Yoruba Culture

topic posted Tue, September 18, 2007 - 8:30 PM by  Unsubscribed
Yoruba Culture

The first notable observation of first-time visitors to Yorubaland is the richness and variety of the culture, which is even made more visible by the urbanized social structure of Yoruba settlement. The Yoruba are fond of ceremonies-naming, wedding, chieftaincy titles, celebration of life in death, etc. These occasions are used to showcase the richness of the culture. Traditional musicians are always on hand to grace the occasions with heavy rhythm of talking drum and percussion; praise singers and griots are there to add their historical insight to the meaning of the ceremony, and of course the varieties of colorful dresses attest to the aesthetic sense of the average Yoruba.

Names and Naming Ceremony

The Yoruba take names seriously, for names have meaning and are believed to live out their meaning. Thus serious effort is put into naming a new baby. As they say, ile ni a n wo, ki a to so omo l'oruko. That is, we have to pay attention to the tradition and history of the family before we give names to a child. The meaning of this is that each family has its own tradition, and therefore its own historically determined name-group. The tradition may derive from the kind of profession that it is known for. For instance, a family of hunters may name their baby "Ogunbunmi" (the god of iron gives me this). Or it may derive from the kind of religion it practices. For instance, a family of Ifa worshippers will name their baby Falola (Ifa has honor). The basis on which names are given are much more varied as can be seen from the following examples taken from Samuel Johnson's The History of the Yorubas.

Oruko Amutorunwa (Name a child is born with)

The Yoruba believe that a baby may come with pre-destined names. For instance, twins are believed to have natural-birth names. Thus the first to be born of the two is called Taiwo, a shortened form of Tayewo, meaning the taster of the world. This is to identify the first twin as the one sent by the other one to first go and taste the world. If he/she stays there, it follows that it is not bad, and that would send a signal to the other one to start coming. Hence the second to arrive is named Kehinde (late arrival). The child born to the same woman after the twins is called Idowu, and the one after this is called Alaba (female) or Idogbe (male). Ige is a child born with the legs coming out first instead of the head; and Ojo (male) or Aina ( female) is the one born with the umbilical cord around his or her neck. When a child is conceived with no prior menstruation, he or she is named Ilori. Dada is the child born with curly hair; and Ajayi (nicknamed Ogidi Olu) is the one born face-downwards.

Other natural names include Abiodun (one born on a festival day or period), Bosede (one born on a holy day; Babatunde/Babatunji (meaning father has come back) is the son born to a family where a father has recently passed. This testifies to the belief in reincarnation. Iyabode, Yeside, Yewande, Yetunde, (mother has come back) is the female counterpart.

Oruko Abiso

These are names that are not natural with the child at birth but are given on either the seventh day of birth (for females) and ninth day of birth (for males). They are given in accordance with significant events at time of birth or with reference to the family tradition as has been mentioned above.

Examples of names given with reference to the family tradition include Ogundiran (Ogun has become a living tradition in the family); Ayanlowo ( Ayan drumming tradition is honorable); Oyetoso (Chieftaincy is ornament); Olanrewaju (Honor is advancing forward); Olusegun (God has conquered the enemy).

Abiku Names

The Yoruba believe that some children are born to die. This derives from the phenomenon of the tragic incidents of high rate of infant mortality sometimes afflicting the same family for a long time. When this occurs, the family devises all kinds of method to forestall a recurrence, including giving special names at a new birth. Such names reflect the frustration of the poor parents:

Malomo (do not go again)

Kosoko (there is no hoe anymore). This refers to the hoe that is used to dig the grave.

Banjoko (stay with me)

Orukotan (all names have been exhausted)

Yemiitan (stop deceiving me)

Kokumo (this will not die)

Pet Names

The Yoruba also have pet names or oriki. These are praise names, and they are used to suggest what the child's family background is or to express one's hope for the child: Akanbi-(one who is deliberately born); Ayinde (one who is praised on arrival); Akande (one who comes or arrives in full determination) ; Atanda (one who is deliberately created after thorough search). For females, Aduke (one who everyone like to bless), Ayoke (one who people are happy to bless), Arike (one who is blessed on sight), Atinuke or Abike (one that is born to be pampered).

