The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The J. Richard Simon Collection of Yoruba Twin Figures

by Christopher D. Roy, editor (1947-2019)
University of Iowa

This Topic Essay consists of eight research papers written in 2009 by UI graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in Professor Christopher D. Roy's course on Yoruba art. To view the Simon Collection in its entirety, please select the appropriate option on the Media page.

Elizabeth "Libby" Miller, "History, Religion, Twins and Monkeys" 

Long ago the birth of twins was regarded as an unnatural, ominous event. Twinning was often associated with promiscuity, animality, and/or sexual encounters with spirits. Thus, often twins (and sometimes the mother) were killed. It is unsure when or why the change occurred. Here is one common version of why it did: A couple from a group in the Isokun quarter in Oyo, after not understanding their giving birth to twins, consulted Ifa. He said it would be fine to keep the twins, provided they performed a sacrifice for them. They did so, and as a result the parents became very rich. When the rest of the village heard this, they decided to keep their twins, in hope that they would also become rich.

The first born twin is named Taiwo, and the second is named Kehinde. Although born second, Kehinde is the senior twin, because he sent his junior, Taiwo into the world first to be sure the world was safe. The birth of twins is almost always considered too much of a good thing. To return normalcy, a woman wishes to have two single, normal births after the birth of twins. The child born after twins, regardless of sex, is named “Idowu” and is associated with Eshu, the Yoruba trickster deity. Any rowdy behavior the child displays is seen as his connection with Eshu. The next child is called Alaba, and it is he or she that returns life to ordinary terms. Idowu is said to land “fast and hard,” while Alaba floats softly to make everything normal.

There are several connections between Eshu and Ibeji. Palm-oil (found in palm nuts) is placed on Eshu shrines to cool his anger. Likewise, when twins are upset, they are fed beans to pacify their anger. Both Eshu and Ibeji require sacrifice or honor, otherwise they will suffer serious consequences. Twins, like Eshu, should be given tribute in order to receive good fortune; if not, they could cause harm to the parents or unsuspecting individual. Ibeji inflict their own retribution, while Eshu tricks people into making the orisha punish them.

Shango is the giver and father of twins, as well as the Yoruba god of thunder. He is also commonly credited with blessing women with fertility . In almost all forms of Yoruba religion he is described as a protective senior-relative of twins (i.e., Father of Twins, Uncle, Grandfather, etc.). For this reason, twins demand honor because they descend from the thundergod . The legend, or creation of Shango the Thundergod, varies, but this is one commonly told version. Shango, the descendant of Oranmiyan, was the tyrannical fourth king of Oyo. He was a feared warrior and Oba who terrified his enemies. With the power of the king’s army he lay waste to villages, towns, and farms, demanded tribute, and controlled commerce and the slave trade. Being a vain ruler, he was obsessed with acquiring magical powers to enhance his rule. One day while playing with his magical powers, he created a storm out of his control. Lightning destroyed the city, and killed many people including his family.

Most people in Yorubaland belong to a world religion, either some form of Christianity or, more commonly, Islam. But in smaller, more rural areas, traditional Yoruba religion is still commonly practiced (Polo).

In Yoruba Mythology, the world was made by the creator Oludumare, or Olorun, from a ball of mud. Becoming bored with it, he sent his first son, Obatala, down to earth with a chicken, a divination board, and a gelede mask and ordered him to populate the world. Once on Earth, Obatala heard the sound of drums and followed it. There was a festival. Obatala was offered palm wine and drank so much of it, that he passed out underneath a tree. Olodumare was concerned, so he sent down his second son, Oduduwa, to check on Obatala. After finding him incapacitated, Oduduwa was then forced to populate the world for Obatala. Meanwhile, sixteen piles of dirt were scraped up by the chicken creating sixteen kingdoms. The first of course, was Ife the center of the world where life started.

Due to the slave trade in the 18th & 19th centuries, Yoruba religion has traveled as far as Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, Trinidad, and several major metropolitan areas of the United States. Although there are many variations of Yoruba beliefs, they all share a common praise reference to their origin… “Ife my home, Ile-Ife”.

The Yoruba believe in the immortality of the soul and in the reincarnation of every human being. Souls of the dead are re-born as babies within their own family, within the period of a generation or two. An ancestor will return sooner if all proper sacrifices and prayers are made to the dead. This encourages the youth to be kind to the elderly, so they will watch over them after death. Likewise, it is good to have many children so they can take of their parent as he ages (Polo).

Eniyan, which means “the self”, must seek to make their way through life by doing the following: strongly acknowledging all the various spirits and powers, going though prayer s and sacrifices that will help others, responding to those who seemingly—on their own initiative—make demands upon a person, and acknowledging the presence of the malevolent forces through sacrifice, all in the hope of keeping them at a distance (Pemberton).

