December 11, 2012

Book Serial: Ile-Ife: City of 201 gods

Ooni with the sacred crown.

Jacob K. Olupona, scion of an Anglican priest, winner of Nigerian National Order of Merit Award (NNOM), Professor of African Religious Tradition, African and African American Studies at Harvard University unveils the mysteries  of Ile-Ife and the Yoruba history, cosmos and the deities in a new book CITY OF GODS: Ile-Ife in Time, Space and the Imagination, Thursday at NIIA, Lagos. We publish exclusive excerpts of this Yoruba book of identity.


In The Pivot of the Four Quarters, Wheatley indicates that no place in sub-Saharan Africa has such cosmic significance as the Yoruba city of Ile-Ife. Known as the City of 201 (or 401) Gods, Ile-Ife is the base of the entire Yoruba civilization and culture, and its significance goes far beyond the immediate geographical and national boundaries of Nigeria. The religious culture of Ile-Ife has influenced the development and growth of new African religious movements as far off as Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States.

Ile-Ife, a city of about half a million, is situated at the geographical centre of the Yoruba city-states. To the west lies Ibadan, the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa, and to the east lies Ondo, gateway to the eastern Yoruba city-states. Ile-Ife is about two hundred kilometres from Lagos, which was Nigeria’s coastal capital city for over a century.

Pre-eminent sacred place

Unlike the political, commercial, and administrative cities of Ibadan and Lagos, contemporary Ile-Ife is a ceremonial city par excellence; like the cities of Banaras, Jerusalem, and Mecca, in the people’s imagination it is the preeminent sacred place, beyond the secular and profane.

I begin with Ile-Ife’s various sacred place names, because epithets vividly show the significance of sacred cities. Stephen Scully argues in his book Homer and the Sacred City that “human centers such as Troy are richly and complexly described through the epithets attached to them.” Citing an earlier study by Paolo Vivante, Scully contends that “city epithets, whenever they occur, bring out the essential aesthetics and contextual quality of place names.” These epithets serve “as a resource of power and a medium of signification in their own right.” They are “visual and concrete in nature, and thereby evocative of an essential and generic quality” of whatever they qualify.

Ile-Ife’s inhabitants have conferred numerous sacred Yoruba names on their city. It has been called Ife Oodaye, “The Expansive Space Where the World Was Created,” referring to the cosmogonic myth asserting that ritual creation occurred in this very place, and as Ibi Oju Ti Mo Wa (Where the Day Dawns). In Yoruba creation myth, Ile-Ife is conceived of as the place where the sun rises and sets, the center of origin of the universe. Ile-Ife is also called Ife Ooye, the place of survival or the city of life, because, like Noah’s ark, it was a place of refuge from a primordial deluge that destroyed earlier settlements and left survivors to establish a new era. Various oral sources refer to Ile-Ife as the place where the 201 gods came down from heaven to live and interact with humans on earth.

Though Ile-Ife is the city of the source of life, it is, paradoxically, also the city of the dead. The Yoruba believe that those who die immediately return to Ile-Ife, the starting point for their pilgrimage to the other world. Several years ago, I was in my own hometown, Ute, in Owo District, a town located at the extreme eastern end of the eastern Yoruba territory, to conduct research on death in Yoruba thought. In an important song sung in the Owo tradition during the burial, the deceased is enjoined to “go on the straight road that leads to Ile-Ife and not stray by the wayside” (Onayo r’ufe ma ya o). Ile-Ife is regarded as the only stopping place before the dead pass into the underworld, so the rite of passage must ensure that the deceased not tarry on the way to the ancient city. In ancient times, it was the practice of those who had lost a loved one to travel to Ile-Ife  to see if they could find the deceased person and learn from him or her about the cause of the death so that they could avenge a wrongful death or hear about unfinished business on earth that the deceased wanted living relatives to see completed if possible.

Ile-Ife attained primacy on the basis of its hallowed status as the source for all the crowned cities (ilu-alade). An important Yoruba myth refers to the dispersal of Oduduwa’s sixteen royal children, who went out from Ile-Ife to found new kingdoms.

Each was assigned a sacred crown, or ade, a symbol of authority. (In 1903 the colonial administration determined that the Ooni of Ife was the most qualified to say who ought to own and wear this crown.) Each was assigned a sacred sword representing the divine power to take possession of new territories. Stories of the origin of several Yoruba kingdoms are filled with anecdotes about the royal princes’ and princesses’ encounters as they conquered aboriginal groups in their newfound lands and ruled with the sacred insignia of office: the crown and the sword.

