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Ejiwapo: The Dialectics of Twoness in Yoruba Art and Culture by Babatunde Lawal

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Ejiwapo: The Dialectics of Twoness in Yoruba Art and Culture

by Babatunde Lawal


The notion that reality has two aspects (i.e., spirit/matter, visible/invisible, male/female, good/evil, essence/ existence) is a universal and ancient phenomenon. However, its implications vary from one culture to another. In some, the two aspects are thought to be interdependent, as in the duality of twins or the primordial couple whose union gave birth to humankind. In others, the two may be viewed as complementary, as in Hinduism; mutually independent and sometimes antagonistic, as in the eschatological dualism of the Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Christian Gnostic doctrines of good and evil, in which one is expected to overcome the other in the end; or eternally coexistent as in the Cartesian epistemological distinction between mind and body (see Eliade 1969, Bianchi 1978, Lovejoy 1996). This paper examines how the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Republic of Benin perceive and visualize this phenomenon.

The Yoruba regard the number two as sacred apparently because of the duality or “twoness” (ejiwapo) apparent in nature, such as day/night, sun/moon, life/death, hot/cold, wet/dry, right/left, and male/female. Apart from associating the number with balance, they expect it (especially in a ritual context) to influence the supernatural and bring about a desired result:

Eji koko Iwori, Oluwo Isulorun! …

Ki o ko reree temi wa a fn mi

Eji koko Iwori

Ki o gbe orun gba a wa sile Aye

Bale ba le, a foju foorun

Eji koko Iwori

Sure tete wa koo wa fire temi fun mi

Eji-koo-koo-koo, Iwori! (Adeniji 1982:96) (1)

Iwori-The-Formidable-Two, Master Diviner of Heaven! …

Bring me my blessings

Iwori-The-Formidable- Two

Bring them [my blessings] from heaven to earth

When the night falls, Sleep takes over our eyes


Move swiftly and bring me my blessings

Iwori-The-Formidable-Formidable-Formidable-Two! (my trans.)

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Yoruba are world famous for their adoration of twins (ibeji), regarding them as wielding spiritual powers with which they protect as well as attract good fortune to their parents. This adoration easily explains why much of the previous scholarship on the significance of twoness in Yoruba art focused primarily on the rituals and images of twins. In what follows, I broach the subject within the dialectics of Yoruba cosmology, which explains the universe as an interface of opposing yet interrelated elements. IGBA iwa: THE COSMIC GOURD WITH TWO HALVES The popular Yoruba saying “Tako, tabo, ejiwapo” (“The male and female in togetherness”; Lawal 1995:45) is loaded with meaning. In addition to hinting at the life-producing potential of the couple–the source of the family–it recalls the Yoruba conceptualization of the cosmos as a “big gourd with two halves” (Igba nla meiji sbju de’ra won). (2) The top half signifies maleness as well as the sky/heaven–the realm of invisible spirits (Fig. 1). The bottom half represents femaleness and the primeval waters out of which the physical world was later created. A mysterious power called ase is thought to hold the gourd in space, enabling the sun and moon to shine, wind to blow, fire to burn, rain to fall, rivers to flow, and both living and nonliving things to exist. This power emanates from a Supreme Deity known (among other names) as Alase (‘Owner of ase’), Olorun (‘Lord of the Sky’) and Olodumare (the ‘Eternal One and Source of All That Exists’). Assisting Olodumare in administering the universe is a host of lesser deities or nature forces called orisa. Said to number four hundred or more, each orisa personifies an ase associated with a natural or cultural phenomenon. For example, Obatala represents artistic creativity; Orunmila, intelligence; Oduduwa, divine kingship; Yemoja/Olokun, water and motherhood; Osun, fertility and beauty; and so on. The deity Esu-Elegba occupies a special position among the orisa because of his role as the divine messenger and the link between them and Olodumare, on the one hand, and between the orisa and humanity, on the other. He is regarded as the custodian of ase. Unlike the Supreme Divinity in other African cultures, Olodumare seldom creates directly but does so through the orisa. For example, on deciding to create land out of the primeval waters, Olodumare commissioned Oduduwa to do so. After that, Olodumare instructed the artist deity Obatala to mold anthropomorphic images from clay, animated each image with a life force (emi) and then asked the newly created humans to go and inhabit the land below the sky. In short, these events, among others, transformed the bottom half of the cosmic gourd, also called Igba Iwa (‘Gourd/Calabash of Existence’), into the material realm and domain of female Earth, Ile, one of whose other names is Iya Aye (‘Mother of the World’).


According to one creation story, the two halves of the cosmic gourd fitted closely in the beginning, with Olodumare (male Heaven, alias Ajalorun) ruling the top half and Ile (female Earth, alias Ajalaye), the bottom half. But one day, they quarreled over the only bush rat they caught while hunting together in the forest. Ile insisted on keeping the rat because it came from her domain and she was the “senior.” Olodumare gave up the catch, caused the top half of Igba Iwa to separate from the bottom, and prevented rain from falling from the sky, thus disrupting the reproductive cycle in the terrestrial world. This obliged Ile to give in and acknowledge the apical position of Olodumare as the head of the cosmos, and life subsequently returned to normal in the physical world (Idowu 1995:46-7, Abimbola 1975:261-91).

It may be asked: Since Olodumare allegedly created Ile (through Oduduwa), why should she claim to be the senior? The answer probably lies in another version of the Yoruba creation myth (collected by Samuel Ajayi Crowther, 1852:207) to the effect that the Yoruba once regarded Oduduwa as the Supreme Goddess, an embodiment of Heaven and Earth. According to J. Olumide Lucas, one of the pioneer scholars of Yoruba religion and himself a Yoruba elder:

In the early myths she [Oduduwa] is credited with the priority of

existence … She is regarded as having independent existence, and

as co-eval with Olorun [aka Olodumare], the Supreme Deity with

whom she is associated in the work of creation … Oduduwa is known

as Iya Agbe–‘Mother of the Gourd’ or ‘Mother of the closed

calabash; She is [sometimes] represented in a sitting posture,

nursing a child. Hence prayers are often addressed to her by

would-be mothers (Lucas 1948:45).

D. Olarimiwa Epega, another Yoruba elder, makes a similar point: “Odudua is the Self-Existent Being who created existence. He is both male and female … The word Olodumare is a praise title of Odudua” (1971:13-14). (3) [FIGURE 3 OMITTED] [FIGURE 4 OMITTED]

Other scholars have drawn attention to the appearance of the word odu (chief) in the names of Ol-odu-mare and Oduduwa, suggesting that both apparently refer to one and the same deity (Idowu 1994:22-7, 31-2; Bamgbose 1972/73:28-9). (4) Indeed, Olodumare is also known as Eleduwa, which recalls the duwa in Odu-duwa. Thus the narrative attributing the creation of the terrestrial world to Oduduwa may very well reflect a divine act of self-extension, identifying Olodumare as a sexually biune Supreme Deity. In other words, is Ile an alter ego of Olodumare?

