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Yoruba History

Encyclopedia » History


Image:Yoruba people  of Nigeria


     Yoruba history has been written and re-written many times by pundits and pseudo-pundits which describes Yoruba history as an origin of myth.
     Yoruba oral history tell of a myth in which God lowed a chain at Ile-Ife, sending down Oduduwa, the ancestor of all people. Oduduwa brought with him a cock, some earth, and a palm kernel. The earth he thrown into the water, the cocked scratched it and it become land, and the kernel grew into a tree with sixteen limbs, representing the original sixteen kingdoms.
     The empire of Oyo arose at the end of the 15th century aided by gun purchase from their trade with the Portuguese. The empire was expanded using horses great success. At the end of the 18th century a civil war broke out at Oyo, and the rebels called for assistance from the Fulani, the Fulani in turn used the opportunity to conquer all of Oyo. By the 1830s, Oyo was under the control of the Fulani's. The Fulani invasion pushed many Yoruba to the south where the towns of Ibadan and Abeokuta were founded. In the late 1880s, with the help of a British mediator, a treaty was signed between the various warring factions. However, the Yoruba People of whom there are more than twenty-five million, occupy the southwestern corner of Nigeria along the Dahomey border and extends into Dahomey itself. To the east and north the Yoruba culture reaches its approximate limits in the region of the Niger River. However ancestral cultures directly related to the Yoruba once flourished well north of the Niger. Portuguese explorers "discovered" the Yoruba cities and kingdoms in the fifteenth century, but cities such as Ife and Benin, among others, had been standing at their present sites for at least five hundred years before the European arrival. Archeological evidence indicates that a technologically and artistically advanced, proto-Yoruba (Nok), were living somewhere north of the Niger in the first millennium B.C., and they were then already working with iron. Ifa theology states that the creation of humankind arose in the sacred city of Ile Ife where Oduduwa created dry land from water. Much later on an unknown number of Africans migrated from Mecca to Ile Ife. At this point the Eastern Africans and Western Africans synergized. Ife was the first of all Yoruba cities. Oyo and Benin came later and grew and expanded as a consequence of their strategic locations at a time when trading became prosperous. Ife, unlike Benin and Oyo, never developed onto a true kingdom. But though it remained a city-state it had paramount importance to Yoruba's as the original sacred city and the dispenser of basic religious thought. Until recent times the Yoruba's did not consider themselves a single people, but rather as citizens of Oyo, Benin, Yagba and other cities, regions or kingdoms. These cities regarded Lagos and Owo, for example, as foreign neighbors, and the Yoruba kingdoms warred not only against the Dahomeans but also against each other. The name Yoruba was applied to all these linguistically and culturally related peoples by their northern neighbors, the Hausas. It also suffices to say that the Yoruba people have been the dominant group on the west bank of the Niger. Their nearest linguistic relatives are the Igala who live on the opposite side of the Niger's divergence from the Benue, and from whom they are believed to have split about 2,000 years ago. The Yoruba were organized in mostly patrilineal groups that occupied village communities and subsisted on agriculture. From approximately the 8th century AD., adjacent village compounds called ile coalesced into numerous territorial city-states in which clan loyalties became subordinate to dynastic chieftains. Urbanization was accompanied by high levels of artistic achievement, particularly in terracotta and ivory sculpture and in the sophisticated metal casting produced at Ife. The Yoruba paid tribute to a pantheon composed of an impersonal Supreme Deity, Olorun, and 400 lesser deities who perform various tasks. Oduduwa is regarded as both the creator of the earth and the ancestor of the Yoruba kings. One of the myths Oduduwa is that he founded Ife and dispatched his sons and daughters to establish similar kingdoms in other parts of what is today known as Yorubaland. 

