Sacred Texts  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 




THE ceremonies at birth resemble in the main those observed by the Ewe-speaking peoples, and described in the last volume, but there are a few changes which may be attributed to increased priestly influence.

As soon as the pangs of labour seize a woman a priestess takes charge of her, and has the care of her and the child; while, soon after the child is born, a babalawo appears on the scene to ascertain what ancestral soul has been re-born in the infant. As soon as this important point is decided, the parents are informed that the child must conform in all respects to the manner of life of the ancestor who now animates it; and if, as often happens, they profess ignorance, the babalawo supplies the necessary knowledge.

Seven days after birth, if the child be a girl, nine days, if it be a boy, the babalawo comes again and offers a sacrifice of a cock and a hen to Ifa and the Olori, or indwelling spirit of the child's head; after which, in order to prevent Elegba from interfering with the mother and child, the entrails of the two sacrifices are sprinkled with palm-wine, taken outside the house, and placed before his image.

Then follows a ceremony which appears to be one of purification, for here, as among the Tshi and Ewe tribes, the mother and child are considered unclean, as are women during the menses. The water which is always in the earthen vessels placed before the images of the gods, is brought to the house and thrown up on the thatched roof, and as it drips down from the eaves the mother and child pass three times through the falling drops. The babalawo next makes a water of purification with which he bathes the child's head, he repeats three times the name by which the infant is to be known, and then holds him in his arms so that his feet touch the ground. After these ceremonies have been duly performed the fare is extinguished and the embers carried away; the house is then carefully swept out, live coals are brought, and a fresh fire lighted. We thus appear to have a combination of a purification by water and a purification by fire. After the new fire has been kindled, another sacrifice of fowls is made to Ifa, and the proceedings are at an end.


When a man desires to marry a girl, his parents visit her parents and make proposals of marriage. If they are accepted, the suitor sends a present of native cloths and kola-nuts, and, after consulting a babalawo, a day is appointed for the wedding.

The marriage-feast is held at the house of the parents of the bridegroom, and the bride is conducted there by a procession of women, who sing an epithalamium. The bride is put to bed by a female of the bridegroom's family, who remains concealed in the apartment till the bridegroom has joined the bride; after which she secures the "tokens of virginity," and, coming out of the room, displays them to the assembled company. She then carries them to the house of the parents of the bride, who never attend a daughter's wedding-feast, and next morning they are hung on the fence for the edification of the public. In this abstention of the bride's parents from the feasting and merrymaking, we perhaps find a lingering survival from marriage by capture. The producer of the "tokens" is selected from the family of the bridegroom to ensure that there is no deception, because the husband's family has no interest in falsifying the facts, while the wife's family has; but virginity in a bride is only of paramount importance when the girl has been betrothed in childhood. The marriage-feast is continued on the next day.

It is not uncommon for newly-married couples to visit some celebrated shrine and offer sacrifice together, a practice which, together with the fixing of the wedding-day by a babalawo, shows an increasing disposition on the part of the priests to control or interfere with matters which are purely social and quite beyond the domain of religion.


The ceremonies observed by the Yoruba tribes at death chiefly differ from those of the Ewe tribes in the addition of various religious observances.

When the breath has departed from the body there is the usual outburst of exaggerated grief, with loud cries, lamentations, and frenzied gestures, and the eldest son of the deceased, or the brother, if there be no son, at once sends for a babalawo, to ascertain if the deceased died from natural causes, or through the machinations of witches. The babalawo, after sacrificing. a fowl, inquires at the oracle of Ifa, by means of the board and sixteen palm-nuts; and if it affirms that the death was caused by witchcraft, further inquiry is made to know if any other member of the family is threatened with a like fate, and also if the soul of the deceased is in danger of further molestation from the evil spirits who have been influenced by the malpractices of the sorcerers. Should the oracle declare that the soul of the deceased is in danger, a sheep or goat is sacrificed, and the carcass, sprinkled with palm-oil, is carried outside the town, and deposited at a spot where two or more paths meet, which has the effect of causing the evil spirits to disperse in as many directions as there are paths. The babalawo then prepares the usual water of purification with shea-butter and edible snails, and dipping into the vessel a palm-branch, sacred to Ifa, sprinkles the corpse, the room, and the spectators with the fluid. At the same time he invokes the soul of the deceased to leave the house as soon as the funeral rites have been performed, and proceed peacefully to its destination, wishing it a safe journey. He says, "May the road be open to you. May nothing evil meet you on the way. May you find the road good when you go in peace."