I should add that in several cities the Ife cosmovision serves as a model for other lesser but equally significant sacred centers in the Yoruba world. A case in point is Idanre, an important city in the eastern Yoruba region of Ondo State, Nigeria, where I have also carried out field research. Idanre’s inhabitants lived for a long time on an isolated mountain, Oke-Idanre, and they have always maintained a connection with Ile-Ife. The ancient name for the present-day city of Idanre was Ufeke (Ife on the Mountain). Legends of Idanre migration argue that their founders, Olofin and his followers, were immigrants from the ancient city of Ile-Ife. The founders claimed that they possessed the ancient crown of Oduduwa and other royal garments. They hid on a mountain, where they were constantly assailed by other Yoruba groups who wanted to seize these royal treasures.

Ooni with the sacred crown.

Renewal of kingship

During the annual Iden, or King’s Festival, the Owa of Idanre dons the ancient crown of Olofin (also regarded as Oduduwa) in the dark of night. Putting on the ancient crown signifies renewal of his kingship and celebrates his valor and military strength in conquering all intruders who pursued the Idanre to steal his crown. Indeed, Idanre is one of the most revered cities of southwestern Nigeria. Its inhabitants are particularly famous for their control over and use of traditional medicine and the spoken word (ohun), the magical or sacred formulas to make things happen. The Iden Festival that bears the signature of Idanre sacred kingship is similar to the Olojo Festival in Ile-Ife, the festival of sacred kingship and of Ogun, the god of war, in which the Ooni wears his own sacred are crown. Thus the legend signifies that the lie cosmovision is duplicated by other Yoruba cities whose inhabitants share in Ile-Ife’s sacred myth and history.

The structural organization of Ile-Ife and its special religious, political, and spatial form symbolize the sacred cosmology behind the city’s origins. The most important section is the center, the Ooni’s palace, or  aafin, often called oke-ile (the high or big house), located on an elevated site, and the five principal quarters that constitute the old city of Ile Ife radiate out from it. Three major roads leading from these sections converge in front of the palace at an intersection called Enu Owa,

literally, “Mouth of the King.” They function as an orita (crossroads), an imporant phenomenon in Yoruba religious life. Orita are not mere crossroads; they are ”ritually potent spaces where sacrifices may be offered to spirits or evil forces (alajo ogun) and messages maybe conveyed to witches, wizards, and spirits of the underworld or heaven. The royal palace is protected by the city’s concentric layout around its center. As one moves from outermost to innermost circles, degrees of power and sacredness increase. Located close to the palace are the sacred precincts that cradle the three most important ritual centers in the city, the grove, the shrine, and the temple.

The grove belongs to Oduduwa, cultural hero and founder of the city; Oke-M’ogun is the shrine and hill of Ogun, warrior god, patron deity of the sacred kingship; and Oke Itase, Ifa hill and temple, is the abode of Araba Agbaye, chief diviner of the universe. Sacred sites of Yoruba cities are determined by the divination process. Each principal city underwent a divination ritual to determine the best site for its origin and growth (odu ti o te llu do). When I asked one of my consultants to name the odu (chapter of the corpus of oral texts on divination) on which Ile-Ife was founded, he exclaimed in surprise, saying that all sixteen principal odu talked about the city’s origin, an indication that this city was greater than any other city in Yoruba territory.

I turn now to the significance of place for nationalism and identity construction in contemporary Yoruba society. One lacuna in the history of religions is the general lack of in-depth analysis of the relationship between religious phenomena and the social order within which these phenomena exist. The danger of overemphasizing the social context of religion at the  expense of the phenomenon itself has encouraged many to avoid exploring the possible social consequences of religious behaviour. If historians of religions were to take more seriously Peter Berger’s suggestion for analyzing religious phenomena, that we should view religion in terms of its origin, functions, and intrinsic and substantive value, we would produce a more rounded interpretation of religion that did not privilege one aspect at the expense of the others.

Political dynamics
Recently, Roger Friedland and Richard Hecht have contended that there is a strong connection “between the construction of sacred space and the social organization of power” and that “ultimately, an adequate theory of sacred places must take cognizance of the political dynamics that play a key role in how it is appreciated, controlled, interpreted, and contested.” According to these two authors, “Because they undergird identities and ethical commitments, because they galvanize the deepest emotions and attachments, material and symbolic control over the most central sacred places are sources of enormous social power.” Ile-Ife is a prime example of how this social power shapes notions of identity, nationalism, and place.

I will examine the role of the Ile-Ife homeland and territorially in the construction of ethnic nationalism, patriotism, and community identity among the Yoruba. By nationalism, I refer not to the contemporary nation-state context (Nigeria) but to the Yoruba nation as a cultural group with a homeland, a language, a religion, and a shared culture.

