Ile Ife Before Oduduwa - THE DAILY CRUCIBLE



Monday, February 1, 2021

Ile Ife Before Oduduwa

By Prof.  Iṣọla Ọlọmọla


Many amateur and professional academic historians who have engaged themselves in the search for the origin and antecedents of the history and culture of the Yoruba-speaking people have either stopped abruptly at or begun their adventure from the Oduduwa episode, in spite of persistent allusions in the various oral histories of Ife and some other sub-ethnic divisions of the Yoruba to communities of great and unknown antiquity in their areas which had played hosts to the immigrant aristocratic groups associated with Oduduwa. However, recent historical studies have broadened our perspectives about the distant past and these communities. 

Ulli Beier has pointed out in his article titled “Before Oduduwa” that there is enough evidence, in the various creation stories and stories of wars and conquests associated with Oduduwa, to show that parts of Yorubaland were inhabited before his episode by people who were either conquered, driven out or absorbed by the new dynastic group (Beier, 1956). The issue has been further classified with the claim that parts of Ife, Ijesa, Ekiti and Ijebu, etc., were inhabited by people with some measure of sophisticated political culture before the advent of Oduduwa (Olomola, 1984:3-4). Thus, the common belief that the origin of Ile-Ife and that of the entire Yoruba world, as well as their social and political culture dated from Oduduwa, needs some modification. 

What can be traced to Oduduwa is the emergence of a new dynasty and to a new political culture. Whether or not his actual name was Oduduwa, a new leader emerged during or after his episode, as the First Oba of Ile-Ife, to rule all the component communities together as a unit, directly and effectively. The date and manner of his emergence are still subjects of academic debates. All that seems certain is that the episode associated with Oduduwa represents a change of leadership, the grafting of a new political culture florescence which started in Ile-Ife and from there spread in later generations to other parts of Yorubaland.

The purpose of this chapter is to address the crucial issues thus raised in the foregoing paragraph, namely, to examine the available evidence regarding the autochthonous communities in and around Ile-Ife, their antiquity, language, religious and political culture and attempt a reconstruction of the history and culture of ancient Ife.

Oral histories of Ife people are informative about their conception of the probable origin of their world and culture, but such histories are dateless and mythical. One of their myths of origin is contained in Ikedu, describes by Akinjogbin as “an ancient school for teaching (Ife) history to the initiates” (Akinjogbin, 1980:68). According to this myth, ancient Ife existed from the beginning of the world; it relates how the Supreme Intelligence called Orisanobu Oghene sent his servant named Oko, accompanied by a large retinue, into the world to found a home for the human race. 

The group initially occupied a small island which they named Ooyelagbo. Then the population increased and the leader, Oko, implored Orisanobu Oghene for more land. He consented, and on his orders the waters receded, dry land expanded and Oko called this place Ile-Ife. There are many creation myths about Ife. Another related how Ore, a lone hunter on earth, pleaded with the Supreme Being similar to ‘God Forgotten’, in Thomas Hardy’s Selected Poems, concerning the condition of the world then full of water.

God then sent Oduduwa at the head of a large group of celestial beings and provisioned them with lumps of earth containing seeds. This group landed on the primeval flood, created and occupied the land. In yet another creation myth, the leader of the group commissioned by God was Obatala, with Oduduwa as one of his lieutenants. The leader (Obatala) drank palm wine along the way and got himself tipsy, where upon Oduduwa superseded him in the leadership, led the group to and occupied Oke (hill of) Oramfe.

Creation myths are common to virtually every culture group the world over and they constitute an integral part of the local folklore described by Finnegan as “survivals of the past” (Finnegan, 1970:318).

These myths provide valuable insight into culture groups’ world views and their conception of the evolution and development of their material and non-material culture. But they do not solve the mysteries of historical origins. For instance, the Ikedu myth, which is apparently most archaic and probably most original, tells us nothing about who the people were and how long ago they had occupied the land. Although we are told in the tradition that between 93 and 97 kings of the autochthones ruled before the advent of Oduduwa, we are not told whether or not the people about whom Ikedu is talking were the first and earliest inhabitants of life. In the second story, the earth was inhabited by hunters, represented by Ore, before Oduduwa while in the third story Obatala (and later Oduduwa) encountered a culture group which possessed the knowledge of the civilization was is not known.

