Prof. Jacob Olupona began the story of the mysteries of  Ile-Ife — the city of Yoruba gods

The Imagined Sacred City

THE Portuguese image of Ile Ife: The Europeans saw Ile-Ife as the preeminent city-state and as an important ceremonial centre in what was then often referred to as “the Negro world.” The seafaring Portuguese, the first Europeans to explore the coast of West Africa, arrived in the fifteenth century. Although they had heard much about the city of Ile-Ife, their inability to access interior forested regions made contact very difficult. However, the Portuguese recorded their impressions of the importance of this ancient city, especially of its artistic and historical relationship and connection to the kingdom of Benin, with which the Portuguese had earlier contact.

Writing in his navigational guidebook Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, the well-known Portuguese explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira noted that to the east of the Benin Kingdom, about one hundred leagues (four hundred miles) inland, was a country with a king named Licasaguou, who was said to be lord of many people and to possess great power. Close by, Pereira explained, another great lord, Hooguanee, “is considered among the Negroes as the Pope is among us.” Although the identity of the first king, Licasaguou, remains unknown, the “Pope of the Negroes” may refer to the Ooni of Ile-Ife, since the neighbouring Benin people commonly referred to this king as Hooguanee (Ogene).
Some of the earliest written records about Ile- Ife come from the Portuguese seafarers who traded with the Benin Kingdom. One such record was Da Asia, by Joao de Barros, which provided a detailed discussion of the political and ritual kinshiIp of Benin and Ile-Ife in the precolonial period.

According to this interesting account, the king of Portugal, Don Joao, learned from the ambassador of the king of Beny (Benin) and also from Joa Alfonso d’Aveiro that to the east of the Benin Kingdom, about a twenty moons’ journey (about 250 leagues), “there lived the most powerful monarch of these parts called Igane. Among the pagan chiefs of the territories of Beny [Benin], he was held in as great veneration as is the Supreme Pontiff with us.” The informant also described a ritual link between Benin and Ile-Ife. In compliance with an ancient tradition, whenever a new king ascended the throne of Benin, the Benin sent ambassadors to the monarch to the east with many gifts to inform him that the new king of Benin had succeeded his deceased father and to request confirmation of his new status.

As a sign of consent, Prince Ogene sent the new Benin king a “staff and a headpiece of shining brass, fashioned like a Spanish helmet in place of crown and scepter: He sent a brass cross to be worn around the neck, “a holy and religious emblem similar to that worn by the commendadores as of the Order of Saint John.” for, “without these emblems, the people do not recognize him as the lawful ruler, nor can he call himself truly king.” De Barros reported that the ambassadors from Benin never saw the king himself, since he was always secluded behind a “curtain of silk.”

However, to authenticate the mission, just before the ambassadors departed from Ile-Ife, the king showed “a foot behind the curtains,” indicating that he agreed to Benin’s request. The ambassadors were bestowed with gifts as compensation for the great journey to Ile-Ife. The gift to each ambassador consisted of a “small cross similar to that sent to the king, which is thrown round his neck to signify that he is free and exempt from all servitudes and is privileged in his native country, as the Commendadores are with us.”

The Ifa Temple on the Oke Itase, the sacred hill of Ifa

This is one of the most detailed descriptions we have of Benin’s connection with Ile-Ife, illustrating the perception of Ile-Ife and the sacred kingship in Benin. There have been several discussions about the historicity of this passage, especially regarding the authenticity of the Benin ambassadors and the gift of the cross. The passage supports the account of the modern Benin monarchy’s origin in Ife and the role of Oranmiyan (also named Oranyan), the son of Oduduwa, in the establishment of Benin’s modern rule. It also establishes the ritual relationship between the two kingdoms in rites of coronation and burial. Although some traditional rituals have been modified or have disappeared in the contemporary Nigerian state, the coronation ceremony performed today for the Oba of Benin, whereby the Ooni of Ile-Ife sends a traditional gift to the new Oba, confirms the ancient connection between the two kingdoms described in the Portuguese sources. Moreover, archaeological investigation in Ile-Ife reveals an ancient burial ground, called Orun Oba Ado (literally, “the heaven of Benin kings”) that holds only certain parts of the dead bodies of kings brought from Benin. Some scholars suggest that the Ile-Ife burial site reserved for the Benin kings shows their ancestral connection with the city of Ile-Ife.

Because rituals are constantly reinvented in response to the contemporary social and political contexts in which they are performed, such customs often disappear gradually from practice. In my view, the significance of the Portuguese story does not lie in whether it is absolutely true. Even if it occurred only in the realm of the imagination, without the archaeological and ritual evidence that lends it credence, the story would still enable us to comprehend the enigma that lies behind Ile-Ife’s preeminence in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portuguese accounts of explorations in the land of the “Negroes.” I will return to these sources later in the chapter.