Yoruba Kingdoms

    There were about 20 Yoruba kingdoms at one time with a different king ruling over each one. Ife was known as the center of cultural and religious life.
Oyo was the strongest kingdom with the largest military and political system. The kingdom of Oyo was close to the Niger River. The rich soil in Oyo allowed the people to grow more crops than they needed. This helped the kingdom of Oyo to easily trade with neighboring groups. They also created a strong military. Oyo was in control of 6,600 towns and villages by the end of the 18th century. Internal wars and fighting with neighboring groups, along with the beginning of the slave trade, eventually led to the decline of these great kingdoms.
In the 18th century, European countries were beginning to create colonies all over the world. Europeans were taking villagers from West Africa and bringing them to the New World to be slaves in the new colonies. The British came to Yoruba land in 1852. By 1884 European nations were meeting to discuss how they would break-up Africa into different colonies. The British were granted the right by the other European nations to colonize Yoruba land and in 1893 Yoruba land became part of a larger colony known officially as Nigeria.

Creation Myth

   Every culture has stories that explain how the universe was created. This is one version of a creation story that is told by the Yoruba to explain the beginning of the universe. Olorun lived in the sky with all the other gods. He told Orisanla, the god of whiteness, to create the earth for him. Olorun gave Orisanla some soil, a chain, a five toed chicken, and a snail shell and sent him on his way. When Orisanla got to the gates of heaven he noticed some other god having a party. He stopped to chat with the other gods for a bit and drank some of their palm wine. Orisanla became from the palm wine and fell asleep. Orisanla's younger brother Odua noticed his brother fast asleep. He took all the things that Olorun had given him and went to the edge of the heaven with Chameleon. Odua dropped the chain and climbed down, throwing some of the soil onto the water. He then released the chicken and the chicken scratched out the earth, expanding it in many directions until the ends of the earth were made. Chameleon then stepped upon the earth to make sure that it was stable. Odua followed and settled at a place called Idio. Orisanla soon woke and realized what happened. From that time on Orisanla put a taboo on palm wine. Even today those who worship Orisanla are forbidden from drinking palm wine. Orisanla came down to claim the earth but his brother, Odua demanded that he was to be the owner of the earth since he had created it. The two brothers quite had drunk continued fighting until Olorun heard them and called them to report to him. Olorun granted Odua the right to own the earth and rule over it. Olorun then told Orisanla that he would become the creator of mankind. In order to keep peace amongst the two brothers Olorun sent them back to earth with Sango, the God of Thunder; Ifa the God of Divination; and Eleshije, the God of Medicine. 

Sango dance wand, made in Meko, Nigeria, 1950

                                          God of thunder.jpg

Although every worshipper of Sango, the thunder god, owns a wand for is personal shrine, it is carried only by the group member who becomes possessed with Sango's spirit. The central figure represents such a devotee, carrying a Sango staff in his right hand. At his left is a female worshipper of Oya, the Goddess of the River Niger and Sango's most loyal wife; and on his right is a man beating Sango's drum. At the top left is a ram, Sango's favorite sacrificial animal, and at the right, the dog that is sacred to him. There are many important Yoruba deities. Esu acts as a messenger for the other deities and he is also a great trickster. He assists Olorun and the other gods by causing trouble for people who offend them or fail to worship them. Everyone prays to Esu so that he will not harm them. Ifa is the god of Divination, and no matter what other deities a person worships everyone asks Ifa for knowledge and guidance in times of trouble. Ifa is a great wiseman, and he acts as the interpreter between all gods and humans. Ogun is the God of Iron and War. He is a great blacksmith and a fearless hero. Woodworkers, leatherworkers, and blacksmiths worship him. Without Ogun particular god. There may also be taboos—foods or things that people cannot partake in because of the god that they worship. For example, Esu’s favorite foods are corn, beans, and palm wine. These things are often placed at his shrine. His followers often wear black beads around their neck. They never eat or use palm oil because this is said to make Esu angry.

Ifa Divination

Divination is a method of solving problems and foretelling the future. It has existed for thousands of years throughout the world in different forms. Ifa divination is a traditional way to solve problems among the Yoruba. Divination helps to explain why certain misfortunes are happening to someone. For example, if a farmer’s crops are not growing or if someone in the family is ill they would seek the help of a diviner. Ifa diviners are called babalawo (fathers of ancient wisdom). The function of the Ifa diviner is to determine the reasons that are causing a person’s misfortune. He does this by performing a ritual with the person which reveals the source of the problem.