Archaeological evidence becomes helpful where creation myths seem to have failed. T. Shaw readily comes to our aid concerning the antiquity of human habitation of parts of the Yoruba rain forest by dating the skeletal remains of a Stone Age man found at Iwo Eleru, a cave near Isarun in Ondo State to around 9,000 B.C. (Shaw, 1969: 110-112).

Similar archaeological remains of Stone Age culture have been dug up at Asejire in Oyo State. Although we do not know whether or not such a culture perished without a trace, we can presume that the men left heirs and descendants who might have been the distant or actual ancestors of cultural groups of which ancient Ife was one; for Pail Ozanne who has done some archaeological work in Ife suggested that the place was occupied as far back as the 4th century B.C. (Ozane, 1969:32).

Although T. Shaw claimed that the fossil remains of his Iwo Eleru man show that the Stone Age men were different from the present Yoruba, it cannot be completely ruled out that they could be the distant ancestors of the autochthones of Ife, for example. The difference that Shaw has found might have resulted from hybridization of the autochthonous inhabitants and people from outside the region, notably the northern parts. This contention is supported by the evidence of similarities discovered between Nok and Ife artistic culture on the one hand and by evidence of continual waves of immigrant settlers into Yorubaland from regions north of the River Niger on the other.

 Similarly, linguistic studies of Yoruba and related languages have suggested a tenable antiquity greater than the Oduduwa episode for the autochthonous culture group. Armstrong has from his comparative study of Yoruba and Idoma suggested that both languages stemmed from a common language spoken by some common ancestors before a separation took place about 6,000 years ago (Armstrong, 1964:135). What this ancient language was like we do not know. 

But Akinjogbin has noted that from the little that is known about the ancient people of Ife, their language is very much akin to modern Yoruba or any of its dialects (Akinjogbin, 1980:24). A closer look at the dialects of the Yoruba language is likely to show that those of central (Ife) and eastern (Ijesa and Ekiti) Yoruba are much closer to the proto-Yoruba languages of the ancient ancestors. This is supported by Oyelaran in a paper titled “Linguistic Speculations on Yoruba History” where he asserted, among other things, that Ife, Ijesa and Ekiti represent “the original home of the Yoruba people” (Oyelaran, 1977:18).

Concerning the antiquity of this ancient proto-Yoruba culture group, both Armstrong and Oyelaran have speculated that the process of differentiation in their speech and dialect configurations might have happened about two millennia ago! We know, however, that the changes have not completely obliterated traces of the proto-Yoruba. Some of the archaic words are preserved in Ikedu texts, as the one quoted in 1980 by Akinjogbin shows. 

Although adepts of Ikedu seem to have died out, there exist survivals of the ancient language among the Ife, Ijesa and Ekiti, especially the last named, among whom Dallimore observed in the 1930’s that ‘there are numbers of words still being used which do not appear to have any connection with Yoruba’ (Dallimore, 1939:60); that is, the standard Yoruba with which he was conversant during the couple of years he had worked in Oyo.

Thus, from the forgoing, we can hazard a guess that human societies existed in Ife several centuries ago. We do not know when and how the ancient societies came to be; we do not know what actual name they called themselves or were called by other people. But they were undoubtedly ancient and had evolved an autochthonous political and artistic culture. 

Much evidence of their political culture survived the political take-over by the Oduduwa group, and it seems that part of their art culture and religions survived. It was indeed the relics of this rich art culture which enthused the German visitor, Leo Frobenius, into describing ancient Ife in glamorous terms, such as the ‘far-famed and mysterious Atlantis’, referring to a superb human civilization, and into concluding that ancient Ife was ‘a Greek colony of the 13th century B.C.’ (Frobenius 1968:282).


Various names have occurred in the oral histories of the Yoruba. Such names refer to the habitat as well as the people of ancient Ife. One is Inamu (Atandare, 1972:1), another is Igbomokun and yet another is Ife Oodaye. Inamu appears to have been a local (Akure, etc.) rendition or reference to Old Iloromu, one of the component village communities of ancient Ife. Ife Oodaye is the name commonly mentioned by Ife traditional historians as that of the earliest habitat of their ancestors as they emerged after the primeval flood, there is a suggestion that Ile-Ife may not have been an original name of the habitat, for, according to Ojo, the Baba of Saki, the name Ile-Ife was coined after numerous settlers continued to arrive during, and perhaps after, the episode and military career of Oranmiyan, the fourth Oba after the political take-over of the ancient kingdom (Ojo, 1954:14). 

