The Yorùbá are a large ethno-linguistic grouping in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yoruba make up around 21% of Nigeria’s current population and are typically the dominating group in particular locations. Many Yoruba live in the West African states of Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, and Oyo, firmly entrenching the numerically dominant Yoruba in these political boundaries.
While Yoruba can be found across West Africa, including Benin, Ghana, and Togo, the highest concentration of Yoruba is located in Yorubaland, a region in western Nigeria. Yorubaland is bounded to the northwest by the Borgu (also known as Bariba and Borgawa), to the north by the Nupe and Ebira, to the southeast by the san and Edo, and to the northeast by the Igala and other kindred tribes.
The Yoruba are famed for their exceptional craftsmanship, and are widely regarded as the most skillful and prolific people in Africa. They used to work in trades including blacksmithing, leatherworking, weaving, glassmaking, and ivory and wood carving. Yorubaland’s many densely populated metropolitan centres allow for the concentration of wealth and the development of a complex market economy, which supports widespread patronage of the arts. Due to the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many people of African heritage in the Americas claim Yoruba ancestry.
The name Yoruba did not become popular until the eighteenth century, and it was initially limited to Oyo Empire subjects. Prior to the term’s adoption, the Yoruba were known by a number of labels across the world. The Yoruba were often known as Akú among Europeans, a designation derived from the opening syllables of Yoruba greetings such as Ẹ kú àárọ? ‘good morning’ and Ẹ kú alẹ? ‘Good night.’ “Okun” is a small variant of Akú that is also found throughout Europe. The Yoruba were known as “Lucumi” in Cuba and Spanish-speaking America, following the phrase “O luku mi,” which means “my buddy” in various dialects. It should be noted, however, that not all phrases used to describe Yoruba are derived from the Yoruba language. The Yoruba were referred to as “Nago,” “Anago,” and “Ana” in Spanish and Portuguese texts, designations taken from the name of a coastal Yoruba sub-group in the Republic of Benin. This name is still used to designate Yoruba people in Francophone West Africa today.
The name Yoruba did not always denote an ethnicity and was frequently used to define Yoruba language speakers. The name Yoruba as an ethnic description originally emerged in a dissertation published in the sixteenth century by the Songhai scholar Ahmed Baba. Yoruba undoubtedly became extensively recognized as an ethnic label as a result of the Hausa language’s usage of the term with an ethnic meaning. Because Hausa was extensively used in West Africa, the ethnic connotation of “Yoruba” spread and was entrenched in ethnographies written in Arabic and Ajami.
Perspectives on Creation
Within the Yoruba culture, two opposing interpretations of creation revolve around a man named Oduduwa, with one claiming that Ile-Ife was the place of humankind’s creation and the other claiming that Oduduwa’s large family caused the people to expand out from Ile-Ife. The version based on Oduduwa’s children appears to be substantiated by historical truth. According to this account of creation, Oduduwa dispatched his descendants out of Ile-Ife to conquer other existing Yoruba people, and many of his progeny rose to positions of power in other towns. The migration of his descendants from Ile-Ife to other Yoruba communities eventually united a way of life and linked disparate cultural traditions.
The sacred importance of Ile-Ife as the cradle of humanity is the center of the Yoruba’s other principal creation story. In this version, Olodumare, the Creator, sends Oduduwa to construct people from the clay of Ile-Ife. While this account gives Oduduwa a religious function, it preserves him as a key figure in the establishment of Yoruba life. According to some researchers, this narrative of creation is linked to the soil goddess Odudua. The relationship between the earth goddess and Oduduwa is mostly based on the mutual use of the word “odu,” which means wisdom.
According to legend, Oduduwa was given just a chicken and a sack of sand when he was dispatched to create humanity. The sand was mostly a precautionary measure since, according to Yoruba belief, the ground was submerged in water during the reign of Oduduwa. Oduduwa’s grasp on the chicken deteriorated as he descended from the sky,
and it began to spiral towards the ground. In an attempt to capture the free-falling chicken, Oduduwa let go of his sack of sand, which also fell to the ground. When Odudwa completed climbing, he noticed that his sack of sand had built a little hill in the earth’s waters and that the chicken was safely sat on top of the sandy mound. As the town of Ile-Ife grew, territory began to expand in all directions from this point, named Ile n’fe.
Pre-Colonial Yoruba History
Both Yoruba creation myths express the same core idea: immigrants (personified by Oduduwa) who came in Yoruba country had a substantial impact on the area’s pre-existing people. Archaeological evidence shows that Yorubaland was already occupied by the time these people arrived, and had most likely been populated since the Stone Age. Metalwork and fine art methods on baked clay, presumably connected to Nok Culture, provide evidence for early residents in the region.