The reference to the bottom half of the cosmic calabash/gourd as the “mother” (Iya Agbe) is in consonance with the Yoruba identification of a container’s lid as ideri (‘cover’) or omori (lit. omo, ‘child’ + ori, ‘on top’). This is because a container, usually the bigger, supports its smaller cover in the same way a mother carries her child. Two questions then arise: Does Olodumare have a mother? Can the two halves of Igba Iwa also double as a Mother-and-(male) Child? This is not unlikely, given the fact that (as Olumide Lucas noted) Oduduwa is sometimes portrayed as a mother breast-feeding a child (Idowu 1962:Fig. 3b). It is interesting to note that a popular Yoruba folk etymology derives Olodumare’s name from Olodu-omo-ere, that is, ‘Olodu, the child of a female python’ (Idowu 1994:32-3, Bamgbose 1971/72:28-9). The following divination verse identifies him as such:

Ahere oko sisun nii mu opolo to lu ni oru

A dafun ere

Ti o nfi ekun se irahun omo

Nwon ni ki o rubo ki o le bi omo: ewure kan, aso kijipa ara re,


O gbo, o ru

Ere si loyun, o si bi omo

Awon enia si beresii wipe ‘lodu ni omo ti ere bi yi”

Nigba ti omo naa si dagba, o si joba ni oju iya re

Oun ni gbogbo enia si npe ni Olodumare titi di oni.

When we sleep in the farm hut, frogs jump on us in the night.

Was the one who cast Ifa [performed divination] for Python

When she was weeping and moaning for a child

They say she should sacrifice one she-goat, the homespun cloth

she was

wearing and eleven shillings so that she might be able to

have a child

She heard and made the sacrifice

And Python became pregnant, and she gave birth to a child

And people began to say: ‘One who has Odu” was this child that

Python bore

And when the child grew up, she lived to see him become a king

He is the one whom all people are calling ‘One who has Odu, child of

Python’ (Olodumare) until this very day (Bascom 1969:322-3, also

cited in Bamgbose 1971/72:27).

The Yoruba deity that immediately comes to mind is Osumare, who appears as the rainbow and whose symbol is the python (ere). Frequently represented as a pair of serpents or a single serpent with two heads (Fig. 2), Osumare is associated with wealth and prosperity. Curiously, the word mare (‘the immense, infinite, or eternal’) appears in both Osu-mare and Olodu-mare (Idowu 1994:30, Bamgbose 1971/72:27, 32; see also Babalola 1972/73:104-105). One folk explanation of the rainbow is that it encodes a message from Olodumare to his mother (the python?) in the underworld (Idowu 1994:30). That a snake deity might have played a much more prominent role in Yoruba religion in ancient rimes than it does today is apparent in the frequent representation of python motifs in Yoruba art. For example, a fourteenth-century terracotta vessel from Ile-Ife (Fig. 3) features a big snake looming above what seems to be an abstraction of an altar displaying three human heads, one naturalistic and the other two highly stylized. There is another snake at the back of the vessel (Garlake 1974:Fig. 6, pl. XLVI; see also Drewal, Pemberton, and Abiodun 1989). Note the emphasis on the creature also in the carved ritual bowl in Fig. 4. With its head on top of the female figure and its tail resting on the head of the male figure–as if uniting both sexes–this python seems to be watching over the cosmos, paying special attention to humanity. As noted earlier, the divine messenger Esu-Elegba is the keeper of ase, mediating its positive and negative powers. Hence, as will be seen below, he is perceived as an orisa with good and bad tendencies. The carved female in Fig. 5 conveys his generous disposition by touching her left breast. However, note the snake on her head that proclaims his other side! Besides, the snake reminds us of Esumare (another name for the rainbow deity Osumare) and Edumare (another name for the Supreme Being Olodumare; ibid., p. 31). As we shall see, the latter is the wellspring of existence in all its positive and negative aspects. In any event, the view held by some Yoruba informants that (a) Olodumare has a mother, (b) s/he embodies the male and the female principles of the cosmos, and (c) s/he may have something to do with a celestial python, has parallels among the Fon of the Republic of Benin, whose cosmology, many scholars believe, has been heavily influenced by that of their Yoruba neighbors (Maupoil 1943, Verger 1957). For example, the Fon conceptualize their Supreme Deity, Mawu-Lisa, as both male and female in essence. Its most sacred symbol is a closed calabash, like that of the Yoruba. The top half of the calabash symbolizes Lisa, the male Heaven, associated with day, heat, fire, fatherhood, and virility. The bottom half signifies Mawu, the female Earth, associated with night, coolness, water, fertility, motherhood, generosity, and nurture. Notwithstanding, the Fon often call the two aspects Mawu (Argyle 1966:179). As Melville and Frances Herskovits put it,

Any discussion of the Great Gods with [the Fon] will make apparent

at once the importance of the Sky-God. When the ultimate control of

the Universe is referred to, Mawu is the god usually named. Yet when

one speaks to persons immediately connected with the Sky-God cult

…. the name given to this deity will be the

hyphenated one of the two

principal members of the Sky pantheon, Mawu-Lisa … It is generally

held that Mawu whose domain is in the moon, is female, and that

Lisa, who rules the sun is male. Bur mythological accounts vary. One

version we collected tells that Mawu is androgynous and that Lisa

is the son of Mawu … Another relates that Mawu and Lisa are two

beings in one, one-half a female whose eyes are the moon, the

other a

male whose eyes are the sun. This version, it is claimed, explains

the meaning of the word Mawu (body-divided; 1933:11).

Furthermore, certain Fon oral traditions identify Mawu-Lisa as the offspring of a Mother Goddess called Nana Buluku (Nana Buruku or Nana Bukuu in Yoruba) who derives much of her powers from a primordial python Dan or Dambala, who is associated with the rainbow, wealth, and dynamism. Usually signified by a coiled snake with its tail in its mouth to connote eternity, Dambala itself is believed to have two aspects: Dambala-Wedo (male) and AidoWedo (female). These parallels seem to increase the possibility that, before the impact of Islam and Christianity on Yoruba religion, Olodumare might have once had attributes similar in some respects to those of the Fon’s Mawu, Mawu-Lisa, or Nana Buluku. (5) Another equally popular Yoruba creation narrative identifies the top (male) half of the cosmic calabash/gourd (Igba Iwa) with Obatala, the creativity deity, and the bottom half with Oduduwa in her role as female Earth (Lucas 1948:95). Apart from casting the two orisa in roles comparable to those of Olodumare and the Fon’s Mawu-Lisa, this tradition makes Obatala the Supreme Deity, as implied in nicknames such as Orisa Nla (‘Great Deity’) and Alabalase (‘The Wielder of Great ase’). Indeed, as Idowu points out, “he is called by some of Olodumare’s significant appellations. For instance, he is called Atererekaye–‘He who stretches over the whole extent of the earth'” (1994:70). Some stories even identify Obatala as the husband of the primordial python, mentioned earlier, that allegedly gave birth to Olodumare (Bascom 1980:212-15). And a number of scholars of Fon culture suspect that Mawu might derive from the Yoruba goddess Yeye Mowo, one of the wives of Obatala (Verger 1957:449, 552, Morton-Wil liams 1964:250 n.2, Bay 1998:95) whom some scholars identify as Oduduwa (Lucas 1948:96). [FIGURE 5 OMITTED]


