Personality and the ancestors


Yoruba views of the world make an important distinction between orun or heaven on the one hand, and aiye or the world on the other.[3] Orun contains Olorun, the orisa and lesser spirits and ancestors, while aiye contains men, animals, sorcerers and witches. Sorcerers and witches are sometimes referred to as omaraiye, ‘children of the world’. Mediating between orun and aiye are Orunmila, the orisa of divination, and Esu, the Yoruba trickster. Ifa divination provides man with knowledge of the supernatural, while Esu is responsible for carrying sacrifices to other divinities. He is unpredictable and needs constant appeasement (cf. Westcott, 1962). Often Ifa will simply prescribe an offering to Esu, but a portion of the sacrifice is still set aside for him, even when the offering is to another orisa.

The orun/aiye distinction is important in understanding Yoruba concepts of life, death, destiny, reincarnation and the soul. This is one of the most complex areas of Yoruba thought, and generalisation is particularly difficult in view of differences in terminology between areas (e.g. Bascom, 1960a). However a relatively consistent picture does emerge.

Firstly, Yoruba thought makes a distinction between the physical body (ara) and the spiritual elements which inhabit it and give it life and individuality. The published accounts differ about the number, names and characteristics of these spiritual elements, but generally the two which appear as the most important are the ‘breath’, emi, and the ‘head’, ori.[4]

Emi is generally thought of as the vital force, without which the body dies. In some accounts it is also thought of as the conscious self. It not only provides locomotion for the body, but can think independently of it, and can travel abroad on its own in dreams (cf. Bascom, 1960: 401).

Ori is more complex. In some accounts, it, rather than emi, is the seat of the intellect. It is also related to a person’s destiny, as the element which predetermines his success or failure in the world. The relationship between ara, emi and ori is illustrated by an Ifa verse (Dos Santos, 1973; Abimbola, 1973) in which the body is moulded by Orisanla, the emi is provided by Olorun, and the ori is provided by Ajala. Ajala the potter is said to be a careless and corrupt orisa. Those who pay him get a good ori and those who do not have to take their chance, as many of the ori in his store are faulty. A man with a good ori is able to achieve success in the world, provided he can ward off the dangers of witchcraft, sorcery and other attacks by pmparaiye. Ori is thus given to, or chosen by, an individual before his birth, creating limits within which success in the world can be expected, and within which the emi is able to act.

In contrast to this rather fatalistic model, ori is also said to be the ‘ancestral guardian soul’, a spiritual entity which can be influenced by man in his efforts to improve his life on earth. In his account of Egbado, Morton-Williams describes it as the ‘indwelling spirit of the head, presiding over success or failure in day-today affairs’ (1967a: 222). A man should worship his own ori, together with those of his children until they are adults. The ori is represented by a container made out of cowrie shells. Inside are the smaller models of the ori of the children, which are exchanged for larger ones when they marry. A similar model is implied by beliefs in the existence of a spirit double in heaven. Bascom was told that each individual has two ancestral guardians, one in his head, and one in heaven which is doing exactly the same things as the individual himself is doing on earth (1960a: 406). With the support of the ancestral guardian in heaven, a man will live out his allotted span of life. It is at times necessary to make offerings to the heavenly ori which is sometimes described as an orisa.

These varied conceptualisations of the spiritual components of the person have parallels with those of other West African peoples, and represent similar attempts to deal with the same underlying reality: the structure of the personality. In his discussion of the Tallensi and Kalabari material, Horton (1961) draws a parallel between ‘the Freudian ideal of an Unconscious Self ó a purposive agency whose desires are unknown to consciousness and are frequently in conflict with it’, and the Tallensi notion of destiny, which is ‘a life course chosen by a part of the personality before birth, a course both hidden from the post-natal consciousness and frequently opposed to the latter’s aims’. The Yoruba concept of ori in some accounts has rather similar characteristics, though it is unclear whether an individual can confront and exorcise an unsatisfactory destiny as is the case with the Tallensi and Kalabari.

