Yoruba Ere-Ibeji
Ere Ibeji
(Ere ibeji - from ‘
ibi’ = born and ‘eji’ = two; 'ere' means sacred image)

The Yoruba of Nigeria and of the Benin Republic are known for having an extraordinarily high rate of multiple
births. The rate of twin births is one of the highest in the world, 45 of every 1,000 births (in the United States it
is 28.9 of every 1000). There is also a high mortality rate; half of the twins die shortly after birth.

In earlier times, new-born twins, or ibeji, as they are called, were believed to be evil, monstrous abnormalities
and infanticide was a common practice. However, such beliefs and practices were later superseded and
reversed, and by the middle of the 18th century twins came to be seen as a blessing; theywere awarded the
status of minor deities, called Orishas, and their arrival was viewed as an omen of good fortune for the family.
By the 19th century the cult of the Ere Ibeji was firmly established and continues to this day. The death of one
or both twins is regarded as a great calamity for the family, one which requires immediate appeasement of the
soul of the deceased child.

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
considered 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).

Though the cause of the high rate of twin births among Yoruba women has not been established, the cultural
grieving process is well documented and may be observed in the carving of a figure known as Ere Ibeji, which
both represents the lost child and serves as a ritual point of contact with the soul of the deceased. The carving
of the Ere Ibeji is commissioned under the guidance of an Ifa diviner, a Babalowo, whom the parents consult in
selecting the particular artist who will do the work. The sculpture itself represents a deceased infant, but is
carved with features and attributes of an adult. The sculptural features of genitalia, pubic hair, wide hips,
developed breasts, gender specific facial scarification and mature coiffures exude an erotic sexuality,
uncommon for infants. Tthe completed ibeji figure is carved as an adult, rather than as the deceased infant, in
a mythological form that depicts the concentrated calm of a Yoruba artist.

When the carving of the Ere Ibeji is completed, the artist is given a feast and payment as determined by the
Orishas. Once the figure is brought to the family dwelling, it is placed on a shrine dedicated to Elegba with the
hope that the Orisha or soul, which was split in two parts when the twins were born, will now again reside in the
figure that represents the dead twin. The sculpted figure is treated and cared for as if it were alive. It is rubbed
in sacramental oil, washed, fed, clothed, sung to and prayed to. It is kept standing during the day, and is laid
down at night. Often it will be dressed in the same clothing as the living twin, or be decorated in a beaded vest
or shown with raised sandals, indicating possible royal connections. They attend to the figure as if it was their
child, they feed and wash it. The headdress will be constantly rubbed with Indigo and the body will be rubbed
with red wood powder. And as a sign of dignity (in wealthy families), some Ibedji get pearl cloaks. The
responsibility of caring for the ibeji is borne by the mother and female family members of subsequent
generations. The sculpture is expected to avert evil from the household, strengthen the manifestations of
family love, stare down death, illuminate the pathway through the valley of immortality, and bring good fortune
to all who treat it with respect and offer it tokens of affection. Conversely, bad fortune and curses may be
engendered if the ibeji is ignored.
From the book: Ibeji - The Cult of Yoruba Twins
A group of Yoruba women in the festival of ere ibeji images
Photograph by William Fagg
From the book: Ibeji - The Cult of Yoruba Twins
Yoruba mother holding her twins
Town of Share, North Oyo
Photgraph by Deborah Stokes (1980)
From the book: Ibeji - The Cult of Yoruba Twins
Yoruba mother with the memorial figures of her deceased twins
Selia Alaka, town of Ikoyi, Ogbomoso.
Photgraph by Deborah Stokes (1980)
Yoruba Ere Ibeji figure (male) in my collection from the Igbuke, Oyo Region of Yorubaland in Nigeria
(see map and other examples from this region further down on this page)

11 inches tall - Wood, pigment, beads, metal insets in the eyes (missing in one eye)
Ex David Baker collection, London
EXAMPLES BELOW ARE NOT IN MY COLLECTION - THEY ARE FOR REFERENCE PURPOSES ONLY
Ibeji figure (female)
Igbuke, Oyo region, Nigeria
H. 11 1/4"
Collection of George Chemeche, NY
From the book -
Ibeji - The Cult of
Yoruba Twins
Ibeji figure (female)
Igbuke, Oyo region, Nigeria
H. 11"
Collection of Susan Allen, Boston
From the book -
Ibeji - The Cult of
Yoruba Twins
Ibeji figure (female)
Igbuke, Oyo region, Nigeria
H. 11 1/4"
Collection of Drs. Noble and Jean
Endicott, NY
From the book -
Ibeji - The Cult of
Yoruba Twins
CLICK HERE to go to my Yoruba Ere Ibeji example page
to see lots of additional examples of Ibeji figures