It may then be asked: How did Olodumare displace Obatala in many of the creation narratives, assuming that he was, as some suspect, the equivalent of Lisa (Argyle 1966:175-6, Bay 1998:95), the top half of the (Fon’s) cosmic calabash? Did the names Olodumare, Oduduwa, and Obatala once refer to different attributes of the same Supreme Deity before they became dissociated and then identified with different beings? Admittedly, the answers to these questions must await the collection and close analysis of more oral traditions. Nonetheless, what is abundantly clear so far is that certain events in the Yoruba past would seem to have resulted in the modification of some aspects of their cosmology in order to accommodate new political developments. As mentioned earlier, Oduduwa reportedly created the earth out of the primeval waters. But one version of the creation narrative claims that Olodumare first asked Obatala to do it, giving him a hen and a bag of sacred sand. Unfortunately, Obatala got drunk after receiving the sacred instruments of his commission and fell asleep by the roadside. It was an opportune moment for Oduduwa: He picked up the sacred instruments, descended from the sky and created the first land at Ile-Ife, the cultural capital of the Yoruba. When Obatala woke up and discovered what had happened, he challenged Oduduwa and a fierce fight ensued. Olodumare later settled the rift and gave Obatala another task-to mold the image of the first human. Strangely enough, some legends identify the same Oduduwa as a powerful warrior and the leader of an immigrant group that invaded Ile-Ife in the first millennium of the Christian era. After conquering the aboriginal population headed by Obatala, Oduduwa established himself as a divine king in Ile-Ife, from where his descendants spread to other parts of Yorubaland, founding new kingdoms, sometimes peacefully and sometimes by force of arms. The resolution of the Oduduwa-Obatala conflict in Ile-Ife led to the formation of a government based on the rotation of the kingship between the two warring parties. Initially, the descendants of Obatala took charge of spiritual affairs, while those of Oduduwa controlled the political realm (Johnson 1913-14, Beier n.d.:25-32, Stevens 1966:184-99, Adedeji 1972:321-29, Law 1973:207-22, Eluyemi 1985:20, Smith 1988:3-12, 14-27, Adediran 1992:77-95, Adediran and Arifalo 1992:305-17).




As Oduduwa, the male warrior, gained the upper hand in the dynastic conflict, why is he associated with the bottom/female half of the calabash and not the top? Or does the bottom half represent the temporal powers of Oduduwa, the first divine king of Ile-Ife? (6) I have been unable yet to elicit a categorical answer to these questions from field informants. Suffice it to say that the alleged conflict between the two orisa may very well explain why Oduduwa now has a double identity, being worshipped as a male deity in much of eastern Yorubaland, but as another aspect of Ile, female Earth, in the western part. Oddly enough, those who regard Oduduwa as a male orisa still occasionally address him as Iya Imole (‘Mother of the Divinities’; Idowu 1994:22-5). This confusion has given rise to two speculations: one, that Oduduwa’s male (warrior) aspect might be a later development imposed by a new dynasty to legitimize its hegemony (ibid., p. 26); and the other, that there might have been more than one Oduduwa in the past (Euba 1985:11). Both speculations might suggest that the original Oduduwa–alias the ‘Mother of the Gourd’–is not necessarily the same as the warrior now venerated as a male orisa and the progenitor of the Yoruba. (7) In sum, the metaphor of a cosmic gourd with male and female halves would seem to suggest that the Yoruba notion of a bipartite Supreme Being is much older than the current one that identifies Olodumare as a self-created Sky Father also called Olorun (‘Lord of Heaven’).


The metaphor of a bipartite omnipotent and omnipresent cosmic power surfaces again in the edan Ogboni, a pair of male and female brass figures usually joined at the top by an iron chain (Fig. 6). It is an insignia of membership of the Ogboni society, which wielded considerable religious, political, and judicial powers among the Yoruba in the past and, to some extent, still does today. (8) Also known as Osugbo, the society derives much of its authority from its role as the vital link between a given community and Ile, who sustains it (Biobaku 1952, Morton-Williams 1960, Williams 1964, Lawal 1995). The term edan has two principal meanings, referring at one level to the brass emblem of membership of the Ogboni society and at another level to the goddess Edan, the daughter and alter ego of Ile and the link between the latter and the Ogboni society (Lawal 1995:41-3). As a result, both names, Ile and Edan, may be used interchangeably to allude to the same female Earth. Yet the altars dedicated to her inside most Ogboni lodges usually feature two large male and female figures (Fig. 7) called Onile (‘Owner of the House’) or Onile (‘Owner of the Earth’).

In view of the Yoruba conception of the cosmos as a gourd with male/female halves, some scholars have suggested that the Onile pair may represent the union of the male Heaven and female Earth or the couple as the founders of human society (Williams 1964:142, Witte 1988, Drewal 1989:161). These interpretations cannot be ruled out altogether, given the recent attempts by some Yoruba to modernize the Ogboni. In 1914 the society split into two factions, the Aboriginal Ogboni Fraternity (AOF) and the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity (ROF). While the AOF continues with many of the old rituals and symbolism, the ROF has been modifying them to attract new members, especially Christians and Muslims. This has complicated the interpretation of Ogboni art because certain ROF members now identify the Onile pair as the Yoruba equivalent of the biblical Adam and Eve (Lawal 1995:37-49). Yet that the pair does not represent two different characters is evident in the fact that both the AOF and ROF factions refer to the two figures as Iya (‘mother’), treating them as one unit (Daramola and Jeje 1975:1323, Ojo 1973:51). Besides, all members of the society metaphorically regard themselves as Omo Iya (‘Children of Mother Earth’), not as children of two parents, a father and a mother (Lawal 1995:43-9). Some Onile figures are joined back to back to emphasize the oneness of the pair. Certain altars have only a fe/male figure with two heads, one representing the male and the other the female; one example of this type is in the museum collection of the Obafemi Awolowo University Museum, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. A fe/male altar figure in the collection of the Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal, Holland, wears a hunter’s hat to symbolize the maleness within her femaleness (Witte 2004:Fig. 73). Other fe/male figures are hermaphroditic, sporting beards, hornlike coiffures (Fig. 8), or other unusual features, in allusion to the transcendence that enables Ile to sustain different manifestations of life in the physical world (Lawal 1995). These features reverberate in the edan Ogboni as well (Fig. 91).

