#11 The Kings of Yoruba
     (Samuel Johnson, 1897)

Sango: The God of Thunder and Lightning, and his wife Oya

Sango was the fourth King of the Yorubas…Sango reigned for seven years, the whole of which period was marked by his restlessness. He fought many battles and was fond of making charms. He was said to have the knowledge of some preparation by which he could attract lightning. The palace at Oyo was built at the foot of a hill called Ajaka’s hill. One day the King ascended this hill accompanied… by his courtiers and some of his slaves, among whom were two favourites, Biri and Omìran; some of his cousins went with him, but none of his children. He was minded to try the preparation he had in hand; thinking it might have been damp and useless, he first made the experiment on his own house. But it took effect, a storm was immediately raised and the lightning had struck the palace before they came down the hill, and the buildings were on fire. Many of Sango’s wives and his children perished in this catastrophe.

Sango who was the author of his own misfortunes became alarmed and dismayed at what had happened and from a broken heart he was resolved to abdicate the throne and retire to the court of his maternal grandfather, Elempe king of the Nupes.

All Oyo was now astir, not only to sympathize with the King, but also to dissuade him from carrying out his resolution; but he could not bear any opposition, and so mad was he, that he even used his sword against some of his loyal subjects who ventured to remonstrate with him, and who promised to replace for him his dead wives by others, by whom he might beget children, and so in time make good his present losses.

According to other accounts, he did not abdicate of his own freewill, but was asked to do so by a strong party in the state. Both accounts may be true, there may have been two parties, for to this day, Yorubas have an abhorence of a King given to making deadly charm; because for one who already has absolute power invested in him by law, this strange power can only be used spitefully, so that no one near him would be safe.

He was said to have caused 160 persons to be slain in a fit of anger, of those who were showing much concern and over-anxiety on his behalf, and who would prevent him by force from carrying out his resolve.

Thus determined he set out on his fateful journey with a few followers. Biri his head slave and favourite was the first to regret the step taken, and to urge on his master to yield to the entreaties of those citizens of Oyo, who with all loyalty promised to replace his losses, as far as man can do it, and to rebuild the palace; but finding the King inexorable, he forsook him and returned to the city with all his followers; Omiran likewise followed his example, and the King was thus left alone. He now repented his rashness, especially when he found himself deserted by his favourite Biri. He could not proceed alone, and for shame he could not return home, and so he was resolved to put an end to his own life; and climbing on a shea butter tree, he hanged himself.

His friends hearing of this tragedy went immediately and performed for him the last act of kindness, by burying his remains under the same tree.

On hearing of the King’s death, his personal friends followed his example, and died with him. Biri committed suicide at Koso (where the King died), Omiran did the same. His cousin Omo Sándá committed suicide at Papo, Babayanmi at Sele, Obei at Jakuta and Oya his favourite wife at Irá.

Thus ended the life of this remarkable personage, who once ruled over all the Yorubas and Popos. He was afterwards deified, and is still worshipped by all of all Yoruba race as the god of thunder and lighting.

The King’s Natural and Official Mothers

The Orun festival takes place in September… the rite seems to deal with affairs connected with the King’s life. It is to him a periodic reminder of his coming apotheosis, and the emblem of worship is said to be a coffin made of or paved with clay in which he is to be buried. It is kept in charge of the “Iya Oba” (the King’s official mother) in a room in her apartments, visited by no one, and the ceremonies are performed in private once a year by the King himself, his “mother” and his Osorun, the latter taking the chief part…

the Basorun is to divine with kola nuts, to see whether the King’s sacrifices are acceptable to the celestials or not, if the omen be favourable the Alafin is to give the Basorun presents of a horse and other valuables; if unfavourable, he is to die, he has forfeited his right to further existence. But there can be no doubt that under such circumstances, it can always be managed between them that the omens be always favourable.

From this and other circumstances, it would appear that the King on this occasion occupies a humiliating position as one whose conduct is under review, hence the great privacy observed, for it is a cardinal principle with Yorubas that the Alafin, as the representative of the founder of the race, is to humble himself before no mortal; if such a contingency were to occur, he is to die.

