Book excerpts: Ile-Ife: City of 201 gods

These excerpts were published in the Vanguard Newspapers in 3 parts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) but here they are compiled together.

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

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.

IFA: Divination Rituals and the New Yam Festival
IN the first three chapters of this book, I alluded to the role of Ifa divination and Ifa priests in various rituals in the sacred city, especially those relating to the resolution of the conflicts between Oduduwa and Obatala. I will devote this chapter to the place of Ifa divination and the Ifa deity in regulating and managing the spiritual and social affairs of the city and will introduce the myths and rituals of Orunmila, also known as Ifa, the Yoruba god of divination; Ifa divinatory practices; and the religious, ethical, and thought systems espoused in the rich Ifa divination texts, otherwise known as ese Ifa or Ifa divination poetry.

By analyzing certain related festivals of Ifa—Odun Egbodo Ooni (the King’s New Yam Festival), Odun Agboniregun (the Diviners’ New Yam Ceremony), and the annual Ifa Festival, together with the sacred narratives associated with them, I will show how the symbols and rituals of Ifa sanctify the sacred city. Ifa has a pivotal role in maintaining and legitimizing the Ooni’s sacred kingship and the lineage identity of Ifa devotees, particularly the Araba, the chief priest of Ifa, just as the sacred kingship legitimizes Ifa’s authority as the spokesperson for the 201 divinities of the Ile-Ife pantheon.

In traditional and contemporary Yoruba culture and society, the Ifa divination system occupies a vital role in ordering and regulating the social and moral order. In addition to providing a plausible theory and practice aimed at explaining and controlling events, space, and time, Ifa represents a boidy of deep knowledge that deals with the past, present and future all at once. The Babalawo or diviners memorize Ifa as poetic oral texts and recite them on appropriate occasions, especially during rituals to secure healing and good health for clients.

As a prelude to examining the rituals and ceremonies of Ifa in Ile-Ife, it is useful to discuss the practice,logic and meaning of Ifa. The Ifa divination system of belief and ritual practices derives its authority in Ile-Ife from the sacred kingship and the lineage traditions of the diviners. The ritual and ceremonies discussed later in this chapter follow the archetypal format upon which Ifa beliefs and practices throughout Yorubaland, if not abroad, are based.

The Yoruba consult Ifa diviners on a wide range of personal, social and religious matters: for example, before undertaking an important obligation such as marriage, travelling to a distant place, and whenever they are in doubt. They use divination in situations of serious illness, especially when the illness is prolonged. Below, I interpret the symbolic and metaphysical meanings surrounding an Ifa consultation. As in the consultation that my research assistant sought in the Araba’s house, a client visits a Babalawo to determine the cause of a problem, typically a physical ailment. The client sits on a mat in front of the diviner while the Babalawo lays out his divination paraphernalia, which consists of a divinatory chain of linked half nuts and a tray of yellowish pollen. The client takes a coin, touches his forehead with it, and whispers into it his prayer or request, asking Ifa to reveal the secret behind his problem and to find an appropriate solution. He places the coin in front of the diviner, touching his chain with the coin as if conveying the request to it.

The diviner begins the session by invoking Ifa and reciting the words that begin this chapter. Ifa is showered with presents to assist in the process. The diviner requests that Ifa not mislead his client. The invocation also allows the diviner to pay homage to the spirit world, the ancestors, the great diviners before him, and the four directions of the Yoruba universe as he moves the chain to the front, back, left, right, and center of the tray, acknowledging all the relevant spiritual forces connected to the process. To cast the divination, the diviner holds the chain in the middle and throws it on the mat, making a “U” shape on the floor, so that four nuts fall on each side. The nuts will expose either convex or concave sides, thus displaying sixteen possible forms of the “signature” of Ifa. Each signature stands for an odu (divinatory sign or symbol), and each odu is linked to several verses of oral poems that interpret it. The diviner then recites the odu that appears in the divination castings. The client listens carefully, and after the recitation comments on whether any of the poems is relevant to his illness. At this stage the client may reveal to the diviner the nature of his inquiry. The diviner will interpret the text and, through further questioning, arrive at a definite cause of his client’s problem. The diviner will prescribe the appropriate remedy, usually a sacrificial ritual and the use of medicinal herbs.

Ooni with the sacred crown.

