|In Yoruba tradition
Ibejis--twins--are a category of children quite apart from others. Ibejis are thought to
have special powers to bring good or bad fortune, and for this reason they are catered to
in a way that other children are not. Parents do everything possible to please twins,
responding to whims and wants which if expressed by other children would be ignored. It is
felt that if they should fail to do so the Ibejis might be disheartened or angered, in
consequence of which misfortune rather than good fortune could come to the family. In
particular, the Orisa Ibeji, the protector of twins, might punish the
parents by causing sickness or death to come, or crops to fail, or other disasters to fall
upon the household. Yet the arrival of twins is always welcomed because of their power to
better the lot of the parents. As is stated in the praise song with which this story
begins, Ibejis are believed to be special patrons of the poor. Various other praise songs
emphasize the importance of treating Ibejis well.
The Orisa Ibeji is worshipped or supplicated only by parents who have twin children, but he is widely respected by others because of his readiness to punish anyone who slights or abuses twins. If a mother takes her twin infants to the marketplace (sometimes accompanied by a drummer who sings praise songs) and solicits gifts for them, people are likely to give something lest the Orisha Ibeji become offended. The desires of infant ibejis are sometimes learned through consultations with a Babalawo, or diviner. Ibejis may want their mother to beg in the market, to dance in public, or to give parties for them. The mother will fulfill such wishes as a matter of course. The Ibeji society is widely believed to have begun at Ishokun, now merged with Oyo. Numerous accounts say it was to a home in this town that the monkeys sent the first twins. Some versions say the mother was the wife of a poor farmer, while others say she was the wife of the Oba, or town chief, who ruled Ishokun. But the totemic relationship of twins to monkeys is usually indicated. Some of the praise names or nicknames of twins are references to monkeys-- Edun, for example, meaning monkey, and Adanju-kale, meaning Glittering-Eyes-in-the-House.
Some variant Yoruba explanations of twins, however, make no reference to monkeys, and may reflect traditions and attitudes of cultural groups outside the Yoruba area, or possibly some regional, perhaps rustic, traditions among the Yorubas themselves. Among the Iyagba Yorubas, on the northern fringe of the Yoruba area, it is said that the first twins came as a result of competition between two wives of a certain oba. Neither the iyale (the senior wife) nor the iyawo (the junior wife) had given birth to a male child. Both recognized that whichever of them could produce a male heir for the oba would have an enhanced position in the household. So they went regularly to a certain shrine and supplicated the Orishas for boy children. One day the iyale would go to the shrine, the following day the iyawo. Through their supplications the two wives became pregnant and produced male children at about the same time. But the Orisas were particularly sympathetic to the younger wife because she was badly treated by the older wife. And so they gave her male twins, which was understood by the Oba to be a sign of heavenly favor for her. The iyawo's status in the household thereby became enhanced.
While among the Yorubas twins are generally regarded as good fortune, among some other West African cultures twins were once considered to be omens of ill fortune. One Yoruba tale reflects this contrary interpretation. It tells of a certain Orisha-oba who suspects one of his wives of stealing his cowries. he lines them up and forces them to "draw straws, " by which process he discovers the guilty one. This wife subsequently gives birth to twins as punishment for her crime.
Though twins began, according to some renditions of the dominant legend given here, as abikus--children who die and come back again and again to torment their parents the connection seems to have become vague and uncertain. Whether there was a higher mortality rate among twins than among nontwins--as would seem likely--there is no way of knowing. But the existence of an enormous number of Ibeji carvings, some double, some single must mean something about the infant mortality rate in general. For the ibeji figures are records of twin children who died at an early age. These carvings form one of the most prolific categories of Yoruba wood sculpture.
Each Ibeji carving represents a twin child, but it is more than a record or representation. It is considered a repository or home of a twin spirit, the object through which communication with a dead twin is achieved. If a twin dies in infancy the parents have an Ibeji figure carved to "replace" it. If both twins die a set of two carvings is made. The carvings are not portraits. Except for sexual characteristics--and sometimes tribal marks or hairstyling --all the figures made by a particular carver are quite similar. If a family has some special distinction or attribute, some small variant may be indicated in the carvings. With few exceptions, the dead twins are conceived by the carver (and therefore by others) as adults, with adult sexual development and adult features. carvings made in a particular community by various sculptors tend to have a common style, and by its style the origin of a carving can frequently be established.
The Ibeji carvings are treated as though they were living. If one of the infant twins is dead the mother carries its wooden representation wherever she carries the living survivor. When she feeds the living twin she also puts the spoon to the mouth of the carving. If both twins are dead the mother tends both carvings. She may give a party for dead twins just as she would have if they were living, inviting children to come and enjoy refreshments and play games. Dead twins are not referred to as having died, but as having gone to another place, perhaps to a thriving commercial center somewhere from which place they will send money or other good fortune to their parents.
The continuing necessity for pleasing the Ibejis, whether living or dead, and for placating the Orisha who is their guardian can be and usually is costly. But the expenditures of effort and money are weighed against the harm that displeased Ibejis can do and the good luck that satisfied Ibejis can bring. Out of this endless pursuit of the goodwill of twins comes the Yoruba saying, "Dead Ibeji expenses are expenses for the living." (Insert by Harold Courlander)