Hence, no doubt, that his natural mother (if then living) is to make way for her son ascending the throne, so there will be no occasion to violate any filial duty imperative on a son who is at the same time the King. His majesty must be supreme.

…The Iya Oba is the King’s (official) mother… the King is not to have a natural mother. If his mother happens to be living when he is called to the throne, she is asked to “go to sleep,” and is decently buried in the house of a relative in the city. All the inmates of that house are accorded special privileges and enjoy marked deference as “members of the household of the King’s mother.”

The King sends to worship at her grave once a year. One of the ladies of the palace is then created Iya-Oba, and she is supposed to act the part of a mother to him. It is her privilege to be the third person in the room where the King and the Basorun worship the Orun in the month of September every year.

Children Born to Die

There are some peculiar names given to a certain class of children called “Abiku” i.e. born to die. These are supposed to belong to a fraternity of demons living in the woods, especially about and within large Iroko trees; and each one of them coming into the world would have arranged beforehand the precise time he will return to his company.

Where a woman has lost several children in infancy, especially after a short period of illness, the deaths are attributed to this cause, and means are adopted to thwart the plans of these infants in order that they may stay; for if they can only tide over the pre-arranged date, they may go no more, and thus entirely forget their company…

…Periodical feasts are usually made for these children of which beans and a liberal quantity of palm oil must form a principal dish. To this children of their age and others are invited, and their company of demons, although unseen are supposed to be present and partake of these viands. This is supposed to appease them and reconcile them to the permanent stay of their comrade, so that they may always have such to feed upon.

This superstition accounts for a rather high rate of infant mortality, for parents are thereby led away from the proper treatment of their ailments, while occupying themselves in making charms to defeat the purpose of imaginary demons!…

… Such children are called “Abiku” (born to die) and are supposed to belong to a company of young demons roaming about. They are believed to be capable of being born as young children, and (except forcibly detained by charms) of returning to their company at will, or at the instance of the members of their company.

Wearing the Death Cloth: The Funeral of the King

The Kings are buried in the Barà. The funeral usually takes place at night. It is notified to the public by the sounding of the Okinkin (a musical instrument like the bugle), the ivory trumpet, and the Koso drum, a drum which is usually beaten every morning at 4 a.m. as a signal for him to rise from his bed; to beat it at night therefore, is to indicate that he is retiring to his final resting place.

The body is removed to the Barà on the back of those whose office it is to bury the Kings the chief of whom is a titled personage known as the Ona-onse-awo, and his lieutenants. At certain stations on the route between the palace and the Barà, eleven in all, they halt and immolate a man and a ram, and also at the Barà itself, four women each at the head and at the feet, two boys on the right and on the left, were usually buried in the same grave with the dead monarch to be his attendants in the other world, and last of all the lamp-bearer in whose presence all the ceremonies are performed.

All these practices, however, have long been abolished, a horse and a bullock being used instead of human beings.

…Additions are made to their number at every fresh burial, usually from among the favorites of the deceased husband. These women must all be celibates for life, unfortunately among the number are usually found some who are virgins and must remain so for life: any misbehaviour is punished with the death of both culprits, the man on the day the crime is detected, and the woman after her confinement.

Besides those who are immolated at the death of the sovereign there used to be some “honorable suicides” consisting of certain members of the royal family, and some of the King’s wives, and others whose title implies that they are to die with the King whenever that event occurs. With the title they received as a badge a cloth known as the “death cloth,” a beautiful silk damask wrapper, which they usually arrayed themselves with on special occasions during the King’s lifetime. Although the significance of this was well-understood both by themselves and by their relatives, yet it is surprising to see how eager some of them used to be to obtain the office with the title and the cloth. They enjoyed great privileges during the King’s lifetime. They can commit any crime with impunity. Criminals condemned to death and escaping to their houses become free. These are never immolated, they are to die honorably and voluntarily.

