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Yoruba Traditions
Yoruba Traditions

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Metal portrait of a Yoruba family

Death is a process of change, or so Yoruba people believed. For an African tribe to believe in reincarnation, Earth was nothing more than a transitional stage in a persons life. The number of lives a person should get varied according to their level of spiritual deformation (such as jealousy, hate, malice...etc). By reincarnating, suffer and knowledge would ascend the mans spirituality as to overcome deformation and achieve the biggest rank or state possessed by the Yoruba; being an orisha, or a member of the nine orums.

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Wood Ife from West Africa

However, eliminating these dreadful feelings was not easy; as it could take several lives to overcome them. And since re-birth was taken within the same family boundaries, accomplishing the ultimate rank demanded a high level of integrity to be kept in the family. By giving proper and dignified funerals only to honorable and respectable family members, and throwing into the forest the ones who dispraised the familys name, the Yoruba tribe not only demonstrated their fear of failure, but the high level of competition the society had to live in. Thus, the numerous rituals given to the deceased depended on the conduct maintained while alive and reflected the level of orum the defunct reached.

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Statue of twins

As followers of the Ifa religion, the Yoruba are said to have migrate from the east between 600 and 1000A.D. They lived mainly in the city of Oyo and Ife, where they became masters of agriculture, and sculptors of terra-cotta and bronze (among others) ceremonial masterpieces. Although Ife and Oyo were considered rivals they both shared the prosperous lifestyle the Yorubas were accustomed. Their funerals and rituals also shared the same concept in which improving spirituality along a persons many lives was the popular longing. It is for that reason that there is a contrast in the type of funerals which was given to their citizens according to age. It was believed that a man who lived to be very old had more time to overcome up to some level deformation; therefore upon his death there was much more happiness than sadness reflected in the ceremony. However; a man who died of young age, was deprived of the necessary time to overcome it, and was often considered and evil spirit of a child (or an abiku) who would reincarnate as many times to the same mother. There was much grief in such cases, although as an average, the funerals were custom to be a big celebration due to the belief that the spirit of the defunct would rest in peace and join the family ancestors if it was done in such manner.

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Beaded Crown

The disgrace of being without a grave was deserved as the conduct of a man did not qualify as to a dignified person, in these cases the body was thrown into the forest and was never seen again. It was a mans duty to take in effect a prominent funeral taken in mind every requisite established by the Yorubas; nevertheless they were also denied to people with infectious diseases, and to whoever did not meet the criteria as far as funerals should go. A much more rigid society is characterized by this type of belief; The one who splits the good from the bad without accepting any opinion different than what they transmitted generation by generation.

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Yoruba helmet mask

 

According to the persons rank in society depended the way a ceremony should be carried out. A description of a funeral which most resembles the Yorubas was narrated by Herb Boyd,

  The King of Oyo was buried in a bara, which was surrounded by all kinds of metals and terra cotta figurines. It was at night, but you could see the figures glistening in the moonlight. The ceremony began with a blare from an ivory trumpet and the sound of a koso drum. This drum is beaten every morning at four as a signal for the king to arise. Thus the beat at night indicated that he was retiring to his final resting place. Unlike the customs of my people, the king was buried with lavish gifts made of bronze and terra cotta. And some of his favorite slaves committed suicide in order to serve him in the other world.

 

(Boyd, Herb. African History for Beginners. New York: Writers & Readers Inc, 1993. 102-03)

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Yoruba wedding basket

As soon as the health of a person aggravated, arranges for the funeral began according to the custom rituals. It was first started with a herbal body wash believed to purify the soul, followed by animal sacrifices, and god worship which would determine what to do with the defunct belongings. What was called a plate break was followed up after three months of death; sacrifices and a big dinner were done in honor of the dead. After one year a similar celebration was made. Once successfully completed these two celebrations, it was believed that a person could gather al the strength to relieve their descendents when needed.

It was established that nobody could touch the defunct without knowing what had been the cause of death. The oracle should be the only one who could determine if the cause of death had been of un-natural or natural reasons. During the seventh day of death the defunct is taken out to the streets for people to praise him on a door which has been dismantled from his own house. Along the way family members as well as close friends of the defunct or even random people walking by throw to the deceased snails. The procession comes back at night to begin the funeral in the morning.  Great amounts of food and liquors, as well as having to pay to religious and political institutions made funeral ceremonies quite expensive. Such was the money spent in funerals that some family members became slaves to pay debts.

