all photographs by the author

In 1964, local observers from all walks of life were shown a selection of memorial images for departed twins (ere ibeji), representing a varied range of individual “hands,” or styles, throughout Yorubaland. The most highly praised and widely admired of all the images offered for their critical appraisal was the female twin figure featured here (Figs. 1a-b).

1a–b

Female twin memorial image (ere ibeji), collected at Ajilete in 1951. Most probably carved, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, by Eshubiyi [Esubiyi], also known as Amutu, founder of one of the two principal wood-carving enterprises in Abeokuta, the Egba capital. NM (National Museum) Accession Number 51.16.547. H:25 cm.

1a–b

Female twin memorial image (ere ibeji), collected at Ajilete in 1951. Most probably carved, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, by Eshubiyi [Esubiyi], also known as Amutu, founder of one of the two principal wood-carving enterprises in Abeokuta, the Egba capital. NM (National Museum) Accession Number 51.16.547. H:25 cm.

This figure was collected by K.C. Murray, then Surveyor of Antiquities, at the Egbado town of Ajilete, southwestern Yorubaland, in 1951. It was among other items rescued after the Atinga “witch-finding” cult had swept through the Ilaro area in 1950–51 (see Morton-Williams 1956: 315–34). Specific cults were targeted, and shrines for twins were attacked with “particular zeal” (Morton-Williams 1956: 325), reflecting the close association of twin births with witches in this area. Murray (n.d.) reckoned that the cult visited at least thirty-nine, and possibly as many as forty-five, different localities. He collected 210 twin figures, including 56 pairs, but this represents only a small selection of the many hundreds, if not thousands, of twin images either earmarked for destruction or already destroyed by cult members on their rampage through the region.

On stylistic grounds, the figure is undoubtedly a product of the Eshubiyi [Esubiyi] workshop, Ita Eleshu [Elesu], Oke Itoko, Abeokuta, a singular characteristic of this style being the “massive pierced hands” (Drewal 1980: 52, Fig. 63). Shown the figure in 1964, members of the lineage claimed it, without hesitation, as the work of the workshop's founder (ca. 1840–1910), suggesting that it had probably been carved during the second half of the nineteenth century. Eshubiyi, also known by his praise name Amutu, and members of his family had settled in Abeokuta in 1863 or thereabouts, as refugees from the nearby settlement of lbara-Oko, which lay in the path of an approaching Dahomeyan army (see Chappel 1972). A priest of Eshu [Esu] Elegba (trickster and divine messenger of the gods) as well as a carver, Eshubiyi set up his workshop in a part of the Egba metropolis separated from his fellow refugees while continuing to maintain links with the close-knit Ibara community. In 1964, Shookan [Sookan] Ogunbayo, Eshubiyi's grandson, and other lineage members were adamant that a dance staff (Figs. 2a–b) still in use in association with his priestly duties—both occupations, priest and carver, having been inherited—had been carved by Eshubiyi himself. The care and devotion directed towards this iconic lineage possession suggested that there was no reason to doubt this assertion. As Drewal (1980) notes, there are marked stylistic convergences between this dance staff and the twin figure that he provisionally attributes to Eshubiyi. The same may be said of the twin figure under discussion.

2a–b

Dance staff for Eshu [Esu]-Elegba, trickster and divine messenger of the gods. Almost certainly carved by Eshubiyi [Esubiyi], during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Photographed in situ, in Ita Eleshu [Elesu], Abeokuta, in 1964.

2a–b

Dance staff for Eshu [Esu]-Elegba, trickster and divine messenger of the gods. Almost certainly carved by Eshubiyi [Esubiyi], during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Photographed in situ, in Ita Eleshu [Elesu], Abeokuta, in 1964.

The lower portion of the sculpture, held by Shookan, is festooned with cowrie shells and also two china (Dresden?) figurines said to have been given to Eshubiyi by German missionaries soon after he had settled in Abeokuta in 1863 or thereabouts.

The lower portion of the sculpture, held by Shookan, is festooned with cowrie shells and also two china (Dresden?) figurines said to have been given to Eshubiyi by German missionaries soon after he had settled in Abeokuta in 1863 or thereabouts.

As indicated, this figure was the most highly ranked of all the twin figures shown to respondents for their critical appraisal. It was noted, at the time, that the initial appreciative response of many of these observers was a nonverbal one: They manifested an obvious desire to pick up and handle this particular object. In many instances, they were observed caressing its smooth contours. Subsequent verbal comments most frequently remarked on the fact that the image closely “resembles a person” (o jo enia), i.e., it looked like a human being. Among the southwestern Yoruba, at least, this was a defining accolade for what was considered to be a successful piece of figurative sculpture.

Especial praise was lavished by respondents on the carver's expert treatment, both in terms of quality (fineness of execution) and quantity (number of plaits), of the figure's coiffure, another major criterion of carving excellence in this area. In 1964, Shookan and his son, Atanda, also a carver, reluctantly agreed that their own efforts in this regard no longer matched those of their predecessors. Fellow carver Joshua Adelakun of Mede (see Chappel 2005: 81–82, Fig. 15), who had been invited to make a copy of the figure, admitted that in spite of his acknowledged skill with the knife, the task of reproducing the finely executed plaits of the coiffure, with which he was altogether unfamiliar, had proved both daunting and demanding. Indeed, he was less than satisfied with his attempt.

