With over 45 million Yorubas living in various parts of the universe. Undoubtedly one of the largest ethnic groups in the world, the Yorubas are a people steeped in culture, traditions and mysteries. Not even the introduction of foreign religions like Islam and Christianity has diluted the traditional religions of the Yorubas of southwestern Nigeria. As I am writing this, Osun State is host to the Osun Osogbo festival, the largest traditional religion festival in Africa. Today, I am going to dwell on one of the most intriguing aspects of Yoruba customs and try to do justice to a topic that has been riddled with a lot of apprehension and misinformation. What happens when a Yoruba king dies? Well, a lot. And it is that ‘a lot’ this piece is about. Read on and enjoy.
In Yorubaland, a king (or a queen in some rarer instances) is superhuman. The monarch, known as the Oba, who wears theAdenla (Great Crown) is not seen as an ordinary mortal but as one of the gods, one of the divines, a creature that communes directly with the gods. As a matter of fact, when the Yorubas were so steeped in traditions in the precolonial era, the oba must never reveal his face in public and instead wears the Ade (Crown) orAdenla (Great Crown) with elaborate dangling beads that cover his face.
A king must also never prostrate or genuflect before anyone, not even his parents (although I see some of them bowing before the Queen of England). For the Yorubas, the oba is not just a political leader, he was also a religious leader and this was reflected clearly in the fact that some sacred religious rites could only be carried by the Oba himself who is also called Oko Osho, Oko Aje (Head of the Wizards and the Great Mothers of the Occult). For over 1,300 years, Yorubas have placed their kings on the highest pedestal of honour and worship. Not even modernity has totally changed that. A few examples here will suffice:
- ODUDUWA: He was the first Emperor of the Yorubas and the King or Ooni of Ile Ife, considered the cradle and Spiritual Homeland of the Yorubas. When he died, he was made a deity and remains a divinity. He is the ancestor of the crowned kings of Ife. Of the 400 deities in Ile Ife, the Ooni (also called Oonirisa) is believed to be the only human deity with the other 399 dwelling in the realm of the spirits. The Ooni is worshipped or regarded as an orisha (god or deity).
- ORANYAN (also called Oranmiyan): He is the founder of Oyo Ile and his sons Ajaka and Sango would later become the Alaafin of Oyo.
- SANGO: Son of Oranyan, he is also called Jakuta or Xango in other parts of the globe. He was the third Alaafin of Oyo and upon his demise, he was deified to become the orisha of thunder, lightning, justice, dance and virility with white and red as his colours. There are people who still worship Sango till date.
I have given a few examples of kings who have become deities in Yorubaland and practically the same thing applied to all kings of old. Some said others like Sango were deified humans while others say they were humanized gods. Whatever the case, it is clear that the position of an oba in Yorubaland is one that is not joked with.
INTERESTING THINGS HAPPEN WHEN A KING DIES IN YORUBALAND
NB: I am not sure if these practices are still in place today in 2016 but they sure were in full swing during Nigeria’s colonial and even post-independence eras.
The death of a king in Yorubaland is a big event. It is not seen as ‘death’ but in the same Pharaohnic manner in which the king is believed to move to the next world and continue his reign. The primary reason why the following rites after the death of a Yoruba king are so similar is that ‘according to Yoruba traditions, the royal dynasties of all the principal kingdoms in the area were descended from the children of Oduduwa, the founder and the first king of Ile Ife.’
- As Ile Ife is considered the cradle of Yorubas, when a new Alaafin of Oyo was installed, the sword which was believed to have belonged to Oranyan, the son of Oduduwa who founded the Oyo dynasty, was sent to Ile Ife for reconsecration before being used in the ceremony.