The Divination Ceremony

Divination depends on interpreting marks made on the divination tray. Divining powder is used to make these marks. Sixteen palm nuts from the African palm tree are the most important of all the objects used in divination. Palm nuts are a symbol of Ifa, the God of Divination. The diviner tries to pick up all sixteen palm nuts in his right hand. If one nut remains in his left hand he makes a double mark in wood dust on his tray; if two remain, he makes a single mark. The diviner recites a verse based on the marks made. These verses act as the advice to help solve the person’s problem.

Divination tray


                                            tray of yoruba.jpg

                        The carved face represents Esu, the messenger of Ifa and the other deities.

                                            bag thunder.jpg

                                                 Yoruba beaded diviner’s bag 

         In addition, as diviners travel often in the pursuit of their profession, they frequently carry a portable set of Ifa paraphernalia in bags. The divining chain is kept and carried in a shoulder bag, it is made of locally woven cloth, or sometimes of leather, and it may be decorated with cowry shells or beads. Beaded bags are often smaller. A diviner is one of the very few nonroyal persons permitted to use solidly beaded materials; these are usually reserved for the Yoruba kings, who had beaded cushions, slippers, and gowns, and who alone may wear beaded caps and crowns. Beaded bags, knife handles, hangings for the shrine, and other objects may be made by the diviners themselves, or by the bead workers who work for the kings. Palm nuts, divining tray, and bell may be carried in this bag if it is large enough, but for palm nuts other types of containers are usually provided, which remain at the shrine for Ifa most of the time.

Religious Beliefs

        Traditional Yoruba beliefs see the world made up of two connected realms. The visible world of the living is called Aye, and the spiritual world of the Orisas, the ancestors and spirits, is called Orun. Ase is the life force that is given to everything by the Creator of the universe. Ase is in everything: plants, animals, people, prayers, songs, rocks, and rivers. Existence is dependent upon Ase because Ase is the power to make things happen and change. The Yoruba believe in the Creator who rules over the entire universe along with many other gods that serve underneath him. The Creator of the universe is called Olorun. Olorun lives in the sky and is considered to be the father of all the other gods. Olorun is the only god that never lived on earth. Olorun is the supreme god and has no special group of worshippers or shrines, like the other gods do. The Yoruba people worship over four hundred different deities. These gods are called Orisas. Some of the Orisas are worshiped by all of the Yoruba. Other gods are only worshiped by certain towns or families. Every person is given or receives a special deity to worship. A person usually worships the god of his father, but some worship the god of their mother. Some people are contacted by a particular god in their dreams and are instructed to worship them.


Yoruba Arts


                                                         Bronze sculpture of yoruba people


        The Yoruba began creating magnificent sculpture out of terra cotta clay in the 12th through 14th centuries. Bronze figures were made during the 14th and 15th centuries. To create bronze sculptures, artists first made models out of clay. When the clay dried they would put a thin layer of beeswax over the clay and engrave details in the wax. Next, they covered the wax with more layers of clay until they created a thick mold. The mold would then be heated over a fire until the middle layer of wax melted. The artist poured the bronze into the top of the mold through cubes. The bronze now took on the form of the wax that was once there. When the bronze cooled and hardened the outer layer of clay was broken off and the sculpture was completed. These lives like sculptures may represent kings and gods. The Yoruba began to create more abstract wooden sculpture as their major art later on. Many African cultures choose to create sculptures of humans in an abstract form rather than a realistic one. 

Women are the potters in Yoruba society. They make many different types of pottery including pots for cooking, eating, and storage. Palm oil lamps are also crafted. Unique pots are made in honor of Yoruba deities. Pottery is only made in towns where clay is available. It is sold to neighboring towns that do not have access to clay. 

Leather and Beadwork

Men are responsible for leather and beadwork. Goat, sheep, and antelope skins are used to make things like bags, cushions, and sandals. Leather scraps in different colors are often pieced together to form designs. Beads are used to decorate crowns, hats, bags, and other items worn by kings and babalawo. Popular bead designs include human faces, birds, and flowers.

