The Yoruba (Yorùbá in Yoruba orthography) are one of the largest ethno-linguistic groups in sub-Saharan Africa. Yoruba constitute about 21 percent of the population of modern day Nigeria, and they are commonly the majority population in their communities. Many of the Yoruba in West Africa live in the states of Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, and Oyo, making these political areas decidedly in the control of the numerically superior Yoruba.
While the Yorubas can be found throughout the entirety of West Africa, even reaching into Benin, Ghana, and Togo, the greatest concentration of Yoruba is found in Yorubaland, an area in western Nigeria. Considered the nexus of the Yoruba cultural identity, Yorubaland is bordered by the Borgu (variously called Bariba and Borgawa) in the northwest, the Nupe and Ebira in the north, the Ẹsan and Edo to the southeast, and the Igala and other related groups to the northeast.
The Yoruba are known for their excellent craftsmanship, considered to be the most skilled and productive in all of Africa.
Traditionally, they worked at such trades as blacksmithing, leatherworking, weaving, glassmaking, and ivory and wood carving. The many densely populated urban areas of Yorubaland allow for a centralization of wealth and the development of a complex market economy which encourages extensive patronage of the arts.
Many people of African descent in the Americas claim a degree of Yoruba ancestry, due to the slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The term Yoruba (or Yariba) did not come into use until the nineteenth century, and was originally confined to subjects of the Oyo Empire. Prior to the standardization of the term, the Yoruba had been known by a variety of labels across the globe. Among Europeans the Yoruba were often known as Akú a name derived from the first words of Yoruba greetings such as Ẹ kú àárọ? ‘good morning’ and Ẹ kú alẹ? ‘good evening.’ “Okun,” is a slight variation of Akú also seen in Europe. In Cuba and Spanish-speaking America, the Yoruba were called “Lucumi,” after the phrase “O luku mi,” meaning “my friend” in some dialects. It is important to note, however, that not all terms used to designate the Yoruba derived from the Yoruba language.
In Spanish and Portuguese documents the Yoruba were described as “Nago,” “Anago,” and “Ana,” names which derived from the name of a coastal Yoruba sub-group in the present-day Republic of Benin. The use of this label continues into the present day to describe Yoruba in Francophone West Africa .
DID YOU KNOW?
The Yoruba are one of the largest ethno-linguistic groups in sub-Saharan Africa with “Yorubaland” spanning parts of the modern states of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo
The term Yoruba did not always designate an ethnicity and was often used merely to describe speakers of the Yoruba language. The first documented use of the term Yoruba as an ethnic description appeared in the a treatise written by the Songhai scholar Ahmed Baba in the sixteenth century. It is likely that Yoruba became widely popularized as an ethnic label due to use of the term with an ethnic connotation in the Hausa language. Since Hausa was widely used in West Africa, the ethnic connotation of “Yoruba” spread across West Africa and was institutionalized in ethnographies written in Arabic and Ajami.
History of the Yoruba
Two varying views of creation revolving around a man named Oduduwa exist within the Yoruba culture, one stating that Ile-Ife was the site of humankind’s creation and the other stating that Oduduwa’s extensive family caused the population to spread out from Ile-Ife. The most popular of these two versions is the one based on Oduduwa’s children, as it appears supported by historical fact. Subscribers to this version of creation hold that Oduduwa sent his descendents out of Ile-Ife to conquer other existing Yoruba people and that many of his children gained leadership positions in other cities. Eventually the flow of his descendents out of Ile-Ife into other Yoruba areas unified a way of life and tied together different cultural practices.
The other main creation myth of the Yoruba focuses on the religious significance of Ile-Ife as the cradle of humankind. In this version, Oduduwa is sent by Olodumare, the Creator, in order to form humankind out of the clay of Ile-Ife. While this version endows Oduduwa with a religious role, it keeps his position as a major player in the formation of Yoruba life. Some scholars argue that this version of creation is tied to the earth goddess Odudua. Proponents of the connection between the earth goddess and Oduduwa are primarily based on the shared use of the “odu,” meaning knowledge.
According to myth, when Oduduwa was sent to create humankind he was given only a chicken and a sack of sand. The sand was primarily a preventive measure, because at the time of Oduduwa, Yoruba myth states that the earth was covered with water. While Oduduwa was climbing down from the heavens, his grip on the chicken weakened and it began to spiral towards the ground. In a desperate attempt to catch the free falling chicken, Oduduwa let loose his sack of sand, which also plummeted to the earth. When Odudwa had finished climbing he realized that his sack of sand had formed a small hill in the waters covering the earth and that the chicken was safely seated on top of the sandy mound. From this spot, dubbed Ile n’fe, land began extending in all directions as the town of Ile-Ife was created.