Three related themes should be considered as a template for understanding how sacred cities function in the context of modern nationalism. First, Ile-Ife, as a hallowed land of religious and cultural traditions, was used to mobilize the Yoruba as a unified patriotic and nationalist group. Second, symbols of sacred place were used in the development of a homeland of subcultural identities and to galvanize the Yoruba community into a patriotic and national group. Third, the Yoruba mark their boundaries of sacred space in what have been called rituals of “hallowing the land.”

The study of sacred places in Yoruba religious experience may help answer puzzling questions about Yoruba identity and the role the Yoruba religion plays in modern Nigerian politics. Why are the ethnicity and ethnic identity of forty million Yoruba people so strong that their cultural and political lives are difficult for outsiders to penetrate?

Part of the answer lies in the role of place, and particularly the role of Ile-Ife as a centralized sacred place, in “creating a religious, communal, and political identity” and mobilizing people politically. A second relevant issue, borrowed from Kunin’s argument, is that a centralized model of sacred place not only constructs identities but also creates boundaries that establish the relationship of “insiders” and “outsiders” to the sacred center.

The Yoruba origin myth discussed above is normally followed by another equally powerful myth: that of the dispersion, migration, and odyssey of the children of Oduduwa, who left the sacred city of Ile-Ife to conquer, inhabit, and establish new dynasties and new cities and towns. With this odyssey, new city-states similar to Ile-Ife, such as Ondo, Owo, Benin, Ado-Ekiti, Ijebu-Ode, Ketu, and Oyo, were created. In the context of space and land, the migration myth from Ile-Ife “provides for a plan of cosmological relatedness.”’

The Yoruba historian Adeagbo Akinjogbin describes this relationship between the Ile-Ife center and the new city-states as one based on ebi (lineage) ideology: semiautonomous kinship groups with defined territorial boundaries are joined in a sacred pact. The sociologist Akinsola Akiwowo has described their alliance as being based on what the Yoruba call ajobi (principles of kinship and religious association). Though Ile-Ife provides a unifying myth, an equal element of decentralization of sacred space is evident in Yoruba mythology. Multiplicity of sacred space does not negate our thesis of a centralized sacred space.

The significance of Ile-Ife in Yoruba political  life is especially revealed by two incidents: the visit of the Ooni, paramount ruler of Ile-Ife, to Lagos in 1903; and the formation, in the 1940s and 1950s, of a centralized pan-Yoruba cultural and quasi-political association based on the Oduduwa myth, Egbe Omo Oduduwa (Society of the Descendants of Oduduwa) and its political successor, the Action Group Party.

The unprecedented visit of an Ooni to Lagos was chilling to all the other Yoruba Oba, including the Alaafin of Oyo. Before this visit, it had been taboo for an Ooni to leave the city of lle-lfe. The other Yoruba Oba viewed the announcement of his journey with such great alarm and seriousness that they decided to vacate their palaces and stay outside their city for the duration of his visit until they could con firm his safe return. Although the Ooni’s visit can be interpreted as a sign of the capitulation of the traditional center and society of Ile-Ife to the new colonial center in Lagos, the visit also signaled a reinvention of tradition.

Under the British system of indirect rule, the colonial government had created a new city legislative council in charge of the affairs of the new region. In 1903, a dispute between two Yoruba rulers, the Elepe of Epe in Ijebu Remo and the Akarigbo of Ijebu Remo, was referred to the state legislative council for adjudication. The Akarigbo protested the Elepe’s wearing a beaded crown, which by tradition could be worn only by an Oba claiming direct descent from Oduduwa, who had been authorized to wear the crown by the Ooni of Ile-Ife.

The reigning Ooni was Adelekan Olubuse I, the grandfather of the incumbent Ooni. At the suggestion of council members, the Ooni was invited to Lagos in February 1903 to rule on the matter.

Hidden behind a screen (since it was forbidden to behold the face of the Ooni), the Ooni answered all the questions the council put to him. He denounced the Elepe, lamenting that if it were the old days, the Ooni would have summoned the Elepe to lle-Ife and had him beheaded.

What happened between the Ooni and the British governor after the meeting must be the subject of another work. In short, the Ooni was entertained by the governor in a private meeting, and upon the Ooni’s safe return to Ile-Ife,  the Yoruba Oba returned to their palaces. By reinventing the traditional power, the British colonial government was able to wend its way through turbulent issues such as this dispute between the two rulers. Ile-Ife, the Yoruba place of origin, played a significant role in this process.

The imagined sacred city, findings of Western explorers,the Ile-Ife and ancient kingdom of Benin connection stories.