The only criticism encountered with regard to the figure were that the hands are unnaturally large in relation to the remainder of the body. Joshua Adelakun, in the process of producing his copy of the piece, noted in addition that the figure lacks wrists, but said that he that he had rectified this omission (Chappel 2005: 81–82). Interestingly, Sarakatu Ayoola (Ayo), leading carver of the rival Adugbologe workshop in Abeokuta, was full of praise for this twin image, which was presented to him on three separate occasions and which he attributed to Amutu (i.e., Eshubiyi). Given he and Shookan were, at that time, engaged in an intense, even bitter public feud over the originator of Shodeke [Sodeke]'s door—both men claiming that their respective grandfathers had carved the door for the legendary founder of Abeokuta (Chappel 1972)—a less dispassionate appraisal might have been expected. Inevitably, he drew attention to the enlarged hands, indicating that members of the Eshubiyi workshop had never learnt how to carve this feature of the human anatomy “correctly,” while himself providing a detailed demonstration of the correct positioning of the digits, especially with regard to the gap between fingers and thumbs. On the second occasion, he offered the additional criticism that the arms were “too long,” pointing to his own father's twin images as perfect examples of the proper proportions. On the third occasion, he noted, almost as an afterthought, and possibly with an element of mischievous intent, that the carving of the breasts indicated a person “suffering from venereal disease.” However, he also reiterated his opinion that this was the work of a highly accomplished carver and his final, somewhat barbed, comment relating specifically to Amutu's generation of carvers was: “They were much better carvers in those days.”1 It would, perhaps, be hard to disagree with this verdict.

Yoruba twin figures are regarded by some, especially cultural outsiders, as little more than “charming dolls.” They are, however, capable of operating as “power objects,” not only when employed to “make medicine” with the express purpose of causing harm to others, but also in the ever-present awareness of their ritual potency in the minds of those household members directly entrusted with their care and preservation as memorials for departed twins. As one member of the Adugbologe workshop, into which many twins had been born, explained in 1964: “Twins are the children of witches, and they are spirit beings (anjonu) … [Because of this] twin images are more important than all other carvings. You [Europeans] buy them from us for [just] two pounds, but they are important.”2

Formerly, throughout Yorubaland, twins were forbidden and twin births not accepted, either socially or culturally, as a fact of life. The Yoruba, therefore, “did not have twins.” Subsequently, over a period of time, possibly as a result of contact during the eighteenth century or even earlier with their western Egun [Gun] neighbors, the reversal of this taboo reaction led to twin children being welcomed as divine, or semi-divine, beings (cf. Chappel 1974). However, in the mid-1960s, the period when these comments were made, it was apparent that many Yoruba continued to harbor an ambivalent attitude towards twin births. In fact, in certain lineages such births were still forbidden.

During the process of ideological reversal, the earlier belief that twin births did not occur and twins, therefore, did not exist was reformulated as its logical corollary: “Twins do not die.” When a twin child departed from this visible world, various euphemisms were employed to explain its temporary absence, e.g., “It has gone to Lagos to buy cloth,” or “It has gone to the bush to collect firewood.” This fiction seemingly provided the parents and close relatives and society at large with a psychologically reassuring support mechanism absolving them from any lingering (if unvoiced) doubts or fears, or residual (if submerged) guilt feelings concerning the child's departure and the possibility that this might have been causally linked, as in the past, with a negative response resulting in total rejection.

In order to realize the physical return of the absent twin, a representative wooden image (ere ibeji) was invariably commissioned by the parents on instruction from the Ifa oracle and then treated as a sentient being. This image served both as a repository for the disembodied, restless, therefore potentially dangerous spirit of the departed twin and as one of the primary focal points for the propitiation rituals associated with the twin cult. Although representing an infant, the replica was endowed with primary sexual characteristics, thus permitting the born-again twin—many parents and carvers referred to the commissioning of the image as a “rebirth”—to continue its interrupted journey into adult maturity and to experience, as it were, a fulfilled life.

The primary function, then, of the twin image was to symbolize the worldly reinstatement, indeed the welcome rebirth, of the lately departed but now returning prodigal, thereby offering incontrovertible proof that Yoruba society no longer rejected twin births or the existence of twins, as it had once done in the past. The role of the ere ibeji, to put it simply, was to operate as a tangible reaffirmation of the earthly acceptance of these special children. At a deeper level, perhaps, the image symbolized, in a potentially fraught situation, the ideal outcome: the harmonious reunion of body and soul, heaven and earth. In this sense, ere ibeji could be said to replicate, in essentially Yoruba terms, the human condition, in that an external, physical presence, subject to mortality, serves as a temporary vessel for an internal, spiritual essence, which is both transcendental and indestructible.3

Notes

1

Lineage history has it that Ayo's grandfather, Ojeyinde [Ojerinde] (nicknamed Adugbologe), and Eshubiyi worked together as woodcarvers during the early days of their settlement in Abeokuta. It was during the incumbency of their respective sons, Oniyide and Akinyode, as head carvers that a parting of the ways had occurred and the rivalry, bequeathed to their own two sons, had arisen.

2

Aminu Ayinla Idowu, son of Ayo's half-brother, Makinde, interview with author, 1964.

3

I have a nagging suspicion that this notion, as expressed, and even its precise wording, may not be original, i.e., I may well have read or heard it somewhere. Should this be so, and for the purpose of proper acknowledgment, I have diligently searched for a possible source, but without success. If this does represent an instance of plagiarism, I can only offer my most sincere and abject apologies to the author concerned.

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