Of the members of the royal family and others to die were:-­­­­–

  1. The Aremo or Crown Prince who practically reigned with his father, enjoyed royal honors, and had equal power of life and death.
  2. Three princes with hereditary titles viz., the Magaji Iyajin, the Agunpopo, and the Olusami.
  3. Two titled personages not of royal blood viz., the Osi’ wefa and the Olokun-esin (master of the horse) who is generally styled “Ab’obaku,” i.e. one who is to die with the King.
  4. The female victims were:—

Iya Oba, the king’s official mother; Iya Naso, Iyalagbon (the Crown Prince’s mother); Iyale Molè (the Ifa priestess), the Olorun-ku-mefun, the Iyamonari, the Iya’-le-ori (these are all priestesses) and the Are-ori-ite the chief favorite.

It will be observed that all the above-mentioned are those who by virtue of their office are nearest to the King at all times, and have the easiest access to his person; to make their life dependent on his, therefore, is to ensure safety for him against the risk of poisoning, or the dagger of the assassin.

The custom is that each should go and die in his (or her) own home, and among his family. The spectacle is very affecting. Dressed in their “death cloth,” they issue from the palace to their homes surrounded by their friends, and their drummers beating funeral dirges, eager crowds of friends and acquaintances flocking around them, pressing near to have a last look at them or to say the final farewell as they march homewards. The house is full of visitors, mourners and others, some in profuse tears; mournful wailings and funeral odes are heard on all sides enough to break the stoutest heart. While the grave is digging, the coffin making, a parting feast is made for all the friends and acquaintances; and as they must die before sunset, they enjoy themselves as best they can for that day by partaking of the choicest and favorite dishes, appearing several times in changes of apparel, distributing presents with a lavish hand around, and making their last will disposing of their effects. When everything is ready, the grave and the coffin approved of, they then take poison, and pass off quietly. But if it fails or is too slow to take effect, and the sun is about to set, the last office is performed by the nearest relatives (by strangling or otherwise) to save themselves and the memory of their kin from indelible disgrace. The body is then decently buried by the relatives and the funeral obsequies performed.

In many cases voluntary suicides take place. Some of the King’s favorite slaves who are not required to die often commit suicide in order to attend their master in the other world expecting to enjoy equally the emoluments of royalty in the other world as in this.

The End of King Adelu and Queen Alayoayo

King Adelu did not attain to the age of his father. His accession was marked by confusion, wars, and rumours of war all over the country for about four years, due chiefly to the Ijaye war and its sequels: but after this peace and tranquility prevailed, except for the Ibadan raids and the subjugation of the Ijesa and Ekiti provinces.

Towards the end of his reign he met with an accident by being thrown off his horse, and as a consequence a prolonged illness ensued. After his convalescence he had an attack of paralysis which was probably due to internal injury sustained by the fall, but it was generally attributed to poison administered by the Crown Prince, who was impatient to come to the thrown; it was also said that his accomplice and agent was the King’s favourite wife Alayoayo. . . .A few days after, the beating of the Koso drum and the blowing of the ivory trumpet at midnight announced to the public the death of their King.

Such an occasion was a time of dire distress in the palace, for apart from those who were bound by their special office to die with the King immolation was more or less indiscriminate in order to furnish the monarch with a large retinue in the other world. Hence every one tried to hide himself or herself in every nook and corner imaginable and in the ceilings of their apartments.

As an instance of the indiscriminate slaughter which occurred on this occasion we may mention the following:—

Kudefu the King’s favourite Ilari and head of all his slaves on the morning of the death before it was officially announced went to know of his master’s condition, and learning he was dead he was going home sad at heart to die of his own accord.

Alega the keeper of the gate seeing him coming from the inner apartments, being inquisitive, approached him to learn of their august master’s condition. Kudefu at once unsheathed his sword saying “You go before, I am coming at your heels to be attendants on our master in the other world” and in one stroke he cut off his head and then coolly went home to die. Several who were too inquisitive lost their lives in this way. In that vast compound those in one corner of it may not know what was taking place in another.

It was also a time of mourning for the relatives of those who have received the “death cloth” knowing that they must have to bury in the evening a relative strong and healthy in the morning and up to the time the fatal cup is taken.

