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Yoruba Culture: A study of our West African Roots

by Ana Maria Maynard, Founding Director
Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance & Cultural Center

Article published on website - www.prfdance.org
April 1, 2001

Abstract

Puerto Rico has a rich culture whose origins can be traced back to native Taino Indian, Spanish and West African roots. The Yoruba comprised the majority of West African people brought to our island. This short paper provides an overview of the Yoruba during their "Pre-Contact" history. Our goal is to understand and appreciate the Yoruba people and their culture, before the time of slavery and those who came to exploit their human resources, so that we can better identify and understand the contributions made to our cultural evolution, and appreciate those influences on our culture that are still with us today.

The information presented in this short paper is based on a Ph.D. thesis by a young Yoruba man who used the vehicle of geography to define the unique culture of the Yoruba people. His complete thesis, comparing and contrasting pre-contact and modern times, offers the reader innate knowledge and insight that only a Yoruba could possess.

Yoruba Culture: Pre-Contact Life

Who were the Yoruba?

The Yoruba are a people, not a place. They are a tribe of people who lived in various sections of Nigeria, but predominately west of the Niger River. This part of West Africa, where the native culture is dominated by Yoruba traditions is called "Yorubaland." Yoruba towns traditionally sprang up, not by rivers as was common in other civilizations, but in locations surrounded by rainforest. The thick forests provided protection from tribal wars, a place of refuge.

The Economy

The rural and traditional economy of the early Yoruba people was rooted in farming, hunting, and fishing. Farming in the midst of a rainforest produced unique challenges for farmers. The difficulty of cultivating land thick with roots, the challenge of clearing trees held in place by jungle vines, the fast growing vegetation that was always ready to take back the land, the isolation of living in remote rainforest locations encouraged cooperative farming among extended family members. In those days families located their plots of farmland side by side and worked on them together.

Yoruba hunting and fishing techniques made use of natural materials found in the rainforests. Hunters were typically the area experts, intimately familiar with remote rainforest locations and experts in forest vegetation. For this reason, hunters were typically the herbalists, medicinal specialists, protectors of the village and border guards. Herbalists and medicine men had a high place in society. Their time spent in the deep forest gave them the knowledge and experience with plants and animals to make medicines.

In the pre-contact days, the traditional role of a woman was to clothe the family, as the man's role was to feed it. Assisted by their daughters, women spun raw cotton, dyed the resulting threads, and weaved them into cloth for clothing. Deviations from these traditional roles included the times of year when women helped with farming, and the specialized weaving looms that only men were known to use.

Yoruba Homes and Towns

Yoruba built their houses as groups of compartments built in the form of a rectangle, with an open courtyard at the center. Houses were constructed of mud clay walls and thatched roofs of materials that depended on what was nearby and plentiful. Compounds were built on naturally flat plots, typically built around obstacles in an effort not to alter the natural surroundings. Each compound represented a simple family with a single Head. Homes were laid out around the compound of the Chief owed allegiance to, most times a relative or extended family member. This layout defined a district or "quarter". The compound of all Chiefs faced the compound of the Oba, the highest authority.

The Oba was the arch priest of the living members of society and ensured the fertility in plants and animals and the link between the living and the dead. The Oba lived in a compound in the center of the town, unseen, unheard and untouched except when performing spiritual and political duties. The Oba's palace had two or more courtyards (one example cited was 52). One of the larger courtyards was typically used for town assemblies and the public ceremonies over which the Oba presided. The section of compound facing this courtyard house the Oba's drummers, trumpeters, servants, slaves and "strangers".

At the center of town, across from the Oba's palace was the main market. The market was held there so the Oba could watch the regular assembly of his people. It was an open air market, where trees provided shade and blocks of stones, seats. Goods for sale were displayed on the floor, in baskets or handmade trays of various materials, or in dried gourds in the shape of bowls.

Yoruba towns were surrounded by thick forests that provided protection and refuge in times of tribal wars, and a place for certain religious festivals. The towns were also surrounded by a wall that was also built for protection. Along the base of the wall was typically a ditch, which probably existed as a result of digging mud to form the wall.