The Yoruba imagine the universe of human experience as a closed calabash. All that exists is within the calabash: spirits, gods, ancestors, and the living. This is important, because it helps understand how an orisha can live on earth, as with twins. There is no other world in the sense of a metaphysical distinction between this world and the other (Pemberton).

Yoruba religion is better defined in terms of dynamic monotheism. Olorun-Olodumare is considered the one “supreme being.” He is the creator of all gods and life, yet he is not acknowledged or worshipped in day to day life. He can be connoted to the Judeo-Christian God, in the sense that he is benevolent; he only creates life. For example, although he created the ajogun who strike people with sickness, he also provided herbs and medicines to heal sickness (Horton).

 Olodumare: The concept connotes one who has the fullness or superlative greatness, the everlasting majesty upon whom man can depend (Horton).

 Olorun: The owner (Olorun), the heaven above or the Lord whose home is in heaven above. Sometimes the Yoruba use Olorun Olodumare together. This double word means the Supreme Being whose abode is in the heaven (Horton).

Distinctions are made between the living, who inhabit the world, aye, and a realm known as orun where the living dead/anscestors, ara orun, imole or oro (spirits), the orisa, as well as malevolent powers (known as ajorgun) live (Polo).

When a person suffers bad dreams, headaches, or depression, it is possible that he is being attacked by the magic powers of a witch. This can be prevented by medicines provided by the Babalawo, but the prescriptions and consultations can be expensive. If you cannot afford medicines, there are 2 ways to protect yourself. You can live a very honest life, which Eshu makes difficult often, or join a cult. Cult Communities have wide experience of magic and have possession of effective antidotes. The most powerful and well-known Cult Community is the secret society of Ogboni. Yet again, it’s expensive to join a large, secure cult, so many smaller, local cult communities can be joined for a more modest price.

Ifa is a divination system used by the Babalawo through the teachings of Orunmila, the god of wisdom. The Babalawo can forsee the future and how to handle future situations through these teachings. The Babalawo is the Ifa preist with religious responsibility for the village. He also charges a fee for all consultations and prescriptions. He is also the one to consult after the birth of twins. He describes the care needed to be given to twins, since he is able to communicate with the spirit realm.

A Yoruba will never hold himself responsible for something that goes wrong in life. Rather, he will blame a spiritual force for his misfortunes (Polo). The most common culprit is the trickster God, Eshu.

Eshu is the messenger of the gods, but also represents uncertainty, chance, violence & trouble. He also the god of the marketplace and the god of crossroads/decisions to make in life. Whenever an argument breaks or a misfortune happens, Eshu is said to be standing there. When the Eshu dance wand is held by the preistess or follower of Eshu, Eshu possesses them, speaking through them. He will “ride them like a horse.”

Although now honored, reference to animalistic or non-human characteristics are still made through Edun (the colobus monkey). Before twins are born, they are said to make a deal with Edun in order to come out as humans and not monkeys.

The birth of twins is explained several ways in reference to the Edun. One story refers to when the goddess Peregun, the wife of the god Orunmila, leaves him and fornicates with various spiritual powers and animals. When she finally returns, they are told by Ifa that she will bear twins for Orunmila, but they must give sacrifices to ensure a satisfactory birth. A male/female set of twins are born, and are named Edun. The male twin studies Ifa, which he knew before birth from his father, and visits all the animals (whose languages he knows because of his mothers promiscuity). A second story tells of how Edun helped a lost Oba reconquer his city. In gratitude, he is admitted to a festival where Edun promises to reproduce himself among humans in a way that his children will look like humans. It was then that ibeji began to be born. Likewise, corn is often fed to ibeji, since corn is the monkey’s favorite food.

Twins, in death are like the Edun monkey; they can descend and ascend into the sky (trees) as they please: they can choose to be reborn or not to be reborn. Twins do not have individual souls, they share one soul. When the soul is divided half in orun and half in aye, it causes an extreme unbalance. So when one twin dies, the other may wish to follow in order to restore balance to the soul. In order to prevent this, the deceased soul can be held down or back, by weights and jewelry on the ere ibeji, from continuing to orun.

Some believe the twins share the same soul. They are call twins “ejire,” or “two who are one.” In this stance, each person on earth has a spiritual counterpart in the sky which duplicates his actions. It is this soul which is continually reborn in cyclical fashion. In the case of twins, the spirit double has been born on earth. Since there is no way of telling which is the heavenly being and which is the mortal, both are treated as sacred from birth.

Go here to view the J. Richard Simon Collection of Yoruba Twin Figures in its entirety.