- In Benin, parts of the bodies of the deceased kings were sent to Ile Ife for burial. This dynastic link with Ife was so important that a son or grandson of Oduduwa was needed to validate a kings claim to the right to wear an ade, or crown with a beaded edge. In 1903, this principle was officially recognized by the British authorities, who brought the Ooni of Ife, to Lagos to give judgment on the claim of the Elepe of Sagamu, a minor Ijebu ruler, to wear an What happened? The Ooni gave a list of 21 kings with the right to wear an ade, and the name of the Elepe was missing from the list.
But that is that, what precisely happens when a king has passed on? Well, what follows is an elaborate process of carefully orchestrated rituals. One, there are two groups of people that must be informed immediately a king dies: the Ajes, Iya Nlas or Awon Iyami Oshoronga (the Great Mothers of the Occult) and the Ogbonis (read 13 Incredible Things About The Ogbonis HERE). The Ajes are the creators of the kings and without their input, a new king cannot be chosen and the line of succession will be broken. They are summoned to the palace because they are believed to have total control of the secrets of the knowledge of existence and Yorubas believe that the Ajes know a reigning king will die and how to make plans for the new one.
Please note at this point that the Yoruba belief of a king’s death is not really ‘death’ in the sense that we know it today. A king does not ‘die’ in Yorubaland but join his ancestors in the spiritual realm. This salient point is very important and has to be stressed because part of the rituals that will be done following the demise of a king (no matter the manner of the death) is to reactivate the soul of the late king and link it up with the predecessors and also connect it to the successors.
This is achieved via a labyrinth of rituals which will be discussed shortly. This unification of the souls, according to Ulli Beier, is done in a ritual that involves the Oba-to-be eating the heart of the deceased oba as part of the installation ceremonies. Now let us return to the Ajes.
One of the most powerful Ajes is the Iyalashe who plays a very great role in the making of kings. As the Mother of the Gelede Shrine, Iyalashe is the highest priestess and also the general overseer of the Gelede society. She is the link between the Ajes and the community. She has to give her seal of approval to any major traditional event, even the Oro has to get her permission before proceeding with its rituals and same goes for the Egungun (masquerade) societies.
When the king dies, it is the Iyalashe who removes the heart from the chest cavity of the deceased oba and gives it to the new king who must then become a member of the Awo Gelede itself. This process explains why the real kingmaking roles are actually functions of the Great Mothers and also highlights how the Oro cult, Ogboni, Egungun and Gelede are also intricately involved in the crowning of a new king. In some other instances, the corpse of the king is dismembered and the pieces buried in different places all over the kingdom. The hierarchy of those conducting these rituals is very neat and everyone knows his or her role. In the ancient Oyo Empire, this practice has the active participation of members of the Ogboni cult and this was described thus:
‘The Ogboni priests have a part in the ceremonies following the death of a king and during the installation of his successor. In Oyo they are summoned to the palace as soon as an Alaafin has died and attend while the corpse is washed, then they cut off its head and take it to clean all the flesh from the skull. A palace official removes the heart and puts it in charge of the Otun Efa, the titled eunuch responsible for the Sango cult. During his installation, the succeeding Alaafin is taken by the Otun Efa to make a sacrifice to Sango and while with him is given a dish containing the heart of his predecessor, which he must eat. Later, he is taken to the Ogboni shrine where the Oluwo hands him the skull of his predecessor, which has been filled with a corn gruel which he must drink. This rite is said to enable his ears always to discriminate between the true and the false, and to give compelling power to his words. Thus, the death of an Alaafin cannot be concealed from the Ogboni, and his successor cannot be properly installed without their acceptance and collaboration.’
When a king ingests the organs of his dead predecessor, it is not seen as an ordinary physical process but also a spiritual one in which the new king is believed to have ingested the power and wisdom of not just the dead king but also of all the previous obas as each of them went through the same ritual as prescribed by the Great Mothers (Ajes).