Yoruba Religion and Nature

African life is thoroughly permeated by religion. It is not just a component of African culture, but a catalyst of it. The Yoruba claimed to have 401 gods (meaning "lots"). The traditions and beliefs of the early Yoruba was influenced in part by the prominent objects of nature around them. For example, highland and hill gods, such as Orosun and Olofin, were honored because of the eternal presence of the hills that outlasted generations and offered protection. River gods, such as Oshun and Oya, were feared because of their high toll on life during river crossings.

The pre-contact Yoruba believed that the dense forests housed tree spirits. Devotees of tree deities were found chiefly among drummers, wood workers and herbalists. An example was the spirit of the ayan tree who was the god of drums. Animals, plentiful in number, were also revered. Monkeys were believed to house spirits of twins who had passed on. Vultures, the reincarnation of loved ones. Pythons, snakes, crocodiles and chimpanzees were also worshipped.

The earth, giver of all things needed for human sustenance, was especially revered and given back the first share of everything. It was thought the earth also held the remains of loved ones who had passed on in its bowels, so food given back to the earth to feed them. Raw materials and the elements also had their place, including gods such as Ogun, the deity of iron and war, and Sango, the god of lighting and thunder who is still remembered today in Puerto Rico as Chango.

Olodumare was the creator of the world, the Supreme Being. In Olodumare they found the final answer to all the problems of life and of living. Esu was the power of evil who causes illness, sufferings, misfortunes, and accidents. Esu shrines we always outside of town; offerings included food made for other gods, palm oil and, way in the past, human sacrifices.

Yoruba Philosophy

Yoruba philosophy was "life affirming," concerned with life whether in rocks, soil, plants, animals or human beings. Yoruba philosophy asked questions to help him come to grips with his environment, thereby shaping his mode of thought.

The creation of the world is told in two similar legends. In the first, Olodumare (the creator) sent Oduduwa (the ancestor of the Yoruba people) and sixteen assistant chiefs down to the water-surfaced earth with a shell full of sand and a giant bird. They poured sand into the water and the bird used its claws to spread the sand and create valleys and mountains. In the second legend, Olodumare sent a chameleon down to earth, who reported back that the earth's liquid surface made it unsafe to walk. Obatala, a deity, raised a portion of the lithosphere and poured sand and metal onto the liquid surface. He then sent a fowl and pigeon to spread sand and create land surfaces. When done, Obatala came down to the center of the world (Ile-Ife) to run the earth.

Yoruba believed the earth and sky were infinitely large and equal in size. The sky, shaped concave up, and the earth, shaped concave down, met at the horizon. Only the sun, moon and stars moved in the heavens. The sun was believed bigger than the moon because of the way it appeared at sunrise and sunset. But both were believed bigger than the other stars in the heavens. The sun and moon were rivals, which is why they were separated into day and night. (Eclipses were those rare times when they would clash.) Midday and midnight were times of wonder where one could see mermaids, when spirits visited the earth, and when animals and trees were metamorphosed. Rainfall on a day of celebration was a blessing.

Yoruba believed that the day began at sunrise and kept time by the position of the sun and the use of shadows on fixed objects. On rare cloudy days, time was kept by keeping note of animal behavior. There were four days in a week, each one dedicated to four of the major deities. In general, four was a sacred Yoruba number and the standard compound unit of calculations. Most Yoruba markets still assemble in multiples of four days. A month was the interval between two consecutive new moons. A year was marked by the passing of the farm cycle, and later, the season cycle -- along with corresponding lunar cycles. The length of a year was imprecise due to the fluctuations of the seasons. Multiples of years were marked by farm plot rotation and natural events of nature (e.g. locusts, epidemics).

Yoruba Art

Yoruba art, inextricably linked with religion and philosophy, is universally recognized as one of the world's greatest heritages. Traditional art included wood carving (including mask making), leather-working, bead-embroidery, weaving and painting. In an environment where the resources for artwork was the vegetation, fires which accompanied every dry season was periodically responsible for destroying years of art in a few hours. Yoruba philosophized that beauty destroyed made room for new and better works of art.

Conclusion

Just as we have seen Yoruba culture place its mark on the evolution of Puerto Rican culture, Yoruba culture in Western Nigeria has withstood the upheavals and turmoils of internal civil wars, slave raiding, and the influences of machine-backed Western culture, not only absorbing the cultural traits, but breathing new life into them from the old traditional culture.

Reference:

Yoruba Culture, G.J. Afolabi Ojo, University of London Press LTD, Published with the University of Ife, Nigeria, 1966.


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