Although the most frequently employed form of divination involves the use of the opele chain, a more prestigious and elaborate form of divination, the ikin, involves the use of sixteen palm nuts. The diviner takes the palm nuts from a beautifully carved divination bowl into one hand. He then attempts to grab with his other hand most of the palm nuts in his first hand, leaving one or two. He marks the result of the exercise in the powder in the divination tray. When one palm nut is left in the other hand, the diviner makes two marks, and when two ikin are left, he makes one mark. When no palm nuts remain, he makes no mark. This process is done several times until the diviner can make four signs on each side of the tray. Each divination session produces an odu divination sign out of the 256 possible signs. The process of reciting the odu that appears to the client is similar to the above divinatory session with the opele.
Below is an example of verses from an odu called Eji Ogbe, which explains how important divination practice is on earth.
Ko sibi ti afefe ki i fe e de
Ko sibi ti iji ki i ja a de
A d’ifa fun Ojise Olodumare
Eni ti Olodumare ran wa sile aye
Eni ran’ni nise la a beru
A ki i beru eni ta a je fun
Olowo ori mi ko je t’Ikole orun bo wa s’Ikole aye
Olowo ori mi o re’bi Kankan
To fi n se gbogbo ohun ti o fe e se
Eni to ba ko’ti ikun s’Ifa
Eniyankeniyan to ni eni wo’fa o logbon lori
Enikeni to ni eni n wofa n sese ibi
O setan to fe e lo s’alakeji
Ojo to jade nile koje pada wale omo
Ebi iru won nii jese owo o won
Enikeni o gbodo so pe Ifa o nii se e
Ohun t’Ifa ba so nii fun babalawo lounje
Eni to n’Ifa n puro o lere kankan.

There is no place that the wind does not blow.
There is no place that the hurricane does not blow.
Who divines for the messenger that Olodumare the Supreme sends on an errand?
He who sends you on an errand
He [whom) only you will respect.
Your Master never travels from heaven above.
Your Lord does not go out visiting.
Your Lord stays in one place and accomplishes everything he wants to bring about.
Whoever refuses to obey the diviners’ words,
Whoever says the client’s work is not good,
Should be prepared to see Olodumare in heaven [i.e., be  prepared to die].
When the enemy leaves his house, he will not return home.
The family he leaves behind will have to take charge of his affairs.
No one must doubt the stories of the diviners. The stories the diviners tell provide for their daily bread.
The enemy who says the diviners are lying will make no progress in life.

In this powerful narrative the heavenly Ifa commands his devotees to take the work of the diviners seriously and spells out consequences for disobedience. Ifa diviners see this passage as proclaiming the authority given to them by Orunmila to control, determine, and mediate the affairs of the living. The diviner’s role recalls that of the Holy Spirit, who according to Christ’s promise would guide the affairs of the world after Christ departed.

The Logic and Meaning of Ifa
African societies recognize two forms of divination: the mechanical and the mystical. The mechanical form involves manipulating divining instruments or objects to arrive at an appropriate answer and treatment for the client. The mystical form centers on possession by a deity and appeal to a deity. In discussing the !Kung or San divination system, Lorna Marshall has argued that mechanical forms of divination fall into the category of magic and “secular” rather than religious forms because they involve no communication with mystical powers. But although Ifa divination is primarily mechanical, the preamble to an Ifa divination session indicates that mystical powers in control of the cosmos are invoked.

Ifa divination is also premised on the communication process between the diviner and the spiritual agencies responsible for proper divination performances. William Bascom remarked that the result is influenced by divine guidance. As in the divination process used by the Ainu of Japan, an invocation and prayer to the mystical forces precede the actual mechanical manipulation of the divinatory instrument.  The invocation of Ifa provides an important clue to the logic of the divination mechanism. Here we focus on the Ifa divination performance for healing, and our exploration of its three stages – consultation, diagnosis, and sacrifice-must begin with the ritual invocation. It is a poetic ritual prayer addressed to the relevant cosmic powers (the gods, ancestors, spirits) that the diviners know could influence the outcome of the client’s diagnosis. The Ifa ritual invocation that I witnessed in 1991 was intoned as follows:

The front of Ifa
The back of Ifa,
The right side of Ifa,
The all-knowing on the left, the centre of Ifa,
The centre of heaven
From the dawn of the day
to the setting of the sun,
Never say it is good when the message is evil
Never say it is evil when the message is good.
Never speak in a voice of deceit!