Alayoayo was very reluctant to die, and begged hard that her life should be spared, relying probably on the Crown Prince’s promise to her. But in this she was sadly disappointed; for this reason she stayed much longer in the palace than she was expected

to do, for according to custom she must die at home among her own people. When at last she knew that death was inevitable, she issued from the palace well-dressed in her “death cloth” with her drummer before and her maidens carrying large calabashes full of kola nuts, she trod her way homewards to the measures of the drum scattering kola nuts with a lavish hand right and left to the crowd of spectators thronging her way from the palace gates to her home, to have a last glance at her.

In the meantime a great feast had been made at her home for all friends and relatives to partake with her for the last, during which time the grave was in digging and the coffin made. She distributed her property among her relatives and her only son. When the hour was come she bade all farewell and repaired to her chamber and the fatal cup was placed in her hands. But owing to the preventives she had fortified her system with, the effects were neutralized; this was repeated again and again, with the same result. So towards sunset the disappointed relatives in order to prevent an indelible disgrace to the family had to strangle her, and then gave her a decent funeral. The same may be said more or less of all those who had received the “death cloth.”

The Aremo (Crown Prince) also was told to die, but not only did he refuse point blank to do so but was also determined to ascend the throne. His grandfather had abolished the custom of the Aremo dying with the father, his own father the monarch now deceased was his father’s Aremo and he succeeded him on the throne, and why then should he die?

But these customs are now dying out with the age especially since King Atiba in 1858 abolished that of the Crown Prince dying; the loss of experienced princes like the Iyajin around the throne is also felt irreparable. With the exception of the women, all the men now refuse to die and they are never forced to do so, but are superseded in their office if the next King wills it; they must then retire quietly from the city to reside in any town in the country in order to prevent the confusion of two individuals bearing the same title. As for the Crown Prince, he expects to succeed his father on the throne but if he is rejected by the king-makers, he also has to retire from the city.

Despotic and Rejected Kings: Ayibi

… An inter-regnum of some years followed the last reign, the affairs of the kingdom being left in the hands of the Basorun. The heir to the throne was the late King’s grandson…Ayibi was crowned when he came of age. Unfortunately he proved unworthy of the honour and respect done him; he greatly disappointed the hopes of the nation. This may have been due to a great defect in his training when a minor, over-indulgence taking the place of strict discipline. He proved to be a tyrant who took delight in shedding blood…. For …acts of cruelty, an insurrection was stirred up against him by all the people, and being rejected he committed suicide…

The reason why these Kings after rejection invariably committed suicide is this. The person of a King is regarded as sacred. Kings are venerated as gods, indeed many of them have been actually deified; but the moment a king’s enormities provoke an open rebuke, or on being told publicly “We reject you,” by the constitution of the country he must die that day. He cannot from the sanctity with which he has been regarded abdicate and continue to live as a private individual, or continue to reign by sufferance, by the clemency of aggrieved subjects. Hence he must die; and by his own hands, for it is an unthinkable horror among the Yorubas for any man to lay hands upon a being regarded as sacred. It is the prerogative of the Basorun to utter the sentence of rejection when the people are determined on it.

Even Noblemen also from their exalted positions are never ordered to execution. “The King rejects you. The ancient Kings Oduduwa, Orañyan, Aganju, and others, reject you.” He must then take poison and die. Such deaths are accounted honourable, public and decent funerals are accorded them.

If any one allows himself to be executed his carcase will be treated like that of a common felon, and his pulled down. Therefore a faint-hearted individual would be despatched by his nearest relatives to save themselves from indelible disgrace. An honourable burial will then be accorded to the illustrious dead.

[#11] Yoruba: “The Kings of the Yoruba,” from Rev. Samuel Johnson, ed. Dr. O. Johnson, The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate [completed 1897], Lagos: C.M.S. (Nigeria) Bookshops, 1921, Sango: pp. 34-36, 150-152; The King’s Natural and Official Mothers, 48-49, 63; Children Born to Die, 83-84, 137; Wearing the Death Cloth, 54-57, 396-398; 57 (text interpolated); The Fate of Despots, 156-158; 169-170, 172-173.

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