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Book Serial: Ile-Ife: City of 201 gods

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  201 GODS: Ile-Ife in Time, Space and the Imagination, Thursday at NIIA, Lagos. Here is a tip of what to expect tomorrow as Vanguard publishes 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.

Ooni with the sacred crown.

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.


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 confirm his safe return.”

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