Since it is generally believed that names are like spirits which would like to live out their meanings, parents do a thorough search before giving names to their babies.

Naming ceremonies are performed with this in mind. The oldest family member is given the responsibility of performing the ceremony. Materials used are symbols of the hopes, expectations and prayers of the parents for the new baby. These include honey, kola, bitter kola, atare, water, palm oil, sugar, sugar cane, salt, and liquor. Each of these has a special meaning in the world- view of the Yoruba. For instance, honey represents sweetness, and the prayer of the parents is that their baby's life will be as sweet as honey.

After the ritual, the child is named and other extended family members are given the honor to give their own names to the child. They do this with gifts of money and clothing. In many cases, they would want to call the child by the name they give him or her. Thus a new baby may end up with more than a dozen names.


The child that is named will grow to adulthood. The Yoruba culture provides for the upbringing of the child by the extended family. In traditional society, the child is placed with a master of whatever craft the gods specify for him or her. Or he may take to the profession of the father, in the case of a boy, or the mother, in the case of a girl. The parents have the responsibility for his/her socialization into the norms of the larger society, in addition to giving him a means of livelihood. His or her wedding is also the responsibility of the parents.

Wedding ceremony is the climax of a process that starts with courtship. The young man identifies a young woman that he loves. He and his friends seek her out through various means, including playing pranks. The young man sends messages of interest to the young woman, until such a time that they are close enough to avoid a go-between (alarina). Then once they both express mutual love, they let their parents know about their love. The man's parents arrange to pay a visit to the prospective bride's parents. Once their consent is secured, the wedding day may be set. Prior to the wedding day, the payment of dowry is arranged. This secures the final consent of the bride's parents, and the wedding day is fixed. Once the day has been fixed through consultation with the Orisa, the bride and bridegroom are warned to avoid travelling out of town, including to the farm. This is to prevent any mishap. The wedding day is a day of celebration, eating, drinking and dancing for parents, relations, the new husband and wife and their friends and relations. Marriage is not considered to be only a union of the husband and wife, it is also seen among the Yoruba as the union of the families on both sides.


In Yoruba thought, death is not the end of life; it is rather a transition from one form of existence into another form. The ogberis (ignorant folks) fear death because it marks the end of an existence that is known and the beginning of one that is unknown. Immortality is a dream of many, as Eji-ogbe puts it: Mo dogbogbo orose; Ng ko ku mo; Mo digba oke; Mo le gboin. (I have become an aged ose tree; I will no longer die; I have become two hundred hills roled into one; I am immovable.)

The Yoruba also pray for many blessings, but the most important three are wealth, children and immortality: ire owo; ire omo; ire aiku pari iwa. There is a belief in an afterlife that is a continuation of this life, only in a different setting, and the abode of the dead is usually placed at a place just outside of this abode, and is sometimes thought of as separated by a stream. Participation in this afterlife is conditional on the nature of one's life and the nature of one's death. This is the meaning of life: to deliver the message of Olodumare, the supreme creator by promoting the good of existence. For it is the wish of the deity that human beings should promote the good. Hence it is insisted that one has a good capacity for moral uprightness and personhood. Personhood is an achieved status judged by the standard of goodness to self, to the community and to the ancestors. As people say: Keni huwa gbedegbede; keni lee ku pelepele; K'omo eni lee n'owo gbogboro L'eni sin. (Let one conduct one' life gently; that one may die a good death; that one's children may stretch their hands over one's body in burial.)

