Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Spiritual Symbolism Of Vultures In Traditional Yoruba & Edo Religions

Edited by Azizi Powell

In the United States and other Western cultures, crows and vultures are rarely considered positive symbols. However, in some African nations and elsewhere in the world vultures had and/or still have spiritual and/or positive connotations.

This is Part II of a three part series on spiritual and/or positive symbolism of vultures or crows in certain traditional African cultures. Part II provides some information about the spiritual significance of vultures in traditional Yoruba culture and traditional Edo culture (Nigeria).

Click for Part I of this series. Part I provides some information about the crow totem in Akan culture (Ghana, Ivory Coast).

Click for Part III of this series. Part III provides some information about the spiritual significance of vultures in traditional Egyptian culture.

Click for a related post. I believe that it's likely that 18th century and 19th century representations of buzzards or crows in Jamaica and among Black Americans (in the United States) were greatly influenced by the West African positive/spiritual connotations of vultures & crows.
The content of this post is presented for folkloric and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

"The Yoruba people (Yoruba: Àwọn ọmọ Yorùbá) are an ethnic group of Southwestern and North central Nigeria as well as Southern and Central Benin in West Africa. The Yoruba constitute over 40 million people in total; the majority of this population is from Nigeria and make up 21% of its population, according to the CIA World Factbook,[1] making them one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. The majority of the Yoruba speak the Yoruba language, which is tonal, and is the Niger-Congo language with the largest number of native speakers.[7]

The Yoruba share borders with the Borgu in Benin; the Nupe and Ebira in central Nigeria; and the Edo, the Ẹsan, and the Afemai in mid-western Nigeria. The Igala and other related groups are found in the northeast, and the Egun, Fon, Ewe and others in the southeast Benin....

Yoruba religion

...The Yorùbá religion comprises the traditional religious and spiritual concepts and practices of the Yoruba people.[47] Its homeland is in Southwestern Nigeria and the adjoining parts of Benin and Togo, a region that has come to be known as Yorubaland. Yorùbá religion is formed of diverse traditions and has no single founder.[48] Yoruba religious beliefs are part of itan, the total complex of songs, histories, stories and other cultural concepts which make up the Yorùbá society.[48]

One of the most common Yoruba traditional religious concepts has been the concept of Orisha. Orisha (also spelled Orisa or Orixa) are various godly forms, that reflect one of the various manifestations / avatars of God in the Yoruba spiritual or religious system"...

Benin Edo or Benin is the name for the place, people and language of an ethnic group in Nigeria. Similar languages are spoken from the following ethnic groups that include the Esan, the Afemai, the Owan among others. The Edo are also referred to as "Bini" or as the "Benin ethnic group", though currently the people themselves prefer to be simply called "Edo". The Edo are the descendants of the people who founded the former Benin Empire, which was located in South/Mid-Western Nigeria, encompassing what is now the Edo State of Nigeria, as well as surrounding areas.

The name "Benin" is a Portuguese corruption, ultimately from the Itsekhiri's "Ubinu", which came into use during the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great, c. 1440. The Itsekhiri's "Ubinu" was used to describe the royal administrative centre or city or capital proper of the kingdom, Edo. 'Ubinu' was later corrupted to 'Bini' by the mixed ethnicities living together at the centre; and further corrupted to "Benin" around 1485 when the Portuguese began trade relations with Oba Ewuare. See Oba of Benin"...
Note: The nation of Benin (formerly known as Dahomey) shouldn't be confused with the Benin Empire.
"The history of the great Benin Empire as a nation is the record of a state that was established 2300yrs before any contact was made with European inferior nation. The great Benin Empire made remarkable achievements in those pre-European years, in art, science, administration, technology, political organization, architectures, astronomy, town-planning e.t.c...

The legendary fame of the Great Benin empire was such that the name Benin had many meanings, e.g. there was Benin-city and Benin empire, Benin river close to the new Benin (Warri) and there is the bight of Benin and the Benin district comprising of Sapele and Warri. Beyond the Gulf of Benin, the great Benin Empire’s legendary fame was indeed wide spread. Several European states heard about the empires might and civilized attitudes, many sought for it. That a vast stretch of the West African coastline bears the name ” BIGHT OF BENIN” is no accident of history. Even until these day, it quite evident and amazing how the cultural influence of the ancient Benin empire remains strong till today. An independent republic of former Dahomey in 1975 decided to change its name to the republic of Benin as a way of reconnecting its roots to Africa’s once glorious kingdom."

