THE Yoruba priesthood is divided into recognised orders, but before describing them it will be necessary to give some account of a secret society which is inseparably connected with the priesthood, and which, except in Jebu, Where it is called Oshogbo, is known as the Ogboni Society.
The Ogboni Society really holds the reins of government, and kings themselves are obliged to submit to its decrees. The members are popularly believed to possess a secret from which they derive their power, but their only secret appears to be that of a powerful and unscrupulous organisation, each member of which is bound to assist every other, while all are bound to carry out, and if necessary enforce, the decrees of the body. Each town and village has its Ogboni "lodge," and the members recognise each other by conventional signs and passwords.. At their meetings, which are held with a great affectation of mystery, they deliberate upon all matters which interest the tribe or community. The decisions of the Ogboni are final, and nothing of importance can be done without their consent When the missionaries wished to establish theniselves at Abeokuta, the king could not grant the necessary permission till the Ogbonis had considered the matter and signified their consent. The power of the Ogbonis, however, varies in different states, and in Ibadan they seem to be little more than public executioners.
Of course, since the organization is secret, little can really be known about it. Death is said to be the penalty for betraying the secrets of the order. According to native report, a member who has been convicted of such an offence is placed in a narrow cell, with his legs protruding through two holes in the wall into an adjoining cell, where they are fastened to two stakes driven into the earthen floor. The executioner sits in this adjoining cell, and the offender is tortured to death by having the flesh scraped from his legs with sharp-edged shells. Whether this is true or not it is impossible to say.
According to some natives the Ogboni Society has for its chief object the preservation of established religious customs, while according to others it is principally occupied with the civil power. It really appears to concern itself with every matter of public interest, and seems to resemble in all important particulars a very similar society, called Porro, which is found among the Timnis of Sierra Leone. What is quite certain is that the protecting deity of the Ogboni is the goddess Odudua, who is generally spoken of by members by her title Ile (Earth). It seems probable that the society was originally intended for the initiation to manhood of youths who had arrived at puberty, like the Boguera of the Beebuanas, the Niamwali of the Manganja, and the ceremony of the Mpongwe, described by Mr. Winwood Reade, and that its civil and judicial functions are later usurpations. If this were so, it would to some extent be connected with phallic worship, and phallic emblems are very commonly seen carved on the doors of Ogboni lodges. The name Ogboni is probably derived from Ogba, "Companion."
The Alafin of Yoruba is the chief of all the Ogboni, and he thus is able to exert influence beyond the limits of his own kingdom. In most states the chief of the Ogboni is the head of the priesthood, and is styled Ekeji Orisha, "Next to the Gods." He convokes councils of priests on extraordinary occasions, and decides disputed points. In Jebu every man of rank is an Oshogbo, but in lbadan, as has been said, the Ogboni seem chiefly to exercise the functions of executioners. Criminals are delivered to them for execution and are put to death secretly in the Ogboni lodge. The heads are afterwards fixed to a tree in the market-place, but the bodies are never seen again, and the relatives are thus unable to give them the rites of sepulture, which is considered a great disgrace.
The Yoruba priesthood (Olorisha, priest) is divided into three orders, each of which is further subdivided into ranks or classes.
The first order comprises three ranks, viz. (1) the Babalawo, or priests of Ifa; (2) priests who practise medicine, and who serve Osanhin and Aroni, gods of medicine; (3) priests of Obatala and Odudua. White
[1. "Savage Africa," p. 246.]
is the distinguishing colour of this order, and all priests belonging to it invariably wear white cloths. The Babalawo wear armlets made of palm-fibre, and carry a cow-tail (iruke), while priests of Obatala are distinguished by necklaces of white beads. There are two high priests of this order, one of whom resides at Ife and the other at Ika, some distance to the north.
The second order comprises (1) the Oni-Shango, or priests of Shango; and (2) priests of all other gods not before mentioned, except Orisha Oko. Red and white are the distinguishing colours of this order, and all members of it shave the crown of the head. Priests of Shango wear necklaces of black, red, and white beads; those of Ogun an iron bracelet on the left arm; and those of Oshun, one of Shango's wives, brass armlets and anklets.
The third order consists of (1) priests of Orisha Oko, god of Agriculture, and (2) priests of demi-gods, or deified men, such as Huisi, who defended Oya against Shango. Priests of this order are distinguished by a small white mark painted on the forehead.