The achievement of a good death is an occasion for celebration of the life of the deceased. This falls into several categories. First, children and grand children would celebrate the life of their parent who passed and left a good name for them. Second, the Yoruba are realistic and pragmatic about their attitude to death. They know that one may die at a young age. The important thing is good life and good name. As the saying goes: Ki a ku l'omode, ki a fi esin se irele eni; o san ju ki a dagba ki a ma ni adie irana. (if we die young, and a horse is killed in celebration of one's life; it is better than dying old without people killing even chicken to celebrate our life.)

It is also believed that ancestors have enormous power to watch over their descendants. Therefore, people make effort to remember their ancestors on a regular basis. This is ancestor veneration, which some have wrongly labeled as ancestor worship. It is believed that the love that exists between a parent and a child here on earth should continue even after death. And since the parent has only transformed to another form of existence, it should be possible for the link to wax stronger.


The Yoruba are a deeply religious people, but they are also pragmatic and tolerant about their religious differences. Thus, it is to the credit of traditional Yoruba tolerance that there has been no religious persecution or war among them since the coming of Christianity and Islam, the two proselytizing religions.

Traditional Yoruba religious practice focuses on the worship of Orisa- a pantheon of gods which include Ifa, Ogun, Obatala, Oya, Oshun, Shango. They have at the head of this pantheon, Olodumare regarded as the supreme deity. Each orisa has a specialty, with Ifa, whose other name is Orunmila as the pathfinder. It is Ifa who knows what destiny each person carries into the world, including which Orisa he/she is destined to worship. Therefore, it is expected that when a child is born, the parents would make effort to find out from Ifa what the child's destiny is. Once it is revealed, the parents are expected to guide the child and to continue to offer sacrifices to the gods so that his or her good destiny is not thwarted.

The various orisa, as has been said, have their special areas of operation. Ogun is the god of iron and war and traveling. It is Ogun who used cutlass to clear the path when the Orisa were first coming from their abode to this world. For this reason, it is believed, the Orisa respect him and make him to have the only crown they brought with them. But Ogun is too aggressive for a settled life. Therefore he left for the top of a hill from where he went on hunting spree and war exploits until he got tired. When he decided to go back to town (Ile Ife) it was difficult for him to get a house to enter because his face was dreadful. Ojo ti Ogun nti ori-oke sokale, aso ina l'o mu b'ora, ewu eje l'o wo. The day ogun was coming down from the hill, his face was like fire, and he was clothed in blood. Ogun is called upon for journey mercies, for bountiful hunting, and for victory at war. It is also Ogun that puts finishing touches to the work of creation by Obatala. It is Ogun that is responsible for circumcision; facial marks, and tatoos. Other orisa have to pay respect to Ogun on account of his expertise.

Obatala, is the god of creation. As mentioned above, the work of creation was to have been fully carried out by Obatala, but oduduwa is believed to have completed it when Obatala got drunk. Still Obatala succeeded in making the physical or bodily parts of human beings, and this is why he is greeted as alamo rere-the one who uses good clay. Obatala is also known as Orisa nla (great divinity) because he is next to Olodumare. Since he is responsible for the physical part of human beings, which is believed to be made out of clay, Orisa nla is also credited with the making of special people as his devotees. Thus what would otherwise be regarded as deformities are considered as deliberate action on the part of Orisa nla.
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  • Re: Yoruba Culture

    Mon, May 5, 2008 - 12:38 PM
    Alafia Sis,

    Thank you sooo much for posting "culture" often times we have enveloped culture with religion thinking all we need is the religious part with out consideration for the culture.

    I just have two things to add. With all the points you made which, were all great. You forgot one very important part, rite of passage, traditionally, there is no marriage without rite of passage. Who vouches for you, who says you have been properly trained and are wife material, (this is when young men have the opportunity to choose after wife, after the training of childhood to adulthood takes placed),who says you can now have more adult responsibilities. This is primary in moving out of one phase and into another. Something that is sorely missing in our society today.

    There other is eldership which happens before death.

    For me the order would be: Naming ceremony, rite of passage, marriage, eldership, veneration (elder or ancestral) with death being a precursor to veneration.

    Again thank you sooooo much for talking about culture, something we need much more of.

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