Yoruba Customs and Beliefs Pertaining to Twins

From the publication: Twin Research
Volume 5 Number 2 pp. 132-136

By: Fernand Leroy(1),Taiwo Olaleye-Oruene (2), Gesina Koeppen-Schomerus (3) and Elizabeth Bryan (4)

1-Overijse, Belgium
2-Olabisi-Olaleye Foundation, London, UK
3-SGDPRC, IoP, King’s College, London, UK
4-Multiple Births Foundation, London, UK
The Yoruba are an important ethnic group mainly occupying
Southwestern Nigeria. Mainly for genetic reasons, this very
large tribe happens to present the highest dizygotic twinning
rate in the world (4.4 % of all maternities). The high perinatal
mortality rate associated with such pregnancies has con-
tributed to the integration of a special twin belief system
within the African traditional religion of this tribe. The latter is
based on the concept of a supreme deity called Olodumare or
Olorun, assisted by a series of secondary gods (Orisha) while
Yoruba religion also involves immortality and reincarnation of
the soul based on the animistic cult of ancestors. Twins are
therefore given special names and believed to detain special
preternatural powers. In keeping with their refined artistic tradi-
tion, the Yoruba have produced numerous wooden statuettes
called Ibejis that represent the souls of deceased newborn
twins and are involved in elaborate rituals. Among Yoruba tradi-
tional beliefs and lore some twin-related themes are
represented which are also found in other parts of the world.
Basic features of the original Yoruba beliefs have found their
way into the religious traditions of descendants of African
slaves imported in the West Indies and in South America.

Geography, Population and History
The Yoruba area is mainly located in Southwestern Nigeria
and in the East of adjacent Benin formerly known as
Dahomey (see Figure 1) but Yoruba people have also spread
to Togo and Ghana (Massa, 1999). The twenty five million
people or so who speak the Yoruba language (belonging to
the Kwa language family) represent one of Africa’s largest
ethnic groups of which the main city is Lagos, one of the
most rapidly growing cities in the world with a population
of 1.4 million in 1972, 10.6 in 1996 and a projected figure
of 20 million by 2010. The origin of the Yoruba is some-
what obscure. Classical theories maintain that they
originated from Egypt, Arabia or Nubia and that they
settled in their present homeland long before the 12th
century. However, studies of mtDNA indicate that in addi-
tion to their kinship with close neighbours such as Hausas
and Ibos, they are genetically the most closely related to
two Western African populations located in the Senegalese
region (Mandenka, Songhai) as well as to Tuaregs (Cavalli-
Sforza et al., 1993; Watson et al., 1996). According to
Yoruba lore, they originally came from the ancient city of
Ife where their almighty god Olorun also known as
Olodumare created mankind (Bolajildowu, 1973; Chappel,
1974; Radin, 1924; Stoll & Stoll, 1980).

The Yoruba chiefdoms were united under the supreme
authority of the powerful Alafin, king of Oyo, until the
beginning of the 19th century. The great Oyo kingdom was
then thrown into confusion by internal battles and wars so
that new smaller kingdoms were created, generating the
major Yoruba subtribes that exist today alongside the origi-
nal Oyo (Chappel, 1974).

In 1886 began the British colonial period which ended
with the declaration of Nigerian independence in 1960. In
1966, the Biafra civil war involved the Yoruba, Haussa and
Ibo tribes and led to political turmoil and military govern-
ment until the return of Nigerian civilian rule in 1979.

The Traditional Yoruba Community
The family unit is of vital importance in the life of every
Yoruba. As in many African societies, the concept of the
family extends far beyond one’s own parents, siblings, wife
and children. It includes a whole clan often composed of
more than a hundred people among which mutual assis-
tance is compulsory. The head of this extended family is the
clan elder called Bale (Mobolade, 1971). Within the clan,
the senior is always superior to the junior. The former,
however, has the obligation to support the junior. If
needed, he must, for instance, take over the role of the
junior’s father (Stoll & Stoll, 1980).