The reason of the Babalawo taking the highest place in the priesthood is that it is through his agency, as the priest of Ifa, the god of divination, that man learns what is necessary to be done to please the other gods. The priests of Ifa thus, to a certain extent, control and direct the worship of the other gods, and in time of calamity, war, or pestilence it is their business to declare what ought to be done to make the gods propitious.
The Magba, or chief priest of Shango, has twelve assistants, who are termed, in order of authority, right-hand (Oton), left-hand (Osin), third, fourth, fifth, and so on. They reside near Kuso, the spot at which Shango is said to have descended into the earth.
The priests, besides acting as intermediaries between the gods and men, preside at all trials by ordeal, and prepare and sell charms, amulets, &c. The priests of Ifa are diviners proper, but other priests also practise divination, though not with palm-nuts and the board peculiar to Ifa. The methods are various; one, called keke, is a casting of lots by means of small sticks or stalks of grass, each of which represents a particular individual; another, called gogo, is a drawing of lots. A certain number of grass stalks, one of which is bent, are held in the band or wrapped in a piece of cloth, so that the ends only show; and each person in turn draws one, the bent stalk indicating the one who is in fault. The person of a priest is sacred, and violence offered to one is severely punished.
The office of priest is hereditary in the families of priests, but members are recruited in other modes. Seminaries for youths and girls, like those of the kosio of the Ewe tribes, are a regular institution, and in them applicants for the priestly office undergo a novitiate of two or three years, at the end of which they are consecrated and take a new name. The ceremony of consecration is very similar to that described in the last volume.
[1. Ewe-Speaking Peoples," p. 143.]
The ordinary service of the temples is performed by the dependents of the priesthood, the affiliated youths, and the "wives" of the gods, who keep the vessels filled with water, and every fifth day sweep out the temples. In the vicinity the affiliated young people practise the religious dances and songs, and for hours together may be heard repeating chants of only two or three notes, till they work themselves up into a state of frenzy, and break out into loud shrieks and cries.
Temples are ordinarily circular huts built of clay, with conical roofs thatched with grass; the interior is usually painted with the colour sacred to the god, and the doors and shutters, and the posts which support the overhanging eaves, are carved. The temples of the chief gods are usually situated in groves of fine trees, amongst which one or two large silk-cotton trees (Bombaces), which seem to be regarded with veneration throughout all West Africa, tower above the rest. From the summits of the trees, or from tall bamboos, long streamers flutter in the wind and testify to the sanctity of the locality. Sometimes there is a grove only, without any temple, but more frequently the grove or avenue adjoins a shrine. These groves are regarded with superstitious reverence, and have proper names; a grove sacred to Ifa and his companion Odu is, for instance, called an Igbodu. Near the western entrance of the town of Ode Ondo is a celebrated grove or sacred avenue, to one side of which, in the adjoining bush, the sacrifice of human victims and the execution of criminals takes place. Persons approaching each other in opposite directions are not allowed to pass each other in this avenue, one of them being required to turn back and wait till the path is clear.
The temples of tutelary deities of towns are usually to be found in the central square of the town, or near the principal gate, and those of the tutelary deities of families or households near the house-door or in the yard. In shape and construction they resemble the temples of the chief gods, but those of the pro. tecting deities of households are mere miniatures, and are sometimes only small sheds, open at the ends and sides. Besides these structures, which are seen in every street, one often finds larger huts, circular in shape, thatched with grass, and larcre enough to contain a seated man. These, which might be mistaken for temples but for the fact that they contain no images, are built for the accommodation of pious persons who wish to meditate and pray. A temple is called Ile Orisha, "House of the Orisha."
The Yoruba gods are almost invariably represented by images in human form, which appear grotesque, but are not meant to be so, the grotesqueness being merely the result of want of skill. These images are regarded as emblems of absent gods. They themselves are not worshipped, and there is no idolatry in the proper sense of the word, though no doubt there is a tendency to confuse the symbol with the god. Likewise, through a confusion of objective and subjective connection, there is an idea that the god enters into the image to receive the sacrifices offered by his faithful followers, and to listen to their adoration and prayers. Earthen vessels receive the libations of blood -and palm-oil, while the yolks of eggs, which here, as elsewhere in West Africa, are regarded as offerings peculiarly proper to the gods, are smeared upon the posts, door-sills, and threshold. In important temples, and also in the houses of kings and chiefs of high rank, a tall drum, called a gbedu, is kept. It is usually covered with carvings representing animals and birds, and the phallus. This drum is only beaten at religious fetes and public ceremonies, and a portion of the blood of the victims immolated is always sprinkled upon the symbolic carvings, upon which palm-wine, the yolks of eggs, and the feathers of sacrificed chickens are also smeared. In this case the offering is to the protecting spirit of the drum, which is that of a slave who has been sacrificed on it. This plan of supplying an artificial guardian-spirit for objects, other than natural objects, which are considered of importance, is a development of ghostworship, and on the Gold Coast such guardians are provided for the "stools" of kings and chiefs, as well as for temple and state drums.
