Twinship in an Ekiti Yoruba Town(1)

By Renne, Elisha P. | Ethnology, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Twinship in an Ekiti Yoruba Town(1)


Renne, Elisha P., Ethnology


Attitudes toward twins in Ekiti Yoruba society have remained remarkably consistent over the past hundred years even while the outward signs of their treatment have radically changed. Twins were considered to be extraordinary beings in the past and continue to be considered so. However, the markers of this extraordinariness have shifted from open expressions reflected in publicly displayed twin shrines to private, personal shrines kept in individual rooms. This essay examines both the everyday ways by which the special status of twins is muted and the special circumstances in which this tendency is overridden. (Twinship, West Africa, Yoruba, Christianity, ritual)

Yoruba twins have provoked considerable and diverse disciplinary discussion. The evocative rituals associated with twins have been remarked upon by anthropologists (Bascom 1969; Chappel 1974) as well as by sociologists (Fadipe 1970; Ojo 1966). The images carved in their memory, ere ibeji, have been discussed by art historians (Houlberg 1973; Pemberton 1988, 1989; Stoll 1980; Thompson 1971). Art historians and anthropologists alike have been interested in changes in practices associated with twins, from a period when twins were reviled and twin infanticide was common to a time when twins were revered as orisa (deities [Chappel 1974; Houlberg 1973; Lawal 1996; Thompson 1971]). The frequent birth of twins to Yoruba women has also provoked studies among medical researchers interested in understanding the genetic and environmental factors that may explain the four-fold difference in the rate of Yoruba twin births compared with European populations (Creinin and Keith 1989; Knox and Morley 1960; Nylander 1969). This article examines the literature on Yoruba twins as well as present-day perceptions and practices associated with them in one small Ekiti Yoruba town in southwestern Nigeria. It focuses on the changing cultural and economic factors that have affected ritual expressions of reverence for twins. Specifically, it considers various aspects of the secularization of belief, a sort of end of enchantment regarding twins and the accompanying diminution of ritual practices for them. This diminution is often attributed to widespread conversion to Christianity and Islam. For example, Houlberg (1973:20) observed that many Christians and Muslims "no longer believe in the necessity of twin ritual and in the carving of ere ibeji, obeying the proscription against retaining any sculpture related to traditional Yoruba religious practices." Others, such as Moore (1986:301), have noted that economic constraints may limit the performance of traditional ritual, while still others have discussed the more recent effects of structural adjustment programs on art patronage and ritual performance specifically in Nigeria.

The concern here is with the process whereby ritual practices performed for twins have come to be viewed as less compelling for their parents.(2) Specifically, I suggest that changing cosmological beliefs and everyday routines underlie this reassessment of twin rituals and that these changes need to be examined (Beidelman 1997). This particular process of change may be seen in the comments of some, but not all, of the younger parents of twins in the town. For them, Christian belief (and particularly Pentecostal worship) provides the ideological armature for the rejection of older practices and acceptance of new ones. But changes in the "seemingly passive backdrop of the world ... defined by ceaseless and infinite activity" (Beidelman 1997:247)--children getting ill and being taken to the hospital, children going to school and needing expensive books and uniforms, children eating imported foods--also contribute to this re-evaluation.

By re-examining recent ritual practices and beliefs associated with Yoruba twins, this essay builds upon the earlier writing of Turner (1969), whose study of twins in Ndembu society has provided a valuable framework for subsequent analyses. …

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