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Yoruba Culture

The southwest portion of modern Nigeria was first settled between the 4th and 7th centuries AD. The group of people that settled in the region was later called the Yoruba. The Yoruba culture flourished between the 12th and 14th centuries, and it was centered in the city of Ile-Ife. The Yorubas were ruled by the Ile-Ife ooni or king, and they had an organized political system. Their artisans produced some of the best terracotta and bronze sculptures during the height of the Yoruba culture.  These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during that time.

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Mythological Origins of the Yoruba

Olodumare was the supreme god and most powerful deity of the Yoruba. He lived in the lower heavens, and the Yoruba worshiped him as the creator of the universe. The earth was filled only with water so Olodumare decided to create land. He summoned one of his orishas (spirits) named Obatala to do the task. Before Obatala left to do the task, Olodumare gave him a golden chain, a small bag of earth, and a five-toed chicken.

Obatala used the golden chain to get down to the ocean. When he reached the end of the chain, he stacked the soil on the water and placed the chicken on top of the mound of soil. Obatala then told the chicken to scratch the soil to scatter it. When the task was finished, Obatala used the golden chain to climb up again to the heavens.

He told Olodumare that the task was done, so the supreme god sent a chameleon to check if the earth was dry. The chameleon obeyed his command, and it saw that indeed, the earth was dry. The supreme god Olodumare named the place “Ile-Ife.” In another version of the story, Obatala’s brother Oduduwa stole the bag of soil and created the earth. The brothers became bitter rivals after this event.

Olodumare then decided to share his powers, so he bound together the orisha of creation Obatala and the orisha of the ocean called Yemaya. The couple created more orishas who then received the powers that Olodumare wanted to share. He also gave Obatala the power to create humans, so the orisha of creation returned to earth. Obatala created the first humans the moment he arrived in Ile-Ife, and they became the ancestors of the Yoruba people. Obatala ruled Ile-Ife as its king, but his brother, Oduduwa, arrived on earth. Oduduwa then deposed his brother and ruled Ile-Ife instead. Oduduwa’s children later founded their own kingdoms in the region.

Ile-Ife Beyond the Legend: The Homeland of the Yoruba People

Yoruba copper mask, circa 1300.

The ancient city of Ile-Ife is located in southwest Nigeria, in modern Osun State. Ile-Ife was the spiritual and political homeland of the medieval Yoruba people. It started as a small village in the 4th century, and it rapidly grew during the 8th century. By AD 1000, Ile-Ife was a major trading center with fortifications and paved streets.

The Yoruba people were ruled by a king they called ooni. The orisha Oduduwa was the first Yoruban ooni, and his descendants became the city’s rulers after him. Although the position of the ooni was usually hereditary, there were instances when wealthy and prominent Yoruba men became ooni.

The ooni was not merely a political position, but he was also considered as a spiritual leader. He ruled over minor kings (oba) who paid tribute to him. The ooni wielded influence over the surrounding kingdoms, but this power was not achieved through military invasions. The surrounding peoples considered Ile-Ife as their spiritual homeland, so they easily submitted to the ooni.

The city became a regional power between the 12th and the 15th centuries. Craftsmen and artisans called Ile-Ife their home. Many of them produced the realistic and detailed terracotta and bronze sculptures recovered in the 20th century.

Relations with the Kingdom of Benin

The Edo was another group of people that lived near the Yoruba region. They founded the kingdom of Benin which was also ruled by a king (oba). The Edo people became dissatisfied with their king, so they deposed him. The state of Benin became a republic for some time, until this government, too, was dissolved. The people sent envoys to the Yoruba king and asked him to send them a ruler. The Yoruba ooni sent his son, Prince Oranmiyan, to Benin where he married a local woman. She gave birth to their son, Prince Eweka, while Oranmiyan tried to govern Benin.

After some time, Oranmiyan grew tired of the chaos in the kingdom. He returned to the land of the Yoruba while his son, Eweka, became king (oba) of Benin. He and his descendants ruled Benin City (in present-day Edo State, Nigeria) for many years.


Picture by: WaynaQhapaq – English Wikipedia, Public Domain, Link

Abimbola, Kola. Yoruba Culture: A Philosophical Account. Birmingham, UK: Iroko Academic Publishers, 2006.

Brodd, Jeffrey. Primary Source Readings in World Religions. Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 2009.

Falola, Toyin, and Matthew M. Heaton. A History of Nigeria. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Oliver, Roland, ed. The Cambridge History of Africa:. The Cambridge History of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521209816.

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