Sacrifice is the most important part of ceremonial worship, and no god can be consulted without it, the value of the offering varying with the importance of the occasion. Besides the offerings thus made for special purposes, or on special occasions, persons who are the followers of a god-that is, those who wear his distinguishing badge and are believed to be under his protection- make, as a rule, daily offerings of small
[1. A purificatory egg was used to propitiate the goddess Isis (Juvenal, Sat. vi. 518).]
value, such as a few cowries, or a little maize-flour, palm-oil, or palm-wine.
As has already been mentioned, each god has certain animals which it is proper to sacrifice to him; to use the phraseology of the Old Testament, every god has his "clean" and his "unclean" animals. Some sacrifices are "unclean" to all the gods, as the turkey-buzzard (gunu-gunu), the vulture (akala), and the grey parrot (ofe). As the two former devour offal and carrion, and are, in fact, scavengers, we can see a reason for considering them unclean; but why the grey parrot should also be so considered is not evident. The natives endeavour to account for the "uncleanliness" of these birds by two popular sayings, which run as follows:--
"The turkey-buzzard was required to offer sacrifice, but he refused to do so; the vulture was required to offer sacrifice, but he also refused. When the pigeon was required to offer sacrifice, he did so."
"The grey parrot being required to offer sacrifice, refused to offer it; but the green parrot took the sacrifice and offered it. After all, the grey parrot is a citizen of Oyo (the capital of Yoruba) and the green parrot an inhabitant of the country, and yet people thoughit that the grey parrot was not wise."
As the turkey-buzzard, vulture, and grey parrot refused to offer sacrifice, they became "unclean," while the pigeon and the green parrot, which offered it, remained "clean." The latter part of the second saying appears to be ironical, for the grey parrot, in consequence of its uncleanliness, is never offered up, while the green parrot is sacrificed.
On important occasions the priest designates to the suppliants the sacrifice which he thinks necessary to induce the god to lend a favourable ear. They prostrate themselves before the shrine with cries of "Toto, toto-huu," an exclamation which denotes humiliation and submission, while the priest, in a long harangue, presents their petition, or case, to the god. He usually begins his address by flattering the god, dwelling upon his fame and power, and showing how his humble servitors are entirely dependent upon his good-will. Then he calls attention to the self-abasement of the god's faithful followers "So-and-so," to the value of the victim which they have brought him, and begs him to be propitious and listen to their humble prayer. He then sacrifices the victim, sprinkles some of the blood on the image, pours the remainder on the ground, and places the head and entrails in a shallow earthen vessel in front of the temple.
Sacrifices are thus offered in the presence of the god, that is, before his image, which he is supposed to animate for the time being, but there is one exception to this general rule. This is, on occasions when sacrifice is made at cross-roads, or at a point where several roads meet, in order to avert an impending calamity. In this case the sacrifice is probably made to the legion of spirits, mostly evil, who are supposed to haunt the forests and uninhabited tracts of country; and the general belief is that the approaching danger is diverted from the proper road., and turned away from the community which it
[1. Whence it is that tbe verb da, "to be poured out," has also the meaniug "to be acceptable as a sacrifice."]
threatened. In reference to this practice a proverb says, "The cross-roads do not dread sacrifices."
Sometimes, in response to the appeal of the priest, the god answers in a bird-like, twittering voice, first heard whispering at a little distance and then comingnearer. When this occurs, the worshippers lie prone with their faces to the ground, awe-stricken, while the priest carries on a conversation with the spirit voice, and subsequently interprets it to the auditors. This conception that a spirit-voice should be a twittering, chirping, or whistling sound is very wide-spread; as Dr. Tyler has shown, it used to exist ainong the Greeks and Romans, and it may at the present day be found aniong the Indian tribes of North America, the Zulus, and the Polynesians. The spirit-voice is no doubt produced by a confederate priest, by incans of a blade of grass, or a leaf, placed between the teeth.
