IGBA IWA: THE COSMIC GOURD WITH TWO HALVES
The popular Yoruba saying "Tako, tabo, ejiwapo" ("The male and female in togetherness"; Lawal 1995:45) is loaded with meaning. In addition to hinting at the life-producing potential of the couple--the source of the family--it recalls the Yoruba conceptualization of the cosmos as a "big gourd with two halves" (Igba nla meiji sbju de'ra won). (2) The top half signifies maleness as well as the sky/heaven--the realm of invisible spirits (Fig. 1). The bottom half represents femaleness and the primeval waters out of which the physical world was later created.
A mysterious power called ase is thought to hold the gourd in space, enabling the sun and moon to shine, wind to blow, fire to burn, rain to fall, rivers to flow, and both living and nonliving things to exist. This power emanates from a Supreme Deity known (among other names) as Alase ('Owner of ase'), Olorun ('Lord of the Sky') and Olodumare (the 'Eternal One and Source of All That Exists'). Assisting Olodumare in administering the universe is a host of lesser deities or nature forces called orisa. Said to number four hundred or more, each orisa personifies an ase associated with a natural or cultural phenomenon.
For example, Obatala represents artistic creativity; Orunmila, intelligence; Oduduwa, divine kingship; Yemoja/Olokun, water and motherhood; Osun, fertility and beauty; and so on. The deity Esu-Elegba occupies a special position among the orisa because of his role as the divine messenger and the link between them and Olódùmarè, on the one hand, and between the orisa and humanity, on the other. He is regarded as the custodian of ase. Unlike the Supreme Divinity in other African cultures, Olodumare seldom creates directly but does so through the orisa. For example, on deciding to create land out of the primeval waters, Olodumare commissioned Odúdúwa to do so. After that, Olodumare instructed the artist deity Obàtalà to mold anthropomorphic images from clay, animated each image with a life force (emi) and then asked the newly created humans to go and inhabit the land below the sky. In short, these events, among others, transformed the bottom half of the cosmic gourd, also called Igba Iwa ('Gourd/Calabash of Existence'), into the material realm and domain of female Earth, Ile, one of whose other names is Iya Aye ('Mother of the World').
According to one creation story, the two halves of the cosmic gourd fitted closely in the beginning, with Olodumare (male Heaven, alias Ajalorun) ruling the top half and Ile (female Earth, alias Ajalaye), the bottom half. But one day, they quarreled over the only bush rat they caught while hunting together in the forest. Ile insisted on keeping the rat because it came from her domain and she was the "senior." Olodumare gave up the catch, caused the top half of Igba Iwa to separate from the bottom, and prevented rain from falling from the sky, thus disrupting the reproductive cycle in the terrestrial world. This obliged Ile to give in and acknowledge the apical position of Olodumare as the head of the cosmos, and life subsequently returned to normal in the physical world (Idowu 1995:46-7, Abimbola 1975:261-91).
It may be asked: Since Olodumare allegedly created Ile (through Oduduwa), why should she claim to be the senior? The answer probably lies in another version of the Yoruba creation myth (collected by Samuel Ajayi Crowther, 1852:207) to the effect that the Yoruba once regarded Oduduwa as the Supreme Goddess, an embodiment of Heaven and Earth. According to J. Olumide Lucas, one of the pioneer scholars of Yoruba religion and himself a Yoruba elder:
In the early myths she [Oduduwa] is credited with the priority of
existence ... She is regarded as having independent existence, and
as co-eval with Olorun [aka Olodumare], the Supreme Deity with
whom she is associated in the work of creation ... Oduduwa is known
as Iya Agbe--'Mother of the Gourd' or 'Mother of the closed
calabash; She is [sometimes] represented in a sitting posture,
nursing a child. Hence prayers are often addressed to her by
would-be mothers (Lucas 1948:45).
