Ancestor Shrines

By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (formerly University of Iowa)

NigeriaYoruba peoples (Egba, Abeokuta)

Ere Ibeji (twin figure)

Wood, beads

H. 20 cm (8")

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.489

In Yorubland, deceased twins, especially those who died as children, are not really seen as ancestors, but rather are seen as “not yet born” (Pemberton 1989: 175). Figures carved to represent them are often placed on shrines to Sango and may even be called omo Sango (“child of Sango”) (ibid.). Twins symbolize fertility and are thought to bring good luck and wealth to their parents. The Yoruba experience one of the highest rates of twinning in the world, but they did not always recognize the birth of twins as a blessing, and twins are still unwelcome in some southeastern Yoruba communities. In the north and the southwest, however, the cult of twins thrives. When twins die, their spirits become orisa. Wooden carvings are commissioned usually by the mother or other family members. They are then cared for like living children. It has become the Western expectation to find twins figures in pairs, but more often than not, only one figure is carved because the other twin is still living. The living twin may in fact care for the ere ibeji.

Fon peoples, Benin, mother bathing twin sculptures. Photo by Dana Rush.