Ile-Ife’s preeminent status is based on archaeological and iconographic evidence that confirms its significance as a ceremonial center in cosmological, mythical, and ritual contexts. The best-known European visitor to Ile-Ife was Leo Frobenius (1873-1973), a German ethnologist and researcher who visited the city between 1910 and 1912. Frobenius was the head of the German Inner African Exploration. At the time of his visit, the city’s population was over twenty-five thousand. His contribution to the West’s knowledge of Ile-Ife and of Africa in general was so significant that President Leopard Senghor wrote in a foreword to a book marking the centenary of Frobenius’s birth: “No one did more than Frobenius to reveal Africa to the world and the Africans to themselves.” An essential part of this “revelation” consisted of the ancient Ife bronzes and terra-cotta pieces that Frobenius brought to the attention of the world. In spite of Senghor’s warm comments, Frobenius’s pioneering works  are little read and appreciated.

Frobenius’ Eurocentric views
Why has Frobenius not achieved a status similar to that of William Bascom, the American anthropologist who worked thirty years in Ile-Ife after Leo Frobenius? The answer lies in Frobenius’s Eurocentric views and his racist remarks about the Ile-Ife people throughout his sojourn there. Frobenius was convinced of the superiority of the German race over other European groups in Africa, especially the British, and he frequently referred to German thoroughness, which for him far surpassed that of the British, as exemplified in their colonizing efforts in Ile-Ife. Frobenius’s goal was to discover artifacts more genuine in form and style than the “inferior” arts hitherto discovered by his English predecessors. Frobenius was both amazed by and envious of the British looting of Benin artifacts during the so-called punitive expedition against the Oba of Benin Kingdom in 1885. He reasoned that since Ile-Ife was older than Benin and, indeed, gave birth to Benin, the art objects “from Benin were nothing but the products of degenerate times, mere imitations of an older, more genuine and sincere art.”

This was a point of contention that caused the British to work against the success of his mission. Frobenius’s ideas and theories represented the best in the European imagination of the African people during this period. Having read or heard of Ile-Ife in Europe, he concluded that it must be “the lost city of Atlantis” in black Africa, where remnants of the Greek culture that worshipped Poseidon lived. When Frobenius first saw two pieces of reddish-brown terra-cotta pottery in the sacred shrine of Olokun, he observed: “Here were the remains of a very ancient and fine type of art, infinitely nobler than the comparatively coarse stone images, not even well-preserved. These meagre relics were eloquent of a symmetry, a vitality, a delicacy of form directly reminiscent of ancient Greece and a proof that, once upon a time, a race, far superior in strain to the Negro, had been settled here.” Frobenius acquired many terra-cotta heads, including the famous Olokun sculpture. He was convinced that the religion and culture of the ancient Greeks had been extensively disseminated, reaching even to Ile-Ife, and that the “Yoruba religion was not unique to the African people, that it is definitely linked to the perfected system of a primeval age.”

The high chiefs in the courtyard of the palace preparing for the Olojo festival

Ile-Ife gains further credibility as a sacred center because of its connection with the ancient kingdom of Benin. According to the Benin historian Jacob U. Egharevba, following a series of unsettled crises in Benin, the Owodo, the last of the Ogiso kings of the first dynasty, was deposed. The Edo (Benin) people then sent emissaries to Ile-Ife (Uhe), asking for a “wise prince” who would reign over them. Oduduwa, the Oba of Ife at that time, decided to test the sincerity and endurance of the Edo (Benin).

In response to their request, he sent lice to the chiefs of Benin with instructions that they were to care for the lice and return them to him after three years. The Benin chiefs took great care of these lice and returned them after three years to the Oba of Ife, who was impressed. Convinced that people who could, without question, take care of such minute pests as lice, could undoubtedly take good care of his son, he sent the Ife prince Oranmiyan, accompanied by palace servants, courtiers, and a native medicine man (ogiefa).

Oranmiyan and his entourage reached Benin after ‘an arduous journey that included a hazardous crossing of the Obie River. Upon his arrival in Benin, Oranmiyan met with resistance from one Ogiamwen, the son of Evinan, who had temporarily taken charge of Benin affairs during the interregnum, after the termination of the first dynasty. Oranmiyan triumphed over Ogiamwen, settled in Usama Palace, which had been built by the Benin chiefs, and married a woman named Erinmwinde, with whom he had a son. After a few years, he grew tired of Benin and the many crises with which he had to contend there. He called an assembly of the Benin people and relinquished the throne, after naming the city Ile-lbinu, “the land of anger;” from which Benin, the current name of the city, comes. He decreed that only someone born and brought up in Benin and properly schooled in its traditions and mysteries should be its king. Oranmiyan then installed his son Eweka as king in his stead and returned to Ile-Ife, his own native place, leaving the palace chiefs and medicine people to take care of the new king. On his way back to Ile-Ife, Oranmiyan stopped in Ugba (Okha) and Obboh, for three and two years, respectively, to ensure that his son reached maturity before he finally returned to Ile-Ife. Eweka was crowned at Usama, his father’s palace. When Eweka died, his remains were returned to Ile- Ife for burial. This tradition, in which “the remains of the Oba of Benin were taken to Ile-Ife in every third reign,” was continued until very recently.