D. Olarimiwa Epega, another Yoruba elder, makes a similar point: "Odudua is the Self-Existent Being who created existence. He is both male and female ... The word Olodumare is a praise title of Odudua" (1971:13-14). (3)
Other scholars have drawn attention to the appearance of the word odu (chief) in the names of Ol-odu-mare and Oduduwa, suggesting that both apparently refer to one and the same deity (Idowu 1994:22-7, 31-2; Bamgbose 1972/73:28-9). (4) Indeed, Olodumare is also known as Eleduwa, which recalls the duwa in Odu-duwa. Thus the narrative attributing the creation of the terrestrial world to Oduduwa may very well reflect a divine act of self-extension, identifying Olodumare as a sexually biune Supreme Deity.
In other words, is Ile an alter ego of Olodumare? The reference to the bottom half of the cosmic calabash/gourd as the "mother" (Iya Agbe) is in consonance with the Yoruba identification of a container's lid as ideri ('cover') or omori (lit. omo, 'child' + ori, 'on top'). This is because a container, usually the bigger, supports its smaller cover in the same way a mother carries her child. Two questions then arise: Does Olodumare have a mother? Can the two halves of Igba Iwa also double as a Mother-and-(male) Child? This is not unlikely, given the fact that (as Olumide Lucas noted) Oduduwa is sometimes portrayed as a mother breast-feeding a child (Idowu 1962:Fig. 3b). It is interesting to note that a popular Yoruba folk etymology derives Olodumare's name from Olodu-omo-ere, that is, 'Olodu, the child of a female python' (Idowu 1994:32-3, Bamgbose 1971/72:28-9). The following divination verse identifies him as such:
Ahere oko sisun nii mu opolo to lu ni oru
A dafun ere
Ti o nfi ekun se irahun omo
Nwon ni ki o rubo ki o le bi omo: ewure kan, aso kijipa ara re,
O gbo, o ru
Ere si loyun, o si bi omo
Awon enia si beresii wipe 'lodu ni omo ti ere bi yi"
Nigba ti omo naa si dagba, o si joba ni oju iya re
Oun ni gbogbo enia si npe ni Olodumare titi di oni.
When we sleep in the farm hut, frogs jump on us in the night.
Was the one who cast Ifa [performed divination] for Python
When she was weeping and moaning for a child
They say she should sacrifice one she-goat, the homespun cloth
wearing and eleven shillings so that she might be able to
have a child
She heard and made the sacrifice
And Python became pregnant, and she gave birth to a child
And people began to say: 'One who has Odu" was this child that
And when the child grew up, she lived to see him become a king
He is the one whom all people are calling 'One who has Odu, child of
Python' (Olodumare) until this very day (Bascom 1969:322-3, also
cited in Bamgbose 1971/72:27).
The Yoruba deity that immediately comes to mind is Osumare, who appears as the rainbow and whose symbol is the python (ere). Frequently represented as a pair of serpents or a single serpent with two heads (Fig. 2), Osumare is associated with wealth and prosperity. Curiously, the word mare ('the immense, infinite, or eternal') appears in both Osu-mare and Olodu-mare (Idowu 1994:30, Bamgbose 1971/72:27, 32; see also Babalola 1972/73:104-105). One folk explanation of the rainbow is that it encodes a message from Olodumare to his mother (the python?) in the underworld (Idowu 1994:30).
That a snake deity might have played a much more prominent role in Yoruba religion in ancient rimes than it does today is apparent in the frequent representation of python motifs in Yoruba art. For example, a fourteenth-century terracotta vessel from Ile-Ife (Fig. 3) features a big snake looming above what seems to be an abstraction of an altar displaying three human heads, one naturalistic and the other two highly stylized. There is another snake at the back of the vessel (Garlake 1974:Fig. 6, pl. XLVI; see also Drewal, Pemberton, and Abiodun 1989). Note the emphasis on the creature also in the carved ritual bowl in Fig. 4. With its head on top of the female figure and its tail resting on the head of the male figure--as if uniting both sexes--this python seems to be watching over the cosmos, paying special attention to humanity.
As noted earlier, the divine messenger Esu-Elegba is the keeper of ase, mediating its positive and negative powers. Hence, as will be seen below, he is perceived as an orisa with good and bad tendencies. The carved female in Fig. 5 conveys his generous disposition by touching her left breast. However, note the snake on her head that proclaims his other side! Besides, the snake reminds us of Esumare (another name for the rainbow deity Osumare) and Edumare (another name for the Supreme Being Olodumare; ibid., p. 31). As we shall see, the latter is the wellspring of existence in all its positive and negative aspects.