This heart-eating ritual in the kingmaking process was described by Wole Soyinka in his book, Ake: The Years of Childhood. He called the heart-eating process ‘je oba’ which literally means to ‘eat the king’. Soyinka explained the when the old king died, his heart and liver were removed and fed to the new king. The importance of the liver here is that the Ajes (Great Mothers) are believed to use the livers to connect this physical plane of human existence to the realm of the spirits where they truly operate. Because the Great Mothers are involved in the ritual where hearts and livers are eaten, they are also calledAjedojokanmabi (Those Who Consume Hearts & Livers Without Vomitting) who are seen as the holders of the long livers, hearts and souls of every Yoruba king. Please note that this ritual is in no way considered to be a form of cannibalism but as a spiritual exercise necessary to connect two planes of existence. Reports of removal of the tongue have also been studied.
Because of the nature of these rituals, they are meant to be exclusive and kept from the citizenry and this glaring fact was illustrated by Soyinka when he talked of his shock and fear that the Alake of Egbaland, the same person who ‘had taken me on his lap and claimed I was his yekan (relative) had actually eaten human flesh.’ What even made Soyinka to be more confused was that instead of finding slimy tissue and blood on the mouth of the Alake, all he saw was what he called a ‘warm, crinkly smile.’
The ‘Je Oba’ is not the only process that is involved in the making of a new king in Yorubaland. I am just focusing on the area this topic is to focus on. By the way, the Je Oba process is believed to confer immense spiritual powers on the new monarch, powers so broad that he is believed to become a living god. However, no matter how powerful a Yoruba king is, he can still be brought down to nothingness by the Awon Iyami Oshoronga if they unite in anger against an errant monarch. The importance and authority of these Ajes (palace women) was described thus:
‘The palace women are regarded as the kingmakers because the king can never make himself, and no other person can make a king. So, these women are powerful, superior. They can do and undo. They give authority….if you do not follow the orders of these people, those women, there isn’t anything that is possible….we do not neglect them at all. We can’t overlook them. We regard them as our mothers, as the elderly women. So they are very important in the making of the king as well as performing traditional rites and performing rituals to the deities and ancestors.’
Other aspects of the kingmaking process are also overseen by the Ajes who also make concoctions and preparations using items such as maize, iron, eggs and snails, each has its own symbolic meaning. Even the Adenla (Great Crown) is personally prepared and empowered by the Aje and one of the Iyami Oshoronga, the Iya Mosade must be present at the installation of any king for she alone can crown the Oba.
Now, let me guess the question you are about to ask, does this still continue? Well, one cannot really say but judging from recent events, one can safely assume that the practice might still be going on in secret and this is because:
- As late as September 2009, Honourable Alderman Erelu Ayorinde, the Erelu Tunwase of Ode-Remo in Ogun State cried out over what happened to the corpse of the late king, His Royal Highness, Alayeluwa Kabiyesi Oba Sunday Funsho Adeolu Sataloye II, OON, JP, Alaye Ode Remo of Ogun State, Nigeria (1931 – 2008) and wrote:
My late Kabiyesi was a distinguished elder statesman who like many monarchs, responded to the call of Almighty God and his ancestors through Ifa (eefah)/the Oracle of Orunmila – a spiritual ancient Yoruba method used to confirm heirs to the thrones in Yorubaland. He wholeheartedly served his communities, state, nation and country, yet when he joined his ancestors/died, instead of a befitting burial, the whereabouts of his remains are still unknown. What we know is that the body was brutalized, treated like that of a criminal, dragged around on the streets of the town, his head left hanging for many weeks until the neck was rotten to allow the neck come off naturally without the use of a sharp knife. Once the head came off, the body was cut into pieces, his heart removed to be eaten by his successor. His head is still in captivity somewhere in Ode Remo, Ogun State. He has no grave. We are told the kings of Remoland (Ogun State, Nigeria) are not entitled to an identifiable final place of rest, so do not have graves – a tradition which is not in accordance with the practice in Ile Ife or in Oyo, the historical origin and source of all Yorubas including those from Remoland. The perpetrators of the fake, barbaric and uncivilized inhumane act against the remains of dead kings of Yorubaland are a ground of individuals who are Slaves known as Afobajes/Kingmakers, Abobakus (Destined To Die With The King), Olokunesin known as Odis (Slaves) of Ode-Remo/Ijebuland.
