The Yoruba are extremely conscious of their ancestral heritage. Their investment, economically and otherwise, in death and dying is very great. They conceive of the cosmos as two distinct yet inseparable realms "aye", the tangible world of the living, and "orun", the spiritual realm of the ancestors, spirits and gods. Forces from "orun" are frequent visitors in the land of the living and exert strong influence over human affairs. The importance of the spiritual domain in Yoruba life is expressed in their saying: "The world is a marketplace we visit, the otherworld is home."
The potency of the spirit world in everyday Yoruba life is articulated in the form of the "ere-ibeji" -- small, beautifully carved wooden dolls representing a deceased twin. Twins are believed to be spiritual beings with special powers. Their birth is both feared and desired, for they have the power to cause sickness, infertility and even death to their parents, siblings and themselves if not properly honored, but can also benefit those who pay them suitable respect through good health, children and wealth.
The high rate of twinning -- 45.1 per 1000 births, four times that of the U.S. -- and high infant mortality present in much of Africa may have stimulated the emergence of a twin cult, yet it is only in Yoruba and Yoruba-influenced territory that a tradition of sculpture for twins exists.
The Yoruba see a relationship between twins and the "edun", or red colubus monkey, also the product of a double birth. They say that when twins are still in the womb they make a deal with "edun" so they will be born humans instead of monkeys. The mischievous and sometimes dangerous nature of twins is attributed to this relationship with edun.
Multiple births are often seen as dangerously close to animality -- associated with the way animals reproduce -- and according to myth the practice of twin infanticide was common in Yoruba land until Shango -- the thundergod -- demanded that the children of multiple births be honored and iconized. In two different Yoruba myths Shango was either the grandfather or uncle to twins when this declaration was made. Occasionally an ibeji figure will be holding a thundergod axe, alluding to this relationship.
When twins are born the parents go to the "babalawo", (Ifa diviner), to find out their wishes. A twin can decide to die at will if his or her wishes are not fulfilled. In some parts of Yoruba territory it is believed that if one twin dies it is natural for the other to yearn to be reunited with his/her sibling because they share the same soul. Every person has an ancestral guardian soul or spiritual counterpart and it is this soul that is continually reborn. In the case of twins the spirit double is born on earth and there is no way of telling which twin is divine and which mortal, so both must be treated as sacred.
If one or both twins should die, the parents commission a carving to represent the deceased child. This is the ere-ibeji, or "image of the twiceborn". Only the sex and the "ila" (lineage facial scarifications), are specified to the carver and then depicted on the ibeji figure.
There are regional variations in the form of the ibeji, but typically they are 10"-14" high, sexually mature adults carved without clothing and standing on a base with arms at the sides usually touching the hips or thighs. Not unlike classical Greeks, the Yoruba carve fully realized and actualized human beings. They say -- "in all we do the human form is ennobled." Ibejis are carved to represent a human in the prime of life -- a stage it is hoped the twin will reach when he/she is reborn. The Yoruba strive to imbue all of their carving with "odo", youthful beauty. Proportional irregularities, as in most Yoruba art, are used to ennoble the figure. The Yoruba say that to capture the visual truth is not that much of a challenge. In fact, realistic forms were sometimes carried into war in order to destroy the will of the enemy.
For the Yoruba, cutting is an act of civilization -- whether clearing the forest to build a city or applying facial scars to a child to create a Yoruba human. They say that lines are crucial to fine sculpture -- well designed and executed lines. Some of the most striking aesthetic qualities of the ibejis are the delicately incised lines on the face and body. For the Yoruba, touch is as important as sight when it comes to art. These incisions not only add an interesting graphic dimension to the ibejis, but endow them with a tactile quality that invites handling.
These figures are so loved by the mother that over a single generation they become very worn and lose much of their detail. They are repeatedly oiled by the mother, eventually making the wood a deep black-red, glowing color, similar to her own skin. The figures are kept on the family twin altar, in the mother's sleeping room, or stored in a container. Every five days they are washed, made-up, dressed, and fed. On the body the mother rubs "osun", (canwood powder), and in the hairdo she uses indigo. In some Yoruba areas the faces of ibejis are rubbed with white chalk ("efun"). "0sun", indigo and "efun" are traditional Yoruba female cosmetics. For ornamentation and clothing the mother dresses the dolls with cowrie shells, beads, metal bracelets and anklets and sometimes small jackets. The favorite foods of twins are beans and palm oil. Both of these are considered "cooling" elements. The stomach is seen by the Yoruba as the seat of anger and the blandness of beans will offset the hottest of foods. Palm oil and beans are fed to twins and ibejis so they won't cause trouble.
Ibejis aren't always kept in the home. Periodically the mother will take them to the market to dance and receive alms. Mothers dancing with live twins can also be seen at the market during the annual twin ceremony. In this way twins bring fortune to their family.
Recently, the Yoruba have begun incorporating modern elements into their system of beliefs surrounding the "twice born". The Yoruba see the past as "accessible and essential as a model for the present,...rituals are efficacious only when they are performed regularly according to tenets from the past and creatively re-presented to suit the present." (Drewel, et.al.;1989). Some contemporary Yoruba who have converted to Islam or Christianity are concerned with distinguishing themselves from traditionalist Yoruba religion, while certain of those elements can still be very strong and important in their lives. One way they accomplish this is through the metamorphosis of the traditional carved wooden ere-ibeji into a double negative photograph of the deceased twin. Plain wooden cylinders and store-bought plastic dolls have also been substituted for the traditional form. While the Yoruba family might still believe in the power of the twin, they may also be very devout Christians or Muslims. The use of a photographic image of the deceased twin illustrates the very real dilemma of religious belief in a rapidly changing society and the human need to clarify the boundaries between sets of beliefs without losing the element of one or another that lends meaning to their lives. This ability of the Yoruba to creatively evaluate artistic production of the past and in the present in order to come up with new and meaningful forms for the future is one reason for the continuing strength and vitality of Yoruba art.
Bravmann, Rene. Personal communication 1990.
Drewel, Henry J. et.al. "Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought" African Arts 23 (1) 1989.
Gillon, Werner. A Short History of African Art (England: Penguin Books, Ltd.) 1984.
Houlberg, Marilyn H. "Ibeji Images of the Yoruba" African Arts 7 (1) 1973.
Thompson, Robert F. "Sons of Thunder: Twin Images Among the 0yo and Other Yoruba Groups" African Arts 4 (3).