After these preliminaries, the corpse is washedwith rum, or a decoction of aromatic herbs, and attired in its best clothes. The thumbs and the great toes are then tied tocether. If the deceased be a man the head is shaved, and the hair, carefully wrapped up in a piece of -white cotton, is buried in the earth behind the house. If a woman, the exposed parts of the body are stained with a decoction of the bark of a tree, which gives a reddish hue to the skin. Finally, the corpse is wrapped up in many native cloths, and placed on a mat at the door of the room.

In the meantime a death-feast has been prepared, and now commences, while outside the house a continual beating of drunis is kept up, together with frequent discharges of musketry, fired in honour of the deceased. The feast, at which intoxicants are used lavishly, soon becomes a veritable orgie, in which, however, the chief mourners, that is, the widows and daughters of the deceased, take no part; for as soon as they have performed the last offices for the dead, and have placed the corpse at the door, they are shut up in an adjacent apartment, where they are compelled by custom to remain during, the three days that a corpse invariably lies in state. While thus immured they are forbidden to wash, and usage requires them to refuse all food, at least for the first twenty-four hours, after which they usually allow themselves to be persuaded to take some nourishment.

The conventional mourning is the business of the women of the household, who, while the men are feasting utter loud lamentations in the room in which they are confined; and, in consequence of this, the epithet isokun, "a mourner," is often applied to a female child; a male, on the other hand, being sometimes called iwale, "a digger," i.e., of a grave. A father might thus say that he had begotten two mourners and a digger, meanin, two daughters and a son. Female friends usually come to join in the lamentations, the conventional character of which is referred to in the proverb "A mourner mourns and goes on her way (without afterthought), but one who ponders over sad memories mourns without ceasing." There are also professional mourners, chosen for their poetical turn of expression, whose services are engaged in well-to-do households, and who often contrive to work up the real mourners to a condition of frenzied grief. A professional mourner sings in a sad tone, which rises and falls in -a modulated wail; "He is gone, the lion of a man. He was not a sapling, or a bush, to be torn out of the earth, but a tree-a tree to brave the hurricane; a, spreading tree, under which the hearts of his family could rest in peace," &c. &c. while the widows and daughters lament their lonely and unprotected state, somewhat as follows:--

"I go to the market; it is crowded. There are many people there, but he is not among them. I wait, but he comes not. Ah me! I am alone.

"Never more shall I see him. It is over; he is gone. I shall see him no more. Ah me! I am alone. "I go into the street. The people pass, but he is not there. Night falls, but he comes not. Ah me! I am alone.

"Alas! I am alone. Alone in the day-alone in the darkness of the night. Alas! my father (or husband) is dead. Who will take care of me?"

On the afternoon of the third day of the wake the body is placed on some boards, or on a door taken off its hinges, covered with a rich native cloth, and borne at a trot through the streets by the men. Male friends and relations accompany the bier, singing the praises of the deceased, and throwing handfuls of cowries among the spectators. This procession returns to the house towards evening, and the corpse is then interred in a grave that has been dug in the earthen floor, and which is so contrived that the head of the deceased may project beyond the line of the outer wall of the house. Most of the cloths in which the corpse is wrapped are taken off, and the body, covered with grass mats so that no earth may soil it, is carefully lowered into the grave. A coffin is sometimes used, but not often. Food, rum, and cowries are placed in the grave, the body is sprinkled with the blood of a he-goat, sacrificed to propitiate Elegba, a few more cowries are thrown in, and then the grave is filled up amid the wishes for a safe and pleasant journey to which we have already referred.[1]

When the grave is full the earth is smoothed down,

[1. Chapter vii.]

and sometimes, when many articles of value have been entombed, the surface is moistened with water to make the earth settle down, and slaves and dependents are made to sleep on it night after night, for the double purpose of protecting it and of obliterating all trace of its exact position. After the interment, the feast, which had been suspended since the afternoon, recominences; and drinking and shouting. amid the firing of muskets, the jangle of native gongs, and the dull thud of the drums, continues all night.

Next day, about noon, the male relations walk out in a body, and wander about the town, as if looking for the deceased, and chanting "We look for our father, and cannot find him"; to which the bystanders reply, "He has gone to his house." Returning from this, the mourners carry on the feast till the evening of the next day, when the bones of the victims that have been sacrificed, and those of the fowls and sheep that have been eaten by the guests, are collected and placed over the grave. All the articles which the deceased had in daily use, such as his pipe, the mat on which he slept, the plate or vessel froin which he ate, his calabashes, and other things of sinall value, are carried out into the bush and burned.