These lyrics are the diviner’s invocation to Ifa, spoken as a prayer to guide his consultation rightly so that an unequivocal truth may emerge. By his invocations, the diviner symbolically dramatizes the creation of the cosmos, the three layers of the Yoruba world. At the core of the divination is the idea that the universe and its events are guided by Ifa. He is the regulator of events in the universe (Agbayegun), and his divination process and activities bring order to a potentially chaotic universe. That spiritual order is symbolized by the regulating grid of the four cardinal points of the universe plus the centre, the fifth and the most central point.

The five important axes of power are replicated in the Ifa divination tray, usually carved out of wood, which represents the universe. The circular tray is a replica or “reproduction, on the human scale, of the cosmos [and] of Creation itself. It is an imago mundi, an image of the original world order.” At times in the course of divination, the Babalawo may trace these axes in the yellow powder on the Ifa tray, indicating the connection between the four cardinal points and the center.

The centre of the divining tray, like the centre of the world, is the link to the centre of heaven, the abode of the Supreme God (Olodumare) and the storehouse of sacred knowledge required to discover the “secrets” surrounding the client’s ailment, the hidden forces that have produced it. This is analogous to Victor Turner’s notion of the centre “out there;’ a place outside the immediate domain of the client, which nevertheless can be accessed through divination.

The act of touching the divining chain or  opele on the four cardinal points and then the center of the tray captures a complex religious symbolism. By this visually significant act, the tray becomes the earthly sacred centre from which the diviner makes present the heavenly centre and the ultimate storehouse of Ifa’s knowledge.”

Lokoloko (palace guards) holding whips made of branches during the Olojo Festival

Ifa divination connects the diviner’s probing act with the source of the client’s being, the ori (personal destiny). By this process, divination exposes the client’s destiny, the realities that influence his development, and the configuration of sacred powers that governs the world’s ceaseless transformations.


Today, in Ile-Ife and throughout Yorubaland, newer Pentecostal, evangelical, and “born-again” Christian movements that first emerged in the 1970s and 1980s are challenging the institution of the sacred kingship and the pluralistic order that has existed for over a century. These movements epitomize a new form of modernity encroaching upon Ile-Ife. Amid hundreds of evangelical Christian programs, revival meetings, open-air services, and nightly vigils taking place in the city, a newly emergent form of discourse is pushing evangelical Christian activities beyond the arena of the churches and private spirituality to public spaces, thereby directly challenging the orisa-based civil religion that has been in place. I should add that whereas in the Western world the crisis of modernity often connotes a struggle between religion and secularity, Ile-Ife’s current struggle over the negotiation of modernity concerns which form of religion will control its centre and civic life.

This newer negotiation of modernity is driven by generally exclusivist religious movements whose theology subsumes the entire cosmos and its inhabitants under a single divine order, ruled over by a Supreme God. This theology renders implausible the older order, according to which there exists not only the sacred kingship but also a diverse range of spirits and ancestors. As a result, this shift of sacred power and authority-from rulers and principalities that inhabit the living world to a single divine order inhabiting an invisible world (called heaven) – creates significant tension between devotees of the orisa and members of the new, predominantly Christian, movements. In short, these new movements challenge existing assumptions about what it means to be human in the cosmos and how civil authority is to be understood.

According to these new movements, all kings are simply human beings. Thus no king has any inherent religious or earthly authority that gives him power as head of the community, as the chief priest of the local civil religion. Central to this message is an emphasis on the personal salvation of individual converts. Moreover, unlike indigenous traditions, which were concerned with the temporal domain and a this-worldly proximate salvation, the new movements place significant emphasis on otherworldly salvation and benefits. Kings have become more concerned with their own personal salvation than with the proximate salvation of their people as a whole. Each individual is left to fight for his or her own salvation.

Members of these new Christian movements are targeting the sacred authority of the Ooni, and Ile-Ife civil religion more generally, because they realize that debunking the legitimacy of the sacred canopy-the guardianship of religious pluralism-will make it possible to destroy all indigenous non-Christian Yoruba traditions. While this kind of exclusivity is often associated with the European and American missionary enterprises of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I have shown that their accommodationist orientation actually tended to support a role for indigenously based Yoruba civil religion. Rather, native Yoruba are driving this second, far less tolerant, mode of conversion. Although the new Christian movements are part of a global effort to usher in a universal Christian moral and social order, the conversion tactics employed by native inhabitants of Ile-Ife are specifically adapted to their local context. These individuals are able to explore and exploit, to their advantage, their knowledge of the indigenous orisa tradition in order to turn that tradition against itself. They draw upon the indigenous tradition’s pragmatic orientation – its emphasis on religion’s use value – but claim that indigenous beliefs and practices no longer have such use value because they no longer meet people’s needs.