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 immigration introduced a torrent of new political ideas and practices to Yorubaland, which quickly took root. The Yoruba had created a political structure dominated by town administrations by 1000 C.E. Towns arose from new ways of thinking as a result of greater interdependence among the
Yoruba and a growing need to rely on one’s neighbors. Yorubaland, which was previously predominantly a forest agricultural area, became a highly urbanized culture famed across West Africa for the splendor of its capital, or crowned, towns under the influence of the immigrants.
In ancient times, Yorubaland’s principal cities were tied together, establishing a loose confederacy under the senior Yoruba leader, the oni of Ife. The confederacy that unified Yorubaland acted primarily as a peacekeeping tool, leaving the states to rule autonomously and minimizing violence among confederacy members. Political ideology at the period was centered on the concept of a kingdom as a vast family, with the oni as the head and the sister countries respecting one another. Monarchs (Obas) and councils of nobles, guildleaders, and merchants, generally called as gb in Yoruba, ruled each city state, which was permitted to govern itself in most areas.
The monarchy was frequently hereditary, passed down through generations. However, royal bloodlines alone were not enough to ensure a position of authority, since an eligible challenger for the throne would be barred from ascending to power if any member of the family, servant, or slave committed a significant crime like as theft, fraud, murder, or rape. Some city governments completely abandoned the usage of royal lineages, preferring to make the monarchy open to the election of any free-born male citizen. The monarchs were virtually usually polygamous, with some having as many as 20 wives. Political authority was frequently strengthened by marriage, and monarchs frequently sought spouses from royal families. A few female Obas ascended to prominence in Ilesa and Ondo, but they were uncommon.
Throughout the confederacy, there was no established power balance between the king and the council, and towns were permitted to determine whether to regard the two perspectives equally or to give greater weight to one. The ruling council of Yorubaland exerted severe supervision over the monarch and zealously guarded against any abuses of royal authority. While the council’s severe level of power over the king was not the norm across Yorubaland, many other towns established a political feeling of oneness between the monarch and the council. Even in y, the most centralized of the precolonial kingdoms, the Alaafin conferred on all political matters with a prime minister (The Basọrun) and the Ọyọ Mesi, a council of top nobles.
When not having a political voice in the council of nobles, Yoruba might participate in several of the region’s other peer groups. The Ẹgbẹ Aro, a military force created in the eighteenth century by Lisabi in resistance to Oyo’s Ajeles (assigned administrators), was one of these groups. Other clandestine military resistance leagues, such as the Ekitiparapọ and the Ogidi alliance, were formed in the nineteenth century for diametrically opposed reasons: to protect Yoruba supremacy and to fight incursions from Ibadan, Nupe, and the Sokoto Caliphate.
The political and urban advancements of Ife peaked about 1300 C.E. By this period, the Yoruba language had spread throughout a large area of West Africa, and the number of Yoruba communities had expanded substantially. Oyo, a town in northern Yoruba land, was the most noteworthy of the new colonies. Following the demise of Yoruba power in the sixteenth century, Oyo would become a kingdom in its own right.
The Yoruba confederacy’s strength began to dwindle gradually in the sixteenth century, owing mostly to wars with the Sokoto Caliphate in the savanna region between the Niger River and the forest. The Fulani Koranic scholar Uthman Dan Fodio formed the Sokoto Caliphate, which gained control of the northern Yoruba town of Ilorin and destroyed the Yoruba capital Oyo-Ile. The Caliphate’s early triumphs forced the Yoruba to flee to northern latitudes, a decision that severely affected the remnant Yoruba population since tsetse flies in the area destroyed many of the remaining horses. The Caliphate pursued the Yoruba, but their progress was only halted when they were decisively beaten by the forces of Ibadan in 1840. Ibadan was dubbed the “Saviour of Yorubaland” for successfully repelling the Sokoto Caliphate’s onslaught.
Colonization and Independence
Nigeria became an official colony of the United Kingdom in 1914, legitimizing the British presence in southern Nigeria since the nineteenth century. Many of the numerous factions within Yorubaland and other surrounding ethnic and linguistic groupings were politically unified by the British colony of Nigeria. British colonialism introduced an inflow of Christianity into Nigeria, which resulted in the gradual extinction of many indigenous Yoruba religious rituals.
Following World War II, Nigerians turned against the British colonists and began to agitate for independence. Nigeria gained independence from British domination on October 1, 1960. Greater Yorubaland became part of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Itan is the collective title for all Yoruba myths, songs, histories, and other cultural components.
Traditional Yoruba religious beliefs acknowledge a vast range of deities, with Olódùmarè revered as the creator and other spirits working as intermediaries to assist with human difficulties. Yoruba deities include “Ọya” (wind goddess), “Ifa” (divination or fate), “Ẹlẹda” (destiny), “Ìbejì” (twins), “Ọsanyin” (medicines and healing), and “Ọsun” (goddess of fertility, guardian of children and mothers), and Ṣango (God of thunder). Each human being is also considered to have his or her own deity, known as “Ori,” who is in charge of fate. Cowrie shells are frequently used to adorn a sculpture of the personal god in order to appease the Ori and ensure a prosperous future. When not seeking direction from an Ori, Yoruba may appeal to departed parents and ancestors, who are said to have the capacity to protect their surviving relations. Many Yoruba worshiped or gave sacrifices such as libations and kola nuts on the graves of their relatives in the hope that a sufficient offering would provide protection.