Though this emphasis on androgyny in Ogboni iconography may reflect parity or male-female interdependence and the pre-eminence of motherhood in the physical world, it also explains why Ile (fe/male Earth) is sometimes addressed as Obinrin b’Okunrin (‘a manlike woman’; Adeoye 1989:336). Of special importance here is how androgyny has been used by the Ogboni to communicate the ambivalent character of female Earth. Her kindness to humanity through agriculture is acknowledged in the praise Ile Ogere, a f’oko yeri (“Earth, the mother goddess who adorns/combs her hair with a hoe”). At the same time, she is known to be cantankerous, taking life at will through different environmental hazards: Alapo ika. Ari ikun gbe eniyan mi (“Owner of a bagful of evil, with a stomach big enough to engulf human beings”; ibid., p. 359-60). She deals ruthlessly with liars and traitors but rewards the righteous. And since the Yoruba often associate femaleness with sofiness and coolness and maleness with hardness or harshness, the female figures of the Onile/ edan pair evidently refers to the motherly disposition of the goddess, and the male figures to her punitive or potentially dangerous tendencies. That is why the chained edan Ogboni brass figures may be detached for sending coded messages. A male figure connotes bad news and may be used to summon those who have committed serious offences to appear before a special court. The female figure, on the other hand, hints at good news, such as being cleared by the court of a crime or selected to receive a chieftaincy title. However, the significance of each figure varies from one context to another. Some edan Ogboni are specially made for healing purposes. When worn like a pendant, the male figure is expected to energize the body, facilitating speedy recovery from illness. The female figure, on the other hand, may be prescribed for relieving muscular pain and high blood pressure. Above all, the juxtaposition of the male and female figures sends clear signals about the interconnectedness of the opposite sex in the perpetuation of life and preservation of the social order. Needless to say, when worn in public, the edan Ogboni denotes the male/female membership of the society (Lawal 1995:37-49).





In the Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Christian Gnostic traditions, there is an attempt to trace the origin of Good and Evil to two separate and antagonistic cosmic principles. This is not the case with the Yoruba. That they regard both phenomena as two sides of the same coin is evident in popular sayings such as “Tibi t’ire la da’le aye” (“The physical world evolved out of Good and Evil”; Lawal 1996:22, Akiwowo 1983:23) and “Buburu ati fere ni o nrin po (“Bad and good things work together”; Lawal 1974:239-49, Allen 2003:57). In other words, the same Olodumare created both Sopona, the dreaded smallpox Orisa, and his opposite Osanyin, the orisa that cures diseases. He also created creatures that prey on each other, making life a struggle for survival (Abimbola 1997:3).

A dose examination of Yoruba cosmology reveals two opposing forces (Fig. 10). On the right side are the benevolent forces, consisting mainly of the orisa and deified ancestors who watch over the interest of humankind by virtue of their human essence. On the left are the malevolent forces, known as ajogun (‘warriors’). They include Iku (death), Arun (disease), Ofo (loss), Egba (paralysis), Oran (trouble), Epe (curse), and all the environmental hazards militating against human existence and well-being. As Wande Abimbola has observed, “there is no peaceful coexistence between the two powers. They are always in conflict” (1997:3, see also Abimbola 1976:151-94). Notwithstanding, they partake of one another’s characteristics, given the Yoruba belief that nothing is good without something bad in it, and vice versa. Hence the following aphorisms: “Aigba ire, ka ma gba ibi” (“Anything Good has some Evil in it”) and “Ninu ikoko dudu ni eko funfun ti njade” (“The white porridge comes from a black pot/A good thing may come from a bad one”; Lawal 1974:243). Similarly, the right and left sides of the cosmos are not mutually exclusive in terms of the benevolent and malevolent. For instance, the left side (despite its association with the malevolent ajogun) has positive aspects as well, being associated with femaleness and comfort. Note the following prayer for a good festival:

Kodun nyi yabo …

Abo lala bo mo

Abo nii tura …

Ki odun wa ma ya’ko.

Ako lo ni lile.

May this festival turn out to be female in nature,

It is in femaleness that peace is buried

It is the female that comforts …

May our festival not turn out to be male,

For it is in the male that toughness lies (Apter 1992:111).

This prayer clearly shows that maleness can potentially be negative, notwithstanding its association with the benevolent Right side of the cosmos, to which many of the orisa belong. So, there are elements of the right side on the left, and vice versa (Lawal 1995:43-4). In fact, the panegyrics of some of the orisa portray them as unpredictable. The creativity deity Obatala is a good example. Although well known for his gentility, his nickname A da ni bo ti ri (‘He who creates us as he wishes’; Idowu 1994:72) speaks volumes about his fickleness. Aside from commending him as a great artist who enjoys a lot of creative freedom, it reminds us of the drinking bouts that led him to create people with deformities. In short, the Yoruba cosmos is a binary fusion of opposites. There is no absolute good or absolute bad. To enable humanity to cope with the dialectics of the existential process, Olodumare reportedly gave special powers to two orisa, Esu-Elegba and Orunmila. In his role as the divine messenger, Esu-Elegba acts as an agent between the powers of the Right (orisa) and those of the Left (ajogun). He frequently succeeds in keeping them under control, even if he has been unable to stop their perennial conflict. Yet that role has turned him into a double agent, earning him the appellation Asotun-sosi lai n’itiju (‘The one who befriends the Right and the Left without feeling ashamed’; Daramola and Jeje 1975:299). Several panegyrics portray him as a deity who delights in mischief by making enemies of close friends and even causing misunderstanding among fellow orisa, if only to create an opportunity for himself to serve as a mediator (Wescott 1962:337-54, dos Santos and dos Santos 1971, Pemberton 1975). In one story, Esu-Elegba decided to test Orunmila’s generosity. In disguise, he accompanied the ajogun to Orunmilas house. But seeing through Esu-Elegba’s intrigue because of his intuitive power, Orunmila lavishly entertained his guests and won their praises and blessings (Abimbola 1976: 187-9). On another occasion, the very same Esu-Elegba sided with Orunmila to ward off Death (ibid., 189-91). (9) He plays a similar role in his dealings with mortals in order to teach them how to negotiate the complexities of earthly existence. It is enough to say that many symbols of Esu-Elegba embody these betwixtand-between roles. [FIGURE 13 OMITTED]


The staff in Fig. 11 has two faces, looking in opposite directions, to underscore the deity’s association with the threshold from where he monitors development from the inside and outside, the front and the back, and so on. Other staffs may represent him with a flute to stress his role as a monitor, instigator, coordinator, and mediator. Some emblems of the deity feature paired male/female figures (Fig. 12), like the edan Ogboni, in reference to his ambivalent and transcendental powers. Certain dance vestments for the deity (Fig. 13) consist of four alternately male and female figures (2 x 2 = 4), emblematizing his association with the crossroads–a junction of forces from the north, south, east, and west. A number of vestments have three, five, or seven figures, so that the one in the middle divides them into two groups, underlining the intercessional role of this orisa. His function as a lodestone is implied in the lump of laterite (yangi) that usually represents him in front of a house or at the crossroads. According to some Yoruba elders, the word ‘Esu” derives from the root verb su, (‘to cluster, form into a ball, or gather into a mass’). The same root verb is implicated in Osumare and Esumare, recalling the ball-like coil of a python. This verb is also present in asuwada, the Yoruba creation narrative, which declares that, even though all things were created individually, their survival depends on how well they are able to cluster and coexist with one another (see Akiwowo 1986:113-23).