                                                   Leather and beaded knife case



                                                         Royal leather cushion 

                                                Picture5 bed of beeds.jpg


                                                          Blacksmiths and Calabash Carver


Blacksmiths are very important to local towns and are responsible for making tools that many other professions use, such as hoes, axes, knives, chains and hammers. Calabashes (dried gourds) are carved by men and are used to serve food or drink. Goods carried to markets are often carved from calabashes. They are also used as containers for storing medicines and food. Calabashes are also carved into musical rattles. 


                                                             Calabash carver’s tools 



Men are responsible for woodcarving. Woodcarving is the most important art form in Yoruba culture. Men use knives and adzes to carve wood. Divination trays and many other sacred objects are carved out of wood. 


Weaving is done on different types of looms in order to create hundreds of different patterns.

Naming customs

Yorubas believe that people live out the meanings of their names. As such, Yoruba people put considerable effort into naming a baby. Their philosophy of naming is conveyed in a common adage, ile ni a n wo, ki a to so omo l'oruko ("one pays attention to the family before naming a child"): one must consider the tradition and history of a child's relatives when choosing a name.
Some families have long-standing traditions for naming their children. Such customs are often derived from their profession or religion. For example, a family of hunters could name their baby Ogunbunmi (Ogun gives me this) to show their respect to the divinity who gives them metal tools for hunting. Meanwhile a family that venerates Ifá may name their child Falola (Ifa has honor).


Since it is generally believed that names are like spirits which would like to live out their meanings, parents do a thorough search before giving names to their babies. Naming ceremonies are performed with this in mind. The oldest family member is given the responsibility of performing the ceremony. Materials used are symbols of the hopes, expectations and prayers of the parents for the new baby. These include honey, kola, bitter kola, atare (alligator pepper), water, palm oil, sugar, sugar cane, salt, and liquor. Each of these has a special meaning in the world-view of the Yoruba. For instance, honey represents sweetness, and the prayer of the parents is that their baby's life will be as sweet as honey.
After the ritual, the child is named and other extended family members are given the honour to give their own names to the child. They do this with gifts of money and clothing. In many cases, they would want to call the child by the name they give him or her. Thus a new baby may end up with more than a dozen names.
Oruko Amutorunwa (Preordained name)

 Amutorunwa (brought from heaven)

 Oruko - name

Yoruba believe that a baby may come with pre-destined names. For instance, twins are believed to have natural-birth names. Thus the first to be born of the two is called Taiwo, a shortened form of Tayewo, meaning the taster of the world. This is to identify the first twin as the one sent by the other one to first go and taste the world. If he/she stays there, it follows that it is not bad, and that would send a signal to the other one to start coming. Hence the second to arrive is named Kehinde (late arrival). The child born to the same woman after the twins is called Idowu, and the one after this is called Alaba (female) or Idogbe (male). Ige is a child born with the legs coming out first instead of the head; and Ojo (male) or Aina ( female) is the one born with the umbilical cord around his or her neck. When a child is conceived with no prior menstruation, he or she is named Ilori. Dada is the child born with locked hair; and Ajayi (nicknamed Ogidi Olu) is the one born face-downwards.
Other natural names include Abiodun (one born on a festival day or period), Bosede (one born on a holy day; Babatunde/Babatunji (meaning father has come back) is the son born to a family where a father has recently passed. This testifies to the belief in reincarnation. Iyabode, Yeside, Yewande, Yetunde, (mother has come back) is the female counterpart.

Oruko Abiso (Name given at birth)

 Oruko - name

Abi - birthed
 So - named

These are names that are not natural with the child at birth but are given on either the eight day of birth (for females) and ninth day of birth (for males). They are given in accordance with significant events at time of birth or with reference to the family tradition as has been mentioned above.
Examples of names given with reference to the family tradition include Ogundiran (Ogun has become a living tradition in the family); Ayanlowo ( Ayan drumming tradition is honorable); Oyetoso(Chieftaincy is ornament); Olanrewaju (Honor is advancing forward); Olusegun (God has conquered the enemy).