These excerpts are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only.
Excerpt # 1
From Re: Yoruba Mythology by aljharem3: 7:34pm On Oct 14, 2011
"Oshún rules over the sweet waters of the world, the brooks, streams and rivers, embodying love, fertility. She also is the one we most often approach to aid us in money matters. She is the youngest of the female orishas but retains the title of Iyalode or great queen. She heals with her sweet waters and with honey which she also owns. She is the femme fatale of the orishas and once saved the world by luring Ogún out of the forests using her feminine wiles. And,in her path or manifestation of Ibú Ikolé she saved the world from draught by flying up to heaven (turning into a vulture in the process). Ikolé means Messenger of the House (of Olodumare). For this reason all who are to be initiated as priests, no matter what orisha rules their head, must go to the river and give account of what they are about to do. She recognises herself in the colors yellow and gold and her number is five. Peacocks and vultures are hers and we use them often to represent her."

Excerpt #2:
"Our Mothers, Our Powers, Our Texts: Manifestations of Àjé" Teresa N. Washington [2005, Page 46]
"OSUN — ORISA OF FERTILITY AND ABUNDANCE Orisa Osun is the spiritual and aquatic daughter of Yempja;... Through the vulture, Osun carries prayers directly to Olorun"...

"Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, & Eve's Bayou" by Sandra M. Grayson
Page 23 [Google book]
"In Ifa, the vulture [Igun] is associated with prospects of living to an old age and Igun plays a significant role in Ifa divination sacrifices. Igun helps in making sacrifices acceptable by eating them. In fact, according to ese Ifa, “ without igun, nobody performs sacrifice.” (Abimbola. Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa, pp 28-29. This variant between the vulture symbolism in “The King Buzzard” and in the Ifa literary corpus reflects the multiple African influences in the tale.”
Here's information about Ifa:
"The Ifa divination system, which makes use of an extensive corpus of texts, is practised among Yoruba communities. The word Ifa refers to the mystical figure Ifa or Orunmila, regarded by the Yoruba people as the deity of wisdom and intellectual development. In the twelfth century, the city of Ile-Ife, located in the Osun region of the South-west of Nigeria, emerged as the cultural and political centre of this community. It is also practised by the African diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean.

In contrast to other forms of divination in the region that employ spirit mediumship, Ifa divination does not rely on a person having oracular powers but rather on a system of signs that are interpreted by a diviner, the Ifa priest or babalawo, literally “the priest’s father”. The Ifa divination system is applied whenever an important individual or collective decision has to be made."...
Read "Inequality in Early America" by Carla Gardina Pestana [page 166, Google book] for information about the "King Buzzard" folktale. More information about that folktale will be included in a related pancocojams post about the symbolism of buzzards and crows in the African Diaspora.

From "Kings, Magic, and Medicine" By Daryl Peavy [Google book], page 23
"The Edo people believe that God Almighty was benevolent and provided the remedy for all ailments, whether physical, or spiritual, or emotional. (Okoh, 1977). The Edo people's beliefs were best illustrated in the concept of the god of Medicine (Osun). The god of Medicine contained and controlled all the healing properties within nature. (Awolalu 1996: 74).The god of Medicine was the powerful healing source that was hidden in plants and medicinal preparations. The God of Medicine was the owner of the forest and all the plants. (Gelembo et al 1993:26). The forest was considered a sacred place that had secret knowledge. Plants contained the hidden medicinal cures that helped mankind. They also contained hidden poisonous substances that brought havoc to victims... The god of Medicine was the balancing force in nature between cures and poisons. The god of Medicine was also associated with unmoving water, night, as well as with witches. (Aighobahi 2009). The association of water with witches invokes a striking similarity between the Edo Osun and the Yoruba Osun. Although the pronunciation is different as well as the Yoruba Osun is female, not strictly a medicine divinity, and not hot and fiery. In any case there may be some distant connection between the two. The god of Medicine was the ultimate pharmacist and physician. As the ultimate physician and healer, the god of Medicine was the deity and patron of the native doctor. The god of Medicine's symbols portrayed power. One of the symbols of the god of Medicine was the snake. Snakes were believed to be powerful messengers of the god of Medicine. Representations of snakes were commonly seen on ritual instruments.