We are thus left with Igbobomokun. This name has occurred in many folktales of the eastern Yoruba and among the Ijesa and Ekiti. The dawn is usually reserved for the most solemn assemblies because, as they say, ‘The dawn belongs to the king of Igbo.’ In Ife tradition also, reference is made to ‘Kutukutu, Oba Igbo’, that is, ‘Early morning, the king of Igbo’. In Ijesa and Ekiti reference is made to ancient Ife as ‘Igbomokun’, 1 the ancient central market place in an ancient Ife as ‘Igbomokun Akira’ and, as the aforementioned reference to dawn shows, the people are referred to as Igbo, and after the displacement of their dynasty and restrictions against ritual performances in their old capital, the wars of vengeance they fought against the new dynasty and the city are referred to as ‘Igbo raids’ (Abiri, 1979:3-15). It is here suggested that Igbomokun was probably one of the names of ancient Ife.

Ancient Ife/Igbomokun Kingdom consisted of clusters of contiguous village communities, probably farther away, about 20 kilometres south-east from the core settlement. This contention is supported by evidence of similarly pre-Oduduwa ‘Kingdom’ of Ilemure (now Ibokun) and Ilare ‘confederacy’ in Ijesaland and Ulesun, now within Ado-Ekiti. Ilemure consisted of juxtaposed villages; Ilare was made up of some seven villages and Ulesun was the ‘metropolis’ of eight contiguous village communities (Olomola n.d:49). 

In the case of ancient Igbomokun, 13 village communities are mentioned in oral history (Fashogbon n.d), namely, Ido, Iloromu, Ideta Oko, Odun, Iloran, Oke-Oja, Imojubi, Iraye, Ijugbe, Oke-Awo, Iiwnrin, Parakin and Omologun. The sites or Ido, reputedly a large community, Oke Awo, Iloran and Parakin are not definitely stated; Ilomoru, it was said, lay along a stretch of present –day-Ife-Ilesa road while Ideta Oko, described as the largest of the kin villages, lay along the road to present-day Mokuro. Odin lay along the road to Ifewara, near the site of present-day Ooni Grammar School, Oke-Oja, Ijugbe and Iraye a few kilometres west of present-day Modakeke, with Iraye being the farthest southwestwards and closer to the site of Old Owu, Ilare and Esije were conterminous respectively with present-day Sabo and Eleyele quarters while Iwinrin was conterminous with present-day Koiwo and Oronna quarters. Omologun is conterminous with present-day Obafemi Awolowo University campus while Imojubi lay on the present-day southern outskirts of Ife along the Ife-Ondo road.

These component communities appeared to have resulted from fissions of some original community which also sprang and grew from an initial primary lineage community. Granted that his supposition was right, that the various villages were offshoots of a core village community, it follows that government at some initial stage was gerontocratic, this socio-political culture being an outgrowth of the duties performed and privileges enjoyed by the common father right from the start. We suppose that such duties and privileges the father of the clan enjoyed became, in a few generations, conventionalized for subsequent heads of the lineages who began to act, and were regarded by kinsmen as representing the common ancestors. 

Granted that the village resulted from fissions, it follows that while the leaders of each village-founding lineage or lineages perpetuated themselves in the exercise of the prerogatives of power and the enjoyment of benefits thereof, the leaders as well as the masses whose ancestors also similarly originated from the ‘metropolis’ generally regarded the ruler, who was usually selected from the original lineage, as father. He was probably endowed with some supernatural power and in addition referred to in some superlative terms. Again, he was probably endowed with some appellations which sooner or later became conventionalized title. Such titles often described the ruler as the owner of the metropolis and all its territories. 

This supposition is supported by what existed in many of the pre-Oduduwa ‘kingdoms’, such as Adikun near Old Oyo, Oko near Ijebu-Ode, Efene near present-day Owo, Ulesun in Ado-Ekiti, Epe near Ondo and Oba near present-day Akure where the heads of the ancient communities were titled Aladikun, Oloko, Elefene, Elesun, Elepe and Oloba. We do not know the actual titles of the rulers of Igbomokun but titles like Obalale, Obalesun and Obatala have been mentioned. We know, however, that the one of the superlative terms in which they were addressed and which became conventionalized as a title was Ajalorun.

To be continued...

International Centre for Yoruba Arts and Culture (INCEYAC)

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