In spite of his close association with Esu-Elegba, the double agent, the divination deity Orunmila has a significantly different character. The exact meaning of the deity’s name is obscure. However, many Yoruba informants believe that it is a contraction of either Orun l’o-mo-atila (‘Only-Heavenknows-the-means-of-salvation’; Idowu 1994:74) or Orun-li-omo-ilaja (‘The-one-sent-from-heaven-to-settle-conflicts’; Lijadu 1908:2). Nonetheless, the deity is widely revered as Ogege A-gbaiye-gun (‘The-stabilizer-of-the-World’; ibid., p. 67), Oloore Ajiki (‘The predictably generous one, worthy of worship every morning’), Apijo’ku da (‘The averter of death’), Eleri Ipin (“The witness of creation and human destiny’), and Amoimotan (‘The One not known in full’; Epega 1971:14-15, Simpson 1980:13-14, Adeoye 1985:181-2).

In one word, Orunmila uses his divine intelligence to help humanity and fellow orisa to diagnose and find solutions to problems, offering advice and providing remedies to avert trouble and dissolve tension. He is consulted through the divination system called If a whose most popular symbol is the opon Ifa (divination tray; Fig. 14). By throwing sixteen sacred palm nuts four times from one hand to the other and recording each throw with one or two finger prints on the dust in the tray, a diviner creates a set of signs or figures (ode) associated with one of the 256 verses in the literary corpus called Odu-Ifa. The diviner then recites the relevant verse in which a problem similar to that of the client would be mentioned. In the end, the diviner advises the client to follow the solution recommended in the verse.

It is significant that each of the sixteen principal ode, from which the others derive, is said to be both male and female and therefore paired (Fig. 15), being identified as such: Ofun Meji (the Ofun pair), Ose Meji (the Ose pair), and so on. According to Daniel Epega and William Bascom, the marks on the right half signify the male and those on the left, the female (Epega 1971:16, Bascom 1969:40). The tight bond between the two halves is often invoked to bless marriages or settle disputes between lovers:

Aji koni ro

Ajipani po

Ese kan Ogbe ko ki i se orogun.

One who brings us together on awakening

One who unites us on awakening

One half of Ogbe (odu-Ifa) does not quarrel

[with the other] (Simpson


[FIGURE 14 OMITTED] Yet, as Wande Abimbola points out,

Each of the 256 Odu has its own character. Broadly speaking, one Odu

may denote evil while another one denotes good. The same Odu may

also stand for both good and evil … If a good Odu appears … it

means that the client can expect a good omen on the subject of

inquiry … and if an evil Odu appears, it means that the client

should expect evil (1976:30).

And whatever the outcome of a given consultation, Orunmila is expected to advise the client on what to do in order to pave the way for the predicted blessing or ward off the evil lurking in the dark. The divining tray on which the diviner fingerprints the odu has three basic forms: circular, semicircular, and square/rectangular. The most common, the circular tray, evokes Igba Iwa, the cosmic gourd. Human, animal, and mythological motifs carved in high relief frequently adorn the tray’s border, leaving a recessed open space in the middle (Fig. 14) called aarin opon, the space for finger-printing the odu signs. That this recessed space is the intersection of heaven and earth and a stage for metaphysical theater is evident in the popular saying “Aarin opon niita Orun” (“The middle of the tray connects with heaven”; Abimbola 2000:177). A typical tray has a human face called oju opon (‘face of the tray’) carved on the border, said to represent Esu-Elegba, the divine messenger who acts as a kind of “secret agent” for Orunmila. The face is oriented to look at the priest during the divination exercise. Some trays may have two or more faces; in that case, the one on top, looking directly at the diviner, becomes Esu-Elegba’s. Since he represents the unpredictable factor in life, in addition to his role as the divine messenger, Esu-Elegba must receive a portion of all the sacrifices offered by a client toward the solution of a particular problem. Thus, through If a divination, there is an attempt to enlist the services of this unpredictable orisa to make life more predictable. Paired animal and human figures as well as patterns adorn many trays, hinting at the continuous interaction of opposing forces in the cosmos.


This oppositional complementarity in the Yoruba cosmos finds one of its most eloquent expressions in the ose Sango, the double-ax ritual staff of the thunder deity Sango (Fig. 16). The staff stands for the polished stone ax or the thunderbolt (edun ara) that this orisa allegedly hurls down from the sky during thunderstorms. A collection of these stones represents Sango on an altar, alluding to the deity’s virility and firepower. A typical ose Sango usually takes the form of a human figure–frequently female–surmounted by a pair of carved stone axes, signifying the interaction of heaven/earth, male/female, creation/destruction, etc., in the Yoruba cosmos. It is also a visual metaphor for spirit possession, through which Sango manifests in the body of a devotee (Fig. 17). As Evan Zuesse rightly observes in his study of African religions, “the spatial universe of the body is absolutely crucial for ritual. Religious meaning is mediated through the spaces that ritual establishes for the body” (1979:142). While both male and female priests use their bodies to reveal Sango, the female body is considered the most ideal. Hence the initiation of a male devotee involves a ritual that virtually feminizes his body, which explains why most male priests wear female hairdos. In effect, the female body relates Sango–an epitome of virility–to the feminine principle in the cosmos personified as Yemoja/Olokun, Ile, Oya, and Osun, among others. That is why Sango is known as A f’edun ko’le b’ebe isu (‘The one who uses the thunderbolt to till the earth into heaps like those used for planting yams’), Akata yeriyeri oko Oya (‘Flashes of lightning, the husband of the tornado deity called Oya’), and Baba wa ojo omo olomi ti ije Yemoja (‘Bringer of rain, the son of Yemoja, the mother of the waters who gave birth to Osun’). Sango’s most sacred color is red, symbolizing blood and fire–a color often combined with blue and white, both sacred to the water goddess Yemoja/Olokun. (10)




In essence, the thunderstorm dramatizes the interrelatedness of Heaven and Earth as well as male and female. The resulting synergy is expected to regenerate the cosmos, making life more abundant in the physical world. This imagery is apparent in the Agbena, a priest carrying a pot of fire during the annual festival in honor of the deity (Fig. 18). He is male, but often wears a female hairdo to signify his twoness. The fire connotes the maleness of the lightning from the sky and the pot the femaleness of the “Mother of the Gourd” containing the primordial waters out of which habitable land emerged at creation. The same phenomenon is evident in the arugba, the female caryatid figure (Fig. 19) holding a bowl of thunderbolts on some Sango altars. The two halves of the bowl recalls Igba Iwa, the cosmic calabash, while the kneeling female figure reinforces the sustaining power of the bottom half–the “Mother of the Gourd.”