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Early Yoruban sculpture

It is interesting the fact that although becoming an orisha (or member of the nine orums) was the ultimate desire of any Yoruba, somewhere along the way the idea was forgotten. As greed for the Yorubas grew, accomplishing spiritual deformation was left behind;

 

Whenever the Yoruba captured more slaves than could be put to work on the royal farms, they sold their prisoners to seafaring slavers. Yoruba grew rich on the slave trade and used some of their wealth to acquire more horses from the Hausa trading states, which imported them from North Africa.

 

(Jones, Constance. Africa 1500-1900. New York: Facts on File Inc, 1993.48)

 

The importance placed on religion for a moment seems to hide under vague words. Forgotten is Ori what was thought of the origin of life, as the true state of a human being arises all of the deformations Yorubas thought they could leave behind.

 

A small number of African kings and merchants grew rich and powerful as the result of the slave trade, but their gains were temporary. Meanwhile, lasting harm was done to the economies of slaving regions, and millions of Africans suffered as a result. The gap between rich and poor widened.

 

(Jones, Constance. Africa 1500-1900. New York: Facts on File Inc, 1993.82)

 

It was believed by the Yoruba that as the level of Ori ascends in ones behavior, the levels of Orum could be accomplished very soon in ones life, ending with a premature death. It is needless to say the Yoruba contradicted themselves as they categorized earlier such deaths as either an evil spirit of child who re-births the same mother, or the lamentable stray of time to overcome spiritual deformation.

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Portion of a Yorubian door

Many cults were form in Yoruba by which Yoruba had many gods. Among the almost 200 gods, the most popular were,

 Eshu, spirit of individuality and change; Ifa, god of divination; Ogun, lord of iron; Oshoosi, god of the forests and hunting; Obaluaiye, dread spirit of disease and earth; and Shango, fiery thunder god.

 

(Boyd, Herb. African History for Beginners. New York: Writers & Readers Inc,1993.104-07)

 

The places where worship took place were as common as the markets and the ancestors grave. The many cults Yoruba had, were maintained in absolute secrecy. These societies had to remain discrete due to the fact that membership to them was restricted to some citizens, and they had an enormous power in people. The cult of the Egungun were said to take over the spirits of their ancestors and appear at the various funeral ceremonies. Some of these cults had even political as well as religious power.

As mentioned before, it was essential for the family of the defunct to wash the body in order to purify the soul. This fluid was a home-made combination of water, vegetables, and snails; and it was as powerful as to make the spirit to go away with the gods. If the body of the defunct failed to be washed the spirit would not be accepted within the ancestral family, and in case reincarnation would occur, the spirit would reach a dirty body.

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Yoruba artifacts

 Some of Yorubas secret cults were related to rituals and ceremonies performed during funerals. Among the most important were the Ogboni, Egungun, and Orisha; However, the Ogboni were said to be the most important society due to the fact that only community leaders were part of it. The admission was open to anyone who was born free; although some political or religious importance was necessary to join. The more cults a person joined, the more rank a person was distinguished for. Such is the political significance of the cults, that sometimes even the king consulted them in decisions that would affect the entire community. Occasionally, even older women were aloud to become members of a cult; however, for such women marriage was prohibited.

 

          The Egungun followed the Ogboni in matter of significance. The Egungun, who were also known as Egun, confirmed the theory the Yoruba had with respect of reincarnation and life after death. As the funeral took place, and egun took part of what appeared to be the ancestor of the defunct. A family member would cry and ask for a word from the death as the Egun would appear and talk in representation of the defunct. The family as well as everyone present in the funeral would stay calm and happy since the spirit although not physically present would still remain with them. The Egungun would then take the defuncts place and talk to his family as if it were him. After a few days the Egun would return to the house of the defunct and scream his name, to later that week inform the family that the defunct is well and happy in the new world.

 

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Carved sculpture of kings

By giving proper and dignified funerals only to honorable and respectable family members, and throwing into the forest the ones who dispraised the familys name, the Yoruba tribe not only demonstrated their fear of failure, but the high level of competition the society had to live in.