Related to beliefs in emi and ori are beliefs in reincarnation. Many Yoruba are identified through resemblance, dreams or divination as being reincarnations of particular ancestors, and are given names such as Babatunde (‘father returns’) or Yetunde (‘mother returns’). However, even after this ‘reincarnation’, these ancestors may still be invoked to help their descendants. Bascom’s informants in Meko told him that the emi remains in heaven as the ancestral spirit, while the ancestral guardian soul is reborn, with a new body, breath and destiny (1960a: 404-5). It also appears to be possible for several individuals to be simultaneous reincarnations of the same ancestor, and in some areas resemblance between members of the same descent group is explained in this way (ibid: 404; cf. Idowu, 1962: 194ó5).

Also related to the orun/aiye distinction are beliefs in abiku spirits (Verger, 1968; Morton-Williams, 1960a). An abiku may be born in a child on earth, but it soon leaves for heaven again, and the child dies. The abiku spirits have their own egbe in heaven, and when one of them leaves for earth, he promises to return quickly to his companions. If a woman gives birth to a succession of children who die in infancy, it may be divined that it is an abiku at work, and the next child is given special treatment. Abiku children are given special names ó examples are Aiyedun, ‘life is good’, implying that the child should stay to enjoy it, or Durosinmi, ‘stay and bury me’, implying that the child should outlive its parents. The appearance of these children is often neglected, and they might even be disfigured to make them less attractive to their companions in heaven. It is normal to postpone the circumcision or scarification of an abiku child until it appears likely that it will survive.

Finally, the orun/aiye distinction is relevant to Yoruba beliefs about death and the ancestors. Death marks the transition to the afterlife, and much of the symbolism of Yoruba burial ritual is that of a journey. The dead go to one of two orun, depending on how they are judged by Olorun: orun rere, or ‘good heaven’, for the virtuous, and orun apadi, ‘potsherd heaven’, for the wicked, where they are tormented and from which they cannot be reborn (Idowu, 1962: 197ó201; Bascom, 1960a: 403ó4).

Death also involves a transformation of the personality of the dead person into an ancestral spirit. The ancestors take an active interest in members of their descent groups, and can give them advice through dreams and trances. Anyone can pray and make offerings to a dead parent for spiritual protection, and the bale makes an annual offering on behalf of the descent-group members, usually on the grave of its founder. According to Abimbola (1973: 75), each adult who dies becomes an orisa to his own family. These beliefs are related to the concept of ori. According to Bascom, these annual sacrifices are made on the day on which the founder used to make offerings to his own ori (1969a: 72); and according to Morton-Williams, an adult can make prayers and offerings to the ancestors or the ori of a living parent for spiritual protection (1967a: 223).

Representing the ancestors, but assuming a role which cuts across descent-group boundaries, are the egungun masqueraders (Morton-Williams, 1956a; 1967a: 340ó7; Bascom, 1969a: 93-4; cf. Olajubu and Ojo, 1977). They are dressed from head to foot in elaborate costumes, and their faces are obscured by nets through which they can see. There are several types of egungun. The omo egungun, ‘children of egungun’ or ‘junior egungun’, have costumes made out of brightly coloured strips of cloth and leather which swirl out as their wearers dance round. The agba egungun, ‘senior egungun’, have costumes made out of dirty rags and masses of clay with animal skulls and charms embedded in them. Egungun masks are inherited within the descent group, and the agba masks can only be worn by men who have learned the necessary rites to counteract their power. The Egungun cult, like Oro, emphasises the separation between men and women.[5] The masks are only worn by men, and apart from a woman official called the Iya Agan and her deputies who help the men dress, women are not supposed to know the identity of the wearers. It is dangerous for women to touch the masks, and some of the agba egungun are believed to be able to identify witches, who in Yoruba culture are almost always women.

Egungun appear in two contexts during funeral ceremonies. In some areas it is customary for an egungun to emerge from the room of the dead man some time after the burial, and to imitate him while he brings greetings from the dead to the other members of the compound. Secondly, during the celebrations which follow the death of an elderly person, the relatives may pay the members of the cult to come and dance for them.

The dual significance of the Egungun cult as a commemoration of individual ancestors and as a representation of the collective dead acting on behalf of the community as a whole comes out clearly in Morton-Williams’ account of the festival in Egbado (1956a). After the vigil with which the festival starts, there is a procession of agba egungun together with the members of their descent group and drummers, demonstrating the solidarity of the groups that own the masks. On subsequent days of the festival there is less emphasis on kinship, and the other types of egungun join in


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