The next level of Yoruba social organisation is the
village community assembling several clans that are closely
linked to each other in a brotherly way. A number of village
communities combine in the form of a principal Yoruba
tribe occupying a given area (Figure 1). At the head of each
tribe reigns a king called Oba who used to deal with
supraregional matters. Nowadays, the Obas no longer have
a say in official policy making although they are still hon-
oured and respected as traditional rulers. Beaded crowns are
worn by the Oba kings during festivities to emphasise their
spiritual powers and royal lineage (Olaleye-Oruene, 1983).
Yoruba Religious Beliefs
Within today’s Yoruba religious affiliations, more than 40%
of the population are allied to Islam, less than 40% are
Christians with the remaining 20% exclusively practising
the traditional animist Yoruba religion. However, most
Yoruba people belonging to the Islamic or to the Christian
faith also adhere in one way or another to the traditional
religious beliefs. The latter are based on the immortality of
the soul and on its reincarnation, which are both essential
to the ibeji twin belief.

Besides the creator Olorun or Olodumare the Yoruba
pantheon is diversified into numerous gods or Orishas. The
resemblance with the realm of ancient Greek mythology
justifies the designation of the Yorubas as the “Hellenes of
Africa” (Bascom, 1973; Chappel, 1974; Mobolade, 1971;
Thompson, 1971). The main Orishas are (Courlander,
1973; Stoll & Stoll, 1980):

Shango: god of thunder and lightening whose emblem
is the double axe (Yoruba territory is subject to the
second highest frequency of thunderstorms in the
world, after Java);

Shopona: the god of smallpox, very powerful and much

Eshu: the troublemaker, the magician and sorcerer who
has many faces and may behave either favourably or

Ogun: god of iron and war and anyone who works
with iron (smiths, hunters, carvers, taxi drivers, etc.)
is a worshipper of Ogun;

Obatalla: Olorun’s plenipotentiary who created the
cripples while being drunk.

Besides these main figures, there are many secondary

The belief in reincarnation is linked to the Yoruba ancestor
belief. In Yoruba religion it is thought that about two gen-
erations after death, every human soul has a chance to
return to earth in the body of a newborn, mostly within the
same family. The welfare of any family is entirely depen-
dent on that of its ancestors. Therefore, regular prayers are
said and sacrificial gifts are laid in front of a special family
shrine devoted to the ancestors (Jantzen & Bertisch, 1993;
Stoll & Stoll, 1980; Thompson, 1971).

As in other African social frameworks, the Yoruba have
developed select and secret religious communities endowed
with strong powers based on the use of black magic and
powerful drugs. The most prominent of these groups is the
Ogboni organisation which, in the past, could even force an
offender to drink a cup of deadly poison.

In their very popular festival that takes place once a
year, the Egungun worshippers represent the spirits of the
departed by masks, in order to connect the living to the
dead. Other such organisations are the Gelede and Epa soci-
eties which are well known for their display of elaborate
masks (Thompson, 1971).

Twins in Yoruba Society
In traditional African societies, twins were considered of
preternatural origin and raised emotional reactions oscillat-
ing from fear and repugnance to hope and joy (Leroy,
1995). In ancient times, the Yoruba used to reject and even
sacrifice newborn twins (Leroy, 1995). Strangely enough,
historical scales were tipped so that twins are nowadays not
only well accepted but welcomed, their birth being an occa-
sion of great rejoicing. A feast will be organised for the
whole community and even for neighbouring villages if the
twins are the children of a prominent member of the tribe
(Chappel, 1974; Stoll & Stoll, 1980).

It is believed that twins are able to bestow happiness,
health and prosperity upon their family. However, since
they can also bring about disaster, disease and death, they
will be treated with all due respect, loving and care. Their
upbringing is therefore far more permissive than that of
other children (Stoll & Stoll, 1980).

