With over 45 million Yorubas living in various parts of the universe. Undoubtedly one of the largest ethnic groups in the world, the Yorubas are a people steeped in culture, traditions and mysteries. Not even the introduction of foreign religions like Islam and Christianity has diluted the traditional religions of the Yorubas of southwestern Nigeria. As I am writing this, Osun State is host to the Osun Osogbo festival, the largest traditional religion festival in Africa. Today, I am going to dwell on one of the most intriguing aspects of Yoruba customs and try to do justice to a topic that has been riddled with a lot of apprehension and misinformation. What happens when a Yoruba king dies? Well, a lot. And it is that ‘a lot’ this piece is about. Read on and enjoy.
In Yorubaland, a king (or a queen in some rarer instances) is superhuman. The monarch, known as the Oba, who wears theAdenla (Great Crown) is not seen as an ordinary mortal but as one of the gods, one of the divines, a creature that communes directly with the gods. As a matter of fact, when the Yorubas were so steeped in traditions in the precolonial era, the oba must never reveal his face in public and instead wears the Ade (Crown) orAdenla (Great Crown) with elaborate dangling beads that cover his face.
A king must also never prostrate or genuflect before anyone, not even his parents (although I see some of them bowing before the Queen of England). For the Yorubas, the oba is not just a political leader, he was also a religious leader and this was reflected clearly in the fact that some sacred religious rites could only be carried by the Oba himself who is also called Oko Osho, Oko Aje (Head of the Wizards and the Great Mothers of the Occult). For over 1,300 years, Yorubas have placed their kings on the highest pedestal of honour and worship. Not even modernity has totally changed that. A few examples here will suffice:
- ODUDUWA: He was the first Emperor of the Yorubas and the King or Ooni of Ile Ife, considered the cradle and Spiritual Homeland of the Yorubas. When he died, he was made a deity and remains a divinity. He is the ancestor of the crowned kings of Ife. Of the 400 deities in Ile Ife, the Ooni (also called Oonirisa) is believed to be the only human deity with the other 399 dwelling in the realm of the spirits. The Ooni is worshipped or regarded as an orisha (god or deity).
- ORANYAN (also called Oranmiyan): He is the founder of Oyo Ile and his sons Ajaka and Sango would later become the Alaafin of Oyo.
- SANGO: Son of Oranyan, he is also called Jakuta or Xango in other parts of the globe. He was the third Alaafin of Oyo and upon his demise, he was deified to become the orisha of thunder, lightning, justice, dance and virility with white and red as his colours. There are people who still worship Sango till date.
I have given a few examples of kings who have become deities in Yorubaland and practically the same thing applied to all kings of old. Some said others like Sango were deified humans while others say they were humanized gods. Whatever the case, it is clear that the position of an oba in Yorubaland is one that is not joked with.
INTERESTING THINGS HAPPEN WHEN A KING DIES IN YORUBALAND
NB: I am not sure if these practices are still in place today in 2016 but they sure were in full swing during Nigeria’s colonial and even post-independence eras.
The death of a king in Yorubaland is a big event. It is not seen as ‘death’ but in the same Pharaohnic manner in which the king is believed to move to the next world and continue his reign. The primary reason why the following rites after the death of a Yoruba king are so similar is that ‘according to Yoruba traditions, the royal dynasties of all the principal kingdoms in the area were descended from the children of Oduduwa, the founder and the first king of Ile Ife.’
- As Ile Ife is considered the cradle of Yorubas, when a new Alaafin of Oyo was installed, the sword which was believed to have belonged to Oranyan, the son of Oduduwa who founded the Oyo dynasty, was sent to Ile Ife for reconsecration before being used in the ceremony.
- In Benin, parts of the bodies of the deceased kings were sent to Ile Ife for burial. This dynastic link with Ife was so important that a son or grandson of Oduduwa was needed to validate a kings claim to the right to wear an ade, or crown with a beaded edge. In 1903, this principle was officially recognized by the British authorities, who brought the Ooni of Ife, to Lagos to give judgment on the claim of the Elepe of Sagamu, a minor Ijebu ruler, to wear an What happened? The Ooni gave a list of 21 kings with the right to wear an ade, and the name of the Elepe was missing from the list.
But that is that, what precisely happens when a king has passed on? Well, what follows is an elaborate process of carefully orchestrated rituals. One, there are two groups of people that must be informed immediately a king dies: the Ajes, Iya Nlas or Awon Iyami Oshoronga (the Great Mothers of the Occult) and the Ogbonis (read 13 Incredible Things About The Ogbonis HERE). The Ajes are the creators of the kings and without their input, a new king cannot be chosen and the line of succession will be broken. They are summoned to the palace because they are believed to have total control of the secrets of the knowledge of existence and Yorubas believe that the Ajes know a reigning king will die and how to make plans for the new one.
Please note at this point that the Yoruba belief of a king’s death is not really ‘death’ in the sense that we know it today. A king does not ‘die’ in Yorubaland but join his ancestors in the spiritual realm. This salient point is very important and has to be stressed because part of the rituals that will be done following the demise of a king (no matter the manner of the death) is to reactivate the soul of the late king and link it up with the predecessors and also connect it to the successors.
This is achieved via a labyrinth of rituals which will be discussed shortly. This unification of the souls, according to Ulli Beier, is done in a ritual that involves the Oba-to-be eating the heart of the deceased oba as part of the installation ceremonies. Now let us return to the Ajes.
One of the most powerful Ajes is the Iyalashe who plays a very great role in the making of kings. As the Mother of the Gelede Shrine, Iyalashe is the highest priestess and also the general overseer of the Gelede society. She is the link between the Ajes and the community. She has to give her seal of approval to any major traditional event, even the Oro has to get her permission before proceeding with its rituals and same goes for the Egungun (masquerade) societies.
When the king dies, it is the Iyalashe who removes the heart from the chest cavity of the deceased oba and gives it to the new king who must then become a member of the Awo Gelede itself. This process explains why the real kingmaking roles are actually functions of the Great Mothers and also highlights how the Oro cult, Ogboni, Egungun and Gelede are also intricately involved in the crowning of a new king. In some other instances, the corpse of the king is dismembered and the pieces buried in different places all over the kingdom. The hierarchy of those conducting these rituals is very neat and everyone knows his or her role. In the ancient Oyo Empire, this practice has the active participation of members of the Ogboni cult and this was described thus:
‘The Ogboni priests have a part in the ceremonies following the death of a king and during the installation of his successor. In Oyo they are summoned to the palace as soon as an Alaafin has died and attend while the corpse is washed, then they cut off its head and take it to clean all the flesh from the skull. A palace official removes the heart and puts it in charge of the Otun Efa, the titled eunuch responsible for the Sango cult. During his installation, the succeeding Alaafin is taken by the Otun Efa to make a sacrifice to Sango and while with him is given a dish containing the heart of his predecessor, which he must eat. Later, he is taken to the Ogboni shrine where the Oluwo hands him the skull of his predecessor, which has been filled with a corn gruel which he must drink. This rite is said to enable his ears always to discriminate between the true and the false, and to give compelling power to his words. Thus, the death of an Alaafin cannot be concealed from the Ogboni, and his successor cannot be properly installed without their acceptance and collaboration.’
When a king ingests the organs of his dead predecessor, it is not seen as an ordinary physical process but also a spiritual one in which the new king is believed to have ingested the power and wisdom of not just the dead king but also of all the previous obas as each of them went through the same ritual as prescribed by the Great Mothers (Ajes).