Images of snakes were cast in metal on the medicinal staff of the native doctor (osun nigiogio). The medicinal staff also had images of a vulture and a chameleon on the top. (Galembo et al 1993:26).
The Edo believed that the body of the medicinal staff was poisonous if touched. The medicinal staff represented the native doctor's power to heal and poison, as well as his power over death. According to Nevadomsky, the medicinal staff's praise name was "boiling hot herbal medicine". (Galembo et al 1993:26)."

African Arts - Volume 38, Issues 1-4 - Page 70
African Arts - 2005 -
"Palace loyalists resurrected the osun nigiogio, or war staffs, using them as emblems of political rivalry. Hammered and cast with figures of vultures and chameleons, animals that represent death and poison respectively"...

This concludes Part II of this series.

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  1. I think that "palm nut vultures" are probably the type of vultures that are referred to these quotes about traditional Yoruba religion and traditional Edo religion. Here's some information about palm nut vultures:
    "The palm-nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) or vulturine fish eagle, is a large bird of prey in the family Accipitridae (family which also includes many other diurnal raptors such as kites, buzzards and harriers, vultures, and eagles). It is the only member of the genus Gypohierax. Unusual for birds of prey, it feeds mainly on the fruit of the oil palm, though it also feeds on crabs, molluscs, locusts, fish and has been known to occasionally attack domestic poultry.

    This bird is an Old World vulture (only distantly related to the New World vultures, which are in a separate family, Cathartidae).

    It breeds in forest and savannah across sub-Saharan Africa, usually near water, its range coinciding with that of the oil palm. It is quite approachable, like many African vultures, and can be seen near habitation, even on large hotel lawns in the tourist areas of countries like the Gambia...

    This is an unmistakable bird as an adult. At 1.3–1.7 kg (2.9–3.7 lb), 60 cm (24 in) long and 150 cm (59 in) across the wings, this is the smallest Old World vulture.[2][3] Its plumage is all white except for black areas in its wings. It has a red patch around the eye. The immature, which takes 3–4 years to mature, is brown with a yellow eye patch."
    Palm nuts (kola nuts) are sacred in the Yoruba religion.* I think that fact and the colors of those vultures influenced how they were considered in that religion and in West African traditional religions. It's interesting that vultures that are the color white are also referred to in traditional Akan religion and in traditional Egyptian mythology. White is a sacred color in each of those African cultures.

    * Here's a quote about kola nuts in Yoruba culture:
    Roots of Haiti's Vodou-Christian Faith: African and Catholic "Origins: African and Catholic Origins" by R. Murray Thomas

    ABC-CLIO, Jun 19, 2014 - Religion
    p. 170
    "The kola (cola palm) nut is one of the most revered cultural symbols in West Africa, particularly in Nigeria, where the kola tree has been considered the earth’s first tree and the emblem of life. The tree produces embryonic leaves that botanist call cotyledons in the form of seeds. The nuts are a form of caffeine chewed for their flavor and mild narcotic effect. Spiritual meanings have been attributed to the number of seeds a kola nut contains. According to one interpretation, a kola containing a single seed is regarded as belonging to a sacred spirit, and thus is forbidden to mortals, so people do not chew it. A kola with three seeds signifies bravery and is reserved for mighty warriors and consecrated members of the community. The most typical kola has four cotyledons that represent peace and blessing. “Kola with six cotyledons (seed leaves) indicates communion with the ancestors…the smallest part or cotyledon is not eaten but is thrown away for the ancestors to eat...[Among the] Igbo, kola is accompanied by wine or drink because the Igbos say that “One who gives a deity kola has to give him water with which to help him swallow it.” Ukaegbu, 2003

  2. I posted a comment in Part III of this series (on Egypt) about oral traditions that indicate that the Yoruba people migrated to Nigeria (and the Akan people migrated to Ghana/Ivory Coast) from Nubia-Egypt. Here's one portion of that comment:
    "According to Olumide J. Lucas, “the Yoruba, during antiquity, lived in ancient Egypt before migrating to the Atlantic coast”.
    He uses as demonstration the similarity or identity of languages, religious beliefs, customs and names of persons, places and things. In addition, many ancient papyri discovered by archaeologists point at an Egyptian origin” (Tariqh Sawandi: ”Yorubic medicine: The Art of divine herbology)."