Still On The Origin Of The Yoruba - THE DAILY CRUCIBLE



Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Still On The Origin Of The Yoruba

By Professor Saburi Biobaku


   Yoruba tradition, in the extreme, regards Ile Ife as the spot where God created man, white and black, and from where mankind dispersed all over the world. According to Ife mythology, Oduduwa (Odu to o da iwa, which means the great one who creates existence) was sent from above by Aramfe or Ajalorun (God Almighty) to create the earth. Accounts of how Oduduwa performed his task vary. One version is that he took with him from Heaven a magical bird and some earth in a container which was like a snail’s shell in shape.
Aramfe gave Oduduwa sixteen chiefs who were well-versed in mysteries to accompany him to the world of mortals and help him to create his kingdom. The whole surface of the world was then covered with water. One of Oduduwa’s followers dropped some particles of earth from above, let loose the magical bird which scattered these over the earth and, mirabile dictu, dry land sprang into existence. With the aid of chains, Oduduwa and his retinue descended upon their creation!
    This myth makes Ile Ife the cradle not only of the Yoruba but of mankind. It is still firmly believed by some people to whom it has become an article of faith. But the traditional historians who are the royal bards, drummers and cymbalists know better.
Their own accounts also vary in important particulars, but they have carefully preserved their versions by handing them down verbally from one generation to another. They say the Yoruba sprang from Lamurudu, who was one of the kings of Mecca. His offsprings were: Oduduwa, the ancestor of the Yoruba, and the kings of Gogobiri and Kukawa, two tribes in The Hausa country. Although the date of the period when the Yoruba were in Mecca or Arabia is never given because it is unknown, the traditional account of their exodus puts it at a considerable time well after the advent of Islam.

    Oduduwa, the heir to the throne of Mecca, had relapsed into idolatory during Lamurudu’s reign and his heresy was spreading fast. He was determined to make paganism once more the state religion and to this end his priest and idol-maker, Asara, studded the great mosque with idols. This sacrilege was too much for the faithful Moslems who included Asara’s son, Braima, a young fanatic. When according to a royal mandate all the men were absent from Mecca on a three-day hunting expedition preparatory to celebrating the festivals of the idols, Braima struck: he hewed in pieces the wooden gods.
The men returned to discover his handiwork and when they questioned him about the iconoclast, he taunted them with ‘worshipping things which could not speak for themselves.’ The attempts to retaliate and make Braima pay with his life for his impiety was the signal for a civil war in which the Moslem party were victorious over the apostates. Lamurudu the king was slain; his children and those who sympathised with them were expelled from Mecca. The two princes who became rulers of Gogobiri and the Kukuwa went west-ward; Oduduwa ventured eastwards. He travelled ninety days from Mecca and after wandering about finally settled down with his followers at Ile Ife. 

    Oduduwa was however, pursued to Ile Ife; but Sahibu and his army were defeated and a sacred relic taken among the booty. A well-known legend also records that the Yoruba were molested by other people during their early days at Ile Ife. Igbos, disguised to look like terrible demi-gods, raided the new settlement repeatedly for several years. The people were perplexed and called their gods but all in vain. Then a woman of great beauty and virtue, Moremi determined to do what she could to deliver her country from the Igbo menace. She vowed to the deity of the Esinmirin stream that she would offer to the god the highest sacrifice she could afford if he assisted her to carry out her plan successfully. Her plan was to allow all the raiders to catch her during the next raid with a view to learning the secret through living with them. Accordingly, she was caught during the next raid and was taken to the Igbo country where she was allocated to their leader among his booty and he made her one of his wives. She quickly gained his confidence and soon extracted from the secret of the weird appearance of the Igbo raiders. She learnt that those who were objects of great terror to her people were mere men who covered themselves from head to foot with grass and bamboo fibres in order to make them appear superhuman. She learnt also that they could never withstand men rushed amongst them with lighted torches. She escaped from the Igbo country, having completed her mission, and needless to say the next Igbo raid was their last. Moremi, delighted with her success, went to Esinmirin stream to honour her vow to the god. She offered a goat, a ram, even a bullock, but the god would not accept.
Then she found out from the priests that the only sacrifice the god would accept was her only son, Olurogbo, and, like the heroine she was, she gave her son to the deity. The Ife bewailed her loss; they acclaimed and honoured her during her life time and deified her after her death. There was, however, a sequel to Olurogbo’s fate; he was not really dead: he revived after being left for dead and climbed up a rope into heaven. He is expected to this day to return to this world again and reap the reward of his good deeds.

   We can see at once that in this legend story of Jeptha and of the Redemption of Man through Jesus Christ have been confused.
In the same way the myth of the creation of the world at Ile Ife is reminiscent of Noah and the Flood, although there was no mention of the Ark. What is important here is that the Yoruba were acquainted with Biblical stories and that they used them in their myths and legends as moulds into which they poured accounts of the vicissitudes of their existence as a community. The value of this is that it affords a clue to the near-Eastern origin of the Yoruba. 

    The first written account of the traditional origin of the Yoruba was recorded by the learned Sultan Bello, the founder of Sokoto. 
Captain Clapperton translated and extracted it from the Sultan’s important work on the History of the Sudan: “The inhabitants of this province (Yarba) (i.e. Yoruba) it is supposed originated from the remnants of the children of Canaan who were of the tribe of Nimrod.
The cause of their establishment in West Africa was, as it is stated, in consequence of their being driven by Ya-rooba, son of Khatan, out of Arabia, to the western coast between Egypt and Abyssinia. From that spot they advanced into the inferior of Africa, till they reached Yarba (i.e. Yoruba) where they fixed their residence. On their way they left in every place they stopped at a tribe of their own people.
Thus it is supposed that all the tribes of Sudan who inhabit the mountains are originated from them. Here is an important piece of traditional evidence: it records what a learned Fulani ruler who drew from both traditional and Arabic sources, knew in his day about the Yoruba. The link with modern Sudan indicates a fruitful field of intensive research; for anyone who has seen people from the southern part of the Sudan with their facial marks and general physical features cannot fail to notice the similarities with the Yoruba.  

   Traditional accounts of Yoruba origins vary then from the mythological idea of Ile Ife as the cradle of mankind to the learned but cautious statement which Sultan Bello has vouchsafed for us. As I warned listeners in my first lecture: too many gods, giants and heroines stalk the pages of traditional accounts. As the past recedes, events get overlaid with romantic inventions, heroes become gods and the impossible is often said to have happened. Nevertheless, the duty of the historian is to penetrate beyond the succulent pericarp of invention and crack the hard kernel of historical event, however little.
While we disbelieve the legend we must ascertain the historical event which have rise to it.

   In my next lecture I shall deal with the importance of oral evidence and visual sources. The weakness of traditional accounts, apart from tending always to glorify the past, is that they offer little or no help to us in our vital problem of dating the events. The long ago of tradition is difficult to translate into the appropriate calendar year. If we check traditional accounts by oral evidence and both against the relics of the past, we should be able to arrive at some dates.

The Fourth lecture shall be here on Saturday, 23 January 2021.
This is from the International Centre For Yoruba Arts and Culture

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