History of the Ibeji

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In many cultures, the birth of twins was seen in past history as an incomprehensible event and the object of particular superstitions.

In early African times, the most common belief was the certainty that twins were created by two different fathers and  therefore were the obvious proof of their mother´s infidelity. The consequence was the killing of the twins and of the mother. Even the Yoruba believed that no human could generate two human beings at the same time and therefore regarded twins as mysterious and supernatural beings, who would certainly bring bad luck to their family. As a result, they killed both twins at birth and the mother was driven away from the village.

At this time, it is useful to point out some statistics regarding the births of twins: Worldwide, the average birth of twins occurs once in every eighty births. However, in Yorubaland, twins occur once in every twenty-two births. The result was, over the course of time, a much slower population increase. This is despite the fact that Yoruba families are traditionally keen on having a considerable number of children, since the security of the elderly people would be more easily guaranteed by a large family.

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Photograph by Deborah Stokes (1980)

It is asserted that the attitude and behavior towards twins within Yoruba culture changed a few hundred years ago. A legend tells that, hundreds of years ago, a great sadness developed in the villages and in the souls of the inhabitants. The oracle of Ifa was consulted and declared to stop the killing of twins and honor them instead.

Another legend tells that the legendary Yoruba king Ajaka, brother of the god Shango, put a stop to the killing of twins after his wife gave birth to twins.

In summary, the behavior towards births of twins slowly but radically changed during the first half of the 19th century. Gradually, and to the existing day, the Yoruba people came to believe that twins were of supernatural powers and were able to bring happiness, good health, and prosperity to the families in which they were born.

With a new dawn of attitude towards twins, it became advisable to treat them with respect and consideration, provide them with the best food, clothes and jewelry and spoil them in very possible way.  The birth of twins was celebrated at ceremonies attended by the entire village and sometimes by the people of neighboring villages.

Celebrations were held to honor the mother who had given birth and all the other mothers of twins, who join in a dance reserved especially for them, in which a certain sequence of movements represent specific request for prosperity, happiness, and health for their twin children, as well as protection against the malignant powers of witches.

A few days after the birth of twins, the Babalawo, the village priest, visits the new-born twins, consecrates them to the Orisha Ibeji, and gives instructions to the mother, including food recommendations, days of the week considered unlucky, dangerous animals and colors to be avoided.

In the language of the Yoruba people Ibeji means twin, from IBI = born and EJI = two.

The religious beliefs of the Yoruba hold that both twins have one joint and inseparable soul.

For this reason, if one of the twins should die, the life of the other is immediately jeopardized, because the balance of his soul has been seriously compromised. The Yoruba also believe that the entire family also runs serious risks, because the anger of the deceased twin could bring illness, bad luck and, above all, sterility to the mother. In order to deal with these dangers, a way must be immediately found to bring back the unity of the twin’s soul.

For centuries this has been accomplished by consulting the Babalawo (diviner), by commissioning to a wood carver a small statue of a twin to provide a home for the soul of the deceased twin. The Babalawo then presides over a public tribal ceremony to transfer the soul of the deceased twin into the wooden figure. The Ibeji is therefore a depository for the soul of the deceased twin and is treated with the same admiration and loving care as the living twin. When the mother takes the surviving twin to her breast, the Ibeji is put to her other breast as well. When the child is cleaned or washed, the Ibeji is washed and then anointed with a reddish compound called camwood, made of chopped red wood mixed with palm oil.  If both twins should die, it would not be necessary to carve the statuettes as the unity of their soul has not been compromised.

Nevertheless, because supernatural powers are attributed to twins, even stronger than those attributed to ancestors, a pair of Ibeji are carved to honor, plead to, and make sacrifices to, and in order to obtain protection for their mother and the entire family. The statuettes are also carved if one or both twins should die not at birth, but while they are still young.

The care of the Ibeji is the responsibility of the mother, who, in some tribes, regularly washes, anoints, and feeds them with a type of bean paste, taking care, each time, to scrape away the crust formed by the hardening of the paste given on previous occasions.

During festivals, special ceremonies or visits to other families, the mother carries the Ibeji around, placing them on her back and wrapping them in her tunic.

In some cases, signs of abrasions are found on the neck, breast, arms or legs of the statuette. These abrasions are due to specific requests for intervention and help from the Ibeji in the occasion of illnesses or traumas to members of the family. Following precise instructions of the Babalawo the sick person is “given medicine”, consisting essentially of wood chips carved from the Ibeji, chopped and mixed with a vegetable amalgam.

Since the mother is the person who looks after the Ibeji, the statuettes are arranged near her bed, at least for the first few years.  Afterwards, they are placed in the family`s ancestral shrine, together with the relics of the ancestors.

Two Ibeji exist, because both twins died during the mother`s lifetime. No one will take care of the statuettes any more since the mother, the only person able to intercede to obtain grace and favors for the family, in no longer alive.  One Ibeji exists, as only one of the twins died during the mother`s lifetime. The mother`s role of caring for the statuette must be taken over  by the surviving twin for the rest of his life.

Photograph by William Fagg

In terms of the artistry, this is an area of fascination and wonderment.  Different regions have adopted historically particular styles, facial expressions, body types of adornment, scarification patterns and the use of (or absence of) jewelry or staining/painting.

The Ibeji is not a portrait of a child but rather the statue of an adult. The carver (who is male) decides the artistic details to be given to his creation.  His only restriction is to represent the gender of the twin or twins which are to be sculpted. The Ibeji statuette is generally between twenty and thirty centimeters high (8-10 inches) and stands on a rounded base with the arms hanging downwards, short legs and a disproportionately large head.

The statuettes have a wide variety of elaborate hairstyles, and often the Ibeji are adorned with necklaces, earrings, bracelets, anklets and waist chains. These accessories are made of cowries, glass beads, stone beads, corals, palm-nut beads, bronze wire, copper wire, iron wire. In some cases, the sculptor carved the ornaments, in particular necklaces, bracelets, and waist chains, directly on the wooden figure.

The most important “natural decoration” of an Ibeji statuette is the patina, the covering of the original wood, which develops only after many decades or by the handling of the statuette during traditional ceremonies.


Source: Encyclopedia of the Ibeji