I am not concerned here with the historicity of the story or with its claim to truth. Rather, I regard it as an origin myth believed to be true by those who hold onto it as a part of their tradition. The story establishes the sacred origin of Benin kingship, projecting it as an extension of the Ife sacred kingship that was certainly in existence long before this period. It establishes a kinship relationship between the Ife and Benin kingdoms, although Benin later took on a more radical form of sacred kingship than that which exists in Ile-Ife. Benin became an absolute monarchy, with the first son of the reigning Oba named as the heir apparent, whereas in Ile-Ife the kingship rotates among four ruling lineages, so that the first son of a reigning king does not succeed his father and there is a strong system of checks and balances on the power of the reigning king.

Oranmiyan’s role is an important one in this story, especially in the spread of religious ideas and political values, presumably from Ile-Ife to Benin. Several traditions concerning Qranmiyan exist in Ile-Ife. One tradition refers to him as the son of Oduduwa, which is consistent with the Benin story. Another tradition refers to him as a great Ife warrior who left his mark permanently on the Ife landscape in the mystery of the Staff of Oranmiyan (Oba Oranmiyan), a stone staff with iron marks that has become a tourist attraction, if not a pilgrimage site, in Ile-Ife.

Several other traditions support this warrior ethos and connection, and Oranmiyan features prominently in the annual ritual of Ogun, also known as Olojo (the festival and ritual of kingship). Ogun, the Yoruba warrior god and god of iron, is equally important in Benin society and cosmology and possesses the same characteristics and features attributed to the deity by the Yoruba people in general.

The tradition of returning the body of the Benin Oba to Ile- Ife for interment symbolizes the return of the “stranger king” to his autochthonous place for burial, in keeping with the Yoruba and Benin tradition of burying kings and commoners in their ancestral place of origin. Why did Oranmiyan call the city Ile Ibinu, the “land of anger,” which then became Benin’s permanent name? Part of Benin’s continuing enigma is that the city’s secret cannot be unfolded, especially by outsiders, a dilemma that caused Oranmiyim (an outsider) to vacate the throne and replace himself with a son born of a Benin woman (an insider). The inherent tension in the “insider-outsider” conflict remains part of Benin’s identity today.

Three other significant cultural factors are alluded to in the Oranmiyan story: the mystical power of the Benin king; the importance of magic and medicine in sustaining the king’s power; and the burden of preserving, at all cost, the institution of kingship to ensure the survival and well-being of Benin society. The story places the burden of preserving kingship on the community.

According to Egharevba, Oranmiyan was not sent until Oduduwa had confirmed that the Benin people would take good care of their king and the institution of kingship. Those who had demonstrated their ability to preserve lice would certainly guard very jealously the institution of sacred kingship, an equally delicate and onerous task, to which the Benin have devoted their full resources up to the modern era. The institution of kingship needed to be guarded by powerful medicine and magical rituals. Oduduwa sent with Oranmiyan a medicine man to make potent magic for the suste- nance of the king. This tradition remains part of the royal cult of Benin mysticism; indeed, more than any other kingship system in Nigeria, Benin rituals, arts, and ideology of kingship demonstrate the importance of sacred power for the preservation of kingship.

Despite revisionist theories, especially in the last ten years, aimed at disconnecting the linkages between Benin and Ile- Ife, suggested by Egharevba and Robert Bradbury, the above story supports the origin of Benin kingship in Ife tradition. As Kees Bolle points out, the central issue in myth is not “what is true” in the story but “What have societies, civilizations, communities found necessary to point to and preserve as centrally valued for their entire existence?” The story thus permanently establishes the sacredness and significance of IIe-Ife as an important ceremonial center and as an ancestral city to an equally powerful kingdom that lies to its east.


Evangelical offensive

Members of the new Christian movements are targeting the sacred authority of the Ooni, and Ile -Ife civil religion more generally, because they realize  that debunking the the legitimacy of the sacred canopy – the guardianship of religious pluralism- will make it possible to destroy all indigenous non-Christian Yoruba tradition.

Read Part 1 of the book :  Ile-Ife: City of 201 gods


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