The twoness of Sango as a conflation of humanity and divinity also resonates in the ose’s double-ax motif. Legend has it that Sango once ruled as the fourth king of the ancient Yoruba kingdom of Oyo some time in the fifteenth century. Because he had a special charm for invoking the thunderstorm, he was deified and identified with that phenomenon after his death. He is said to have fathered many twins; hence his nickname Baba Ibeji (‘Father of twins’; Thompson 1971a). Therefore, the double-ax motif may reflect his association with twins as well. At the same time, the motif epitomizes the paradoxical nature of the thunderstorm: The rainfall that fecundates the earth to benefit humanity is frequently accompanied by violent gales and destructive lightning strikes that may result in loss of life and property.


The fact that the Yoruba trace the origin of the human body to a piece of sculpture created by the artist deity Obatala and then animated with a life force clearly shows that an individual has two aspects as well. The body represents the material self, and the life-force, the spiritual self. Its bilateral symmetry is sometimes said to reflect the contributions of one’s parents to the self, the right being identified with the father and the left with the mother (Idowu 1994:183, Epega 1971:16). Different parts of the body manifest this twoness as well bone is identified as male and flesh female; semen male and breast milk female. Even the head is divided into an outer layer (ori ode) comprising the hair, forehead, eyes, nose, cheek, mouth, chin, and ears; that is, those features that physically identify a person. A naturalistic portrait (Fig. 20) focuses on these details of the visible self, which may also include the whole body. The inner head (ori inu), on the other hand, refers to an inner, spiritual core which, to the Yoruba, enshrines the ase on which depends one’s success or failure in life. The symbol of this inner core is called ibori (‘altar to the head’). Its abstract form hints at the mystical nature of the spiritual self, though a stylized sculpture with an emphasis on the head may also allude to the preeminence of the inner head. (Fig. 21; see Lawal 2000:93-109). The belief that the latter controls the outer head is evident in the popular prayer: “Ki ori inu mi ma ba t’ode je” (“May my spiritual head not spoil the physical one”; Drewal, Pemberton, and Abiodun 1989:26, Olajubu 2003:33).:: Also, the eye is thought to have two layers, the outer eye (oju ode), which has to do with normal quotidian vision and the inner eye or mind’s eye (oju inu), associated with insight, intuition, meditation, critical analysis, etc. (Lawal 2001:516-17).



The Yoruba idea of beauty has two components as well: physical beauty (ewa ode), referring to visual appeal, and inner beauty (ewa inu), character or moral worthiness (iwa). That they place a premium on the latter can be discerned from the popular saying: “Iwa l’ewa” (“Character determines beauty”). The reason for this is obvious: Physical beauty is a natural endowment. Since, as noted earlier, Obatala is “He who creates us as he wishes” (A da ni b’o ti ri), to make external beauty the sole criterion for the beautiful is tantamount to penalizing the physically unattractive for a biological fact they could not have personally prevented. The stress on character, on the other hand, affords everyone an equal chance of living up to a moral ideal in order to be fully admired. Self-discipline thus becomes the key to social mobility, enabling an individual to make up for a physical deficiency or maximize the potentials of a natural endowment (Lawal 2005).

In sum, since the inner head localizes the life force, it influences not only one’s character, but also one’s self-consciousness, mind, thought, conscience, wisdom, behavior, and physical power–all manifested in the body (Abimbola 1971:73-89; Morakinyo and Akiwowo 1981:19-38, Allen 2003:37-64). The latter then becomes a kind of mask, through which the life force exerts one’s presence in the visible world. This interaction between the material self and its spiritual Other differentiates the Yoruba notion of twoness from the Cartesian identification of body and mind as two irreconcilable absolutes (Morakinyo and Akiwowo 1981:28). As a popular Yoruba proverb puts it: “T’oju, t’iye l’aparo fi nri iran” (“The bush fowl surveys the land with both eyes and wings”). (12)


In addition to their notion of the two selves, the Yoruba also believe that every living person has a spirit-double in heaven called enikeji (Idowu 1994:182-3, Prince 1964:93, Abimbola 1987). Before being born, an individual enters into an accord with his or her spirit double, promising to achieve certain goals on earth, observe certain taboos, refrain from certain actions, and so on. As Marilyn Houlberg has observed:

In the case of twins, the spirit double has been born

on earth. Since there is no way of telling which is the heavenly

being and which is the mortal, both are treated as sacred from

birth. As one 45-year-old man from Ibadan commented: “We do not

think of each twin as having its own counterpart in heaven; they are

the counterparts of each other.” Thus, everything that is done for

one must be done for the other (1973:23; see also Thompson 1971,

Lawal 1989, Chemeche 2003).

In other words, the prenatal bond between an individual and his/her spirit double was such that one could not leave the other behind. As a result, both were born together; hence their name ibeji (‘double-birth’) or ejire (‘the intimate, inseparable two’). And because of their association of the number two with good luck, twins are expected to attract spiritual and material blessings to their parents:

Ejire Okin Ara Isokun

Ile Alakisa l’oti ki won

Ejire so alakisa di alaso

O so alagbe di olounje

o so otosi di oloro … (Daramola and Jeje 1975:282).

Twins, beautiful egrets, native of isokun town

You entered the house of the poor

Twins turned the poor into the rich

You turned the beggar into somebody with food to eat

You turned the wretched into the wealthy … (my trans.)

