ife as the cradle of Yoruba culture.

Oral history of the Oyo-Yoruba recount the coming of Oduduwa from the east, sometimes understood by Muslim sources as the “vicinity” or direction of Mecca, but more likely signifying the region of Ekiti and Okun sub-ethnics in northeastern Yorubaland/central Nigeria. A strong theory among the Yoruba is that Oduduwa came from the region of Egypt or Nubia and may have been fleeing from religious persecution or invasion, possibly coinciding with the Greek invasion and colonization of Egypt in the 4th century BCE. Oduduwa is presumed to have entered the Ekiti-Yoruba and Okun-Yoruba region. This region is near the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers, and is where the Yoruba language is presumed to have separated from related ethno-linguistic groups like Igala, Igbo, and Edo

The Ife oral traditions, on the other hand, tell that Odùduwà was the son of the supreme god Olodumare or Olorun, and was sent by him from heaven to create the earth. (Another version of this myth ascribes these episodes to Obatala, casting Oodua, as an usurper).

Descending from the heavens via a chain let down to Ile Ife, Obatala brought with him a cockerel, a pigeon, and a calabash full of dirt. After throwing the soil upon the waters, he set the cockerel and pigeon on the pile of dirt that, in turn, scratched and scattered it around to create the rest of dry land that became the Earth’s surface.

Odùduwà  subsequently became one of the first kings of Ife, and then sent his sons out with crowns to rule over all of the other Yorùbá kingdoms, which is why all royal Yorùbá lineages claim direct descent from Odùduwà and refer to the Ooni of Ife as first among equals (popularly rendered in the Latin phrase primus inter pares in Nigeria).

Ile Ife continues to be considered the spiritual capital of the Yoruba.


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(Source: dynamicafrica)

Yoruba Name Book

Happily spotted this book on Yoruba names in a friends amazing library that I shall be delving into. Hmm What names would you like to know the meanings of?  Enjoy

Great Master Carver Lamidi Fakeye

Lamidi is a fifth generation carver of the highly respected Fakeye family, and during his long career, he has achieved great fame around the world as one of the greatest African artists of modern times. He was born in Orangun, Nigeria in 1928, and was given the prophetic middle name Olonade which means “‘the carver has arrived.’” 5 The family name Fakeye is an honorific title that the king of Ila bestowed upon his great grandfather for of his artistic accomplishments.

Lamidi Olonade Fakeye’s career began at age ten when he carved his first piece and began studying traditional Yoruba art under his father. In 1949, he was apprenticed to the master carver George Bamidele Arowoogun and worked with him for a great deal of time. The year 1960 was a momentous one for Fakeye as his first son was born and his first solo art exhibit opened in Nigeria. In 1978, he became an instructor at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria where he unveiled his incredible statue of Odudua nine years later. Between 1989 and 1995, Lamidi served as artist-in-residence at several prestigious American universities.

Currently, he continues to teach at Obafemi University, and he apprentices several of his nephews so that the Fakeye family’s artistic heritage will continue into its sixth generation. Throughout his career, Lamidi Fakeye has received numerous national and international awards for his work. The artist states that he carves traditional Yoruba social and mythological subjects to honor his cultural heritage, but because of his Islamic faith, his works are not intended for religious use.

Obatala : Orisha of the White Cloth

Obatala, is the chief of the White Cloth, the Orisha who in Yoruba cosmology, first descended from heaven to earth with the tools for making the earth livable for humans. While many experts say that the Yoruba migrated to what is now Nigeria (where they founded the holy city of Ile-Ife) in approximately seven hundred AD, other authorities trace their origins as far back as one thousand BC in the Sudan. But on the other hand, traditional Yoruba religious mythology holds that in primordial times a deity known as Obatala descended from Heaven to a water laden earth, spread a handful of soil that would form the continents, and settled onto a spot that would later be called Ile-Ife. Obeying his mandate from God himself, Obatala molded from clay the very first human beings at that very place. Following his return to heaven, Obatala’s immediate descendants began to maintain a shrine for the very structure in which they themselves were created from-clay, and where God, first gave men and women his greatest gift, the breath of life. Thereafter, members of the family were (and still are) installed as priests, responsible for remembering the intricate and poetic commemorative ceremonies of their ancestor, Obatala, Father of Mankind, the god of creation, perfection, purity, piety, and peace. Some say that the Yoruba people, indeed human existence itself, started in this building in a lowly quarter of Ile-Ife, the spiritual center of the Yoruba World.

Obatala is associated with purity, ethics and humility. 

Obatalá is the kindly father of all the orishas and all humanity. He is also the owner of all heads and the mind. Though it was Olorun who created the universe, it is Obatalá who is the creator of the world and humanity. Obatalá is the source of all that is pure, wise peaceful and compassionate. 

In Ifa, Obatala energy is the essence of Clarity. Within the myriad of kaleidoscopic energies that comprise our universe, the energy of Clarity is critically important. It is Clarity that allows us to make the right decisions, to differentiate right from wrong and perhaps most importantly, to see the other energies as they truly are! All the tales, or pataki, of Obatala, are designed to illuminate this reality.

Obatala is always referred to as The Orisa of the white cloth. White, in this sense, forms a perfect background for correctly seeing and identifying that which is around you. White is also viewed as a sign of purity, but, too often, thanks to the pernicious Christian Missionary influence on the Yoruba philosophy, this idea of purity has religious or moral implications. Instead, purity is another aspect of Clarity for this energy is unblemished, pure in its ability to discern. The moral judgment of Obatala is not based on this sense of Christian purity, but rather on this energies absolute ability to see clearly the total spectrum of energies or issues involved. Obatala is often seen as the Wise Old Man. Again, age and wisdom are simply representative aspects of increased clarity and judgment. Obatala is seen as the King of the Orisa. Again, this is not a power struggle or ego issue, this is simply a way of pointing out that Clarity of purpose, destiny and behavior will always take precedence when confusion or disagreement exists. Obatala is also viewed as the Judge. The Pure clarity must remain clear and unblemished. That Obatala represents the Head is consistent. It is from the mind that Clarity will come forth. Each and every tale is simply a way of expressing Oludumare’s creation of this essential energy the energy of Clarity. For the Obatala child the expression and use of this primary energy is complex. The Obatala child will see a world of black and white. No Gray. To an Obatala child things are either right or wrong there is no middle ground.

 He is also referred to as the orisha of the north. He is always dressed in white, hence the meaning of his name, Obatala (King or ruler of the white cloth). His devotees strive to practice moral correctness as unblemished as his robe. They never worship Obatala with palm wine, palm oil or salt. They may eat palm oil and salt, but never taste palm wine.

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