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Ejiwapo: the dialectics of twoness in

Yoruba art and culture

by Babatunde Lawal

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[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The notion that reality has two aspects (i.e., spirit/matter, visible/invisible, male/female, good/evil, essence/ existence) is a universal and ancient phenomenon. However, its implications vary from one culture to another. In some, the two aspects are thought to be interdependent, as in the duality of twins or the primordial couple whose union gave birth to humankind. In others, the two may be viewed as complementary, as in Hinduism; mutually independent and sometimes antagonistic, as in the eschatological dualism of the Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Christian Gnostic doctrines of good and evil, in which one is expected to overcome the other in the end; or eternally coexistent as in the Cartesian epistemological distinction between mind and body (see Eliade 1969, Bianchi 1978, Lovejoy 1996). This paper examines how the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Republic of Benin perceive and visualize this phenomenon.

The Yoruba regard the number two as sacred apparently because of the duality or "twoness" (ejiwapo) apparent in nature, such as day/night, sun/moon, life/death, hot/cold, wet/dry, right/left, and male/female. Apart from associating the number with balance, they expect it (especially in a ritual context) to influence the supernatural and bring about a desired result:

Eji koko Iwori, Oluwo Isulorun! Ki o ko reree temi wa a fn mi Eji koko Iwori Ki o gbe orun gba a wa sile Aye Bale ba le, a foju foorun Eji koko Iwori Sure tete wa koo wa fire temi fun mi Eji-koo-koo-koo, Iwori! (Adeniji 1982:96) (1)

Iwori-The-Formidable-Two, Master Diviner of Heaven! Bring me my blessings Iwori-The-Formidable- Two Bring them [my blessings] from heaven to earth When the night falls, Sleep takes over our eyes Iwori-The-Formidable-Two! Move swiftly and bring me my blessings

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Ejiwapo: the dialectics of twoness in Yoruba art and culture | African Arts | Find Articles at BNET

Iwori-The-Formidable-Formidable-Formidable-Two! (my trans.)

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Yoruba are world famous for their adoration of twins (ibeji), regarding them as wielding spiritual powers with which they protect as well as attract good fortune to their parents. This adoration easily explains why much of the previous scholarship on the significance of twoness in Yoruba art focused primarily on the rituals and images of twins. In what follows, I broach the subject within the dialectics of Yoruba cosmology, which explains the universe as an interface of opposing yet interrelated elements.

IGBA iwa: THE COSMIC GOURD WITH TWO HALVES

The popular Yoruba saying "Tako, tabo, ejiwapo" ("The male and female in togetherness"; Lawal 1995:45) is loaded with meaning. In addition to hinting at the life-producing potential of the couple--the source of the family--it recalls the Yoruba conceptualization of the cosmos as a "big gourd with two halves" (Igba nla meiji sbju de'ra won). (2) The top half signifies maleness as well as the sky/heaven--the realm of invisible spirits (Fig. 1). The bottom half represents femaleness and the primeval waters out of which the physical world was later created. A mysterious power called ase is thought to hold the gourd in space, enabling the sun and moon to shine, wind to blow, fire to burn, rain to fall, rivers to flow, and both living and nonliving things to exist. This power emanates from a Supreme Deity known (among other names) as Alase ('Owner of ase'), Olorun ('Lord of the Sky') and Olodumare (the 'Eternal One and Source of All That Exists'). Assisting Olodumare in administering the universe is a host of lesser deities or nature forces called orisa. Said to number four hundred or more, each orisa personifies an ase associated with a natural or cultural phenomenon. For example, Obatala represents artistic creativity; Orunmila, intelligence; Oduduwa, divine kingship; Yemoja/Olokun, water and motherhood; Osun, fertility and beauty; and so on. The deity Esu-Elegba occupies a special position among the orisa because of his role as the divine messenger and the link between them and Olodumare, on the one hand, and between the orisa and humanity, on the other. He is regarded as the custodian of ase. Unlike the Supreme Divinity in other African cultures, Olodumare seldom creates directly but does so through the orisa. For example, on deciding to create land out of the primeval waters, Olodumare commissioned Oduduwa to do so. After that, Olodumare instructed the artist deity Obatala to mold anthropomorphic images from clay, animated each image with a life force (emi) and then asked the newly created humans to go and inhabit the land below the sky. In short, these events, among others, transformed the bottom half of the cosmic gourd, also called Igba Iwa ('Gourd/Calabash of Existence'), into the material realm and domain of female Earth, Ile, one of whose other names is Iya Aye ('Mother of the World').