Legend has it that the Yoruba once abhorred twins partly because multiple birth was associated with animals and partly because of the fear that one of the pair was an enikeji and therefore a bad omen for a given community. This resulted in the killing of newborn twins and their mother. The practice reportedly stopped when, some time in the fifteenth century, a powerful king’s wife gave birth to twins. Instead of having them killed, the king ordered that the woman and her children be banished to a remote part of the kingdom and regarded as dead. But, miraculously, the twins survived in the wilderness and eventually founded new settlements where they became kings (Johnson 1921:25). (13) This encouraged ordinary citizens to retain their twins, keeping their birth a secret from the general public. Some simply went into exile and settled in areas where their twins survived to become culture heroes (Chappel 1977, Abimbola 1988). In one case, which is said to have occurred during the eighteenth century, a couple that had twins consulted a diviner about what to do with them. The diviner advised them not to abandon or kill the twins, provided certain rituals were performed. The couple fulfilled all the instructions. The twins not only survived, their parents became very rich. The news soon spread to other parts of Yorubaland that the preserved twins had attracted good fortune to their parents (Chappel 1977; see also Thompson 1971b: Ch 13/2). Another legend locates the original Isokun at OyoIle. There, one of the king’s wives gave birth to twins six times (Abimbola 1988). [FIGURE 21 OMITTED] To some Yoruba, the dose bond between twins is due to the fact that they share the same life force; others disagree, contending that they have separate souls and that the two are preordained to stay together. Nonetheless, there is consensus that though they are physically two, twins are spiritually one. Thus if one of them should die, a memorial, ere ibeji, would be commissioned (Fig. 21) to localize the soul of the deceased and maintain the spiritual bond between the living and the dead. If both twins should die, another memorial would be commissioned and the two statuettes treated like living children in the hope that they be born again to the same mother. Tradition requires that the carver give both memoriais the same facial features to emphasizing the oneness in their twoness, even if the deceased twins were not identical (Fig. 22). The memorial is normally carved from the wood of the West African rubber tree (Funtumia elastica). Apparently because its sticky latex binds two surfaces together, the wood of the rubber tree is believed to possess a high spiritual sensitivity. In fact, the local name of the tree, ire, derives from the root verb re, which means ‘to unite, befriend, or reconcile” Note that the same verb occurs in ejire, the synonym for twins-the inseparable two–which explains why different parts of the ire tree–leaves, bark, roots, etc.–are used in making charms or articles aimed at bonding friends, lovers, and social organizations. This notion is illustrated by the popular saying “Ire oko, loni ki o wa ba mi re” (“The ire of the forest has asked you to bond with me”; Lawal 1989). The same root verb re is implicated in words such as ore (‘friend’) and irepo (‘social harmony’). Thus, to the Yoruba, twinship connotes a mutually beneficial relationship that infinitely doubles the dynamic that bonding generates in time and space, stabilizing families, societies and nations.



This dynamic is the focus of the Gelede mask (Fig. 23). Found mainly in southwestern Nigeria, especially among the Ketu, Egbado, Ohori, Anago, and Awori Yoruba, the Gelede masking society performs in a variety of social and religious contexts (i.e., to mark important events in the life cycle or to enlist the aid of deities in times of crisis). Its ultimate goal is to promote peace and happiness on earth. To this end, the society directs much of its ritual and artistic activity toward the pacification of the maternal principle in nature personified as Iya Nla. In some areas, she is identified with Yemoja-Olokun or with Odua/Oduduwa/Ile. In other areas, she combines the attributes of all the female deities.

The frequent reference to Iya Nla as “My mother [the dreadful bird] Osoronga … with the beautiful eyes …” (Lawal 1996:74) bespeaks the mixed feelings of the public towards her. For, as mentioned earlier, the same “mother” who sustains humanity through nature’s abundance also destroys life through environmental hazards such as flood, drought, crop failure, infertility, forest fires, epidemics, and snake bites. Simply put, she is benevolent and malevolent at the same time. According to popular belief, certain Yoruba women called aje have direct links with Iya Nla and so are capable of harnessing her powers for positive or negative purposes. These women are euphemistically addressed as awon iya wa (“Our Mothers”), receiving special homage at the beginning of most Gelede performances in order to encourage them and females in general to let humanity benefit from their special endowments, most especially their procreative powers. In addition, the Gelede focus on the pacification of Iya Nla provides a forum for appealing to all members of a given community, regardless of age, sex, rank, and status, to live in harmony (irepo) with one another, like siblings.





A typical Gelede performance has two phases, a night concert and an afternoon dance session. During the night concert, a mask called Efe (the poet or humorist), prays for the blessings of Iya Nla, the orisa, deceased ancestors, and all the powerful women of Yoruba society. In the afternoon sessions, colorfully attired masks entertain the public with intricate dances. The masks usually dance in identical pairs, synchronizing their body movements and the jingling of their metal anklets, evoking the virtues of collaboration and teamwork (Fig. 24). Costume iconography also reflects this twoness, for while all the maskers are men, their attire usually includes female motifs, most especially the baby sashes/head ties normally used by a mother to secure her child on the back. A typical mask thus combines male/female as well as child/adult elements.

Although there are many legends on the origin of Gelede, the most relevant here is the one that traces its beginnings to a succession dispute between twin brothers (Lawal 1996:40-48, Drewal and Drewal 1983:226-31). According to the story, when Alaketu Akebiowu, the king of Ketu, died sometime in the fifteenth century, his twin sons Akan and Edun competed for the throne. Realizing that his brother planned to kill him, Edun fled from Ketu, taking with him certain sacred royal symbols, without which his twin brother Akan could not be crowned king. Edun sought refuge in the town of Ilobi to the southeast of Ketu. Shortly after, Akan and his group invaded Ilobi at night, but Edun frightened off the invaders with a device that they mistook for divine intervention. According to some informants, the device was in the form of masked figures, which later became known as Gelede. The two warring twins eventually reconciled and Edun returned from exile to become the king of Ketu. The peaceful resolution of the crisis is said to have ushered in an era ofprosperity that lasted until the nineteenth century, when the French colonized that part of southwestern Yorubaland and incorporated it into what is now known as the People’s Republic of Benin



This conflict seems to be partly responsible not only for the emphasis on identical pairs in the Gelede dance (Figs. 25-26), but also for the frequent references to twins on the carved headdresses (Fig. 27). When asked about the emphasis on twoness in Gelede, one informant declared, “It is because women give birth to twins. That is why there are two masks” (Drewal and Drewal 1983:134). The headdress in Fig. 28, from the Baltimore Museum of Art, (14) is in the Ketu style–probably carved by Lagbite–so the wrestling motif on it reminds us of the historic succession dispute between Akan and Edun. A dose examination of the two figures, however, reveals deeper levels of meaning. For instance, they both sport the osu hairstyle worn by priests and royal messengers, who sometimes participate in ritualized wrestling contests held during annual festivals in different parts of Yorubaland. Some of the contests commemorate the aforementioned conflict between Obatala and Oduduwa after the creation of the earth as well as the dynastic struggle in Ile-Ife in which Oduduwa prevailed but later reconciled with Obatala. Other contests reenact historical feuds between neighbors or between aboriginal and immigrant groups. These festivals are intended to recall the past, in addition to drawing moral lessons from the conflicts, especially how they were resolved amicably (Lawal 2004:114-17.). As a result, most Yoruba festivals begin with a major sacrifice to Esu-Elegba, the agent provocateur who, as mentioned earlier, often instigates quarrels, if only to provide himself with an opportunity to settle them and thereby teach humanity.


The figure on the left returns the viewer’s gaze with what appears to be an uneasy calm on his face, recalling the Yoruba proverb “Adie ba lokun; ara ko r’okun; ara ko r’adie” (“A hen perches on a rope; the rope feels uneasy, the hen feels uneasy, as well”; Lawal 1996:248). This proverb is often quoted by Yoruba elders when advising individuals or communities against the use of force in resolving disputes that may ultimately result in injuries to both parties. The proverb is sometimes visualized in the form of two creatures–usually a bird and a serpent–interlocked in a mutually destructive combat (Fig. 29).

