The Rulers of Ife: The Traditional and Adaptive Roles of the Ooni
Ife is an ancient city of the Yoruba located in the south-western part of modern day Nigeria. Based on the archaeological evidence, the urbanization of the site may be dated back to around 500 AD. The ruler of Ife is known as the Ooni, and is believed to be a direct descendant of the Yoruba god Oduduwa. In one version of the Yoruba creation story, this deity plays an important role in the making of human beings.
The Creation Myth of the Yoruba
According to the creation myth of the Yoruba, there was a time when human beings were physically closer to the realm of the gods. Like other creation myths, however, this close relationship was ruined due to some unfortunate incident. One story claims that a greedy person went to Heaven on a regular basis and ate too much food, whilst another story claims that Heaven was soiled by a woman with dirty hands. Therefore, the Supreme deity, Olodumare, removed the realm of the gods from the people he created. One result of this incident was that the other gods began to assume new roles and took bigger responsibilities in the human realm.
Oduduwa and Orisa-nla Come to Earth
In one version of this story, the god Orisa-nla was assigned a job by Olodumare, and came to earth. Orisa-nla, however, became intoxicated by palm wine and fell asleep, and thus was unable to carry out the task given to him. Oduduwa was sent to look for him.
Statue of Oduduwa, Ilé-Ifè, Nigeria (Wikimedia Commons)
When he found Orisa-nla asleep, he did not wake him up, but, according to some stories, carried out his work instead. As a result, in some traditions, Oduduwa is considered to be the father of the Yoruba people. Furthermore, Oduduwa is believed by some to be the first Ooni of Ife, and hence the direct ancestor of every Ooni.
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The Traditional Role of the Ooni
Traditionally, the role of the Ooni was not merely political, but also spiritual and ceremonial. This is due to the fact that Ife is regarded as the cradle of the Yoruba, and therefore has always been the leading religious center of the Yoruba people. Even today, the Ooni of Ife is a highly respected figure, not only in Ife, but also in the wider Nigerian society.
Yoruba copper mask of King Obalufon, Ilé-Ifè, Nigeria (Wikimedia Commons)
The Adaptive Roles of the Ooni
To a certain extent, the role of the Ooni has changed according to the times. For example, in 1903, when Nigeria was then part of the British Empire, the 46th Ooni, Adelekan (Olubuse I), was invited by the governor of Lagos Colony, Walter Egerton, to settle a dispute involving the Elepe of Epe. By traveling to Lagos Colony, Olubuse I became the first Ooni to have travelled outside of Ife. Additionally, whilst the Ooni was absent from Ife, all the other Yoruba kings left their respective thrones as a sign of respect for him. They only returned to their thrones when the Ooni returned to Ife from Lagos Colony.
Another Ooni, Adesoji Aderemi, the 49th ruler of Ife, reigned from 1930 to 1980. In the 1950s, he was invited by the colonial government to be a minister without portfolio. Additionally, he was also the first indigenous governor of Western Region, Nigeria. Furthermore, it was during the reign of Adesoji Aderemi that the University of Ife (now known as the Obafemi Awolowo University) was established.
Adesoji Aderemi, the 49th ruler of Ife (Public Domain)
Keeping Ife Customs Alive
In spite of these modern changes, certain traditions surrounding the office of the Ooni of Ife are still kept. For instance, on some ritual occasions, the Ooni would cover his face completely, so as to signify his distinct status as a person unlike any other human being.
The keeping of customs can also be seen during the days following the death of Okunade Sijuwade, the 50th and most recent Ooni. Upon the death of the Ooni, the immediate family were required to hand his body over to the ‘Oro cult’, a religious secret society, who would begin the necessary rites. To ensure that these rites remain a secret, a curfew on Ife, which lasted seven days, was declared. During the funeral, the body of the late Ooni was not displayed, as the belief was that an Ooni does not die, but goes on a journey to join his ancestors.
Yoruba chiefs preparing for the Oro rituals following the death of the latest Ooni (Public Domain)
Featured image: Figure of an Ife King (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
BBC News, 2015. Nigerians mourn monarch Oba Sijuwade, the Ooni of Ife. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-33929054
BBC World Service, 2015. The Story of Africa, West African Kingdoms. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/4chapter7.shtml
Thomas, D. E., 2005. African Traditional Religion in the Modern World. Jefferson, N. C.: McFarland & Company, Inc..
www.bbc.co.uk, 2015. A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 63: Ife Head. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2zKTs8GfwtW1S6J2V1Tbz3L/episode-transcript-episode-63-ife-head