Tag Archives: Yoruba

Alajire, God of Suffering

Ulli Beier describes Alajire as a manifestation of the Orisha, Sonponna, who is more commonly known as Babalu-Aye. This Orisha is associated with suffering and diseases such as smallpox, leprosy and AIDS. This poem describes Alajire as both terrifying in his unpredictability but also emphasises that it is only by undergoing suffering that individuals can attain maturity and wisdom.

Alijire, we ask you to be patient,
you are very quick-tempered,
and we worship you for it.
We ask you to be moderate,
you are wildly extravagant
and we pray to you for it.
We ask you not to be jealous,
you are madly jealous,
and we love you for it.

Oshun, the river goddess

Oshun is an Orisha goddess associated with rivers and the marketplace. Medicines for fertility, wealth, love and intimacy are often attributed to her.

Brass and parrot feathers
on a velvet skin.
White cowrie shells
on black buttocks.
Her eyes sparkle in the forest,
like the sun on the river.
She is the wisdom of the forest
she is the wisdom of the river.

Obatala, the Creator

Obatala (King of White Cloth) is one of the eldest Orisha and held responsible for the creation of the earth and of human bodies. His devotees aim to reflect the purity of Obatala’s white clothing, striving for moral impeccability in their actions.

He is patient.
He is silent.
Without anger he pronounces his judgement.
He is distant,
but his eye rests on the town.
He kills the initiate
and rouses him to new life.

Onikoyi, the Warrior King

A Yoruba Praise-Poem from Nigeria. According to legend, the first Alaafin or King of the powerful Yoruba kingdom of Oyo was Oranyan. He chose a trader whom he named Onikoyi (meaning, ‘You, the Man Carrying a Basket’) to be one of his generals, holding command over 1469 men who were obliged to fight to the death and never turn their backs to the enemy. Onikoyi, then, is remembered first and foremost as a warrior. His descendants became rulers of the town of Ikoyi, under the Alaafin.

Onikoyi, the warrior who never received an arrow in his back.
Child of the water lily, child of the squirrel.
The bird’s foot shall never touch the water.
The river shall never be at rest.
Onikoyi, the warrior
Who frightens death himself.

Tricks

A Yoruba Iwi chant from Nigeria. Iwi is the poetry of masqueraders, who personify the ancestors in the Egungun masks. Through the masks, the ancestors comment wisely or satirically on the living. In Tricks a series of proverb-type metaphors are put together to make the point that death is unavoidable.

The star is trying to outshine the moon,
The frog is preparing a trick to get wings,
The one who wears a cotton dress pretends to wear velvet,
The one who is wearing velvet pretends to be a king.
We all try to do
What God never intends us to do.
Watch out, ‘We shall catch and kill’
Is what we cry when we go to the battlefield:
We tend to forget that we shall meet another man there
Uttering the same cry.
When Death is far away,
We may protect our child with aja charm:
When Death arrives,
He tears the aja from his neck
And carries the child along.

from Yoruba Poetry (1970),
ed. Professor Ulli Beier

Famine

A Yoruba Iwi song from Nigeria.

The owner of yam peels his yam in the house:
A neighbour knocks at the door.
The owner of yam throws his yam in the bedroom:
The neighbour says, ‘I just heard
A sound, kerekere, that’s why I came.’
The owner of yam replies,
‘That was nothing, I was sharpening two knives.’
The neighbour says again, ‘I still heard
Something like bi sound behind your door.’
The owner of yam says,
‘I merely tried my door with a mallet.’
The neighbour says again,
‘What about this huge fire burning on your hearth?’
The fellow replies,
‘I am merely warming water for my bath.’
The neighbour persists,
‘Why is your skin all white, when this is not the Harmattan season?’
The fellow is ready with his reply,
‘I was rolling on the floor when I heard of the death of Agadapidi.’
Then the neighbour says, ‘Peace be with you.’
Then the owner of yam starts to shout,
‘There cannot be peace
Unless the owner of food is allowed to eat his own food!’

from Yoruba Poetry (1970),
Cambridge University Press
by Professor Ulli Beier

The Importance of Ori

One of the most important poems of Ifa, the divination system of the Yorubas. In this long and fascinating poem we meet many of the principal Yoruba Orisa or gods, and each is characteristically described. But the central argument is that each man’s fate is ultimately decided by his own character.

Orunmila said that one always bends down when entering the doorway.
Ifa asked the question, ‘Who among you Gods could follow your devotee to a distant journey over the seas?’
Sango answered that he could follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas.
The question was asked from him, ‘What will you do if after travelling a long distance,
Walking and walking, You arrive at Koso,
The home of your fathers?
If they prepare gbegiri soup,
And they prepare yam-flour pudding:
If they offer you bitter kola
And a cock?’
Sango answered, ‘After eating to my satisfaction,
I will return home.’
Sango was told that he could not follow his devotee to a distant journey over the seas.

Ogun, God of War

A Yoruba Praise-Poem from Nigeria. Ogun is the God of iron and metallurgy.

Ogun kills on the right and destroys on the right.
Ogun kills on the left and destroys on the left.
Ogun kills suddenly in the house and suddenly in the field.
Ogun kills the child with the iron with which it plays.
Ogun kills in silence.

Eshu, God of Fate

A Yoruba Praise-Poem from Nigeria. As the God of Fate, the uncontrollable element in human life, Eshu is praised as a kind of trickster God, bringing about the unexpected, the contradictory and the downright impossible.

Eshu turns right into wrong, wrong into right.
When he is angry, he hits a stone until it bleeds.
When he is angry, he sits on the skin of an ant.
When he is angry, he weeps tears of blood.
Eshu slept in the house -
But the house was too small for him:
Eshu slept on the verandah -
But the verandah was too small for him:
Eshu slept in a nut -
At last he could stretch himself!
Eshu walked through the groundnut farm.
The tuft of his hair was just visible:
If it had not been for his huge size,
He would not be visible at all.
Lying down, his head hits the roof:
Standing up, he cannot look into the cooking pot.
He throws a stone today
And kills a bird yesterday!

from Yoruba Poetry (1970),
ed. Professor Ulli Beier

Dirge for Fajuyi

This is part of the hour-long dirge chanted by the Yoruba poet Omobayode Arowa at the state funeral of Lieutenant­ Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi. Adekunle Fajuyi was Military Governor of Western Nigeria until he was killed, along with Major-General Aguyi­ Ironsi, in July 1966. His state funeral was held in January 1967.

Dekunle, handsome man, hail!
And farewell!
It is goodbye, as when a stranger is seen off to the town gate.
Once dead and re-born, a person does not know the front of his father’s house.
Goodbye!
The stump of the palm tree does not owe a debt to the wind.
Dekunle, who lies dead here, owed no personal obligation
Before he went to God.
As a person walks, as on parade, so it is the soldier goes away,
O child of the big cloth, which makes the loom shake violently.
Greetings!…