Though the cause of the high rate of twin births among Yoruba women has not been established, the cultural
grieving process is well documented and may be observed in the carving of a figure known as Ere Ibeji, which
both represents the lost child and serves as a ritual point of contact with the soul of the deceased. The carving
of the Ere Ibeji is commissioned under the guidance of an Ifa diviner, a Babalowo, whom the parents consult in
selecting the particular artist who will do the work. The sculpture itself represents a deceased infant, but is
carved with features and attributes of an adult. The sculptural features of genitalia, pubic hair, wide hips,
developed breasts, gender specific facial scarification and mature coiffures exude an erotic sexuality,
uncommon for infants. The completed ibeji figure is carved as an adult, rather than as the deceased infant, in
a mythological form that depicts the concentrated calm of a Yoruba artist.
When the carving of the Ere Ibeji is completed, the artist is given a feast and payment as determined by the Orishas. Once the figure is brought to the family dwelling, it is placed on a shrine dedicated to Elegba with the hope that the Orisha or soul, which was split in two parts when the twins were born, will now again reside in the figure that represents the dead twin. The sculpted figure is treated and cared for as if it were alive. It is rubbed in sacramental oil, washed, fed, clothed, sung to and prayed to. It is kept standing during the day, and is laid down at night. Often it will be dressed in the same clothing as the living twin, or be decorated in a beaded vest or shown with raised sandals, indicating possible royal connections. They attend to the figure as if it was their child, they feed and wash it. The headdress will be constantly rubbed with Indigo and the body will be rubbed with red wood powder. And as a sign of dignity (in wealthy families), some Ibeji get pearl cloaks. The responsibility of caring for the Ibeji is borne by the mother and female family members of subsequent generations. The sculpture is expected to avert evil from the household, strengthen the manifestations of family love, stare down death, illuminate the pathway through the valley of immortality, and bring good fortune to all who treat it with respect and offer it tokens of affection.
- Jean-Marc Desaive, Soumagne, Belgium
For a qualified reference, see:
- George Chemeche, 2006, Ibeji: The Cult of Yoruba Twins
- Fausto Polo, 2008, Encyclopedia of the Ibeji
- Fausto Polo & Jean David, 2001, Catalogue of the Ibeji