Types of Art
The arts of the Yoruba are as numerous as their deities, and many objects are placed on shrines to honor the gods and the ancestors. Beautiful sculpture abounds in wood and brass and the occasional terracotta. Varied masking traditions have resulted in a great diversity of mask forms. Additional important arts include pottery, weaving, beadworking and metalsmithing.
The oral history of the Yoruba describes an origin myth, which tells of God lowering a chain at Ile-Ife, down which came Oduduwa, the ancestor of all people, bringing with him a cock, some earth, and a palm kernel. The earth was thrown into the water, the cock scratched it to 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 Portuguese guns. Expansion of the kingdom is associated with the acquisition of the horse. At the end of the 18th century civil war broke out at Oyo, the rebels called for assistance to the Fulani, but the latter ended up conquering all of Oyo by the 1830s. 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. Yorubaland was officially colonized by the British in 1901, but a system of indirect rule was established that mimicked the structure of Yoruba governance.
Historically, the Yoruba were primarily farmers, growing cocoa and yams as cash crops. These are planted in a three-year rotational system, alternating with cassava and a year of diverse crops including maize, peanuts, cotton, and beans. At the end of this three-year cycle the land is left fallow, sometimes for seven years. It is estimated that at one time nearly 70 percent of people participated in agriculture and ten percent each working as crafts people and traders within the towns. Yorubaland is characterized by numerous densely populated urban centers with surrounding fields for farming. The centralization of wealth within cities allowed for the development of a complex market economy which encouraged extensive patronage of the arts.
The political and social systems vary greatly in different regions, and allegiance is uniformly paid to the large urban center in the area, rather than to a singular centralized authority. Each town has a Oba (leader), who may achieve his position in several different ways including inheritance, gaining the position through participation in title associations, or being personally selected by an Oba already in power. Every Oba, however, is considered to be a direct descendant of the founding Oba in each city. A council of chiefs usually assists the Oba in his decisions. Title associations, such as the Ogboni, play an important role in assigning and balancing power within the cities.
The Yoruba claim that they have 401 deities; in truth, there are more than these. The complexity of their cosmology has led Western scholars to compare them to the Ancient Greeks and their impressive pantheon. Yoruba deities are known as orisha, and the high god is Olorun. No organized priesthoods or shrines exist in honor of Olorun, but his spirit is invoked to ask for blessings and to confer thanks. The Yoruba believe that when they die they enter the realm of the ancestors where they still have influence on earth. Annual homage is paid to the grave sites of ones' forbears, and lineage heads are responsible for honoring all deceased members of the lineage through a yearly sacrifice. Egungun (maskers) appear at funerals and are believed to embody the spirit of the deceased person. Other important orishas include Eshu, the trickster; Shango, the god of thunder; and Ogun, the god of iron and modern technology.