In any event, the view held by some Yoruba informants that (a) Olodumare has a mother, (b) s/he embodies the male and the female principles of the cosmos, and (c) s/he may have something to do with a celestial python, has parallels among the Fon of the Republic of Benin, whose cosmology, many scholars believe, has been heavily influenced by that of their Yoruba neighbors (Maupoil 1943, Verger 1957). For example, the Fon conceptualize their Supreme Deity, Mawu-Lisa, as both male and female in essence. Its most sacred symbol is a closed calabash, like that of the Yoruba. The top half of the calabash symbolizes Lisa, the male Heaven, associated with day, heat, fire, fatherhood, and virility. The bottom half signifies Mawu, the female Earth, associated with night, coolness, water, fertility, motherhood, generosity, and nurture. Notwithstanding, the Fon often call the two aspects Mawu (Argyle 1966:179). As Melville and Frances Herskovits put it,
Any discussion of the Great Gods with [the Fon] will make apparent
at once the importance of the Sky-God. When the ultimate control of
the Universe is referred to, Mawu is the god usually named. Yet when
one speaks to persons immediately connected with the Sky-God cult
.... the name given to this deity will be the
hyphenated one of the two
principal members of the Sky pantheon, Mawu-Lisa ... It is generally
held that Mawu whose domain is in the moon, is female, and that
Lisa, who rules the sun is male. Bur mythological accounts vary. One
version we collected tells that Mawu is androgynous and that Lisa
is the son of Mawu ... Another relates that Mawu and Lisa are two
beings in one, one-half a female whose eyes are the moon, the
male whose eyes are the sun. This version, it is claimed, explains
the meaning of the word Mawu (body-divided; 1933:11).
Furthermore, certain Fon oral traditions identify Mawu-Lisa as the offspring of a Mother Goddess called Nana Buluku (Nana Buruku or Nana Bukuu in Yoruba) who derives much of her powers from a primordial python Dan or Dambala, who is associated with the rainbow, wealth, and dynamism. Usually signified by a coiled snake with its tail in its mouth to connote eternity, Dambala itself is believed to have two aspects: Dambala-Wedo (male) and AidoWedo (female).
These parallels seem to increase the possibility that, before the impact of Islam and Christianity on Yoruba religion, Olodumare might have once had attributes similar in some respects to those of the Fon's Mawu, Mawu-Lisa, or Nana Buluku. (5)
Another equally popular Yoruba creation narrative identifies the top (male) half of the cosmic calabash/gourd (Igba Iwa) with Obatala, the creativity deity, and the bottom half with Oduduwa in her role as female Earth (Lucas 1948:95). Apart from casting the two orisa in roles comparable to those of Olodumare and the Fon's Mawu-Lisa, this tradition makes Obatala the Supreme Deity, as implied in nicknames such as Orisa Nla ('Great Deity') and Alabalase ('The Wielder of Great ase'). Indeed, as Idowu points out, "he is called by some of Olodumare's significant appellations.
For instance, he is called Atererekaye--'He who stretches over the whole extent of the earth'" (1994:70). Some stories even identify Obatala as the husband of the primordial python, mentioned earlier, that allegedly gave birth to Olodumare (Bascom 1980:212-15). And a number of scholars of Fon culture suspect that Mawu might derive from the Yoruba goddess Yeye Mowo, one of the wives of Obatala (Verger 1957:449, 552, Morton-Wil liams 1964:250 n.2, Bay 1998:95) whom some scholars identify as Oduduwa (Lucas 1948:96).*
*Lawal, Babatunde. Ejiwapo: the dialectics of twoness in Yoruba art and culture
Live the Medicine
Obafemi Origunwa, MA
Thought leader, Ifa priest and author of four definitive books, Obafemi Origunwa inspires metamorphosis through living the medicine that will heal your life and heal the lives of the people you're destined to serve.