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L. Pescador, 1995




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Edited by Gian Carlo Matta,

In collaboration with Federico Carmignani for text lay out and Vittorio Carini for supervision of the iconographic documentation.


mappa delle etnie della Repubblica del Congo           




The Yoruba people, whose language is part of the “family” of related languages called Kwa, first settled in the South-West of Nigeria at the end of the Neolithic period. Another group of the Yoruba settled in Anago in the South-Eastern area of what is now known as the Republic of Benin (ex-Dahomey). Together the Yoruba number about 20 million divided into around 20 sub-groups which traditionally corresponded to more or less independent kingdoms organized into pyramidal hierarchies. All of the Yoruba have linguistic, religious and cultural affinities which, in the distant past and following centuries, contributed to the development of a notable artistic output.

The initial traces of their art date back to the beginning of the first millennium with the famous bronzes and works in terracotta from Ife, the sacred city of this people and the site which they believe to be the birthplace of mankind.

Around 1,400 AD, the Old Oyo empire rose from the ashes of the ancient kingdom of Ife to reign over the Yoruba until about 1830 when the revolt of various city states and the invasion of the Fulani from the north caused the collapse of the empire and the fall of the royal city of Oyo. There followed a period of instability and war between the various kingdoms which lasted for over 50 years and caused the destruction of populous city centers and works of art.

The ‘Pax Britannica’ at the end of the 19th century re-established a period of tranquility lasting until the independence of Nigeria in 1960.


One of the most extraordinary places from the ancient culture of the Yoruba, linked to the cult of the ancestors, is the sacred forest of Esie in the region of Igbomina. Here were gathered around 800 stone statues. (D’Arcore, 1942). At first, it was calculated that they dated from the 12th to the 15th century but recent studies have put back their probable origins from 950 to 1260 AD.




In ancient times, among the Yoruba as in some other African socio-religious entities, the birth of twins was considered a curse because if was believed that only poor people and outcasts could produce pairs of children as animals do. It was also considered that the event was connected to promiscuous and polygamous sexual practices. These beliefs lead, therefore, to the putting down of twins at birth, for fear that ostracism, disgrace and bad luck might befall the mother and all of the immediate family.

There is no certain cause for the change and acceptance in society of what is a perfectly natural event because the stories describing this are contradictory. In any case, in the first part of the 19th century, towards the end of the Old Oyo Empire this cruel practice was radically reduced, presumably following the issuing of a decree signed by the King of Oyo in 1820. The infanticide of twins was prohibited in the whole territory and their birth was accepted from then on as a sign of prosperity and divine benevolence.




The Yoruba religion has a mixed pantheon with numerous gods and spirits or Orisa, each one with its own specific attributes and plays a particular role in the social and ritual life of this people.

Within this complex mysticism, there developed a cult around twins protected by the god of thunder, Shango. Given that the twins were considered to possess one common spirit, deceased twins were substituted with statues or representations sculpted in wood in order to re-establish the spiritual balance. These were called ere ibeji. (Ere = sacred image, ibi = born, eji = two).



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