Abiku Names
 Abi - birthed, or Bi - born
 Iku - death, or Ku - die / dead

The Yoruba believe that some children are born to die. This derives from the phenomenon of the tragic incidents of high rate of infant mortality sometimes afflicting the same family for a long time. When this occurs, the family devises all kinds of method to forestall a recurrence, including giving special names at a new birth. Such names reflect the frustration of the poor parents:

Malomo (do not go again) Kosoko (there is no hoe anymore). This refers to the hoe that is used to dig the grave.
Banjoko (sit with me)
Orukotan (all names have been exhausted)
Yemiitan (stop deceiving me)
Kokumo (this will not die)

Pet names

The Yoruba also have pet names or oriki. These are praise names, and they are used to suggest what the child's family background is or to express one's hope for the child: Akanbi- (one who is deliberately born); Ayinde (one who is praised on arrival); Akande (one who comes or arrives in full determination); Atanda (one who is deliberately created after thorough search). For females, Aduke(one who everyone likes to bless), Ayoke (one who people are happy to bless), Arike (one who is blessed on sight), Atinuke or Abike (one that is born to be pampered).


Yoruba law is the legal system of Yorubaland. It is quite intricate, each group and subgroup having a system that varies, but in general, government begins within the immediate family. The next level is the clan, or extended family, with its own head known as a Baálé. This chief will be subject to town chiefs, and these chiefs are usually themselves subject to their Oba, who may or may not be subject to another Oba himself.
Most of what survived of this legal code has been assimilated into the customary laws of the sovereign nations that the Yoruba inhabit.


The child that is named will grow to adulthood. The Yoruba culture provides for the upbringing of the child by the extended family. In traditional society, the child is placed with a master of whatever craft the gods specify for him or her. Or he may take to the profession of the father, in the case of a boy, or the mother, in the case of a girl. The parents have the responsibility for his/her socialization into the norms of the larger society, in addition to giving him a means of livelihood. His or her wedding is also the responsibility of the parents.
The wedding ceremony is the climax of a process that starts with courtship. The young man identifies a young woman that he loves. He and his friends seek her out through various means, including playing pranks. The young man sends messages of interest to the young woman, until such a time that they are close enough to avoid a go-between (alarina). Then once they both express mutual love, they let their parents know about their feelings for each other. The man's parents arrange to pay a visit to the prospective bride's parents. Once their consent is secured, the wedding day may be set. Prior to the wedding day, the payment of bride price is arranged. This secures the final consent of the bride's parents, and the wedding day is fixed. Once the day has been fixed through consultation with the Orisa, the bride and bridegroom are warned to avoid travelling out of town, including to the farm. This is to prevent any mishap. The wedding day is a day of celebration, eating, drinking and dancing for parents, relations, the new husband and wife and their friends and, often, even foes. Marriage is not considered to be only a union of the husband and wife, it is also seen among the Yoruba as the union of the families on both sides. But before the bride goes to her husband’s house, she is escorted by different people i.e. family and friends to the door step of her new home. There she is prayed for and her legs are washed. It is believed that she is washing every bad-luck that she might have brought into her husband's house away. Before she is finally ushered into her house, she is given a calabash (igba) and then she is asked to break it. When it breaks, the amount of pieces it is broken into is believed to be the number of children she will give birth to. On the wedding night she and her husband have their first meeting and he is ordinarily expected to find her to be a virgin. If he doesn't, she and her parents are disgraced and may be banished from the village where they live.

 Yoruba music

Music and dance have always been an important part of their culture; used in many different forms of  entertainment.Yoruba traditional music focuses on Yoruba deities. Drums and singing are the main elements of Yoruba music. Instruments such as metal bells and wind instruments are sometimes used. Yoruba is a tonal language. Words must be pronounced in the appropriate tone (pitch) in order to understand speech in its correct meaning. There are three major tones: high, mid, and low. Most of Yoruba music is based on these tonal patterns of speech. Juju emerged in the 1920’s and is the most well known form of Yoruba popular music in Nigeria. Juju has its roots in traditional Yoruba drum based music. Juju is dance music played by large ensembles centered on guitars and drumming. Singing is a major part of Juju music and is inspired by Yoruba poetry, proverbs, praise songs, and the musical character of the language. 