The first born twin, whether a boy or a girl, is always
called Taiwo, meaning ‘having the first taste of the world’,
whereas the second is named Kehinde, meaning ‘arriving
after the other’. Although being born first Taiwo is consid-
ered as the younger twin. His senior Kehinde is supposed to
send out his partner to see what the outside world looks
like. As soon as Taiwo has given a signal by crying, Kehinde
will follow. Kehinde is supposed to be more careful, more
intelligent and more reflective, while Taiwo is believed to be
more curious and adventurous, but also more nonchalant
(Olaleye-Oruene, 1983; Stoll & Stoll, 1980).

On the third day after the birth of twins, a visit is paid
by the parents to the Babalawo, the Ifa priest of the com-
munity. Through the interpretation of the Ifa oracle which
includes no less than 1,600 sayings, he is able to drive out
whatever evil spirits may threaten the newborn twins
(Chappel, 1974; Courlander, 1973; Thompson, 1971). He
will dedicate the twins to the Orisha Ibeji god of twins and
if deemed necessary will appoint for them an additional
patron such as Eshu or Shango. Contrary to these latter
prominent deities, the specific god of twins is a minor
Orisha who is never figuratively represented.

The Babalawo communicates to the mother a series of
instructions on how to treat her twins: which colours they
should wear or avoid, which food is recommended or pro-
hibited, which animals are dangerous for them, etc.
(Olaleye-Oruene, 1983; Stoll & Stoll, 1980). The powers
of the Babalawo included the ability to give the order to let
one of the twins starve to death if he was thought to be
possessed by evil spirits that could not be exorcised. This
custom is a reminder of the theme of “the good and the bad
twin” which is part of the mythical beliefs of many archaic
tribes (Leroy, 1995).

The Ibeji Belief System
As the Yoruba believe that twins share the same combined
soul, when a newborn twin dies, the life of the other is
imperilled because the balance of his soul has become seri-
ously disturbed. To counteract this danger a special ritual is
carried out. After consulting the Babalawo, an artisan will
be commissioned to carve a small wooden figure as a sym-
bolic substitute for the soul of the deceased twin. If both
twins have died, two of these figures are made (Figure 2;
Jantzen & Bertisch, 1993; Mobolade, 1971; Stoll & Stoll,

These effigies are called
Ere ibeji (from ‘ibi’ = born
and ‘
eji’ = two; ere means sacred image). By virtue of his
immortal soul hosted by his ibeji, the departed twin remains as
powerful as the living one. The ibeji(s) will have
to be cared for by the parents or later on by the surviving
twin. Therefore, these figures are symbolically washed, fed
and clothed on a regular basis, according to a popular
Yoruba saying “dead ibeji expenses are expenses for the living”
(Courlander, 1973). According to these customs, the
mother enjoys certain privileges even if both her twins have
died (Stoll & Stoll, 1980).
Yoruba people happen to exhibit the highest twinning
rate in the world (Figure 3).
In Caucasian populations, the
tendency for dizygotic twinning has been found to be
mainly hereditary (Meulemans, 1994). According to
Nylander (1979), its high frequency among Yoruba people
might also depend on dietary factors such as the consump-
tion of special species of yams containing oestrogenic
substances. Because of a high rate of premature delivery
and the lack of adequate medical care and health infrastruc-
tures in traditional Nigeria, the perinatal mortality of twins
used to be very high (Leroy, 1995). This explains why great
numbers of i beji statuettes have been produced in
Yorubaland and that they may have accumulated on the
domestic altar of certain families (Stoll & Stoll, 1980).
From the anthropological point of view, the ibeji belief
provides a means of helping Yoruba people to cope emo-
tionally with this high perinatal loss of twin babies (Leroy,
1995). At least once a year in some areas, Yoruba mothers
of deceased twins dance with their twin effigies, either held
tightly in the palms of their hands or tucked in the wrapper
about their waist (Figure 4). On these occasions the
mothers will also sing special songs in praise of the twins
(Thompson, 1971). Some of these songs emphasise the
belief that twins are related to colobus monkeys, the flesh
of which they are expressly forbidden to consume. One of
the popular Yoruba myths tells how twins came to earth as
the consequence of the confrontation of a farmer with the
monkeys in the ancient area of Ishokun (Courlander,

Two Yoruba songs in praise of twins
(Courlander, 1973; Olaleye-Oruene, 1983).