Thus these new movements often blame disorderly events – particularly those perceived to be obstructing societal progress – on the continuance of traditional orisa religious practices and ways of life, which are regarded as “pagan.” Among these events are pestilence, natural disaster, famine, disease (especially the AIDS epidemic), and military coups, all of which are seen as signs of divine anger and Satan’s presence. Paradoxically, whereas indigenous religions have claimed that they were indeed performing rituals, engaging in calendrical ceremonies and holding festivals to explain, predict, and control natural phenomena, the new Christian movements have claimed that destructive natural phenomena and events are caused by the continuation of these very “pagan” rituals and festivals. Evangelical Christianity’s desire to trump indigenous religious symbols and practices has effectively devolved into a declaration of hostility and war against indigenous traditions. As the cultured despisers of indigenous practices, these new Christian movements aim at doing away with any forms of local knowledge, language, and ethos, even when they do not have any apparent religious connection. For example, by discouraging the use of vernacular liturgy and local dialects, members of these new movements aim to preach a universal message that is ultimately of global, rather than purely local, reach.

CITY OF 201 GODS: Ile-Ife in Time, Space, and Imagination by Jacob k. Olupona was  presented at NIIA, Lagos on December 13, 2012.


5 thoughts on “Book excerpts: Ile-Ife: City of 201 gods

  1. Please note this benin was not created by a descendant of oduduwa nor where they conuered oranmiyan only rule benin because it was the birth right of his grandfather oduduwa thereby creating the oba dynasty before that there was the ogiso dynasty from which about 36 kings ruled benin before the coming of oranmiyan,the current ooni of ife lineage are not the direct descendant of oduduwPlease note this benin was not created by a descendant of oduduwa nor where they conuered oranmiyan only rule benin because it was the birth right of his grandfather oduduwa thereby creating the oba dynasty before that there was the ogiso dynasty from which about 36 kings ruled benin before the coming of oranmiyan,the current ooni of ife lineage are not the direct descendant of oduduwPlease note this benin was not created by a descendant of oduduwa nor where they conuered oranmiyan only rule benin because it was the birth right of his grandfather oduduwa thereby creating the oba dynasty before that there was the ogiso dynasty from which about 36 kings ruled benin before the coming of oranmiyan,the current ooni of ife lineage are not the direct descendant of oduduwPlease note this benin was not created by a descendant of oduduwa nor where they conuered oranmiyan only rule benin because it was the birth right of his grandfather oduduwa thereby creating the oba dynasty before that there was the ogiso dynasty from which about 36 kings ruled benin before the coming of oranmiyan,the current ooni of ife lineage are not the direct descendant of oduduwa


    • The first time Oduduwa was born was about 4,000 years ago. His heir was named Ajaka (Isaac) who had a set of twins born to him. The name of the first born is known popularly today as Esau, and his other names were Edo (Edom) and Idu (the Greco-Romans named the region of ancient Edom in the Levant as Idumea). The name of the second born and direct ancestor of the Yoruba is Aku (one of the names by which the Yoruba were known up till a few centuries ago but popularly called Yakub and Jacob). Aku inherited the land while Edo who had given away his birthright was sent away. Sometime during the 1st millennium AD Oduduwa ruled physically and rightfully as leader of the Yoruba and his son Oranmiyan (the same Aku) was sent to Edo to provide leadership but after a while he returned to Yoruba land. The Yoruba know that they migrated from the east. The Borgu, Nupe, Hausa, Kanuri and Fulani also know that the Yoruba migrated from the east. The Jukun have not forgotten hat they migrated from the east and, along with the Ijebu mention places like Yemen in their histories. Yet, some of your stubbornly envious people claim that the east referred to by the Yoruba is Edo. Are you not yet ashamed? Why don’t you also add that the other peoples mentioned above and/or their leaders also came from Edo?

      Your assertion that “the current ooni of ife lineage are not the direct descendant of oduduwa” is not only blasphemous but very silly. You (all Edo historians who choose to lie) still display the same behavioral pattern of fraud and ancient envy just like your ancestors, hence your concoction of stories about Oduduwa. I intend to write an essay about this and expose the glaring absence of logic in such. before then you can go through the following:

      A case for the Edo/Idu people as the Edomites

      Identifying Israel via the colocation of Jebus, Ekron, and Edom as markers

      History of Ọrun Ọba Ado


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