For those who may think this from Ode Remo is an isolated case, this is far from the truth. The corpses of the following Yoruba kings also inexplicably vanished following their demise:
- His Royal Highness, Kabiyesi Oba Awofeso, the Elerunwon of Erunwon, he was a former primate of Cherubim and Seraphim Church and also a Revivalist.
- His Royal Highness, Oba Oladele Olashore, the Owaloko of Iloko Ijesha, he was a devout Anglican and a former finance minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Is that all? No. Few days after the immediate predecessor of the current Alake of Egbaland, the late HRH Oba Oyebade Lipede died in February 2005 at the age of 90 after spending 33 years on the throne, his youngest queen, Olori Bimpe, allegedly placed his corpse inside the boot of a car and fled to the private residence of the late traditional ruler at the Government Reserved Area, Ibara, Abeokuta, because the late king had made a clear demand for a Christian burial. However, the mission of the queen failed as the body was collected from her and given to the ritualists of Egbaland. It became a big fight between the kingmakers and the family of the late king. In May 2016, Chief Alani Bankole, the Seriki Jagunmolu of Egbaland and the Oluwo of Iporo Sodeke/Iporo Ake said of the incident:
‘In the days of old, nobody would dare make such move. Traditionally, as soon as an Oba joins his ancestors, his family ceases to have control. So, the Olori or family, does not have the authority to go near his remains, let alone take them away. The impasse was resolved when the kingmakers found the Oba’s remains in one of the rooms in the palace, but that was not without a thorough search. If such thing occurred, I would not blame the Olori or whoever was involved in such abomination because, as it is popularly said, if you give a hoe to a mad person, he will till the soil to his side. I think that, we, kingmakers, should take full responsibility for all the drama that happened. I make this statement on the grounds that we should have been more proactive in our responsibility for all the drama that happened. Ideally, the moment we begin to sense that the health of an Alake is deteriorating, all the occupants of the palace are supposed to be sent packing and the palace taken over by the ‘Omo-Iya-Marun.
Perhaps, I should state here that the palace does not belong to the Alake because it is actually owned by the entire sons and daughters of Egbaland and kept under the care of the ‘Omo-Iya-Marun. Aside the fact that we did not act according to the dictates of our culture and tradition, most of us arrived the palace late. So we provided the grounds for those traditionally ignorant individuals to violate the tradition or, mildly put, make attempts to do the unexpected. In the process of searching for the remains of the Oba, we were shuttling between the palace and the Government House for consultation because the Alake is not an ordinary Oba.’’
In 1960 when Nigerian got independence, the town of Orangun was almost going to explode following the death of their old king, the first Muslim to occupy the post. His family too was Muslim but the tradition stated that the head of the corpse was to be lobbed off. The king’s family insisted that cutting off the head was against the laws of Islam and insisted his head was not going to be removed. They reached a compromise, the head was not severed from the body but other traditional Yoruba ceremonies took place.
These and many more make some to allude to the fact that the rituals still continue. Today, the burials of Yoruba kings (and many traditional rulers in Nigeria) are very much shrouded in mystery and secrets. They are so secret that the graves or tombs of many kings are simply unknown or their burial processes were not visible to the general public but a few members. In fact in some instances, not even the queens or children of the late king are allowed to view the burial (if any) process. Following the demise of a Yoruba king, curfews are usually declared within the kingdom or beyond sometimes lasting days or weeks, for various rituals and secret rites to be held by different groups. Although some citizens have questioned the logic behind these actions while others have queried the constitutionality of some of these practices and the influence of these traditions, time will tell who will blink first.