The image of a god which is merely tutelar to one individual is only treated with respect during the life of that individual, after which it is thrown away. Since the god is personal to the individual, and has no other purpose than to protect him, the image is only of use as a vehicle of communication between them so long as the man lives. After his death the god no longer enters or animates the image, which in consequelice loses its sacred character, and becomes an ordinary object of no value. Thus, whenever a man dies, his tutelary god, if he had one, is thrown away
[1. The ancients offered sacrifices -it the cross-roads to Hekate, Goddess of Night. (Lucian, "Dialogues of the Dead," I.).
2. "Primitive Culture," vol. i. p. 452]
by the surviving members of the household, and the extraordinary belief, held by some Europeans, that the negro makes and breaks his gods at will, may probably be accounted for as a misconception of this practice.
Although human sacrifices occur amongst the Yoruba tribes, we find among them no parallel to the wholesale slaughters which take place, or rather used to take place, in Ashanti and Dahoini. The reason no doubt is, that the Yoruba kings and chiefs are not sufficiently powerful to be able to sacrifice life on a large scale; for the more powerful the monarch, the more he can afford to disregard public opinion, and since the masses supply the victims, human sacrifices are never regarded by them with favour. Whether, when Yoruba was a homogeneous and powerful state, human sacrifices were a state institution, as they were in Dahomi, we have no means of ascertaining, but all the probabilities point in that direction.
During the period that the Yorubas have been known to Europeans no large number of victims has been put to death even on the occasion of the death of a king. A king of Oyo died on April 27th, 1859, and only four men were sacrificed, but forty-two of his wives poisoned themselves in order to accompany him to the Land of the Dead. In Ondo about twenty persons were sacrificed when a king died, and there was an established procedure, one victim having to be immolated when the corpse was washed, four at different entrances to the palace, and a sixth in the market-place. On the day of the burial from eight to ten victims, with a cat, were either killed and interred with the corpse or buried alive, and during the three months which are required to elapse before a new king can be installed there were occasional sacrifices. In 1882 the king of Ondo entered into an engagement with the government of Lagos to put an end to human sacrifices, but he does not appear to have kept it. At the present day, amongst all the tribes, when a king or chief dies it is usual for two of his wives to commit suicide, and should no volunteers be forthcoming, two are selected and put to death. Horses are often killed and buried with their owners.
There was until very recently, and perhaps still is, an annual human sacrifice at Abeokuta, called the "basket-sacrifice," a euphemism designed to conceal the real nature of the ceremony. The victim was enclosed in a long basket, as in Dabomi, from whence perhaps the custom was adopted, thrown down from a height, and despatched by a mob armed with clubs. It was a national offering, but when times were prosperous the victim was often spared and dedicated to a god, whose temple-slave be then became. There used also to be an annual sacrifice of one human victim at Ikoradu, and a similar offering every sixth year to the god Ogun at Ikriku.
In times of great urgency human sacrifices are offered to some of the gods, for example, to Shango, Ifa, Elegba, Ogun, Olokun, and Olosa; but they are nearly always made at night, and the people are required to remain in their houses. There is none of the publicity and display which we found in Ashanti and Dahoini, and so the people escape the brutalising effect which the frequent spectacle of scenes of bloodshed must produce. Even the priests, always the last to be influenced by a change of public opinion, seem to regard human sacrifice as something to be deplored, but occasionally necessary. The victim is slaughtered almost in secret, and the sound of the temple-drunis and the mournful chants of the assistants alone inform the people of what is taking place. The natives avoid any direct reference to the subject. "The night is bad," they say. As on the Gold Coast, the victim is always decapitated in front of the image, so that the blood from the severed arteries may spurt over it. For Elegba the body is opened and the entrails placed before him in a shallow dish. The body of a man sacrificed to the sea-god Olokun is thrown into the sea, and that of a man offered to Olosa into the lagoon.
The Commissioners who were sent to the interior in 1886 to break up the camps of the belligerent tribes, succeeded in inducing the rulers of Ijesa and Ekiti to sign an enactment abolishing human sacrifices, both to the gods and at the funeral obsequies of men of rank. They endeavoured to obtain a similar undertaking from the Ifes, but here they met with some difficulty, Ife being the home of human sacrifice, and though the chief men promised to put an end to the practice, only four of the eighteen persons who composed the Ife Counoil signed the agreement. The Oni of Ife said that sacrifice was made at Ife for the whole human race, the white man not excepted; and that if the sacrifice made on his behalf were to be discontinued, his superior knowled, and the arts derived therefrom, would depart from him.