PRE-COLONIAL YORUBA HISTORY
Both creation myths of the Yoruba culture articulate the same basic idea: newcomers (personified by Oduduwa) settled in Yoruba land had a significant effect on the pre-existing populations of the area. Archaeological evidence has demonstrated that Yorubaland was already populated by the time of these newcomers, and had probably been populated since the Stone Age. Evidence for early inhabitants in the area rests with metalwork and fine art techniques on baked clay that are possibly related to Nok Culture.
The question still remains, however, regarding the identity of the newcomers into Yorubaland. Linguistic history has proven pivotal in unraveling the mystery, and many Yoruba language experts have agreed that there were in fact two main movements of newcomers. The first movement brought a population boom to Ekiti, Ife, and Ijebu soon after 700 C.E.. This movement was followed by a similar increase of population in Oyo to the north.
Yoruba legends claim that the newcomers hailed from Arabia, an idea substantiated by the high percentage of Yoruba customs that echoes those found along the Middle Nile, particularly in the ancient kingdom of Kush.
The two waves of newcomers brought a flood of new political ideas and methods into Yorubaland, which began to take root almost immediately. By 1000 C.E., the Yoruba had developed a political system dominated by town governments. Towns themselves were a product of new ways of thinking, as they grew out of increased interdependence among the Yoruba and a rising need to rely on one’s neighbors. Where once Yorubaland had been primarily a forest farming area, under the influence of the newcomers it became a highly urbanized society, known throughout West Africa for the glory of their capital, or crowned, towns.
The capital towns of Yorubaland were linked together in ancient times, forming a loose confederacy under the senior Yoruba leader, the oni of Ife. Primarily serving as a mechanism for peace keeping, the confederacy that united Yorubaland left the states to govern themselves and served to minimize conflict among confederacy members. Political thought at this time focused on the idea of a kingdom as a large family, the oni as the head and mutual respect among the sibling nations. Each city state, left to govern itself in most matters, was controlled by monarchs (Obas) and councils of nobles, guildleaders, and merchants, commonly known as Ẹgbẹ in Yoruba.
Often, the throne was hereditary, passed through generations. Royal bloodlines alone, however, were not enough to secure a position of power, as an eligible contender for the throne would not be allowed to ascend to power if any family member, servant, or slave belonging to the family committed a serious crime such as theft, fraud, murder, or rape. Some city states abolished the use of royal lineages altogether, preferring to keep the monarchy open to the election of any free-born male citizen. The kings were almost always polygamous, some boasting up to 20 wives. Political power was often increased through marriage, and kings often sought women of royal families as their wives. A few female Obas rose to power in Ilesa and Ondo, but these were comparatively rare.
There was no set power balance between the monarch and the council throughout the confederacy, and cities were left to decide for themselves whether to weigh the two opinions equally or to cast more weight to one. For the Egba of Yorubaland, the the leadership council exercised extreme control over the monarch and carefully guarded against any excesses of royal authority. While the extreme level of control that the council could exercise over the king was not the mode across all of Yorubaland, many other cities fostered a political sense of unity between the monarch and the council. For example, even in Ọyọ, the most centralized of the precolonial kingdoms, the Alaafin consulted on all political decisions with a prime minister (the Basọrun) and the council of leading nobles known as the Ọyọ Mesi.
When not exercising a political voice in the council of nobles, Yoruba could join in many of the other peer organizations in the region. One of these organizations was Ẹgbẹ Aro, a militia group formed in the eighteenth century by Lisbi in opposition to Oyo’s Ajeles (appointed administrators) . Other covert military resistance leagues such as the Ekitiparapọ and the Ogidi alliance were organized in the nineteenth century for the diametrically opposite reasons; these groups wanted to secure the dominance of the Yoruba and resist advances from Ibadan, Nupe, and the Sokoto Caliphate.
The political and urban developments in Ife reached their height around 1300 C.E.. By this time the Yoruba language had spread across an extensive portion of West Africa and the amount of Yoruba settlements had dramatically increased. The most notable among the new settlements was Oyo, a town in the Northern part of Yoruba territory. Oyo would become a kingdom in its own right following the decline of Yoruba hegemony in sixteenth century.