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

According to one creation story, the two halves of the cosmic gourd fitted closely in the beginning, with Olodumare (male Heaven, alias Ajalorun) ruling the top half and Ile (female Earth, alias Ajalaye), the bottom half. But one day, they quarreled over the only bush rat they caught while hunting together in the forest. Ile insisted on keeping the rat because it came from her domain and she was the "senior." Olodumare gave up the catch, caused the top half of Igba Iwa to separate from the bottom, and prevented rain from falling from the sky, thus disrupting the reproductive cycle in the terrestrial world. This obliged Ile to give in and acknowledge the apical position of Olodumare as the head of the cosmos, and life subsequently returned to normal in the physical world (Idowu 1995:46-7, Abimbola 1975:261-91).

It may be asked: Since Olodumare allegedly created Ile (through Oduduwa), why should she claim to be the senior? The answer probably lies in another version of the Yoruba creation myth (collected by Samuel Ajayi Crowther, 1852:207) to the effect that the Yoruba once regarded Oduduwa as the Supreme Goddess, an embodiment of Heaven and Earth. According to J. Olumide Lucas, one of the pioneer scholars of Yoruba religion and himself a Yoruba elder:

In the early myths she [Oduduwa] is credited with the priority of

existence

as co-eval with Olorun [aka Olodumare], the Supreme Deity with

whom she is associated in the work of creation

as Iya Agbe--'Mother of the Gourd' or 'Mother of the closed calabash; She is [sometimes] represented in a sitting posture, nursing a child. Hence prayers are often addressed to her by would-be mothers (Lucas 1948:45).

She is regarded as having independent existence, and

Oduduwa is known

D. Olarimiwa Epega, another Yoruba elder, makes a similar point: "Odudua is the Self-Existent Being who created

existence. He is both male and female

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]

Other scholars have drawn attention to the appearance of the word odu (chief) in the names of Ol-odu-mare and Oduduwa, suggesting that both apparently refer to one and the same deity (Idowu 1994:22-7, 31-2; Bamgbose 1972/73:28-9). (4) Indeed, Olodumare is also known as Eleduwa, which recalls the duwa in Odu-duwa. Thus the narrative attributing the creation of the terrestrial world to Oduduwa may very well reflect a divine act of self-extension, identifying Olodumare as a sexually biune Supreme Deity. In other words, is Ile an alter ego of Olodumare?

The reference to the bottom half of the cosmic calabash/gourd as the "mother" (Iya Agbe) is in consonance with the Yoruba identification of a container's lid as ideri ('cover') or omori (lit. omo, 'child' ori, 'on top'). This is because a container, usually the bigger, supports its smaller cover in the same way a mother carries her child. Two questions then arise: Does Olodumare have a mother? Can the two halves of Igba Iwa also double as a Mother-and-(male) Child? This is not unlikely, given the fact that (as Olumide Lucas noted) Oduduwa is sometimes portrayed as a mother breast-feeding a child (Idowu 1962:Fig. 3b). It is interesting to note that a popular Yoruba folk etymology derives Olodumare's name from Olodu-omo-ere, that is, 'Olodu, the child of a female python' (Idowu 1994:32-3, Bamgbose 1971/72:28-9). The following divination verse identifies him as such:

The word Olodumare is a praise title of Odudua" (1971:13-14). (3)

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