                                                    Yoruba musical display


     In Yoruba thought, death is not the end of life; it is rather a transition from one form of existence to another. The ogberis (ignorant folks) fear death because it marks the end of an existence that is known and the beginning of one that is unknown. Immortality is the dream of many, as "Eji-ogbe" puts it: Mo dogbogbo orose; Ng ko ku mo; Mo digba oke; Mo le gboin. (I have become an aged ose tree; I will no longer die; I have become two hundred hills rolled into one; I am immovable.) The Yoruba also pray for many blessings, but the most important three are wealth, children and immortality: ire owo; ire omo; ire aiku pari iwa. There is a belief in an afterlife that is a continuation of this life, only in a different setting, and the abode of the dead is usually placed at a place just outside of this abode, and is sometimes thought of as separated by a stream. Participation in this afterlife is conditional on the nature of one's life and the nature of one's death. This is the meaning of life: to deliver the message of Olodumare, the Supreme Creator by promoting the good of existence. For it is the wish of the Deity that human beings should promote the good as much as is possible. Hence it is insisted that one has a good capacity for moral uprightness and personhood. Personhood is an achieved state judged by the standard of goodness to self, to the community and to the ancestors. As people say: Keni huwa gbedegbede; keni lee ku pelepele; K'omo eni lee n'owo gbogboro L'eni sin. (Let one conduct one' life gently; that one may die a good death; that one's children may stretch their hands over one's body in burial.)
The achievement of a good death is an occasion for celebration of the life of the deceased. This falls into several categories. First, children and grand children would celebrate the life of their parent who passed and left a good name for them. Second, the Yoruba are realistic and pragmatic about their attitude to death. They know that one may die at a young age. The important thing is a good life and a good name. As the saying goes: Ki a ku l'omode, ki a fi esin se irele eni; o san ju ki a dagba ki a ma ni adie irana. (If we die young, and a horse is killed in celebration of one's life; it is better than dying old without people killing even a chicken in celebration.)
It is also believed that ancestors have enormous power to watch over their descendants. Therefore, people make an effort to remember their ancestors on a regular basis. This is ancestor veneration, which some have wrongly labelled ancestor worship. It is believed that the love that exists between a parent and a child here on earth should continue even after death. And since the parent has only ascended to another plane of existence, it should be possible for the link to remain strong.


Yoruba culture consists of folk/cultural philosophy, religion and literature. They are embodied in Ifa-Ife Divination, known as the tripartite Book of Enlightenment in Yorubaland and in Diaspora.
Yoruba philosophy is a witness of two epochs. The first epoch is an epoch-making history in cosmology and mythology. This is also an epoch-making history in oral philosophy in oral culture during which time Oduduwa was the sole philosopher, the head, and a pre-eminent diviner. He theorized about the visible and invisible worlds, reminiscing about the cosmology, cosmogony, and the mythological creatures in the visible and invisible worlds.
The second epoch is the epoch of metaphysical philosophy. This commenced in the 19th century when the land has become a literate land through the diligence and pragmatism of Dr. Bishop Ajayi Crowther, the first Anglican African Bishop. Yoruba philosophy is mainly a narrative philosophy, explicating and pointing to the knowledge of the causes and the nature of things, affecting the corporeal and the spiritual universe and its wellness. Yoruba people have hundreds of philosophical aphorisms and lores, and they believe that any lore that widens people's horizons and presents food for thought is the beginning of philosophy.
  Although religion is often considered first in Yoruba culture, nonetheless it is philosophy, the thought of man and the resoning of the mind that actually leads the faculty (ori) to the creation and the practice of religion. Thus philosophy is antecedent to religion.
Today, the academic and nonacademic people are becoming more and more interested in Yoruba philosophy. Thus more and more researches are being carried out on Yoruba philosophy, as more and more books are being written on it--to emboss its contemporary mark and to advance its research amongst non-African thinkers and political scientists who are beginning to open their doors to other cultures, thus widening their views.

The Yoruba are said to be religious people, but they are also pragmatic and tolerant about their religious differences. Whilst many profess the Yoruba school of thought; many profess other faiths e.g Christianity, Islam, Budhism, Hinduism e.t.c.



Sources: uiowa,wikipedia,wysinger,wikipedia,cultural-expressions


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