The power of the Yoruba confederacy began a slow decline in the sixteenth century, primarily caused by conflicts with the Sokoto Caliphate in the savanna region between the Niger River and the forest. The Sokoto Caliphate was a militant Muslim empire founded by the Fulani Koranic scholar Uthman Dan Fodio who seized control of the northern Yoruba town of Ilorin and ravaged the Yoruba capital Oyo-Ile. The early victories of the Caliphate caused the Yoruba to retreat to the northern latitudes, a move which dramatically harmed the remaining Yoruba population as tsetse flies in the area killed many of the remaining horses. The Caliphate continued to pursue the Yoruba, however, an advance that only stopped when they were decisively defeated by the armies of Ibadan in 1840. For pushing back the advances of the Sokoto Caliphate Ibadan was named the “Saviour of Yorubaland.”
COLONIZATION AND INDEPENDENCE
In 1914, Nigeria became an official colony of Great Britain, a move which legitimized the continual British presence in southern Nigeria since the nineteenth century. The British colony of Nigeria politically united many of the various factions within Yorubaland and other nearby ethnic and linguistic groups. British colonization brought an influx of Christianity into Nigeria, a practice which led to a slow dissolution of many traditional Yoruba religious practices.
Following World War II, public sentiment in Nigeria turned against the British colonizers and began to rally for an independent state. On October 1, 1960 Nigeria was declared independent of British rule. Greater Yorubaland was subsumed into the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
CULTURE AND RELIGION
Itan is the term for the sum total of all Yoruba myths, songs, histories, and other cultural components.
Traditional Yoruba religious beliefs recognize a wide variety of deities, with Ọlọrun or Olodumare venerated as the creator and other spirits serving as intermediates to help with the concerns of humans. Yoruba deities include “Ọya” (wind goddess), “Ifa” (divination or fate), “Ẹlẹda” (destiny), “Ibeji” (twins), “Ọsanyin” (medicines and healing) and “Ọsun” (goddess of fertility, protector of children and mothers), and Ṣango (God of thunder). Each human being is also assumed to have his or her individual deity, called and “Ori,” who is responsible for controlling destiny. In order to placate the Ori into providing a beneficial future, cowrie shells are often used to bedeck a sculpture of the personal deity. When not seeking guidance from an Ori, Yoruba may also turn to deceased parents and ancestors, who are believed to posses the ability to protect their living relatives. In order to receive protection from deceased family members, many Yoruba worshiped or offered sacrifices such as libations and kola nuts on the graves of their relatives, hoping that a suitable sacrifice would guarantee protection.
Traditional Yoruba polytheism, however, was challenged throughout history, particularly by the contact with Islam through trade with the Mali Empire. The Islamic establishment of the Mali Empire often used the military to spread religion, a movement illustrated through the jihads that plagued Yorubaland. Most Yoruba who converted to Islam found solace and community in urban centers such as Ibadan, that allowed Muslims to connect with one another and form political ties.
The second significant challenge to traditional Yoruba religious beliefs was Christianity, which was introduced to Nigeria by colonial powers roughly 400 years after contact with Islam. Conversion to Christianity was often brought about through the use of religious schools, set up by Christian missionaries to draw people away from traditional beliefs.
Yoruba religion and mythology is a major influence in West Africa, chiefly in Nigeria, and has given origin to several New World religions such as Santería in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Candomblé in Brazil. Another permutation of traditional Yoruba religious beliefs, the religion popularly known as Vodun in Haiti combines the beliefs of the many different African ethnic nationalities taken to the island with the structure and liturgy from the Fon-Ewe of present-day Benin and the Congo-Angolan culture area, but Yoruba-derived religious ideology and deities also play an important role.
The majority of contemporary Yoruba are Christians and Muslims, with indigenous congregations having the largest membership among Christians.
GREETINGS AND CUSTOMS
The Yoruba maintain a widely observed system of traditional manners. When greeting an elder, a man is to bow and a woman is to curtsey. Sometimes, when greeting someone of high reputation, like a member of the royal house, a woman or girl is to kneel and then get up quickly. A man is to lay down on the ground before the important person, and then get up.
Traditional popular sports include: wrestling, called gidigbo or ijakadi, foot races, swimming and canoe races in river areas, horse riding in the savannah region, and various forms of combative performances. Combative performances are particularly popular during festivals and religious ceremonies. As is common throughout the West African region, soccer is the most popular contemporary sport, followed by track and field, boxing, and table tennis.
THE YORUBA DIASPORA
During the decline of the Oyo Empire, Yorubaland degenerated into a series of civil wars, in which military captives were sold into the slave trade. Most of the slaves that were exported as a result of the civil war) were sent to Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and Trinidad, bringing with them Yoruba religious beliefs.
The Yoruba are one of the ethnic groups in Africa whose cultural heritage and legacy are recognizable in the Americas, despite the diasporic effects of slavery. Orisha religion, and various musical art forms popularized in Latin America, especially Haiti, Cuba, and Puerto Rico are rooted in Yoruba music.
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