Traditional Yoruba polytheism, on the other hand, has been challenged throughout history, most notably by interaction with Islam via commerce with the Mali Empire. The Mali Empire’s Islamic elite frequently employed the military to preach religion, as seen by the jihads that devastated Yorubaland. Most Yoruba who converted to Islam found consolation and camaraderie in metropolitan places like Ibadan, where Muslims could unite and create political links.
The second major threat to traditional Yoruba religious beliefs was the introduction of Christianity to Nigeria by colonial powers around 400 years after encounter with Islam. Conversion to Christianity was frequently achieved through the employment of religious schools, which were established by Christian missionaries to attract people away from traditional faiths.
Yoruba religion and mythology have had a significant effect throughout West Africa, particularly in Nigeria, and have given rise to various New World faiths such as Santera 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 brought to the island with the structure and liturgy from 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 highest membership among Christians.
Yoruba theatrical repertory includes masquerade performances, folk operas, and a thriving film sector. Gẹlẹdẹ from the Ketu region of the contemporary Republic of Benin, perhaps the most renowned Yoruba masquerade piece, was named a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Other internationally recognized Yoruba cultural productions include the Ifa corpus, a collection of hundreds of poems used in divination ceremonies, and the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, one of Nigeria’s few remaining functional sites for traditional religious ceremonies and a magnet for visitors from all over the world.
Scholarly interest has recently centered on the performances of Egungun (representing ancestral spirits visiting the living), Epa (symbolic acts encouraging valor and fertility), and Ẹyọ, a parade of masked dancers.
The Yoruba have a well-known system of traditional manners. When greeting an elder, a man bows and a woman curtsies. When receiving someone of great standing, such as a member of the royal family, a woman or girl is expected to kneel and then swiftly rise. Before the important person, a guy has to lie down on the ground and then rise up.
Traditional popular sports include gidigbo or ijakadi wrestling, foot races, river swimming and boat racing, savannah horse riding, and different sorts of combative displays. Combat shows are especially popular at festivals and religious rituals. Soccer is the most popular modern sport in West Africa, as it is throughout the area, followed by track & field, boxing, and table tennis.
Yoruba sporting events are held at the National Stadium in Lagos (55,000 capacity), Liberty Stadium in Ibadan (the first stadium in Africa) (40,000 capacity), Teslim Balogun Stadium in Abeokuta (28,000 capacity), Mọṣhood Kaṣhimawo Abiọla Stadium Abẹokuta (28,000 capacity), or Lekan Salami Stadium in Ibadan (25,000 capacity).
Many Yoruba also play Ayò, a popular board game known as mancala in other parts of Africa.
The Yorùbá Diaspora
Yorubaland disintegrated into a succession of civil conflicts with the collapse of the Oyo Empire, with military prisoners sold into the slave trade. The majority of the slaves transported as a result of the civil war) were taken to Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and Trinidad, carrying Yoruba religious practices with them.
Despite the diasporic repercussions of slavery, the Yoruba are one of the African ethnic groups whose cultural heritage and legacy may be found throughout the Americas. Yoruba music is founded in the Orisha religion and different musical art styles prevalent in Latin America, particularly in Haiti, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.
The chief Yoruba cities are: Ibadan, Lagos, Abeokuta (Abẹokuta), Akure (Akurẹ), Ilorin (Ilọrin), Ijebu Ode (Ijẹbu Ode), Ijebu-Igbo (Ijẹbu-Igbo), Ogbomoso (Ogbomọṣọ), Ondo, Ota (Ọta),Ìlá Ọràngún, Ado-Ekiti, Shagamu (Sagamu), Ikenne (Ikẹnnẹ), Osogbo (Osogbo), Ilesa (Ilesa), Oyo (Ọyọ), Ife (Ilé-Ifẹ), Saki, and Ago-Iwoye.
- Brooks, George E. 2003. Eurafricans in western Africa: commerce, social status, gender, and religious observance from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Western African studies. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. ISBN 978-0821414859
- Central Intelligence Agency. Nigeria. Retrieved June 22, 2007.
- Davidson, Basil. 1998. West Africa before the colonial era: a history to 1850. London: Longman. ISBN 978-0582318526
- Falola, Toyin, and Dare Oguntomisin. 2001. Yoruba warlords of the 19th century. Trenton, NJ: Africa World. ISBN 978-0865437838
- New World Encyclopedia (www.newworldencyclopedia.org)