Up to this point the soul of the deceased is supposed to have been lingering near his old home, and this destruction of his property is intended to signify to the soul that he must now depart, since there is no longer anything belonging to him. In former tinics the destruction of property was carried much further than at present. Usually the apartment in which the deceased is buried is closed, and never used again, and sometimes the roof is removed. Rich families even abandon the house altogether, and it is said to have been usual in days bygone to burn it. The deceased is called three times by name, and adjured to depart, and no longer haunt the dwellings of the living. After this invitation to be gone, the fowl, called adire-iranna,[1] is sacrificed, which, besides securing a right-of-way for the soul, is supposed also to guide it. The feathers. of the fowl are scattered around the house, and the bird itself carried out to a bush-road, where it is cooked and eaten. The road on which the adire-iranna is eaten must be outside the town and lead away from it, for though the natives believe that Deadland is under the earth, they think that it is necessary to eat the fowl on a road leading into the bush, in order to place it in a proper position for commencing its office of guide to the soul.

The relations may not wash themselves or comb their hair during the funeral ceremonies, in consequence of which the rites themselves are sometimes styled Ofo, "Unwashed." On the last day they shave their heads, and then pay visits of thanks to those who assisted at the funeral. The time of mourning after the conclusion of these ceremonies varies with the rank and influence of the deceased, and with the locality. Three months is usually considered long enough, but a commemoration-feast is often held a year after the death. During the period of mourning the hair must be left unkempt as it grows, and women

[1. See p. 128.]

must cover the head with a cloth of a dark blue colour. A widow remains shut up for forty days, and may not wash her cloths during that time.

It is considered the greatest disgrace to a family not to be able to hold the proper ceremonies at the death of one of their number, a notion which is comprehensible when we remember how much the welfare of the soul of the deceased is supposed to depend upon their performance. Hence families not unfrequently reduce themselves almost to beggary in order to carry them out, or pawn or sell their children to raise the money necessary. Sometimes, too, they conceal the death and bide the body until they have secured the requisite means, and such concealments have been known to last for three or four months. The body is treated with resinous herbs so that it becomes desiccated, and while it remains in the house, the soul is believed to abide in its old home, where food and drink are provided for it, till such time as the proper ceremonies can be held, and it be legitimately ushered on its new career.

A common imprecation is Oku igbe, "Bush death," meaning "May you die in the bush, alone and uncared for, and so receive no funeral-rites." A proverb contrasts a man's duties to his relations with those towards the members of any secret society to which he may belong, such as the Ogboni, and insists upon the importance of the former, because of the obligation upon his relations to bury him.

It runs, "A man must honestly perform all the duties incumbent on relationship, even though he may belong to a secret society. When he has attended to the society he must attend to his relations, because it is they who must bury him when he dies."

This desire for a very ceremonial funeral, which owes its origin to the native beliefs concerning the soul, lasts long after the negro has been transplanted across the Atlantic, and has lost all notion of its motive. In most of the West India Islands, but particularly in the Bahamas, where the bulk of the negro population is of Yoruba descent, a grand funeral is considered the greatest desideratum. To attain this end, burial-societies are formed, the members of which pay subscriptions all their lives in order to be buried with pomp. Every member of such a society is bound to attend the funeral of another member, and the result is a procession of men in uniforms, more or less grotesque, with banners and various insignia. Often a band heads the cortége, and many a man occupies his last moments in giving directions as to the manner in which the funeral is to take place."

[1. See the following, which appeared in the Nassau Guardian, New Providence, Bahamas, 10th January, 1891:--


All to whom it may concern.

Dear Friends,

Mr. A- B- had been a member of the Grant's Town Friendly Society for many years, and was financial up to July, 1891. During his illness he requested that the Band of the said Society play the Dead March in Saul wben be died. The message came to the President from Mr. J- C. S-, ex-President of the Society. The Band, in conjunction with the members, was summoned to meet at the Society's Hall, in uniform, at 3 o'clock sharp. The members were present waiting on the Band, but only the Bandmaster and three other members came, and they had to leave the Hall, proceeding to the house of the deceased without the Band.

I am sorry to say that if the Band cannot attend on members (deceased) of the Society to which they belong, it will be best for the Society to do away with the Band. If members are paying, their monies towards Band Funds, they should have the use of the Band when required.

(Signed) Z. C-.

Pres. G. T. F. Society.]

When a man dies abroad his family make the greatest exertions to obtain something belonging to him, over which the usual rites may be held. Hair or nailparings are most sought for this purpose, but, if these cannot be obtained, a portion of the clothing worn by the deceased suffices. Such remains are called eta, a word which seems to mean something brought from one place to another. Through a confusion between objective and subjective connection, these relics, which bring the deceased to mind, are suppposed to bring the soul to the place where the funeral ceremonies are held.

{Chapter X, Systems of Government, omitted}

{Chapter XI, Laws and Customs, omitted}

{Chapter XII, Language, omitted}

Next: Chapter XIII: Proverbs.