Fine looking twins, natives of Ishokun,
Descendants of treetop monkeys.
Twins saw the houses of the rich but did not go there,
Twins saw the houses of great personages but did not go there
Instead they entered the houses of the poor.
They made the poor rich, they clothed those who were naked.

Majestic and beautiful looking twins, natives of Ishokun,
Let me find means of eating, let me find means of drinking.
Majestic and beautiful looking twins, come and give me
The blessing of a child.
Ibeji Statuettes
Yorubas are the heirs of the prestigious artistic traditions
that prevailed in the ancient kingdom of Benin and the
sacred civilisation of Ifa. Yoruba traditional craftsmen have
hence produced some of the most elaborate and classical
examples of black African art (Bascom, 1973). Ibeji stat-
uettes are among the best-known Yoruba wooden carvings.
Although representing deceased babies, the latter are never
referred to as dead. Rather they are said to “have travelled”
or “gone to the market”. Ibeji effigies appear as wooden
erect adult beings about ten inches tall. They stand in a
“hands on the hips” position, generally on a round or quad-
rangular baseplate.

Following this general pattern, they nevertheless show
marked stylistic differences according to region of origin.
These differences are especially apparent in the shapes of
the heads, facial expressions, tribal scarring, and hairdos or
head covers. These latter are often dyed in bright blue with
indigo or even with dolly blue (Jantzen & Bertisch, 1993;
Thompson, 1971). Many ibejis are partly covered with a
crust of dried camwood powder. They may also present
facial smoothing and a patina due to frequent ritual use.
Very often, they are decorated with metal, cowrie-shell or
pearl necklaces, bracelets and belts. The colours of these
ornaments refer to deities such as Shango or Eshu whereas
cowrie shells, which were used in the past as currency,
remind the twins’ power either to bestow riches or to inflict
misfortune (Massa, 1999). Some ibejis are enclosed in a
large coat covered with eight rows of cowrie shells or deco-
rated with brightly coloured pearl designs. In some regions
this design may appear as a zigzag lightning pattern in
honour of the god Shango (Thompson, 1971). In this
context it is interesting to recall that worldwide, twins have
been linked to thunder. Even in the bible, Jesus Christ
called the twin apostles James and John “Boanerges”
(boanergeV) meaning “sons of thunder” (Leroy, 1995).

Transatlantic Spread
The population of the West Indies and of the Eastern coast
of South America largely originates from the previous
African “Slave Coast” corresponding to the present-day
coast of Nigeria and Benin. It is therefore not surprising that
traditional Yoruba twin beliefs have been transposed in
Latin America. Such is the case of Brazilian traditions of the
Candoble and Macumba in the region of Salvador de Bahia
and of the Umbanda in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. These
traditions have maintained the Yoruba Orishas including the
sacred Ere Ibeji. In the Umbanda, the sacred twins are assim-
ilated to the Christian twin saints Cosmas and Damian
(Figure 5). The latter are colloquially called “the two young
men” and are celebrated at the end of September in a feast
especially devoted to children (Zuring, 1977).
In Cuba, a legend of the Santeria belief tells how the
twins born from Oshun, the goddess of water and preg-
nancy, saved the god Shango (see above). In this tradition,
the god of twins is called Jimaguas and is represented by
two statuettes, male and female, united by their navels and
ritually used to cure the sick (Zuring, 1977).

Superstitions and customs pertaining to twins are universal
and often share converging features among cultures without
any mutual geographical or temporal contact (Leroy, 1995).
This would point to the twin cult as one of the earliest
religious beliefs that has been widely spread and diversified
along human history. In relation with their high frequency
and high perinatal mortality of twins, the Yoruba have
developed special beliefs and customs related to twins and
allowing, in particular, to ritualise the bereavement process
when one or both of the twins die.

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Twin Research April 2002
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