Many cultures and mythologies, from ancient ones to those still practiced today, give significant meaning to animals, with many of them carrying different symbolism. The symbolic significance of animals is prevalent in cultures across every continent.
There is a considerable religious and symbolic significance of animals in African society and culture, more notably in the Yoruba community of West Africa. Yoruba animal symbolism is intricately interwoven with the everyday life of the Yoruba people and their ancestral traits, customs, and beliefs.
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Yoruba Animal Symbolism
The Yoruba people believe animals can transmit sacred energy and are spirits for their deities, which is why animals play a significant role in mythological stories. In Yoruba culture, the symbolism of animals is told through proverbs. Some animals the Yoruba consider sacred, guardian spirits, while others serve sacrificial purposes to their gods.
The Yoruba People
The Yoruba are an ethnic group in West Africa, with the most significant number of the group living in South Western Nigeria. In fact, the Yoruba people make up 21% of the population in Nigeria.
The Yoruba also live in South Benin, Togo, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and diasporic regions, including Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago. The ethnic group shares the Yoruba language of the Benue-Congo Branch, belonging to the Niger-Congo language family.
Despite sharing a language and culture, there is no proof that the Yoruba people were ever a single political unit. The various groups of the Yoruba instead formed their own kingdoms ruled by a king, or as per Yoruba tradition, oba.
Yoruba Culture and Mythology
The Yoruba people’s culture, mythology, and religion are centered around the holy city of Ile-Ife, in the Osun state, southwestern Nigeria. Ile-Ife is the oldest town in Yoruba culture. According to their mythology, the Ile-Ife is a holy city as it is the birthplace of humanity.
The Yoruba people’s cultural philosophy, folklore, and religion are embodied in the Ifa divination system.
All aspects of Yoruba philosophy and religion are told through the oral storytelling tradition, inhabiting a world of allegories, myths, and poetry rich in proverbs and aphorisms.
Animal symbolism is highly present in Yoruba mythology, and most proverbs teaching morality use animals as examples.
Animals have essential roles in the identity-building of individuals, clans, and ethnic groups, as demonstrated through totemic thoughts and rituals. Animal motifs are depicted in holy kingship doctrine and ceremonies.
Animals in the Yoruba Creation Myth
We encounter animal symbolism in Yoruba culture from the very beginning of their story of the creation myth. According to Yoruba mythology, in the beginning, the universe had only two elements – the sky above and the watery chaos below.
The Supreme God, Olodumara of the Yoruba pantheon, called on Obatala to climb down and create the Earth. However, upon failing in his given task by being drunk on palm wine, Olodumare gave the task to his sibling Oduduwa.
According to the story, Oduduwa used a long chain to climb down from heaven, carrying a calabash filled with sand and a five-toed fowl. Because Earth was entirely covered in water without dry land, Oduduwa poured the sand on it and put the fowl on top. With each step the fowl took, it produced new solid ground.
Once the process was finished, a chameleon was sent down to determine if the land was dry and solid enough. The remaining bodies of water today are places the sand did not touch. The Yoruba believe that some of the objects Odudwa brought from heaven are still in Ile-Ife, among which is the chain.
Classification of Yoruba Animals
In Yoruba culture, several things are taken into consideration when making the animal classification. The classification depends on the placement of the animals in Yoruba cosmology, religion, economics, and interactions between animals and humans. Groups, habitats, and physiological traits classify Yoruba animals.
So there are:
- Eran omi – aquatic, sea, or water animals
- Eran ile – land animals
- Eran afayafa – reptiles
- Eran abiwo – animals with horns
- Eran elese meji – bipeds
- Eran elese merin – quadrupeds
- Eye – birds
- Eku – rats
However, in a broader sense, animals are generally classified as eran ile or domesticated, and eran igbe or wild animals, found in wild nature on land or water.
Taboos about Yoruba animals
The folklore of the Yoruba people about animals has many taboos accompanied by mythical explanations. The explanations have been preserved through folk tales, worship practices, poetry, legends, and rituals.
For example, one taboo is the killing of a mating animal. The rule against killing a mating animal stems from the parallel that the Yoruba people draw with the sexual relationship between people, which should not be disturbed.
According to Yoruba folklore, animals can also feel pain, joy, pleasure, and fear as humans do. This taboo is especially prevalent among Yoruba hunters, as a violation may lead to the same happening to them when they are with their wives.
Other taboos involve the rules against killing and eating animals that are considered sacred in Yoruba culture, including the vulture, ground hornbill, and parrots.
Yoruba hunters and animals
Yoruba hunters foster a deep, mysterious, and complex relationship with animals. The hunters believe that some animals are spirits and thus able to transform into humans at night when hunters go on their hunting expeditions.
Moreover, the hunters believe the animals can teach people traditional Yoruba folk medicine, something which is incredibly beneficial for their society. Yoruba hunters believe that they do not need to kill every animal they come across, as those that are powerful enough can show their true form during the night.
On the other hand, Yoruba hunters can have a relationship with some animals characterized by animosity. This stems from the fact that most animals flee from hunters as they are their enemies and threaten their existence.
Sacred Yoruba animals
As previously mentioned, some animals in Yoruba tradition are considered sacred and are not to be harmed or consumed. Sacred Yoruba animals that people should not kill include vultures, ground hornbills, and parrots.
The Yoruba people consider the parrot a sacred bird they try to domesticate. In ritual performances, the Yoruba use only a feather from a parrot, which they believe to be possessed.
On the other hand, some animals that are considered sacred are used in sacrificial rituals, as is the case with adie irana the fowl that clears the road. The Yoruba people use fowls ritualistically in burials of extraordinary members of society, wherein the fowl is buried alongside the corpse.
In contrast, some animals are revered only by followers of specific deities, which is the case with buffalos. The Yoruba believe that the river deity Oya takes on the form of a buffalo, so her worshippers are not to harm this animal.
Sacrificial animals and Yoruba deities
In Yoruba culture, it is believed that in order to avoid invoking the wrath of deities, win their favor, and seek forgiveness for any offenses caused, a proper sacrifice is needed. Sacrifices in Yoruba culture come in different forms, but most often, many animals are used in sacrificial rituals as each of the numerous deities is associated with a particular animal.
Some of the animals and the deities associated with them are the following:
- Osun – the goddess of the river she is named after, accepts goats and fowls
- Ogun – the god of iron, is fond of snails, tortoises, dogs, and rams
- Esu – the trickster Yoruba deity, accepts black fowls
- Sango – the god of thunder, accepts rams
- Osanyin – the god of herbal medicine, is fond of tortoises
Animal sacrifices are also used when a hunter dies. The Yoruba people deem it necessary to find the animal the hunter killed the most during his lifetime and use it in the ritual. Otherwise, the Yoruba believe that the hunter’s soul will not be able to go to the place of happiness in heaven and will instead haunt the living.
In conclusion, the Yoruba animal symbolism is interwoven deeply in the cultural and religious practices of the Yoruba people of West Africa. Some animals are considered sacred and prohibited from being killed, while others are used in sacrificial rituals to the associated deities.
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