Thus the wrestling motif on this headdress (Fig. 28) seems to warn the viewer of the negative consequences of violence, for much more can be achieved through peaceful resolution of conflicts and from being one another’s keeper. That the pair is not really fighting but miming the concept of togetherness becomes evident when the mask begins to dance. As the mask moves or swirls to the rhythm of music, the wrestling figures suddenly cease looking like antagonists. Rather, they appear to be balancing and holding on to one another in a precarious situation in which their survival depends on ejiwapo (‘twoness, togetherness, comradeship’) and ejire (‘bonding’; Lawal 2004:117).

By and large, the emphasis on “twoness” in Yoruba culture reflects at the secular level, an attempt to educate the public about the virtues of social living and the need for individuals to work together for the good of all. As a popular Yoruba folksong puts it:

Oju meji riran joju kan lo

Ese kan soso ko se e rin

Ajeje owo kan o gberu d’ori

Otun we osi, osi we otun

Ni owo mejefi fi i nmo.

Two eyes see better than one

It is difficult to walk with one leg (15)

One hand cannot easily lift a heavy road to the head

It is only when the right hand washes the left

and the left washes the right

That both hands become clean (my trans.).

At the religious level, however, this notion, also articulated in popular sayings such as “Tibi t’ire la da’le aye” (“The physical world evolved out of Good and Evil”) and “Buburu ati rere ni o nrin po (“Bad and good things work together”), reflects a pragmatic worldview that life is not always a bed of roses. It is full of inherent contradictions or oppositional complementarities that must be taken in their stride, as there is little humanity can do (despite its technological advancements) to prevent certain unfavorable events in nature. This “fatalistic resignation,’ often expressed in the aphorism “Ise Olodumare, Awamaridi” (“Olodumare’s action is unfathomable”), has enabled the Yoruba to carry on with the struggle of living in the hope that the orisa, who administer the universe on behalf of Olodumare, will always be on their side. Hence the emphasis on divination in the past with a view to knowing the wishes of the orisa and so minimize the risks of offending them. The consciousness that anything that lives will eventually die has led the Yoruba to accept death as the price to be paid for living:

Gbese n’ iku; gbogbo wa ni yo san.

Awaye, aiku o si

Ohun a ntoro ni ire owo, ire omo, ire alafia ati emi gigun. (16)

Death is a debt; all of us must pay.

There is nothing like living in this world without dying.

What we pray for are the blessings of wealth, children, good health,

and long life (my trans.).

Nonetheless, a belief in the self as an interface of spirit and matter has encouraged them not to accept death as the end of life. Instead, they view it as a separation of the inner (spiritual) from the outer (material) self, resulting in a translocation from physical to metaphysical existence–a kind of afterlife (Ehin-Iwa), where a dematerialized soul may choose to stay forever or reincarnate as children in the same family (Lawal 1977). To the Yoruba, this ability of the soul to reincarnate in a new body–a work of art by the creativity deity Obatala–reveals the divinity that abides in humanity. References cited Abimbola, Wande. 1971. “The Yoruba Concept of Human Personality.” Colloques Internationaux du CNRS no. 55, pp. 73-89. Paris: CNRS.

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This article is a revised version of a paper first presented at the 13th Triennial Symposium of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA) held at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 31-April 3, 2004. I am grateful to Professors Akinsola Akiwowo and Mark Wood for reading an early draft of this article and making useful suggestions.

(1) One text described The-Sacred-Two as “The one who left home as a wretched person, but later returned with good fortune” (Olatunji 1984:44).

(2) Another saying describes the cosmos as “Igba nla meji, a de isi: aiye ati sanma” (“Two mighty calabashes, one on top of the other, representing earth and sky”; Ojo 1967:196).

(3) Oduduwa is sometimes pronounced “Odudua” or “Oodua.”

(4) It is worth mentioning that another creation narrative identifies “Odu” as one of the senior female orisa who later married Orunmila, the orisa of divination (Adeoye 1989:360-61).

(5) Pierre Verger has drawn attention to an ancient Fon Supreme Deity known as Se/Segbo that he suspects may have something to do with the Yoruba concept of ase (‘enabling power’); see Verger 1966:19-40. Among the Baga of Guinea, the Supreme Being is associated with a celestial serpent; see Lamp 1996.

(6) Some Yoruba and Benin oral traditions suggest that the present-day city of Ife might not be the same as the one mentioned in the creation narratives. As a result, archaeologists have been looking for the “original” Ife, hoping to find it someday, if these traditions do in fact contain some elements of truth. But the antiquity of the archaeological finds in present-day Ife, coupled with its numerous shrines and annual festivals, strongly indicates that the city played a major role in the historical development of what we now call Yoruba culture.

(7) The identity of that warrior is further complicated by a recent story from the Edo of Benin City whose current ruling dynasty was reportedly founded about the fourteenth century by one of Oduduwa’s sons. According to the story, the name Oduduwa was the title of a powerful ancient ruler whose extinct kingdom, known as Uduwa, was once located near the River Niger to the north of present-day Ile-Ife and Benin City (Omoregie 2004:1-9).

(8) The Ogboni society is known as Osugbo among the Ijebu and Egba Yoruba. But since the terra Ogboni is more popular, I will use it throughout this essay to refer to the Osugbo as well.

(9) This shows that the ajogun are not engaged in evil activities all the time.

(10) While some Yoruba identify Yemoja as the mother of Olokun, others claim that one is an alter ego of another or that they are two distinct deities.

(11) Thus, a person who fails to succeed in spite of hard work is said to be troubled by his inner head (see Idowu 1994:181-2).

(12) I am grateful to Professor Akinsola Akiwowo for bringing this proverb to my attention.

(13) Another version of this legend identifies Pupupu as the wife of Oduduwa, the first king of Ife, not Alaafin Ajaka of Oyo-Ile; see Smith 1988:52, Olupona 1991:23-4, Abimbola 1988.

(14) There is an identical headdress in the collection of the Everhart Museum (Scranton, Pennsylvania) that might have been carved by the same artist to pair up with the BMA’s piece during the performance.

(15) Osanyin, the one-legged orisa of herbal medicine is said to be an exception because he has a special power that enables him to spin like the whirlwind and move faster than those with two legs.

(16) Another version of this prayer is in Adeoye 1985:9.

[Article info:

Title: Ejiwapo: The Dialectics of Twoness in Yoruba Art and Culture.

Contributors: Babatunde Lawal – author. Journal

Title: African Arts.

Volume: 41.

Issue: 1.

Publication Year: 2008.

Page Number: 24+]

About the author: BABAYUNDE LAWAL is Professor of African and African Diaspora Art, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA and, in Spring 2008, the Robert Sterling Clark Visiting Professor of Art History at Williams College, Williamstown, MA.


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